Where Has “War on Terror” Gone? (Long Time Paaassing …)

Who cares? It’s just gone.

On Fox News Sunday this weekend, Chris Wallace pressed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, on why the new administration no longer uses the phrase “war on terror.”

Wallace: … a lot of people have noticed that both the president and top advisors very seldom talk about the “war on terror.” Why is that? From your conversations with him, does he see our fight against Islamic radicals differently than President Bush did?

Mullen: It’s very clear in my engagement with him that he is very focused on the terrorist extremist threat. And my guidance is to continue to pursue that in every possible way.

Wallace: Do you have any explanation as to why he doesn’t talk about the “war on terror”?

Mullen: No I don’t. I mean, I don’t. I just told you, what he’s told me to do is focus very specifically on this threat, lead by Al Qaeda. But certainly it’s a top priority to focus on terrorism and terrorists and the extremists that are out there who would do us harm.

Wallace: Last question: As the nation’s top military man, do you believe that you are still leading a “war” against terrorism.

Mullen: There are an awful lot of elements of terrorists and terrorism which threaten us, and we continue to very clearly pursue them. And we will until they’re no longer a threat.

Government officials can use elements of military power against terrorism selectively, appropriately, and in a balanced way if they avoid the “war on terror” metaphor.

Declining to use the needlessly frightening phrase, Admiral Mullen conveys the authority, competence, and confidence that will lead our country back from self-defeating overreaction, which is the terrorism strategy doing its work.

It’s fascinating to see this essential rhetorical shift. It’s benefits might be revelation to some. When will they ever learn?

A rich trove of strategic counterterrorism thinking was on display at our conference on the subject in January.

Don’t Mourn the Passing of Business Models

With newspaper closures making … (wait for it) … (wait for it) … headlines lately (rimshot!), it’s worth giving a second read to a TechKnowledge piece from last summer titled, “The Future of News: A Golden Age for Free Speech?” The news business as we know it today is just a historical contingency and in no way essential to democracy or an informed society.

In fact, there is an incredible media explosion underway. The new problems are sifting through all the different sources of news and information, and deciding which to credit. It’s a more complex information environment, but in no sense ill-suited to the maintenance of an informed and aware populus. As with so many things, more choice is better, and we’re up to the task of choosing.

Cato alumnus Adam Thierer has done extensive reporting on the state of the media marketplace, and has some current thinking and links up on the Tech Liberation Front blog. I don’t share his concern with the passing of the home-delivered daily newspaper, and have utter confidence that the future of news is very bright indeed.

Chait vs. Realism

Jon Chait makes a common mistake in an op-ed for Saturday’s Washington Post.* Joining various neoconservatives to attack Charles Freeman, just-appointed chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Chait writes that Freeman is a realist and therefore doesn’t care about morality in U.S. foreign policy. I don’t know enough about Freeman to know if the article is fair to his views (he seems like a great pick), but it shows a misunderstanding of realism.

Modifying a noun with “moral” does not make it so. Realists argue that idealism – ignoring realities that encourage tradeoffs among competing goods – is foolish, and there is nothing moral about doing foolish things in the name of morality. Realists believe that our foreign policy should be governed by an ethic of responsibility, where you do things that actually lead to good consequences, starting at home. They see the promiscuous use of power as destructive of it and therefore of all the goods it serves, including the ideological sort.

Those with even passing familiarity with leading realists like E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr know that their goal was to create a moral foreign policy in an anarchic world. They saw idealists who thought they could escape realist concepts like the balance of power as a source of catastrophic wars. Given the nature of international relations, they saw idealism – seen in undo faith in international institutions and later military adventurism meant to spread liberalism – as wasteful, dangerous, and therefore immoral.

Realists are partially to blame for this misconception. They have been too reluctant in recent decades to state their moral case. They too often allow people to get the impression that phony beltway realists like Henry Kissinger are the real deal – as if thrashing around Southeast Asia and South America in service of confused ideas about the balance of power was consistent with realist thought.

A realist U.S. defense policy would be moral for at least three reasons. It would stop squandering wealth on futile missions and allow it be used for worthier ends. It would not offend our values by embracing militarism and empire (in fact if not in intent) and restore the United States to its position as a model of liberalism, not its vindicator. It would keep us out of unnecessary wars, which are bad for liberty at home and only rarely conducive to moral ends abroad.

*It is typical of the Post to publish a column like this. Their op-ed page is home to about 10 advocates of militarized liberalism in foreign policy. The distinction between the neoconservatives and the liberal internationalists is largely academic.

