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Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category

I’m not a big fan of bureaucracy, mostly because government employees are overpaid and they often work for departments and agencies that shouldn’t exist.

Today, motivated by “public choice” insights about self-interested behavior, I want to make an important point about how bureaucracies operate.

We’ll review two articles about completely disconnected issues. But they both make the same point about ever-expanding bureaucracy.

First, the Economist has an article about central banks, specifically looking at how they employ thousands of bureaucrats. What makes the numbers so remarkable, at least in most of Europe, is that they no longer have currencies to manage.

Central bankers around the world have long pondered why productivity growth is slowing. …But might central banks themselves, with their armies of employees, be part of the problem? …many central banks in Europe look flabby. Although the euro area’s 19 national central banks have ceded many of their monetary-policymaking responsibilities to the European Central Bank (ECB)—they no longer set monetary policy by themselves, for instance—they still retain thousands of employees… the Banque de France and the Bundesbank each employ more than 10,000 people… The Bank of Italy employs 6,700. All told, the ECB and the euro zone’s national central banks boast a headcount of nearly 50,000. …The Board of Governors in Washington, DC, where most policy decisions are made, had about 3,000 staff at last count. When the Fed’s 12 regional reserve banks are included, the number rises to more than 20,000.

I actually wrote about this issue back in 2009 and mentioned the still-relevant caveat that some central banks have roles beyond monetary policy, such as bank supervision.

That being said, this chart suggests that there’s plenty of fat to cut.

What I would like to see is a comparison of staffing levels for countries that use the euro, both before and after they outsourced monetary policy the European Central Bank.

I would be shocked if there was a decline in the number of bureaucrats, even though monetary policy presumably is the primary reason central banks exist.

By the way, there’s a sentence in the article that cries out for correction.

Although central banks have become more important since the global financial crisis, it is not clear why they need quite so many regional staff.

It would be far more accurate if the sentence was modified to read: “…have become more of a threat to macroeconomic stability since the global financial crisis that they helped to create.”

But I’m digressing.

Let’s now look at the next article about bureaucracy.

John Lehman, a former Secretary of the Navy, recently opined in the Wall Street Journal about bureaucratic bloat at the National Security Council.

The problems that plague the NSC trace to before its founding in 1947. The White House has long sought to centralize decision-making to overcome the political jockeying that often takes place within the national-security establishment. …The NSC was established in the 1947 National Security Act, which named the members of the council: president, vice president and secretaries of state and defense. …under President Nixon…, Mr. Kissinger grew the council to include one deputy, 32 policy professionals and 60 administrators. …the NSC has only continued to expand. By the end of the Obama administration, 34 policy professionals supported by 60 administrators had exploded to three deputies, more than 400 policy professionals and 1,300 administrators. The council lost the ability to make fast decisions informed by the best intelligence. The NSC became one more layer in the wedding cake of government agencies.

Wow.

A bureaucracy that didn’t exist until 1947 and didn’t even have a boss until 1953 then grows to almost 100 people about 20 years later.

And then 1700 bureaucrats by the Obama Administration.

Needless to say, I’m sure that the growth of the NSC bureaucracy wasn’t accompanied by staffing reductions at the Department of State, Department of Defense, or any other related box on the ever-expanding federal flowchart.

Whenever I read stories like the two cited above, I can’t help but remember what Mark Steyn wrote almost ten years ago.

London administered the vast sprawling fractious tribal dump of Sudan with about 200 British civil servants for what, with hindsight, was the least-worst two-thirds of a century in that country’s existence. These days I doubt 200 civil servants would be enough for the average branch office of the Federal Department of Community Organizer Grant Applications. Abroad as at home, the United States urgently needs to start learning how to do more with less.

As always, Steyn is very clever. But there’s a very serious underlying point. Is there any evidence that additional bureaucracy has produced better decision making?

Either in the field of central banking, national security, or in any other area where more and more bureaucrats exercise more and more control over our lives?

