Confessions of a Former (and Maybe Future) Hawk

Once upon a time, way back in 2002-03, I had my own blog. Unsurprisingly, given the times, I wrote frequently about issues relating to the war on terrorism. I took a hawkish line, supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the resort to force, if necessary, to prevent other terror-sponsoring states like Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Based on my blog writings, I was invited to participate in a Reason online debate with John Mueller back in November 2002 on whether to go to war with Iraq. I argued vociferously in the affirmative.

The views I expressed were extremely controversial within Cato and the larger libertarian camp. Cato’s foreign policy scholars, reflecting the “orthodox” libertarian opposition to an interventionist foreign policy, strongly opposed the Iraq invasion. But for a minority of policy staffers at Cato, as well as many other libertarians, waiting for the other guy to take the first swing no longer seemed to make sense in a post-9/11 world.

Since the fall of Baghdad, I haven’t written a word about foreign policy. Virtually all my writing energies have been directed elsewhere: to a book, due out next spring, that examines the effect of mass affluence since World War II on American politics and culture. Much has changed in the past three-plus years, including my own views as I struggle to make sense of ever-changing circumstances. As a one-time outspoken “libertarian hawk,” I feel a responsibility to explain where I stand now and how I got here. Given recent (and incorrect) speculation about my views on the brewing crisis with Iran, now is as good a time as any.

First, on Iraq, my support for the invasion was based on the assumption of active biological and nuclear weapons programs. That assumption, of course, proved incorrect. I also failed to anticipate the Sunni insurgency that has been at the root of Iraq’s post-Saddam problems. And, perhaps most egregiously, I placed my trust in the Bush administration to assess the Iraqi threat accurately and do all within its power to make the occupation of Iraq a success. That trust, however foolishly offered, was badly betrayed.

So, if I had it to do all over again, would I oppose the invasion? Honestly, I don’t know. I just can’t quite bring myself to wish Saddam back in power and, with the sanctions regime probably moribund by now, enjoying $75 a barrel oil and emboldened by having survived the Gulf War and its protracted aftermath. On the other hand, I certainly wish that the United States had not assumed responsibility for Iraq’s post-Saddam future. That mission was undertaken on the basis of totally erroneous expectations regarding its difficulty and without any Plan B in the event of unforeseen problems. Consequently, the occupation has been a fiasco – failing to accomplish its objectives, costing thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, tying down a major chunk of the U.S. military in what appears to be an exercise in futility, and highlighting the limits of U.S. power and resolve in a way that encourages our enemies.

And what to do now? For a long while I kept hoping that political progress in Iraq would lead to progress in subduing the insurgency. It hasn’t, and now the country seems to be spiraling into sectarian civil war. I don’t see any prospect for things to get better in the foreseeable future, and thus I see no U.S. interest in maintaining our presence there. So I’m in favor of getting out. We rid Iraq of a horrible tyrant and gave the country a new constitution and government. It’s up to the Iraqis now, for better or worse.

Meanwhile, the experience of the past few years, including but not limited to the experience in Iraq, has led me to reconsider my earlier support for preventive military action against Iran. I cannot say that there are no conceivable circumstances under which I would support such action. But for the time being, I do not think that preventing an Iranian bomb is worth hazarding another war – especially since it is probably the case that we still have several years before Iran succeeds in its quest for nukes, and it is certainly the case that our non-military options are far from exhausted.

My change in views is not due to any deep-seated philosophical reversal. Today, as before, I’m afraid I’m immune to the attractions of any grand foreign-policy abstractions, whether realist, idealist, or otherwise. And I’ve yet to find refuge in any bright-line rules on when military force is and isn’t called for. To my mind, international relations is a field that just isn’t amenable to much theoretical illumination.

As a libertarian, I have a healthy appreciation of the law of unintended consequences. Accordingly, I start with a strong presumption against doing anything as drastic as going to war. Unlike many of my fellow libertarians, however, I believe that this presumption can be rebutted in cases other than an outright or imminent attack on the United States.