When the Goverment Robs Peter to Pay Paul, It Violates the Constitution

The Supreme Court’s 2005 decision that the government could use its eminent domain power to transfer private property to a different private actor – which promised to use it to generate more tax revenue – touched off a firestorm of criticism and created a movement to strengthen property rights.  (For the story behind that case, Kelo v. New London, I recommend Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage, for which Cato hosted a book forum in January.)   On Friday, Cato filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to review a decision ratifying a similar, even more blatant, government taking of private property for a non-public use.

In Empress Casino v. Giannoulias, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a statute transferring money from private riverboat casinos – and at that only the certain politically disfavored ones located in and around Chicago – to private horseracing tracks.  The state high court found that the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause does not apply to exactions of money from private entities, which ruling the casinos are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review.

Cato’s brief argues that the Court should grant certiorari for yet another reason: The Illinois statute (which coincidentally appeared in the transcript of the Blagojevich sting) is in clear violation of the Takings Clause’s “public use” requirement, impermissibly eroding protections for private property even under Kelo’s (flawed) standard. The statute does nothing more than rob Peter to pay Paul, a result that cannot be squared with the Fifth Amendment, which permits government takings only for public use, and then only if just compensation is paid. This case instead involves a naked transfer of the casinos’ revenues to the racetracks, with no meaningful restriction on how the racetracks use those funds — and does not remotely resemble any public use approved by the Supreme Court.

Permitting such a statute to stand will only encourage federal, state, and local governments to exact funds from one private actor for the exclusive benefit of another, transgressing the very property rights and economic liberties that inspired the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Defense of Bank Secrecy by Austria and Luxembourg Is Good News for Tax Competition

It is no exaggeration to say that destroying tax havens is probably the number one goal of the world’s statist politicians and international bureaucrats. The European Commission has a new assault against low-tax jurisdictions. The Paris-based OECD is preparing to renew its ant-tax competition project. And American politicians such as Barack Obama want to persecute tax havens as part of his assault on private capital. Switzerland is the top target of the statists, but other jurisdictions such as Singapore, Austria, and Luxembourg also are being persecuted. Switzerland is doing a good job defending its human rights policy of strong privacy, but it’s good news to read in the European Voice that Austria and Luxembourg just announced that bank secrecy is not a negotiable matter:

Austria and Luxembourg have declared that they will resist attempts to crack down on banking secrecy, despite calls from other EU states and the European Commission for stricter rules to tackle tax evasion. Germany is pushing for tougher action against tax havens, partly motivated by discontent that German citizens are putting their savings in bank accounts in Switzerland and Lichtenstein. … A statement issued by…Josef Pröll, Austria’s finance minister, and Luc Frieden, Luxembourg’s budget minister, said… “banking secrecy is not up for negotiation”. …The European Commission on 2 February proposed that member states should abolish banking secrecy in relations between national tax authorities.

Tax competion, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy limit the power of governments to act like monopolists. Tax havens play an especially important role since politicians know that these jurisdictions give taxpayers some ability to protect themselves from predation. To learn more about the economic benefits of tax havens, click here. To learn more about the moral case for tax havens, click here. And to see why anti-tax haven demagoguery is misguided, click here.

Philip Pullman on the Loss of Civil Liberties in Britain

Philip Pullman had an opinion piece in the Times of London today to mark the Convention on Modern Liberty, a one-day gathering of activists interested in civil liberties. Weirdly, the piece isn’t available at the Times anymore, and it has not been for several hours. Even the Google cache has been unreliable, though it’s up as of this writing. The vast community at BoingBoing has been watching closely.

Thankfully, the Libertarian Alliance seems to have the full text:

The new laws whisper:

You don’t know who you are

You’re mistaken about yourself

We know better than you do what you consist of, what labels apply to you, which facts about you are important and which are worthless

We do not believe you can be trusted to know these things, so we shall know them for you

And if we take against you, we shall remove from your possession the only proof we shall allow to be recognised

The sleeping nation dreams it has the freedom to speak its mind. It fantasises about making tyrants cringe with the bluff bold vigour of its ancient right to express its opinions in the street. This is what the new laws say about that:

Expressing an opinion is a dangerous activity

Whatever your opinions are, we don’t want to hear them

So if you threaten us or our friends with your opinions we shall treat you like the rabble you are

And we do not want to hear you arguing about it

So hold your tongue and forget about protesting

What we want from you is acquiescence

The nation dreams it is a democratic state where the laws were made by freely elected representatives who were answerable to the people. It used to be such a nation once, it dreams, so it must be that nation still. It is a sweet dream.