Maybe there is such evidence, but I haven’t seen it. Instead, I see research showing how bureaucracy stifles growth, creates waste, promotes inefficiency, crowds out private jobs, delivers bad outcomes, acts in a self-serving fashion, and bankrupts governments.

P.S. The best example of bureaucrat humor is this video.

P.P.S. If you want more, we have a joke about an Indian training for a government job, a slide show on how bureaucracies operate, a cartoon strip on bureaucratic incentives, a story on what would happen if Noah tried to build an Ark today, a top-10 list of ways to tell if you work for the government, a new element discovered inside the bureaucracy, and a letter to the bureaucracy from someone renewing a passport.

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In order to protect against “Goldfish Government,” it’s very important to make sure that the powers of government are constrained by national borders.

This is the reason why I’m a passionate defender of tax competition and fiscal sovereignty (even if it means being subjected to slurs, attacks, and imprisonment!).

And it’s why I oppose extraterritorial tax laws such as FATCA.

The fight against extraterritoriality isn’t limited to fiscal issues. It’s also become a big problem in the area of financial regulation.

In a new study for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, Bruce Zagaris addresses the over-use of sanctions and how they produce undesirable unintended consequences.

The widespread use of economic sanctions constitutes one of the paradoxes of contemporary American foreign policy. Although sanctions are often criticized, even derided, they are simultaneously and quickly becoming the policy mechanism of choice for the United States. The U.S. has economic sanctions against dozens of countries. Even though the success rate of sanctions is unimpressive, sanctions are so popular that they are being introduced by many states and municipalities. …In a global economy, unilateral sanctions tend to impose greater costs on U.S. businesses than on the target, which can usually find substitute sources of supply and financing. …As the U.S. is increasingly resorting to unilateral sanctions, they are inadvertently mobilizing a club of countries and international organizations, including U.S. allies, to develop ways to circumvent U.S. sanctions. …Sanctions are criticized due to their lack of effectiveness, adverse humanitarian effects, and adverse public health effects. Sanctions foment criminalization both during and after the sanctions as a way to circumvent sanctions. Sanctions also result in unintended negative effects on neighbor countries… The excessive use of economic sanctions, especially when U.S. allies oppose them and become targets, produces diplomatic tension, and damages the U.S.’s economy and reputation abroad. The growing number of countries in the club of targets has caused countries to develop innovative means to circumvent the use of the dollar.

I’ve previously written about how the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency could be threatened by extraterritoriality, so I fully agree with the concerns in Bruce’s study.

Interestingly, even the U.S. Treasury Secretary acknowledges that there is a problem.

The issue also has been featured on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.

Sahil Mahtani of Investec Asset Management opined that excessive sanctioning by Obama and Trump creates risks for the dollar.

Will the U.S. dollar soon lose its status as the world’s pre-eminent currency? …Developments in foreign-exchange markets during the past 18 months point toward dedollarization. …The increasing use of economic sanctions under Presidents Obama and Trump is the immediate cause of dedollarization. …the change in posture among the trans-Atlantic democracies is noteworthy. …the emergence of a genuinely multipolar world means the coming market cycle is likely to be different. The U.S. dollar may finally be knocked off its pedestal.

Other experts also have warned about how sanctions can backfire on the American economy.

 

The Economist also has highlighted how promiscuous use of sanctions is both wrong and could backfire against America.

