Archives: 01/2018

Trump Commits to Another Open-Ended War in Syria

One of the leading critiques against President Trump’s foreign policy is that it smacks of global retreat and constitutes a U.S. withdrawal from the leading role it has played in the so-called “liberal world order.” As I explain in an op-ed in the New York Post today, that critique is unfounded.

I cite Joe Scarborough lamenting Trump’s “dangerous retreat from the world,” and Evan Osnos who, in a recent piece in The New Yorker, claimed, “President Trump is reducing U.S. commitments abroad.” Likewise, Hal Brands, who worked on foreign policy strategy in the Obama administration and is now a professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS, broods that Trump “is clearly attracted to something like Fortress America,” a vision that fuses anti-free trade economic nationalism with a withdrawal from U.S. alliances and overseas military presence. The Senate Appropriations Committee even released a report in September criticizing “the administration’s apparent doctrine of retreat.”

While it is clear Trump’s foreign policy disdains multilateralism and harbors contempt for engaged diplomacy, it is profoundly misleading to suggest there has been any kind of retreat from the world. As I explain in the piece, Trump “hasn’t backed away from any theater in which the U.S. military was committed or engaged at the time of his inauguration,” and in many cases, he has deepened America’s foreign entanglements.

The Trump Administration Is Poised to Expand the U.S. War in Syria Without a Public Debate

In early September 2013, Americans rose up in opposition to the suggestion that the United States might undertake a limited military operation to punish Syrian President Bashar al Assad for using chemical weapons in the civil war there.

Even though Secretary of State John Kerry gave assurances that the punitive strikes would be “unbelievably small,” and were unlikely to draw the United States deeper into yet another Middle Eastern war, the mere possibility that they might do so was too great a risk for many Americans who had grown weary of inconclusive conflicts that didn’t serve U.S. vital security interests. They bombarded congressional offices with phone calls and emails saying “stay out.” At the time, Newt Gingrich was one of a very few Washington insiders who made a succinct case against intervention on behalf of the wider public: “A) I don’t understand why it’s our problem, B) I doubt very much that we can fix it, and C) the guys who are against Assad strike me as about as sick as Assad is.”

In the face of such opposition, President Obama’s decision to submit the question to Congress effectively shelved the idea.

NAFTA Round 6: What To Watch For

Trade negotiators from Canada, Mexico and the United States will meet in Montreal next week for a crucial round of talks on renegotiating NAFTA. This is the 6th round of negotiations, and the major demands and proposals are now on the table. Can the parties begin to work out their differences and make progress towards a deal? Here are some key issues to watch.

Poison Pills

The United States (i.e., the Trump administration) was the only NAFTA country that was pushing to renegotiate the existing agreement, so its views are important for determining whether a new NAFTA can be worked out. The Trump administration has made a number of proposals that are probably unacceptable to Canada and Mexico (and also to many members of Congress, as well as other groups). These have been referred to as “poison pills,” with some speculation that the administration offered them in the hopes that the proposals would kill the talks and give the U.S. an excuse to withdraw from NAFTA. Three of the biggest poison pills are:

– A weaker enforcement mechanism for policing violations of the agreement (not weaker than most areas of international law, but a big step backwards from what currently exists in U.S. trade agreements).

– A “sunset clause” that would have the agreement expire after five years unless the parties affirmatively decided to renew it.

– A requirement that in order for automobiles to benefit from the zero tariffs under NAFTA, 50% of their content must be from U.S. sources.

The key question for these proposals is whether the U.S. is going to keep insisting on them, or whether it is willing to accept less (e.g., a review mechanism rather than an automatic expiration clause) or even, ideally, to abandon the proposals completely.

Topics:

National Security: A Gateway Drug to Protectionism

Writing in The Hill last week, retired Brigadier General John Adams declared global overcapacity in the aluminum sector to be a national security threat and urged President Trump to “impose meaningful relief” for domestic industry. With Trump widely expected to make a decision in the coming months—or perhaps even sooner—on whether to impose new restrictions on aluminum imports as part of a Section 232 investigation initiated last year, it’s the type of argument we are likely to see more of in the weeks ahead. While no one should doubt the sincerity of Adams’ concern for U.S. national security, his description of the industry’s travails and claim that its salvation lies in the raising of import barriers is deserving of closer scrutiny.

