Elliott Abrams to the State Department? Baffling.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has weighed in concerning the rumors that Elliott Abrams could become the Number 2 person at the State Department. “Crack the door to admit Elliott Abrams,” Paul writes, “and the neocons will scurry in by the hundreds.”

He goes on:

Neoconservative interventionists have had us at perpetual war for 25 years. While President Trump has repeatedly stated his belief that the Iraq War was a mistake, the neocons (all of them Never-Trumpers) continue to maintain that the Iraq and Libyan Wars were brilliant ideas. These are the same people who think we must blow up half the Middle East, then rebuild it and police it for decades.

Paul continues:

I voted for Rex Tillerson for secretary of state because I believe him to have a balanced approach to foreign policy. My hope is that he will put forward a realist approach. I don’t see Abrams as part of any type of foreign policy realism.

And he concludes:

In a country of 300 million people, surely there are reasonable foreign policy experts who have not been convicted of deceiving Congress and actually share the president’s foreign policy views. I hope Secretary Rex Tillerson will continue the search for expert assistance from experienced, non-convicted diplomats who understand the mistakes of the past and the challenges ahead.

During an appearance on the Tucker Carlson Show on FoxNews last night (clip starts at 5:23), the Republican was asked about his concerns.

“Someone who was a Never-Trumper should never be in a Trump State Department,” Sen. Paul said, noting that “Elliott Abrams was one of the key architects of the Iraq war. We don’t need people with a failed policy back in.”

Host Carlson admitted to being “baffled by it.”

Elliott Abrams was one of the leading supporters of the Iraq War. He signed the original statement of principles for the Project for a New American Century, the organization founded by leading #NeverTrumpers William Kristol and Robert Kagan that was instrumental in making the case for regime change in Iraq. Abrams has since signed a number of other letters organized by PNAC and its successor organization, the Foreign Policy Initiative, concerning war with Iraq, Yugoslavia, Libya and Syria.

Why would Donald Trump want Abrams in the State Department? And why would Rex Tillerson want someone like Abrams as his deputy?

Like Carlson said: It’s baffling.

Statement on Confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education

It is gratifying to see Betsy DeVos confirmed as the next U.S. Secretary of Education. This is not because the federal government should attempt to push school choice—it should not, except in the District of Columbia and for families connected to the military—but because the opposition to now-Secretary DeVos was so unfair to her, and to the research on educational freedom. The reality is that research indicates charter schooling works in Michigan, DeVos’s home state, and specifically in Detroit. It shows that families of students with disabilities, rather than somehow being victimized by school choice, are empowered and immensely satisfied with it. And logic and evidence show that private school choice, rather than imposing ideas on people, frees them to get what they want for their children without forcing it on others.

It is also gratifying to see DeVos approved because she stated repeatedly in her confirmation hearing that education decisions should be left to state and local governments. Constitutionally, that has things absolutely right: the Constitution gives Washington no authority to govern or “oversee” American education, as Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) put it, which means such rights remain with the states, or with the people. And 50-plus years of increasingly intrusive federal meddling in education, with ultimately no visible academic improvement to show for it, brilliantly illustrates the wisdom of that decision.

Now let us hope that the Trump administration sticks to the constitutionally-constrained federal role—even on school choice—that Secretary DeVos has repeatedly endorsed. 

Will More Countries Be Added to Trump’s Migration Ban?

President Trump’s executive order is facing numerous court challenges, including a temporary restraining order.  My colleague David Bier has made a convincing statutory argument that Trump’s temporarily ban on issuing visas to the nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen is unlawful.  The genesis of Trump’s executive order was his campaign promise of a Muslim ban which, although unpopular, is built on a sturdier legal foundation than a 21st-century national origins quota.  If the court challenges fail and Trump’s ban is legal then there is a high probability that the bans will be extended and expanded to additional countries.  Indeed, section 2, subsections e and f of the executive leaves open the possibility of extending the length of such bans and extending them to additional countries. 

