Frum on Iranian Nukes

Responding to Charles Krauthammer’s call to make Israel a formal U.S. protectorate, David Frum dissents:

An Iranian nuclear force would be small and inaccurate: a terror weapon, not a weapon of war to be used against an opponent able to respond in overwhelming force. Israel is not the target. So who is?

The short answer: The world oil market.

In 1986, the US waged an undeclared proxy naval war to deter Iran from attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. The US won of course and Iran lacked any effective riposte. This US operation played a decisive role in compelling Iran to accept peace in the Iran-Iraq war.

And it may have prompted Iranian leaders to decide: We need an effective counter-deterrent against the US. The US would have been much more reluctant to protect Kuwaiti tankers against a nuclear Iran. An Iranian nuclear bomb would act as a “Keep Out” sign to frighten the US away from a now truly Persian Gulf.

In other words, an atomic bomb would serve Iran’s hegemonic ambitions rather tha its apocalyptic fantasies. It is a useful weapon sought by rational people. That is precisely why it is dangerous and must be stopped.

Frum packs a lot of problems into a short piece. So Iran is going to use nuclear weapons to try to hold Arab oil from making its way onto world markets? Interesting. A few questions:

1) What do we think the Chinese may think about the resulting skyrocket in world oil prices? Japan? Frum paints the familiar image of a lonely US hanging by a thread to its oil lifeline in the Middle East. Things have changed a lot since 1986. What do we think the rest of the world may have to say about this business?

2) What target are the Iranians holding at risk in this scenario? Ras Tanura? Israel? Iraq? Who’s going to be threatened?

3) Who is going to believe that Iran will pull the trigger? If we believe, as Frum and I do, that Iran is run by “rational people” who are seeking nuclear weapons because they are “useful,” why would we believe that the Iranian regime would bring about its own end by using nuclear weapons against any of the above targets?

I can think of one paper on the topic that Frum might want to read.

Dispatch from the ASIL Annual Conference III

Some wrap-up notes from the ASIL conference that concluded on Saturday:

1. The second panel I attended Thursday covered the very timely “Civil Liberties in Times of Crisis.” Air Force Colonel Morris Davis – who resigned as chief prosecutor at Guantanamo – opened with a criticism of the military tribunals as unworkable; he agreed that terrorism detainees held in Gitmo (let alone Iraq) don’t have constitutional rights, but the politicization of the process has delegitimized what should be an open, transparent, and efficient processing of enemy combatants. Covington & Burling partner David Remes, who has represented many of the detainees, called for simply applying the criminal justice paradigm to international terrorists (as with the blind sheik after the first WTC bombing and with Timothy McVeigh). Hofstra’s Julian Ku continued that line by supporting the extension of constitutional rights to foreigners and applying international law domestically. Human Rights First’s Elisa Massimino called for the U.S. to be a shining city upon a hill (my characterization, certainly not her words) in terms of being an example on human rights – and linked American political power to its respect for international law.

Then came Q & A, which as it happened centered mostly on a very short question that I asked: Is there a difference between national security and law enforcement, and if there is what are the consequences for the handling of detainees suspected of being terrorists? Col. Davis said that national security is the correct paradigm but that the military commissions have been poorly executed by political appointees. David Remes, to his credit, explained that the real difference between national security and criminal justice is one of policy, and it is not up to the courts to make those kinds of decisions.

My view: I agree with Davis that national security courts (along the lines proposed by Jack Goldsmith and Neal Katyal) are the only way to go in this world of post-modern asymmetrical warfare. National security and law enforcement are different governmental functions, and to conflate the two (like John Kerry did in 2004) or to suggest that constitutional rights apply to everyone everywhere (but international law is supreme in the U.S.) is to throw out the most basic understandings of political theory.

2. On Friday I attended a very interesting panel on the Economic Security and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (the latest reform of which I wrote about here). On CFIUS, everyone seems satisfied with the latest reform (which increased openness and aims to prevent political blow-ups like Dubai PortsWorld) and is comfortable with handling of Sovereign Wealth Funds, which Dan Ikenson and Jim Dorn have written about recently. [Also, note that last week Canada’s equivalent of CFIUS blocked a foreign acquisition for the first time time ever. The purchasing company was from… the US! The Canadian company is a leading satellite reconnaissance developer (e.g., sees through clouds and ice, apparently finding oil/mineral deposits in the Arctic).

