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Published: Mon, 22 Jan 2018 00:00:00 -0500

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A U.S. Citizen Suspected of Joining ISIS Has Been Held for Months Without Charges or a Lawyer

Tue, 12 Dec 2017 13:10:00 -0500

(image) An American citizen has been held in Iraq as an enemy combatant for several months, and the federal government has refused to reveal his name or to give him access to a lawyer.

According to the government, the man in question is a United States citizen who went to Syria and joined the Islamic State. Kurdish forces captured him in September, and he was handed over to the U.S. military on September 14. The authorities refuse to identify the man, and he has not been before a judge or in a courtroom since his detention.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is attempting to intervene on the man's behalf. Yesterday U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan took a dim view of the Department of Justice's excuses for keeping the man hidden at a secret prison in Iraq.

The government is being secretive about the man's identity for a reason: The Justice Department is trying to push away legal challenges to his detention by claiming that nobody has legal standing to represent him. Nobody outside the feds knows who he is, therefore nobody could claim to represent him in court. That the government itself is the reason why we don't know his identity is just the icing on the cake.

The Washington Post describes Chutkan's reaction to the Justice Department's arguments:

"How on earth is the man to exercise his habeas rights," and contest being held, Chutkan at one point asked attorneys for the government at an hour-long hearing. The judge said their position suggested "an end-run" around the Constitution by saying in effect "You don't get to exercise your habeas rights until we decide what to do with you."

ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz called the government's position "Kafkaesque" and "a direct assault" on the authority established by the U.S. Supreme Court during George W. Bush's presidency for U.S. citizens suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to challenge detentions after being captured on the battlefield.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2004 in Hamdi v. Rumsefeld that U.S. citizens being held as enemy combatants still retain the right to due process and to challenge their classifications as combatants. The Pentagon has disclosed (after being ordered by this judge to do so) that the man has requested a lawyer. That attorney has not yet been provided.

The behavior here by the Pentagon and Department of Justice is pretty repulsive, but the fact that the case involves a U.S. citizen who has apparently joined ISIS means it's not likely to inspire much public outrage. Nevertheless, the purpose of due process is to guarantee the rights of those accused of even the most egregious of crimes. This guy has a right to a lawyer and a court hearing.

Read more about the case from the ACLU here.

U.K. Anti-Terror Censorship Law Stupidly Used Against Guy Who Fights Terrorism

Tue, 31 Oct 2017 14:35:00 -0400

Prosecutors in the United Kingdom didn't think Josh Walker was an actual terrorist. But they treated him as if he were one anyway, because of a book they found in his bedroom. Fortunately, they failed. But the case, highlighted at The Intercept, details some of the terrible consequences of trying to criminalize dangerous thoughts or ideas rather than actions. Walker was prosecuted for downloading and having in his possession a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, an infamous guide to homemade explosives (and other tools for lawbreaking) that was first published in 1971. Walker wasn't plotting a terrorist attack. He was, in fact, doing the opposite. According to The Intercept and the court case, he was using the book as a reference material for a terror crisis management simulation at a college. The United Kingdom does not have the same broad First Amendment freedom of speech protections that Americans have. The Terrorism Act of 2000 in Section 58 criminalizes the ownership of "information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism." There is a defense that a person has a "reasonable excuse" for having the material, and that's what Walker had to lean on during the trial. The whole thing seemed particularly absurd because Walker had returned to the United Kingdom from Syria, where he was helping a Kurdish militia fight the Islamic State. I wasn't kidding when I said he was the opposite of a terrorist. And prosecutors knew that. From The Intercept: As the case moved forward, the prosecution acknowledged that Walker was not suspected of plotting any kind of terrorist atrocity. The government was instead arguing that his mere possession of the book was a violation of the Terrorism Act's Section 58 because it contained information that could have been useful to a terrorist if discovered. The book is freely available to anyone on the internet, and versions of it can even be purchased on Amazon. Regardless, prosecution lawyer Robin Sellers said it was possible a "radicalized" person could find Walker's copy of the book and use it to prepare an attack. The prosecution's argument seemed bizarre and without precedent. People in the U.K. have been prosecuted before under the Terrorism Act for possessing the "Anarchist Cookbook," but usually the defendants have been involved in some other kind of nefarious activity as well. In 2010, for example, a member of a violent neo-Nazi group called the "Wolf Pack" was convicted of a terrorism offense for possessing the book. He was linked, through his father, to a plot to overthrow the government and poison people. In another case, in 2011, a man was sentenced to three years in prison for selling the "Cookbook" and Al Qaeda training manuals, pocketing $113,000 in the process. Walker's case was different: He was being prosecuted solely because he downloaded and stored a copy of the book. Fortunately for Walker, the jury also found the prosecution's argument bizarre. Last week they found him not guilty. Despite the absurdity of this prosecution, the U.K.'s home secretary (essentially the equivalent of the head of America's Department of Homeland Security) actually wants to expand this anti-terror censorship law. Section 58 doesn't currently cover viewing or reading content online. So this month Secretary Amber Rudd said she wants to expand the law's reach to cover people who view "terrorist content online, including jihadi websites, far-right propaganda and bomb-making instructions." (If you'd like to know how the U.K. government would be able to know what you've been viewing online, they've covered that with the Investigatory Powers Act that went into effect at the start of the year.) Rudd says that the "reasonable excuse" exemption will remain for people such as journalists and academics who write about ideas the government has classified as "extremist." But even when prosecutors acknowledged that Walker was not a terrorist, they still put him on trial. This law is obviously open to prosecutorial abuse already. That's a good r[...]

