Monday, October 31, 2016

How Obama Made War Cool Again

Among the many objectionable features of Obama’s Presidency, perhaps none is more personally infuriating than his nearly total destruction of antiwar sentiment among those on the center-left.
If George H.W. Bush kicked “Vietnam Syndrome”–i.e. skepticism of military intervention–then President Obama overcame Iraq and Afghanistan Syndrome.
Back in 2008, after George W. Bush had just spent the last 7 years restoring war’s bad reputation with the American public, it seemed like self-respecting liberal supported war. And the reason was they seemed to have a realistic understanding of it. No, we won’t be greeted as liberators. Yes, American troops will die, along with scores of innocent local civilians. And by the way, we can’t afford it.
Obviously, this skepticism wasn’t dominant among conservatives. But it had taken hold among enough people in the center and on the left, that the 2008 election turned substantially on this issue. President Obama was the (relative) peace candidate, and he won largely on that basis.
But then the peace candidate became the forever war president. And in the process, he made aggressive war acceptable again–even allegedly noble, in some circumstances. 
Today, Iraq War 2 is still widely considered a disaster. And the absurd notion that US troops will be greeted as liberators is still out of favor. However, the quite similar concept of “humanitarian intervention” is somehow still respectable. More than any other single person, Presidential Obama is responsible for that.
And thus, he’s also the reason when I argue with friends on the left against bombing another country, the default counterargument is that I must lack compassion. Why, you don’t want the world’s most powerful military to bomb populated areas and create another failed state in the Middle East? Have you no heart at all, man?
Our Nobel Peace Prize-winning President is the root cause of these nonsensical exchanges.
Having said all that, fortunately not all Democrats and people on the left embraced the President’s new branding of war. And perhaps the most notable outlier was former Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich. He didn’t switch to become pro-war when it became fashionable in his party. In fact, he tried to undermine the Democrats’ plan for war in Libya by negotiating a peaceful transition behind the scenes.
Today, he’s fighting against the bipartisan support for war, and he’s published an excellent op-ed at The Nation:

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Don't Forget About President Obama's Scandals

In this election cycle, it’s been difficult to escape fawning pieces over President Obama and his legacy. They range from this lovely gusher from David Brooks from earlier this year, lauding President Obama’s character and leadership, to lamentations that Obama won’t be seeking a third term.

To be sure, I understand the place these articles come from–namely, fear of his likely successors. If pressed on the matter, I too would confess I’m marginally less terrified of President Obama than either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. But this is an extraordinarily low bar. With just two weeks to go till this awful election is over, it’s easy to forget this.
The Brooks piece above offers perhaps the best exposition on President Obama’s alleged integrity. For instance, Brooks writes that, in contrast with administrations past, President Obama’s tenure has been  “remarkably scandal-free”. In a way, this is true. But it has less to do with President Obama’s actual merits, and much more to do with the fact that much of the media has redefined what constitutes a scandal.
As a reminder, these are just a few of the exceptional policies and actions President Obama has overseen. In The New York Times version, apparently none of them qualify as scandals:
Nope, no scandals there. An affair with an intern will lead to an impeachment trial. Throwing multiple countries into violent, deadly chaos? Not so much. Indeed, Brooks even suggests, apparently sincerely, that Obama “may have been too cautious, especially in the Middle East”. That’s right: the guy who bragged about bombing seven countries is just a bit too hesitant about using force for The New York Times.
At this point, you may be wondering why I’m bringing up a New York Times column from February eight months later. Admittedly, in part, it’s because I didn’t find the chance to properly rant about it at the time. And honestly, there’s an unbelievable amount of material to complain about here. As another example, this is an actual line from the article:
“Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss”
You get the idea.
But beyond my basic need to vent, the Brooks article is also important as the most explicit manifestation of the theme I mentioned at the outset–that somehow President Obama is different, and better, than the usual crop of corrupt and duplicitous politicians.  He is not. The least dirty shirt in the laundry is still a dirty shirt.
The media may not have paid much attention to President Obama’s scandals. But for the countless victims of his policies around the world, they will be impossible to forget.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How to Impoverish Americans: The Case of New York and Airbnb

It’s easy. Just prevent voluntary transactions and restrict property rights.
The Story
Last week, the New York state legislature ratcheted up its war on Airbnb, the popular room-sharing service. Previously, New York had already made it illegal for users to rent out their units for less than 30 days unless they were present. This meant that, legally, people could only rent out rooms in their residence, not rent out the entire place.
Now, they’ve gone one step further. That arrangement is still illegal, and now it’s illegal to advertise it as well.
Over at Sovereign Man, Simon Black has a few words to offer on this new development. His write-up includes an appropriate level of outrage and contempt, even if the title is possibly a bit over the top. I think you’ll like it:
Why This Matters
The question at hand in this story is no less than whether property rights exist in New York or not. The government of New York is clearly determined to answer that question in the negative.
If property rights exist, then a property owner should have the right to let anyone use their property on whatever terms are mutually agreeable.
Perhaps an old friend wants to come by and crash on your couch. That should be legal.
Perhaps you’re ready to have your significant other move in (but you aren’t positive they like you enough to pay rent). So you invite them to live with you for free. Great! That should be legal.
Or perhaps you have enough faith in humanity that you’d trust a complete stranger to stay in your house without you around–for a small fee of course. As long as you’re fine with it, that should be legal too.
But like most governments, it turns out that New York knows what’s in your best interests better than you do. So that last scenario is illegal.
In the process, the government impoverishes property owners by denying them an opportunity to earn additional income. It also deters would-be travelers because, all things equal, the new regulation will restrict the supply of lodging options in the city and thereby drive up prices. This in turn is likely to have an adverse effect on anyone who works in New York City’s tourism industry.
But of course, one group who does stand to benefit somewhat from this arrangement. And that’s the hotel companies who are unable or unwilling to compete with the often lower price point offered by Airbnb. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat them, lobby the legislature to make their business model illegal.”
Or something like that.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Voting for the Lesser of Two Evils Is Absurd on Its Own Terms

