You Put Your Left Foot in

Look, I’m all for blaming government when blame is due, but conservatives have got to stop suggesting that high gasoline prices would disappear tomorrow if the government would repeal the ethanol mandate, build new refineries, open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or do the hokey pokey [.pdf].

Doing all of the above (save the hokey pokey) might reduce prices somewhat (and do more so over time), but 85 percent of the variation in gasoline prices is explained by variation in global crude oil prices. Crude oil prices are established by global supply and demand patterns, and there’s not much Congress can do about either.

Arguing that there are simple legislative fixes encourages the mistaken belief that there’s no problem Congress can’t solve. Too many people believe that already.

Bloody Madness

God bless Sarah Lyall. Not only does the New York Times correspondent pen a steady stream of stories about the wackiness of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service.  She also drops references to Austin Powers and The Simpsons.

Her latest is a May 7 article on dentistry in Britain titled, “In a Dentist Shortage, British (Ouch) Do It Themselves.” Lyall introduces us to Britons who yank out their own teeth rather than rely on a “state-financed dental service [that is] stretched beyond its limit, no longer serves everyone, and no longer even pretends to try.”

The local private dentists are pricey, but some Britons are cutting those bills in half by visiting dentists in Hungary. Competition is funny that way.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go floss.


Repeat After Me: “We Are All Individuals”

Back when Steve Martin was doing stand-up comedy (yes, I’m OLD), he had a wonderful bit in which he would get the audience to repeat a series of statements in unison, the last of which was “we are all individuals.” 

I’m sure that this bit of irony would have been lost on the editors of the Washington Post. In a May 9 feature, they asked three authors to discuss the battle between traditionalist and progressive pedagogical methods. The fatal conceit of this feature, to which all the contributors succumbed, was to ignore the most sensible approach of all: let families decide for themselves. 

If parents were free to choose the schools best suited to each of their children, and schools were forced to compete for the privilege of serving them, the most effective methods would flourish and the rest would be marginalized. We’d also likely find that certain methods work well with some children but not others. 

The sooner we overcome the Stalinesque notion that educational excellence can be pursued through more or better central planning, the better off our kids will be.

Uncle Sam: Lord of the Flies

The Fish & Wildlife Service announced yesterday that it will move with great dispatch and determination to save 12 species of rare Hawaiian flies from the brink of extinction. Thank God for the Endangered Species Act. Who knows what sort of dark ecological night might descend upon us without it?

Of course, the ESA is like an operating room in which patients check in but they don’t check out. Its success as saving and reviving patients is akin to Jack Kevorkian’s. So don’t throw a party for those flies yet.


McCain-Feingold Bites

So a court confirms that, under the McCain-Feingold law, it’s illegal to run ads urging a senator to vote for a bill in Congress if the bill is coming to the floor within 30 days of a primary election in which the senator is running unopposed. Because letting a grassroots group contact voters on a proposed constitutional amendment would compromise “the integrity of the electoral process.”

John McCain often takes the lead on economic freedom, and Russell Feingold was the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act, but they should both be sorely ashamed that they have so effectively blocked the voters from the sacred “electoral process.”

NSA Database II

The disclosure by USA Today that the NSA has another domestic surveillance database is no shocker. Yet the newly uncovered database includes only calling and receiving phone numbers, not the content of the conversations.

More ominous, when asked by Congress whether the NSA was monitoring the content of wholly domestic calls, Gonzales refused to rule out such surveillance. Indeed, from a policy rather than legal perspective, if it’s necessary and effective to monitor calls from, say, DC to Naples, Italy, then why not DC to Naples, Florida? If the NSA can disregard legal barriers because a communication might include information of foreign intelligence value, then monitoring domestic-to-domestic calls would seem no less justified than monitoring domestic-to-foreign calls.

