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Posts Tagged ‘Foreign Policy’

Ukraine is in the news and that’s not a good thing.

I’m not a foreign policy expert, to be sure, but it can’t be a positive sign when nations with nuclear weapons start squabbling with each other. And that’s what’s happening now that Russia is supposedly occupying Crimea and perhaps other parts of Ukraine and Western powers are complaining.

I’m going to add my two cents to this issue, but I’m going to approach it from an unusual angle.

Look at this linguistic map of Ukraine. The red parts of the country show where Russian is the primary language and most people presumably are ethnically Russian.

Russian in Ukraine

Now look at these maps (from here, here, here, and here) showing various election results in the country.

Ukraine Election Results

Like I said, I’m not overly literate on foreign policy, but isn’t it obvious that the Ukrainians and the Russians have fundamentally different preferences?

No wonder there’s conflict.

But is there a solution? And one that doesn’t involve Putin annexing – either de facto or de jure – the southern and eastern portions of the nation?

It seems there are two options.

1. Secession – The first possibility is to let the two parts of Ukraine have an amicable (or at least non-violent) divorce. That’s what happened to the former Soviet Union. It’s what happened with Czechoslovakia became Slovakia and the Czech Republic. And it’s what happened (albeit with lots of violence) when Yugoslavia broke up.

For what it’s worth, I’ve already suggested that Belgium should split into two nations because of linguistic and cultural differences. So why not the same in Ukraine?

Heck, Walter Williams has argued that the same thing should happen in America, with the pro-liberty parts of the nation seceding from the statist regions.

2. Decentralization – The second possibility is for Ukraine to copy the Swiss model of radical decentralization. In Switzerland, even though there are French cantons, German cantons, and an Italian canton, the various regions of the country don’t squabble with each other because the central government is relatively powerless.

This approach obviously is more attractive than secession for folks who think that existing national borders should be sacrosanct.

And since this post is motivated by the turmoil in Ukraine, it’s worth pointing out that this also seems to be a logical way of defusing tensions across regions.

I confess I have a policy reason for supporting weaker national governments. Simply stated, there’s very strong evidence that decentralization means more tax competition, and when governments are forced to compete for jobs and investment, the economy is less likely to be burdened with high tax rates and excessive redistribution.

Indeed, we also have very strong evidence that the western world became prosperous precisely because the proliferation of small nations and principalities restrained the natural tendencies of governments to oppress and restrain economic activity.

And since Ukraine (notwithstanding it’s flat tax) has a very statist economic system – ranking only 126th in the Economic Freedom of the World index, maybe a bit of internal competition would trigger some much-needed liberalization.

P.S. If you’re intrigued by the secession idea promoted by Walter Williams, you’ll definitely enjoy this bit of humor about a national divorce in the United States.

P.P.S. If you think decentralization and federalism is a better option than secession, the good news is that more and more Americans have unfavorable views of Washington.

P.P.P.S. The tiny nation of Liechtenstein is comprised of seven villages and they have an explicit right to secede if they become unhappy with the central government in Vaduz. And even the statist political crowd in the United Kingdom is considering a bit of federalism.

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Maybe it’s because I have a bit of a old-fashioned moralistic streak to me, but I viscerally object to the notion that good people should pay bad people not to do bad things.

That’s why, a few years ago, I didn’t react favorably when the former dictator of Libya asked for several billion dollars per year to stop illegals from crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

And this also explains why I don’t think American taxpayers should cough up $1 billion to bribe Syria’s dictator into giving up his chemical weapons.

In this interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News, I make the basic libertarian argument that we shouldn’t be involved in Syria’s civil war, but I also make a practical argument that – if you accept that American tax dollars should be spent – it would be much cheaper to bribe a few high-level people in Assad’s government.

Since I’m not a foreign policy expert, I don’t think I said anything particularly memorable in the above segment.

But one line apparently did resonate. Here’s Senator Rand Paul, speaking later that day.

I have to admit that made my day. Sort of like when Chairman Brady mentioned Mitchell’s Golden Rule in his opening statement when I testified last week to the Joint Economic Committee.

Of course, I’d like it even better if some of the ideas I support (like the flat tax or smaller government) actually wound up being implemented, but at least it’s nice to be noticed.

Fighting for freedom is often a thankless task in DC

Being a libertarian in Washington, after all, is not the easiest job. To quote former Senator Phil Gramm, it’s like trying to do the Lord’s work in the Devil’s city.

P.S. Any time I begin to get cocky and think I’m some sort of hot shot, something happens to pull me back down to earth. In my Syria interview, you may have noticed that my mouth looked a bit red. That’s because I made the mistake of eating some red candies that were in the car that took me to the interview.