3. I also attended a hugely overcrowded – people spilled out into the hallway, and I ended up sitting on the floor beside the panelists’ table – panel on “Restoring Rule of Law in Post-Conflict and Stabilization Operations.” I’ve written about these issues before in the context of Iraq, and this panel mainly provided anecdotes about Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Bosnia. A young British researcher also proposed international trusteeships as a useful mechanism (a la the old – or not so old, see Kosovo – UN protectorates). A difficult set of issues, not least because of questions over the legitimacy of outside intervention, how to achieve post-conflict justice and social reconciliation, and how to advise a legal system without being seen as imposing foreign values.

4. The final events I attended were a roundtable discussion by various foreign ministries’ legal advisers and an address by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Both of these were disappointing in that all these people are learned and experienced but didn’t really have anything new to say. If only John Bolton were up there…

“A Cause Greater”

John McCain courted controversy recently with a new campaign slogan that some saw as a thinly veiled attack on Barack Obama’s eclectic background and upbringing. I don’t know if that interpretation is right, but McCain’s new tagline sounds like something out of Team America or Steven Colbert: “The American President Americans Have Been Waiting For” (And So Can You!).

Less ridiculous, and perhaps more unsettling, are McCain’s repeated appeals to “a cause greater than self-interest,” and his attacks on “cynicism,” which, as a determined cynic, I take very personally.

In his speeches, McCain periodically sneers at American opulence and suggests that leaving Americans alone to pursue their own visions of happiness is a narrow and ignoble goal for government. As I point out in my new book The Cult of the Presidency, that’s a common sentiment among the American intelligentsia, and one that’s been used repeatedly to concentrate power in the executive branch:

Like intellectuals the world over, many American pundits and scholars, right and left, view bourgeois contentment with disdain. Normal people appear to like “normalcy,” Warren Harding’s term for peace and prosperity, just fine. But all too many professional thinkers look out upon 300 million people living their lives by their own design and see something impermissibly hollow in the spectacle.

McCain’s campaign speeches reflect that theme. Here he is in a recent speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, telling his audience that if you “sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself, [you’ll] invest your life with the eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.” Here he is on his campaign webpage, insisting that “each and every one of us has a duty to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest.”

I’m not a Randian, so I’m not inclined to condemn this stuff as whim-worshipping altruism. In the abstract, I agree with the statement that when you turn away from your own self-interest, narrowly construed, and adopt a higher purpose than your own pleasure (which purpose need not, and ought not, have anything to do with service to the state), you’re likely to end up a happier person.  But why is any of this McCain’s business? The president is supposed to be a limited constitutional officer, not a national life coach-cum-self-help guru.

Making the case for “a cause greater” in the Naval Academy speech, McCain declared that

when healthy skepticism sours into corrosive cynicism our expectations of our government become reduced to the delivery of services. And to some people the expectations of liberty are reduced to the right to choose among competing brands of designer coffee.

Oh my, not “designer coffee”! The reflexive contempt for peace and prosperity McCain displays here is the essence of National Greatness Conservatism, and, as Matt Welch has pointed out in Myth of a Maverick, his devastating critique of the Arizona senator, John McCain is to National Greatness Conservatism as Barry Goldwater was to conservatism proper: the electoral standard bearer for the philosophy.

In his book, Welch quotes a May 1999 commencement address McCain gave at Johns Hopkins University, warning that America was threatened by a “pervasive public cynicism” toward government “as dangerous in its way as war and depression have been in the past.” In the same speech McCain mused, “With every new Dow Jones record, something gnaws at my conscience that we should not be lulled into unfeeling contentment.” (There’s a bright side to our current economic woes I guess: McCain’s conscience is spared that old gnawing feeling.)

