Trade and Globalization

Specialization and the accompanying astounding development of productive technologies have lifted the standard of living around the world to unbelievable heights over the last three centuries. Trade—selling what we specialize in making and exchanging them for the wide range of things we need and want to consume—has made this possible. The pace of wealth creation and poverty reduction has accelerated in the last half century as the size of the markets in which we trade have expanded rapidly with falling costs and barriers to global trade. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/free-markets-uber-alles/

But new technologies that displace older ways of doing things require workers and firms to adapt. New skills must be learned to replace the old, no longer needed, ones. Americans have been particularly adept at such flexible adjustments and thus have experienced greater increases in wealth and living standards than most other countries. No pain, no gain, as we might say.

Workers and firms have tried from time to time to defend their positions from the competition of other workers and from firms with newer and better technologies. Protectionist tariffs enacted to “protect” American jobs in 1930 deepened and prolonged the Great Depression. The closed shop autoworkers unions in Detroit seriously damaged the American auto industry. But generally Americans pushed aside these restraints on free markets and trade to the huge benefit of the population as a whole.

Nonetheless, such competitive advancements in our ability to produce more and more did require those with outmoded skills to acquire new ones. When the pace of innovation was measured, the required adjustments by workers and firms were easier to make. Younger workers would acquire the new skills from the outset while older ones would eventually retire. The turn over of firms, even very large and well established ones (Dell, Polaroid, Kodak, Motorola, Chrysler, Yahoo, etc.) has always been large in the U.S., continually making way for new and better ones.

The last half century has seen a rapid increase in the expansion of markets – globalization. While this increased competition and innovation has reduced poverty in the world at a never before seen rate, it has also increased the numbers of workers having to give up the skills they had refined and acquire new ones generally requiring a higher level of education. These adjustments have often been difficult for those having to make them, especially for middle aged and older workers. We seem to be experiencing a backlash from those forced to adjust.

“The experience of the past quarter century suggests strongly that the central factors of our era are not nationalism or militarism, but rather the two periods of radical change stimulated by technology and innovation during not one but two Industrial Revolutions. The first one began 175 years ago; the second, the information age, has now lasted about four decades.”[1]

Immigration is an aspect of globalization and the wealth creating impact of free trade. It raises similar but even more challenging tensions between freedom and progress and security and protection of the status quo. It also calls for careful management of the pace of immigration to soften the anxieties of potentially affected workers.

More liberal trade agreements facilitate globalization. Ironically President Obama, who opposed the trade agreements on the table when he first ran for the Presidency is now fighting for the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), while Hillary Clinton, never one to put the national interest above her own, who as Secretary of State helped start the TPP negotiations, now opposes it. And Donald Trump, who shouts out what ever passes through his mind at the moment, is currently strongly protectionist (i.e. protecting the status quo).

Rapidly increasing globalization has enabled an incredible lifting of living standards but has also increased the insecurity and costs to those displaced and needing to seek out new employment. We need to provide more effective assistance to these people. This should be the focus of our policy discussions, not closing off progress (protectionism).

[1] John Kornblum, “The Amerexit,” The American Interest, July 25, 2016

Keystone XL pipeline madness

By his own admission President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline project is political rather than scientific.

Two environmental concerns have been raised. The first is that the emissions of greenhouse gases are about 17% higher for oil from oil sands compared to conventional sources. However, the rejection of the pipeline proposal will not materially change the production and consumption of Canada’s oil shale crude, which will now be transported to market by more expensive means. “Rail transport has expanded to carry oil sands to the United States, soaring from just 16,000 barrels in 2010 to 51.2 million barrels in 2014 before dropping somewhat this year. But rail transport is more expensive than pipeline transport…. Royal Dutch Shell’s chief executive, Ben van Beurden, said last year that the company had bid for space on another pipeline to move its oil-sands crude to Canada’s east coast and from there to world markets, including Gulf Coast refiners. ‘We’re covered. I’m good,’ he said in an interview. He said that ‘the argument that Keystone is a bad idea because it will somehow enable development of resources in Canada is to some extent flawed,’ adding that other alternatives would emerge.” (This and other quotes are from today’s Washington Post in the article linked below)

The second environmental concern arises from the possibility of oil spills from breaks in the pipeline. This possibility needs to be compared with the possibility of spills from rail accidents or breaks in alternative pipelines.