As the old saying goes, you can dress me up, but you can’t take me out. That’s why I’m glad Senator Paul picked up on my line (which I stole from somebody, so I can’t really take credit) about threatening Syria with Obamacare. Otherwise, I probably would have been reluctant to even post the interview.

P.P.S. As I intimated in the interview, the best way to learn more about foreign policy is to read the scholarly writings of my colleagues from the Cato Institute. You also can’t go wrong by perusing these columns by Mark Steyn, George Will, and Steve Chapman.

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I’ve already shared some analysis of Mark Steyn’s libertarian-leaning views on foreign policy, so it’s very timely to see what he just wrote about Syria.

Here’s some of his new article in National Review. His humor is sharp, but he makes a very important point.

The administration’s ingenious plan is to lose this war in far less time than we usually take. In the unimprovable formulation of an unnamed official speaking to the Los Angeles Times, the White House is carefully calibrating a military action “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” That would make a great caption for a Vanity Fair photo shoot of Obama gamboling in the surf at Martha’s Vineyard, but as a military strategy it’s not exactly Alexander the Great or the Duke of Wellington.  …From the New York Times: “A wide range of officials characterize the action under consideration as ‘limited,’ perhaps lasting no more than a day or two.” Yeah, I know, that’s what Edward III said about the Hundred Years’ War. But Obama seems to mean it

Steyn notes that British voters already have said no to “ineffectual warmongering.”

This week, David Cameron recalled Parliament from its summer recess to permit the people’s representatives to express their support for the impending attack. Instead, for the first time since the British defeat at Yorktown in 1782, the House of Commons voted to deny Her Majesty’s Government the use of force. Under the Obama “reset,” even the Coalition of the Willing is unwilling. …“This House will not fight for king and country”? Not exactly. What the British people are sick of, quite reasonably enough, is ineffectual warmongering.

For what it’s worth, Obama doesn’t think he should be bound by that silly little clause in the Constitution about only Congress having the power to declare war. Which at least makes him consistent, since he doesn’t feel bound by the fact that Article I, Section 8, doesn’t authorize the federal government to be involved in health care.

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at what Steyn identifies as the real problem. We account for a huge share of the globe’s military spending, yet we don’t get much bang for the buck.

The problem with the American way of war is that, technologically, it can’t lose, but, in every other sense, it can’t win. No one in his right mind wants to get into a tank battle or a naval bombardment with the guys responsible for over 40 percent of the planet’s military expenditures. Which is why these days there aren’t a lot of tank battles. The consummate interventionist Robert Kagan wrote in his recent book that the American military “remains unmatched.” It’s unmatched in the sense that the only guy in town with a tennis racket isn’t going to be playing a lot of tennis matches. …America’s inability to win ought to be a burning national question, but it’s not even being asked.

Particularly since there are no real friends competing to rule Syria.

For a quarter-century, from Kuwait to Kosovo to Kandahar, the civilized world has gone to war only in order to save or liberate Muslims. The Pentagon is little more than central dispatch for the U.S. military’s Muslim Fast Squad. And what do we have to show for it? Liberating Syria isn’t like liberating the Netherlands: In the Middle East, the enemy of our enemy is also our enemy.  …So we’ll get rid of Assad and install the local branch of al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood or whatever plucky neophyte democrat makes it to the presidential palace first — and then, instead of napalmed schoolyards, there will be, as in Egypt, burning Christian churches and women raped for going uncovered.

Steyn then summarizes what’s at stake.

…the hyperpower is going to war because Obama wandered off prompter and accidentally made a threat. So he has to make good on it, or America will lose its credibility. But he only wants to make good on it in a perfunctory and ineffectual way. So America will lose its credibility anyway.

It’s unfortunate that politicians misallocate military spending for parochial reasons, but it’s equally worrisome that they risk blood and treasure in ways that don’t make sense.

Syrian intervention, however, would take foolishness to an entire new level.

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I’ve received several variations of this question since starting my “Question of the Week” series. Having never studied the terrorism issue, I’ve been ignoring those queries.

But I got several new emails on the topic after what happened in Boston, so I’m answering simply to make one point. There’s no way to create a perfectly safe, risk-free society.

That being said – and with the caveat that I have no expertise in this field, here are some random thoughts on the topic.

Libertarians want less interventionism around the world, and perhaps that will reduce hostility against the United States, but some of these nutjobs hate us because of our freedoms. So even a perfect foreign policy (whatever that even is) provides no guarantee we won’t get attacked. That being said, I think Ron Paul has screwed up big time in some of his criticisms of U.S. actions. Being against nation building does not mean you have to be against killing terrorists.

