War without End

Here is a pair of articles opposing another war in Iraq, which seems to be the minority view. One is a thoughtful piece by Emile Simpson, who was on the ground in Afghanistan. The other is a trademark rant from David Stockman. If you haven’t read Stockman, you should. He has a tremendous command of history, and a hilariously indignant style of writing. He’s like the Lewis Black of foreign policy.

The reason that there will be no Iraqi government and war-capable Iraqi Army is that there is no Iraqi nation – just the Sykes-Picot borders.

Regarding the conduct of the war, both say roughly the same thing – an all-air strategy is foolish, and events on the ground are best left to the locals. Regarding the motivation for war, Stockman agrees with Jeremiah on the concept of imperial overreach. He also refutes the argument about keeping jihadists out of America.

As Stockman says, we would not typically go to war over a single atrocity – especially after America has slept through months of Islamic State atrocities, and thousands killed in the Syrian civil war. This is a testament to our media driven foreign policy. If you recall the “bleed to bankruptcy” strategy coined by Osama bin Laden, then you can see the beheading as a deliberate provocation. We are playing right into their hands.

U.S. warplanes are flying sorties, at a cost somewhere between $22,000 to 30,000 per hour for the F-16s, to drop bombs that cost at least $20,000 each, to destroy this captured [U.S.] equipment.

If we really wanted to defeat Islamic extremism, we would long since have given up on military adventures, and attacked the root cause. This ongoing policy blunder is probably down to simple myopia, but we couldn’t help noticing the Orwellian connection here.

We are spending millions of dollars on a bombing campaign to destroy millions more of – our own – military hardware, on the ground. It is like a giant bonfire of American wealth. We could just as well pay Northrop Grumman to build the bombs and detonate them outside the factory. This is strikingly similar to the unending war described in Orwell’s 1984.

What would motivate years of war, squandered trillions, and lives lost? We are not ruling out simple stupidity. On the other hand, it could be the motivation described by Orwell. War provides an excuse for poverty, hardship, and the suspension of civil rights. Good thing we haven’t seen any of that.

See also: When is a war not a war?

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Irrelevant Congress

News radio plays the pathetic bleating of Congress begging the president to consult them before resuming the war in Iraq. Republican senators promise a speedy approval of whatever the president wants. The public wants war, and Congress doesn’t want to be left out. Never mind that pesky War Powers Act. The president will give the plebs what they want, and Congress must beg to come along.

Regardless of party or ideological label, they share the same goal — to protect the executive branch from being constrained by … congressional approval before waging war.

Next, the president will enact immigration reform, by fiat, finishing the job he started two years ago with the Dream Act. The term “act,” here, used to mean “act of Congress,” but – who cares? Congress is irrelevant. This is not to single out President Obama. The imperial presidency has been shaping up since FDR. Someone was bound to cross the Rubicon, so to speak, sooner or later.

The Imperial government … may be defined as an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth.

After Julius Caesar’s power grab, the first few emperors maintained the appearance of working with the Senate. Caesar controlled the legions, though, and the Praetorian Guard, so everyone knew where the real power was. This is the part of the analogy that resonates with Ron Paul’s editorial on the “warfare state.”

Presidents Clinton and Bush kept up the pretense of working with Congress. Obama is the first to openly disregard it, which places him historically in the position of Nero. The fall of empire began in earnest shortly thereafter.

Empires fall in predictable ways. The Roman Empire is the archetype, because its fall was so well analyzed by Gibbon. Did you learn that in your government controlled school? No? We can’t imagine why not.

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Media Self-Censorship

An interview with ex-Reuters bureau chief Andrew MacGregor Marshall is here, in Russia Today. Of course, you already know that the mainstream media are censored. Marshall describes how this censorship is implemented, without any conspiracy or direct interference. It is merely the subtle and persistent pressure of certain editorial norms, and biased standards of evidence.

There are some things that are safe to say and we become conditioned that they are safe to say, and there are other things that … if we say them we are mocked or delegitimized.

Marshall makes the obvious but important point that other people don’t share our prejudices. News stories that seem unbiased to us may sound like total propaganda to them. He cites some examples from his experience in Iraq. This is why we must develop the ability to question and critique all news sources, and seek out differing points of view.

Without the freedom to report on politics and strategy, coverage of the Iraq war(s) degenerated into a daily body count, like the box score of some macabre sporting event. Viewers have no way to process this contextless violence, and so they tune out. They click on a story about – Marshall’s example – Paris Hilton instead.

Jeremiah complains all the time about stupid viewers of stupid stories, and this discussion points to a solution. If a news outlet could show, in some detail, who is behind the violence – and why – that might garner an audience. Why did the Iraqi army disintegrate, for instance? Whose policy mistake was that?

If someone started a news outlet that would place the day’s tragedy in its political and historical context, so that readers could make sense of it, people might just generate actionable ideas that would make a positive change in the world. One can hope.

See also: Written by the Victors

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Fukuyama’s Mandarins

Francis Fukuyama has a lengthy piece in Foreign Affairs this month called “America in Decay.” His diagnosis is that our government has too many checks and balances, too much diffusion of power, to get things done. This is a fashionable diagnosis, now that China is on the rise. Everyone wishes we had a decisive leader and a competent bureaucracy.

The explosion of interest groups and lobbying in Washington has been astonishing, with the number of firms with registered lobbyists rising from 175 in 1971 to … 13,700 lobbyists spending about $3.5 billion by 2009.

