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Ten days ago, the Washington Post published an op-ed of mine on whether the United States will ever see a strong secession movement like that in Scotland. I took the “yes” position and also took the opportunity to boost the Free State Project, while also making clear that it does not support secession. While it’s easy to think that current political equilibrium is stable, there are several considerations that make me think the U.S. will eventually (50 years from now, more or less) see a strong secession movement, most of which I mentioned in the piece but some of which I did not, for reasons of space: Continue Reading »

That is Aaron Blake’s advice for the White House (Washington Post): “For the first time since January, President Obama is polling a 50 percent approval rating on an issue: his handling of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”

The newest WaPo-ABC poll shows 50 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the Islamic State, as compared to 44 percent who disapprove. That’s an improvement from August, when the question referenced only Iraq and not Syria, and 42 percent of Americans gave Obama a vote of confidence.

I might be alone in this, but I was more attracted to the “degrade ISIL to a manageable problem” version of Obama.

Let us grant that ISIL is comprised of some rather evil creatures and they have been quite proud to reveal their propensity to torture and kill innocent people, often in large numbers and on video. One still must make the argument that ISIL constitutes a genuine threat to our national interest that is so significant as to justify the recent (and ongoing escalation). I have yet to hear anyone make that argument to my satisfaction.

Political scientist Stephen Walt (PBS Newshour) seems to have it right:

we have to recognize this is not the Third Reich. This is not an incredibly powerful movement. It has maybe 20,000 fighters, no air force, no navy, basically lightly armed infantry that has been able to expand in stateless area, areas that are stateless in part because we destroyed the states that were governing there.

The advice:

There are lots of groups around the world who would like to be able to go after the United States. Most of them fail. And, in fact, the way to deal with it is primarily with intelligence and counterterrorism here at home.

Gary Brecher (War Nerd) arrives at a similar conclusion, albeit with a bit more swag, when he describes ISIL as “the most overrated, over-hyped bunch of hams this side of WWE… a mid-size Sunni militia with a knack for child-rape and no skills against anyone who doesn’t fall for their death-metal hype.”

If Walt is correct, why is ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State generating such a muscular response? Perhaps because

  1. It feeds into the “Obama’s failed foreign policy” meme. Remember, he is the guy who called them “JV,” before skipping out on his daily briefings to hit the links;
  2. It comes with some striking visuals that took the media by storm in the months usually reserved for shark attacks;
  3. It provides a window of opportunity for the neocons to return from exile and relitigate the Global War on Terror;
  4. Our elected officials are incapable of engaging in serious, sober, well-reasoned debates under normal circumstances, and never when an election is a few months away.

Now that our expanded attack on ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State is delivering the goods in the public opinion polls, one suspects that the current course will be sustained at least until November or the Champaign runs out and Americans rediscover that war produces casualties.

A Fond Farewell

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is on his way out the door, and the New York Times Editorial Board has a lengthy farewell. Please read it in its entirety, because you will need to work through ten paragraphs before you arrive at this:

Under Mr. Holder, the Justice Department approved the targeted killing of civilians, including Americans, without judicial review, and the Obama administration fought for years to keep the justifications for such efforts secret. In the zeal to stop leaks of government information, Mr. Holder brought more prosecutions under the Espionage Act than during all previous presidencies combined. In tracking the sources of leaks, prosecutors seized phone and email records of journalists who were doing their jobs.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think this should have been the opening paragraph. Of course, after that paragraph little else would have–or should have–mattered.

Number 7

Glenn Greenwald notes that the bombing targets in Syria marks something of a new record:

Syria becomes the 7th predominantly Muslim country bombed by the 2009 Nobel Peace Laureate – after Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Iraq.

The utter lack of interest in what possible legal authority Obama has to bomb Syria is telling indeed: empires bomb who they want, when they want, for whatever reason (indeed, recall that Obama bombed Libya even after Congress explicitly voted against authorization to use force, and very few people seemed to mind that abject act of lawlessness; constitutional constraints are not for warriors and emperors).

President Obama gave a stirring speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He proclaimed:

I believe that all nations—strong and weak alike—must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.  I—like any head of state—reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t.

And

America—in fact, no nation—can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.  For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.

For those who do not recall President Obama’s remarks at the acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, you can read them in their entirety here.

Marc earlier noted the depressing state of political literacy in the US.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to see a remarkable statement of economic literacy in the news today – and by someone who isn’t a trade economist.  In this case, the example came from entrepreneur Elon Musk (who was seconded by fellow businessman Lyndon Rive). He, unlike most Americans, seems to totally get one of the reasons why protectionism designed to offset foreign “external” subsidies (subsidies allegedly aimed at helping domestic – in this case Chinese – companies compete in a foreign market) is unwise:

When asked whether or not the U.S. should erect trade barriers designed to protect American solar-panel manufacturers, Mr. Musk said: “If the Chinese government wants to subsidize the rollout of solar power in America, OK, it is kind of like ‘thank you’ is what we should be saying.”

Now I’m not sure the Chinese people would want to thank the government for such actions!

Vox Populi

This week we celebrated Constitution Day, by among other things, watching Congress authorize funding for a war that is not a war, and allowing it to be waged on the basis of a 2001 use-of-force resolution that authorized military actions against parties involved with the 9/11 attacks (conveniently, it did not have an expiration date).

Every year, it seems, there are poll results released on Constitution Day that suggest that the majority may not even know that a constitution exists (or if it does, what it might say). A survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that:

While little more than a third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government, just as many (35 percent) could not name a single one.

With respect to the Congress—which, we are told repeatedly, is held in remarkably low esteem by the public:

Asked which party has the most members in the House of Representatives, 38 percent said they knew the Republicans are the majority, but 17 percent responded the Democrats, and 44 percent reported that they did not know (up from 27 percent who said they did not know in 2011).

Asked which party controls the Senate, 38 percent correctly said the Democrats, 20 percent said the Republicans, and 42 percent said they did not know (also up from 27 percent who said they did not know in 2011).

Continue Reading »

A few takeaways from the 55-45% victory for No in the Scottish independence referendum:

  1. The polls overestimated support for independence, just as in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Secession from a well-established democracy is extremely difficult due to voters’ risk-aversion and status quo bias.
  2. Scotland’s right to decide elicited salutary promises of decentralization from the British government. My book found that countries with legal secession saw more decentralization than countries without, and countries with legal secession never recentralized power in the post-World War 2 era, according to the measure of regional autonomy I used.
  3. While Westminster is likely to follow through on some additional powers for Scotland, they are not likely to approach anything like “devolution max.” For one thing, the Barnett formula will continue, suggesting the Scottish government’s budget will remain heavily dependent on transfers. For another, significant powers for Scotland will require wholesale constitutional reform, particularly to deal with the West Lothian Question, and there are many obstacles to a solution to that problem. Finally, the scale of No’s victory will reduce the urgency for British leaders to get something done. I will be very much surprised if a bill is produced to give Scotland autonomy equivalent to that enjoyed by, say, New Hampshire, let alone the Isle of Man.
  4. There’s going to be a lot of ignorant commentary about what this means for Catalonia. It means very little. Catalonia will proceed toward its own vote on independence. Secessionism isn’t contagious across borders, nor is declining secessionism. If anything, the No camp’s victory might persuade the Spanish government to allow a Catalan vote — but I wouldn’t count on it.
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