Feb 15

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.

And, though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Over time, words lose their original meaning. Often, exaggeration is to blame. The most obvious (and cliched) example is “literally” which literally no longer means literally. This “misuse” isn’t new or even that wrong from a literary perspective. (James Joyce, Mark Twain and Jane Austen all used it incorrectly.) You could (debatebly) throw “decimate” into this category, a word which once meant “one-tenth” now means “all”. I’m not immune either. Over the last couple months, I (Eric C) realized I use the word “infinitely” in definitively un-infinite situations. Michael C misuses “exponential growth” to refer to non-exponential growth and hates himself for it.

I fear this may happen to the word “existential”. “Existential” is supposed to refer to existence, meaning that if something is an “existential threat”, it poses a threat to your existence.

This word is literally being decimated by delusional (or fear-mongering) politicians.

I first noticed this language abuse by John McCain in 2008 during the presidential campaign, referring to terrorism generally. Of course, he’s not the only one. Long-time readers of On V may remember us writing about this before, citing major conservative thinkers scared of radical extremists. Since then, John McCain, and once-upon-a-time Republican Presidential candidate Lindsey Graham have continued the assault on language (and logic), by claiming ISIS poses an existential threat to America and the west.

Thankfully, some major conservative thinkers have debunked this abuse of language. That, alas, was but a brief blip in conservative thinking. Despite the patently inaccurate description, the entire Republican field has pushed the fact that ISIS is an existential threat:

- Ted Cruz, in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner, wants “to fight the existential threat of the Islamic State.”

- Ben Carson at the fifth debate: “But the war that we are fighting now against radical Islamist jihadists is one that we must win. Our very existence is dependent upon that.”

- Rand Paul feels ISIS poses a “global threat”. Which is somehow less accurate than “existential”.

- Or Marco Rubio at sixth debate: “There is a war against ISIS, not just against ISIS but against radical jihadists terrorists, and it is a war that they win or we win.”

- And Marco Rubio again at the seventh debate: "ISIS is the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind. ISIS is now found in affiliates in over a dozen countries. ISIS is a group that burns people alive in cages; that sells off little girls as brides...They want to trigger an apocalyptic Armageddon showdown."

From the start, Michael C and I have followed a guideline for choosing what to write about on our blog: have a good take. A good take means saying something true, but, more importantly, something novel, unique or original. You might stand out if you argue the moon is a hologram (like this guy, somehow) but the claim is so patently false as to be uninteresting. Next though, a good take needs to be original, lest we become just another blog in the “internet echo chamber”.

There’s a caveat, though. If an idea is true, but the general public doesn’t believe it, well, we need to write about it. Even if others are saying it too. This applies to ISIS.

America has fighter planes, tanks, battleships, landing craft, nuclear weapons; ISIS has some trucks and a handful of missiles. America’s military has a budget of over half a trillion dollars annually; ISIS claims they have two billion dollars. America’s military has over 1.3 million people; ISIS has soldiers in the low thousands. We have rich allies with well-funded militaries; ISIS has, somehow, managed to also piss off Russia, the Kurds, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

So obviously ISIS doesn’t represent an “existential threat” to America. Or a global threat. Or really the world more generally.

As we said earlier, others have made this point. But it still needs saying. Many people rationally understand this; millions of potential voters don’t. Obviously, it is galvanizing Republicans, both their candidates and their admirers. But worse, some Democrats have basically conceded this issue. As we wrote about before, during Obama’s final State of the Union, when Obama said that ISIS didn’t pose an existential threat, some Democrats didn’t clap at this line. Hell, watching the New Hampshire returns last week, I saw on MSNBC’s scroll that 9% of Democrats in New Hampshire ranked ISIS as their most concerning issue.

ISIS may some day launch terrorist attacks against America. (Even then, statistically, the threat they pose to Americans is tiny. Less than bee stings and bathtubs. Or fireworks.) But the chances ISIS will threaten America’s sovereignty or borders is literally infinitely small. Both politicians and the media need to make this clear.

Feb 01

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

Let’s just start at the beginning, with the Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That is the first line in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It’s really, really clear. If you claim to love the Constitution (and really people mean the Bill of Rights when they say they love the Constitution), it means loving the freedoms and liberties enshrined in it.