Because the pipeline would cross international boundaries it must be approved by the State Department. As the application was being reviewed, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated on October 15, 2010 that the department was “inclined” to approve project. “We’re either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada,” she said. On August 26, 2011 the State Department issued its final environmental impact statement determining “there would be no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed project corridor.” And again on March 1, 2013 the State Department issued another environmental review that raised no major objections to the Keystone XL oil pipeline saying that other options to get the oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries were worse for climate change.

Canada’s new liberal Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, supported the project. “TransCanada’s president and chief executive, Russ Girling, issued a statement saying his company was ‘disappointed. Today, misplaced symbolism was chosen over merit and science — rhetoric won out over reason,’ Girling said…. Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said Friday that ‘Obama has also solidified a legacy as a pompous, pandering job killer.’” (same Post article).

“As Obama rode from the White House to the campus [Georgetown on June 25, 2013, he], said he would approve Keystone XL only ‘if it does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.’” But his own State Department found that it does not. So what is going on?

“By late 2013, Obama and Kerry had concluded that the pipeline failed their climate test — not because blocking it would guarantee that Canada’s fossil fuels would remain in the ground, but because denying the permit would strengthen America’s position in international climate negotiations…. ‘The reality is that this decision could not be made solely on the numbers — jobs that would be created, dirty fuel that would be transported here, or carbon pollution that would ultimately be unleashed,’ Kerry said in a statement. ‘The United States cannot ask other nations to make tough choices to address climate change if we are unwilling to make them ourselves.’”

In short the President lied (not an uncommon practice among politicians, but we might hope for a higher standard from American Presidents). But apparently not. The Obama administration has authorized the selling of coal owned by the U.S. government that would not meet our C02 emission standards to third world countries, which helps our emission record but not the world’s. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/us-exports-its-greenhouse-gas-emissions–as-coal-profitable-coal/2015/10/08/05711c92-65fc-11e5-bdb6-6861f4521205_story.html

“The Washington Post’s editorial on the pipeline today began: “President Obama rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline on Friday, ending an unseemly political dispute marked by activist hysteria, GOP hyperbole, presidential weakness and a general incapability of various sides to see the policy question for what it was: a mundane infrastructure approval that didn’t pose a high threat to the environment but also didn’t promise much economic development. The politicization of this regulatory decision, and the consequent warping of the issue to the point that it was described in existential terms, was a national embarrassment, reflecting poorly on the United States’ capability to treat parties equitably under law and regulation.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/11/06/obama-ditches-evidence-to-capitulate-on-keystone-xl/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/11/06/obama-set-to-reject-keystone-xl-project-citing-climate-concerns/

The Obama’s on race and poverty

Riots in near by Baltimore and elsewhere following killings of unarmed black men by police have reignited a public discussion of approaches to policing, causes and curse for poverty, and race relations in America. Good. We will never have final, definitive answers to these questions and it is good that we continue to discuss them and to search for better ways of addressing them.

Yesterday I posted a Washington Post op-ed by Richard Cohen addressing criticisms of the First Lady’s public statements on race and the “black experience.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/michelle-obama-criticized-for-the-sin-of-being-black/2015/05/11/c077b10a-f800-11e4-a13c-193b1241d51a_story.html

The evolutionary process has predisposed us to bond with and trust most easily our own families and tribes—to be most comfortable with what and who is most familiar to us. Traits that served us well as hunters-gatherers are often less useful or actual impediments to life in larger communities and cities. Civilization is, in part, the process of taming some of these primitive impulses.

At the dedication of a museum in NYC recently, the First Lady stated that: ““I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum,” This surprised many of us, especially here in Washington DC, where the percent of blacks in the population has just recently slipped below 50%, and where it is hard to imagine any building in which blacks would not be welcomed. But though I have many black friends, and don’t give it a second thought, I can remember when I lived in Hyde Park, Chicago as a student at the University of Chicago, I was apprehensive about penetrating more than a block into Woodlawn, across the midway from my classes. This is the South Side Chicago almost all black neighborhood Michelle Obama grew up in. There was something about being the almost only white man in an all black neighborhood that was uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I was shocked a few months ago when the black friend of a houseguest expressed some nervousness at driving into my neighborhood (though a few black families are among our 61 home community).

While some of this is in our genes, some of it is fortified by experience. What can we do to remove baseless apprehensions between ourselves and our fellow man and more importantly what can we do to help left the likes of those living in West Baltimore from destructive cycles of poverty, crime, and other destructive behavior? There are no magic bullets. Many factors are at play and I admire the First Lady’s contributions to improving these lives.

