What Sort of Problem Is ISIS?

The quality of the discussion about what sort of problem ISIS poses to the United States has been unsurprisingly poor, given who is framing it. All Americans have been appalled by the grotesque killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American hostages held by the Islamic State. The justness of vengeance against their killers is something everyone agrees on.

But beyond that, the debate is stunning by its internal contradictions. Take, for example, the fact that the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently announced that while ISIS “poses a direct and significant threat to us,” there is “no credible information [it] is planning to attack the US.” This echoed the judgment of both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which issued similar judgments last month.

At the same time as those charged with threat assessment are stating ISIS does not at present pose a threat to US territory, our political leaders are unanimous in judging that the United States needs to involve itself more deeply in the war taking place across the Syria-Iraq border. Shouldn’t we worry at least a bit that taking sides against it in that war makes the Islamic State more likely to target the United States at home, not less? (For their part, the barbarian murderers of Foley and Sotloff stated that their actions were intended to avenge prior US airstrikes on ISIS.) One could argue that trying to destroy ISIS is worth raising the risk they will target US territory, but shouldn’t the marginal impact of its likelihood of an attack on us here at least show up on the ledger?

Or take the recent statements of our politicians. President Obama famously remarked that he didn’t have a strategy for what to do about ISIS, even though his administration was already bombing them. On Meet the Press, Obama added his voice to those claiming there’s been no “immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL.” Rather, according to Obama, “ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria.”

Secretary of State Kerry offered some thoughts on ISIS last week, in which he made clear the administration’s desired end-state: “destroy ISIL”:

these guys are not 10 feet tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks. They’re not as organized as everybody thinks. And we have the technology, we have the know-how. What we need is obviously the willpower to make certain that we are steady and stay at this.

There is no contain policy for ISIL. They’re an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi state within a regular army. And leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us…

Two points here. First, if ISIS is in fact as Kerry describes it—a group that isn’t 10 feet tall, a group that isn’t as disciplined or organized as everybody thinks, and a group that is really a quasi state with grandiose objectives—then why isn’t containment a viable option? Grandiose objectives are hard to obtain even for actors who are disciplined and well-organized, even those that are 10 feet tall. So why isn’t ISIS—which Kerry says isn’t so powerful but has ambitious objectives—likely to burn out like so many of its predecessor groups have?

U.S. Need Not Defend Turkey From Islamic State

Apparently Washington believes its allies to be wimps and weaklings.  Why else would NATO officials promise to defend Turkey from the Islamic State?  Surely this well-armed U.S. ally can hold off a few thousand Islamic irregulars, some of whom Ankara allowed to enter Syria next door.

The rise of the Islamic State has led to much nonsense from Washington officials who speak as if the group was capable of conquering America.  ISIL is made up of dangerous fanatics, but in the form of the Islamic State they are largely powerless to harm the U.S. 

Their conventional capabilities are minimal compared to those of the U.S.  Moreover, so long as the Islamists are attempting to conquer territory they cannot afford to launch terrorist attacks on America, which would bring down the full wrath of the U.S. military on the return address they had so thoughtfully provided.

Among the states really threatened by ISIL is Turkey.  This led NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to promise to defend Ankara:  “If any of our allies, and in this case of course particularly Turkey, were to be threatened from any source of threat, we won’t hesitate to take all steps necessary to ensure effective defense of Turkey or any other ally.”

However, Ankara is partly to blame for ISIL’s rise.  The Erdogan government decided to support the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allowed opposition fighters from all sides, including ISIL, easy access to the battlefield. 

Who Pays for Campaigns?

While the Senate votes on a constitutional amendment to carve out an exception to the First Amendment by limiting spending on political campaigns, members of Congress have no compunctions about spending tax dollars on their own re-elections. WAMU radio in Washington reports on some of the expenditures by D.C., Maryland, and Virginia members: 

“I think franked mail is a tool that can be used to communicate with your constituents,” [Rep. Gerry] Connolly [R-Va.] says.

