This week, the Obama administration and Congress continued their public duel over whether the U.S. government is doing enough to "counter violent extremism" (CVE). The White House press release on the "Leader's Summit to Counter ISIL and Violent Extremism" lauded the administration's efforts to prevent the radicalization of Muslim-American youth at the hands of ISIS. A 66-page report released by the House Homeland Security Committee (HSC) condemned the administration's actions as inadequate on multiple levels. Both documents avoided a re-airing of unpleasant truths about why ISIS has managed to grow regionally and even find a tiny number of would-be fellow travelers here.
The first unpleasant truth is that by invading Iraq in 2003, the United States helped to give new life to Salafist-oriented groups like al Qaeda. Indeed, there was no AQ element in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion. The same was true in Libya until the ill-fated U.S.-sponsored toppling of the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Neither the administration's press release nor the HSC report acknowledged those facts.
Mindless American interventionism has been one of the greatest recruiting tools for Salafist groups like ISIS.
Indeed, every Western hostage killed by ISIS was wearing an orange-colored prison jump suit-like garment, just like the ones worn by Iraqi prisoners tortured by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison or those held still at Guantanamo. Neither President Obama nor the authors of the HSC report can bring themselves to admit that our own actions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia have helped to fuel the very terrorist violence and domestic recruiting efforts both decried this week.
The second unpleasant truth dodged by the White House and the HSC is that all the mass surveillance programs initiated in the post-9/11 era have failed to detect a string of real plots or actual attacks in advance. Yet the HSC report calls for a doubling-down on federal support for state-level intelligence "fusion centers," none of which have uncovered actual terrorist plots while targeting civil liberties groups that question their utility and the constitutionality of their operational methods.
A third unpleasant truth avoided by the HSC and the Obama administration is that CVE is not an "equal opportunity" program aimed at all kinds of violent extremists. The federal CVE focus is squarely on Arab- and Muslim-Americans, even though right-wing American political extremists have killed almost twice as many U.S. persons in the post-9/11 era as have American Salafist-oriented terrorists.
The taxpayer-funded CVE program is little more than a rhetorically dressed up race-and-religion-profiling counterterrorism campaign. That it is failing should surprise none of us.
Two grassroots groups opposed to existing U.S. government surveillance policies yesterday launched a new platform aimed at the legislative branch: DecideTheFuture.org.
A project of Restore The Fourth and Fight for the Future, the website rates House and Senate members on the basis of their votes on surveillance-related legislation since 2012. Those who have voted against continuation of the PATRIOT Act or sponsored legislation to repeal it are deemed to be part of "Team Internet"; those who have championed a continuation of the status quo on surveillance are dubbed "Team Surveillance."
Restore The Fourth's press release provides further details:
The scoreboard builds off a similar tool released last year by a coalition of privacy advocates, adding data from the current Congress, including the PATRIOT Act renewal fight, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 and other relevant legislation.
“We wanted to develop something simple and easy that would allow users to quickly see which politicians oppose mass surveillance, and who’s working to expand the surveillance state” says Alex Marthews, national chair of Restore The Fourth.
At the moment, it is unclear whether those behind DecideTheFuture.org will expand the project to include ratings on presidential candidates. Thus far, government surveillance has not been a top-tier issue in any of the presidential debates and is rarely mentioned by the candidates on the campaign trail.
Cato Institute adjunct scholar Eugene Gholz has been awarded the 2015 Fiona McGillivray award for his paper, "Assessing the 'Threat' of International Tension to the U.S. Economy." Chosen by the Political Economy section of the American Political Science Association, the award is given for the best paper in Political Economy presented at the previous year’s APSA Annual Meeting.
In the paper, which is featured in A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security, a book that I co-edited with John Mueller, Gholz concludes that the conventional wisdom regarding the economic threat international tension poses to neutral states is “often exaggerated.”
President Obama (like other political leaders before him) is wrong about the economic consequences of foreign tension for the United States, as are most of the academics involved in grand strategy debates.
The bottom line is that it is rarely, if ever, worth spending American resources to prevent foreign instability in the hope of protecting American prosperity, even assuming that such spending effectively tamps down tension.
Gholz, an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that neutral states can sometimes actually benefit economically from foreign tension and even war:
governments in wartime transfer resources from normal production into the war effort, which means that the belligerents' domestic economy produces less of value for nonmilitary consumers, fewer capital goods to prepare for future domestic production, and fewer export products.
The result is a near-term gap between demand for goods and services and domestic supply—a gap that is typically filled by imports from international markets.
Not every foreign country is well positioned to take advantage of the mobilization-induced consumption binge, but, on net, because belligerent (or scared) economies increase their overall consumption, neutral countries enjoy an economic benefit.