Fukuyama adds value to the discussion in two ways. He tries to prove his thesis from first principles, without aping China and Singapore, and he tries to show what changed in America to make a good system go bad. We write “tries,” here, because the argument has some inconsistencies, and his key recommendation is unpersuasive.

Fukuyama calls for a large, powerful, bureaucracy answerable only to the president. This would be a more or less permanent caste of well educated, professional administrators. Mercifully, he does not call them “mandarins.” You have to give him credit for proposing a solution which is inimical to American history.

Fukuyama provides good examples of overregulation, regulatory capture, and duplication of effort. He calls for a more professional bureaucracy, but it is not clear how handing control to the executive will accomplish this. This is where his argument leaves logic and turns to wishful thinking. There is no institutional fix that will magically make our bureaucracy competent.

There is also no guarantee that Fukuyama’s mandarins will work selflessly in the public interest. Look at land grabs in China, among other examples of pervasive corruption. Power corrupts, in proportion to scale, and America is already far down this road.

The American system of checks and balances compares unfavorably with parliamentary systems when it comes to the ability to balance the need for strong state action with law and accountability.

Fukuyama’s argument grows weaker as he casts about the globe for precedents. In America, he wants the bureaucracy to serve the executive branch, but in Europe he’s happy with it reporting to parliament. He gives a nice survey of parliamentary systems, but he overlooks a fruitful line of inquiry – what, exactly, makes European legislatures more worthy than ours?

We find the first clue when he moves from European states to the European Union. This is the unit of analysis comparable to our federal government, and it has the same problems. Americans generally feel they have some say in their state government, while Washington is a far off dictator – roughly how Europeans feel about Brussels.

Fukuyama begins with a good diagnosis of how Congress was made ineffective by judicialization, polarization, and special interests. This is the best part of the paper. He does an excellent root cause analysis of this problem, and then leaves it unsolved.

Fukuyama proposes greater reliance on the bureaucracy, despite acknowledging its failings, and more power to the executive. A simpler solution would be to streamline the federal bureaucracy and devolve power to the states.

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President Superhero

BamIt is refreshing, at last, to find bipartisan support for not having a strategy. Last week, pundits pounced on the president’s confession that “we don’t have a strategy” regarding the terror group known as Islamic State.

This week, the press is mocking Rand Paul for saying the same. Sen. Paul said that, if he were president, he would confer with Congress to develop a strategy.

I think the strategy has to be that you have an open debate in the country over whether or not ISIS is a threat to our national security.

This is actually the correct answer, as prescribed by common sense and the War Powers Act. The president should seek the advice and consent of Congress before going to war. We recall a similar response from Gov. Romney, during the 2012 campaign. He began, “I would assemble a team and define an objective,” or words to that effect. Cue the laugh track.

The American public expects the president – and those who might someday be president – to have a glib answer for any crisis, anywhere, at all times. Granted, the Islamic State has been brewing for months, and the president has had plenty of time to develop a strategy. What he meant in the taupe jacket briefing was, in fact, that his strategy is not the same as Gen. Dempsey’s.

It often seems that American foreign policy is drafted by the guy sitting next to you at the bar. Bombing them back to the Stone Age never seems to lose its appeal (by the way, apart from American made weapons and al-Baghdadi’s Rolex, Islamic State is the Stone Age). If we took “advice and consent” seriously, we might end up with more durable policy.

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Sugar in America

WillyWonkaDespite NAFTA, we have just raised tariffs on Mexican sugar. No one can accuse Mexico of “dumping” with a straight face. Our domestic sugar price is set at the pleasure of the sugar lobby and the 0.2% of American farmers it represents. This is another case of blaming our trading partners for our own problems.

Sugar in America costs 26 cents per pound, wholesale, versus 16 cents on international markets. That is a 40% arbitrage opportunity. If you are selling black market cigarettes, you are in the wrong business.

The advantage of being in Canada is that they can acquire sugar at world sugar pricing, which tends to be 40 to 50 percent lower than what I’m paying.

Jeremiah is not strictly against protectionism. Used properly, trade protection can give a struggling American company time to regroup. The risk is that it becomes a crutch, and taxpayers end up supporting an uncompetitive industry.

In this case, the sugar lobby is screwing not only the taxpayers, but the consumers and downstream producers. They are raising factor costs for Hershey, General Mills, and Coca Cola. The quote above is from America’s last gumball maker.

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Strictly Fishwrap

fish-and-chips-in-newspaperSomething fishy is going on at The Economist. The rest of the magazine still features economics, but the United States section increasingly reads like talking points from the White House. Policies for which they ridicule President Hollande in the Europe section magically make sense in America. We suspect that “Lexington” is actually James Carville.

Pearson has billions of dollars in long-term contracts with education departments in a number of states and municipalities

Last week, the magazine featured a faulty analysis of economic growth having something to do with which president is in office. To be useful, such an analysis must identify whether the economy is responding to a policy at all, and then whether (some) president is responsible for the policy.

Even if you wanted to draw simple minded generalizations about presidents and the economy – Jeremiah doesn’t – you would have to add lag time for the policies to take effect.

The same issue featured an equally idiotic assertion that our economy must be good because the stock market is up. Seriously? In a magazine called The Economist? We are not even going to dignify that one with a rebuttal.

Something fishy is definitely going on. We suspect it has something to do with Pearson’s lucrative no-bid deal to provide Common Core materials. We will continue to read the finance and economics sections, but the United States? Forget about it. You might as well read Huffington Post.

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