Remaining Obstacles to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The Obama administration is hailing the framework agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program as a great diplomatic triumph. It is clear, however, that several significant obstacles remain—any one of which could fatally undermine that achievement. The most obvious threat is the unrelenting hostility to the accord by hawks in the United States. The ink was barely dry when William Kristol, editor of the flagship neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, published an editorial openly urging Congress to kill the agreement. Outspoken congressional hawks, including Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Lindsey Graham, have made it clear that this is their objective as well. Given GOP control of both houses of Congress, such opposition is more than a minor worry.

But there are other sources of potential trouble. Just days after Kristol’s screed, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted that all economic sanctions against his country must be lifted once the final version of the nuclear accord is signed. Yet even the Obama administration has adopted the position that sanctions will be lifted only in stages as Tehran fulfills its commitments. Clearly, that dispute could unravel the entire accord.

Disagreement about the timing and extent of terminating sanctions reflects the continuing lack of trust between Tehran and Washington. Although most Americans would argue that Iran is the untrustworthy party, I point out in a recent article in Real Clear Defense, that there is also reason to doubt Washington’s willingness to abide by its commitments. The U.S. track record is not especially reassuring. During the latter stages of the Cold War, for example, the United States proposed a procedure of “cross recognition” regarding North and South Korea. In other words, if Moscow and Beijing established diplomatic ties with Seoul, Washington would recognize the government in Pyongyang. China and Russia have since done so—and now enjoy a wide range of diplomatic and economic relations with South Korea. But the United States has yet to normalize relations with North Korea.

From Iran’s standpoint, an even more worrisome precedent is the action that the United States and its NATO allies took with regard to Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear program in exchange for promised diplomatic and economic concessions. Within a few brief years, those nations turned on Gaddafi, openly funding and arming an insurgency to overthrow his regime. That campaign culminated with NATO (primarily U.S.) cruise missile strikes to support the successful rebel offensive.

The Libya episode hardly creates an incentive for Iran, North Korea, and other potential nuclear-weapons states to forgo such ambitions. Indeed, it likely reinforces the opposite incentive. The pertinent lesson seemed to be that only a very foolish government would give up the nuclear option in exchange for the mere promise of normalized relations with the West.

The challenge for the Obama administration is to demonstrate to Iran that it can and will deliver on the U.S. commitment to lift sanctions, if Tehran fulfills its obligations under the new nuclear agreement.  Given the extent of the opposition in Congress, though, it is uncertain whether the administration can prevail, even if it is serious about keeping the U.S. side of the bargain.  Celebration in response to reaching the framework accord is decidedly premature.  We are still a long way from the implementation of an effective settlement to this dangerous feud.

Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?

In a hit piece on Rand Paul posted on ThinkProgress, Ian Millhiser has taken guilt by association to new heights, and, in the process, fundamentally misrepresented the views of Herbert Spencer.

In “Rand Paul’s Favorite Philosophers Think Poor People Are ‘Parasites,’” Millhiser attempts to connect Rand Paul to 19th-century classical liberal philosopher Herbert Spencer. He does this by constructing a stunningly attenuated chain of influences: Rand Paul to his father Ron Paul, who was unquestionably influential on his thinking; Ron Paul to Murray Rothbard, by whom Ron Paul was greatly influenced; and Murray Rothbard to Herbert Spencer, whose book Social Statics Rothbard called “the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.”

Millhiser offers no direct evidence that Rand Paul himself is a fan of Herbert Spencer, even though he implies so in his title. Despite this bit of journalistic malfeasance, Millhiser marches bravely forward with further misrepresentations about Spencer’s ideas, and, by implication, Senator Paul’s. Here Millhiser is joining a long, if not admirable, tradition of people misrepresenting Herbert Spencer’s ideas in order to attack proponents of capitalism. As usual, those critics are wrong about what Spencer himself actually wrote and believed.

Former NYPD Commissioner Changes Position on Body Cameras after Walter Scott Shooting

Yesterday, former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly appeared on ABC News’ This Week and said that the recent Walter Scott shooting had reversed his opinion on police body cameras. Kelly, a former body-camera skeptic, said, “We have to assume that this officer would not act the way he did if in fact he had a body camera that was recording.”

Last week, I discussed what might have happened if Michael Slager, the now-former North Charleston police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott, had been wearing a body camera. I mentioned that it is hard to imagine Slager behaving the way he did if he had been wearing an operable body camera. Video footage of Slager’s encounter with Scott, which was captured by onlooker Feidin Santana, shows that Slager shot eight rounds at Scott while he was fleeing, planted an object widely suspected of being his Taser next to Scott after the shooting, and did not attempt CPR.

Washington Post article published the day before Kelly made his comments on This Week draws attention to how important camera footage can be in prosecuting officers facing charges in fatal shooting cases. My colleague Jonathan Blanks wrote about the findings here.

The article is full of disturbing reporting on how rare it is for a police officer involved in a fatal shooting case to face charges (only 54 have been charged out of the thousands of fatal shooting which have taken place since 2005).

A snippet: 

In a third of the cases­ where officers faced charges, prosecutors introduced videos into evidence, saying they showed the slain suspects had posed no threat at the moment they were killed. The videos were often shot from cameras mounted on the dashboards of patrol cars, standard equipment for most police departments.

Had Santana not recorded Slager and Scott’s scuffle and the subsequent shooting, it is less likely that Slager would be facing a murder charge

Video footage can provide crucial insight into fatal police shootings. While it is fortunate that Santana was in a position to film Slager shoot Scott, law enforcement agencies ought to implement police body camera policies which will ensure that fatal police shootings are recorded regardless of whether a member of the public is watching.