Stating that aluminum prices have “come under pressure” since 2009, Adams notes that this correlates with both the addition of 17 million metric tons of new capacity by state-owned smelters and a 60 percent reduction in U.S. primary aluminum (produced directly from mined ore) capacity along with the loss of over 4,000 jobs. Perhaps more alarmingly, he points out that the lone U.S. smelter capable of producing “high-purity, American-made aluminum” used in a variety of defense platforms is currently operating “at only 40 percent capacity and under great economic pressure to compete with Chinese dumping.”

In case the implied narrative of imports driving U.S. job losses wasn’t already obvious Adams later makes it plain:

Illegally-subsidized foreign aluminum is distorting global pricing and flooding American marketplaces, driving down domestic prices, depleting production, and forcing manufacturing facilities across the nation to close their doors. Relief is needed and needed soon to ensure that this historic and vital American industry can stay afloat. Relief against China alone won’t revitalize the industry.

…Imagine a world where we are 100 percent dependent on China, the United Arab Emirates and Russia to equip our armed forces and build critical infrastructure. We need broad and effective relief to protect thousands of American jobs and ensure that the U.S. primary aluminum industry will continue to play a vital role in U.S. national security.

This seemingly grim picture is at best incomplete, beginning with the fact that any decline in the price of aluminum is a boon to the many U.S. industries—ranging from beer cans to cars to airplanes—for which the commodity is an important production input. Talk of rising capacity among state-owned firms and prices under pressure, meanwhile, suggests a notable decline in the historical price of this commodity, but that is at odds with the historical data. For over two years aluminum has seen a steady upward trend in price, and it can only be considered cheap relative to the commodities super-cycle of the last decade.

 historical aluminum price

If the price of aluminum is not particularly cheap by historical standards, what then explains the decline in U.S. production capacity and loss of jobs? It helps to first understand that a key variable in the production cost of aluminum is electricity (aluminum smelters account for roughly 3.5 percent of global electric power consumption) and that aluminum smelters are frequently placed in close proximity to cheap sources of power such as hydroelectric. Electricity prices in the United States, however, are more expensive than those which can be found elsewhere, prompting a search by U.S. firms for lower cost locales in order to remain competitive. Simply put, much of the industry has left for greener, or rather cheaper, pastures as noted by The New York Times:

Alcoa, formerly the Aluminum Company of America, and another American company, Century Aluminum, have opened factories like this in Iceland, and closed factories in the United States, for a simple reason: Electricity is much cheaper here. This year, tiny Iceland is on pace to make more aluminum than the United States. So are its fellow hydropower superpowers, Canada and Norway.

Indeed, beyond Iceland Alcoa owns an additional three smelters in Quebec. It should be stressed that this is hardly an example of a “race to the bottom,” with Canada and Iceland known neither for their cheap labor or lax environmental policies.

Earmark Supporters Should Run for Local Office

If you are interested in national issues such as defense, foreign policy, and trade, and want to hold public office, you should run for Congress. If you are interested in roads, beaches, subways, and policing, you should run for city council or the state legislature.

The push to restore earmarks in Congress is led by politicians who got elected to the wrong democratic body. In a pro-earmark story today, the Washington Post highlights projects that members say justify the narrow spending set-asides:

  • “There is a 14-mile gap in Interstate 49 outside Fort Smith, Ark., and Rep. Steve Womack, who represents the area, would very much like to secure the estimated $300 million in federal taxpayer money needed to fill it.”
  • “Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), who is pushing a proposal that would allow Congress to earmark money for … a pair of water projects he said have been neglected in his district: a beach restoration in an area where the Gulf of Mexico is starting to lap at homes, and repairs to the massive Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee.
  • “The Second Avenue Subway in New York City, which opened last year, received more than $600 million.”
  • “Dozens of police departments received money to improve their equipment and communications systems. 