$7,700 Is Your Share of the Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria So Far

Thu, 28 Sep 2017 13:15:00 -0400

(image) How much have our post-9/11 wars on terror cost? This year's National Defense Authorization Act ordered the government to collect and calculate that information, and the results are in. The Pentagon estimates that so far the war in Afghanistan has cost $753 billion, amounting to a cumulative cost per taxpayer of $3,785. Iraq and Syria are $770 billion, or $3,955 per taxpayer. That adds up to a grand total of more than $1.5 trillion and $7,740 per taxpayer. So far.

At Defense One, Marcus Weisberger notes: "Americans paid the most for the wars in 2010, an average of $767 apiece. The annual amount declined through 2016 to $204 per taxpayer, before growing again as the U.S. ramped up its airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria."

These figures vastly understate the ultimate monetary costs of the wars. In Reason piece last year headlined "The High Price of Security Theater," James Bovard included the costs of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Agency harassment at airports, and FBI, CIA, and NSA surveillance to come up with a total cost of $4 trillion.

The Costs of War Project at the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University calculates that "through 2017, the US federal government has spent or been obligated to spend $4.8 trillion on the post-9/11 wars, including medical and disability payments to veterans over the next forty years." The researchers at the Watson Institute further noted that the wars had generally been financed by borrowing. "Unless the US changes the way it manages that debt, future interest will exceed $8 trillion by the 2050s," they report.


Assuming 210 million taxpayers, the Watson Institute figures suggest that, if these trends continue, that the cost of our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria will amount to $61,000 per individual taxpayer by 2050.

President Donald Trump wants to increase the Pentagon's budget by $54 billion. Below see Reason TV's "3 Reasons Conservatives Should Cut Defense Spending Now":

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Hey Libertarians for Trump, How Much More #Winning Can You Take?

Wed, 06 Sep 2017 14:35:00 -0400

It's almost nine months into Donald Trump's presidency and here's a question for the old "Libertarians for Trump" crowd: How much more winning can you take? There was a small but vocal band of limited-government folks who vocally supported the billionaire real estate mogul on the grounds that he couldn't possibly be as bad as Hillary Clinton or even most of the other Republican candidates, especially when it came to foreign policy. Leading the pack was economist Walter Block, who beat me in a competitive debate in New York City right before the election. Block's argument was that "the perfect is the enemy of the good" and "the Donald is the most congruent with [the libertarian] perspective" especially on foreign policy. Trump has turned out to be anything but an isolationist. He promised to bring fire and fury to North Korea, "the likes of which this world has never seen before." He bombed Syria on the same humanitarian grounds he explicitly denounced during his campaign. He escalated war efforts in Yeman and Iraq, And more recently, announced plans to "win" in Afghanistan. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, declared that while the United States might not walk away with a "battlefield" victory in the graveyard of empires, neither will the Taliban. That's not inspirational, it's stupid. Apart from his foreign policy follies, this anti-free-trader and nativist has turned out to be even less libertarian than advertised during the campaign. He's continued giving mealy-mouthed support to white supremacists and pardoned Joe Arpaio, "America's toughest sheriff," who was found in contempt of court after he continued to illegally racially profile and detain Latino suspects. And his attorney general is walking back a decade of incremental progress on criminal justice reform. There's no question that the Trump administration is doing some good things, such as deregulatory moves related to the FCC, the FDA, and the EPA. His Education department is supporting school choice to the extent that the federal government can do so. His deregulatory push is all to the good, but it's overwhelmed by Trump's other policies. There's also no question that at this point Trump is doing virtually everything else he can do to alienate libertarians who believe in shrinking the size, scope, and spending of government. And the excuse that Hillary Clinton would have been worse is getting older than Bernie Sanders. The perfect is the enemy of the good, but what Donald Trump has shown us so far just isn't good enough. Produced by Todd Krainin. Written by Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Jim Epstein. Production assistance by Andrew Heaton. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.[...]