If you want to cause trouble, find a bunch of young men with no purpose in their lives and lots of time on their hands. Combine that with religious extremists who tell those men that they will get a bunch of virgins* in paradise if they die while killing Westerners, and you have a nontrivial supply of future terrorists. I suspect part of the answer will have to come from within the Islamic community, though I confess that I’m puzzled by the inaction on that front even though one imagines that 99 percent of Muslims don’t support terrorism.

Terrorists and would-be terrorists get information from the Internet that fuels their hate and provides knowledge on how to conduct attacks. I’m rather sympathetic to drone attacks on the scum in the Middle East who are directly seeking to instigate/plan terrorism, but I don’t see any feasible or desirable way to control and/or regulate the Internet (just like I don’t see a feasible or desirable way to regulate video games, even if it was shown that violent games somehow inspired Newtown-type killers).

Close monitoring of pro-terrorist websites and chat rooms is a very legitimate and proper function of law enforcement and the intelligence community. Being a Muslim shouldn’t be a cause for investigation and harassment by the government. Being a Muslim who uses the Internet to visit such sites is a cause for investigation and harassment (and the same is true for members of any other group with a history of violence).

Monitoring of Mosques also is a proper function of government, just as I also have no objection of law enforcement monitoring militia groups, environmental groups, etc, etc. Obviously, the monitoring of any group should be selectively focused on those strains that are believed to espouse violence. I don’t know where you draw the line between freedom of religion and incitement of violence, but I have zero sympathy for radical Imams preaching hate inside the United States and would like to see them shut down/imprisoned/deported if they cross that line.

Yes, I’m disgusted by the leftists in the press who obviously hope for a “right wing” link any time there’s an attack. These are the same journalists, by the way, who weren’t even slightly bothered by Barack Obama’s association with Bill Ayers, a real-life terrorist who bombed the NYC police department, the U.S. Capitol, and the Pentagon.

I favor immigration, but I want people who believe in tolerance and hard work. There should be some sort of test, however imperfect, designed to weed out those who do not believe in assimilation. I’m still flabbergasted that the U.S. government is so bloody incompetent that it gave a green card to the so-called Blind Sheik. Such people should never be let in the country and there should be mechanisms for quick deportation (perhaps halfway across the Atlantic) if they do slip through the net.

*I hope these are the virgins they meet.

P.S. Like anybody with common sense, I want’ our anti-terrorism policies to be based on cost-benefit analysis, which is why I’m generally critical of the Transportation Security Administration.

Addendum: I’m getting lots of comments and emails about this post. In retrospect, I can’t claim to be speaking for libertarians, so perhaps I should have used a title such as “What Are Your Thoughts about How to Deal with Terrorism?” Though I don’t think there’s anything in my views that is inconsistent with libertarianism. Assuming, of course, you’re not an anarcho-capitalist. But even if I was in that camp, I would want to voluntarily contract with a private firm that would hunt down terrorists and kill them. Sort of like the group in the new Tom Clancy novels. By the way, I also like the Vince Flynn novels, so I probably am more bloodthirsty than the average libertarian.

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This is probably the most difficult question that I’ve received. I’m not an expert on the legal issues, I’m not an expert on defense issues, and I don’t even have any strong gut instincts.

On the pro side, I suspect the world is a better place every time a drone wipes out a nest of terrorists. And that’s true even when the casualties include traitorous Americans.

I’m glad terrorists are nervously looking up, but…

On the anti side, every good libertarian worries about the slippery slope of government expansion. So even though I’m somewhat happy about terrorists getting zapped today, I don’t like to think about who might be targeted by politicians 30 years from now.

Remember, the income tax started as a relatively benign one-page form and it’s become a 72,000-page monstrosity with a thuggish IRS.

Part of the problem is that governments grab additional powers during wartime, and it’s very difficult to unwind those powers once hostilities cease.

And to make matters more challenging, we’re now fighting a war that presumably will never end.

Yes, we can probably ameliorate the problem by reducing American interventionism, but I strongly suspect that radical Islamists also hate us because of our tolerant values and secular system. So we’ll still face a serious threat of terrorist attacks even with a perfect libertarian foreign policy.

I guess the only answer I can provide is that I want plenty of independent judicial oversight. No, that’s not a panacea, but it’s at least some form of check and balance on the executive branch.

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More than four years ago, as part of my efforts to promote and protect tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy, I narrated this video explaining the economic benefits of so-called tax havens.