So I muddle along, weighing the risks of action against the risks of inaction on a case-by-case basis. What has changed, for me, since the spring of 2003 is the weight I assign to the relevant risks. In particular, I currently consider the threat of Islamist terrorism to be far less grave than I feared it to be in the wake of 9/11. Yes, it is a very real threat, and one that should be addressed with the utmost seriousness. But my best reading of the available evidence tells me that both the scale and the sophistication of anti-U.S. terrorist activity are currently rather limited. Consequently, I am less persuaded than before of the need for bold and risky moves against terror-sponsoring states. At the present time, I therefore prefer a more cautious approach in dealing with rogue regimes.

But I stand prepared to flip-flop once again should changing circumstances warrant. In the words of Keynes (whom I don’t get to quote very often), “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?”

The DLC Moves Left?

By teaming up with the Democratic Leadership Council, is Hillary Clinton moving to the center in preparation for a presidential run? Or is the DLC moving left to get closer to the front-runner? Yesterday Senator Clinton released a DLC plan, the “American Dream Initiative,” a laundry list of government transfers and handouts.

The New York Times called the programs “modest” and “relatively small-scale.” Taxpayers might have a different view if they read the Washington Post, which noted that DLC president Bruce Reed estimated the cost of the programs at $500 billion over 10 years – and taxpayers have learned by now that government entitlement programs often cost far more than their advocates estimate in advance. (Remember when Medicaid was projected to cost $1 billion a year? Oops.) And the DLC promises to raise taxes to cover the costs.

There are millions of libertarian-leaning voters disgruntled with the Republicans’ social conservatism, soaring spending, and ill-fated war. And Democrats are doing everything they can to discourage those voters from switching parties.

Gerecht Misses the Mark

Forgive the length, but below is my humble contribution to the debate that is now heating up over at Cato Unbound.

It is odd that Reuel Marc Gerecht criticizes my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter for looking at America’s successes in deterring totalitarian regimes with nuclear weapons for insights on the prospect of deterring the Iranian totalitarian regime, should it get nuclear weapons. Mr. Gerecht offers soliloquies on the (genuine) oddity of twelver Shi’ism (as does Mr. Luttwak, more briefly), but somehow misses the proper starting point for a discussion of US foreign policy: US interests and the costs and benefits of available US policy options. Indeed, Mr. Gerecht does not deign, at any point in this discussion, to evaluate even briefly the prospective costs and benefits of his preferred policy option: preventive war.

Mr. Gerecht points out that “in a pre-9/11 world, Shi’ite and Sunni radical Islamic terrorism should have been one of those things that scared us the most.” He then explains that “to President Clinton’s shame, he couldn’t compel himself into preemptive military action against the rising Sunni menace. Yet it would appear in 2006 such holy warriors scare Mr. Carpenter not much at all. They should.” (my emphasis)

It is a useful rhetorical device for Gerecht to switch back and forth between Sunni al Qaeda terrorists and the Shiite government in Tehran, but the historical record deserves to be corrected as to Carpenter’s concern about terrorism.

To that end, I would humbly point him to Carpenter’s 1995 Handbook for Congress article in which he warned that

Americans have become targets of international terrorism. Unfortunately, that danger is likely to grow rather than recede in the coming years…

Back to Mr. Gerecht’s case for war. Mr. Gerecht implies that there is something inherent in the regime in Tehran—whether theological or political—that is inevitably pushing us toward conflict with Iran. In so doing, he chooses to ignore the decades-long US policy of meddling in Iran’s internal politics and trying to overthrow the government there; one could start with the CIA-backed coup in 1953 and the 1964 SOFA agreement, to the efforts of Gerecht’s colleague Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, to allocate millions of dollars to attempt to overthrow the Tehran government, to the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, to…well, to last week’s meeting at the White House between Mr. Gerecht’s other colleague, Richard Perle, and the NSC’s Eliot Abrams, with a host of dissidents whose publicly stated goal is to overthrow Iran’s government. And to think that the Iranians believe that we are trying to overthrow their government!

As for a brief commentary on the prudence of various policy options, I would refer to a useful analogy offered by Mr. Gerecht’s other colleague, Michael Rubin, in referring to our options in dealing with the Islamic republic:

When faced with a hornet’s nest, the choice to destroy it or leave it alone is better than the compromise of lightly tapping it with a stick.