And the Founders started with religion.

The Constitution is only as strong as the people upholding its values. The Constitution can’t enforce itself. The Constitution doesn’t pass laws violating its principles; politicians do. During primary season, we’ve been reminded of this often unacknowledged fact.

So when numerous Republican candidates for president advocate unconstitutional proposals, you’d expect more protest from the party that carries mini-Constitutions, endorses original intent, and opens Congress by reading the Constitution from front to back (leaving out any sections the founders originally put in about 3/5th people).

If you had asked me before the election, I would have guessed that Republican candidates would have advocated violating the constitution when it comes to warrantless wiretapping. That’s hardly come up. Instead, candidates are advocating and proposing laws that would directly violate the First Amendment--by infringing on Muslim’s right to worship--by Republican candidates, most vocally Donald Trump followed by Ted Cruz. (This also applies to immigration, like Donald Trump’s opposition to the 14th Amendment.)

At his most extreme, Trump recommended creating a database of Muslims in America for intelligence agencies to watch/surveil/track. Summed up, simply for adhering to a religious belief (Islam), the government will track certain people. How can that not terrify anyone worried about government power or protecting civil liberties?

Other candidates called for using religion to screen immigrants. Still unconstitutional, other candidates including Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz joined Trump on this issue. Ted Cruz has also battled Donald Trump for which candidate can go the closest to outright Islamophobia, in some cases sounding like he endorses hate speech against Muslims.

In some ways, we can’t really blame Trump or Cruz, who are following the worst impulses of the people in the party they represent. As in all things politics, it’s a chicken and egg conundrum: Is the politician to blame for racist, unconstitutional views or the people showing up at his rallies? Of course, the people don’t just get riled up on their own. Conservative talk radio helps, and sometimes goes much farther than the politicians or people.

You can see this in the worst impulses of mobs of people. The first amendment says the federal and state governments cannot privilege any religion over another. So if a town allows a Catholic church and a Protestant church, it must also allow a Mosque. Yet that basic understanding of the Constitution doesn’t stop a mob of citizens in Virginia from protesting a renovation to an Islamic center. Whether through popular fiat or government regulation, they want to evict all Muslims. (This is similar to the people who wanted to ban a Mosque from opening near the World Trade Center.) This is the worst sort of populism the founders feared.

If you want absolute security, the Constitution is not for you. Too often the values that keep us free put us at risk. Civil libertarians (like myself) too often neglect this fact. Republican candidates probably do love the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution, but it seems like they love safety more. They are reflecting the sentiment of their base. And that base is scared. Pointlessly scared--the risk of dying is almost zero from Muslim terrorism--but still scared.

And scared people overreact. These overreactions do threaten our country: they threaten the Constitution. They threaten the Bill of Rights.

Responding to Donald Trump’s surprising political success, a lot of liberals have responded with jokes, not taking him seriously. As voting begins today in Iowa, serious issues are at stake, up to and including the sanctity of the Constitution.

The Constitution is a fragile thing after all.

Jun 30

Say you’re an American who’s been alive for the last 10 years. You’re more likely to die from any of the following things than terrorism…

- Bathtubs

- Bee stings

- Being shot by a police officer

- Lightning

- Drunk drivers

- Moving heavy furniture

- Traffic accidents

And so on. Basically, terrorism is one of the least likely ways that you can die in America. But Jeffrey Goldberg doesn’t buy this argument:   

“...a bathtub death is in most ways not equivalent in impact to a death caused by terrorists. The death of someone in a bathtub accident is obviously a terrible tragedy for that person's family and friends. But unlike a death caused by terrorism, a bathtub death has few, if any, political, economic, foreign policy, societal and constitutional ramifications.”

Researching the likelihood of dying from terrorism for an upcoming "Costs of Security" post, I stumbled upon this article from a years ago. Michael C and I disagree 100% with it so much, we had to respond. Why? A few reasons...

1. The Difference Between Terrorism and Other Ways of Dying is our Over-Reaction to it.

In Goldberg’s mind, terrorism matters because it has “political, economic, foreign policy, societal and constitutional ramifications”, forcing us to take it more seriously than other ways of dying. But flip that around: because society takes terrorism more seriously than other ways of dying, it has political, economic, societal and constitutional ramifications. It’s a trap. We overreact to terrorism, and because we overreact to it, we should take it more seriously, but taking it more seriously causes us to overreact even further...