The United States…has increasingly punished foreign firms for misconduct that happens outside America. Scores of banks have paid tens of billions of dollars in fines. In the past 12 months several multinationals, including Glencore and ZTE, have been put through the legal wringer. …America has taken it upon itself to become the business world’s policeman, judge and jury. …as the full extent of extraterritorial legal activity has become clearer, so have three glaring problems. …Facing little scrutiny, prosecutors have applied ever more expansive interpretations of what counts as the sort of link to America that makes an alleged crime punishable there; indirect contact with foreign banks with branches in America, or using Gmail, now seems to be enough. …Second, the punishments can be disproportionate. In 2014 BNP Paribas, a French bank, was hit with a sanctions-related fine of $8.9bn, enough to threaten its stability. …Third, America’s legal actions can often become intertwined with its commercial interests. …American banks have picked up business from European rivals left punch-drunk by fines. Sometimes American firms are in the line of fire—Goldman Sachs is being investigated by the DOJ for its role in the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia. But many foreign executives suspect that American firms get special treatment and are wilier about navigating the rules. …escalating use of extraterritorial legal actions will ultimately backfire. It will discourage foreign firms from tapping American capital markets. It will encourage China and Europe to promote their currencies as rivals to the dollar… Far from expressing geopolitical might, America’s legal overreach would then end up diminishing American power.

To be sure, not every issue should be decided solely on the basis of economics. More GDP is good, but not at the cost of sacrificing honor and dignity.

Some nations might be so evil that sanctions are justified.

But policy makers should be fully aware that there are costs when sanctions are imposed.

Those costs include foregone trade, which would be bad for American consumers, workers, and businesses.

Most important, those costs could mean the dollar gets weakened or dethroned as the world’s reserve currency and the U.S. loses its “exorbitant privilege.”

And that could mean less investment in America, which translates into fewer jobs and lower wages.

P.S. The study by Bruce Zagaris is the third in a series on why extraterritoriality is a bad idea. The first study focused on extraterritorial taxation. The second study analyzed extraterritorial financial regulation.

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You would think the never-ending mess in Afghanistan would have taught us lessons.

Or maybe we might have learned lessons from the never-ending mess in Iraq.

Notwithstanding those unpleasant experiences, President Trump is expanding America’s intervention in Syria with missile strikes.

This rubs me the wrong way, but let’s look at what others are writing on this issue.

One of my colleagues at the Cato Institute, Gene Healy, isn’t impressed by Trump’s intervention.

Thus far, the administration has said nothing about the legal authority for the strikes. There’s not much that can be said: they’re plainly illegal. He had neither statutory nor constitutional authority to order them. …Without statutory cover, all that’s left is an appeal to presidential power under Article II of the Constitution. But that document vests the bulk of the military powers it grants in Congress, with the aim of “clogging, rather than facilitating war,” as George Mason put it. In that framework, the president retains the power to “repel sudden attacks” against the US; but he does not have the power to launch them. …

Kevin Williamson of National Review is equally unhappy with Trump’s unilateral intervention.

As Daniel Pipes and others have persuasively argued, the United States does not have an ally in Syria. The United States does not have any national interest in the success of the ISIS-aligned coalition fighting to depose Assad. The United States does not have any interest in strengthening the position of the Assad regime and the position of his Russian and Iranian patrons. …Of course the Assad regime is murderous. It is murderous in an awfully familiar way: a Baathist despot in cahoots with jihadists using chemical weapons against a civilian population. …The Trump administration has no authorization to engage in war on Syria. Congress has not declared war or authorized the use of military force; there is no emergency to justify the president’s acting unilaterally in his role as commander in chief; there is no imminent threat to American lives or American interests — indeed, there is no real American interest at all. President Donald Trump is acting illegally, and Congress has a positive moral obligation to stop him. …All decent people feel for the Syrians. We also feel for the Ukrainians, the North Koreans, the men and women languishing in Chinese laogai, Russian gulags, and Cuban prisons. We do not go to war for the sake of sentiment. We go to war for the sake of pressing national interests that cannot be otherwise secured. There is no casus belli for knocking over the Assad government, odious as it is.

And Sean Davis of the Federalist asks 14 questions. Here are the ones that caught my attention.

…proponents of military action to depose Assad have not explained is what our clear national security interest is there, what political victory looks like, what our main risks are, and what costs we will be required to pay in order to achieve that victory. …If our nation is going to wage war, and if we are going to pay a price in dollars and in American lives as a result of that decision, we are owed answers to questions that were never adequately answered before we went into Iraq.

1) What national security interest, rather than pure humanitarian interest, is served by the use of American military power to depose Assad’s regime?