Agreed. For his part, Mr. Rubin did us the courtesy of openly advocating a full-blown regime-change type assault against Iran, but it is not clear whether Mr. Gerecht is advocating destroying the Islamic republic, or just tapping it with a stick. We would do quite well to learn whether Mr. Gerecht is only in favor of striking the nuclear facilities in Iran, or also attacking the locations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the missile sites, the presumed chemical and biological weapons sites, and the Iranian leadership. Of course, this would lead to a discussion of targeting, which would put hundreds, if not thousands of aim points on the table, and we would ultimately be talking (once again) of a preventive war to remove a foreign bogeyman who supposedly poses an intolerable threat to this, the most powerful country in the history of the planet.

Finally, one is hard pressed to imagine how Mr. Gerecht will explain away the reckless and shameful incompetence of the hawk faction in the Bush administration as described by the Washington Post. The Iranians approached the Bush administration directly in 2002 (after the ridiculous “axis of evil” speech!) and proposed cooperating against al Qaeda, informing the US of the identities of 290 members of al Qaeda that Iran had captured and sent back to their countries. The Iranians proposed further cooperation against al Qaeda. The Bush administration’s response?

Representatives of Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fought back. Any engagement, they argued, would legitimate Iran and other historic state sponsors of terrorism such as Syria… Participants said Bush’s divided national security team was unable to agree on an answer. Some believe important opportunities were lost.

Why would Iran make such overtures? Moreover, even after being rebuffed, Iran cooperated with the US on al Qaeda by transferring some of them to Afghan custody, and provided the US information on more of them. More to the point, why would the Bush administration turn them down, if they were serious about diplomacy?

The sad irony is that there is no good reason that even hawks like Mr. Gerecht should oppose offering a grand bargain to the Iranians. If the issue is indeed the nuclear program, not the regime, then we lose nothing by putting a deal on the table. We offer an irrevocable international inspections regime of Iran’s existing nuclear program, along with all attendant safeguards, in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of the regime in Tehran, lifting of the US sanctions, and a public pledge not to attack Iran unprovoked. If the Iranians turn such a deal down, there is nothing (except prudence) that would prevent us from then attacking Iran. But Mr. Gerecht seems uninterested in serious diplomacy as a matter of principle.

Mr. Gerecht’s original essay, in addition to the lengthy description of the weirdness of the Iranian government, offers little in the way of policy guidance. Gerecht’s preferred policy, for the Bush administration to “begin a crash course in covert and overt Iranian democracy-promotion, firing all those in the bureaucracies who seek to sabotage the mission” is one that he admits “isn’t going to happen.” And that tells us a good deal about its viability. Or does Mr. Gerecht believe that the Bush administration is somehow at peace with the Islamic republic going nuclear? If so, why all the public fuss about it?

So we end up back at what has become the default neoconservative option, preventive war. Gerecht should at the very least answer Carpenter’s worry about how this third US-initiated war against an Islamic country (this one truly unilateral) in the past five years would go over in the Muslim world. Would it have a negative effect, a positive effect, or no effect on the allure of anti-American terrorism for young Muslim males? Would it deflate, or substantiate the arguments of Osama bin Laden about America’s intentions? Would it help, or harm the US mission in Iraq? What would the Iranian response likely be: for America, for Israel, or for Iran’s neighbors? Would another war serve the national interests of the United States more than it harms them?

These are the obvious questions. Unfortunately, Mr. Gerecht provides no answers.

LEAP on Overkill

The terrific group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) issued a statement today on my Overkill paper:

The concern over escalating police paramilitary raids is a valid one, as this tactic takes us farther and farther away from the concept of civilian policing. This is the natural escalation of fighting a war that cannot be won. The answer to every failure in the “War on Drugs” is to escalate, in terms of dollars spent and civil liberties encroached on. Increased use of the more severe tactics by civilian police is just another example of unintended consequences of a failed policy. The only question is: how much more damage must our society and our cherished civil liberties sustain before our political leaders end the destruction of “Drug Prohibition”?