I disagree with much of President Obama’s policy views, especially domestic policies, but I have admired his and his wife’s advise to African Americans. On several occasions the President has told young blacks to avoid thinking of themselves as victims and to focus on what they can and must do themselves to better their lives. Yesterday at Georgetown University he said: “The stereotype is that you’ve got folks on the left who just want to pour more money into social programs, and don’t care anything about culture or parenting or family structures. And then you’ve got cold-hearted, free market, capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody are moochers. And I think the truth is more complicated.” Indeed it is and I welcome his and the First Lady’s contributions to finding better ways to better lives. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/in-frank-language-obama-addresses-povertys-roots/2015/05/12/5acfa3fc-f8dd-11e4-a13c-193b1241d51a_story.html

The Levant

President Obama has announced his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State (a.k.a. the ISIL—Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Does it make sense? In thinking about the answer to that question, consider Kevin Lees’ thoughtful assessment — five-thoughts-on-obama’s-isis-announcement – some reflections by Daniel Drezner– four-questions-about-obamas-isil-strategy and the following fantasy.

In order to kill all 28,000 ISIL fighters now in Iraq the United States and its allies Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Turkey and, dare I say, Iran, deploy 50,000, 100,000, 150,000 (whatever it takes) ground troops in the region (which includes, of course, Syria). These are augmented by U.S. logistical support (intelligence, aerial bombing, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies etc.). Leave aside the detail that their involvement in Iraq would be at the request of the government of Iraq, while their involvement in Syria would constitute war against the government of Syria. They succeed fully. Then what? Countering-islamic-state-will-be-hard-in-iraq-and-harder-in-syria-officials-say/2014/09/10/

The key question is whether a fully successful, foreign led military assault will result in or lead to a sufficiently strong Iraqi army to defend the country going forward, and in Syria I am not sure what, and that the ethnic/religious groups within Iraq and Syria will have, or soon be able to, resolve their governance issues sufficiently to function effectively as countries. Experience with foreign intervention in civil wars (e.g., Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq in 2004) suggests that progress toward resolving internal issues is suspended as foreigners take over the fighting. Moreover the foreign liberators quickly become foreign occupiers and thus targets of unhappy citizens—if not the ISIL fighters, then their successors.

In that likely case, the United States and its allies will need to govern Iraq and Syria for a few years until local institutions and political forces develop sufficiently to take over self-governance. We did this before in Iraq from 2003-5, with the Coalition Provisional Authority of which I was a part (Senior Monetary Policy Adviser to the Central Bank of Iraq). While some useful institution building was accomplished, the overall effort was a failure, with Iraq’s governance under al-Maliki about where it was in 2004 or worse. Do we really want to try it again?

Aside from deep concerns about war with Syria, I think that President Obama’s strategy as outlined yesterday (Sept 10) is about right if not a bit overly aggressive. Iraq will not address and resolve its internal issues unless they do the fighting to defend their country, working out and making the compromises needed for peace and cooperation among its Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish populations. Limited, non-combat assistance from the U.S. and others can make a large difference, but it is and must remain Iraq’s war. To my taste Obama is leading a bit too much from the front when he should be leading from behind, but he has so far set out a strategy that could work. I hope that he sticks to it.

Spying

Two articles on the same page of Tuesday’s Washington Post reported on similar activities from opposite perspectives. In one, “A 28-year-old British man whom prosecutors described as a ‘sophisticated and prolific computer hacker’ has been charged in connection with cyberattacks in which he illegally accessed the personal information of U.S. soldiers and government employees, and obtained other information about budgets, contracts and the demolition of military facilities, authorities said Monday.” Why did he do it? Why do such people do such things? For commercial/financial gain? In this case, it seems, the motivation was political, though I am not sure what the political point was. “British-man-described-as-prolific-hacker-indicted-in-cyberattacks-on-us-agencies/2013/10/28/”

The second article discussed the NSA program to eavesdrop on friendly heads of state, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, launched in 2002. President Obama apparently did not know the extent and details of such surveillance until very recently nor did Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who oversees the NSA as the Senate Intelligence Committee chair. Why did they do it? “Their [NSA staff] job is to get as much information for policymakers as possible,” a senior administration official said. “They’re used to coming at this from the other direction — that is, being criticized for not knowing enough. This is a new dynamic for them.” “Obama-didnt-know-about-surveillance-of-us-allied-world-leaders-until-summer-officials-say/2013/10/28/”

In the first case, we were angry and in the second case Chancellor Merkel and most of Europe were angry and both with good reasons. We want our intelligence agencies to collect all of the information needed to protect us from harm. All countries spy on each other, but the tools and activities of espionage agents are potentially double-edged swords. Because of the potential dangers of turning these tools on our own citizens (and friends) for political advantage, strict limits have been placed on domestic surveillance and our allies might have assumed they were spared as well.  Unfortunately following the 9/11 attacks many American’s were more concerned about security than privacy and liberty and willing to move the balance away from protecting privacy.

