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Archive for the ‘National defense’ Category

The New York Times had a wonderful piece earlier this week on the disposal of war surplus to state and local law enforcement agencies under the Department of Defense Excess Property Program (1033 Program). Since 2006, the Department of Defense has sold or given away (at minimum):

  • 432 MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles)
  • 435 other armored vehicles
  • 44,900 night vision pieces
  • 533 aircraft
  • 93,763 machine guns (these are real machine guns, BTW, not “assault weapons”)

The story has draws on the example of Neenah, Wisconsin, described as “a quiet city of about 25,000 people” that “has not had a homicide in more than five years.” (I have been to Neenah, and I can testify that the word “quiet” should be capitalized). The Neenah PD has recently acquired its own MRAP. Designed for Afghanistan, these wonderful trucks proved a bit too top heavy for the terrain. So the vehicles are now available for local law enforcement for a song (or free). This is not a bad deal. The original price tag varies, but the top end model cost about $750,000 to produce.

MRAP 6x6

A quick web search reveals a few other locations that have secured their own MRAPs, including Nixa, Missouri, Fort Myers, Florida, Klamath County, Oregon, Christian County, Missouri, Boise, Caldwell, Preston, Nampa and Post Falls (all in Idaho). Even Ohio State University Police Department has one.

Why would Neenah need an MRAP? Simple: the possibility of violence. As the Neenah Police Chief explains: “We’re not going to go out there as Officer Friendly with no body armor and just a handgun and say ‘Good enough.’ ” After all, maybe there have been five years without a homicide, but what about next year…? Reason has similar piece on the sheriff of Pulaski County Indiana who has secured his own MRAP for a simple reason: “it’s a lot more intimidating than a Dodge.”

Speaking of Indiana, the New York Times story has a rather striking paragraph that provides another reason to get that MRAP:

“You have a lot of people who are coming out of the military that have the ability and knowledge to build I.E.D.’s and to defeat law enforcement techniques,” Sgt. Dan Downing of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department told the local Fox affiliate, referring to improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs.

I will let that one sink in for a moment. The police need MRAPs to protect themselves from veterans.

For a host of reasons, the US murder rate is at a 40-year low. Yet, our law enforcement has never been more militarized thanks to our endless wars abroad and our policy to distribute our surplus tools of war at fire sale prices. With all the surplus yet to be disposed of, this is one trend that is likely to continue for some time.

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President Obama’s announcement about further troop drawdowns and a time-certain exit from Afghanistan has drawn some sharp responses. As the Washington Post editorial board writes:

“YOU CAN’T fault President Obama for inconsistency. After winning election in 2008, he reduced the U.S. military presence in Iraq to zero. After helping to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, he made sure no U.S. forces would remain. He has steadfastly stayed aloof, except rhetorically, from the conflict in Syria. And on Tuesday he promised to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

The Afghan decision would be understandable had Mr. Obama’s previous choices proved out. But what’s remarkable is that the results also have been consistent — consistently bad.”

While the Washington Post is skeptical about the withdrawal, the New York Times editorial board seems disappointed that the timetable has been extended.

“Mr. Obama reaffirmed that he would meet his commitment to remove the last 32,000 combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of the year, a pace that was too slow from the start. But don’t think this is the end of the American military involvement in the Afghan quagmire…

It is reasonable to ask how two more years of a sizable American troop presence — which one official said could cost $20 billion in 2015 — will advance a stable Afghanistan in a way that 13 years of war and the 100,000 troops deployed there at the peak were unable to guarantee.”

In the end, the nation’s longest war will end (of this we can be confident). The real question as Nick Gillespie (Reason) notes, is a fundamental one: “The decision to attack Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks was both understandable and defensible. But what is the mission in Afghanistan now? Or more precisely, what was it the minute the Taliban was deposed and the trail for bin Laden went cold? Was it nation-building? Was it creating one more spot on the planet where goodwill toward America could dissolve into the sand once again?”