Voting in the presidential election is irrational, but voting for the lesser of two evils is the most irrational.
This reality is easy to discover. However, a quick look at the polls proves that most Americans have not figured it out. Thus, the current presidential election features two candidates with historically low favorability ratings, and one of them is all but certain to win on November 8 anyway. While the #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary movements are quite robust, the #NeverEither movement has to yet to take hold. Why is that?
The answer, of course, is that we are all supposed to vote for the lesser of two evils, or LOSE (lesser of some evils).
This argument comes in various flavors, but we’ve all heard some version of it:
Why, you don’t want Hillary deciding on the next Supreme Court nominee, do you? Better vote for Donald Trump.
Did you hear what Donald Trump said about Muslims this week? Better vote for Hillary to stop him.
And so on.
In theory, LOSE voting is supposed to be the pragmatic decision. The starry-eyed idealists may be voting third party to find a candidate they generally agree with. But everyone knows that the adults need to make a responsible decision about which of the major party candidates is worse.
Given this framing, it’s worth asking question: Is LOSE voting really practical at all?
The answer is no. Let’s go through it.
Voting Is Irrational
Voting is irrational in the sense that it would fail a typical cost-benefit analysis.
The cost of voting consists of the incremental time it takes you to look into the issues (if any) and the time of actually voting, either in person or by mail. The benefit would consist of the expected value of one candidate winning rather than another. This is a rather difficult calculation because it requires one to know how a candidate will actually behave in office (as opposed to merely their campaign promises) and how any policies they promote would affect the voter. For direct subsidies or taxes, the policy impact could be straightforward. But for any more complicated policy, the voter would have to have a robust understanding of the policy and the underlying economics. Needless to say, this is not going to work for most voters.
Fortunately, we need not go into the minutiae of discerning the relative value of different politicians or policies. Because notice above we referred to the expected value. In statistics, this requires us to first determine the value of a given outcome (which as discussed, is likely to be painful), and then determine the probability of that outcome actually occurring. So as a simple example, if you make a bet that has a 40% of giving you $10, the expected value of it would 40% * $10 = $4.
The same logic would apply to voting. Except the probability we care about there isn’t the probability that the candidate you like will win, it’s the probability that your vote in particular will cause your preferred candidate to win. In the US presidential election, that means that 1) the overall electoral college vote must be close enough to depend on the electoral votes of your specific state, and 2) the margin of victory in your state was so small that your vote would flip the result.
The first requirement is improbable, and the second requirement is next to impossible. An election that fits both of these criteria is extraordinarily unlikely, and to my knowledge, has never actually occurred in US history. For simplicity, we can say the probability of your vote determining the election is effectively zero. And thus, the expected value of voting would also be essentially zero.
This means it would fail the usual cost-benefit analysis. It has actual costs, and is likely to yield no tangible benefits. The costs are likely to exceed the benefits, and in this sense, it is irrational.

Greater of Two Evils

This straightforward analysis creates an uphill battle for partisans who promote the LOSE concept.
No doubt, you’ve heard someone argue that a vote for Gary Johnson is really a vote for Hillary Clinton or that a vote for Jill Stein is really a vote for Donald Trump.
In either case, their argument is that you’re “wasting your vote” on a third party option. But this argument assumes that your vote could actually determine the outcome of the election in the first place. As discussed above, that is clearly absurd.
Most third party voters, as well as primary voters who support a fringe candidate, probably do not believe their candidate has any actual chance of winning. They might have a sliver of hope, but they won’t be putting money on it. Likewise, they would not believe their vote is actually going to decide the election. By contrast, the LOSE voter really thinks their vote  might determine the next president; after all, that’s the premise makes them become a LOSE voter.
So we arrive at a delightful irony. The same third party voters that are routinely ridiculed for being unrealistic actually have a far more realistic understanding of their vote than the average LOSE voter.

What About Bush vs. Gore in 2000?

No discussion of LOSE voting is likely to be complete without addressing the close presidential election in 2000. Didn’t that prove that we can never vote for the third party candidate or else we’ll throw the election back to the dastardly Republicans?
Not so much.
The 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush all came down to the state of Florida. And as it happens, Bush won Florida by a mere 537 votes, a tiny fraction of the roughly 6 million cast in the state. Meanwhile, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader earned some 97,488 votes. If only a few more Green voters switched to Gore, he would have won.
It’s a fair point. But notice that it doesn’t change any of the conclusions of our earlier analysis. The election was still decided by 537 Florida votes. The only way a Floridian’s vote would have mattered, is if their personal voting decision would also swing 537 other friends to vote for their candidate as well (or half that amount, if they were all Bush supporters). Unless they happened to lead a small cult, that’s pretty unlikely. Local pundits or news outlet endorsements might have that kind of impact. The political musings of a random citizen probably do not.
The 2000 election ends up being a losing argument for LOSE voting.