When these systems of spying were first developed, those using them had (I assume) the best of intentions—gathering information from and on enemies to help protect the nation. And this is exactly what we wanted from them. Whether it is really possible to detect useful information from the millions upon millions of messages (verbal and electronic) being collected is an interesting question, however. Targeting specific individually is dramatically easier than looking for needles in massive data haystacks, but the heads of state of our allies?

Those who work for the NSA and other intelligence agencies are surely motivated by the highest objectives. But what do good people do when they have such access to information on the private activities of those they don’t like politically—republican’s able to browse around in the private affairs of democrats and visa versa?  IRS agents abusing their power against Tea Party organizations comes to mind, for example. Snowden has shown us that as time has gone on the temptation to use more widely the enormous capability available to our intelligence agencies has grown. And not one hundred present of our government officials are always honorable to begin with.  In the following article in The Washington Post, Harold Meyerson quotes the WSJ as follows: “The agency [NSA] has been rebuked repeatedly by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for misrepresenting the nature of its spy programs and for violating the court’s confidential orders.” “A-turbulent-spy-agency/2013/10/29/”

On top of this, the government’s insistence that American Internet access providers and large data collectors leave back doors through which the NSA can enter to collect data, has reduced Net security against the likes of the British hacker mentioned in my opening paragraph. Fortunately, once again, when things go too far there is a backlash. Even Senator Feinstein is saying stop.

Can Washington Still Govern?

October 11, 2013

The popularity of the government is at an all time low. Different people want different things, thus none of us can have everything we want. What to do? Congress enacts laws and if they later decide that they enacted a bad one they can vote to amend or repeal it. The voting public can vote out representatives who don’t properly represent them and vote in new ones who will adopt the laws they want.  But at the end of the day compromise is required to satisfy the largest number of people.

Refusing to authorize government expenditures for existing laws and thus shutting down the government (sort of) is better described, according to Andrew Reinbach, as sedition:

“The definition of sedition says among other things that ‘If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire… by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States… they shall each be fined or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.’”

The best overview of the outrageous behavior by both the Republicans and the Democrats remains, in my judgment, the article by Charles Krauthammer that I posted earlier. “Who Shut Down Yellowstone? /2013/10/03/”.  This all came back to my mind as I drove down Clara Barton Parkway toward the District yesterday morning for an 8:30 am meeting with the Afghan delegation here for the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings. There are a number of parking areas along the parkway. People park there to take their canoes down to the Potomac or to walk along the river. You might have thought that closing the government would have no consequences for such pullovers. At most it might leave the trash deposited in the trash cans there uncollected. Instead, the government spent the money to place concrete barriers beside the road preventing anyone from pulling off and parking there.  I am told that the same was done across the river on the Virginia side along the George Washington Memorial Parkway and no doubt in many other places as well employing the well-known government trick of making the cuts as painful as possible to the public.  This is the government we have now. The moron who made those decisions should be fired (the gentlest penalty that passed through my mind).

I have always believed that one of the things that makes America great is that it has managed to create a system in which people of different cultures and faiths, but common core values, live peaceably together. This gives our country the enriching benefits of the creative power of diverse ideas from diverse cultures without the costs of social strife. A major source of this success comes from a constitution and system of government that has limited the power of the government and does not overly interfere in the private activities of its citizens. No ones religious beliefs are imposed on anyone else, etc.