2) How will deposing Assad make America safer?

3) What does final political victory in Syria look like (be specific), and how long will it take for that political victory to be achieved? Do you consider victory to be destabilization of Assad, the removal of Assad, the creation of a stable government that can protect itself and its people without additional assistance from the United States, etc.?

6) What costs, in terms of lives (both military and civilian), dollars, and forgone options elsewhere as a result of resource deployment in Syria, will be required to achieve political victory?

8) Should explicit congressional authorization for the use of military force in Syria be required, or should the president take action without congressional approval?

10) If U.S. intervention in Syria does spark a larger war with Russia, what does political victory in that scenario look like, and what costs will it entail?

14) What lessons did you learn from America’s failure to achieve and maintain political victory following the removal of governments in Iraq and Libya, and how will you apply those lessons to a potential war in Syria?

I try to avoid commenting on foreign policy, but all of the excerpts I just shared make total sense. Nobody is claiming that America’s national interests are being threatened. Instead, the case for intervention is that Assad is a bad dictator who is doing bad things.

But if that’s the criteria for intervention, why aren’t we bombing China, Venezuela, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the Central African Republic?

Heck, here’s a map from Freedom House. The purple nations are “not free,” which means systematic repression of political rights and civil liberties. Syria is on the list, of course, but if having an oppressive government is what triggers U.S. intervention, there will be perpetual war.

Finally, I can’t help but call attention to a story in the New York Times that looked at many of the Republicans and Democrats who have flipped and flopped when commenting on Obama’s 2013 intervention and Trump’s 2017 intervention.

But there are some notable exceptions, particularly two of the more libertarian-leaning Republicans who actually put principle over partisanship.

And even though I admit I’m not a foreign policy expert, I sometimes play one on TV. And if you look at this interview from 2013, you’ll see that my views also have been consistent.

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If you did a word-association test with people after describing jaw-dropping examples of government incompetence, you would probably get answers like “angry” or “wasteful.” Especially if you asked around April 15.

Though in some cases of spectacular and inexplicable ineptitude by government, you reach a stage where the answers might even be “preposterous” or “comical.”

Unfortunately, today we’re going to look at an example of bone-headed government behavior that can only be described as “deadly.”

That’s because the New York Times just revealed that there were very obvious red flags about one of the San Bernardino terrorists, yet federal bureaucrats apparently were too stupid, lazy, or incompetent to check sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband carried out the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., passed three background checks by American immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan. None uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad. She said she supported it. And she said she wanted to be a part of it. …The discovery of the old social media posts has exposed a significant — and perhaps inevitable — shortcoming in how foreigners are screened when they enter the United States, particularly as people everywhere disclose more about themselves online. …In an era when technology has given intelligence agencies seemingly limitless ability to collect information on people, it may seem surprising that a Facebook or Twitter post could go unnoticed in a background screening.

But you’ll be happy to know that the Keystone Cops in the bureaucracy are now contemplating whether to even look at the barn door now that we know the horses keep escaping.

…a debate is underway at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that approves visas and green cards, over whether officers conducting interviews should be allowed to routinely use material gathered from social media for interviews where they assess whether foreigners are credible or pose any security risk.

What makes this story so aggravating is that national security is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government.

Yet we get glaring examples of failure, perhaps because Washington has become so bloated that sensible management is increasingly difficult.

For another example of government incompetence in the area of national security, let’s go to the Middle East, where ABC News reported that a program to train supposedly moderate fighters in Syria achieved remarkable levels of inefficiency.

…only “four or five” of the first 54 U.S.trained moderate Syrian fighters remain in the fight against ISIS. …there are currently between 100 and 120 fighters in a program that was slated to have trained 5,400 fighters in its first 12 months. …So far, $42 million has been spent to develop the $500 million program which began training in April.

Wow. If my math is right, that’s about $10 million per fighter. I’m tempted to joke about getting fighters for a lot cheaper by placing an advertisement in Solider of Fortune.

