Archives: 11/2016

Donald Trump and the Future of U.S. Policy in Syria

Discussion of President-elect Trump’s approach toward Russia, and what that means for U.S. policy in the Syrian civil war, is heating up. Last week, Senator John McCain warned Trump that “the price of another ‘reset’ would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people.”

Donald Trump doesn’t necessarily see it that way. During the campaign, he tangled with his running-mate Mike Pence over Syria, and late last week Trump admitted that he “had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria,” and suggested that he would withdraw support for anti-Assad rebels, and focus on fighting ISIS.

Although he sometimes speaks derisively of regime-change wars and nation building, Donald Trump is hardly an anti-war dove and there are reasons to believe that his administration will be quite hawkish. At a minimum, he is likely to be receiving advice from many establishment voices who have been urging the U.S. government to play a much more active role in the Syrian civil war.

The president-elect should go out of his way to consider other perspectives. President Obama was caught between wanting to see Bashar al-Assad’s regime overthrown, but not wanting to see violent extremists take its place (for example, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra). Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration’s efforts to arm the few factions that cleared the vetting process were an abject failure.

Despite the anxiety surrounding the election, and the expectations that Hillary Clinton would have substantially increased U.S. military intervention globally, the great irony is that Clinton’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia and Syria might not have been all that different from Trump’s. Clinton’s so-called smart power would have struggled to find the moderate elements capable of prevailing in the Syrian civil war, and would have struggled to keep them alive once found. She, too, might have dropped the demand that Assad and his followers evacuate the country, and tacitly worked with Russia to target the very worst extremists, including ISIS, a group that poses a threat not merely to Assad, but to many others around the world.

Clinton also would have confronted a skeptical Congress, reflecting the sentiments of a skeptical public. As I note over at The Skeptics, “Some in Congress have pushed back against the executive branch’s occasional zeal for intervention in Syria,” and that is likely to continue. Recall that:

In the late summer and fall of 2013, members of Congress were flooded with phone calls urging them to block U.S. military action there. Obama got the message too, and backed away from his ill-advised red line that would have entailed direct U.S. military action in the civil war.

But the Obama administration continued to funnel money to some anti-Assad rebels. Since then, a few in Congress have tried to cut off funds for the so-called “Syrian Train and Equip” program. An amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill sponsored by Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Austin Scott (R-GA) garnered 135 votes from both Republicans and Democrats, despite opposition from party leaders and the White House. It is reasonable to believe that a similar effort would fare even better in the post-election environment.

You can read the whole thing here.

You Ought to Have a Look: How to Start Afresh with Climate and Energy Policy

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science.  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.

 

Last week in this space, we highlighted a couple of areas where burdensome carbon dioxide policies exist that we hoped were not being overlooked by the Trump transition and planning teams in their push to reverse the more prominent Obama Administration actions like the Paris Climate Accord and the Clean Power Plan.

We want to draw a bit more attention to one of these—overturning federal regulations that were handed down on greenhouse gas regulations offered by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the EPA.

Wayne Crews, vice president for policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute has a couple of great articles (see here and here) describing how this can be done through elements of the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which was passed in 1996. The beauty of using the CRA is that it only requires a simple majority vote (i.e., no worries of a filibuster) in Congress. To date, the CRA has been pretty ineffective at overturning “midnight rules” (in this case rules finalized since about mid-May) because the incoming president would veto them. But with Trump’s ascendency, this should not be the case. Crews has compiled, and is maintaining, a running list that is currently 140+ items strong (and growing) of “Significant Federal Rules Containing Potential Candidates for Trump Administration Congressional Review Act Resolutions of Disapproval.” There are many among them that either directly regulate greenhouse gas emissions or include (improperly in our estimate) the so-called “social cost of carbon” on the benefits side of the cost/benefit analyses that are used to support greenhouse gas reductions. These misguided and ill-informed should be prime targets for Congressional undoing.

We also want to highlight a couple of other pieces that get into the technical (or legal) details of how Trump may go about disassembling elements of Obama’s Climate Action Plan. These include analysis by:

Andrew Grossman: (Cato podcast) “Undoing Executive Action in a Trump Presidency

David Bookbinder and David Bailey: “Does Trump Spell Climate Doom?”

