Interventionist Wreckage: Kosovo and Libya

Proving that hawks never seem to learn, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and the other usual suspects are advocating more substantial U.S. involvement in the civil wars convulsing such places as Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine. Before we head down that road again, we ought to insist that proponents of U.S. military crusades defend the results of their previous ventures. That exercise would cause all except the most reckless interventionists to hesitate.

It’s not merely the catastrophic outcomes of the Afghan and Iraq wars, which were pursued at enormous cost in both blood and treasure. The magnitude of those debacles is recognized by virtually everyone who is not an alumnus of George W. Bush’s administration. But even the less notorious interventions of the past two decades have produced results that should humble would-be nation builders. The current situations in Kosovo and Libya are case studies in the folly of U.S. meddling.

The United States led its NATO allies in a 78-day air war against Serbia to force that country to relinquish its disgruntled, predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo. In early 2008, the Western powers bypassed the United Nations Security Council and facilitated Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. But today’s Kosovo is far from being a success story. In the past few months, there has been a surge of refugees leaving the country, fleeing a dysfunctional economy and mounting social tensions. Despite a massive inflow of foreign aid since the 1999 war, a third of the working-age population are unemployed, and an estimated 40 percent of the people live in dire poverty. Tens of thousands of Kosovars are now seeking to migrate to the European Union, ironically by traveling through arch-nemesis Serbia to reach European Union member Hungary.

Economic misery is hardly the only problem in the independent Kosovo that the United States and its allies helped create. Persecution of the lingering Serb minority and the desecration of Christian churches, monasteries, and other sites is a serious problem. Kosovo has also become a major center for organized crime, including drug and human trafficking.

Yet Kosovo is an advertisement for successful U.S.-led military crusades compared to the outcome in Libya. The Obama administration boasted of its “kinetic military action” (primarily cruise missile strikes) as part of the NATO mission to help insurgents oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Today, Libya is a chaotic mess. Once a major global oil producer, the country’s pervasive disorder has so thoroughly disrupted production that Libya faces financial ruin. Not only is Libya teetering on the brink of full-scale civil war, much of the country has become the plaything of rival militias, including an affiliate of ISIS. Journalist Glenn Greenwald concludes correctly that the Libyan intervention, which was supposed to show the effectiveness of international military action for humanitarian goals, has demonstrated the opposite.

Such sobering experiences confirm that U.S.-led interventions can often make bad situations even worse. Serbia’s control of Kosovo was hardly an example of enlightened governance, and Gaddafi was a corrupt thug who looted Libya. But as bad as the status quo was in both of those arenas, Western military meddling created far worse situations. That is the lesson that should be kept firmly in mind the next time armchair warhawks in Congress or the news media prod Washington to lead yet another ill-conceived crusade.

The Libertarian Reader Presents the Best Thinking about Liberty over Three Millennia

The Libertarian ReaderSimon & Schuster has just published The Libertarian Reader: Classic & Contemporary Writings from Lao-Tzu to Milton Friedman, which I edited. Buy it now from any good bookseller!

Just look at some of the great thinkers included in The Libertarian Reader:

  • Lao-Tzu
  • Richard Overton
  • John Locke
  • Adam Smith
  • David Hume
  • Thomas Paine
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Frederic Bastiat
  • John Stuart Mill
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Angelina Grimke
  • Herbert Spencer
  • Ludwig von Mises
  • F. A. Hayek
  • Ayn Rand
  • Murray Rothbard
  • Milton Friedman
  • Robert Nozick
  • Richard Epstein
  • Mario Vargas Llosa

When the first edition was published in 1997, Laissez Faire Books called it “The most magnificent collection of libertarian writings ever published.” In this edition, Tom G. Palmer’s magisterial guide to “The Literature of Liberty” has been updated to include important libertarian books published in the 21st century. That essay alone is worth the price of the book!

Buy it together with The Libertarian Mind at an incredible discount.

How the NSA Stole the Keys to Your Phone

A blockbuster story at The Intercept Thursday revealed that a joint team of hackers from the National Security Agency and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), broke into the systems of one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cell phone SIM cards in order to steal the encryption keys that secure wireless communications for hundreds of mobile carriers—including companies like AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint.  To effect the heist, the agencies targeted employees of the Dutch company Gemalto, scouring e-mails and Facebook messages for information that would enable them to compromise the SIM manufacturer’s networks in order to make surreptitious copies of the keys before they were transmitted to the carriers. Many aspects of this ought to be extremely disturbing.

