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Russia Follows U.S. Script in Syria

Doug Bandow

Vladimir Putin opened a new game of high stakes geopolitical poker, backing Syria’s President Bashir Assad. But Washington has no complaint. America has been meddling in Syria’s tragic civil war from the start.

At the end of the Cold War Washington was anointed as the “unipower” and “indispensable nation,” and acted as such. The U.S. intervened anywhere anytime for any reason.

But that world is gone. Russia’s dramatic backing for Syria’s beleaguered Assad government formally buries any illusion that “what Washington says goes,” even in the Middle East.

Moscow has begun bombing regime opponents. Sounding almost like the George W. Bush administration, the Putin government insisted that it was fighting terrorism and there really wasn’t a “moderate opposition.” Russia also has indicated its willingness to get involved in Iraq, whose authorities praised Moscow’s Syria participation.

Russia’s intervention is merely the latest unintended consequence of foolish, irresponsible U.S. behavior.”

In contrast, Russia’s intervention has resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth in allied capitals. In a joint statement America, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Kingdom claimed that Moscow’s intervention would “only fuel more extremism and radicalization.” The Gulf States separately warned of more “violent extremism” and “terrorists” and increased refugee flows.

Alas, promiscuous American military intervention in the Middle East long has promoted the worst forms of violence and terrorism. Further, for years Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been important sources of finance for “extremism and radicalization.”

There’s little the U.S. actually can do, at least at reasonable cost, to stop Russia. Which means caterwauling is the only practical option.

President Barack Obama declared that Moscow risked a “quagmire.” Probably true. Of course, the U.S. understands quagmires, having spent 13 years unsuccessfully attempting to bring democracy to Afghanistan and being drawn back toward a combat role in Iraq.

The U.S. could push for more sanctions, but the Europeans aren’t going to destroy what remains of their relationship with Moscow over Syria. Even the most war-happy neoconservative hasn’t called for blasting the Russian planes out of the sky. To do so would trigger almost certain retaliation and possibly a real war with a nuclear-armed power.

Certainly U.S. officials have no credibility in claiming that their policy will yield a better result. Washington has intervened repeatedly in the Middle East with disastrous consequences.

Washington’s participation in the 1953 coup in Iran set that nation on a path toward violent Islamic revolution. Fear of the new Islamic republic caused Washington to back Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Tehran, which encouraged Hussein to assume he could attack Kuwait with impunity, which in turn triggered America’s first war with Iraq.

To “drain the swamp” Washington invaded Iraq in 2003, wrecking that society, triggering violent sectarian conflict, generating millions of casualties and refugees, expanding Iranian influence, and empowering a new sectarian Shia government. The Sunni insurgency morphed into the Islamic State which, with the aid of former Baathist soldiers, grabbed control over much of Iraq and Syria.

The U.S. and its European allies also helped destroy Libya, resulting in more chaos and another fertile ground for the Islamic State. In Yemen Washington is backing Saudi aggression which has turned a long-term civil war into another horrid sectarian conflict. Weapons given to supposedly moderate Syrian insurgents have ended up with ISIL forces.

Yet Washington is filled with voices demanding that America intervene more.

The Assad regime is blood drenched and Moscow’s efforts in Syria are likely to have ill effects. But Washington bears most of the blame for wrecking and destabilizing the Middle East.

Russia’s intervention is merely the latest unintended consequence of foolish, irresponsible U.S. behavior. Maybe Vladimir Putin can make Washington policymakers finally learn from their many mistakes.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

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Ben Bernanke and the Art of Central Banking

George Selgin

Like any experienced Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke knows how to choose his words carefully. So the triumphalist headline, “How the Fed Saved the Economy,” assigned to his Oct. 4 Wall Street Journal column, probably wasn’t his doing. Still the question remains: did the Fed really save us? Bernanke suggests that it did. But the evidence he musters leaves plenty of room for doubt.

At 5.1 percent, Bernanke observes, the unemployment rate is “close to normal.” One needn’t delve into the statistic to doubt that a return to “close to normal” unemployment after six long years is much of an achievement. But delving in makes the achievement more doubtful still.

As Bernanke himself admits, “other indicators,” including the labor force participation rate, suggest “that there is some distance left to go.” That’s putting things mildly: in fact, two-thirds of the decline in unemployment since 2009 is due, not to the unemployed finding jobs, but to their giving up. Bernanke presumably doesn’t want us to thank the Fed for that.

The inflation rate, Bernanke informs us, is just 1.5 percent—somewhat below the Fed’s 2 percent target, and nowhere near the hyperinflation some histrionic Fed critics warned against. But histrionics notwithstanding, the statistic is, once again, more proof of the Fed’s failure than of its success: as everyone who has followed the Fed’s efforts knows, inflation is low, not because the Fed has taken pains to keep it there, but despite the Fed’s attempts, through several massive rounds of quantitative easing, to raise it.