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In microeconomics, income and substitution effects are tricky things that can lead astray those who have sipped but little of the Pierian spring of economics. Imagine a new technology that is more effective, at lower cost, than an older technology that does some of the same things. You might expect that use of the old technology would fall dramatically, as users switch from the old technology to the new. That is the “substitution effect” of the new technology, and it’s quite intuitive even to non-experts in economics. But then there’s also an income effect. The new technology costs less “buck” for a given “bang.” If users just want a fixed amount of “bang,” therefore, they will have some income left over. How will they spend it? They might actually spend some of that on the old technology, provided the old technology has some other uses to which the new technology cannot be put. This is the “income effect.” A priori, it’s unknown whether income or substitution effects will dominate; empirical analysis is required.

Economists apply income and substitution effects analysis to the effects of income taxes, for instance. Raising income taxes might seem to cause a reduction in work effort, necessarily. Work pays less, so people switch into leisure. That’s the substitution effect, but there’s also an income effect. If people just want to make sure they have X amount of income, then a tax increase will actually make them work more, so that they can reach that income. As I understand the economic consensus, income taxes, on the margin, have a negative but small effect on work effort in the U.S. and other advanced industrialized societies.

Drones and tasers are fairly new coercive technologies for the military and the police, respectively. Advocates for each technology claim that they will actually reduce the number of unintentional killings by these actors. Drones allow for better targeting of the bad guys, reducing the risk of killing innocents. Tasers allow police to use nonlethal, incapacitating force in situations where otherwise they might have had to use deadly force in the past.

But this analysis focuses only on the substitution effects. What about the income effects? These new coercive technologies are “cheap,” both in the narrow, financial sense and in their logistical and political demands. Shooting someone might require some kind of investigation; tasering someone rarely does. We should accordingly expect much more use of coercive force by militaries that have drones and by police forces that have tasers. They will be tempted to use these technologies, not just as direct substitutes for the old technologies of killing, but as substitutes for far less aggressive techniques. The drone assassination becomes a substitute for arrest or capture; the tasering becomes a substitute for the billy club, muscle power, or even a verbal command.

Indeed, independent estimates suggest hundreds of civilians have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, and one senior analyst claims that, on a per engagement basis, drone strikes have been far more likely to kill civilians than fighter jet strikes, due in part to lower training standards for drone pilots.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has found more than 350 deaths due to police use of tasers, and news stories about police use of tasers to subdue already compliant civilians are routine. There is no evidence that America’s sky-high police shooting rate has declined due to substitution to tasers.

In summary, while drone and taser technologies could in principle be better for civilians by encouraging switching from more dangerous technologies, the evidence suggests that income effects have dominated substitution effects, and they encourage more, not less exercise of coercive power on the whole.

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As I argued, this is what he set out to do with his filibuster:

A year ago, as the presidential race was taking shape, The Washington Post’s pollster asked voters whether they favored the use of drones to kill terrorists or terror suspects if they were “American citizens living in other countries.” The net rating at the time was positive: 65 percent for, 26 percent against.

Today, after a month of Rand Paul-driven discussion of drone warfare, Gallup asks basically the same question: Should the U.S. “use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against U.S. citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists?” The new numbers: 41 percent for, 52 percent against.

The lede of the poll is even kinder to Paul, finding as high as 79 percent opposition to targeted killing in the United States. But that’s a new question. On the old question, we’ve seen a real queasy swing of public opinion.

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Robert Farley of the University of Kentucky and Lawyers, Guns, and Money had a “diavlog” with me on bloggingheads.tv. We covered Pileus, the Conor Friedersdorf essay on why he can’t vote for Obama, libertarianism and foreign policy, and secessionism. This was my bloggingheads debut, and we hope to do more of these in the future.

(Embedding doesn’t seem to work, so here’s the link.)