None of this means that you should not vote. I choose to vote personally, but obviously that decision is entirely up to you.
The point is that if you do vote, you shouldn’t do it because you think it is actually going to determine the outcome of the current election. Don’t just vote for the lesser of two evils coughed up by the two major parties. If you’re going to vote, vote for the candidate you actually believe in. Or, since that probably won’t exist, vote for the one you disagree with least. Not too inspiring, but it’s the best we can do.
And if someone tries to shame you into voting in general or worse, voting for the lesser of two evils, you are now armed with a perfect one-word defense: Math.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Obama to Trump: Do As I Say Not As I Say?

President Obama had some harsh words for Donald Trump after Trump suggested the election might be rigged.
Which was awkward because, well, President Obama’s government has suggested the exact same thing.
In particular, here’s what President Obama said at a campaign rally Thursday (emphasis added):
When you suggest rigging or fraud without a shred of evidence, when last night at the debate, Trump becomes the first major party nominee in American history to suggest that he will not concede despite losing the vote, and then says today that he will accept the results if he wins? That is not a joking matter,
He’s right. That does sound pretty bad.
The trouble is that suggesting “rigging or fraud without a shred of evidence” is precisely what the US government has done with respect to Russia and its alleged hacking of high-ranking Democratic email accounts. This quote is from the US government’s formal accusation of the Russian government, which Hillary Clinton cited in Wednesday’s debate (emphasis added):
The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.
Okay, so the US government, under President Obama’s leadership, has also alleged interference in the election process and pinned the blame on Russia. The same document also reports apparent efforts of trying to probe or hack election systems directly, but falls just short of blaming those on the Russian government.
In other words, the US government has also raised the possibility of fraud in the election process, just like Donald Trump. Odd. Perhaps it’s okay when the US government does it because they actually have evidence?
Sadly no. The quote above offers some insight into how the US government reached the conclusion that the Russians were behind it. Note that it says the hacks are consistent with the “motivations of Russian-directed efforts.” There is a good bit of question begging going on here.
It works like this:
  • Assumption: The Russians would prefer that Donald Trump becomes president over Hillary Clinton.
  • Fact: The email hacks and leaks would tend to harm Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and thereby benefit Donald Trump.
  • Conclusion: The hacks are consistent with the “motivations of Russian-directed efforts” and thus, the Russians are behind it.
See how easy that is? It’s great fun. Though, arguably, it’s not the kind of evidence one wants to rely on when ratcheting up tensions between two nuclear-armed powers. I’m no expert though–just a guy that lives too close to a major city to be immune to a nuclear war.
So the “motivations” argument is nonsense, but maybe the “methods” analysis yielded some legitimate evidence against Russia?
Unfortunately, again the answer is no. As cybersecurity expert Jeffrey Carr has explained, the nature of cyber-warfare makes it nearly impossible to definitively prove culpability. If the attackers have any degree of sophistication–as any Russian government entity surely would–they can readily disguise the attack and/or plant false clues. Moreover, since no government is going to admit its responsibility, the accusations are never really proved or disproved.
The end result is an interesting paradox.–and it makes it very unlikely that the US government has any legitimate evidence that Russia is behind the hacks. The logic is as follows:
Scenario 1: If the attackers were not sophisticated, then they might have accidentally left behind enough evidence to be identified definitively. But this would also make it unlikely that the guilty party was the Russian government, or any other state actor.
Scenario 2: If the attackers were sophisticated, then it will be all but impossible to establish a definitive culprit.
The upshot is that the US government doesn’t have real evidence that the Russians are trying to hack the US election. So we are left to assume they are promoting this conspiracy theory for political purposes. Just like Donald Trump.
And President Obama is right: It’s no joking matter.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Another Terrible Debate Reveals an Opening for Libertarian Ideas

