Fun With Files


shutterstock_285175289China has scored an intelligence coup by breaking into the Office of Personnel Management database and making off with the files on millions of current and former government officials. Estimates of the number of officials whose information was taken range from a low of 4 million to 14 million. Of course, the Chinese are not going to be interested in every clerk in the bowels of the Department of Agriculture. But they will have gained access, according to reports, to the background information on all those who held sensitive national security positions in the government.

For those curious what the information contained in these files might be, here is the form for national security clearances. It basically asks for every place you have ever lived, everywhere you have gone to school and worked, any groups you have joined, the names of anyone who has known you in any of these stages of your life, extended family members, contacts with foreigners, medical information, legal affairs, and so on.  The form is 120 pages.

It is then supplemented by an FBI background investigation, which collects all information, truthful or not, unfiltered and unevaluated, about the official. As someone who has held these type of clearances, I don’t have a right to see my own file — although now I guess I can ask the Chinese for it.

Journalism and its Discontents, Part I


Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 11.06.17Over the weekend, we had an interesting discussion on the Member Feed about journalism as a profession. Southern Pessimist asked me this question: “Give me some ideas,” he wrote, “of what you think needs to be reported that is not being reported.”

My answer to this is so long that I’ll break it into a few parts. What should perhaps precede this post is a detailed historical account of what’s happened to the news industry since the end of the Cold War. I’ll come back to that, though, because the first point I want to make is that these changes have had significant consequences — largely, and surprisingly, bad ones.

So let’s in fact call this Part II. Let me begin by talking about foreign news coverage, since this is what I know best. I wrote this piece a few years ago: How to Read Today’s Unbelievably Bad News. Please do read the whole thing, but these are the key points:

Sovereignty, Technical and Actual


cropped-iStock_000017452286XSmallIn this interview (hat tip to Melissa P), Senator Ted Cruz explains why he believes Senator Jeff Sessions is mistaken in the claim that the Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal would undermine America’s sovereignty.

Cruz points out that the international body a trade agreement like this sets up is merely advisory. In a trade dispute, the court would mediate between the two nations to judge whether or not the original agreement has been honored. But it would not be able to enforce its judgement. That lack of force is the difference between a government and … well, that other thing.

It’s not clear why a standing court, theoretically neutral, is superior to mediating disputes more directly or by more spontaneous mediation. I welcome arguments for why an international body might be merited.

The Libertarian Podcast: Epstein on the Supreme Court’s Jerusalem Decision


This week on The Libertarian podcast, Professor Epstein leads us through the intricacies of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, a case nominally about which branch of the federal government gets to determine what’s printed inside your passport — but one that may have profound implications for the separation of powers when it comes to foreign affairs. It’s a typically comprehensive Epsteinian survey that touches on everything from the weaknesses of Justice Kennedy’s interpretive style to the propriety of signing statements. Listen in below or subscribe to The Libertarian via iTunes or your favorite podcast app.

ISIS: Our Non-Strategy and Our Too-Calm Republican Candidates


screenshot 2015-03-17 12.38.59I was flabbergasted to read this morning that we are “embracing a new approach” in the battle against ISIS:

In a major shift of focus in the battle against the Islamic State, the Obama administration is planning to establish a new military base in Anbar Province and send 400 American military trainers to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Ramadi.

Point 1: With all respect to our highly accomplished and experienced men and women in uniform, at this point a force of 400 military trainers in Anbar Province should properly be described as “next month’s hostages.” How could anyone of even cursory familiarity with this region — or the history of warfare, for that matter — fail to think of that immediately?

Supreme Court Turns Minor Case Into a Potential Constitutional Conflict


shutterstock_141934102At first glance, yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in Zivotofsky v. Kerry — holding that Congress couldn’t force the executive branch to recognize Jerusalem as part of Israel on a passport — seems destined to end up as but a footnote in most constitutional law books. It only decides whether the president or Congress controls the content of U.S. passports. But because Zivotofsky involves the treatment of Jerusalem, it adds to the president’s foreign affairs arsenal and could affect the struggle over U.S. Middle East policy, such as an Iranian nuclear deal.