The Trump administration will have to consider several points in order to place additional countries on the banned list.  The first is political.  Trump promised he was going to block countries that could send terrorists here after he called for a Muslim ban (that he later retracted).  He also seems committed to fulfilling his campaign promises through executive orders.  The other political consideration is avoiding the fierce criticism and mass protests that accompanied his first executive order.  Must of this opposition was based on the erroneous assumption that this executive order was a Muslim ban, although some opponents could be forgiven for thinking that.  To defuse the claim that his future actions will be a Muslim ban, Trump could include some non-Muslim countries on the banned list.  There are many non-Muslim countries in armed conflicts to choose from but I would place my bets on the swiftly disintegrating Venezuela. 

The second consideration is the risk of terrorism from foreign nationals.  As I’ve written elsewhere, the risk of foreign-born terrorism on U.S. soil is small and even smaller for foreigners from certain countries.  The Trump administration could target some countries that send few immigrants and tourists to the U.S. but have historically sent many deadly terrorists.  The most likely candidates there are Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – countries where the 9/11 hijackers came from.  Foreign nationals from those countries received a total of 17,835 green cards in 2015, about a third as many as the foreign nationals banned in Trump’s original executive order.  Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Pakistan are also possible – the latter mainly because one of the Saudi terrorists was actually born in Pakistan although she lived almost her entire life in Saudi Arabia.  Afghanistan hasn’t sent any deadly terrorists but it is a scary place. 

A Year Gone by Since Andrew Passed, a Big Year to Come for His Ideas

Today marks one year since the death of former Cato Center for Educational Freedom director, and later senior fellow, Andrew Coulson. Many friends and colleagues had wonderful things to say about Andrew upon his passing, and we invite you to read all the testimonials that we were able to assemble.

Today, however, is not only a day for looking to the past, but to the future. Because Andrew’s ideas are about to enter their biggest stage yet. The project to which Andrew devoted most of his final years, and that encompasses the heart of his thought on education, has been accepted by PBS. School Inc., Andrew’s three-part documentary series on how free markets bring transformative innovation to countless parts of our lives, and how to achieve such dynamism to the world of education, will air on WNET in New York in June, and may begin airing on PBS stations around the country as early as April. We’ll keep you posted on all stations and times as soon as they are available.

As a supplement to the documentary—and for anyone who wants to explore the ongoing debates about Andrew’s ideas on education—Cato will soon be publishing Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas, a free ebook that will be available on the Cato website, featuring essays by many education thinkers who knew Andrew and his ideas well.

As we said last year, “Andrew Coulson is no longer with us. Thankfully, his ideas remain, and they will always illuminate the pathway forward.” Indeed, they will.

Why Trains in Europe Function So Badly

Over at KiwiReport, a writer named Serena Carsley-Mann asks a good question: “Why do trains in America function so different from trains in Europe?” Unfortunately, she mistakenly thinks the problem is that “trains in America function so badly.”

In fact, America has the most efficient rail system in the world. It is European trains that function badly. I’ve discussed this before in my blog, but since writers like Carsley-Mann continue to get it wrong, it is worth repeating.

According to a Pew study, freight shipped by truck uses about ten times as much energy, and emits far more greenhouse gases, per ton-mile than freight shipped by rail (see page 2). Because rail cars weigh more, per passenger, than automobiles, rail’s comparative advantages for passengers are much smaller, and unlike trucks it will be very easy for cars to close the gap: a Prius with a average of 1.67 occupants, for example, is more energy efficient than almost any Amtrak train. Thus, to save energy, it is better to dedicate rail lines to freight rather than to passengers.

This is what the United States has done, but it is exactly the opposite of what Europe has done. According to a report from the European Union, 46 percent of EU-27 freight goes by highway while only 10 percent goes by rail, while in the U.S. 43 percent goes by rail and only 30 percent by road. Thus, we’re using our rail system far more effectively than Europe. This is not just from an energy view but also from a consumer-cost view, as rails cost less than trucks for freight but more than cars for passengers.