But a more serious point is that  the fact that the program surely has been a huge success for the bureaucrats and contractors. After all, they got lots of taxpayer money, so who cares about actual results.

But the more serious point is why the US is involved in Syria in the first place? Writing for Reason, Steve Chapman argues for nonintervention and even makes the point that the U.S. should instead welcome Russia’s involvement.

Vladimir Putin…has sent Russian planes to bomb rebels in Syria. …he reaffirmed his commitment to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. …Republicans regard this as a calamity. But what’s the downside? There are two main ways this gambit could go. …The first possibility is that he will inflict significant damage on Islamic State. In that case, one of our most vicious enemies would be weakened—at little cost or risk to Americans. The only thing better than defeating Islamic State is getting someone to do it for us. …The second possibility is that Putin will fail… He could find himself in a costly, bloody war. Or he might decide the prize is not worth the effort and pull back, which would dash his dreams of regional power and discredit him at home. Either way, he’s worse off, and we’re not.

Now let’s shift to a story that goes beyond routine government incompetence and deserves a special category.

Because when you read about military bureaucrats turning a blind eye to child rape in Afghanistan, words like “evil” and “soulless” are far more appropriate.

Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population. The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene — in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records. …soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages.

Unsurprisingly, as reported by the Washington Examiner, the Obama Administration is leading from behind.

The White House dodged questions…about allegations that U.S. military officials are ordering U.S. soldiers to ignore child abuse in Afghanistan committed by Afghan militia, military and police, and instead indicated that those orders reflect Defense Department policy.

Not exactly a proud moment for the United States.

To be sure, you have to make compromises with right and wrong during wartime. Heck, we were allies in World War II with one of the world’s most murderous and sinister regimes.

But surely we can disallow child rape on American military bases!

Let’s return to a more mundane example of bad policy, one that shows the U.S. government can waste money overseas just as effectively as it wastes money at home.

U.S. taxpayers footed the bill for a $43 million natural-gas filling station in Afghanistan, a boondoggle that should have cost $500,000 and has virtually no value to average Afghans… A Pentagon task force awarded a $3 million contract to build the station in Sheberghan, Afghanistan, but ended up spending $12 million in construction costs and $30 million in “overhead” between 2011 and 2014.

Wow. Reminds me of being in a meeting last decade and a representative of the Bush Administration was arguing that its nation-building exercise (I forget whether it was Iraq or Afghanistan) was going well because we had successfully built so many schools and sewer systems.

I was being a curmudgeonly libertarian and made myself unpopular by pointing out that I didn’t think it was the responsibility of the federal government to fund those projects in the United States, much less overseas.

Let’s end where we started, with an example of government incompetence that could have deadly consequences.

Hillary Clinton’s “reset” with Russia was a miserable failure and the United States increasingly is worried about Putin’s adventurism. Yet the federal government didn’t exercise sufficient oversight to make sure that citizens of a potential enemy didn’t get to work on classified computer code.

The Pentagon was tipped off in 2011 by a longtime Army contractor that Russian computer programmers were helping to write computer software for sensitive U.S. military communications systems…the software they wrote had made it possible for the Pentagon’s communications systems to be infected with viruses. …the work had been done in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.

Doesn’t exactly leave one with a great feeling of confidence.

So there are two lessons from today.

First, politicians and bureaucrats and wasteful and incompetent, and that applies even in areas where there is a legitimate role for government.

Second, we’ll have a better chance of getting sensible and competent decisions if government is a lot smaller. After all, it will be a lot easier to have oversight when government is doing 100 things instead of 10,000 things.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2014.

There are some legitimate functions of government and I want those to be handled efficiently. But I worry that effective government is increasingly unlikely because politicians are so busy intervening in areas that should be left to families, civil society, and the private sector.

Mark Steyn made the same point in a much more amusing fashion.

Which is why these cartoons are such a good depiction of government.