Last year Connolly spent more than $94,000 of your tax dollar on mostly glossy, color pamphlets with pictures of him at his office declaring his support for federal workers, while D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton spent just over $3,000 touting her record. Maryland Democrat John Delaney spent more than $50,000, which his press secretary says is to introduce his freshman boss to voters, which watchdogs say gives him a leg up over his challenger, Republican Dan Bongino. Congressman Randy Forbes (R-Va. 4) spent about $30,000 on Facebook ads, railing against “Obamacare,” questioning “Free taxpayer funded cell phones” and on dozens of electronic polls, which he defends.

It’s not that members of Congress object to people spending money on elections. They just want the people’s money sent to Washington, and spent by Congress, on their own re-election efforts. So much less messy and divisive that way.

School Bureaucracy and the Death of Common Sense

If you needed more proof that bureaucracy induces the sacrifice of common sense to rigid rules, there’s this forehead-slapping story from the Washington Post’s Petula Dvorak:

Avery Gagliano is a commanding young pianist who attacks Chopin with the focused diligence of a master craftsman and the grace of a ballet dancer.

The prodigy, who just turned 13, was one of 12 musicians selected from across the globe to play at a prestigious event in Munich last year and has won competitions and headlined with orchestras nationwide.

One would expect that she’d be the pride of her school. Unfortunately, little Miss Avery attended a government-run school in Washington D.C.

But to the D.C. public school system, the eighth-grader from Mount Pleasant is also a truant. Yes, you read that right. Avery’s amazing talent and straight-A grades at Alice Deal Middle School earned her no slack from school officials, despite her parents begging and pleading for an exception.

“As I shared during our phone conversation this morning, DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.,” Jemea Goso, attendance specialist with the school system’s Office of Youth Engagement, wrote in an e-mail to Avery’s parents, Drew Gagliano and Ying Lam, last year before she left to perform in Munich.

Although administrators at Deal were supportive of Avery’s budding career and her new role as an ambassador for an international music foundation, the question of whether her absences violated the District’s truancy rules and law had to be kicked up to the main office. And despite requests, no one from the school system wanted to go on the record explaining its refusal to consider her performance-related absences as excused instead of unexcused.

Free Market Ideologues at the Ex-Im Gate

Media have framed the debate over Export-Import Bank reauthorization as yet another battle in the war being waged by free market extremists to wrest control of the Republican Party from what they see as the infidels of the business establishment. That simplistic narrative, perpetuated by an irrepressible disdain for anything that whiffs of Tea Party ideology, has brought editorial boards and journalists from the Left to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the multinational corporations they normally demonize in an effort to beat back a common foe.

But the compelling case against Ex-Im is less an ideological than a moral one.  It is not merely that Ex-Im puts taxpayer resources at risk or that the Bank’s operation encourages too close a relationship between big business and government or that resources are being used inefficiently.  Anyone concerned about economic fairness should see the virtue in terminating a program that benefits some companies at great expense to many, many others.  But the window to that view has been shuttered by a media that finds it more important to portray the reformers as childish idealists throwing tantrums.

Ex-Im is a government-run export credit agency that arranges special financing to facilitate sales between U.S. companies and foreign customers.  Barring congressional reauthorization, its charter will expire on September 30. Supporters claim that since exports are good for growth and job creation and since the Bank “creates” exports, failure to reauthorize will hurt the economy.  But that conclusion rests on the illusion of single-entry accounting.  It fails to consider the substantial, but more difficult to observe costs.

There are opportunity costs, representing the growth that would have occurred had Ex-Im’s resources been deployed more efficiently in the private sector. There are intra-industry costs – those incurred by the unsubsidized competitors of firms receiving Ex-Im subsidies.  And there are “downstream” industry costs borne by producers whose domestic suppliers receive export subsidies.  These downstream firms are hurt because crucial inputs become more expensive, while their foreign competition gets subsidies from U.S. taxpayers.

