More Statism from Sarkozy

France’s President is supposed to be a conservative, but most of his proposed policies are designed to increase the size and burden of government. The latest example is a proposal for more taxes - including levies on the Internet - to finance France’s government-run television network. Perhaps this is the French version of compassionate conservatism? Tax-News.com reports:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a speech on Tuesday, unveiled new proposals for an internet-based tax, as part of a range of new levies to fund France’s state broadcasters. …Sarkozy outlined plans [for] a tax on internet connections, mobile phone usage and a levy on the advertising revenues of commercial television stations. Sarkozy promised that any tax on internet users would be “infinitesimal”, but his idea is controversial, and some observers see the plan as taxing the new media to help fund the old. France would also stand out as one of the only countries to raise revenues from taxing internet access, something which other governments have so far shied away from.

“Success” = “Not Leaving”

The surge worked. So declare Sens. McCain and Lieberman in today’s Wall Street Journal. They join the chorus of voices, including the Washington Post editorial board, who point to the decline in violence in Iraq that has occurred since the so-called surge went into effect as a sign that the opponents of the surge have been proved wrong.

No one disputes that the security situation in Iraq has improved. Although 2007 was the deadliest year of the war, American casualties declined sharply in the latter half of the year. We can all be thankful for that, and U.S. troops, who have once again proved remarkably adaptable, deserve much of the credit.

But as Air Force Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. noted in yesterday’s New York Times, “two other uncomfortable developments also helped suppress violence. First, the Iraqi population has largely segregated itself into sectarian fiefs. Second, supposedly ‘reformed’ insurgents now dominate Anbar Province.” Dunlap wonders aloud whether these newly-empowered “Sunni partisans” have “bought into the idea of a truly pluralistic and democratic Iraq.” If they have not, and if they remain opposed to reconciliation with the Shiite majority, arming the individuals and groups might prove a short-term strategy that cuts against our medium- to long-term objectives.

In this context, we should also keep in mind that military operations should be conducted in pursuit of a specific objective, and the purpose of the surge was to make a space for political reconciliation among the Iraqi people that would, in the president’s words, “hasten the day our troops begin coming home.”

Note that the advocates of the surge, including most importantly Sens. McCain and Lieberman, don’t want the troops to come home. Certainly not any time soon, and perhaps not ever. Sen. McCain last week said U.S. troops might remain in Iraq for 100 years. President Bush and Secretary of Defense Gates have drawn parallels to Korea, where U.S. troops have been deployed since 1950. (Kudos to Slate’s Fred Kaplan for his take-down of this outrageously inapt analogy.)

In other words, the surge strategy, marketed to the American people as a vehicle for hastening the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, is now being used as a justification for keeping U.S. troops there. Success, once synonymous with withdrawal (remember “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down?”) now means something very different.

Before his victory in the New Hampshire primary, Sen. McCain crowed that the surge had been successful, allowing him to resurrect his moribund campaign. “Thank God [Iraq]’s off the front pages,” the leading proponent for the war told reporters on board the Straight Talk Express.

But I’m betting that the vast majority of Americans are still thinking about Iraq, even if it is “off the front pages,” and their calculation of costs and benefits is very different from Sen. McCain’s. In poll after poll, a solid majority of Americans believe that we have already spent far too much blood and treasure in Iraq, and they aren’t going to passively accept another 100 years in Iraq, at a cost of $100 billion or more every year. And what of the human costs? The strains on our military from two or three or four combat tours are already plainly visible. How will we maintain, over a period of many decades, an army of citizen-soldiers who spend more time in a foreign country than they do in their own?

Sens. McCain and Lieberman may believe that staying in Iraq indefinitely is synonymous with success. For most Americans, the opposite is true: we will have succeeded when we have brought the troops home safely, and we are no closer to that goal than we were one year ago.

Cooler Heads Prevail, for Now

The hottest video on the Internet today has nothing to do with Paris Hilton or Hillary Clinton’s tears – it is footage from the deck of a U.S. Navy ship of an incident in the Strait of Hormuz.

I transited the Strait exactly once (twice if you count both inbound and outbound), and my memory of the whole affair is pretty murky as it occurred over 16 years ago. Besides, I didn’t exactly get a good visual. I was an engineer aboard the USS TICONDEROGA (CG 47), and spent most of my time staring at gauges in the engineering control room down in the bowels of the ship. I do recall, however, that the whole process took a long time, and that we were on a high state of alert.