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I rarely delve into foreign policy and defense issues. And when I do, such as my post about the conflict in Ukraine, it’s usually because it gives me an opportunity to draw attention to a topic that is in my bailiwick (in the case of Ukraine, it gave me an excuse to write about federalism).

With this caveat in mind, let’s turn our attention to the Middle East. Unless you’re a hermit living in a remote cave, you presumably know that Israel is locked in another fight with Hamas.

I’ve previously explained that I’m very sympathetic to the notion that Israel has a right to defend itself.

But supporting Israel’s right to self defense doesn’t mean I should foot the bill. Yet that’s what’s happening. According to Wikipedia, Washington sends about $3 billion per year to subsidize Israel’s military.

And now that amount will be even larger because Congress just approved another $225 million to help finance Israel’s missle-defense system.

Congress approved a $225 million package to replenish Israel’s missile defenses with its last order of business before a five-week recess… The House’s 395-8 vote in favor late Friday followed Senate adoption of the legislation by voice vote earlier in the day. The money is directed toward restocking Israel’s Iron Dome, which has been credited with shooting down dozens of incoming rockets fired by Palestinian militants over 3½ weeks of war. …Iron Dome has enjoyed strong U.S. technological and financial support. Throughout its history, the U.S. has provided more than $700 million to help Israel cover costs for batteries, interceptors, production costs and maintenance, the Congressional Research Service said. The total already appeared set to climb above $1 billion after Senate appropriators doubled the Obama administration’s request for Iron Dome funding for fiscal 2015. Now it seems likely to rise even further.

But this doesn’t mean everyone is happy about all this spending.

Some libertarian-leaning fiscal conservatives opposed the added subsidies, or at least wanted Congress to come up with offsetting cuts.

Despite almost universal support for Israel in Congress, the Iron Dome money appeared in doubt only a day ago as Senate efforts stalled after an effort by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to find cuts elsewhere in the budget to pay for the aid.  …Voting against the measure in the House were…Republicans Justin Amash of Michigan, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

For what it’s worth, I applaud those four House Republicans.

I’m motivated in part by a desire to limit the burden of government spending in America, but I also think that Israel easily could afford more military outlays if it pared back its overly generous welfare state.

If you look at the IMF data, government spending consumes about 43.8 percent of Israel’s economic output. And according to the CIA Factbook, Israel’s military budget amounts to about 5.7 percent of GDP.

I’m not a math genius, but that certainly suggests to me that Israel’s government is diverting about 38 percent of economic output for non-military spending.

If national defense is important and worthwhile (and it is), then Israel should prioritize and reduce domestic outlays.

Heck, that’s what Roosevelt did during World War II and what Truman did during the Korean War. If you don’t believe me, look at lines 31-34 of this OMB spreadsheet.

By the way, some people accuse these GOPers of being anti-Israel, but I think that charge is grossly unfair. I’m not personally close to any of the Republicans who voted against the Iron Dome funding, but I’ve met and talked to all of them and I’ve followed their careers. Suffice to say that I’ve never heard even the slightest hint that any of them harbor any anti-Israel or anti-Jewish sentiments.

Indeed, here’s some of what Justin Amash wrote back in 2012.

Israel is our closest friend in a very troubled region. Our national defense benefits from Israel’s ability to defend itself and to serve as a check against neighboring authoritarian regimes and extremists. Assisting with training and the development of Israel’s military capacity allows the U.S. to take a less interventionist role in the region. I am hopeful that American troops soon can leave the region and Israel and its neighbors can live in peace without U.S. aid or involvement.

The last sentence is a pretty good description of libertarian foreign policy: Be prepared to defend ourselves, but don’t look for trouble outside our borders.

P.S. The government of Israel pays for people who do nothing but pray. Which means that my tax dollars are picking up part of the tab. Prayer is presumably a good thing. Just don’t ask me to pay for it.

P.P.S. While Israel’s government does dumb things, the governments opposing Israel sometime engage in truly evil acts.