If the Times doesn’t want these words, I’d like to borrow them.

Why Acquisition Reform Fails

Senators Carl Levin and John McCain this week introduced legislation to improve how the Pentagon buys things – defense acquisition reform. The President is on the same page. So chances are the Pentagon’s acquisition workforce will have a new set of rules to learn some time this year.

Here’s the bill.  Highlights: a series of new reporting requirements about systems analysis of new programs, a new official to come up with cost estimates of weapons systems, another official to oversee developmental testing, a requirement for competitive prototyping of new weapons, which can be waived, and an effort to make waiving Nunn-McCurty breaches a little more onerous (the idea was that you cancel weapons systems that experience excessive cost growth, but it never happens), plus some other minor bureaucratic changes. McCain claims that the legislation will cut back on cost plus contracts in favor of the fixed price variety, but the legislation does not address that.

At best this bill will create some marginal improvements in defense acquisition. More likely it will simply add hassle.

Acquisition reform is practically seasonal at the Pentagon, as this PowerPoint slide show comically demonstrates. And things have only gotten worse – more programs over budget and behind schedule over time. (Read this recent testimony from a Congressional Research Service expert for details.) According to another expert, former Pentagon weapons testing chief Tom Christie, the trouble is not the existing acquisition rules but the failure to use them to control costs. He says so in a chapter for the book America’s Defense Meltdown, which we will be discussing here at a forum on March 13.

The reasons for the failure of acquisition reform are complicated, but one surely is that these are technocratic solutions to political problems. The trouble is what we want, which is several technological miracles in each new platform, not how we buy it, as my professor and sometimes co-author Harvey Sapolsky explains in a recent Defense News op-ed:

The truth is you can’t fix the acquisition system. All the insiders know this…We can’t fix it because we want crazy things. We want a system that can fire missiles from a submarine hiding beneath the surface of the sea and hit a target thousands of miles away. Or we want a tank that can survive a shaped charge round, pack its own lethal punch and is airlifted by a C-130.

Systems have to perform reliably in the snow, in the mud, in the sand. They have to communicate with every friend and not reveal themselves to any foe. And we want them soon, not later.

Worse, we already have a lot of first-class ships, aircraft, missiles and tanks; proposed new weapon systems have to be a lot better than them or any obvious modification we can make. To be worthy of our approval, the advocates of the new system have to dazzle us with expectations of what will soon be in our arsenal, something no enemy can match. It will likely cost billions, but it will be great.

With that gleam in their eye, the services seek bids for the weapons that will define their futures. Only a few contractors can qualify to make offers. After all, only a few firms know the acquisition regulations well enough and have sufficient engineering talent to manage complex projects.

Moreover, government-encouraged mergers have further thinned the ranks of eligible firms. Given that new starts in most weapon lines are once-in-a-decade-or-more events, project awards are survival tests. Not surprisingly, false optimism abounds.

For more, read his recently co-authored book.

What about using more fixed price contracts and less cost-plus contracts, as McCain suggests? Isn’t it obvious that unless you pay someone a set price rather than whatever he says it costs, he will rip you off? Actually, no, not in defense contracting. Chris Preble and I addressed this in an oped last October:

In a cost-plus contract, the contractor gets paid whatever it costs to make a good, plus a profit. McCain claims that these agreements encourage contractors to spend as much possible and send the government the bill. This argument is confused. Defense contractors have essentially one customer: the Pentagon. Repeatedly gouging your only customer, one with a small army of auditors, is likely to lead to bankruptcy.

New technology is hard to price. If we used fixed price contracts— as McCain proposes—for new complex projects, like the next-generation bomber the air force will soon build, the contractors would simply ask for more money up front to limit their risks. If we force a low price on them, they will likely blow through what is allocated and ask for a new contract. Because military services badly want the weapons they contract for—and starting over would take years—Pentagon officials would then be forced to rewrite the deal.

What acquisition reform would work? It might help to increase the number of civilian acquisition overseers and pay them more, given that their workload has expanded, and to allow them more flexibility in their work, not less, as this legislation would. But these are still minor fixes. You can’t fix acquisition until you change the incentive structure that produces its outcomes. Until the services and their Congressional backers start to accept platforms that push the technological envelop less, the problems will persist.