Mattis Reassures in Asia, But Who Has Trump’s Ear on Foreign Policy?

Trump Mattis

On his first official trip as secretary of defense, Jim Mattis sent a signal to U.S. allies that American foreign policy in the region will feature more continuity than change. In South Korea, Mattis reaffirmed that the United States would react to a nuclear attack by North Korea with an “effective and overwhelming” response, and stated, along with the South’s defense minister, America’s commitment to proceed with the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. Mattis also provided clarification on the administration’s position in the South China Sea. In a break with past rhetoric by other administration officials, Mattis said “At this time we do not see any need for dramatic military moves [in the South China Sea],” and emphasized the importance of diplomacy.

Mature foreign policy statements have been a rare commodity since Trump’s election, and Mattis’s reassurance tour brought a deep sigh of relief from friends and adversaries alike. Whether or not Trump will follow through on Mattis’s words is an open question, however.

Initial reporting on the Trump administration’s approach to decision-making reveals two things. First, while his outlook cannot be labeled “restraint,” Mattis has a relatively restrained or moderate outlook on foreign policy. Second, the ability of such moderate voices to influence Trump is challenged by a group of policy advisors centered on Chief Strategist (and National Security Council member) Steve Bannon that has a much more aggressive outlook.

John McCain: America’s Foreign Policy Loose Cannon

President Trump’s testy telephone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quickly produced a reaction from one ubiquitous U.S. player on foreign policy issues, Arizona Senator John McCain. He contacted Australia’s ambassador in Washington to assure him of Washington’s undying devotion to the U.S. alliance with Australia and to that country’s security and well-being. The implicit message was that Canberra should not take Trump or his actions seriously. In so doing, McCain basically anointed himself as America’s shadow president, with the right and obligation to bypass the elected president and conduct relations with foreign governments and other parties.

His actions were entirely inappropriate. Granted, Trump’s conduct toward Turnbull deserves no praise. During the telephone call, a dispute arose over refugee policy, and an angry Trump reportedly berated the Australian leader and abruptly cut the scheduled one-hour session short after 25 minutes. Such behavior was that of a petulant adolescent rather than the expected behavior of a president of the United States.

Nevertheless, the Constitution empowers the president and his appointees to conduct America’s foreign policy. Even senators are not authorized to undercut their authority by engaging in direct, free-lance diplomacy with foreign leaders. Yet that is what McCain did.

Unfortunately, this was hardly the first time that he has engaged in such disruptive behavior. His record is that of an annoying, and sometimes dangerous, loose cannon. For example, during Ukraine’s political crisis in late 2013 and early 2014, McCain showed up in Kiev to urge on anti-government demonstrators in their bid to unseat President Victor Yanukovych’s elected government before the expiration of its term in 2016. America was on their side, he assured them.

McCain engaged in similar meddling in Syria’s civil war. In May 2013, he met with so-called moderate rebels who were trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, and as in Kiev, conveyed America’s alleged solidarity with their cause. This intrusive action occurred at a time when the Obama administration remained wary of the United States becoming entangled in the bloody, complex conflict, and was at least trying to limit the extent of U.S. involvement. Not only were McCain’s actions complicating official U.S. policy, but they should have been embarrassing to the Arizona senator. The reality is that there were (and are) very few truly moderate Syrian rebels. Most of them are Islamists masquerading as moderates to gain support from gullible Westerners. Even McCain seemed unclear about the specific identities or the nature of his interlocutors in Syria.

Especially in light of his dreadful track record, McCain should tend to his senatorial duties and stop trying to be a shadow president or secretary of state. In fact, given his dreadful, ultra-hawkish views and his advocacy of, and often feverish lobbying efforts for, a lengthy series of ill-advised foreign policy ventures (ranging from the calamitous Iraq War to a new cold war with Russia), it might be better for all concerned if he just concentrated on domestic issues.