Assessing Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama leaves office today at Noon. His critics are happy to see him go, even as some acknowledge that he carried himself with dignity and grace for eight years in office. He departs the presidency with favorable approval ratings among the public at large, but is handing over power to a person who seems committed to overturning everything that he has done.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy doctrine is enigmatic, at best.  Obama, in contrast, had a concise and tidy way to explain his approach : “Don’t do stupid s***.”

Alas, he wasn’t always successful. For all the complaints that Obama was too reticent to use military power, his actions as president don’t betray great skepticism of kinetic military operations (aka war). Some of those not-quite-wars weren’t entirely successful, others were an abysmal failure. I discuss some of these issues in this podcast with Caleb Brown.

He twice increased the number of U.S. troops into Afghanistan in 2009, even though he doubted at the time that they would be able to accomplish their mission. The United States still has 8,500 U.S. troops fighting in what is now America’s longest war.

Without congressional authorization, he carried out an air campaign over Libya that contributed to the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s decades-long regime. Few people shed any tears for the crazy colonel (Hillary Clinton even laughed about it), but the country has been gripped by chaos and violence ever since.

Obama’s war against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq similarly lacked congressional authorization. It has been marginally more effective, largely because the many different actors threatened by ISIS’s reign of terror have managed to squeeze it on all sides. But, as in Libya, the question of what comes after looms large.

And when Barack Obama wasn’t willing to use American military power directly, through either ground troops or drones, he did provide assistance, including lethal assistance, to those who were doing the fighting. But war by proxy is always difficult, as the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen attest.

The United States has struggled to prevail militarily in a host of conflicts during Barack Obama’s two terms in office. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Obama hasn’t used force often enough, or doggedly enough, or smartly enough. More likely, it means that many of the problems that he has attempted to solve aren’t conducive to military solutions. And the claim that Obama has gutted the U.S. military conveniently ignores that Pentagon spending was higher during his eight years in office than during George W. Bush’s, and that we spend more every year, in real terms, than we spent during the Cold War. Military spending is down since 2012, but is still 30 percent higher than in 2001.

On the plus side, Barack Obama should get credit for normalizing relations with Cuba and moving to expand economic relations with our Caribbean neighbor. Critics of the move, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), point out that Raul Castro’s regime hasn’t reciprocated by improving its human rights record. But the embargo has similarly failed to crack open the regime. Congress and incoming-President Trump should finish the job, relax the remaining restrictions, and enable greater interactions between the Cuban people and their neighbors to the north.

President Obama successfully negotiated a deal that makes it substantially harder for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Critics claim that there was a better deal to be had, or that there should have been no deal at all. But, without a deal, Iran was well on its way to becoming a nuclear weapon state, and military action would have merely delayed the program, and at great cost in human lives. The deal will need to be monitored closely, as Secretary of Defense nominee James Mattis affirmed in his confirmation hearings last week. A progress review by the International Crisis Group on the one-year anniversary of the deal’s implementation concluded that, thus far, it was “effectively and verifiably blocking all potential pathways for Iran to race toward nuclear weapons, while opening the door to the country’s international rehabilitation and economic recovery.”

Lastly, President Obama deserves credit for resisting the bipartisan calls to get the United States more deeply embroiled in the Syrian civil war. His greatest error with respect to Syria was his demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go”, and his proclaimed red line concerning the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against opposition forces. He wisely backed away from this ill-considered pledge when he ignored the political class in Washington, and listened to the America people who wanted no part of another Middle Eastern conflict. The Syrian civil war is a grave human tragedy, with hundreds of thousands killed, and millions driven from their homes. But Obama’s critics, who believe he should have defied public opinion, and launched military strikes in September 2013, fail to show how such actions would have hastened the war’s end.

We should judge U.S. president’s foreign policies by whether they improved American security and prosperity, or whether they made Americans less safe and less prosperous. By that standard, Barack Obama could have done far worse.

77% Say On-Duty Police Shouldn’t Swear at People

Nearly 20% of Americans report a police officer having used profanity with them. Yet, an overwhelming majority—77%—of Americans say police should be prohibited from using profanity or swearing at citizens while on the job. Twenty-three percent (23%) say police ought to be allowed to swear at citizens while on duty, according to a newly released Cato Institute/YouGov survey.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Opposition to police profanity reaches rare bi-partisan consensus—77% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans agree that police shouldn’t swear at people. Americans of virtually every demographic group identified strongly oppose allowing police use such language, including 77% of whites, 82% of blacks, and 72% of Latinos.

