Trading Washington for Tbilisi?

Alliances often are advanced, as with NATO expansion, as a cheap way of keeping the peace.  After all, it is said, no one would dare challenge America.  But while alliances can deter, deterrence can fail – with catastrophic consequences.  Both World Wars I and II featured failed alliances and security guarantees.  Oops!

If deterence fails, the guaranteeing state either has to retreat ignominously or plunge into war, neither of which is likely to be in America’s interest.  Moreover, promising to defend other nations encourages them to be irresponsible:  after all, why not adopt a risky foreign policy if Washington is willing to back you up, nuclear weapons and all?  It’s a form of moral hazard applied to foreign policy.

That appears to be the case with the country of Georgia.  There’s a lot of disagreement over the character of Mikhail Saakashvili’s government, even among libertarians.  But a new European Union panel has amassed evidence that President Saakashvili is a bit of a foreign policy adventurer.  Reports Spiegel online:

Unpublished documents produced by the European Union commission that investigated the conflict between Georgia and Moscow assign much of the blame to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. But the Kremlin and Ossetian militias are also partly responsible.

From her office on Avenue de la Paix, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, 58, looks out onto the botanical gardens in peaceful Geneva. The view offers a welcome respite from the stacks of documents on her desk, which deal exclusively with war and war blame. They contain the responses, from the conflicting parties in the Caucasus region – Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia – to a European Union investigative commission conducting a probe of the cause of the five-day war last August. The documents also include reports on the EU commission’s trips to Moscow, the Georgian capital Tbilisi and the capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, dossiers assembled by experts and the transcripts of interviews of diplomats, military officials and civilian victims of the war.

The Caucasus expert, nicknamed “Madame Courage” by the Zurich-based Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, is considered a specialist on sensitive diplomatic matters. The Caucasus issue is the most difficult challenge she has faced to date. The final report by the commission she heads must be submitted to the EU Council of Ministers by late July. In the report, Tagliavini is expected to explain how, in August 2008, a long-smoldering regional conflict over the breakaway Georgia province of South Ossetia could suddenly have escalated into a war between Georgia and its much more powerful neighbor, Russia. Who is to blame for the most serious confrontation between East and West since the end of the Cold War?

In addition to having a budget of €1.6 million ($2.2 million) at her disposal, Tagliavini can draw on the expertise of two deputies, 10 specialists, military officials, political scientists, historians and international law experts.

Much hinges on the conclusions her commission will reach. Is Georgia, a former Soviet republic, a serious candidate for membership in NATO, or is the country in the hands of a reckless gambler? Did the Russian leadership simply defend South Ossetia, an ally seeking independence from Georgia, against a Georgian attack? Or did Russia spark a global crisis when its troops occupied parts of Georgia for a short period of time?

The confidential investigative commission documents, which SPIEGEL has obtained, show that the task of assigning blame for the conflict has been as much of a challenge for the commission members as it has for the international community. However, a majority of members tend to arrive at the assessment that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili started the war by attacking South Ossetia on August 7, 2008. The facts assembled on Tagliavini’s desk refute Saakashvili’s claim that his country became the innocent victim of “Russian aggression” on that day.

In summarizing the military fiasco, commission member Christopher Langton, a retired British Army colonel, claims: “Georgia’s dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that.”

Whatever the justification for President Saakashvili’s conduct, it certainly isn’t the kind of policy to which the U.S. should tie itself.  Yet including Georgia in NATO would in effect make President Saakashvili’s goals those of the American government and, by extension, the American people.

How many Americans should die to ensure that George gets to rule South Ossetia and Abkhazia?  Should we risk Washington for Tbilisi?  These are questions the Obama administration should answer before it joins the Bush administration in pushing NATO membership for Georgia.  The American people deserve to know exactly what risks the Obama administration plans to take with their lives and homelands before adding yet another fragile client state to Washington’s long list of security dependents.

Some Center-Left Governments Are Prepared to Promote Trade

Not to brag, but my homeland has a pretty good record when it comes to trade liberalization.  Even the center-left Labor party is supportive of multilateral trade negotiations, although they have historically been less enamored of bilateral and regional preferential deals. (A completely respectable view, by the way). Indeed, the most substantial unilateral trade liberalization efforts in Australia’s history occured under Labor governments.

Simon Crean, the current (Labor) Minister for Trade recently confirmed that commitment in the face of trade union opposition. In a statement that could have come directly from Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, he said:

People seem to think that jobs can be protected by reverting to protectionism. The exact opposite is the case. If the country and the world reverts to protectionism, it costs jobs and lowers living standards.

Minister Crean then went on to make mildly mercantalist noises about how many Australian jobs are “trade related” – and you can be sure he is not referring to imports – but, really, I shouldn’t nit-pick. If more governments, including those of the center-left, were as supportive of free trade and as skeptical of protectionism, the global economy would be better off.