Goldberg actually makes the point for us. Which came first? The ramifications or the reaction? Goldberg, in his piece, cites the strain on the constitution caused by terrorism:

“And consider the impact of terrorism on the Constitution, and on our collective self-conception as an open and free society. Just look at the stress placed on our constitutional freedoms by 9/11. A sustained terror campaign, even one with much lower death tolls than 9/11, would inevitably lead to the curtailment of our rights.”

It’s sort of a circular argument.The impact of 9/11 and terrorism on our constitutional liberties is exactly why we should treat terrorism like other forms of dying. If society treated terrorism like we did bathtub deaths--just another hazard in the modern world--then our Constitution and civil liberties wouldn’t be threatened.

2. Terrorism Has Foreign Policy Ramifications...Because Terrorism Guides our Foreign Policy

Goldberg claims terrorism matters because it has foreign policy ramifications. Goldberg wrote a New Yorker article falsely claiming a link between al Qaeda and Iraq.

So terrorism matters...because it has foreign policy ramifications...and politicians and pundits use terrorism to endorse foreign policy decisions. You see the loop again, right?

3. The Comparison That Totally Debunks Goldberg

For most ways of dying, it is hard to directly rebut Goldberg’s point. Deaths from terrorism don’t have a direct connection to say bathtub deaths or bee stings. (Unless terrorist start arming bees...) But what if I could find an example where it does?

Like, say, car crashes.

In America, car crashes kill around 30,000 people each year. Terrorism since 9/11 has killed less than thirty people a year, and even those numbers are inflated by including the deaths of American civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically, terrorism has only killed 74 people. (And white Christian extremists have killed twice as many people through terrorist attacks than Islamic extremists...without the remifications Goldberg worries about.) The evidence is clear; cars kill more Americans than terrorists.

Here’s a thorny problem for people who fear terrorism: what if a miracle cure for car crashes existed that was also a terrorist threat?

Like the self-driving car.

Self-driving cars will see better and react faster than humans ever can. Unlike humans, self-driving cars will only get safer through improved sensors and programming. And they won’t even make it on the roads until they are proven to be safer than humans. They’ll never get tired, drunk, distracted or lose their senses to old age. Some car companies are also developing vehicle to vehicle communications, which will save even more lives.

Of course, the only thing can stop the clearly safe self-driving car is the one thing that Jeffrey Goldberg fears most: terrorism! Take this headline from CNBC, “Self-driving cars—the next terrorism threat?

Let’s assume the terrorist threat is real and, when self-driving cars are adopted, terrorist use them to successfully kill Americans. Say self driving cars cut the number of car crash fatalities in half, but terrorists successfully kill ten Americans each year by hijacking self-driving cars. Would the “ramifications” of terrorism mean those ten deaths matter more than the 15,000 saved lives? Perhaps those numbers are too extreme, but at what point do the saved lives from car crash fatalities outweigh the “ramifications” of terrorist deaths?

We’re comparing two ways of dying: the current reality of humans dying in car crashes versus the potential for humans to die from terrorism in self-driving cars. And the inevitable over-reaction to terrorism by the American people. Will self-driving cars cut down the number of traffic fatalities compared to the risk they’ll be used by terrorists? Absolutely, but the terrorism deaths will get a lot more news coverage. A lot more.

And that’s why this comparison is so needed.

Jun 22

(To read the entire "The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series, please click here.

A while back, I wrote a post on how I would have argued on America’s greatest Oxford-style debating competition, Intelligence Squared US, specifically the episode on the Arab Spring. Today, I will present the opening statement I would have delivered rebutting the motion, “Spying Keeps You Safe”.)

Before I begin, let me concede a shocking point: I agree with the motion. Spying does keep us safe. I mean, if we didn’t have any police, would we have more crime? We would. So if we didn’t have a single spy or counter-terrorist, would we have more terrorists? Yes, we would.

Of course, we don’t really mean that spying keeps us 100% safe. And we don’t really mean this motion in the abstract. The motion is really asking whether the exorbitant costs of the spying apparatus--in both fiscal and civil rights terms--keep us safer than if we spent that money elsewhere. Especially when it comes to domestic spying by our government.