Holocaust Museum Pulls Study That Came to Obvious Conclusion on Syria Genocide

Wed, 06 Sep 2017 13:45:00 -0400

(image) The Holocaust Museum has pulled a research study that concluded that increased U.S. airstrikes and support for Syrian rebels in 2013 may not have reduced the killing and could even have exacerbated the problem. The paper had been scheduled to be unveiled at an event next next week. The museum says it wants to "evaluate" the feedback it received; it's unclear whether the study will be made available again.

The paper's conclusions seem obvious. The situation in Syria is complex, with a wide array of armed factions backed by different foreign powers, ranging from Saudi Arabia to Russia to, of course, the United States. American bombs would not simplify the crisis, nor would they stablize the country. A campaign against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad might limit his ability to perpetrate atrocities, but it would not limit the potential for other actors on the ground to perpetrate similar, or even deadlier, atrocities.

Tablet reports, based on excerpts it obtained, that the Museum's study "absolved" the Obama administration for its inaction in the face of Syrian genocide. The museum's decision to remove the study from its website makes it hard to judge its merits. (It apparently drew on game theory, computational models, and interviews with policymakers and experts.) But the speed with which the paper was condemned—based largely on excerpts, and on the simple fact that it reached conclusions some people disliked—strongly suggests the outrage machine is at work here.

"Shame on the Holocaust Museum," literary critic Leon Wieseltier told Tablet. "If I had the time I would gin up a parody version of this that will give us the computational-modeling algorithmic counterfactual analysis of John J McCloy's decision not to bomb the Auschwitz ovens in 1944. I'm sure we could concoct the fucking algorithms for that, too."

Here's the thing: Decisions like this ought to be examined using facts and models—even algorithmic ones. They ought to be engaged soberly, in a way that arrives at conclusions that can be useful to future decision makers. Wieseltier got a good line in, but when we exclude evidence from decisions on issues as grave as war, we are not contributing to a world with less atrocities. We're making it harder to figure out how to prevent atrocities.

There are some legitimate criticisms of the study, though they aren't enough to warrant withdrawing it. The Museum of Jewish Heritage's Abe Foxman pointed out two of them to Tablet. First, the Syrian genocide is not yet over, so any assessment along these lines will by its nature be incomplete. Second, passing judgement on action or inaction is beyond the museum's mandate. The latter point in particular has some merit, though it doesn't affect the report's conclusions.

Another concern is the possible influence of former Obama administration officials. Several Obama alumni, mostly National Security Council staffers, have taken positions within the museum. One of them, Anna Cave, was listed as one of the participants in the study back in June. That's a pretty clear conflict of interest. But even that is no reason to keep people from reading the report.

Genocide is humanity's greatest crime, and preventing it is a worthy goal. An important part of prevention is understanding the limits to different courses of action.

Trump to Cut CIA Program That Arms Syrian Rebels. Good—Now Cut the Pentagon's Program, Too.

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 14:55:00 -0400

The Trump administration is reportedly cutting a CIA program that has provided arms to Syrian rebels since 2013. This has provoked a heated reaction from a media obsessed with Russia, and from Russia hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said such a decision would represent a "complete capitulation" to Bashar Assad, Russia, and Iran. But if anything, the decision doesn't go far enough. Congress should tell the Defense Department to stop equipping, arming, and training Syrians as well. These efforts go back to 2014, when the U.S. and Turkey partnered to aid "moderate" Syrian rebels. From the beginning, critics described the effort as a "disaster in the making." Militant factions backed by the CIA and the Pentagon have been fighting each other. U.S. arms have fallen into the hands of ISIS. Turkey, meanwhile, has become an increasingly unreliable partner as it descends into domestic authoritarianism. So stopping the program, while a small step, makes sense. Yet hysteria over Russia has prompted many pundits and politicians to oppose the change. CBS claims that the "timing of the decision raises questions for the White House" because of a previously undisclosed conversation President Donald Trump had with Russia President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit. But the "timing" isn't really suspicious: Trump called arming Syrian rebels a mistake as far back as September 2014, and he signaled after the election that he was likely to abandon the CIA arms program. U.S. policy on Syria is too important to get lost in this sort of reality-TV politics. Nor should it be guided by the tautological idea that Washington should refrain from doing anything that might please a nation seen as "unfriendly" to U.S. interests. The Washington Post calls the decision to stop the arms flow a "move sought by Moscow." Yes, but it's also a move sought by a majority of Americans, and it has been for years. Deployed now by Democrats interested in reigniting a Cold War with Moscow, the same "my enemy is my enemy" principle manifests when Republicans denounce the Iran nuclear deal. In neither instance does this produce good foreign policy results. Opposing the Iran deal merely because it might benefit Iran is no more sound than opposing disengagement in Syria merely because it might benefit Russia; the important question is whether it benefits the United States. Unfortunately, Trump's Syria policy has been far from consistent. In April, the U.S. launched missile strikes against a government airfield there, assuming the same "world's policeman" role that Trump insisted on the campaign trail that the U.S. couldn't play anymore. And the CIA program isn't the only way Washington has been arming combatants in Syria's civil war. Last December, Congress passed a bill authorizing the then-incoming Trump administration to give anti-aircraft weaponry to "vetted" rebels in Syria. The Pentagon authorization bill now making its way through Congress continues to cover Defense Department efforts to arm Syrian rebels. Only Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) voted against it after mark-up in the House Armed Services Committee, over concern that there wasn't enough oversight. It deserves to go on the same scrap pile as the CIA's effort.[...]