P.P.P.S. If you want to learn more about the libertarian approach to foreign policy, my Cato colleagues are the real experts. I also call your attention to these thoughts from Mark Steyn, George Will, and Steve Chapman.

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One of the many challenges of being libertarian is that people sometimes think you’re naive about foreign policy (sort of like the first entry in this 24-part satirical collage of libertarians).

In large part, I think that’s because they confuse non-interventionism with pacifism.

To elaborate on why they’re wrong, I’ve shared some thoughts from Mark Steyn, George Will, and Steve Chapman on the libertarian mindset on foreign policy. And to augment their analysis, here’s John Stossel’s very good synopsis of the clear-headed libertarian approach.

Most libertarians believe our attempts to create or support democracy around the world have made us new enemies, and done harm as well as good. …Some conservatives respond to that by calling us isolationists, but we’re not. I want to participate in the world; I just don’t want to run it. …it’s realistic to acknowledge that America has dangerous enemies, it’s also realistic to acknowledge that going to war is not always worth the loss of money and lives, and that it makes new enemies. War, like most government plans, tends not to work out as well as planners hoped.

And in a version of Mitchell’s Law, he points out that screwups become the excuse for further mistakes.

Occasionally government acknowledges mistakes in domestic policy — but that doesn’t mean it then becomes more efficient. It usually just spends more to try, and fail, to fix the problem. It’s the nature of government. Politicians don’t face the competitive incentives that force other people to make hard decisions. Candidate Obama garnered support by criticizing Bush for costing money and lives through a protracted stay in Iraq. But that didn’t stop Obama from putting more money and troops into Afghanistan. …Our military should be used for defense, not to police the world.

So where exactly does Obama fit? He’s obviously not a neo-con, but how should he be characterized?

My colleague at Cato, Gene Healy, writes that the President has stumbled upon a good guide for foreign policy.

…there’s something to be said for President Obama’s latest foreign-policy maxim: “don’t do stupid stuff.” …Yet “DDSS” has been greeted with contempt by the D.C. commentariat. “How far we have come from the audacity of hope, yes we can” moans David Rothkopf, publisher of Foreign Policy magazine. “DDSS” just isn’t an “elevating notion,” he complains. (Neither, I suppose, is the Hippocratic Oath.) …The concept of avoiding catastrophic error shouldn’t be hard to grasp.

But having a good guide doesn’t mean anything if you don’t live up to it (just like Bush didn’t live up to his pronouncement that he wanted America to have a “humble” approach to the world).

It’s true that Obama has never lived up to the cautious foreign policy maxim he’s coined: launching a destructive “dumb war” in Libya, doubling down on Afghanistan with precious little to show for it. But “DDSS” is a sound, even noble, foreign policy goal, one that can help us avoid further sacrifice of American blood and treasure — even as we try to extricate ourselves from past stupidities.

I add my two cents to this discussion, pointing out in this interview about Ukraine that Obama sometimes veers in the direction of libertarianism. Or at least non-interventionism.

Unfortunately, I suspect that Obama doesn’t genuinely believe in non-interventionism. Instead, he sometimes winds up doing the right thing because of passivity rather than some underlying and principled desire to avoid foreign entanglements.

Speaking of libertarian foreign policy, this Steve Breen cartoon is a pretty good summary of what we’ve been doing in Afghanistan for the past decade.

This reminds me of being in a coalition meeting last decade and somebody from the Bush Administration was saying the mission  was a success because tax dollars had been used to build a bunch of schools and sewer system in Afghanistan.

Being the disagreeable type, I pointed out that the federal government shouldn’t even build schools and sewers in America, so why on earth were we doing that overseas.

I thought it was a good point, but the silence in the room reminded me that libertarians aren’t always the most persuasive people.

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I’ve never been susceptible to the claim that you solve problems with taxpayer money.

Indeed, this amusing poster is a pretty good summary of my views on the effectiveness of government spending.

But what about the horrific stories about veterans dying because of secret waiting lists and bureaucratic skullduggery at the Veterans Administration?