I have questions for the members supporting federal spending on these projects:

  • Why doesn’t the Arkansas legislature fund the I-49?
  • If Florida beach restoration is important but neglected, why don’t landowners and city councils along the coast fund it?
  • New Yorkers may support their subway project, but why should taxpayers elsewhere pay for it? And when asked to vote on it, how could members from other states judge whether it made any sense?
  • Since policing is a crucial function of local government, wouldn’t citizens support local taxes to buy needed equipment?

The earmark issue is usually framed as a battle of the purse between federal politicians and federal bureaucrats. But the more important issue is ensuring that activities are funded at the level of government that makes the most sense. I discuss here why state and local funding makes sense for state and local activities. As for Congress, it suffers from structural failures that cause it to spend wastefully much of the time, so the less money flowing through it the better.

Warrantless Spying Careens Toward Reauthorization

Last week, the House of Representatives voted to reauthorize the FISA Amendments Act—and its controversial Section 702, which establishes general warrants for wiretapping foreigners—and rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Justin Amash that would have at least required the FBI agents to obtain a warrant before sifting through the NSA’s massive database of intercepted communications for Americans’ messages. As I noted in a blog post at the time,  the few supposed “reforms” embedded in the authorization bill are cosmetic at best, and more likely will serve to actually expand the scope of warrantless surveillance. But at least Amash’s amendment got a vote, although without the benefit of much in the way of substantive debate.  

This evening the Senate is poised for a cloture vote that will advance 702 reauthorization toward passage later this week, not only with minimal debate, but without even permitting amendments to be offered.  Even supporters of the law should regard this as an extraordinary dereliction of duty.

As Sharon Bradford Franklin of New America’s Open Technology Institute observes, we’ve learned an enormous amount about how Section 702 is used since it was last reauthorized five years ago—in part because of the now-notorious disclosures by Edward Snowden, but also in part because of the unprecedented quantity of information released since then by the government itself, whether voluntarily or in response to Freedom of Information lawsuits.  

We’ve learned about the intelligence community’s struggles to follow its own rules, and to keep the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) and other oversight bodies fully and promptly informed about such “compliance incidents.”  We’ve learned about the massive number of foreigners targeted for collection under 702—more than 106,000 last year— though, despite repeated pledges from intelligence officials (ultimately repudiated last year by the new Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats) we haven’t learned how many Americans find their communications caught up in the process.

New Government Terrorism Report Provides Little Useful Information

The Departments of Homeland Security and Justice (DHS/DOJ) released a report this morning on the threat of international terrorism.  This report was required by President Donald Trump’s executive order that, among other things, originally established the infamous travel ban.  The new DHS/DOJ report produces little new information on immigration and terrorism and portrays some misleading and meaningless statistics as important findings.  Interestingly, the draft version of the report had more interesting and useful information that was mysteriously edited out of the final public version.  It’s remarkable that, given almost a year to produce such a report and with the vast resources of the federal government combined with reams of government information unavailable to the public, that they were able to produce a report of so little of value.     

The DHS/DOJ report found that about 73 percent of those convicted of international terrorism-related offenses from 9/11 through the end of 2016 were foreign-born.  That means that 27 percent of them were native-born Americans.  By focusing exclusively on international terrorism-related charges, this report intentionally ignores domestic terrorists unaffiliated with international terrorists.  Thus, the results of the DHS/DOJ report are, at best, a snapshot of the international subset of terrorism that ignores the purely domestic variety. 

The DHS/DOJ report ignores the most important statistic: how many people were actually killed by these terrorists on U.S. soil.  In our updated terrorism information that runs through the end of 2017, we found that a total of 155 people were killed on U.S. soil in terrorist attacks since January 1, 2002, 34 of them by foreign-born terrorists and 121 of them by domestic terrorists (going back to September 12, 2001 does not add any deaths by identifiable terrorists on U.S. soil but would diminish the chance of dying, so I excluded it from this blog post to bias the results against me).  Since the beginning of 2002, native-born Americans were responsible for 78 percent of all murders in terrorist attacks committed on U.S. soil while foreign-born terrorists only committed 22 percent.  Including the actual number of deaths caused by terrorists flips the DHS/DOJ statistics on its head.     