Bad politics and worse policies made for an exceptionally disappointing presidential debate. But it also showed that the path is open for a libertarian alternative to failed status quo.
To see this, we’ll examine a few different areas where Clinton and Trump once again bickered about varying versions of awful, and then briefly present a libertarian position on it.
Trump argued for building a wall, deporting immigrants (violent criminals first), and accused Clinton of supporting amnesty (allowing undocumented immigrants to stay)–which is apparently supposed to be a sin of the highest order.
Clinton stressed her support for border security (not obviously different than Trump’s wall) and called for comprehensive immigration reform including a pathway to citizenship. In the debate, Clinton had to defend herself after the moderator read out a quote from her (from the leaked speeches revealed by Wikileaks), in which she called for open borders. Clinton couldn’t run away from that idea fast enough. So while she may be marginally better than Trump on deportations and the citizenship aspect, the difference is still a matter of degrees. Both of them certainly agree on the need to deport criminals immediately–though how loosely “criminals” might be defined for this purpose is not immediately clear.
Libertarians offer a marked and welcome contrast to both of these views. To libertarians, “illegal” immigration is another example of a victimless crime. If someone immigrates to the US, with proper documents or without, no American is harmed by that process. Yes, it’s true the immigrant might be one more competitor in the market–bidding up the price of housing and bidding down the price of labor–but the same could be said for an American citizen who moves to your city from out-of-town. It’s true that some immigrants, legal or illegal, may commit crimes–so do American citizens. Is it really worse if your wallet gets stolen by an illegal Canadian immigrant rather than, say, a drifter from San Francisco? You lost your wallet either way. So why should we treat them as entirely separate problems?
Granted, an immediate transition to a purely laissez-faire immigration would be dangerous so long as the US government’s deadly foreign policy endures, and continues to endanger the American people. But if the only job of US immigration agents was to perform a basic security check–rather than to verify the legitimacy of marriages, ensure immigrant students aren’t working off-campus, or ensure immigrants aren’t taking a job that could be filled by an American, all of which immigration agents are tasked with now–it stands to reason they would have plenty of time to evaluate the possible threats with a high degree of proficiency. More focus on the things that matter and fewer restrictions on poor people who want to come to America in search of a better life. You’re not going to hear that position from a Republican or a Democrat, but it’s a much better way forward.
Iraq and ISIS
Publicly, Clinton seems to view ISIS as a kind of spontaneous phenomenon that sprang forth out of thin air. Force is the only message they understand. So the War on Terror will need to continue indefinitely as long as bad people exist. But in Clinton’s War on Terror, as with Obama’s, US troops need to be minimally involved. We can’t have flag-draped coffins coming home to undermine presidential approval ratings after all.
If Clinton’s public position is worthy of ridicule, Trump’s might be even worse. Because while she typically offers no real explanation for the origin of ISIS, Trump offers an origin story that makes little sense. In his telling, he blames Clinton for the rise of ISIS. Not because she supported the invasion of Iraq, but because she withdrew the troops in 2011, leaving a power vacuum.
While the power vacuum story has some merit, the problem is it was clearly not Clinton’s or even Obama’s decision to withdraw troops. This timeline was negotiated under President Bush, and President Obama was unable to extend the US’s stay, in spite of his efforts to do so. Trump’s narrative says, implicitly, that the US should have stayed in Iraq indefinitely after the invasion.
Libertarians can be honest about the origin of ISIS because they bear no responsibility for creating it. Properly understood, ISIS should be blamed equally on the Republicans and Democrats. We could go back further, but the 2003 invasion of Iraq under Bush was the real watershed event that set Iraq on the path to the constant dysfunction it knows today. After the invasion, the US proceeded to stay and fight on the Shia side of an internal sectarian civil war. The Shia-dominated government in Iraq had no reason to share power or make compromises with the Sunni tribes so long as they had guaranteed protection from the US military.
So they did not.
The Sunni continued to suffer persecution and backstabbing at the hands of the Iraqi government and Shia militias, and the resentment built up over a period of years. By the time US troops were largely withdrawn from Iraq, the situation was unsustainable. And because the US presence helped create that state of affairs, there’s little reason to believe that staying a few more years would have produced a remedy.
Combine this unstable situation with the US decision, along with its allies, under the Democrats to back radical Sunni groups in Syria against President Assad, and ISIS was a predictable result. In effect, the US and its allies were pouring more money and weapons into a region that already had deep resentment. ISIS is not a spontaneous phenomenon. It is a direct result of US meddling in the Middle East for years.
Publicly, Clinton supports a no-fly zone in Syria which she claimed would “save lives”. Privately, as we wrote about earlier this week, Clinton acknowledges that imposing a no-fly zone would be very difficult and would involve killing a lot of Syrian civilians. Clinton also implied in the debate that Iranian and Russian support for Assad in Syria are the cause of terrorism there–the implication being that Assad must be overthrown before Syria could be stable.
Trump emerges with a much better position on this subject though his logic is questionable. He is skeptical of arming rebels in Syria because “we don’t know who they are”–which is the correct position. And he makes the point that if Assad were overthrown, the end result is likely to be far worse. But while Trump’s current actionable beliefs seem reasonable, he is a far cry away from principled noninterventionism.
In Trump’s telling, Syria, Iran, and Russia all outwitted Clinton and that’s how we got here. He even goes so far as to imply that President Obama should have intervened against Assad after the false flag chemical weapons attack in 2013 that was blamed on Assad by the US but appears to have been actually carried out by Al Qaeda. Does that mean it would have been okay to overthrow Assad then? Why wouldn’t the same logic apply?
The Syrian quagmire ends up being a perfect example of why the libertarian approach of nonintervention is superior to the usual US approach of case-by-case meddling. In Syria as in Iraq, the US played a significant role in creating the problems it now seeks to address.
Of course, there is little doubt that Assad is a terrible person. But in spite of what Hillary Clinton might have us believe, that is not the only factor that is relevant to the decision of whether a no-fly zone is appropriate. Much more pressing is the fact that Russian troops are commingled with Syrian ones. Thus, imposing a no-fly zone comes with a near certainty that US forces will directly attack and kill Russian soldiers. This, in turn, means that the world’s two largest nuclear powers will be involved in a direct shooting war–a level of tensions not reached even in the worst of the Cold War.
Moreover, even if the escalation of tensions with the Russians could be miraculously avoided during the imposition of the no-fly zone, it would still be a terrible idea. We’ve seen this movie before. In Libya, the intervention that ultimately overthrew Qaddafi started out as just a no-fly zone. The end result was utter chaos that exists to this day, and almost certainly more civilian suffering than would have occurred in the absence of NATO’s “humanitarian” bombing. The same story would be likely to play out in Syria–and that’s the best case scenario.
Given this reality, nonintervention is the only option. It is not an endorsement of the status quo. It is an acknowledgement that there are many ways additional intervention is likely make the situation even worse than it is already.
In short, libertarians aren’t shackled by the failed legacy of the two dominant political parties. That means we don’t have to lie about history to cover up our role in creating present-day problems. We also are not trapped in the increasingly ridiculous orthodoxy of mainstream political opinion in the US. We can reject all of it–and offer an alternative that puts peace and liberty front and center.
And no matter which candidate emerges victorious on November 8, chances are good that the American people will be primed for some radical alternatives by the time the next election comes around.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Invasion of Mosul, Iraq Begins