Taxes, Tennis, and Transportation

We have an uncompetitive federal corporate tax rate of 35 percent compared to Canada’s 15 percent. Our Roth IRA is inferior to Canada’s TFSA, as Amity Shlaes and I discussed in the Wall Street Journal. And while Serena Williams still tops rising star Eugenie Bouchard, we should be paying attention to ”What Canada Can Teach Us About Tennis.”

Now we face another competitive threat from the north. This time it’s British Columbia seaports says Bloomberg:

Container ships sailing across the northern Pacific are carrying more cargo and are setting course for British Columbia to avoid delays from a possible strike by U.S. West Coast longshoremen. Traffic in Prince Rupert soared 49 percent in July from a year earlier, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence, while volume dropped 19 percent in Seattle, its nearest major U.S. rival.

Canadian ports are gaining an advantage over their U.S. rivals amid an economic recovery that’s increasing container volumes from East Asia. While U.S. West Coast ports are mired in a labor dispute and congestion hobbles local railways, Prince Rupert is winning customers with its shorter sailing times from China and efficient infrastructure that can whisk freight to the U.S. Midwest and beyond.

“If people are using the Canadian ports now out of concern for a slowdown, and they like what they see and they like the processing times and the experience, they’ll continue to funnel some of their traffic that way,” Emma Griffith, a director at Fitch Ratings in New York.

So Canadian seaports are gaining in the short-term because of our self-inflicted wound, but they may also gain in the long-term because of both natural and man-made advantages:

[Prince Rupert] lies ice-free 745 kilometers (462 miles) northwest of Vancouver, is as many as 68 hours closer to Shanghai in sailing time than is Los Angeles, according to the Prince Rupert Port Authority. Including rail times, cargo transiting from Shanghai through Prince Rupert would reach Chicago two days quicker than if the ships called at Oakland or Seattle-Tacoma, and three quicker than if they unloaded in Los Angeles…

One of Prince Rupert’s advantages is that inbound containers can be transferred directly to trains rather than trucks that head to a distribution center, which is what happens at other West Coast ports, according to Kris Schumacher, a spokesman for the port authority. This kind of traffic, which uses different modes of transportation, is known within the industry as intermodal freight, and it’s booming for Canadian National.

Meanwhile back on the United States, it’s antibusiness-as-usual:

…there’s no indication when new contracts will be signed for workers at 29 ports from Washington state to California. About 20,000 dockworkers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been without a contract since early July. The union and the maritime association are negotiating over work rules, salaries and health-care benefits.

In 2002, the maritime association locked out U.S. West Coast port workers after contract talks broke down. The 10-day shutdown ended when then-President George W. Bush invoked the rarely used Taft-Hartley Act to reopen the ports. The dispute cost the U.S. economy $1 billion a day, according to the maritime association.

Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in August

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site, we have identified the ‘worst case’ for August.

As you may have already guessed, it was the Ferguson Police Department. As the events in Ferguson played out during August, the police department there put on a clinic on how not to police a community.  From the withholding of Darren Wilson’s name (he was the officer who shot Michael Brown six times), to brandishing weapons of war against a community expressing its anger and mourning through protest, and blatantly targeting journalists for arrest and assault, the events in Ferguson have shown just how disastrous poor policing can be to a community.  If there is any silver lining to the situation, it is that people across the country have been presented with a good look at the consequences of when police misconduct goes unchecked and bad policies, like militarizing local police forces, are allowed to continue.  Things were bad enough in Ferguson for them to collectively qualify as the worst police misconduct of August, but the situation will be much worse if the lessons of Ferguson are not learned and the mistakes not corrected in the future—and not just in Ferguson, but in similar towns around the country.

This week, Cato will be hosting two events related to Ferguson.  More info on those here and here.

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Finally, a not-so-’honorable mention’ goes to the Denver police officer who tried to get out of his DUI arrest by telling the arresting officer “Bro, I’m a cop.” That he would even attempt such a ploy tells us something about the police subculture–where too many law enforcement officers come to believe that they are above the law.  They aren’t, and the arresting officer did the right thing by getting a dangerous drunk driver off the streets—cop or not.