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If you recall, in March, AG Holder justified the use of drones in “targeted killings” (see related post here). The comments were of interest, in part, because a drone had been used recently to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, in Yemen and in part because Congress was authorizing the expanded use of drones domestically (see related post here). As Holder explained at the time, the decision to target a US citizen would not be subject to judicial review. There would, however, be some guarantee of “due process,” although little was said as to what that process would entail. Who needs details when we have Mr. Holder’s word:

Any decision to use lethal force against a United States citizen – even one intent on murdering Americans and who has become an operational leader of al-Qaeda in a foreign land – is among the gravest that government leaders can face. The American people can be – and deserve to be – assured that actions taken in their defense are consistent with their values and their laws. So, although I cannot discuss or confirm any particular program or operation, I believe it is important to explain these legal principles publicly.

Now it has been revealed that the administration has authorized the expanded use of drones in Yemen. The CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command will be allowed to use drones for so-called “signature strikes.” That is, targets are identified based on a variety of intelligence without actually knowing the identify of the targets themselves.  As the Washington Post reports:

The expanded authority will allow the CIA and JSOC to fire on targets based solely on their intelligence “signatures” — patterns of behavior that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance, and that indicate the presence of an important operative or a plot against U.S. interests.

Until now, the administration had allowed strikes only against known terrorist leaders who appear on secret CIA and JSOC target lists and whose location can be confirmed.

If we don’t know the identify of the targets—they may or may not be US citizens–I am assuming that this will not create any problems for AG Holder’s guarantees of due process.

Even if we could accept the guarantee of due process, there is another problem—the lack of congressional authorization. As Bruce Ackerman noted last week before the policy change, the authorization is questionable:

Just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress authorized the use of force against groups and countries that had supported the terrorist strikes on the United States. But lawmakers did not give President George W. Bush everything he wanted. When the White House first requested congressional support, the president demanded an open-ended military authority “to deter and preempt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States.” … The effect was to require the president to return to Congress, and the American people, for another round of express support for military campaigns against other terrorist threats.

In Ackerman’s judgment, the policy change (then being contemplated) was well outside of congressional authorization. Ackerman offered the President some advice:

The president should not try to sleep-walk the United States into a permanent state of war by pretending that Congress has given him authority that Bush clearly failed to obtain at the height of the panic after Sept. 11.

Apparently, the advice was rejected and President Obama has assumed powers that even his predecessor could not exercise.

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The long war is hemorrhaging support among the public. As the NYT reports, a new NYT/CBS poll provides some rather striking evidence:

The survey found that more than two-thirds of those polled — 69 percent — thought that the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan. Just four months ago, 53 percent said that Americans should no longer be fighting in the conflict, more than a decade old.

Even National Review seems to be souring on the war, if a post from today’s Corner is any indication. As Michael Walsh observes:

This is not a Good War….It’s time to wrap up this decade-long farce, time for both civilian leaders and military brass to take a long, hard look at the demoralizing mess we’ve made in Afghanistan, and to ask how America can avoid such mistakes in the future.

Walsh goes on to derive several lessons (all of which were apparent to many of us long ago and were reinforced by our time in Iraq) and concludes:

There was nothing wrong with going into Afghanistan in the first place. The Taliban was sheltering Osama bin Laden, and it was there that the 9/11 plot was hatched. The U.S. was right to mount a punitive expedition and remove the Islamic radicals from power — a mission that was quickly accomplished, thanks to a daring, special-ops-led military strategy that quickly routed the fundamentalists.

And that should have been that. We should have declared mission accomplished, pulled out, and left the Afghans to their own devices. It never should have morphed — under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama — into a fruitless exercise in tea-brewing. Some backwaters will always be backwaters, and deservedly so.

I almost feel as if I just read a quote from a decade-old issue of the American Conservative or, for that matter, a Ron Paul speech circa 2002.

Returning to the poll results above, one might dismiss them as a short-term reaction to the recent events in Afghanistan. Or one might, following Michael E. O’Hanlon, (the Brookings Institution) and attribute the low levels of support to the ignorance of citizens. In his words (from the above cited NYT article):

“I honestly believe if more people understood that there is a strategy and intended sequence of events with an end in sight, they would be tolerant…The overall image of this war is of U.S. troops mired in quicksand and getting blown up and arbitrarily waiting until 2014 to come home. Of course you’d be against it.”

Perhaps. But it may also be the case that after more than a decade of war and nation-building, citizens have finally had enough.

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