Literally, by any metric--cost-benefit, lives saved, efficiency--America wastes most of the money it spends on counter-terrorism and spying.

Let me give you a thought experiment to help explain how. Last year, America’s intelligence agencies spent a collective $75 Billion with a B on intelligence. What if we had only spend $70 billion? Would the likelihood of a terrorist attack have gone up? By how much?

Unfortunately, those are all questions America’s intelligence chiefs can’t answer, and wouldn’t even know how to begin to answer. And if they can’t answer them, do we really think “spying is keeping us safe?” They can’t even tell us how!

In our contemporary times, terrorism is excessively rare. Terrorism kills less people than gun violence. Or bee stings. Or heart attacks. Or suicides. Even the year that America suffered 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in history, more Americans died in car accidents. But even making those comparisons doesn’t capture the fact that you have a better chance to win the lottery than die of terrorism.

In fact, because terrorism is so unlikely, intelligence spending actually hurts Americans because we could use it in better ways. Instead of improving economic opportunity or curing diseases, we spend money paying multiple agencies to write the same reports with the same information. We pay signal intelligence agents to spy on their ex-wives and girlfriends. Or we encourage FBI agents to ignore financial malfeasance, organized crime, drug trafficking and other crimes to entrap Muslim Americans.

So vote against the motion because spending on spying means not spending the money on other concrete ways that could save lives now. As the debate goes on, we can also discuss how the intelligence community over-hypes this threat, how the intelligence community over-estimates its effectiveness, how the intelligence community favors expensive technological solutions over low-cost, more effective human intelligence solutions, how spying on Americans hurts our civil liberties and we can also discuss the waste in the intelligence community.

But most importantly, spying doesn’t keep us safe...in fact it’s killing us.

(Unfortunately, we don’t have enough street cred to get invited on Intelligence Squared. From my listening, though, to win an Intelligence Squared debate, the best technique is often to reframe the terms of the debate. Eric C and I have tried to do this in our series, “The Costs of Security” where we have tried to reframe the debate on terrorism in the U.S.)

May 18

On the surface, the last few years have been terrible for the so-called “head in the sand types” like me who don’t understand that…

1. There are truly evil people in the world.

2. Wars are a fact of life.

Since 2010, in part because of the Arab Spring and its multiple revolutions, insurgencies and general instability, the world has never seemed so violent. More importantly, the U.S. can’t stop intervening in warzones. In addition to trying to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the media/politicians have seriously discussed starting wars (“intervening militarily” in newspeak) in Libya, Iran, North Korea, Egypt, Syria and the Ukraine. According to some Republican politicians, only Obama’s weakness has prevented the U.S. from fighting in these places, er, making the world safer.

This seems really bad for liberalism in international relations. Apparently, war isn’t becoming less likely, as Stephen Pinker, John Horgan and others have argued. We almost started six wars in just the last three years!   

Except for that pesky word “almost”. The U.S. avoided wars in North Korea, Syria and Iran, and looks set to both stop Russia from invading the rest of Ukraine while avoiding a nuclear war with Russia. We are close to signing an historic deal with Iran.

I give almost all the credit to liberalism in international relations. Liberal foreign policy--promoting free trade, democracy and international institutions--has accomplished its goals: to further economic growth, create peace and expand liberty across the globe. Along the way, it also prevents unnecessary wars. Here’s how:

1. Democratic politics constrain the executive.

In the case of Syria, the battle between the executive and the legislature stopped a full-blown war.

In the original writings of Enlightenment thinkers, the whole concept of a President was supposed to mimic a monarch. In other words, a dictator. Since the presidency of George Washington, America has always restrained the power of the executive with the checks and balances. Since the Civil War, the power of the presidency compared to the legislature has grown, even under President Obama, who promised to limit executive power. When this happens, disastrous wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been too easy for the executive branch to pursue.

Syria seems to have reversed that trend. The American people refused to let one man--President Obama--decide to start another war. So did the British government. (Again, anyone who defines cruise missile strikes as “not war” needs to look in the mirror and ask, “What is war?”) Most of the arguments for a war with Syria--based on credibility, based on deterring Iran, based on avoiding making President Obama look “weak”--are the arguments for maintaining an executive branch that can declare war unilaterally, like a dictatorship.