Why might police profanity matter? First, police image matters, and profanity could make police appear unprofessional, undisciplined, or “lacking self-control” as one research subject put it. Research experiments have shown that police using profanity are perceived as less fair and impartial. Further, police using profanity at the same time as using physical force with a person may cause people to view the force as excessive.  Given that personal encounters with police may be the strongest driver of attitudes toward law enforcement, one bad experience with police profanity may significantly harm a person’s willingness to trust and cooperate with police.

Second, some have argued that officers using profanity can “set someone off” and unnecessarily escalate confrontations with people leading to more force being used than was otherwise needed. Third, some contend police using such language can harm officers during court proceedings by appearing less sympathetic in front of the judge and jury.

Dastardly D.C. Judges Shouldn’t Punish Political Punditry

Michael Mann is a climate scientist and researcher whose work has been at the center of the global warming debate for decades. After emails came to light concerning Mann’s statistical methods, two of his critics wrote scathing pieces arguing that Mann had “molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science,” and calling for “a fresh, truly independent investigation.” Despite such harsh criticism being par for the course in online commentary, Mann sued both writers (Mark Steyn and Rand Simberg) and their publishers (National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, respectively) for libel.

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals (the District’s highest court) ruled that Mann’s libel claim could succeed in front of a jury, and allowed the case to go forward. The defendants have asked the court to reconsider the implications of its decision, and Cato has filed a brief supporting that request.

Harsh words are common to the discourse of pundits and politicians alike. Op-eds and stump speeches frequently feature terms like “fraud,” “scam,” “misconduct,” and even “treason.” Whether such characterizations are apt or not is for readers and listeners to judge, but until now few imagined that using them could lead to years of litigation and a costly libel verdict.

Similarly, calls for investigation and accusations of whitewashing have a long history dating back to Emile Zola’s J’accuse…! and continuing today with debates over the trials of O.J. Simpson, George Zimmerman, and many others. If Mann’s critics committed actionable libel, then so might everyone who has voiced disagreement with such verdicts, as well as everyone who has called for politicians to be investigated for corruption, fraud, or war crimes.

Finally, the court wrongly held that merely comparing a public figure to a “notorious person” could be libelous. As we know from Godwin’s law, such comparisons are a time-honored tradition of American debate. Opinion writers in recent years have invoked colorful analogies to Timothy McVeigh, Charles Manson, and Jack the Ripper to express their displeasure with the conduct of public figures. Writers and historians concerned with the conduct of politicians have drawn parallels with Stalin, Mussolini, and, of course, the ubiquitous Hitler. Right or wrong, such language is unquestionably speech on subjects of public concern.

The D.C. Court of Appeals should give Mann v. National Review a second look and reverse its earlier decision. It’s no exaggeration to say that the court’s reasoning could put thousands of articles, blogposts, and even tweets under a cloud of potential liability, thereby chilling the speech that is the lifeblood of Washington politics. Cultural and political debates should be litigated in the court of public opinion, not law.

Court: Pennsylvania Has No Common Law Asset Forfeiture

In a case involving the state’s attempt to confiscate a man’s handgun following his conviction for disorderly conduct, the intermediate appellate Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has ruled that asset forfeiture is not a part of the state’s common law:

We conclude that common law forfeiture, as that concept originated and developed in England, was never incorporated into or became part of our Commonwealth’s common law tradition. Based upon our research, the Commonwealth’s organic law, namely Article 9, Sections 18 and 19 of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790, denounces and effectively abolishes any notion of common law forfeiture and that the predominate, if not unanimous, weight of the authority has determined that common law forfeiture never made it across the seas to America. Therefore, absent a statute that specifically authorizes the forfeiture of property, the Commonwealth and the courts have no authority to seek and order forfeiture of [property not unlawful to own in itself, but used in perpetration of an unlawful act].

And that should bring the Keystone State (finally) in line with the general view of American courts: while most states long ago rejected the traditions of English royal governance and required a statutory basis for forfeitures, Pennsylvania had been an exception, thanks to three decisions by its Superior Court in the 1980s that approved seizures on a so-called common law theory.  No more. 

The practical result is that law enforcement in Pennsylvania — as is the norm in other states — must either point to an authorizing statute or hand a seized item back. 

 

Fed Ed Failure File Just Got Fatter

In the aftermath of Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing—but really, anytime someone’s talking about federal education policy—it is important to look at evidence. Today we’ve got several items to add to the evidence pile, none of them good for fed ed.