Kelly rightly pointed out that there are issues related to body cameras, some of which I have discussed before. But these can be adequately addressed and ought not to hamper attempts to make police officers more accountable.

WaPo: Thousands Dead, Few Prosecuted

Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran a front-page story on the rarity of prosecutions of police officers for on duty shootings. They teamed up with researchers at Bowling Green State University to look at the few cases in which charges were brought against officers. Since 2005, they found 54 criminal cases against police officers filed for police-involved shootings:

In half the criminal cases­ identified by The Post and researchers at Bowling Green, prosecutors cited forensics and autopsy reports that showed this very thing: unarmed suspects who had been shot in the back.

In a third of the cases­ where officers faced charges, prosecutors introduced videos into evidence, saying they showed the slain suspects had posed no threat at the moment they were killed. The videos were often shot from cameras mounted on the dashboards of patrol cars, standard equipment for most police departments.

In nearly a quarter of the cases, an officer’s colleagues turned on him, giving statements or testifying that the officer opened fire even though the suspect posed no danger at the time.

And in 10 cases, or about a fifth of the time, prosecutors alleged that officers either planted or destroyed evidence in an attempt to exonerate themselves — a strong indication, prosecutors said, that the officers themselves recognized the shooting was unjustified.

While 19 of the 54 cases they found are still pending, 21 officers were acquitted of charges and only 11 officers were convicted.

It is important to note that untold thousands of people were killed in police-involved shootings during that period. Just in Los Angeles County, California, there have been at least 409 police-involved shootings since 2010—and yet there hasn’t been a single prosecution for one since 2001.

As my colleague Matthew Feeney noted, the cell phone footage of Walter Scott’s death was integral to the officer’s firing and criminal charge. Without it, South Carolina authorities may not have filed any charges, let alone murder. Indeed, even with the video, conviction is not certain.

You should read the whole Washington Post piece here. And be sure to follow @NPMRP on Twitter and PoliceMisconduct.net for updates on all kinds of police misconduct and abuse.

U.S. Intervention Most Threatens Mideast Stability

The Obama administration’s decision to negotiate with Tehran triggered near hysteria among U.S. politicians and pundits who advocate perpetual war in the Middle East. One complaint is that the talks failed to address Iran’s regional role.

These critics denounced Tehran’s imperial ambitions. For instance, the Foreign Policy Initiative insisted that “Iran’s drive to dominate the region has been years in the making.”

However, if Mideast domination is Iran’s long-term priority, Tehran has accomplished little. Most governments in the region oppose the Islamic regime and America has far more influence.

Fact Checking a Fact Checker: About Rand Paul and Reagan

Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler gives Senator Rand Paul Three Pinocchios for making the following claim on TV:

Ronald Reagan … said we’re going to dramatically cut tax rates. And guess what? More revenue came in, but tens of millions of jobs were created.

Before examining whether or not “more revenue came in,” consider just how dramatic the Reagan-era tax changes really were.  Under the first bill in 1981, all personal tax rates were eventually reduced by 23%.  But it is often forgotten that these rate reductions in were foolishly delayed until 1984.  By then, however, the 49% tax bracket was down to 38%, the 24% rate to 18% and the 14% rate to 11%.  

When the 1986 Tax Reform took effect in 1988, higher marginal tax rates fell further to 28-33% for those previously in tax brackets of 38-50%.  The corporate tax was cut from 46% to 34%.  After being reduced to 20% from 1982-86, however, the top capital gains tax was raised to 28% in 1987 before being rolled-back to 20% in 1997 and 15% in 2003.

Mr. Kessler mainly takes issue with Senator Paul’s comment that “more revenue came in” after the highest marginal tax rates on income or capital gains were reduced (I’ll deal with jobs issue in a separate blog).

Alabama’s School Choice Law Needs Improvement

Educational choice laws have the potential to expand educational opportunity and improve quality. However, design matters. Ideally, educational choice laws allow very wide participation and eschew technocratic regulations that can impede or even undermine their success.

Unfortunately, Alabama’s scholarship tax credit (STC) law is far from ideal.

Last week, the Alabama State Senate passed legislation making numerous changes to the state’s STC law. Yet while the legislation includes several improvements, the changes fail to address the law’s most serious flaws, and would further constrain what is already among the most limited private school choice laws in the nation.

Eligibility

Under the Alabama Accountability Act, low- and middle-income students who are zoned to attend a district school designated as “failing” are eligible to receive tax-credit scholarships from a nonprofit scholarship-granting organization (SGO). Sadly, while other states are seeking to expand eligibility, the Alabama Senate is seeking to further restrict it.

The legislation would lower the income eligibility level from 150 percent of Alabama’s median household income (about $65,000 for a family of four in 2014–15) to that of the federal free-and-reduced lunch program, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty line (about $44,000 for a family of four). It also eliminates the provision that allowed students to continue receiving scholarships if their parents’ income outgrew the eligibility guidelines, which could contribute to the poverty trap.

Even worse, rather than eliminate the problematic “failing schools” provision, the legislation would narrow the scope of what constitutes a “failing” school. The legislation would restrict tax-credit scholarships to students zoned to district schools scoring in the lowest 6 percent on the state standardized assessment in reading and math, down from 10 percent (among other provisions). However, even schools that perform higher on average might not meet the particular needs of particular students. Educational choice laws should provide opportunities to all students, no matter where they live or how well or poorly their local district school performs on average.