Instead, we saw the legislative branch restrain the executive. (And the same thing happened in England.)

I’d add Iraq to this discussion too. Though, arguably, Iraq is in worse shape than any point during our occupation, Obama really, really, really doesn’t want to add ground troops to the conflict. In this case, though some conservatives/liberals and media types are pushing for war in Iraq through hyperbolic ISIS coverage, Obama won’t put boots on the ground without Congressional approval.

2. Economic disincentives discouraged Russia and Iran.

After their invasion of Crimea, the Russian economy went in a tailspin. Their main stock market plummeted. The ruble fell precipitously, forcing the Russian Central Bank to raise interest rates. Foreign investment plummeted next. The markets only calmed down after Vladimir Putin promised no further military action.

Iran experienced similar damage when the P5+1 imposed sanctions, which helped bring them to the negotiating table. Iran remained at the table, and agreed to the terms of a deal as well, because those years of crippling sanctions stalled reasonable economic growth.

The problem that neo-conservatives and unrealistic realists can’t understand is that war isn’t profitable anymore. If Putin continues to push on Ukraine, the result won’t be a war (which could escalate quickly into a nuclear conflict), but greater economic isolation. Removing a huge economy like Russia from the global economy wouldn’t just hurt Russia; it would hurt the entire globe. In short, everyone would lose much more than Russia would stand to gain from “expanding its sphere of influence”.

Of course, Putin could choose to do so anyways and watch as his economy spirals further. It’s not like a Russian ruler has ever been deposed for completely mismanaging a war.

3. International institutions are now the norm.

They help restrain powers. The U.S. and Israel both rely on the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission to investigate Iranian nuclear power. Suspending Russia from the G8 hurt Russian power. A host of international institutions help restrain war with North Korea by coordinating responses to North Korean aggression.

And they helped stop a war in Syria. Sure, the U.N. couldn’t stop a war with Iraq, but it sure stopped one in Syria. Having witnessed the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the inherent difficulty in controlling Libya, most of the world simply refused to fight another war in the Middle East. Thus, President Obama faced the prospect of going to war without the support of the U.N., NATO or the Arab League, or even staunch allies like the United Kingdom. Sure, you could condemn Obama’s coalition building skills, but the more important point is how much weight nations around the world--and even Americans--now put on international institutions. This won’t prevent all inter-state wars forever, but it will help to make them less likely.

(As with all my articles on foreign policy, I have to again clarify that I am referring to liberalism in international relations—which means advocating the principles of international institutions, democracy, and free trade, among other ideals—as opposed to political liberalism—which is an entirely different thing altogether. International relations liberalism holds that as democracy spreads, international institutions strengthen and free trade increases, the number of wars occurring around the world will decline.)

Apr 06

For the last two weeks, Michael C and I have been trying to publish an op-ed. (Actually, two different pieces, but we’re still waiting to hear back on one of them.)

This particular op-ed was about war with Iran.

As long time readers know, a few years ago we wrote a paper for the Small Wars Journal outlining the risks of a potential war with Iran. (We also wrote a gigantic, 27 post series, "The Drums Beat Again: The Case Against War with Iran".) Back in 2012 when we wrote the paper, America really seemed to be seriously considering going to war again. Michael C (and myself) did a ton of research and wrote up “War with Iran: An Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield.

At the time, we considered this one of the true pieces of value we could add to the conversation. Plenty of pundits could (and did) speak about going to war; few could (or did) speak about the consequences, especially in terms of lives lost.

But potential war with Iran was replaced by possible wars with Syria, then Russia, and finally Iraq. Again.

Yet the possibility of war with Iran never seems to go away. As anyone following the news knows, many right-wing pundits and neo-conservatives have, in recent weeks, been arguing (once again) that America needs to go to war with Iran. Forty-seven senators wrote an open letter trying to ruin the chances of a nuclear deal, explaining divided government. (Fun tidbit: the Iranian foreign minister has a PhD in International relations from...the University of Denver, so he probably knows how the American government works.) Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Congress urging America to do more to stop Iran. Finally, Joshua Muravchik wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post titled, “War with Iran is probably our best option” which bluntly stated what many conservatives had only hinted at:

America needs to bomb Iran.