First, this is a concrete reminder that, as former NSA director Michael Hayden recently acknowledged, intelligence agencies don’t spy on “bad people”; they spy on “interesting people.”  In this case, they spied extensively on law-abiding technicians employed by a law-abiding foreign corporation, then hacked that corporation in apparent  violation of Dutch law. We know this was hardly a unique case—one NSA hacker boasted in Snowden documents diclosed nearly a year ago about “hunting sysadmins”—but it seems particularly poetic coming on the heels of the recent Sony hack, properly condemned by the U.S. government.  Dutch legislators quoted in the story are outraged, as well they should be.  Peaceful private citizens and companies in allied nations, engaged in no wrongdoing, should not have to worry that the United States is trying to break into their computers.

Second, indiscriminate theft of mobile encryption keys bypasses one of the few checks on government surveillance by enabling wiretaps without the assistance of mobile carriers. On the typical model for wiretaps, a government presents the carrier with some form of legal process specifying which accounts or lines are targeted for surveillance, and the company then provides those communications to the government.  As the European telecom Vodaphone disclosed last summer, however, some governments insist on being granted “direct access” to the stream of communications so that they can conduct their wiretaps without going through the carrier.  The latter architecture, of course, is far more susceptible to abuse, because it removes the only truly independent, nongovernmental layer of review from the collection process. A spy agency that wished to abuse its power under the former model—by conducting wiretaps without legal authority or inventing pretexts to target political opponents—would at least have to worry that lawyers or technicians at the telecommunications provider might detect something amiss. But any entity armed with mobile encryption keys effectively enjoys direct access: they can vacuum up cellular signals out of the air and listen to any or all of the calls they intercept, subject only to internal checks or safeguards. 

There are, to be sure, times when going to the target’s carrier with legal process is not a viable option—because the company is outside the jurisdiction of the United States or our allies. Stealing phone keys in bulk is certainly a much easier solution to that problem than crafting interception strategies tailored to either the specific target or specific uncooperative foreign carriers. Unfortunately, the most convenient solution in this case is also a solution that gives the United States (or at least its intelligence community) a vested interest in the systematic insecurity of global communications infrastructure. We hear a great deal lately about the value of information sharing in cybersecurity: Well, here’s a case where NSA had information that the technology American citizens and companies rely on to protect their communications was not only vulnerable, but had in fact been compromised. Their mission is supposed to be to help us secure our communications networks—but having chosen the easy solution to the problem of conducting cellular wiretaps, their institutional incentives are to do just the opposite.

Finally, this is one more demonstration that proposals to require telecommunications providers and device manufacturers to build law enforcement backdoors in their products are a terrible, terrible idea. As security experts have rightly insisted all along, requiring companies to keep a repository of keys to unlock those backdoors makes the key repository itself a prime target for the most sophisticated attackers—like NSA and GCHQ. It would be both arrogant and foolhardy in the extreme to suppose that only “good” attackers will be successful in these efforts. 

2015: The Year of Educational Choice

The Wall Street Journal declared 2011 “The Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted new school choice laws or expanded existing ones. By that measure, 2015 could be “The Year of Educational Choice” as at least 10 state legislatures consider new or expanded education savings accounts (ESAs) in addition to at least 11 states considering new or expanded scholarship tax credits.

ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Currently, two states have ESA laws: Arizona and Florida. Both states redirect 90% of the funds that they would have spent on a student at her assigned district school into her education savings account. The major difference between the two laws is that Arizona’s ESA is managed by the Arizona Department of Education while Florida’s is privately managed by Step Up For Students and AAA Scholarships, the nonprofit scholarship organizations that also issue scholarships through the Sunshine State’s tax credit law. As the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke and I explained in the most recent edition of National Affairs, there are several reasons to believe that Florida’s model holds advantages over Arizona’s:

First, the non-profit scholarship organizations are less likely to be captured by opponents than is a government agency. The non-profits are dedicated to the scholarships, and the idea of school choice is built into their mission. Second, awarding scholarships is the primary mission of a scholarship organization but only an ancillary function of a state education agency — which means that not only will they be more dedicated to the concept but they can generate and retain best practices more easily. Third, scholarship organizations have the ability and incentives to be more flexible in their operation than government agencies, and therefore more responsive to the needs of families. The Arizona education department did not offer workshops for parents outside of regular business hours because employees were not paid for those hours. Non-profits can more easily implement policies like flextime.

While both Arizona and Florida redirect public funds into the ESAs, a state could create an ESA that is funded through tax credits, which would minimize the threat of overregulation and avoid coercing people into supporting the teaching of ideas that they dislike. New Hampshire’s scholarship tax credit law already has an ESA-style provision that allows homeschoolers to use scholarship funds for a wide variety of educational expenses. 