City of Ghosts Tells the Story of the Citizen Journalists Fighting ISIS Propaganda

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 15:00:00 -0400

The website Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) publishes firsthand accounts of the war crimes of ISIS in often horrific detail. City of Ghosts, a new documentary by Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman, tells the story of the citizen journalists who risk their lives to tell the world about the atrocities committed by the Islamic State.

"After ISIS took over the city there really was not any information going in or any information going out," explains Heineman. "There were no western journalists there. They would be killed instantly. So this group really provided a service to the world to help understand the atrocities that were being committed in their hometown, which just happened to be the capital of the Islamic State."

Heineman and RBSS Co-founder Abdalaziz "Aziz" Alhamza sat down with Reason to discuss how these citizen journalists are risking their lives to counter ISIS propaganda.

Produced and edited by Meredith Bragg. Shot by Todd Krainin, Mark McDaniel, and Ian Keyser. Images from City of Ghosts courtesy of Amazon Studios / A&E Indiefilms / IFC Films.

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Interventionism and Domestic Russia Hysteria Ratchet Up Syria Tensions

Mon, 19 Jun 2017 14:44:00 -0400

An American warplane "immediately" shot down a Syrian fighter jet that the U.S. military accused of dropping bombs "near" U.S.-backed fighters in a town in the Raqqa province "in accordance with the rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces," read a statement from the U.S. Central Command declares. The incident was preceded by an attack by pro-government forces on some U.S.-backed rebels nearby, and it was followed by a statement from Russia that it would suspend cooperation with the U.S. over Syria and treat coalition aircraft as potential targets. This escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia illustrates the dangers of wanton military intervention. The U.S.-led coalition in Syria is ostensibly focused on fighting ISIS, a terrorist organization that styles itself a caliphate. Yet the coalition acts independently of Russia, which was invited into Syria by the government, and it acts independently of countries like Iran, which have also been threatened by ISIS but are unwilling to follow the American line. The U.S.-led coalition has taken a lot of pressure off regional powers, even though ISIS threatens their security and territorial integrity far more than it threatens America. The presence of Western countries in the coalition has also reduced the need for states in the region to try to set aside their differences and cooperate on their own. America's toxic domestic climate when it comes to Russia has also made the situation in Syria more dangerous. Constant accusations of collusion between Moscow and the Donald Trump campaign have increased the political cost of cooperation with Russia. While Trump campaigned on improving relations with Russia, since assuming the presidency he has largely adopted the sorts of stances that Russia hawk Hillary Clinton might have been expected to take. Meanwhile, much of the mainstream media had an adulatory reaction to Trump's decision to bomb a Syrian airbase earlier this year—a response that taught Trump that "bold" military actions create strong political leaders. It's hard not to wonder whether this weekend's confrontation was influenced by the president's desire to shake off those accusations of Russia collusion. According to U.S. Central Command, pro-regime forces drove the rebels out of town. The coalition then "contacted its Russian counterparts by telephone via an established 'de-confliction line' to de-escalate the situation and stop the firing." It was after that, according to U.S. Central Command, that the Syrian plane dropped bombs near rebel forces and was subsequently shot down. "This strike can be regarded as another act of defiance of international law by the United States," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to CNN. "What was it, if not an act of aggression? It was also an act of assistance to those terrorists whom the United States is ostensibly fighting against." Russia's Ministry of Defense now says it will consider any coalition jet west of the Euphrates a potential target. The Euphrates runs, more or less, through the eastern portion of Syria. About two-thirds of the country—including Aleppo, its largest city, and Damascus, its capital—lie west of the Euphrates. The city of Raqqa, which ISIS claims as its capital, lies just north and east of the river. The pilot of the Syrian fighter jet was able to eject from the plane, but his fate is presently unknown.[...]