From the beginning of 2002 through 2017, about the period of time covered by the DHS/DOJ report, the chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by a native-born American on U.S. soil was about one in 40.6 million per year.  During the same period, the chance of being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist was about one in 145 million per year.  The total chance was about one in 32 million a year.  To put that one in 32 million a year chance in perspective, the annual chance of being murdered in a non-terrorist homicide was about one in 19,325 per year or about 1,641 times as great as being killed in any terrorist attack since 9/11.  These numbers are based on updated and expanded data that we plan on publishing in the near future (available upon request). 

The DHS/DOJ report found that at least 549 people were convicted of international terrorism-related charges in federal court from 9/11 to the end of 2016.  These are fewer than the 627 convictions that the DOJ reported through the end of 2015.  What accounts for the 78 fewer convictions over a longer period?  The DHS/DOJ report does not attempt to reconcile their report here with what they have reported previously.  Furthermore, the DHS/DOJ report does not supply the relevant information about the numbers of convictions for terrorism-related offenses, their names, or the actual offenses they committed.  The DHS/DOJ report should have published this information just as the government has done in the past in request to FOIAs.

The DHS/DOJ relies on “terrorism-related convictions” as their important metric, a definition that encompasses numerous convictions that have nothing to do with terrorism.  There is no definition of “terrorism-related” as a crime in U.S. statutes.  The phrase “terrorism-related” appears mostly in reference to actions of government officials in response to terrorism such as a “terrorism-related travel advisory.”  The anti-terrorism Information Sharing Environment, which integrates information which the GAO, defines “terrorism-related” as relating to “terrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement, as well as other information.” That is a definition that so broad “terrorism-related” is not synonymous with “terrorism.” 

The DHS/DOJ report reveals that the DHS had 2,554 encounters with individuals on the terrorist watch list via the FBI’s Terrorists Screening Database (TSDB) in FY 2017.  That means that DHS could have had multiple encounters with the same individuals who were all counted as separate “encounters.”  The TSDB includes the identities of hundreds of thousands of known and suspected terrorists who are both native-born Americans, foreign-born travelers and immigrants to the United States, and foreigners who have not traveled here.  According to a DOJ audit of the TSDB, frontline officers conducted about 270 million checks against the TSDB every month in 2007 with a total of about 3.24 billion checks per year.  Assuming those numbers were unchanged for FY 2017, even though that number has likely increased, and that only 10 percent of them were conducted by DHS, means that about 0.0008 percent of all TSDB checks conducted by DHS resulted in a TSDB hit, or about one for about every 127,000 checks.  That does sound dangerous until you realize that people flagged by the TSDB are not necessarily terrorists.  Even U.S. Senators and Congressmen have been included on the TSDB list.  Getting one’s name on the TSDB list is easy but getting off is very difficult.  As the DOJ audit of the TSDB noted:

[O]ur file review found that the State Department and the DHS’s Customs and Border Protection did not revise encounter records in a screening database in a timely fashion to reflect modified or removed terrorist identities.

Thus, the DHS/DOJ reported TSDB encounters statistic is virtually meaningless.  It’s a count of people the government is concerned about without evidence or a clear way of being removed.  The DHS/DOJ report could have told us how many of these folks actually committed a terrorist attack, eventually did so over time, or were arrested for a terrorism offense but they missed that opportunity. 

The DHS/DOJ report on international terrorism reveals little new information on the international terrorist threat to Americans on U.S. soil.  Unusual for a government report on terrorism, it isn’t even capable of providing many scary-sounding statistics that could frighten people.  While that last point is an improvement, future reports on this topic should seek to provide information on this important topic that isn’t publicly known.  This report fails to do that.