The endorsement was authored by Jerry Cameron. Cameron’s background:

Jerry Cameron spent a considerable part of his seventeen-year law enforcement career in the “war on drugs.” Not only was he chief of two small town departments for a total of eleven years, he is also a graduate of the 150th Session of the FBI National Academy, the DEA Basic Drug Enforcement Course, and two DEA Advanced Drug Enforcement Professional Institutes.

As you might guess, some other law enforcement officers have been less supportive.

… and the Banana Republic for which it Stands

From the office of U.S. Rep. Skelton (D - Mo.):

On July 19, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation to bar all federal courts from hearing cases related to the interpretation of, or the validity under the Constitution, of the Pledge of Allegiance, or its recitation. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.

This bill should be unconstitutional. To protect the separation of powers, Congress should NOT be able to redefine the duties of the judicial branch and curtail judicial review without amending the Constitution. Otherwise, we could well see a proliferation of court-free zones in which the power of Congress becomes absolute. Wouldn’t that be special.

This insane bit of legislation is of course meant to ensure that public schools can mandate the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which (since 1954) has included the words “under God.”

Is it not embarrassingly ironic to mandate the reading of a pledge that nominally guarantees “liberty… for all,” particularly when that Pledge takes a position on the existence of God?

This isn’t Freedonia, folks, it’s America. Why don’t we try teaching children about liberty by actually, well, respecting it?

Doha Ends With a Whimper

The Doha Round of trade talks has been suspended indefinitely. What was billed as an historic opportunity to liberalize trade through multilateral negotiations has ended with no deal in sight. Now, get ready for the blame game, a kind of “press-releases-at-dawn” duel between the US and the EU, with a few comments from other players thrown in for good measure. For starters, you can see the US version of events through the USTR and the EC (link requires subscription) provided a 9 page document describing how much they had done to get a deal concluded.

Of course, none of this necessarily means the end of trade liberalization, and to this end we can expect after the finger-pointing has ended a revival of the seemingly endless debate on whether bilateral or multilateral liberalization is best. But, as my colleague Dan Ikenson argued in his recent paper on unilateral liberalization, the US can do itself a big favor, and in the process gain some much needed foreign policy credibility, by unilaterally reducing tariffs and subsidies.

Maybe now that the Doha Round is in remission, the US can focus on doing what is in its own interests, instead of seeing liberalization as a “concession” that depends on the actions of the EU and others.

Meanwhile, back at the Secretariat, discussions are turning to a more important topic: where to find more space for its ever-expanding staff. Looks like you’ll be needing fewer large conference rooms, guys.

You Can Get a Job Without a Degree?

It seems that everyone in the ivory tower is declaring that it will soon be almost impossible to get a good job without first buying their product. Perhaps foremost among these college salespeople are members of the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, who in the most recent public draft of their proposal to create a “national strategy” for higher education declare that:

The value of a postsecondary credential for future employment and earnings is expected to rise. Ninety percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the new knowledge-driven market economy require some postsecondary education. Job categories with the fastest expected growth in the next decade require postsecondary education; those with the greatest expected decline require only on-the-job training.

That sure sounds like the best way to avoid a low-paying, dead-end career is to run, not walk, to your friendly neighborhood college or university and get that bachelor’s degree! But is the scenario accurate? According to a recent piece on CareerBuilder.com, maybe not:

Though it was once conventional wisdom that you needed to have a four-year college degree to be successful, many employment experts believe that maxim has become myth. While a college education increases a worker’s chances of earning more money, it’s certainly not the only reliable path to well-paid and rewarding work….[A]ccording to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, eight of the top 10 fastest-growing occupations through 2014 do not require a bachelor’s degree. And these jobs, which include health technology, plumbing, firefighter and automotive repair, are less vulnerable to outsourcing.

So which is it? In the oh-so-near future, will you or won’t you need a college degree to avoid having to live in a corrugated steel hut subsisting on saltines?

The truth is that no one knows: As politicians and economic forecasters have proven time and again, with billions of people worldwide conducting countless business transactions all the time, no one can predict with any certainty what the future will hold. We can, however, confidently predict one thing: Denizens of the ivory tower will themselves get better jobs when increasing numbers of people consume their products, and when politicians give them ever-greater amounts of taxpayer money.

These facts, more than anything else, should make everyone suspicious of ubiquitous college-or-bust predictions.