When communications from and to a US person in the US are monitored, that’s domestic surveillance, no matter whether the party on the other end is inside or outside of the US.  Since Bush believes that warrantless domestic surveillance is permissible regardless of FISA’s contrary provisions, we shouldn’t be surprised if the NSA has much more data (including content) than USA Today has uncovered.

Missing the Point on Gen. Hayden

The final paragraph from Dana Priest’s fine analysis of the story behind Gen. Michael Hayden’s appointment to head the CIA in Tuesday’s Washington Post caught my attention:

The CIA, with the help of its foreign partners, has been responsible for capturing or killing nearly all the key al-Qaeda figures since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

One can dwell on intelligence failures in recent years, starting of course with the failure to predict the 9/11 attacks, and extending to the mistaken belief that Iraq possessed WMDs. But to the extent that so much of our intelligence work now falls under the Department of Defense, it is particularly short-sighted to single out the CIA for blame.

Meanwhile, we have to give the Agency its due: Al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11, and the CIA has had Al Qaeda in its gunsights ever since. While we can all look forward to the day when Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri and Mullah Mohammed Omar are out of circulation, the killing and capture of other senior Al Qaeda operatives (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, described by the 9/11 Commission as the “mastermind” behind the 9/11 attrocities; and Ramzi Binalshibh, another key 9/11 figure) must be counted as an intelligence success. Score one for the spooks.

Meanwhile, the greatest intelligence blunder since 9/11 was the notion that post-Saddam Iraq would quickly settle into a stable and friendly unitary nation-state, ideally a democratic one. And on this point, the instincts among many at the CIA (as well as the State Department and the Army War College), were generally sound. Justin Logan and I took up this issue in a recent Cato Policy Analysis:

The common theme running through essentially all of the postwar planning was that the project in Iraq was going to be incredibly difficult and require a great deal of resources and sacrifice. Contrast that view with the view of the civilian leadership at the Pentagon at that time. The Pentagon believed that, by and large, resistance would be light and that a new liberal Iraqi leader could be implanted without a great deal of trouble. Accordingly, it appears that the Pentagon brushed aside pessimistic assessments from the Department of State and the War College as unduly negative.

Alas, being right doesn’t always count for very much in Washington. When CIA analysts warned that it would be difficult and costly to bring order to post-Saddam Iraq the assessments were immediately viewed with suspicion. As the Post’s David Ignatius reported last Sunday:

From late 2003 on, the agency was warning about the rise of the Iraqi insurgency and the failings of the administration’s political strategy. In 2004 the CIA station chief in Baghdad was sending warnings … about the deteriorating situation. This candid and largely correct reporting is said to have angered White House officials, who complained that the Baghdad chief was defeatist and not a team player. At the end of his tour, he was punished with a poor assignment.

No wonder the agency has experienced a shocking loss of senior talent in recent years. The announcement that Porter Goss would be replaced by a decidedly non-partisan person, and that Gen. Hayden would be accompanied by a well-respected careerist Stephen R. Kappes, a former head of CIA’s operations branch who resigned in a dispute with Goss, was aimed first and foremost at staunching the losses – and perhaps even reversing them.

We need an intelligence service in this country that is insulated from political pressures to the greatest extent possible. It cannot be hermetically sealed, of course, and there is a natural tendency for an analyst or briefer to want to play to his or her audience. Which is all the more reason why political leaders, beginning with the president and his senior cabinet officers, must do their utmost to seek out dissenting opinions, and to carefully consider whether the various sources of information are objective and knowledgeable in the matter at hand. President Bush hasn’t always done that, and the results have been disastrous.

I don’t mean this as an endorsement of Gen. Hayden. My colleague Gene Healy raises the issue of Hayden’s oversight of the NSA surveillance program, an issue that must be addressed during Hayden’s confirmation hearings. The answers he provides may ultimately warrant a “no” vote from senators.

It is also clear, however, that the CIA suffered greatly during Porter Goss’s brief but troubled tenure. Here’s hoping that a successor, whomever that might be, can turn things around.