These days our political class seems to have lost the capacity of compromise, an essential aspect of living together peaceably. Many of our politicians no longer see compromise as a virtue (the fools). The problem is not a new one, of course. When farmers from the Near East moved into Central Europe 7,500 years ago they were not assimilated by the hunters-gatherers who lived there. Rather they coexisted in parallel cultures, forced by necessity to get alone.  “Stone-age Farmers-Hunters Kept Their Distance /2013/10/10/”

Fortunately, the dysfunction of our government is not reflective of our broader society, though I know there are many ugly exceptions. I was happy to read in today’s Washington Post that a heart wrenching dispute between the natural father of a four year old girl and her adopted parents who actually loved and cared for and raised her has been resolved and a mutually sensible way, keeping hope for civilization alive: “Cherokee Nation and Father of adopted 4 year old girl drop court battle for custody /2013/10/11” Veronica’s adopted parents will retain custody of her but will cooperate in making ways for her natural, Cherokee father to be involved in her life.

Using an increase in the debt ceiling as leverage to reduce the government’s deficit to sustainable rates is quite a different matter.  It has been recognized for many years by both political parties that government spending commitments in the future, given the aging of the population (i.e., the fall in the working age population relative to the retired population), could not be met. The Congressional Budget Office’s current long-term, baseline forecasts, which assume current tax and spending laws (including the reduced spending growth required by the sequester) are for the debt to grow more rapidly than income, i.e., to rise as a percent of GDP without end. One bipartisan effort after another (Bowles-Simpson commission, the Senate Gang of Six, Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force, the Super Committee, etc.) tried to reach tax and spending compromises and failed. Yes, even with the sequester (across the board cuts in planned spending increases) the growth in debt is not sustainable. Something must change. A compromise must be agreed. Using approval of an increase in the debt ceiling as leverage to achieve such a compromise is a reasonable tactic. If not now the market will force it later (significant increases in the interest rates demanded by the market to lend to an increasingly over indebted government). Better and cheaper sooner than later. “The-sequester”  “Thinking About the Public Debt”

More on Syria

My high school and college friend, Bill Hulsy, now living in Southern California, offers his analysis of Obama’s justification for attaching Syria:

Dear Friends:

This e-mail will discuss the various flaws in the arguments provided by the Obama Administration for an attack on Syria.  There are seven major flaws in the argument, to wit:  1) the predicate proof is unsatisfactory and unpersuasive, 2) the action is illegal under our law and international law, 3) the Chemical Weapons Convention does not provide a legal basis for this action, 4) the ostensible beneficiaries and cheerleaders of this action are bad actors, 5) this action is a pretext for War with Iran, 6) the United States has no moral standing since we have both used and aided and abetted the use of chemical weapons, and 7) U.S. loss of face is the problem of Obama himself, and a lesser alternative to bad policy.

This proposed action is predicated on alleged use of chemical gas by the government of Syria.  This contention is illogical as the Syrian government was winning the civil war, and the use of chemical agents is an act of desperation.  Much of Syria has been overrun by the rebels and they have captured many munitions and that includes chemical agents.  The Internet is full of pictures and stories showing that the Syrian rebels have chemical agents.  Logic suggests their use of the gas as a “false flag” operation.

The whole post-WWII peace process has been based on the use of the United Nations.  The United Nations Charter was adopted and ratified by the United States in 1945.  It is a treaty and is United States law.  Article 42 provides that force may be used individually or collectively by signators only if approved by the Security Council.  The only exception is the right of “self defense.” which is permitted under Article 51.  There is no special exception for chemical warfare.

The Chemical Weapons Convention was adopted in 1993.  Syria is not a signatory.  That convention has no enforcement mechanism.  Hence, there is no right to wage war or commit acts of war (such as proposed) pursuant to some “norm” of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The rebels in Syria are Sunni jihadis.  These are the same people who attacked the United States on 9/11.  Syria is a secular, not a religious state.  The Christians (numbering 2 million souls) make up 10% of the population.  The government protects the interests of the minorities in Syria of which the Christians are one.  The Sunni jihadis want to commit a sectarian cleansing, driving the Syrian Christians into Lebanon.  For a look at what a Sunni jihadi victory would look like, from a religious point of view, see what happened to the Christian community in Iraq after the Iraq War.

This attack is nothing but a pretext for a War with Iran.  This attack will provoke counter-measures by Syria’s allies.  Either an agent of Iran (or one of our agents operating in Iran) will fire a missile at a U.S. ship or tanker and, then, immediately we will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and the war will be on.  Israel will attack Hezbolla in Lebanon, reactively or pre-emptively,  Russia will cut off oil supplies to Europe.  United States assets all over Arabia and the Moslem world will be at risk.  I believe that is the real reason for the attack on Syria–to promote war with Iran.  It is the American Way.