Zivotofsky upholds the executive’s right to control passports. According to the Court’s decision, the State Department, rather than Congress, decides whether to record the birthplace of a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem as “Jerusalem,” rather than “Israel.” All of the justices agree that the president holds a monopoly on the recognition of foreign governments, which stems from his exclusive constitutional authority to “receive Ambassadors” and has existed since President Washington’s 1793 proclamation of neutrality during the French Revolution. Congress, on the other hand, has the authority to control immigration, the borders, and international travel. Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion on behalf of Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor, used an ill-conceived and undefined balancing test to conclude that Congress could not use these powers to contradict the president’s position on Israel’s territorial boundaries. A law using passports to contradict the president’s decision to recognize Israel “would not only prevent the Nation from speaking with one voice but also prevent the Executive itself from doing so in conducting foreign relations.”

It is refreshing to see Democratic-appointed Justices, some of whom criticized President Bush’s right to manage the War on Terror, take a stand in favor of the executive’s authority in foreign affairs (though don’t hold your breath for their embrace of a President Walker’s use of executive power). Their majority opinion, however, skims over the most critical point by mistaking the power over passports as belonging to Congress, rather than the executive. But even if Congress enjoys this power, Justice Kennedy fails to explain why it undermines the executive’s recognition of Israel. His reason — that Congress cannot force the Secretary of State to contradict the president — makes little sense. Regardless of the passport’s listing of birthplace, U.S. recognition of Israel remains unchanged. President Obama can still maintain his frosty relations with Benjamin Netanyahu and even threaten to support Arab and European persecution of Israel at the United Nations, all the while claiming to be Israel’s best friend before domestic audiences. Although Congress’s passport law may reveal that the Republican legislature is far more supportive of Israel than the president, this will only come as news to those who missed Netanyahu’s March address before Congress.

On Constitutional Law and the Storage Costs of Paper Mache Effigies


What do you do when you have an interview with your former boss’s wife?! Answer tough questions with deep imponderables.  For example, I ask: how much rent do protesters pay to store my giant paper-mache effigy? I talk with the Daily Caller’s Ginni Lamp Thomas (wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) about what it’s like for a conservative to live in Berkeley, President Obama’s attack on the separation of powers, and the rising dangers to our national security.

Grand Strategy Podcast: Stephen Krasner on the Future of American Global Leadership


One of my favorite guests on our Hoover Institution podcasts is Stephen Krasner, the Graham H. Stuart Chair in International Relations at Stanford and the Chairman of Hoover’s Working Group on Foreign Policy and Grand Strategy. On this show, we discuss America’s role in shaping international order: how we’ve done since World War II, whether our days at the top are coming to a close, and which threats to our preeminence our most acute.

The (Likely) New Status Quo


shutterstock_90596905As you’ve probably heard, three provisions of the USA Patriot Act expired over the weekend, including the controversial bulk-collection of telephone metadata that the courts found wanting last month. In its place, Congress seems likely to pass some version of the USA Freedom Act,* which — among other things — stops the NSA from collecting bulk data but requires telephone carriers to store it on their behalf. In today’s The Wall Street Journal, the editors bring up some legitimate objections to the new legislation, concluding as follows:

So per­haps Sen­ate pas­sage of the House bill is the only re­al­is­tic path to pre­vent even greater harm to U.S. secu­rity. But please spare us the civil-lib­er­tar­ian triumphal­ism. The real story this week is that Con­gress is harm­ing and maybe end­ing an im­por­tant de­fense against ter­ror­ism, while pretend­ing not to.

Triumphalism is neither healthy nor laudatory and the new legislation is hardly beyond reproach, either from a philosophical or a practical perspective. The new process adds layers that will make accountability more difficult when failures occur, and seems to present a logistical nightmare from a data-management perspective. It is at least conceivable that important intelligence might slip through under the new system that would previously have been detected.