Trump To Muslim World: Peace Only Possible "if your Nations Drive Out the Terrorists and Extremists"

Sun, 21 May 2017 15:50:00 -0400

President Donald Trump's speech in Saudi Arabia was in many ways window-dressing to a new, $110-billion arms deal with one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. But his 30-minute talk, televised widely through the Arab and Muslim worlds, is an interesting statement that's worth spending serious time with. If Candidate Trump was openly scornful of Islam, often denouncing it as an inherently violent religion, he's singing a different tune now, saying he's not interested in how countries conduct their internal affairs as long as they don't export terrorists. America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership—based on shared interests and values—to pursue a better future for us all. Beyond in the rejection of what he would call a globalist worldview, Trump seems to be signaling a return to a non-humanitarian dimension to U.S. foreign policy. The problem is that he specifically justified his ineffective bombing of a Syrian airstrip on humanitarian grounds (that the Assad government had used prohibited chemical weapons on innocent civilians). More important, while he sounded somewhat non-interventionist as a candidate at times, he also pledged to "bomb the shit" out of Muslim terrorists in the Middle East and Afghanistan, a promise he has shown signs of keeping, even beyond Syria. It's worth pointing out, too, that even when the U.S. government has embraced or eschewed humanitarian motivations for foreign policy, it has never been constrained by such declarations. To pretend, for instance, that Bill Clinton's various interventions and actions were motivated by humanitarian concerns rather than vulgar domestic politics requires a suspension of disbelief beyond that of the most-devoted fan of Starlight Express or Cop Rock. Yet from a libertarian perspective at least, it's good to hear a president rhetorically lay out a foreign policy that is basically limited to defending American interests rather than saving the world (how many countries and innocent people must die to prove America is virtuous?). Same, too, with getting overly involved with the internal workings of foreign countries. America should always be a place of refuge for people fleeing tyranny and oppression, and our government can and should exert influence to liberalize and open-up repressive hellholes. But the past 15 years of U.S. interventions (and if we're being honest, most of our overseas adventuring before that) have clearly failed. Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson's campaign may have floundered due to some misstatements about the Syrian civil war, but he was right in saying the United States should use trade, cultural exchange, and diplomacy to affect other countries. We simply don't have the knowledge or resources to bully or beat the world into our shape. Military intervention, regime change, and all the rest should be last resorts and exceptionally rare. The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children. It is a choice between two futures—and it is a choice America CANNOT make for you. A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive. Them. Out. DRIVE THEM OUT of your places of worship. DRIVE THEM OUT of your communities. DRIVE THEM OUT of your holy land, and DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH. For our part, America is committed to adjusting our strategies to meet evolving threats and new facts. We will discard those strategies that have not worked—and will apply new appr[...]

Former Obama Lawyers Are Suddenly Worried About Illegal Wars

Tue, 09 May 2017 10:29:00 -0400

Yesterday an anti-Trump group called United to Protect Democracy filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit aimed at finding out something you really shouldn't need a FOIA lawsuit to find out: the president's legal rationale for lobbing cruise missiles at a Syrian air base last month. The lawsuit seeks "any and all records, including but not limited to emails and memoranda, reflecting, discussing, or otherwise relating to the April 6, 2017 military strike on Syria and/or the President's legal authority to launch such a strike." To be clear: We know why Trump bombed Syria—because he was upset by images of children and other innocent civilians dying from the government's April 4 sarin gas attack on a rebel-held town. What we don't know is why Trump, who in 2013 argued that "Obama needs Congressional approval" to attack Syria as punishment for President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons, thought he had the legal authority to do the same thing, assuming he gave the issue any thought at all. On April 10, the FOIA lawsuit notes, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer "claimed that the Constitution gives the President 'the full authority to act' whenever military force is 'in the national interest.'" In addition to the humanitarian concerns raised by Assad's use of chemical weapons, Spicer mentioned the threat posed by ISIS, which is fighting the Assad regime. That same day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the missile assault was all about "holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world"—a breathtakingly broad justification for military action. The following day, Defense Secretary James Mattis said: "Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS." He said the attack on the Syrian air base was the best way "deter the regime" from using chemical weapons, which are prohibited by an international agreement to which Syria is a party. None of those explanations amounts to a legal rationale for the U.S. attack. The Chemical Weapons Convention does not authorize signatories to enforce its provisions through unilateral military action, and the U.S. Constitution requires the president to obtain congressional authorization for acts of war unless the country is under attack. Trump is hardly the first president to ignore the latter rule. Describing "a split between the apparent intent of the Constitution and how the country has been governed in practice," New York Times reporter Charlie Savage notes that "presidents of both parties have a long history of carrying out military operations without authorization from Congress." That emphatically includes Barack Obama, who famously argued that bombing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces did not constitute "hostilities" under the War Powers Act and justified his unauthorized war against ISIS by citing congressional approval of a different war against a different enemy. I am not sure which is worse: insulting our intelligence with such transparently inadequate rationales or dispensing with the pretense of legality altogether, as Trump has done. But the members of United to Protect Democracy, former Obama administration lawyers who for all we know had a hand in crafting the 44th president's laughable excuses for illegal military interventions, seem considerably more perturbed about presidential overreach now that Trump is commander in chief. "We have seen an unprecedented tide of authoritarian-style politics sweep the country that is fundamentally at odds with the Bill of Rights, the constitutional limitations on the role of the President, and the laws and unwritten norms that prevent overreach and abuse of power," the group says. "The only limits to prevent a slide away from our democratic traditions will be those that are imposed by the Courts, Cong[...]