Not only does the United States have no legal standing for this attack, but, also it has no moral standing to attack Syria.  We used Agent Orange in Vietnam, which was a chemical agent.  We used phosphorus in Fallouja, and we aided and abetted Iraq in its use of gas in warfare in its war with Iran.  We provided the intelligence for where the gas was to be placed to devastate the Iranians where they were massing troops.

It is said that America will lose face if Congress does not approve an attack.  Well, even if that is true, the fault will be Obama’s since lacked any legal or moral power to draw “red lines” regarding the conduct and internal affairs of independent states.  The alternative to the “loss of face” is much worse.  Mr. Obama styles himself a Constitutional Scholar.  He should have known better.

William S. Hulsy
Attorney at Law

Syria and the Red Line

On August 21, 2013, a chemical weapons attack killed 1,429 men, women and children on the outskirts of Damascus. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry attribute the horrifying attack to the Assad government. The Geneva Protocol of 1925, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 forbid the use of chemical weapons. The use of force to punish violators of the ban may be authorized by the UN Security Council. The United States is not unilaterally authorized under international law to do so.

President Obama continues to surprise me. Despite over a 100,000 casualties in Syria’s two-year plus civil war, he has wisely resisted direct involvement in a conflict that the U.S. has no obvious self-interest in. We have no real control over the unfolding events and outcome of the struggle underway there. Unfortunately, there is no plausible outcome that serves our interest in peace and democracy in the region much less in having a friendly regime. There is no obvious successor to Assad’s regime, though radical Islamism (al Qaeda) forces seem to currently dominate the anti-government forces. Edward Luttwak argues in a NY Times op-ed that a stalemate is the least bad of bad options. “In-Syria America Loses if Either Side Wins”

Obama then foolishly drew a red line against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. It now seems very likely that Assad has crossed it in a big way. If the U.S. does not act decisively it will lose credibility and its red lines will become meaningless. If it acts, as Obama has suggested, in a limited, “surgical” manner that does not tip the balance of Syria’s civil war, will it have “taught” Assad a lesson that will detour him from using chemical weapons in the future? More likely it will affirm U.S. powerlessness in the area. And what about the inevitable collateral damage even if our rockets hit their intended targets and Syria’s unpredictable countermeasures? In a statement released September 1, the International Crisis Group stated that: “To precisely gauge in advance the impact of a U.S. military attack, regardless of its scope and of efforts to carefully calibrate it, by definition is a fool’s errand…. Consequences almost certainly will be unpredictable.” “Syria Statement”

In a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that: “As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that use of force will move us toward the intended outcome. Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.” More recently he added that: “Simply the application of force rarely produces and, in fact, maybe never produce the outcome we seek.” According to Daniel Byman of Brookings Institute “A limited bombing campaign against Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure is likely to produce the worst of all worlds: raising expectations and further involving the United States in the Syrian civil war without significantly altering the balance of forces on the ground.” “Syria Crisis-Military Action”

Syria’s use of chemical weapons without consequences could render their prohibition toothless. However, not only is the US not legally authorized to police world agreements, it can’t afford to go into another war and still remain economically and militarily strong. Given Russian and Chinese opposition, the UN Security Council will not authorize the use of force. A U.S. attack on Syria would violate international law every bit as much as Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons has. That does not mean that nothing can be done within the framework of the law in reaction to the use of chemical weapons. If we continue to disregard international law, why would we expect others to abide by it? Globalization, which has dramatically reduced poverty around the world, would suffer. We would be left to police the world by military force (and how has that been working for us?) until we burned ourselves out.

In his rose garden address to the nation Saturday the President said that: “I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets….  And I’m prepared to give that order.” His surprise, however, was his promise to seek Congress’s authorization, something he had not considered necessary for Libya. “But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests,… I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.” Regrettably he did not seem to seek this authorization as a legal requirement of the constitution but rather as a pragmatic way to build public support. What ever his reason the step is welcomed.

Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith reviewed the legal arguments over the President’s war powers in a recent New York Times article: “What Happened to the Rule of Law?”  The Obama administration has pushed Presidential authority further than any previous administration. A return to the rule of law, domestically and internationally, is America’s best chance of survival in a dramatically changing world.

Congress should say no to Obama’s request for an illegal and unpromising attack on Syria. But we can thank him for asking.

Turning a corner on the invasion of privacy?

