Five Years On — It’s (Well Past) Time to Make a Choice

Today’s Washington Post op-ed by 12 Army captains who served in Iraq is a sobering but welcome contribution to the voluminous literature on what went wrong in Iraq, and what we should do next. The entire article is worth reading, but the concluding paragraphs boil down the essential points:

There is one way we might be able to succeed in Iraq. To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately. A scaled withdrawal will not prevent a civil war, and it will spend more blood and treasure on a losing proposition.

America, it has been five years. It’s time to make a choice.

This is how the debate over Iraq should have been framed at the outset – before Congress voted to grant the president authorization to use force.

Success in Iraq was always uncertain. How uncertain depended, in part, on the amount of effort we were willing to exert in the endeavor; but it also depended on a number of factors well beyond our control. And there is no evidence that George Bush ever seriously contemplated the costs of waging war for five years – he merely asserted on the eve of war that the costs of inaction outweighed the costs of action.

For a time, the American public went along. Now, five years on, a solid majority disagree. In poll after poll, Americans say that the costs that we have already paid in this war far exceed whatever benefits we might hope to derive from it. And they are looking to cut our losses.

They are unlikely to embrace a further escalation of the conflict, particularly one that entails the draconian step of reinstituting the draft. And they should not do so. As the Army captains concede, we might still fail, even if we flood Iraq with tens or hundreds of thousands more American troops. Hardly a ringing endorsement for that option.

If our national survival hung in the balance, if our very existence was threatened by an escalating civil war in Iraq, we would be spared such discussions: we would invest what was necessary, and worry about the consequences later.

But Iraq always was, and always will be, a war of choice. We should choose to terminate the mission, and refocus our attention – and, where appropriate, our still-strong military – on the enemies who struck us on 9/11.

That the choice is clear does not imply that the choice is easy. The ramifications of a U.S. withdrawal are likely to be horrible in the short term, especially for the many Iraqis who risked their lives by cooperating with the American forces, and the many more who are likely to be caught in a worsening civil war. We should do what we can to help the Iraqis, especially those who have helped us.

There are still other concerns. The real risk of that civil war spreading beyond Iraq’s borders, actions that could spawn a wider regional conflict, requires that a U.S. military withdrawal be combined with a diplomatic offensive to encourage all of Iraq’s neighbors to take prudent steps to contain the violence. Our problem is also their problem; they would be wise to cooperate with us, and with each other, to prevent a far worse catastrophe from unfolding there.

But such considerations do not change the basic calculus for the United States: given that we should not be willing to pay whatever might be needed to win, recognizing all the time that victory is uncertain, and might take years to achieve, we should leave.

I commend these 12 soldiers for their service in Iraq; and, although it can’t compare to their courage and sacrifice over there, I commend them for weighing in on the issue.

Surveillance and Doublespeak

The Washington Post has a story today about the government’s data collection activities. Unfortunately, the article repeatedly says the FBI is “requesting” information from the phone companies. That’s misleading. The FBI is using subpoenas and national security letters. Thus, federal agents are demanding information from the businesspeople. A refusal to comply means fines and jail. This is an area of law and policy that needs much more attention.

Barry Posen: The Case for Restraint

Director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, Prof. Barry Posen, takes to the pages of The American Interest to make “The Case for Restraint.” The gist is this:

Since the end of the Cold War, the American foreign policy establishment has gradually converged on a grand strategy for the United States. Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts now disagree little about the threats the United States faces and the remedies it should pursue. Despite the present consensus and the very great power of the United States, which mutes the consequences of even Iraq-scale blunders, a reconsideration of U.S. grand strategy seems inevitable as the costs of the current consensus mount—which they will. The current consensus strategy is unsustainable.

If we understand properly the current foreign policy consensus and review the four key forces affecting U.S. grand strategy, the contours of an alternative strategy will emerge. The alternative, a grand strategy of “restraint”, recommends policies dramatically different from those to which we have grown accustomed not just since the end of the Cold War, but since its beginning. The United States needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies. We thus face a choice between habit and sentiment on the one side, realism and rationality on the other.

It’s a great piece, and has rankled to no end the commentators invited by TAI, including Niall Ferguson and Ruth Wedgwood. Rarely can one be generally encouraged by the foreign policy debate in Washington, but this is one of those times, and Posen is quite a capable advocate for his–and my–position. Here’s hoping his phone starts ringing.

Not Burying the Good News

The New York Times reports:

Death rates from cancer have been dropping by an average of 2.1 percent a year recently in the United States, a near doubling of decreases that began in 1993, researchers are reporting.

“Every 1 percent is 5,000 people who aren’t dying,” said Dr. Richard L. Schilsky, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and president-elect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “That’s a huge sense of progress at this point.”

I’ve complained in the past that good news like this gets buried or ignored, while even minor bits of bad news make the front pages. In this case the good news was bannered on the front page of USA Today and was the lead story on the CBS Radio News. (It was on page A18 of the Times, but teased on page 1.)

The Times did manage to find the cloud in the silver lining: As is universally the case in all human affairs, the decline is not uniform across all demographic groups. In particular, groups who still have high rates of smoking are not seeing cancer declines as large as other groups. But the news still fits the message of Indur Goklany’s book, The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet

Why Can’t Republicans Embrace Corporate Tax Cuts Like Canadian Liberals?

When they were in power, Canada’s left-wing party reduced the corporate tax rate from 28 percent to 19 percent. Now they are proposing to reduce the rate even more (and by more than the trivial 0.5 percentage point reduction proposed by the incumbent Conservative Party). As reported by Tax-news.com, the leader of the Liberal Party makes a very strong supply-side/tax competition argument for the lower rate:

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion has pledged to further reduce the Canadian federal corporate tax rate to better compete with other countries and strengthen Canada’s economic sovereignty. …Dion told the Economic Club of Toronto…“A lower corporate tax rate is a powerful weapon in the federal government’s arsenal to generate more investment, higher living standards and better jobs.” …The previous Liberal government reduced the federal corporate tax rate to 19% from 28%. Dion said he would go deeper than the Conservatives have done with their reduction to 18.5% in 2011. …“If you lower the corporate tax rate, you lower the cost of capital for Canadian companies. Therefore, these companies are induced to spend more on capital equipment. As for foreign investment, we need a big hook to snare investment, including Canadian investment, that might otherwise go south of the border. Finally, it would strengthen Canadian companies against foreign takeover,” Dion concluded.

Securing Land Rights for Chinese Farmers

A critical determinant of China’s long-term economic growth and social stability will be whether the wealth of its economic boom can reach the majority of its 700 million farmers, who make up approximately 56 percent of the total population. In the new Cato study, “Securing Land Rights for Chinese Farmers: A Leap Forward for Stability and Growth,” authors Zhu Keliang and Roy Prosterman confirm one fundamental cause of the widening rural-urban income gap: most Chinese farmers still lack secure and marketable land rights that would allow them to make long-term investments in land, decisively improve productivity, and accumulate wealth.