So we dusted off an op-ed we originally wrote three years ago. Our thesis? That too many pundits advocate for war with Iran without outlining the potential costs. We sent it to the New York Times on March 24th. Two days later, the Times published “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” by John Bolton. No surprise, he didn’t outline the potential costs of war.

This is really unfortunate. As I wrote in January about America’s third potential war in Iraq, the media seems awfully pro-war (or pro-intervention) at times, at least before a war begins. And we believe our op-ed really explains a topic that most journalists ignore in the coverage: what would a war with Iran cost in terms of lives, both U.S. and Iranian?

What’s the worst case scenario?

Fortunately for world security--and unfortunately for us as writers--America, Iran and four additional countries agreed to broad outlines of a framework deal on Iran’s nuclear program. With this, our op-ed has been rendered obsolete. That’s fine by us.

So we’ll be publish the whole op-ed this week on our blog. We still consider the core argument valid: as a country we need to discuss the potential costs of future wars in realistic terms. Considering the deal with Iran still requires final agreements to be reached by the end of June, a war with Iran could still be in our future.

And we should know the potential costs.

Mar 26

(Spoiler Warning: I basically spoil everything in the book and movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.)

On Monday, I (Eric C) wrote up a review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, both the film and book. Today, I want to cover some of unique thoughts it inspired.

The Odd Criticism of “Western Decadence”

At the end of the book--massive spoiler warning--Bill Haydon reveals why he became a double agent for the Russians, “He spoke not of the decline of the West, but of it’s death by greed and constipation.” From the film, “It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly.”

Oddly enough, I recently heard a similar thing from a reporter on an Economist podcast, explaining the the Hungarian Prime Minister opposition’s to America and the rest of Europe. In the Prime Minister’s mind, “The West is a bit past it, a bit decadent.”

Russian leader Vladmir Putin feels the same way. From The American Interest, “Putin believes that the West is decadent, weak and divided.” According to the Economist, ISIS recruits are inspired by the same thought, “Boastful combatants post well-scripted videos to attract their foreign peers, promising heaven for those who leave their lives of Western decadence to become ‘martyrs’.” Some Westerners believe the same thing.

It’s an odd idea: that being rich and powerful makes a country “decadent”, a synonym for weak.

Not that I should spend time debating communist or extremist ideology, but this argument is absurd. Prosperity tends to defeat poverty. Wealth creates advantages, not weakness. Perhaps some of the super-wealthy become weak and feeble. Poverty almost always guarantees that someone will become weak and feeble. You just don’t have the resources.

In terms of security, the argument is especially absurd. Prosperity, ironically, creates a better military. It’s like poker. If you have a larger stack of money, you can take more risks, take advantage of opportunities. For example, spending resources--time and money--to train your military. You have the freedom to allow people to spend time training in the Special Forces, and after Israel--another wealthy nation--America has the best special forces in the world.

Or you can spend gobs and gobs of the world’s largest fortune on technological advances for your military. Your country can fly unmanned, small planes over any other country and bomb them.

Wealth, instead of causing weakness, actually makes people harder working, more productive members of society. From David Brooks’ op-ed on Charles Murray’s The Great Divide:

“Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses…

They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Murray’s work can be really controversial--especially his work on race--but I agree with this particular argument. To me, the educational opportunities afforded to the rich, well, it clearly gives them a leg up in America. And the world.

Intelligence can be so Pointless       

At some point near the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the British discover an operative pretending to be a double agent to a Russian embassy worker who is also pretending to be a double agent to the British. Both sides deliver fake or meaningless information to the other side, pretending that they’re giving them gold. (Meanwhile, one British spy is delivering real intelligence to the Russians.)

It all seems so incredibly pointless.

I didn’t arrive at this conclusion on my own. Doing the aforementioned research on intelligence, I came across two Malcolm Gladwell articles in The New Yorker--both reviewing books on intelligence by Ben Macintyre--that make a very good case for the futility of intelligence. Because both the Germans and the British knew the other side was trying to send them bad intelligence, they ignored good intelligence, then acted on the bad intelligence they wanted to avoid acting on.