In a small step to improve transparency, the U.S. government has released a two-year-old opinion by its secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court revealing that “the National Security Agency unlawfully gathered tens of thousands of e-mails and other electronic communications between Americans” The Washington Post, Aug 22, 2013. Perhaps it was pushed to preempt Edward Snowden from doing so before it did. But it was also in response to a year old Freedom of Information lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“It’s unfortunate it took a year of litigation and the most significant leak in American history to finally get them to release this opinion,” said foundation staff attorney Mark Rumold, “but I’m happy that the administration is beginning to take this debate seriously.”

In the October 3, 2011, opinion, John D. Bates, then the surveillance court’s chief judge, wrote: “The court is troubled that the government’s revelations regarding NSA’s acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program…. NSA’s knowing acquisition of tens of thousands of wholly domestic communications through its upstream collection is a cause of concern for the court.” Bates also noted that the court’s authorization of the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone-call records was “premised on a flawed depiction of how the NSA” uses the data. “This misperception by the FISC existed from the inception of its authorized collection in May 2006, buttressed by repeated inaccurate statements made in the government’s submissions, and despite a government-devised and court-mandated oversight regime.”

That is a mouth full and it is encouraging that the government has finally shared the court’s opinion with the public. It is in sharp contrast with the disclaimers of any wrong doing it was issuing a few weeks ago.

Abuse of Power

If I had more energy, I would gather together all of the recent ways in which the Obama administration has abused presidential authority and lied to us. That would make reading this blog worthwhile. I apologize. I just returned from a very enjoyable week with my two children and six of my grand children. The seventh grandchild, Bryce Davidson, left for college the day before I arrived. The week included all four opera’s of Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen. So, as all dialogs seem to begin these days, I will just let loose my diatribe at the latest two disturbing atrocities of Big Brother.

We have enemies who wish us harm. We need the best information possible on their plans to harm us. But the technical ability of our government (of any government) to spy on our enemies and thus potentially on each of us (especially those the administration doesn’t like) is also dangerous. Checks and balances and clear limits are needed on the government’s use of these powers. President Obama increasingly demonstrates a lack of interest in limiting his actions to the law. For one of many examples, read my blog on his refusal to call the military coup in Egypt by its obvious real name because he doesn’t like the legal consequences of doing so: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/the-egyptian-coup/

When Edward Snowden first leaked a number of NSA documents reveling that the National Security Agency (NSA) was illegally collecting massive amounts of data on American citizens, the government fought back by claiming that 50 some odd potential attacks on America had been prevented by such information, thus justifying “stretching” the law. Deeper scrutiny revealed that at most one instance of such data might have materially helped (along with other information) prevent such an attack. Many would say that one instance is enough to justify any risk of government abuse of its access to private information on Americans. But many of us are not comfortable with Big Brothers potential use of such powers.

For starters it is difficult to know the truth of the potential benefits and risks of NSA and other government agencies’ spying activities. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, later admitted that he had lied to Congress when he testified that the NSA doesn’t collect data on “millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”

When asked what it would take for Congress to hold James Clapper accountable for lying to Congress, Congressman Dennis Kucinich told Cullen Hoback, the director of the documentary on data privacy “Terms and Conditions May Apply:”

Well, you know it’s illegal to lie to Congress, but everyone lies to Congress. As soon as they raise their right hand, watch out! Clapper should be held responsible, but he won’t be, because that’s the condition we’re in right now. In a just world, Snowden, we’d be having ticker tape parades for him. But that’s not what’s going to happen.

President Obama and security officials then attempted to reassure us that they only overstepped the limits of the law a few times. Then last week Snowden released another round of damning documents. As reported in The Washington Post an NSA internal audit and other secret documents provided by Snowden showed the agency “has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008.”

A few true believers in Leviathan have suggested that no one—no innocent person—has been harmed or abused by these NSA violations of the law. Step forward David Maranda, the Brazilian partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist through whom Snowden has been providing leaked documents to the British news paper, The Guardian. Changing planes in London’s Heathrow airport on his way from Berlin (on assignment for The Guardian with regard to Edward Snowden) to his home in Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Maranda was detained for nine hours of interrogation under the British Terrorism Act of 2000. According to Neil Wallis, former executive editor, News of the World: “This is an appalling, blatant breach of press freedom.” U.S. officials acknowledged that they were aware of Mr. Maranda’s detention but claimed that they had not requested it. Right! We believe every thing our government tells us. Right?

How far do the abuses of power by the Obama administration have to go before we become concerned enough to put a stop to them?