The paper is not a brief for a U.S. policy of instigating foreign conflict, of course: we all recoil from the horrors of war, and any economic benefit that the United States might gain from foreign tension would be relatively small. But the current U.S. strategy’s emphasis on military activism and forward presence is built on the assumption that scaling back U.S. military commitments would hurt the American economy, and that assumption is not justified. There is no reason for the United States to pay direct costs – the costs of our forward military strategy – for a phantom economic benefit.
When presenting the award to Gholz, Professor Lloyd Gruber from the London School of Economics and Political Science, chair of the award committee, lauded the “well-argued, punchy, and provocative” paper:
Using historical examples and reasoning by analogy—the paper likens the effects of the consumption booms that accompany war-fighting to the effects of the peacetime demand shock that would occur if millions of Chinese consumers were to decide to purchase new automobiles at the same time—Gholz makes a compelling case. …His paper is a consumption boom for the reader.
The book in which Gholz’s paper appears can be found here.
In today's Cato Online Forum essay, the AFL-CIO's Celeste Drake asserts that labor unions are not opposed to trade per se, but to neo-liberal trade deals that only benefit corporate entities. Drake argues that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership offers a good opportunity to change the nature of trade agreements to include progressive, standard-raising provisions that promote inclusive growth and shared prosperity. She concludes:
No one believes that righting the course of globalization and trade will be quick or easy. But if the process is to begin, the TTIP, with informed, active and engaged civil society on both sides of the Atlantic, seems an opportune place to make a stand to change the rules: not to stop trade, but to use it as a tool to achieve a global economy that works for all.
Celeste's essay is offered in conjunction with a Cato Institute conference on the TTIP taking place October 12. Read it. Provide feedback. And please register to attend the conference.
Last week, I wrote about a man who spent 6 months of his life and $1,500 to make a sandwich entirely from scratch, without the benefits of market exchange. The story illustrates how exchange and trade enrich our lives.
After making his incredibly costly sandwich, the same man embarked on an even costlier endeavor: making a suit from scratch. He picked cotton from a field, spun the cotton into thread, wove the thread into cloth, sheared wool from a sheep, harvested hemp, raised silkworms for their silk, killed a deer and tanned its hide to make leather. This process cost him 10 months of work and $4,000.
At the end of the video documenting how he made the “suit,” he stands in a bizarre-looking outfit with pants that end at his knees and says with regret, “OK, even with all that work, I might have run a little short on material.” Even after 10 months of intense labor, he was unable to come close to matching the quality and price of a product that he could procure through the free market.
Thanks to market exchange and the division of labor, obtaining new clothes is simple and increasingly affordable. For example, increasing cotton yields have lowered the price of a staple fabric material.
The real price of a suit, measured in the number of hours it takes an average worker to earn enough to buy one, has declined: a two-piece wool suit cost the average American 12.4 fewer hours of work in 2012 than it did in 1956. (Check out Professor Don Boudreaux’s analysis for further details).
Critics sometimes decry increasingly affordable clothing, viewing falling prices as a sign of worker exploitation. In 1891, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison summed up this viewpoint when he said, “I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth or shapes it into a garment will starve in the process.” However, as Johan Norberg pointed out yesterday in the U.K. Huffington Post, far from making people poorer, the garment industry has actually helped to decrease poverty. As he eloquently puts it:
Western activists rail against "sweatshops," but among researchers and economists from left to right there is a consensus that these jobs are the stepping stones out of poverty.
Take a moment to consider what you are wearing right now, and how much work went into its creation, from the harvesting of its raw materials to the finishing touches. No one person created it—it is the fruit of a complex family tree of mutually beneficial human cooperation through the market.
The private meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the United National General Assembly session in New York apparently did not go well. The atmosphere was frosty, and both leaders also used their speeches before the UN body to take verbal shots at the other country. That outcome is most unfortunate, because Russia and the United States have important interests in common that are being damaged by ongoing bilateral tensions. In particular, both Moscow and Washington want to see ISIS decisively defeated and the overall threat of radical Islamic terrorism diminished.
Yet the Obama administration objects strongly to Russia’s growing political and military presence in Syria to support the beleaguered government of Bashar al-Assad against ISIS insurgents. Washington seems to resent any manifestation of Russian geopolitical influence outside the borders of the Russian Federation, even when it might indirectly benefit U.S. interests. Worse, U.S. leaders continue to cling to the fantasy that simultaneously seeking to defeat ISIS and Assad is a coherent policy.
Washington’s clumsy handling of relations with Russia has brought the two countries dangerously close to a second cold war. As I discuss in a new article in Aspenia Online, both sides bear responsibility for the deterioration of the bilateral relationship, but the bulk of the blame lies at the doorstep of the United States. And trouble began long before Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine triggered the most acute crisis.
Moscow deeply resented NATO’s decision to expand into Central and Eastern Europe, especially the addition of the Baltic republics in 2004. Russian policymakers believed, with good reason, that NATO enlargement violated pledges that the United States and its allies had made when the Kremlin acquiesced to a united Germany’s membership in NATO.
