Washington Should Stop Equating Ugly Regimes and Security Threats

President Obama raised eyebrows last week when he issued an executive order declaring Venezuela to be a threat to national security.  It would be pertinent to ask just how that deeply divided, nearly bankrupt country could menace the security of the global superpower.  Venezuela has no long-range ballistic missiles or bombers, much less nuclear weapons.  It does not have a large, well-equipped army.  The Venezuelan navy is both small and antiquated.  Although rumors continue to circulate that the leftist government of President Nicolás Maduro flirts with terrorist organizations in neighboring Colombia and elsewhere, those reports remain little more than rumors.

Most telling, Obama’s executive order did not cite evidence that Venezuela actually posed a threat to the security and well-being of the United States.  Instead, it focused on the Maduro regime’s ill-treatment of the Venezuelan people.  The executive order is a textbook example of an overly broad definition of national security.  The White House emphasized that the order imposed sanctions on officials who undermined democratic processes or institutions, abused human rights, were involved in prohibiting or penalizing freedom of expression, or were guilty of corruption.  White House spokesman Josh Earnest declared that the United States now had the tools to block the financial assets of Venezuelan officials “past and present” who dare “violate the human rights of Venezuelan citizens and engage in acts of public corruption.”

Those are all tragic aspects of that country’s dysfunctional political system.  There is little question that Venezuela’s government is horrifyingly corrupt and autocratic.  Cato’s Juan Carlos Hidalgo has ably described the many abuses committed by both Maduro and his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez..  It may well take Venezuela a generation or more to recover from the socialist idiocies of those two rulers.  But as I point out in the pages of the National Interest Online,  just because a regime is repugnant does not make it a credible security threat to the United States.

Obama’s executive order is ominous because it signals a return to the overuse of national security justifications that was so common in previous administrations.  It should be recalled that U.S. officials asserted, apparently while maintaining straight faces, that such small, weak adversaries as North Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq, and Cuba posed dire national security threats.  The ensuing policies produced frustrating, counterproductive results.  Indeed, in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, the outcomes of such a promiscuous invocation of U.S. security needs were disastrous wars that squandered hundreds of billions of tax dollars and snuffed out the lives of thousands of American military personnel.  One might hope that policymakers had learned from those bruising experiences and would avoid such folly in the future.

It is imperative to adopt a more rigorous standard about what does and does not constitute a threat to national security.  A foreign regime’s domestic behavior, however reprehensible, does not per se pose a menace to America.  The actions of Maduro and his henchmen fall into that category.  Venezuela’s government is riddled with corruption and behaves in a disturbingly repressive fashion toward political opponents.  But that makes Venezuela an obnoxious neighbor, not a security threat to the United States.  

Administration Should Speed Military Withdrawal From Afghanistan

America has been at war in Afghanistan for more than 13 years. U.S. troop levels peaked at 140,000 in 2010. More than 2200 Americans died in a conflict reflecting little more than purposeless inertia.

The U.S. is leaving, but not entirely and maybe not soon. Warned NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove in January, “we are going to continue to have casualties.” The formal combat mission might be over, but combat is not.

Roughly half of the 10,600 American troops are supposed to depart by the end of the year, with the rest scheduled to go in 2016. But the administration is considering slowing the withdrawal.

Washington intervened in Afghanistan with two overriding objectives:  destroy al-Qaeda and oust its Taliban hosts. The U.S. quickly fulfilled both goals. But then the Bush administration lost interest in the country.

Instead of ending Washington’s half-hearted misadventure at nation-building, the Obama administration twice doubled down. Some progress was made, but when I visited I found only limited confidence in private.

Washington and its allies built a large government bureaucracy and security force in Kabul, but on a potential foundation of sand. The Afghan government is noted for venality, incompetence, and corruption.

UT-Austin’s Secret Racial Preferences Undermine Its Admissions Policy

In 2013’s Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court delivered a blow to the use of racial preferences in university admissions by reversing a lower-court opinion that had allowed the use of race in UT-Austin’s admissions policy.

That wasn’t the end of the story, however; after holding that the university bears the burden of proving that its use of racial preferences is necessary and narrowly tailored—a point on which university administrators are due no deference—the Court remanded the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. That court was to determine whether UT had offered evidence sufficient to prove that its use of race was “narrowly tailored to achieving the educational benefits” of diversity. Recall that UT-Austin’s admissions program fills most of its spots through a race-neutral Top Ten Percent Plan—which offers admission to high school graduates in the top 10 percent of their class—then fills the remaining seats with a “holistic” rating that takes into account various factors typical to admissions programs (including race for certain preferred minorities).

Well, on remand, the Fifth Circuit panel split 2-1 but once again sided with the university, holding that even if the Top Ten Percent Plan already provided a “critical mass” of minority students, the use of racial preferences was necessary to achieve some other special kind of diversity. The dissenting opinion by Judge Emilio Garza pointed out how the majority deferred, once again, to the university’s hand-waving claim that its use of racial preferences is tailored to an actual, appropriate interest, without having actually proven anything approaching what is constitutionally required.

After being denied a rehearing before the full Fifth Circuit, Abigail Fisher, the former applicant suing UT-Austin, has now petitioned the Supreme Court to hear her case once again. And Cato has again filed a brief supporting that petition. We argue that the Court should hear the case because (1) UT-Austin’s “qualitative” diversity rationale is still a complete and unjustified sham, (2) the university continues to openly flout its disregard of Supreme Court precedent governing the use of race in higher education admissions, and (3) leaving the Fifth Circuit’s shockingly deferential and judiciously lazy ruling on the books will give other schools a roadmap for circumventing the Equal Protection Clause’s limitations on the use of race.