The invasion of Mosul, Iraq began this week, with many disparate interests joining forces against ISIS. But while there will likely be many proud declarations of victory in the coming weeks, the end of the invasion will not be the end of the problems in Iraq.
The Story
The tensions run deep on the outskirts of Mosul, ISIS’s last major stronghold in Iraq. The Turks clash with the Iraqi government; the Shia militias are feared and hated by Sunnis in Mosul–and the feeling is reciprocal; and the Kurdish troops have tenuous relationships with everyone else. US Special Forces and airstrikes are being relied upon to transform these uneasy bedfellows into a cohesive fighting force capable of unseating ISIS from what was once Iraq’s second city.
The battle is expected to take place over weeks, and the distrust among the participants is likely to shape the ultimate outcome. That makes the following article by Patrick Cockburn at The Independent indispensable. In it, Cockburn goes into detail about the different factions and interests involved in the fight for Mosul. With the weight of US airpower, he expects ISIS will be defeated in the city. But chances are good that a liberated Mosul will still be deeply unstable for a long time thereafter. Here’s a link to the article:
Why This Matters
Mosul was the first major city that ISIS took over when it sprang into the US consciousness in the summer of 2014. As a result, the city holds great symbolic value, though the strategic importance of a victory there is less obvious.
No doubt, the timing of the invasion so near to the US election is not a coincidence. The Democratic Party would like nothing more than to have President Obama declare victory over ISIS in Iraq after defeating them at Mosul, just before American voters go to the polls on November 8th. In the very short-run, such an outcome could appear to be a vindication of President Obama’s foreign policy strategy–and by association, that of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The politics here are easy to understand, but it is a decision fraught with risk. Already we are hearing reports that the official non-combat US troops in Iraq will be near the front lines of the conflict. If the battle for Mosul drags on past election day due to grinding urban warfare, or if too many US flag-draped coffins are created as a result of it, the timing of Mosul invasion could easily backfire politically. President Obama faces a kind of Catch-22 on Mosul. For the invasion to be successful and efficient, heavy US involvement is likely to be a key ingredient. But with greater US involvement, comes a higher risk of US casualties and a more obvious abrogation of President Obama’s often repeated (and violated) pledge of “no boots on the ground”.
Stepping back from these narrow electoral concerns, the picture in Mosul looks more complicated and more bleak. There is little doubt that the forces arrayed against ISIS will eventually be able to kick them out of Mosul. The question then becomes, what next? As we ought to know by now, waging war is the easy part. Making peace is much more difficult.
ISIS will be defeated in some sense, but probably not in any way that matters. It will cease being a state and go back to its previous status as a violent insurgency, carrying out deadly attacks in Iraq and elsewhere. It could be argued that this is still an improvement, but violence in Iraq is almost certain to remain tragically high.
The fate of the Sunni civilian population of Mosul is another cause for concern. Because ISIS claims a radical form of Sunni Islam, Sunnis civilians are frequently singled out for collective reprisals by the Shia militia groups and/or otherwise displaced by the Kurds. This has happened in several places where Sunni-dominated Iraqi cities were “liberated” from ISIS by other forces. If it happens again in a city as large and significant as Mosul, the dysfunction in Iraq could enter another bloody chapter.
All of this is worth bearing in mind as we await the inevitable declarations of victory in the battle for Mosul.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Confirmed: US Knew That Gulf Allies Were Backing ISIS and Other Jihadis

Allies of the American government fund enemies of the American people, including ISIS. The US government knew about it and maintains those alliances anyway. Just another day in the life of the empire.
The Story
Newly leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman confirm that the US knew that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been funding terrorist groups in the Middle East, including ISIS. And this fact was known at least as early as summer of 2014–before the US officially started its bombing campaign in Syria but after the latest round of intervention in Iraq commenced.
Read Patrick Cockburn’s take at The Independent, which places the new evidence in the proper context:
Why This Matters
This story offers another glimpse into the clear absurdity of US foreign policy.
On the one hand, US politicians speak of the dire need to confront the terrorist threat posed by ISIS. But on the other hand, many of these same politicians refuse to even criticize the “allied” nations that are funding the very same terrorist group.
This episode illustrates the clear need to avoid entangling alliances whenever possible. It should be abundantly clear that the US and the other Gulf states do not have the same interests in the Middle East. To the extent that there’s any threat to the American people at all, that threat clearly comes from terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The regimes of Syria and Iran may be repressive, but no serious person can argue either of those countries is going to try starting a war with the US. The security interest of the US is therefore best fulfilled by diminishing the influence and prevalence of terrorist groups.
Of course, different people will disagree on how best to reduce the power of terrorist groups–and in the current environment, few powerful people are likely to endorse the noninterventionist approach that I would advocate. That said, no one would argue that actively funding terrorist groups is the key to undermining them. And yet in practice, when one accounts for the actions of US allies in the region, that is exactly what we are doing.
At first blush, it sounds like a conspiracy theory. But no, it’s just a quietly acknowledged fact about Middle East politics. And it works pretty well for the weapons manufacturers that profit from chaos and the extremist groups that benefit directly. For the actual American people, not so much.

Clinton and Syria: Stupidity or Something Worse?