I want to take care of former soldiers who need treatment because of their service, and national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government. So is this one of the rare cases where a budget needs to increase? That’s certainly the mentality in some quarters on Capitol Hill.

Here are some excerpts from Byron York’s column in the Washington Examiner.

Sanders and his fellow Democrats want to give the VA billions more. …What is striking about Sanders’ bill is not just its price tag but how irrelevant it is to the most serious problems besetting the VA health care system. It was like adding new chrome to a car that won’t run. When Republicans stopped the bill earlier this year, Democrats predictably accused them of being insensitive to veterans’ needs. …It’s unclear what Congress will do, but one certainty in the debate is that the Sanders bill won’t solve the problem.

But what do the actual budget numbers show?

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the VA already has lots of money.

Here’s some of what has been reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency caught in a political firestorm over its medical care for veterans, has seen its funding grow faster than any other government department in recent years. Since 2000, annual spending has tripled to $63 billion to meet a surge in health-care and other costs. That is on top of the more than $85 billion the VA is set to receive this year for automatic payments such as disability benefits and pensions, a tally that has more than tripled since 2000.

But some may argue that needs are rising even faster because so many soldiers were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Federalist addressed this issue, in an article by Sean Davis.

VA funding has more than kept up with both medical inflation and increased patient loads. An analysis of budget and cost data, as well as data on the total number of VA patients and the number of acute inpatients treated, shows that the VA’s budget has grown much faster than its workload. Even when you take medical inflation into account, the VA budget still grew faster than its patient base since 2000. …The VA has a whole bunch of problems, but a lack of funding ain’t one.

Here’s a chart from Sean’s article. Hard to argue with these numbers.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of national defense and foreign affairs, let’s take a look at a very provocative column by Steve Chapman. He says that President Obama, whether by accident or design, actually has a reasonable foreign policy. As least if you think good foreign policy should be based on a prudent understanding of the limits of government.

Conservatives generally agree on a few propositions. The federal government should avoid spending money unnecessarily. It shouldn’t exceed its basic constitutional duties. It should encourage self-reliance rather than dependency. It should accept that some problems are beyond its ability to solve.  Barack Obama, they may be surprised to learn, agrees with much of this formula. He just applies it in a realm where conservatives often don’t: foreign relations and national security. The Obama doctrine, as outlined in his policies and his speech at West Point Wednesday, is one of comparatively limited government.

Chapman elaborates, drawing an interesting parallel to domestic issues.

A…sensible view is that the U.S. can indeed remain idle while alleged dangers gather, because most of them won’t materialize. The immortal philosopher Calvin Coolidge said, “If you see 10 troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.” Many conservatives believe in hurrying out to meet all 10 just in case. …Critics charge that Obama’s foreign policy shows an unwillingness to lead, or weakness, or uncertain purposes. The same complaint, of course, could be made about conservative policies on poverty, health care, urban blight, access to housing and more. “Don’t you care?” indignant liberals ask. But sometimes ambitious government undertakings are too expensive to justify, sometimes they fail to solve problems, and sometimes they make things worse. In those instances, declining to act — and explaining why — is the most authentic form of leadership. That’s just as true in the international realm as it is in the domestic one.

I’m not a foreign policy expert, but I’m very sympathetic Chapman’s hypothesis because skepticism is always a good approach when analyzing government. And his piece on NATO is must reading for similar reasons.

That being said, I’m not going to put Obama on a pedestal or assume that he’s doing the right thing on foreign policy for the right reason. My guess is that his default position in foreign affairs is passivity.

That often coincides with the libertarian position of non-intervention. But as I wrote above, libertarians also believe that national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of government, which is why they generally were allied with conservatives during the Cold War, when we faced an aggressive and imperialistic Soviet Bloc.

My guess is that if we went into a time machine and it was 1980 instead of 2014, Obama would be more like Jimmy Carter and less like Ronald Reagan.

P.P.S. Mark Steyn also has written some very wise words about libertarian-ish foreign policy.

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