Trump's Empty Bluster and Bombing

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 00:01:00 -0400

When terrorism raises its head, governments often take steps that are supposed to make us safer—banning tiny knives from airplanes, putting metal detectors at stadium entrances, issuing "orange" alerts. Skeptics dismiss these measures as "security theater." They're a show, not a genuine obstacle to terrorists. The Trump administration, obsessed with imagery, has adapted this approach to national security. The president tweets bellicose warnings to North Korea. The vice president goes to South Korea to don a bomber jacket and stare implacably across the Demilitarized Zone. An aircraft carrier steams toward the Sea of Japan—or rather, Trump claims it's doing so even as it heads the opposite direction, thousands of miles away. Anyone who heard Donald Trump brag about his choice for defense secretary knows that half the appeal of James Mattis was his nickname, "Mad Dog," which the president used every chance he got. Had Mattis been known as "Peewee" or "Mouse," he would have been passed over. With all the noise and spectacle, this presidency often seems less like an attempt at governance and more like a rehearsal for a Broadway musical. It's just not clear whether it will be a comedy or a tragedy. Some of the props are real. When the military dropped the biggest conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal on an Islamic State position in Afghanistan, it came as a surprise. But you know the Pentagon had Trump at "mother of all bombs." Once he heard about it, he had to use it. The problem is that these gestures are no substitute for strategies. This sortie was meant to highlight our power in a way no one could miss. But what happens if you drop your biggest bomb and it doesn't win the war? Those on the other side conclude that they can take the worst you can inflict. The rest of the world sees the same thing. It's known as shooting your bolt. The most important question in fighting a war is often, "Then what?" It's one of many questions Trump doesn't spend hours contemplating. He certainly didn't let it delay his missile strike on a Syrian air base, which was supposed to punish President Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons. That attack sent a couple of signals. The first is that if Assad resorts again to chemical weapons, the U.S. may respond with military force. The second is that if the Syrian dictator uses other methods—as he has done in killing some 100,000 civilians—he has nothing to worry about. Assad can take a hint. In the week after the missile strike, according to the Voice of America, the Syrian Network for Human Rights noted an increase in his use of cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and barrel bombs, which killed at least 98 civilians, 24 of them children. The 22,000-pound bomb that hit a network of caves used by the Islamic State in Afghanistan was said to have killed 96 enemy fighters while causing no civilian casualties. The latter claim invites skepticism. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both declined to use this weapon because of its indiscriminate effects. Bush considered it for taking out Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In the end, the danger to innocent bystanders was deemed so great that it was left on the shelf—until now. Trump clearly thinks that worrying about civilian casualties makes you look weak. But indifference to collateral damage doesn't mean he will succeed in Afghanistan or Syria. One huge conventional bomb, or two or five, won't defeat the Islamic State—which isn't even our chief enemy in Afghanistan. And deploying it against the Taliban, who have a wider and deeper presence, would doubtless spawn more terrorists than it would kill. The missile strike and the giant bomb drop both amount to an admission of impotence. We can't win in Syria without dispatching a large number of ground troops, and so far Trump is no[...]