Greenwire’s Amanda Reilly: “Clean Power Plan: Rule’s demise looms, but how Trump will ax it remains unclear

Climatewire’s Jean Chemnick: “Paris Agreement: Here’s what could happen under Trump

And a good overview by Greenwire’s Robin Bravender: “Can Trump deliver and immense energy, climate promises?

It worth reading through these if you want to familiarize yourself with the myriad ways that the Trump Administration may clearing the climate policy slate.

And finally, the hard environmental left continues to fret about what is going to come to pass under the new Trump Administration. Much of the fretting is about whether or not Trump decides that “turnabout is fair play” when it comes to matters like research funding, research direction, respect of opposing views, personal attacks on scientists, etc. The new Administration’s approach, in fact, may offer refreshing new directions in both science and policy that were actively oppressed under the Obama Administration. A couple of commentaries over the past week cautiously embrace such possibilities. While we may not agree with everything that is being expressed in these articles, we highlight them because their authors were not afraid to offer at least a glimmer of (cautious) optimism for opportunity. They include essays by:

Dan Sarowitz: “Science and innovation policies for Donald Trump

Pat Michaels: “Trump Should Shine Spotlight on Shrouded Climate ‘Science’

And those ideas expressed by Judy Curry in this article “Climate scientists brace for funding battles under Trump

You ought to have a look!

The IRS Believes All Bitcoin Users are Tax Cheats

The Internal Revenue Service has filed a “John Doe” summons seeking to require U.S. Bitcoin exchange Coinbase to turn over records about every transaction of every user from 2013 to 2015. That demand is shocking in sweep, and it includes: “complete user profile, history of changes to user profile from account inception, complete user preferences, complete user security settings and history (including confirmed devices and account activity), complete user payment methods, and any other information related to the funding sources for the account/wallet/vault, regardless of date.” And every single transaction:

All records of account/wallet/vault activity including transaction logs or other records identifying the date, amount, and type of transaction (purchase/sale/exchange), the post transaction balance, the names or other identifiers of counterparties to the transaction; requests or instructions to send or receive bitcoin; and, where counterparties transact through their own Coinbase accounts/wallets/vaults, all available information identifying the users of such accounts and their contact information.

The demand is not limited to owners of large amounts of Bitcoin or to those who have transacted in large amounts. Everything about everyone.

The Demise of Anti-War Liberals?

During the post-World War II period, opposition to U.S. militarism and involvement in dubious military conflicts has usually been stronger on the political left than the right.  Left-wing, anti-war sentiment reached its peak during the Vietnam War, when groups opposed to that conflict could sometimes mobilize tens of thousands of demonstrators.  Opposition to subsequent U.S. military crusades was less robust, but even as late as the Iraq War, there were sizable anti-war demonstrations in the streets.

There have been warning signs for some time, though, that opposition to unnecessary armed conflicts has lost its appeal to much of the political left.  For one thing, there was always a partisan bias to anti-war movements.  Even during the heyday of resistance to the Vietnam War, the criticism became more intense after Republican Richard Nixon took over the White House than it had been when Democrat Lyndon Johnson occupied the Oval Office.  The bias was even more apparent in later decades.  There was far more criticism of Republican George H.W. Bush’s Persian Gulf War than there was of Democrat Bill Clinton’s wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Indeed, a distressing number of prominent liberals found reasons to praise Clinton’s military crusades in the Balkans.

The partisan factor has grown even more intense in the twenty-first century.  Left-wing groups mounted a fairly serious effort to thwart Republican George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  But when Democrat Barack Obama greatly escalated U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and led a NATO assault to remove Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi from power, the reaction was very different.  Except for a few hard-left organizations, such as Code Pink, the sounds coming from the usual supposed anti-war liberal quarters were those of crickets.  Likewise, there has been little push-back to Obama’s gradual return of the U.S. military presence in Iraq or the entanglement of the U.S. military in Syria.