It’s a refreshing read. Andy Rooney prepared me for this after reading My War. He has a whole sub-chapter on his distaste for spy craft and its pointlessness. In short, spies spend much of their time looking for other spies. Both sides feed each other disinformation. Even when you get intel, you can’t use it much of the time because it reveals your source.


Jan 28

At the end of the August 22nd episode of KCRW’s Left, Right and Center, former journalist and Canadian parliamentarian Chrystia Friedland pissed me off.

She was describing how America had hoped for a “peace dividend” following the fall of the USSR, and then after the drawdown in Iraq. However, she used this history to caution that America “can’t withdraw from the world” (min 15:30), and (therefore) must be prepared to go to war with countries like Russia, Syria and Iraq.   

“Withdrawing from the world” is a familiar criticism of President Obama/Democrats when they don’t want to start another war. In June, Congressman Paul Ryan accused President Obama of “withdrawing from the world” by refusing to bomb ISIS or send troops back to Iraq. John McCain has said this too, in regards to Syria.

It seems every time the Washington war-hawk establishment gets spun up about another war--by our count, since President Obama’s reelection, it has happened with Egypt, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Ukraine, Iraq and Nigeria--they first trot out the lines about “Munich Moments”, then they try to portray advocates against another war as “isolationists”, and finish by admonishing that the U.S. cannot “withdraw from the world”.

We find these lines of attack, particularly when they come from hardcore conservatives or conservative think tanks, incredibly hypocritical. Take the Heritage Foundation. They host the text of a speech on their website from Walter Lohman, a director on their staff, called “Honoring America’s Superpower Responsibilities”, where Lohman repeatedly admonishes that America must not “withdraw from the world”. Lohman claims he is not just talking about military power, but other forms of engagement as well.

Fair enough. So let’s go to the Heritage Foundation’s website, and see its official stances on a host of international issues: Does it support more foreign aid spending? Nope. Does it support the UN Council on Human Rights? Nope. Should the U.S. honor the Geneva convention when it comes to terrorists? Nope. Should the U.S. pull back funding from the U.N.? Yep. Should it call for less peacekeeping missions to stop on-going wars? Yep.

Most importantly, does the Heritage foundation recommend rejecting almost every treaty placed in front of America? Hell yes.

See conservatives love to “engage” the world, when it means fighting there. Anyone who backs down from a fight is “withdrawing” from America’s superpower responsibilities. Yet when it comes to low cost, simple ways to spread the rule of law--and international norms, which seemed so important to uphold in both Ukraine and Syria--Republicans and conservatives balk. As Kevin Drum pointed out, conservatives in particular hate treaties.

This applies to Senate Republicans particularly. In the last decade or so they have…

- Promised to kill the the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court. (President Clinton signed on to the treaty but never submitted it to the Senate, because he knew it wouldn’t pass. President Bush withdrew from it. (We’ve written before how an ICC for Terrorists, Pirates and Trans-National Criminals would solve about a dozen international issues in one fell swoop.)

- Filibustered or stalled the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1994. (The U.S. does follow its provisions anyways.)

- Failed to sign onto treaties banning cluster munitions, land mines and white phosphorous.

- Rejected an international treaty on Human Rights for the Disabled. The U.S. most recently rejected the UN treaty on protecting disabilities, a treaty styled on US disability law!

- And more!

We’ve written about this before, defending ourselves--and fellow advocates for restraint in military adventures around the world--from charges of isolationism. But it seems important to bring it up again, especially when in Ukraine, the value of “international norms” was brought up again and again as the raison d’etre for intervention. In the words of Fareed Zakaria:

“But beyond these narrow considerations is a larger one: Do these countries want to live in a world entirely ruled by the interplay of national interests? Since 1945, there have been increasing efforts to put in place broader global norms — for example, against annexations by force. These have not always been honored, but, compared with the past, they have helped shape a more peaceful and prosperous world.”

We agree. International norms trump national self-interest, especially in the long run. But the true value of international norms isn’t created on the eve of war, it’s created in the years before conflict. The Senate, which has allowed its minority group to deny any new treaties since 1997, has done more to hurt international norms than not bombing Russia or the Islamic State.

The irony is that refusing to ratify global treaties makes the world more dangerous and free trade less likely.

And that forces the U.S. to go to unnecessary wars.

Now that’s withdrawing from the world.