The Strategika Podcast: Josef Joffe on Whether the West Will Still Fight


josef_joffeIn this next installment of our new series of Strategika shows on NATO, I’m talking with Josef Joffe, research fellow at the Hoover Institution and publisher/editor of the German weekly Die Zeit. Our topic: is NATO endangered partially by an erosion of will on behalf of both Europe and the United States? And is European reticence different in kind than the American version or just in degree? You can hear the conversation below or by subscribing to Strategika through iTunes or your favorite podcast player.

The Strategika Podcast: Peter Mansoor on NATO, Past and Future


Mansoor-PeterIn the newest installment of the Strategika podcast from the Hoover Institution, I’m talking with retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor (former executive officer to General Petraeus in Iraq), now the General Raymond E. Mason, Jr. Chair of Military History at Ohio State University. In this first of three podcasts on the future prospects for NATO, Professor Mansoor takes us through the alliance’s history, how it’s adjusted to the post-Cold War world, and what its prospects for survival are given the threats from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Listen in below or subscribe to Strategika through iTunes or your favorite podcast player.

Obama Not Offended Enough by Anti-Semitism


obamarouhani_s640x427What to make of President Obama’s interpretation of the Iranian leadership? Challenged by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg to account for the seeming inconsistency of relying on the rationality of a regime that holds a profoundly anti-Semitic worldview, the president denied that the “venomous anti-Semitism” (his words) of the mullahs is a barrier to rational decision making.

Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country . . .

Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest made an important observation:

Whither The Assyrians?


christian-militiaA few months, I wrote a controversial piece advocating for an independent Kurdistan and the direct arming of the Peshmerga and the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). I argued that the Peshmerga in Iraq and the the YPG in northern Syria represented the only competent, secular fighting forces engaged in the war against the Islamic State. If the US continues to fight the Caliphate by proxy, the Kurds are the best hope in keeping the heat on ISIS’ northern front.

Events the past week have cast even more doubt on the Administration’s hope that the Iraqi government is capable of defending its largest cities against a numerically inferior foe, let alone defeating the Islamic State in its territory. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has made the strongest rebuke yet stating the obvious that the incredibly well armed Iraqi Army showed no will to fight. In contrast, the poorly-equipped but fanatical YPG broke the siege of Kobane in January and surrounded and annihilated an ISIS mountain stronghold in Syria at the same time that ISIS held victory parades in Ramadi.

Left out in recent discussions on Ricochet over who to support in the war against ISIS has been the Assyrian Christians. Unlike the Kurds — with their semi-autonomous region and army — the Iraqi Christians had little with which to defend themselves during the onslaught of last summer. Christians not fortunate enough to escape Mosul had their homes marked with the “nasara” (an Arabic pejorative for Christian). And given the Islamic State’s horrific penchant for sexually enslaving Yezidi teenagers and young women and slaughtering the menfolk, the jihadists are an existential threat to what remains of Iraq’s Christians.

The World’s Policeman?


Prager University has a new video up by Rico-friend Bret Stephens, appropriately titled “Should America be the World’s Policeman?” As one might expect, Stephens offers a lot of intelligent and sharp analysis about the benefits of an interventionist American foreign policy — much of which I agree with — but I can’t help shake the feeling that it’s all in service of a deeply flawed analogy.

Aw Shucks, A Drone!


Senator Lindsey Graham is running for president — or close enough to count — and was among the speakers at the Iowa Republican Party’s Lincoln Dinner this past Saturday (as were Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal). Judging from what I’ve seen of the videos, this was a light-hearted event where the candidates were expected to be self-deprecating and folksy. Graham started his speech as such, but then… well, I’ll let him speak for himself:

I’ve been a lawyer in the military for 33 years. If I don’t get court-martialed, I’m going to retire at the end of the month and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve 6 1/2 years on active duty. I’ve been in the Guard, Reserves, and it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been a military judge, I’ve been a defense attorney, and I’ve been a prosecutor.