The first is a new report on the School Improvement Grants program, an initiative aimed at turning around troubled schools with various possible interventions ranging from replacing principals to closing schools. What did the report find? The multi-billion dollar undertaking “had no impact on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”

Next, to higher education. A Wall Street Journal article today reports that the U.S. Department of Education widely overstated the repayment rate of student loans. Indeed, when the Journal recalculated the numbers, “the data revealed that the Department previously had inflated the repayment rates for 99.8% of all colleges and trade schools in the country.” The problem, according to an education department spokesperson cited in the article: a programming error.

Finally, we come to Navient, a company that exists largely on a contract to service student loans for the U.S. Department of Education. Yesterday the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)—itself a big federal fiasco—announced that it was suing Navient for deceptive and exploitative practices it allegedly undertook to cut costs and maximize revenues.

The CFPB isn’t entirely known for its own straight shooting, so Navient should get the benefit of the doubt. But it is certainly plausible that this government-privileged company takes advantage of its largely captive clientele. And who is Navient’s mother, by the way? Why none other than Sallie Mae—the company was spun off from Sallie in 2014—which was originally a government-sponsored enterprise like Fannie and Freddie, created by Washington to buy and service student loans in 1972.

In her confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos pretty consistently indicated an aversion to federal power. The evidence is on her side, and growing every day.

Oxfam Counts Highly Paid Millennials with Student Debt Among the World’s Neediest

Every year, Oxfam releases a report meant to shock the public about the extent of income and wealth inequality. This year’s report claims that the eight richest people on Earth have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population (3.6 out of 7.2 billion people). That’s certainly shocking. It’s also profoundly misleading. 

As others have pointed out, Oxfam reached that number with a questionable methodology, which also led them to several other absurd conclusions. According to their own graphs, more poor people live in North America and Europe than China (see the far left of the chart below). How can that be, given that traditional poverty measures show the opposite

Oxfam isn’t using a traditional poverty measure (such as the number of people with a purchasing-power-adjusted income of less than, say, $2 per day). Instead, they focus on something called “net wealth.” This is the sum of an individual’s wealth minus any debts. 

Of course, many people in rich countries carry debt due to university loans or a home mortgage, yet also enjoy high incomes and an enviable standard of living. 

Here are some illustrations of just how absurd it is to use net wealth as a measure of poverty. 

Consider this. Oxfam claims a penniless, starving man in rural Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa is far richer than an American university graduate with student debt but a high-paying office job, a $2,000 laptop and a penchant for drinking $8 designer coffees. 

Let that sink in. 

(I must credit Cato’s Adam Bates for that example). 

Here is another example, courtesy of Johan Norberg. He points out that his daughter, a child with only about twenty dollars in her piggy bank, is richer than 2 billion people by Oxfam’s logic. If that were true, then the solution would surely not be to take away the humble savings of his daughter and redistribute them among those 2 billion souls, but rather to generate more total wealth, “enlarging the pie” so to speak. 

That’s the core problem with obsessing over “inequality.” If the goal is to further human wellbeing, then instead of decreasing inequality through redistribution, we should focus on decreasing poverty by creating ever more wealth. Happily, thanks to the wealth-creating power of market exchange, we’re doing just that. The trend lines all show that poverty (by any reasonable measure) is in retreat.

Why Does the Government Care Where Immigrant Workers Were Born?

If you want to understand how flawed America’s immigration system is, consider this: the government treats immigrants differently based on their place of birth. The system considers immigrants’ education, use of welfare, criminal history, employment, family connections, and other personal details, but where you were born can make the difference between receiving legal residency immediately and waiting decades. This discrimination makes as little sense as discriminating based on race, gender, or any other attribute over which the individual has no control, and it should be abolished.

Fortunately, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has reintroduced the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act (H.R. 392) to abolish this discrimination for all employment-based immigrants.

Here is how the discrimination works. Rather than waiting in one big line together in the order that their applications were received, immigrants wait in separate lines based on their nationality—a line for Mexicans, a line for Swiss, a line for Canadians, etc. Each line has the same limit on the number of visas issued in any given year: no more than 7 percent of all visas issued that year. These are called the “per-country limits.” For example, there are 40,000 visas made available to immigrant workers (and their families) with a bachelor’s degree. No country can receive more than 2,800 of them.

This means that the line for the Estonians and the line for the Chinese each get the exact same number of visas—despite the fact that Estonia has just 1.3 million people and China has 1.3 billion. The U.S. government used to discriminate against the Chinese in favor of Europeans because it disliked the Chinese and liked Europeans. Now it discriminates against them—as well as Indians, Filipinos, Mexicans, etc.—because they were unfortunate enough to have been born in a much more populous country.