At Least as Good at a Fraction of the Cost? Some “Flop”!

A lot of well-intentioned people think it is not enough for families to be able to choose schools. They have to choose “good” schools. Those people often do not think private school choice programs that give parents a lot of control over which schools they select are up to par. Fine. But just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it a “clear flop.”

Writing at The 74, Richard Whitmire warns that we should beware Trumps bearing school choice gifts. He argues that President-elect Trump’s proposal to spend $20 billion on school choice could be dangerous not because of, say, federal rules that might be attached to unconstitutional largesse, but because the money might not be restricted to “great” schools. “Great,” presumably, should be defined by legislators or bureaucrats. After all, you don’t want to replicate the Milwaukee voucher program:

Those in the school reform movement learned the hard way that choice alone does not produce more seats in great schools. If that were the case, we’d all be praising the early voucher program in Milwaukee and the widespread charters in Ohio and Michigan. But in all those cases, choice alone produced nothing.

In Milwaukee, for example, which I visited repeatedly while researching my book On the Rocketship, about the creation of one best-in-class charter network, the more-than-two-decade-old voucher experiment proved to be a clear flop. (Note that I didn’t say unpopular. Who objects to free tuition for their kid’s parochial schools?)

Delete NSEERS Before Trump Takes Office

This week Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and Trump transition team adviser, told Reuters that Trump’s team had discussed his plan to restore a registry of immigrants from predominantly Arab and Muslim counties. The registry, which was part of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), operated from 2002 until 2011. The Obama administration suspended it, citing efficiency issues. Although NSEERS was suspended it could very easily be resuscitated and made worse. This is by design. A 2012 Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) report reveals that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rejected a recommendation to terminate the NSEERS program, saying that the system would allow DHS to register “a category of aliens” in the future.

In the wake of 9/11 the Department of Justice (DOJ) built NSEERS. DHS took control of the program after it was established in 2003. Under NSEERS, nonimmigrant aliens from 25 countries were fingerprinted, interviewed, photographed, and required to check in with officials at regular intervals. Twenty-four of these 25 countries were majority-Arab and Muslim (North Korea was the other country).

Although in place for almost a decade, NSEERS was ineffective as an anti-terrorism tool. Because of the inscrutable rules associated with NSEERS, thousands of men and boys were deported while the system was up and running.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that in February 2012 a DHS OIG report found that, “The NSEERS program for special registration of certain categories of aliens from predominantly Arab and Muslim countries, and the database that supports this program, is obsolete and should be terminated.”

Go Big and Grant Milton Friedman His Wish

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis) held a press conference a few days ago where he said that GOP control of the Congress and White House afforded his party the opportunity “to go big, to go bold.”  There has been talk of rolling back regulations and Obamacare.  That’s good news, but Ryan should consider a bigger and bolder move: End federal income tax withholding. 

The “political establishment” has created a situation where the U.S. is trillions of dollars in debt.  How will the new Congress address that?  The fiscal scandal is too abstract for many voters to grasp so too many of them don’t think twice about supporting new spending measures, such as free college tuition or what have you.  To build the necessary political support for otherwise unpopular spending cuts, Ryan should quickly move to end federal income tax withholding.  If American households would stop viewing their tax refund checks as happy windfalls from politicians and instead better understood how much big government is costing them every year, one would expect to see louder demands to bring runaway spending under control and to downsize the scope of federal programs and operations.  The GOP honeymoon will be over in a few months.  Ending federal withholding will help build support for spending cuts over the next few years and perhaps beyond.

Ironically, it was the late, great Milton Friedman who helped devise the modern income tax withholding system when he worked in the Treasury Department during World War II.  He was fixated on tax collection efficiency at that time, not limiting the size of government.  Late in his life, Friedman said that he wished “there were some way of abolishing withholding now.”  Former congressman Dick Armey (R-Tex) proposed ending withholding when the GOP took control of the House in 1994, but Bill Clinton was never going to sign that measure into law.  Now that the GOP has both the Congress and the White House, it has a real opportunity to go big and bold.  Grant Friedman his wish and get our fiscal house in order.

For related Cato scholarship, go here.