Pay close attention at the 1:07 mark.

Yes, you heard right. A former bureaucrat from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development actually called for the forcible annexation of low-tax jurisdictions, writing in the Financial Times that, “Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man should simply be absorbed lock, stock and barrel into the UK…Andorra, Monaco and Liechtenstein should be given the choice of ending bank secrecy or facing annexation.”

He wasn’t quite so belligerent about Switzerland, perhaps because all able-bodied male citizens have fully automatic assault weapons in their homes. But he did urge financial protectionism against the land of chocolate, yodeling, and watches.

What a bizarre attitude. It’s apparently okay for certain countries to persecute – or even kill – ethnic minorities, religious minorities, political dissidents, homosexuals, and other segments of their populations. Very rarely do people like Mr. Buiter call for annexation or sanctions against such loathsome regimes.

But if a nation has low taxes and  a strong human rights policy on financial privacy, then cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

It turns out Buiter isn’t the only one to have strange militaristic impulses.

Here are excerpts from an article posted at The Street, written by a statist who says that “tax havens” don’t have enough military force to resist high-tax nations.

There is a relatively easy answer to the financial troubles of Europe, America and Asia. The answer lies in so-called “tax havens.” A consensus is emerging among the world’s major taxing powers that tax evasion may not be a good thing. …Jurisdictions specializing in the financial secrecy needed to avoid taxes exist in or near every major financial power. There’s Switzerland in Europe, the Cayman Islands off the U.S., Hong Kong in China, Bahrain in the Middle East and Jersey between the U.K. and France. But none has the military force to maintain secrecy against concerted outside pressure. The question has always been whether the pressure would be applied, and there is now some reason for hope.

The title is particularly revealing. She must be the fiscal version of a neo-con, urging that high-tax nations should “Invade the Cayman Islands!”

Not Iran. Not Syria. Not Cuba. Not North Korea.

You see, those nations are all guilty of causing misery and instability, but such behaviors apparently are far less important than the imagined dangers posed by a prosperous multi-racial society with a competitive tax regime.

I assume Ms. Blankenhorn doesn’t actually want to practice gunboat diplomacy against the Cayman Islands, but her attitude is quite revealing. Like other statists, I gather she despises low-tax jurisdictions because they attract jobs and investment from high-tax nations.

In the spirit of problem solving, here’s a suggestion for Blankenhorn, Buiter, and the rest of the fiscal chicken hawks. If you really want to undermine the so-called tax havens, propose a simple and fair flat tax.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. The reason they want to squash tax havens is precisely because they want bad tax policy in America and other “onshore” nations.

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I realize that national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, but that doesn’t mean the Pentagon budget isn’t riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse.

Here’s a jaw-dropping example reported by Bloomberg.

A U.S. contractor in Iraq overbilled the Pentagon by at least $4.4 million for spare parts and equipment, including $900 for an electronic control switch valued at $7.05, according to a new audit. Based on the questionable costs identified in a $300 million contract with Dubai-based Anham LLC, the U.S. should review all its contracts with the company in Iraq and Afghanistan, which total about $3.9 billion, said Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen. “The audit found weak oversight in multiple areas that left the government vulnerable to improper overcharges,” Bowen wrote in the forward to his 30th quarterly report, released today. The contract in question was funded with a combination of money earmarked for Iraqi Security Forces and Army operations and maintenance funds. Among the “egregious examples of overbilling” by Anham were $4,500 for a circuit breaker valued at $183.30, $3,000 for a $94.47 circuit breaker and $80 for a small segment of drain pipe valued at $1.41.

Those mark-ups are absurd, but I wonder whether this example from the story is even worse.

In other cases, Anham used subcontractors to purchase items that could have been bought directly from the manufacturer at lower prices, the report said. When Anham was asked to buy a loudspeaker system to alert warehouse employees of any danger, it chose not to buy the system directly from the manufacturer at the retail price of $44,615, the report said. Instead, Anham sought bids from subcontractors and paid a company called Knowlogy $90,908. That price included $20,000 for installation, even though the system setup meant little more than wheeling it into place and plugging it in.

I think I made a mistake becoming a policy wonk. I could have a great career as a loudspeaker installer.

On a more serious note, it would be nice if governments didn’t squander so much money. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad if some people went to jail for these rip-offs of taxpayer money.

And let’s not forget that the bigger issue is whether the national security of the United States is advanced or undermined by nation building in the Middle East. Or remaining in alliances such as NATO that lost their raison d’être when the Warsaw Pact disappeared 20 years ago.

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