In any critical study of US foreign policy, one question is bound to arise: Are they really this stupid?
By “they” I am of course referring to the politicians and advisers that have set and implemented the disastrous course of foreign intervention. The question is aimed at trying to explain these repetitive failures.
Depending on the politician at hand, stupidity can offer a reasonably persuasive explanation for foreign policy decisions (ahem, George W. Bush and Iraq comes to mind). But for many others, it doesn’t seem to apply. For example, I do not think President Obama or Secretary Hillary Clinton are stupid or ignorant on matters of foreign policy. In spite of this, they have still committed many of the same mistakes as their predecessors–overthrowing sovereign governments, backing dubious radical groups, etc.
I raise this point because we now have new evidence which confirms that, in fact, Clinton is quite knowledgeable about one of today’s most prominent foreign policy issues, Syria. The evidence comes from a transcript of Clinton’s notorious Goldman Sachs speeches, which were recently leaked by Wikileaks. This particular speech occurred in June 2013, before President Obama’s more public push for strikes directly against the Syrian government.
In the speech, Clinton displays a remarkably accurate grasp of the players and forces at work in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, her characterization is not altogether different from one you might read from me or other commentators that support nonintervention. The problem is that, in spite of her understanding of the situation and the risks involved, she supports a dangerous strategy of intervention anyway. Here are some relevant excerpts from a talk she gave in June 2013 (emphasis mine):
So let’s just take a step back and look at the situation that we currently have in Syria. When — before the uprising started in Syria it was clear that you had a minority government running with the Alawites in lead with mostly the other minority groups — Christians, the Druze, some significant Sunni business leaders. But it was clearly a minority that sat on top of a majority. And the uprisings when they began were fairly mild in terms of what they were asking for, and Assad very well could have in my view bought them off with some cosmetic changes that would not have resulted in what we have seen over the now two years and the hundred thousand deaths and the destabilization that is going on in Lebanon, in Jordan, even in Turkey, and the threat throwing to Israel and the kind of pitched battle in Iran well supported by Russia, Saudi, Jordanians and others trying to equip the majority Sunni fighters.
Here, Clinton is acknowledging that, at least by 2013, the conflict had devolved into a complicated proxy war. It was no longer a simple story of oppressive government against pro-democracy protesters. Rather, it was a civil war that had been thoroughly hijacked by outside interests. She continues:
I think that we have tried very hard over the last two years to use the diplomatic tools that were available to us and to try to convince, first of all, the Russians that they were helping to create a situation that could not help but become more chaotic, because the longer Assad was able to hold out and then to move offensively against the rebels, the more likely it was that the rebels would turn into what Assad has called them, terrorists, and well equipped and bringing in Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
This is a key insight. Civil wars have a kind of positive feedback loop when it comes to bloodshed. As the civil war drags on, the most violent actors on both sides come to the fore and moderate voices fall away. This makes sense given that moderates, almost by definition, probably wouldn’t choose violent insurrection as their preferred solution for redressing grievances. Later in the speech, Clinton acknowledges these patterns even more explicitly:
So the problem for the US and the Europeans has been from the very beginning: What is it you — who is it you are going to try to arm? And you probably read in the papers my view was we should try to find some of the groups that were there that we thought we could build relationships with and develop some covert connections that might then at least give us some insight into what is going on inside Syria.
But the other side of the argument was a very — it was a very good one, which is we don’t know what will happen. We can’t see down the road. We just need to stay out of it. The problem now is that you’ve got Iran in heavily. You’ve got probably at least 50,000 fighters inside working to support, protect and sustain Assad. And like any war, at least the wars that I have followed, the hard guys who are the best fighters move to the forefront.
So the free Syrian Army and a lot of the local rebel militias that were made up of  pharmacists and business people and attorneys and teachers — they’re no match for these imported toughened Iraqi, Jordanian, Libyan, Indonesian, Egyptian, Chechen, Uzbek, Pakistani fighters that are now in there and have learned through more than a decade of very firsthand experience what it takes in terms of ruthlessness and military capacity.
In other words, the US has few good options in terms of who they should arm because whatever moderates did exist are slowly being drowned out by more experienced and extreme fighters. This dovetails closely with what President Obama had said publicly–when defending not intervening more heavily in Syria. In particular, he said that the idea that the moderate rebels would emerge as  the dominant and effective fighting force, even with US help, has“always been a fantasy”.
But finally, I saved the best for last from Clinton:
So we’re not as good as we used to be, but we still — we can still deliver, and we should have in my view been trying to do that so we would have better insight. But the idea that we would have like a no fly zone — Syria, of course, did have when it started the fourth biggest Army in the world. It had very sophisticated air defense systems. They’re getting more sophisticated thanks to Russian imports. 
To have a no fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas. So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we’re not putting our pilots at risk — you’re going to kill a lot of Syrians. So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians.
Now, we learn that the Syrian military is reasonably strong, and that it has been bolstering its air defense systems. Additionally, Clinton acknowledges that a no-fly zone would require killing  “a lot of Syrians” because all air-defense systems would need to be blown into oblivion. And the US would get the blame for it–which would appear appropriate in such circumstances.
To a normal person, these probably seem like bad things–US pilots could be at some risk, many civilians would die, the US government would be blamed for escalating it, and, the rebels that would benefit from a no-fly zone are increasingly dominated by extremists. And yet, Clinton is currently in support of a no-fly zone. She maintains this position even though she can articulate many of the key reasons that it’s a terrible idea.
Summing it all up then, we see the incredible incompatibility of Clinton’s knowledge and her actual policy proposals.
She acknowledges Syria is a proxy war and the rebels are becoming more extreme and radical all the time as the war persists. And since this was over three years ago, one assumes these trends have continued to weed out any moderates remaining in the forces.
Additionally, Syria wouldn’t be quite the same easy bombing campaign like Libya, because it has more air defenses and a stronger military. And if the US did try to make a no-fly zone, they’d have to kill a lot of Syrians in the process. This would be darkly ironic, of course, since the ostensible purpose of a no-fly zone would be to save Syrian lives, not destroy them. She supports intervention nevertheless.
But it’s important to notice what isn’t going on here. At least as expressed to Goldman, Clinton’s policies do not stem from ignorance or stupidity in the normal sense. Rather, she seems to understand the risks and the reality quite well–and she has just decided on a dangerous policy anyway. 
In most instances, being knowledgeable is a major virtue in a political candidate. But in the case of Clinton’s foreign policy, it is a severe demerit. If her hawkishness was motivated merely by ignorance, new facts and new failures could cause her to change course. However, the antidote for her clear-eyed belligerence is going to prove far more elusive.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Gary Johnson Infuriates the New York Times on Foreign Policy