My initial reaction on hearing that Iranian small boats had approached three navy ships in a threatening manner was to gather more details. I knew that such incidents have occurred in the past, and I was curious if this was being blown out of proportion. I’ve asked around to some friends and former colleagues who have more recent experience transiting the Strait, and the general take-away was surprise that the ship captains didn’t fire. It is simply imprudent to allow any ship or small boat to come that close, and especially so if you assume hostile intent.

But it is also imprudent to take actions that might escalate into full-blown war, and that is what might have occurred if the U.S. navy had fired on the Iranian small boats.

After all, it is not unreasonable to speculate that some Iranians would like to bait the United States into taking the first shot, an idea first floated by Cato Research Fellow Stanley Kober over two years ago. And there is a pattern in Iranian actions over the past five or six years that reveal the deep divisions within Iran society, even at the highest levels of government. Hints of conciliation (as we heard last week from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), or periods of relative calm, are often broken by hostile or threatening acts, and recriminations from the opponents of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.

In this context, the many members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who are committed America-haters, and the few who would willingly sacrifice their own life to do harm to the Great Satan, might have been aiming for something more. Driving a small boat headlong into automatic weapons fire is no less suicidal than detonating an explosive vest, but the atmospherics would have looked dramatically different. Even if the U.S. naval personnel were acting in self-defense, and operating strictly in accordance with procedures, it would have been conveyed as an act of American aggression. After all, that is what Iranians have been told happened during the tragic USS VINCENNES incident from 1988 – in which a U.S. Navy cruiser mistook an Iranian passenger jet for a military aircraft, and 290 passengers and crew died. (And, consistent with that pattern, Iranian media is today reporting that the video of the latest incident in the Strait is “fabricated.”)

I have long argued, and still believe, that a war with Iran would not serve U.S. interests. Indeed, I believe it would be catastrophic. I also know that relatively minor incidents during periods of high tension have led to wider wars, and those conditions are in place today in the region. There is plenty of blame to go around.

For now, as the details continue to trickle in, I’m grateful that the Navy COs kept their cool, and held their fire.

A Capital Waste of Time

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard argument in Baze v. Rees, otherwise known as the “lethal injection case.”  Contrary to popular perception—and the wishes of certain activist groups—Baze considers neither the constitutionality of lethal injection as a method of execution nor the validity of the death penalty itself.  Instead, the issue is whether the particular three-chemical formula used by most states that employ lethal injection causes undue pain and suffering such that the method violates the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual punishment.”  The Court’s decision—likely to be 5-4 with Justice Kennedy the swing vote as always—may turn on what weight the justices place on the availability of other “ drug cocktails” that purportedly accomplish the same result with less chance for “undue pain and suffering.”  But that critical point raises two further (non-legal) questions: 1) Whether the case is about little more than delaying executions that will take place regardless of this particular ruling; and 2) Why haven’t all the relevant states simply adopted the “better” chemical protocols and rendered this case moot?  Ultimately, this high profile case is a waste of judicial resources.

What Fresh Hell Is This?

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle, I take a look at Mike Huckabee, the winner of the Iowa caucuses:

After a year of wringing their hands over their choices in the presidential race - a pro-choice mayor with an authoritarian streak, a serial flip-flopper, and a senator who is a dedicated opponent of free speech - the Republicans finally have a new front-runner….

So … Republicans looking for a presidential candidate to inspire them are now faced with a tax-and-spend religious rightist who would have the federal government regulate everything from restaurant menus to local schools.

As Dorothy Parker would say, “What fresh hell is this?”

It’s NCLB’s Birthday, and You Can Cry if You Want To

Tomorrow is No Child Left Behind’s birthday, but what do you get for the law that’s done nothing? Barely a month ago, two separate sets of international test results were released, allowing us to see how U.S. academic performance has changed since the law was enacted. Across grades and subjects, student achievement has either stagnated or declined – that’s despite the infusion of tens of billions of dollars of new spending in each of the past six years. 

The tests were PIRLS (Program on International Reading Literacy Survey) and PISA (Program on International Student Assessment). For the gory details, please see my summary of the results here.

What do you get for the sixth birthday of a law that’s done nothing? Repeal.