McCain’s sometime ideological guru and op-ed page cheerleader, David Brooks, expresses similar themes in his writings. Even in Bobos in Paradise, Brooks’s foray into “comic sociology,” he warns darkly of “the temptations that accompany affluence.” “The fear is that America will decline not because it overstretches, but because it enervates as its leading citizens decide that the pleasures of an oversized kitchen are more satisfying than the conflicts and challenges of patriotic service.” (As a young man, Brooks served abroad with the Wall Street Journal Europe.)

Designer coffee, oversized kitchens, Belgian beer, and iPods–you might embrace such things because they make life more pleasant, but as Brooks and McCain point out, that’s precisely the problem. These products of prosperity are the lures that plague us, the temptations that make us soft and weak, that keep us from true National Greatness.

What can we Bobos do to make ourselves tougher, to save ourselves from the wonderful distractions capitalism continually creates? John McCain provided an answer in a little-noticed article in the Washington Monthly, written shortly after 9/11. In it, McCain called for a quasi-militarized domestic national service corps as a way to address a “spiritual crisis in our national culture.” What Senator McCain envisioned was, well, rather creepy–a sort of jackbooted Politics of Meaning.

McCain praised City Year, an AmeriCorps initiative operating in 13 cities: “City Year members wear uniforms, work in teams, learn public speaking skills, and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall.” He also endorsed the National Civilian Community Corps, “a service program consciously structured along military lines,” in which enrollees “not only wear uniforms and work in teams… but actually live together in barracks on former military bases.” McCain calls for expanding these two initiatives and “spread[ing] their group-cohesion techniques to other AmeriCorps programs.”

“Group cohesion” and calisthenics in front of city hall reflect a version of patriotism, to be sure, albeit one that seems more North Korean than American. But all in all, the article provides further evidence of Welch’s claim that McCain has an essentially “militaristic conception of citizenship.”

Some have compared McCain to JFK, and there’s something to that comparison. But Milton Friedman said everything that needs to be said about the notion that service to the state ought to be the lodestar of presidential politics. In Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman wrote that neither half of JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” “expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society.” As Friedman put it:

To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.

All of which gives us another reason to admire Milton Friedman: before National Greatness Conservatism was invented, Friedman was against it.

[cross-posted from genehealy.com]

Abstract Ideas Can’t Be Patented. Or Can They?

The Supreme Court has long held that laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are not eligible for patent protection. Because these things are discovered rather than invented, they are “free to all men and reserved exclusively to none.” In recent years, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears most patent appeals, has begun to relax the restriction on such patents. I’ve written before about the problems created by software patents. Software is is ultimately just a sequence of mathematical formulas, and in their pure form they’re not patentable. But in a series of decisions in the 1990s, the Federal Circuit opened the door to patents that cover software when it’s loaded onto a computer, which of course is the only useful thing to do with software. Since then, we’ve seen an avalanche of patents on software, which have started creating serious problems for innovators in the software industry.

The latest example of the problems on patenting abstract concepts comes via Mike Masnick of Techdirt: a company had some problems with a satellite launch, and wanted to use a maneuver called a Lunar flyby to correct it. Unfortunately, Boeing holds a patent covering the maneuver they wanted to use, and they have been unable to negotiate a license of that patent. So they’re planning to let the satellite go down in flames and try to collect the insurance money on it.

Now, as Mike points out, the maneuver in question is just an application of basic physics to spaceflight. The basic principles have been understood since Newton, and NASA has been computing these kinds of orbital trajectories since the 1960s. The patent office should have rejected the patent for trying to patent a straightforward application of basic physics. Unfortunately, thanks to the Federal Circuit’s increasingly permissive standards for patentable subject matter, Boeing was granted the patent, and this company now faces the unappetizing choice of leaving the satellite in the wrong orbit or getting embroiled in litigation with Boeing.

Crucially, the Supreme Court has never endorsed the Federal Circuit’s experiment with allowing patents on abstract ideas, and several justices have voiced concerns about the direction the Federal Circuit has taken the rules for patentability. Apparently, the widespread outrage over the abuse of such patents has gotten the Federal Circuit’s attention, as it has decided to re-hear a case called In Re Bilski that could give it an opportunity to tighten up the rules for patenting abstract concepts. Several public interest groups have filed briefs in the case urging the court to do just that.