HT: our friends over at the Club for Growth.

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Press Release Economics in Michigan Picked Apart

This morning I blogged on the wave of state governments giving away taxpayer money to businesses in the name of “creating jobs.”  One of the examples I mentioned is the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a state program that exists to generate press releases to provide cover for the state’s lamentable fiscal policies.

Michael LaFaive at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan was kind enough to send me a recent report he wrote on the folly of state subsidies to businesses.  State officials like to solicit studies from local universities that just happen to conclude that such-and-such government program is creating X number of jobs.  (Of course, in the rare occurrence that a study doesn’t come back with what the bureaucrats were expecting, such study will likely disappear into thin air.  I’ve seen that happen first hand.)  Michael’s paper deconstructs a study on the purported benefits of Michigan’s film maker subsidies, which was prepared by Michigan State University at the behest of the MEDC.  A quote he cites from a 2006 study on tourism-related economic development programs nails it:

“Most economic impact studies are commissioned to legitimize a political position rather than to search for economic truth. Often the result is mischievous procedures that produce large numbers that study sponsors seek to support a predetermined position.”

If you read nothing else, read the section on page 4 entitled “Why Government Subsidies Won’t Save Michigan’s Economy.”  The reasons apply to all fifty states, not just Michigan.

The No-Rights List

A media drumbeat is steadily building to keep those on the government’s terrorist watch list from buying firearms. A month ago, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) introduced a bill to bar them from purchasing a gun even if they had no legally disqualifying criminal conviction. Now Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has introduced his own legislation to achieve the same goal.

This is arbitrary government at its best. The “no-fly” list used to prevent suspected terrorists from boarding aircraft has tagged Nelson Mandela, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), Rep. Don Young (R-AK), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a retired general, a Marine reservist returning from Iraq, the President of Bolivia and dead 9/11 hijackers, a former federal prosecutor, and over twenty men named John Thompson as threats to our national security. The list now contains over 1 million names. This prompted calls for probes into the watch list, and the ACLU filed suit to challenge the list.

The push to prevent firearms purchases by persons on this list is nothing new. Here is White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel saying in 2007 that, “if you’re on that no-fly list, your access to the right to bear arms is cancelled, because you’re not part of the American family; you don’t deserve that right. There is no right for you if you’re on that terrorist list.”

If the government can take an enumerated liberty away from selected citizens by placing them on a “no-rights” list without due process, the rule of law is dead.

Trouble in Obamaland

The Washington Post reports on a recent survey:

The poll found little change in underlying public attitudes toward government since the inauguration, with slightly more than half saying they prefer a smaller government with fewer services to a larger government with more services. Independents, however, now split 61 to 35 percent in favor of a smaller government; they were more narrowly divided on this question a year ago (52 to 44 percent), before the financial crisis hit.

The Obama team probably assumes people who identify as Republicans will disapprove of  Obama’s actions sooner rather than later. Independents, however, are crucial to keeping up his public approval and thereby getting what he wants out of Congress.  On the size of government — as well as on many specific policy issues — Obama is now running counter to public opinion.

This may be the beginning of the end of the beginning.

Ed Crane Describes a Libertarian Approach to Health Care Reform

Last week, Cato hosted an all-day conference on health care reform, which included expert opinions from across the political spectrum.  Cato Founder and President Ed Crane started the event with a talk about a libertarian approach to reforming health care, which would reduce federal involvement, increase competition, decouple health care from employment and increase the amount of doctors available.

You can find all of Cato’s reasearch on health care reform at Healthcare.Cato.org.

Americans Want Smaller Government

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll again shows that voters prefer “smaller government with fewer services” to “larger government with more services”:

Obama has used the power and financial resources of the federal government repeatedly as he has dealt with the country’s problems this year, to the consternation of his Republican critics. The poll found little change in underlying public attitudes toward government since the inauguration, with slightly more than half saying they prefer a smaller government with fewer services to a larger government with more services. Independents, however, now split 61 to 35 percent in favor of a smaller government; they were more narrowly divided on this question a year ago (52 to 44 percent), before the financial crisis hit.

The Post calls a 54 to 41 lead for smaller government “barely more than half,” which is fair enough, though it’s twice as large as Obama’s margin over McCain. It’s also twice as large as the margin the Post found in the same poll in November 2007.

I’ve always thought the “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government–”more services”–but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. A similar poll around the same time, without the information on taxes, found a margin of 59 to 26 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer smaller government rises by about 9 points. So maybe the margin in this poll would have been something like 59 to 37 if both sides of the question had been presented.

For more on “smaller government” polls, see here and here.