The Banality of U.S. Foreign-Policy Hawks And Their Media Enablers

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 12:45:00 -0400

As Donald Trump's bombing of a Syrian air base last week testifies, nothing stifles political dissent in America more quickly and completely than military action. Suddenly, even the Democratic congressional leadership of Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi is linking arms with a president they regularly assail as incompetent and unqualified. The mainstream media fell into line, too, with 83 percent of major newspapers supporting the action by one tally. Out of the 46 largest newspapers that editorialized on Syria, only one—The Houston Chronicle—opposed the air strike. Where does such a mind-set come from? This is especially important since it's not clear that political and cultural elites are speaking for the majority of Americans when pushing a pro-intervention line. Indeed, one of Donald Trump's most-potent populist attacks during his presidential campaign sprung directly from suspicion of leaders being dangerously out of touch with what typical Americans felt. Iraq and Libya, he averred during the 2016 race, were flawed because they put the interests of "globalists" ahead of actual American interests. At least since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States can't be fairly characterized as a non-interventionist country, but it's also fair to say that our country's foreign policy after World War II was not necessarily an expression of the vox populi. Foreign policy isn't something that should be put to a majority vote, of course, but when your whole political persona is speaking for the "forgotten" men and women of America, it's worth thinking about (this is also true, incidentally, when it comes to free trade and liberal immigration laws, which are also supported by majorities of voters). At Hot Air, Allahpundit notes that even as one poll shows "52 percent of Republicans" strongly or somewhat support using ground troops to remove Bashar al-Assad from Syria, a plurality of Americans (44 percent to 41 percent) are plainly against such action. Other polls, such as CBS, show virtually no support for anything more than random, "humanitarian" airstrikes (which of course are anything but). The CBS polls says just 17 percent of us support the use of troops to unseat Assad. YouGov, meanwhile, finds massive and swift growth in the percentage of Republicans who believe that the United States "has a responsibility to intervene in trouble spots." Four years ago, just 18 percent of Republicans agreed with such a sentiment. As of last week, 51 percent does. Which suggests that foreign policy is much more about domestic politics. While there is a strong pro-interventionist, neoconservative caucus within the Republican Party (think John McCain, who rarely meets a bombing or invasion program he doesn't fall in love with), partisan politics often does a better job of explaining where voters and leaders stand on anything. That is, until the bombs start exploding and the bullets start buzzing. Then you get 83 percent of newspapers rallying around the flag pole and otherwise mortal enemies linking arms and singing "Kumbaya," albeit in the name of war. And you get commentaries like this by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in The Week: Whether you like it or not, America is the world's lone superpower, and its military dominance over the rest of the world has, despite all its flaws, produced an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. The phrase "world policeman" is usually taken as a pejorative, but it is actually extremely apt: A policeman should not be a nanny or a busybody, but, by god, if he sees a thug punching a grandmother, he should intervene. It is actually the antithesis of that other pejorative word, "empire." In political theory terms, a policeman enforces a minimal rule set — what you must not do — whereas an empire enfor[...]

In Syria, the Wrong Kind of Humanitarian Intervention

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 00:01:00 -0400

Americans are a generous and selfless people, ever eager to improve the lives of foreigners cursed to live in less fortunate places. In fact, we are the nicest folks who would ever invade your country and leave it in ruins. President Donald Trump's heart was long thought to be two sizes too small. But he was suddenly so moved by the sight of Syrian children caught in a nerve gas attack that his nobler impulses overcame him. These were victims he didn't care enough about to admit to the United States as refugees. But he cared enough to blow up some stuff at a Syrian air base on their behalf. The Syrian attack is the latest case of using the American military for humanitarian intervention—a term that has become a virtual oxymoron, like "Midwestern skiing" or "national unity." Our presidents have a long practice of using soldiers and warplanes to heal conflict and a long record of opening new wounds. One early example was Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, ordered in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush to help alleviate a famine brought on by a civil war. How did that work out? Reported The Economist last year, "After a quarter-century of costly foreign intervention, Somalia is still Africa's most-failed state"—plagued by war, terrorism and, yes, famine. In 1999, President Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia, a response to the Serbian-dominated government's persecution of ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. The NATO air campaign, however, spurred the Serbs into a frenzy of ethnic cleansing and killed some 500 Serbian civilians in raids that "violated international humanitarian law," according to Human Rights Watch. President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was justified as a favor to the oppressed people of Iraq, who had been brutalized by Saddam Hussein and were expected to greet us as liberators. But in toppling Saddam, we unleashed deadly chaos that persists even now. A 2013 study led by public health professor Amy Hagopian of the University of Washington concluded that the Iraq war and occupation caused nearly a half-million Iraqi deaths. That's not counting the turmoil in Syria, another regrettable byproduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In Libya, President Barack Obama acted against the alleged prospect of mass slaughter by dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Our intervention played a central role in turning Libya into what it is today: yet another failed state, a cauldron of anarchy and a hotbed of terrorists. Our assumption that nothing could be worse than Gadhafi turned out to be overly optimistic. Trump's air raid confirms that the main thing Americans have learned from history is that our leaders don't learn from history. He and his advisers say Bashar Assad's savagery could not be excused. But the only savagery that has prompted retaliation involved chemical weapons. As long as he limits himself to conventional forms of slaughter, the administration has made clear, he can expect to be left alone. If Trump elected to expand our military involvement, on the other hand, the likely consequence would be more bloodshed rather than peace. If the president were serious about humanitarian concerns, he would not be trying to cut the foreign aid budget—which has a better record than military force of actually helping the afflicted. George W. Bush set out to curb AIDS in Africa with a program that has saved millions of lives through prevention and treatment. So what does Trump propose? He proposes to cut U.S. funding for that program by $300 million this year. He is lavishing money on efforts that have proved destructive while shorting those that have worked. As a humanitarian, he's got things backward. "International public health programs are almost certainly the most cost-effective way to save lives a[...]