This week in an interview with The New York Times, Gary Johnson broke all the rules.
He criticized the NYT’s preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton, for being a strong advocate for war (she is), and he even said Clinton deserves a share of the blame for the ongoing disaster in Syria (she does). Needless to say, these are not opinions that often make their way into the pages of the Times.
Even more remarkable, Johnson suggested that it’s just as bad when America kills civilians as when the Syrian government kills civilians.
These probably seem like eminently reasonable positions. But in the context of normal US political discourse, they are outrageous. Indeed, judging from the write-up, the good folks at the Times appeared to be genuinely flustered by the experience.
Consider how the Times responded to Johnson’s charge of moral equivalence:
But when pressed four times on whether he saw a moral equivalence between deaths caused by the United States, directly or indirectly, and mass killings of civilians by Mr. Assad and his allies, Mr. Johnson made clear that he did.
You see that? The Times was so shocked by Johnson’s answer that they badgered him four more times to see if he would retract it. Instead, Johnson did one better. He mocked them:
“Well no, of course not — we’re so much better than all that,” Mr. Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, said sarcastically. “We’re so much better when in Afghanistan, we bomb the hospital and 60 people are killed in the hospital.
Here, Johnson is of course referring to the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan last fall. His death toll might be a bit on the high side, at least from the bombing itself, but the point is spot on. We have to judge policies and actions based on their results. To the family that loses a loved one, it doesn’t much matter whether you are bombing for the sake of dictatorship, democracy, or simple electoral politics; the bombs still kill civilians in any case. They are notoriously indiscriminate creatures after all, those bombs.
To the Times and other conventional media outlets, this is a radical position. But everyone else should see Johnson’s comments for what they are: common sense.
The rest of the Times article proceeds in much the same fashion, and is accidentally a delight to read. Because Johnson is not their candidate, they are attempting to frame all of his positions in the most negative light possible. But their bias is so heavy-handed–and their own pro-intervention position on Syria so absurd–that the whole piece feels almost like a self-parody. You can check it out here:

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Why Don’t People Trust the Media?

At least until the election is over, major news outlets seem more like PR firms than, well, news outlets.
The Story
Recently, Donald Trump gave a speech to a veteran’s group and discussed the problem of post-traumatic stress disorder. In context, Trump’s comments would have been unremarkable; they followed the general formula that he and many other politicians have used effectively over the years: Discuss a problem, promise to fix it, and offer few details about how you actually plan to do so.
Out of context, Trump’s PTSD remarks became another fount of outrage. Instead of expressing concern about veteran’s health, Trump was alleged to be calling out veterans with PTSD for not being strong enough. Clearly, these two things are not at all the same. So how does this happen?
Reason’s Scott Shackford sheds some light on this subject in a new article out this week. He sees the problem as the growing trend of “disingenuous literalness” whereby reporters endeavor to take small phrases out of context, and then interpret them literally–in a way that often bears little resemblance to their original meaning. Trump’s PTSD comments are just the latest example.
Shackford’s piece is well worth a read–if only to get a better understanding of how so many obnoxious and improbable political headlines came to plague your social media feed. (You know what I’m talking about.) Anyway, here’s the link:
Why It Matters
Of course, taking words out of context is one of the oldest political tricks in the book. Politicians do it to each other all the time–which is one of many reasons the political debates have so little educational value. Inevitably, much of the proceedings consist of each candidate working to misrepresent their opponent’s ideas, rather than explain which ideas are best.
But what’s new in this cycle is how widespread this tactic is among journalistic outlets that still fancy themselves as objective. It’s almost unbelievable how many inane hit-pieces have been written this cycle, usually against Trump, using this approach: Take a few words out of context; interpret them as literally and uncharitably as possible; write about it at length.
So we had the alleged terror expert Peter Bergen tell us that, in fact, Obama is not the “founder of ISIS“. Phew, that was 500 words well spent.
And now Trump used the word “strong” in a paragraph about PTSD.
This approach to journalism is obviously annoying, and it’s also entirely unnecessary.
There is an almost endless supply of reasons to legitimately criticize Donald Trump; why would anyone feel the need to manufacture more?