In addition to anger over NATO’s enlargement, Kremlin officials fumed that the Western powers were trampling on long-standing Russian interests in the Balkans. Russian leaders viewed NATO’s decision to prevent the partition of Bosnia, and especially the alliance’s 1999 war against Serbia to detach its restless province of Kosovo, as taking advantage of their country’s temporary economic and military weakness. The subsequent decision by the United States and its key EU allies to bypass the UN Security Council (and a certain Russian veto) to recognize an independent Kosovo in 2008 further inflamed Moscow’s anger.
Russia’s military action against Georgia on behalf of two secessionist regions later in 2008 sent a dual message to the West. One was that contrary to Washington’s insistence that the Kosovo episode was unique, the Kremlin viewed the situation in Georgia (and perhaps elsewhere) as sufficiently similar to apply the Kosovo precedent on outside military intervention. The second message was that the Western powers needed to abandon any desire for further NATO expansion, especially flirting with the notion of offering membership to Georgia and Ukraine.
Thus, the surge of tensions over the past 18 months (triggered by U.S. and European Union support for the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian government) is not a sudden, unpredictable disruption. It is instead the culmination of trends that have been building for more than two decades.
Western opinion elites need to stop viewing Putin’s Russia as a reincarnation of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. In marked contrast to those malignantly expansionist powers, today’s Russia seems to have far more limited, largely defensive, ambitions—focused on maintaining a sphere of influence along the country’s borders. That is a far cry from the continental ambitions of Nazi Germany or the global ambitions of the Soviet Union.
Creating a more cooperative relationship requires a crucial change in U.S. policy. American officials regard the existence of spheres of influence as illegitimate in the twenty-first century international system. That hostility is unrealistic and myopic. Great powers understandably are more concerned about developments, particularly hostile developments, in their immediate neighborhoods. And contrary to recent, self-serving rhetoric, the United States is no exception.
A partnership with Moscow can help solve a number of problems in the international system, including North Korea’s worrisome nuclear program. Russia is also an important ally in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Conversely, if the West insists on treating Russia as an adversary, the Kremlin can create nasty difficulties in several arenas.
Putin’s Russia may not be the easiest great power to deal with, but the United States will assuredly not benefit from provoking a new cold war. Yet Washington’s current policy toward Moscow is simultaneously ineffectual and provocative. A course correction is badly needed, and President Obama missed an important opportunity to do so at his meeting with Putin in New York.
Can it really be the case that a police officer violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on using excessive force when he points a live firearm at a non-threatening individual, but not if he actually shoots and kills this person? That’s the argument being made in Stamps v. Town of Framingham, which is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
During a military-style SWAT raid on the home of 68-year-old grandfather Eurie Stamps—to execute a drug-search warrant regarding his stepson’s alleged activities—Officer Paul Duncan pointed an assault rifle at Stamps with the safety disengaged and his finger on the trigger, even though Stamps lay on the floor with his hands up. Duncan now claims that he became immune from suit when he unintentionally fired the rifle and killed Stamps.
Under the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” government officials—including police officers—are immune from suit if their actions don’t violate a “clearly established” constitutional right. The crux of Duncan’s argument is that when his weapon discharged, he became immune from suit even if pointing an assault rifle at Stamps was an unconstitutional act by itself—because there’s no clearly established right against accidental death. This ridiculous argument was duly rejected by the lower court, because it's both legally unsound and practically dangerous.
As a legal matter, Fourth Amendment protections against being unreasonably targeted with a firearm don’t evaporate when things turn out worse than an officer intended. Moreover, accidental discharge is hardly an unforeseeable consequence of pointing a loaded semi-automatic weapon—which could’ve been turned to full-auto here—during a tense paramilitary raid. Foreseeable accidents don’t remove liability from the harming actor; if anything, unintended consequences augment the scope of the Fourth Amendment violation rather than immunizing an officer from liability for the foreseeable result of his intentional actions.
As a practical matter, granting immunity to SWAT officers whose unreasonable behavior causes deadly accidents would be absurd and would likely lead to more deadly accidents. The case thus raises pressing issues of police militarization in society. In briefing for a militarization case with nearly identical facts, Kane v. Lewis, Cato noted that “SWAT team deployments have increased more than 1,400% since the 1980s. . . . SWAT teams and tactical units were originally created to address high-risk situations, such as terrorist attacks and hostage crises. Today, however, these extreme situations account for only a small fraction of SWAT deployments; they’re used primarily to serve low-level drug-search warrants.”
Accordingly, Cato has now filed a brief in the Stamps case, joining the ACLU, NAACP, National Bar Association, and LatinoJustice PRLDEF in requesting that the First Circuit affirm the lower court’s decision and posthumously vindicate Eurie Stamps’s Fourth Amendment rights.