The Federal Circuit will be hearing the case en banc next month, and it has already become one of the most closely-watched cases on the Federal Circuit’s docket. Given the Supreme Court’s heightened interest in patent issues in recent years, it’s not hard to imagine the Supreme Court deciding to review the decision as well. Given that Congress has so far ducked the issue of reining in patents on abstract concepts in its pending patent reform legislation, In Re Bilski may be our best chance of reform.

Flat Tax Progress in Hungary and Poland

While most other East European nations have adopted pro-growth flat tax systems, Hungary and Poland are still burdened by class-warfare systems that penalize people for contributing more to economic performance. The Budapest Times, however, reports that Hungary’s small parties may combine to push through an 18 percent flat tax:

MDF leader Ibolya Dávid called for opposition parties to attend talks on 15 April to work out details of a bill to submit to parliament by May. The party wants to emulate regional peers such as Slovakia and Romania by introducing a flat 18% personal income tax to reduce a tax burden it called “unfairly high”. The Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and main opposition party Fidesz - along with its ally the Christian Democrats (KDNP) - have said in the past that they would favour a flat tax. …The MSZP has only 190 seats in the 386-seat parliament, meaning that the opposition parties could force through a flat tax bill by banding together. Hungary is ranked as having the second-highest tax burden for single people, behind Belgium, amongst the members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Many feel the high burden - made worse in 2006 when the government hiked taxes as part of its economic reforms - damages Hungary’s regional competitiveness.

Meanwhile, the Polish government already has promised to implement a flat tax, but a key official has suggested that the new system may be implemented in 2009 rather than in 2010 or 2011 as originally planned. Because of its size and geography, Poland’s shift to a flat tax would be a momentous development and could sharply increase the pressure for pro-growth reforms in Old Europe:

According to Zbigniew Chlebowski, head of ruling Civic Platform’s (PO) parliamentary club, there is a possibility of introducing a flat tax rate as early as 2009. Chelbowski said that Prime Minister Tusk supports this option and is ready to fight President Kaczynski should he veto it. Chelbowski, however, did not give a concrete rate of the possible flat tax, but stressed that it shall surely be lower than 18 percent, because such a rate would be higher than the present tax rates. The final decision is to be made in July or August. The ruling Civic Platform had originally planned to introduce the new tax in 2010 or 2011.

Discouraging Moments in American Political Debate

There’s a spirited debate going on at National Review. Mark Krikorian, NRO’s resident immigrant-basher, supposed yesterday morning that maybe one more reason we should keep immigrants out is because the grandchildren of Hispanic-American Catholics might turn out to less supportive of Israel than their Anglo coreligionists (a condition he calls “anti-Semitism”).

Charging to challenge this thesis is John J. Miller, coauthor of a book calling, umm, France, “America’s oldest enemy.” (Strangely enough, the book was published around the beginning of the Iraq war.) Bernard-Henri Levy “characterized the book this way:

the whole book is a mad charge (whose only equivalent I know is the fascist French literature of the 30’s) against a diabolical nation, the incarnation of evil, bearing in the body and soul of its citizens the stigmata of an ill will the only aim of which throughout the centuries has been the humiliation of America the great.

Good Lord, what’s happened to American conservatism? The debate between these two reminds me a bit of Henry Kissinger’s remark on the Iran-Iraq War.

The Helping Hand of Government …

… strips away privacy before it goes to work.

Here’s a nice, discrete example: S. 2485, introduced in the U.S. Senate last week, would require asset verification of participants in State Medicaid programs, exposing the personal information held by financial institutions to government access.

This privacy loss is a natural outgrowth of entitlement programs. It’s nearly mandated by the simple and warranted effort to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse.

My 2004 Policy Analysis, “Understanding Privacy - and the Real Threats To It,” explored how entitlement programs almost always carry with them a significant privacy-cost:

To provide benefits and entitlements—and, of course, to tax—governments take personal information from citizens by the bushel. Nearly every new policy or program justifies new or expanded databases of information—and a shrunken sphere of personal privacy.