Several state legislatures are moving fast to enact ESA laws this year. Both the Mississippi Senate and Virginia Assembly passed ESA bills last week. This week, the Virginia Senate’s Education Committee and Oklahoma Senate education subcommittee both approved ESA bills and a Florida Senate panel approved an expansion of their state’s ESA law. Arizona is also considering expanding eligibility for its ESA law.

Other states considering a new ESA law include Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Montana, and Oregon. Additionally, Politico reported that Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas are likely to take up ESA bills as well. States considering new or expanded scholarship tax credit laws include Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, and Texas. In addition, two state senate committees in Colorado have approved a personal-use education tax credit.

There’s no guarantee that any of these bills will become law, but the number of state legislatures exploring educational choice is encouraging.

[Updated to include Oregon’s ESA bill.]

Europe: A Fiscal & Monetary Reality Check

Led by Alexis Tsipras, head of Greece’s newly-elected, left-wing coalition, some other leading political lights in Europe—Messrs. Hollande and Valls in France and Renzi in Italy—are raising a big stink about fiscal austerity. Yet they always fail to define austerity. Never mind. They don’t like it. The pols have plenty of company, too. Yes, they can trot out a host of economists—from Nobelist Paul Krugman on down—to carry their water.

But public expenditures in Greece, Italy and France are not only high, but growing as a proportion of the economy. One can only wonder where the austerity is. As the first chart shows, only five of 28 European Union countries now spend a smaller proportion of national income on government than they did before the current crisis. For example, Greece spent 47.5% of national output on government in 2007 and 58.5% in 2013, an increase of 11 percentage points. 

Government expenditures cut to the bone? You must be kidding. Even in the United States, where most agree that there is plenty of government largesse, the government (federal, plus state and local) still accounts for “only” 38.1% of GDP.

Police Officers Must Keep the Cameras Rolling

Recently released dash camera footage of an arrest in St. Louis, Missouri offers an example of the disturbing flippancy with which cameras can be turned off during police interactions with the public.

According to a police report, on the evening of April 10, 2014, officers Nathaniel Burkemper and Michael Binz stopped a silver Ford Taurus after it made an illegal U-turn and “abruptly parked.” Only minutes earlier, 911 operators had received calls reporting shots fired. One of the calls mentioned a silver car with big rims.

Footage from the dash camera on Burkemper and Binz’s cruiser shows that shortly after the Ford Taurus pulls over, Binz moves to the passenger side of the vehicle, where he searches and handcuffs the passenger. Burkemper speaks to the driver, Cortez Bufford. Burkemper filed a report stating that he smelled marijuana and that both Bufford and his passenger did raise their hands when asked. However, Bufford reportedly “became agitated.” From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Bufford “became agitated,” Burkemper wrote, refusing to give his name and reaching for a pants pocket before the officer warned him to keep his hands in view. Bufford refused orders to get out. Burkemper called for backup when Bufford became “increasingly hostile.”

The report says Binz told Burkemper he had found two bullets in the passenger’s pocket. Burkemper then ordered Bufford out again, saying he was under arrest. Bufford unlocked his door, but refused to exit.

The dash camera footage shows officers pulling Bufford from the car. Then, at least seven officers are involved in kicking, tasing, and subduing Bufford while he is on the street. According to Burkemper’s report, once Bufford was on the street he struggled and reached for his pocket. The  Post-Dispatch reports that Binz “recovered a Kel-Tec 9mm semi-automatic pistol with four rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber.”

Bipartisan Baloney About Top 1 Percent Income Gains

In the State of the Union address on January 20, President Obama said, “those at the top have never done better… Inequality has deepened.”  The following day, Fox News anchor Brett Baier said, “According to the work of Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, during the post-recession years of 2009-2012, top earners snagged a greater share of total income growth than during the boom years of 2002-2007. In other words, income inequality has become more pronounced since the Bush administration, not less.” 

Senator Bernie Sanders agrees that “in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent.”  And Senator Ted Cruz likewise confirmed that, “The top 1 percent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires that he constantly demagogued earned a higher share for our income than any year since 1928.” 

When any statistic is so politically useful and wildly popular among left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans you can be pretty sure it’s baloney.  Bipartisan baloney.

In November 2013, I wrote that, “Because reported capital gains and bonuses were…shifted forward from 2013 to 2012 [to avoid higher tax rates], we can expect a sizable drop in the top 1 percent’s reported income when the 2013 estimates come out a year from now. The befuddled media will doubtless figure out some way to depict that drop as an increase.” As predicted, the New York Times took one look at a 14.9% drop in top 1% incomes and concluded that “The Gains from the Recovery are Still Limited to the Top One Percent” That involved slicing the same old baloney very badly.