83 Percent of Major Newspaper Editorial Boards Supported Syria Strike

Wed, 12 Apr 2017 21:40:00 -0400

Lest we forget, war is not only the health of the state, it's one of the great enforcers of media groupthink. According to the tally put together by Adam Johnson at, out of 46 major newspaper editorial boards, exactly one—The Houston Chronicle's—opposed the Trump administration's bombing of a Syrian airbase last week. Seven were ambiguous. Reason's coverage has been anything but ambiguous, noting that from effectively every possible angle, the Tomahawk missile attack was not only ineffective—planes were flying out of the airbase within 24 hours—but unjustifiable.


Writes Johnson:

Of the top 100 US newspapers, 47 ran editorials on President Donald Trump's Syria airstrikes last week: 39 in favor, seven ambiguous and only one opposed to the military attack.

In other words, 83 percent of editorials on the Syria attack supported Trump's bombing, 15 percent took an ambivalent position and 2 percent said the attack shouldn't have happened. Polls showed the US public being much more split: Gallup (4/7–8/17) and ABC/Washington Post (4/7–9/17) each had 51 percent supporting the airstrikes and 40 percent opposed, while CBS (4/7–9/17) found 57 percent in favor and 36 percent opposed.

More here.

The difference between elite opinion (including elected officials; even liberal Trump critics such as Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi supported the attack) and the vox populi is striking and calls to mind Thaddeus Russell's comments in Monday's Reason podcast. Russell, a historian who is working on a book about the effect of Wilsonian ideas on U.S. foreign policy, noted that media and political elites have long been far more bellicose than voters writ large. Similarly, they have been more hostile to immigration and free trade than jes' plain folks too.

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Firing Missiles at Syria Makes Donald Trump a 'Serious' Leader?

Wed, 12 Apr 2017 00:01:00 -0400

Somehow, firing Tomahawk missiles at Syria suddenly changed people's opinions of President Trump. Now they call him a "serious" leader. William Kristol said Trump's action "reassures you." Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), long critical of Trump, now say he "deserves the support of the American people." Politicians from France, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Australia expressed their support. So did Hillary Clinton. "Why is war such an alluring illusion?" asks Jeffrey Tucker, of the Foundation for Economic Education. "Good intentions are never enough to justify government intervention in anything. This is especially true in war, the meanest, deadliest, and most destructive government program ever conceived. And yet we keep doing it." Trump says pictures of Syrian children killed by nerve gas moved him to order the attack. His supporters say launching the missiles was the "moral" thing to do. But Syria's dictator killed more children in the past. In 2013, after a horrible chemical attack, Trump tweeted, "Do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside... If the U.S. attacks Syria and hits the wrong targets, killing civilians, there will be worldwide hell to pay. Stay away." Fortunately, it appears that these missile strikes didn't kill civilians. But four years ago Trump also said, "What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict?" What changed? Just seeing pictures on TV? For years, we've tried to sort out who is on which side in Syria. Last week's attack was an awfully fast switch to military action. Both Democratic and Republican interventionists focus on Assad as the bad guy. Many say getting rid of him will make the Syrian public less likely to side with ISIS. Maybe. But they've been completely wrong before about the aftermath of war. In Syria, dozens of factions are fighting each other. We don't know the motives of all of them. Some rebels Assad wants to crush are openly allied with ISIS. None of this makes Assad a good guy, but it means we don't know what will replace him if he gets toppled. Fourteen years ago, many people thought nothing could be worse for Iraq than Saddam Hussein. The groups unleashed when Saddam fell were worse. Before that, our support of "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan helped arm the Taliban and eventually ISIS. Today, they kill Americans with weapons American taxpayers paid for. In Libya, Tucker reminds us, "The US intervened with airstrikes to overthrow a terrible dictator but instead of unleashing freedom, the results unleashed a terror army that continues to spread violence and death ... It is not enough merely to bomb a government or regime into disgrace, resignation or obliteration. It is grossly irresponsible not to ask the question: what comes after?" We don't even know for certain that it was the Syrian president who used nerve gas. He claims his regime attacked anti-government militias with conventional bombs, and one must have hit gas that the militias themselves stored. I don't know if that's true, but I have a hard time being as confident as people like McCain about what's going on over in the Middle East. Even if Assad was responsible for the nerve gas, it's not obvious that using nerve gas is a more horrendous crime than fighting wars by other means. Nearly everyone seems to think so, and chemical weapons do drift in the air, making them more likely to kill civilians. But families torn apart by conventional bombs take little consolation in knowing that what killed their relatives wasn't poison gas. If Trump turns out to be like most past presidents, he'll see his popularity rise b[...]