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The VP Debate Was Better, But There’s a Catch

The actual policies expressed were probably even worse than Trump and Clinton in round 1.
If the first presidential debate was a clear victory for Clinton–at least in terms of style and skill–the vice presidential debate was the opposite.
Keeping Up Appearances
Last night, Governor Mike Pence seemed to outcompete Senator Tim Kaine on virtually every superficial metric. He was more polite (and interrupted less), yet his attacks were more effective. He stayed on message, without seeming utterly scripted (as Kaine did at times). And while many of the things he said were not actually true, all of them would probably seem plausible to the casual observer. To my ear, Pence managed to sound measured and reasonable, even while advocating policies that are entirely unreasonable. As a matter of performance alone, it was impressive–especially when compared to Trump’s last week.
Kaine’s performance was merely adequate. He interrupted frequently, which grew a bit tiresome, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as Trump in this regard. Perhaps the most noticeable flaw was that, on multiple occasions, Kaine offered arguments or defenses that Pence had already anticipated and addressed. This gave the debate a disjointed feel at times, as if one of the participants was spending too much time reading his notes and not enough time actually listening to his opponent’s words. Still, on the whole, Kaine at least came off as competent and professional. Like Pence, Kaine also seemed to be a real human being–which neither Trump nor Clinton have mastered thus far.
All things considered, it seems likely that many Americans were wishing the order of both tickets were flipped. Last night’s debate was civil and appeared to involve some substance. No doubt the average American would have considerably less fear over an electoral match-up between Pence and Kaine than they do under the current reality.
Which is ironic. Because from a policy perspective, the VP debate was completely terrifying.
Substantially Terrifying
The problem with Pence is that he really does seem to be a conventional Republican politician, in a way that Donald Trump is not. This meant he was considerably more polished, and he was able to make much more coherent attacks than Trump did (particularly about the “basket of deplorables” comment and the Clinton Foundation). This was a welcome development, given that meaningful criticism of Clinton’s record in primetime is a very scarce commodity.
Unfortunately, Pence also brought the baggage of a conventional Republican politician. This was especially noticeable and frankly, deplorable, on the question of foreign policy.
Here, Pence managed to be simultaneously more persuasive and more horrifying. He could be convincing because his arguments were typically internally consistent–a low bar Trump doesn’t always clear. Pence was also alarming, however, because the probable outcomes implied by his policies are a further escalation of US intervention in the Middle East and even higher tensions with Russia.
In a preposterously leading question on Syria, Pence pivoted to how Hillary Clinton had shown weakness by trying too much diplomacy with the Russians. Yep. Pence was attacking Hillary for not being hawkish enough on foreign policy. So help us
QUIJANO [moderator]: I want to turn now to Syria. Two hundred fifty thousand people, 100,000 of them children, are under siege in Aleppo, Syria. Bunker buster bombs, cluster munitions, and incendiary weapons are being dropped on them by Russian and Syrian militaries. Does the U.S. have a responsibility to protect civilians and prevent mass casualties on this scale, Governor Pence?
PENCE: The United States of America needs to begin to exercise strong leadership to protect the vulnerable citizens and over 100,000 children in Aleppo. Hillary Clinton’s top priority when she became secretary of state was the Russian reset, the Russians reset. After the Russian reset, the Russians invaded Ukraine and took over Crimea.
And the small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States to the point where all the United States of America — the greatest nation on Earth — just withdraws from talks about a cease-fire while Vladimir Putin puts a missile defense system in Syria while he marshals the forces and begins — look, we have got to begin to lean into this with strong, broad-shouldered American leadership.
In Pence’s story, Hillary was just working too hard for peace. So the dastardly Russians got away with stealing a country. Also, it’s worth noting that the only reason a US leader would object to the Russians putting a missile defense system in Syria, is if they had an active interest in bombing it. This is all bad news.
Elsewhere, Pence repeated the canard about Iranian ransom payments, while Kaine had to pretend Clinton was instrumental to the Iran Deal, which emerged years after her resignation. Pence also took the standard anti-Iran / pro-Israel line that the Iranians are now closer to a nuclear weapon, because the Iran Deal only lasts 15 years, not in perpetuity.
But as is to be expected, the worst issue of the night was something both candidates wholeheartedly agree on. Namely, the need for a safe zone in Syria–> which means a no-fly zone –> which means an active air campaign against Syrian and possibly Russian troops in Syria. Here was Pence, confidently advocating a crazy position:
But about Aleppo and about Syria, I truly do believe that what America ought to do right now is immediately establish safe zones, so that families and vulnerable families with children can move out of those areas, work with our Arab partners, real time, right now, to make that happen.
And secondly, I just have to tell you that the provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength. And if Russia chooses to be involved and continue, I should say, to be involved in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo.
And here was Kaine, dutifully agreeing:
KAINE: Hillary and I also agree that the establishment of humanitarian zones in northern Syria with the provision of international human aid, consistent with the U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed in February 2014, would be a very, very good idea.
We should be clear about what is really being discussed here. The US is considering actively engaging in armed hostilities against Russia in Syria. And the purpose, ostensibly, is to prevent the civilian loss of life currently being caused by the Russian / Syrian aerial bombings of Al Nusra, a terrorist organization with close links to Al Qaeda. Here is a classic case of US hypocrisy. Throughout the Obama Administration, of course, the US has administered a unilateral drone assassination campaign to kill Al Qaeda and associated forces (like Al Nusra, rebranding aside), and killed numerous civilians. The US is also killing Syrian civilians with its bombings elsewhere. But now, because the Russians are doing the same thing–just in one country instead of many–the US is apparently prepared to start an armed conflict with the second largest nuclear power in the world.
And in 2016, both major parties are totally on board with that concept.
As it turns out, this is the rare area where Trump’s unpredictability offers the small glimmer of hope. We have every reason to believe that Hillary Clinton would try to implement the safe zone policy if elected. With Trump, there’s a minute chance he would not–if only for the sake of being a contrarian.
That possibility didn’t exist in the arguments offered by Pence. And so the whole evening can probably be summed up as follows.
The debate was better, but the actual policies were dramatically worse.