Elian Wants To Return To America


InselianIt’s been just over 15 years since federal agents seized Elian Gonzalez at the home of his Miami relatives. The story of the six-year-old boy’s escape from Cuba and the resulting high stakes custody battle dominated headlines in the first half of 2000. In the wake of Bush v Gore later that year, many pundits speculated that the Clinton Administration’s insistence on repatriating Elian may have swung Florida, albeit narrowly, over to George W Bush.

The story was largely forgotten after 9/11. In the years since, occasional interviews with Juan Miguel, Elian’s father, and carefully staged photo-ops between Elian and senior officials in the Cuban regime, acted as reminders of the Gonzalez tragedy. Typical accounts of the saga recall the story as “polarizing” and note that a majority of the American people wanted Elian returned to his father. Much of the Cuban-American community, which opposed the repatriation, was widely vilified by the mainstream press for putting ideology ahead of family.

An ABC interview aired last night is the first the now-adult Elian Gonzalez has given:

Decision Time Again in Iraq


640px-IS_insurgents,_Anbar_Province,_IraqLast September, President Obama announced to the world that the United States would “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. Though Congress never approved a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force as Obama requested, their relative inaction until now — coupled with the Administration’s belief that such an authorization is not actually required — has served as a de facto, if reluctant, endorsement.

That mission does not appear to be going well. Despite enduring a limited American air campaign, losing most of its infrastructure and industry, and goading most of the region into declaring war against it, the Islamic State seems hardly degraded let alone destroyed. And while it’s worth noting that Baghdad’s immanent collapse has been erroneously predicted before, it’s hard to spin the fall of Ramadi as anything other than very serious and very bad news.

The United States made a very public and very clear promise to destroy the Islamic State and protect Iraq. Whether or not this was a good decision — and who is to blame for the circumstances that precipitated it — is an important matter for another day. On the assumption that an air campaign is not up to the task, the question for today is whether the costs and risks of fulfilling this mission outweigh the costs in the loss of honor, trust, and fear in either continuing our half-hearted efforts, or just giving up and making a cut-and-run.

What to do with Muslim Refugees?


Rohingya Refugees

Nicholas Kristof has a heart-rending column in the New York Times about the plight of refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma). Rohingya Muslims are being persecuted by their government and rounded up into concentration camps. Thousands are fleeing by sea, but no government — including ours — is willing to take them in. Often, refugees are sent back to Myanmar to almost certain death. This week, even the Muslim country of Indonesia ordered two vessels carrying hundreds of Rohingya pushed back to sea.

The story is much the same in the Mediterranean as refugees from Libya and Syria desperately try to escape the fighting that is destroying their countries.

When Doves Cry: The Decline and Fall of the New Isolationists


shutterstock_259520312Like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, American foreign policy isolationists have tinkered with a number of name changes over the years. Prince tried calling himself TAFKAP, The Artist, and “unpronounceable Love Symbol,” before finally resettling on “Prince.” Foreign policy isolationists – that is to say, those who favor dismantling U.S. strategic commitments worldwide – have tried calling themselves non-interventionist, anti-interventionist, and now, most improbably, “realist.” But none of it seems to be working.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Following years of U.S. warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, some leading venues on the right — including the Cato Institute, The American Conservative, and Reason magazine — made the case for a new U.S. policy of strict military disengagement overseas. As popular opposition to those wars grew, the argument seemed superficially plausible. Most Americans came to view the war in Iraq as a mistake. But this was never the sum of the New Isolationist position.

What many of the New Isolationists argued, quite explicitly, was not only that George W. Bush had erred in Iraq, but that the whole edifice of international U.S. alliance commitments built up since the 1940s needed to be brought down. (See for example the 2008/09 Cato Handbook for Policymakers, pages 201, 507, and 561.)