Among other evidence we marshal is the recently discovered program of secret racial preferences run out of the university president’s office, which flouts Supreme Court precedent and belies the stated rationale of UT’s admissions policy. This is just the latest example of college administrators’ massive resistance to the Fourteenth Amendment’s charge not to discriminate based on race or ethnicity.

The Court will decide whether to take up Fisher v. UT-Austin (again) later this spring.

Cato legal associate Julio Colomba contributed to this blogpost.

You Ought to Have a Look: The Price Is Right, the Letters Are Wrong, and Climate Research Is Booming

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

The Wall Street Journal last week, in its Notable and Quotable section highlighted a set of rather enlightened tweets from a perhaps, at first glance, a rather unusual source—Pat Sajak of Wheel of Fortune fame.  Here are a couple particularly interesting/amusing ones from the WSJ coverage:

Feb. 27: New rule: you can’t trust research financed by corporations. Only government-funded research is pure and unbiased.

Feb. 20: Bad climate news. The hockey stick is frozen solid.

Feb. 15: Weather isn’t climate. Weather can be colder but climate warming. Climate is warming whether the weather is…um, uh…

Jan. 10: Tried to pay for lunch with a carbon credit. Had to switch to Visa.

Nov. 18: Thinking of bypassing the wheel & the puzzles, and determining winners by executive action. Will save a lot of time.

Turns out Sajak, a former TV weatherman, is no stranger to global warming skepticism (or controversy). In fact, recently he wrote an article for Ricochet.com titled “I Deny I’m a Denier,” in which he derides climate change alarmists for the vicious attacks he gets whenever he expresses his less-than-alarming opinions via his @patsajak twitter feed.  He then goes on to outline why he is a “skeptic in the matter of man-made global warming”:

I’m also often reminded by my global warming (climate change?) Twitter buddies that climate is not weather. The fact that it’s extraordinarily cold in particular areas at particular times does not negate their argument. The climate—hockey stick and all—will doom us if we do not act quickly and drastically. I find the climate vs. weather argument interesting because weather events can only prove their point; they cannot disprove it. The historically calm Gulf hurricane period since Katrina—despite predictions of increasingly strong and devastating storms—can be explained away. However, it’s a safe bet that, had the last decade been marked by more violent activity, it would have been more evidence that The End Days were near. Snowless winters in England are a sign of the climate changing times, but when the snow and ice return…well, it’s weather, not climate.

So here we are. The science is settled. Extreme weather of any kind confirms it. Weather that seems to fly in the face of predictions is irrelevant. So how can one possibly deny all that? I can’t, because I’m not a scientist. But can’t I be just the teeniest bit skeptical?

The rest of Sajak’s Richochet.com post describes his treatment at the hands of his detractors. The whole thing is worth checking out. Y_U _UGHT T_ HA_E A L__K!

Even the IMF Agrees that Spending Caps Are Effective

It’s not very often that I applaud research from the International Monetary Fund.

That international bureaucracy has a bad track record of pushing for tax hikes and other policies to augment the size and power of government (which shouldn’t surprise us since the IMF’s lavishly compensated bureaucrats owe their sinecures to government and it wouldn’t make sense for them to bite the hands that feed them).

But every so often a blind squirrel finds an acorn. And that’s a good analogy to keep in mind as we review a new IMF report on the efficacy of “expenditure rules.”

The study is very neutral in its language. It describes expenditure rules and then looks at their impact. But the conclusions, at least for those of us who want to constrain government, show that these policies are very valuable.

In effect, this study confirms the desirability of my Golden Rule! Which is not why I expect from IMF research, to put it mildly.

Why We Filed a Brief Defending Offensive Speech

Here’s Boston College law professor Kent Greenfield, writing at The Atlantic about the racist-chant scandal at the University of Oklahoma:

We are told the First Amendment protects the odious because we cannot trust the government to make choices about content on our behalf. That protections of speech will inevitably be overinclusive. But that this is a cost we must bear. If we start punishing speech, advocates argue, then we will slide down the slippery slope to tyranny.

If that is what the First Amendment means, then we have a problem greater than bigoted frat boys. The problem would be the First Amendment.

Cato’s brief in Walker v. Texas Division (the Confederate flag license-plate case) pokes plenty of fun at government censors who would protect us from “offensive” speech, but this is no laughing matter. 

H/t Trevor Burrus

Regulatory Capture of Trade Agreements

This is from Ezra Klein:

I’m skeptical of the sheer size of modern trade deals and the opaque process that creates them. The negotiation process isn’t quite as secretive as some think — the congressional briefings are constant, and the advisory committees are sprawling — but it is insanely complex.

The result is that even where there is transparency, it’s a form of transparency that can only really be navigated by politically sophisticated, highly motivated actors — which is to say it’s a form of transparency that quickly becomes a venue for lobbying. That’s one reason these deals end up including so much … stuff. The process is constructed in such a way that the negotiators get a lot of special pleading from individual industries and interests. Responding to those requests feels like responding to the public, but it isn’t, and it leads to deals jam-packed with individual provisions that look a lot like giveaways.

This is a great insight about modern trade agreements.  It’s important to think of a trade agreement as just another piece of legislation.  In the past, trade agreements focused mainly on tariffs.  Now they govern a wide range of policies (“stuff”), and as a result they are susceptible to regulatory capture.  Special interest groups see them as just another way to achieve their political goals.  What this means is, as with any piece of legislation, don’t be fooled by the marketing.  Look closely at all the details.