If the orthodox rules are sound—as Bernanke has repeatedly assured us—then the Fed’s early response to the crisis under Bernanke’s leadership wasn’t.”

The Fed’s failure to achieve its inflation target casts doubt on the last bit of evidence Bernanke supplies as proof of the Fed’s success: the fact that the U.S. output is now almost 9 percent above its pre-crisis peak, whereas output in Europe, where the ECB resisted quantitative easing until recently, is still below its pre-crisis level. But conflating the United States higher output with the Fed’s resort to quantitative easing is one thing; establishing a causal link is quite another. In fact, empirical studies so far suggest that the output gains attributable to QE have been modest, if not negligible. Nor is this any surprise: instead of lending them, banks added almost all of the new dollars to their excess reserve holdings. That’s why inflation is so obstinately low. It’s also why the rise in output can’t easily be credited to quantitative easing.

If the Fed may not have made as great a contribution to recovery as Bernanke suggests, did it not at least succeed in avoiding a deeper crisis? Here, again, there’s plenty of room for doubt. When it rescued Bear Stearns in March 2008, the Fed justified the step, not by claiming that Bear, though illiquid, was solvent—as it ought to have been able to do according to the tried-and-true rules for last-resort lending—but by declaring Bear too “systematically important” to fail. That unwise pronouncement set the stage for Lehman’s far more cataclysmic September failure, by leading it to assume that it, too, could count on being rescued.

In the meantime, the Fed lent heavily to other troubled financial institutions through its new Term Auction Facility. But because it “sterilized” these loans by selling off Treasury securities, that lending amounted to a transfer of liquid funds from healthy banks to less healthy ones. Here again, the Fed’s procedures turned orthodox rules for last-resort lending, calling for central banks to leave insolvent firms to their fate, while lending generously to solvent ones, on their head. If the orthodox rules are sound—as Bernanke has repeatedly assured us—then the Fed’s early response to the crisis under Bernanke’s leadership wasn’t.

During the depths of the Great Depression, British economist Ralph Hawtrey published a long essay on “The Art of Central Banking.” Hawtrey had in mind the wisdom and foresight upon which central bankers must draw to successfully manage their way through crises—wisdom and foresight that Hawtrey found conspicuously lacking among the central bankers of his day. But central bankers also practice another sort of art. That’s the art of spinning even their biggest failures into successes. That Bernanke has certainly mastered one of these two arts no one can doubt. But great care must be taken in deciding which.

George Selgin is director of the Center Monetary and Financial Alternatives at the Cato Institute.

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What’s Really Wrong with Obama’s Syria Approach, and Why His Critics’ Approach Is Worse

Christopher A. Preble

Judging from his actions, one could surmise that Barack Obama views the Syrian civil war as a classic no-win situation: a devilish cauldron of warring factions, shifting allegiances, and horrific destruction on all sides. And, if that is what he believes, then he’s exactly right.

But now some are using Russia’s decision to try to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s teetering regime as a justification for renewed U.S. involvement. They claim that it proves Obama’s approach—not just for Syria, but for the whole world—has failed. Richard Cohen castigates the president for his excessive caution, and speaks of the high costs of avoiding war. The Washington Post calls on Obama to “carve out safe zones. Destroy the helicopter fleet Mr. Assad uses for his war crimes. Provide aid to the battle-hardened force of 25,000 fighters.”

Surely all of these critics know that there is little that the United States can do alone. And it is difficult to work with allies and sometime partners in the region because they have competing goals—with us, and with each other. Even if we could intervene constructively, it’s not clear that we should. The risks of inaction seem preferable to those of action.

Doing something for no good reason isn’t a viable policy doctrine.”

But the president’s unwillingness to say these things reflects a major foreign policy divide in the country at large. On one side are those who believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were tragic errors, never to be repeated. On the other are those who argue that both wars were mishandled, but are still confident that the United States can and should intervene in foreign disputes and topple unsavory dictators. They still want to try to arrest the collapse of failing states, and believe that they have the power to do so. We saw those debates play out over what to do in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, and, of course, Syria.

It appears that the president is at war with himself. No one can dispute that the Syrian civil war is a tragedy. But no one can credibly claim that there are vital American security interests at stake in Syria. Who rules Damascus, and whether they rule it poorly or well, will not materially affect the safety of the average American.

A misguided few might manage to leave their homes and families, get to the fight, survive the war, and return to their country of origin with a newfound enthusiasm for wreaking destruction there—but they could just as easily come from dozens of other places around the world. For now, it appears, most foreign fighters drawn to Syria have merely served as cannon fodder for Al Nusra, ISIS, and other extremist groups.

Americans are willing to support U.S. military missions abroad when this nation’s security is at risk. Some are even willing to countenance the use of force to advance humanitarian ends—including protecting refugees or halting gross human rights abuses—but only when it is obvious that the mission is attainable at reasonable cost.

That has never been the case in Syria. The situation on the ground is too fluid. The partners that we might find tolerable are few and far between, and, it turns out, unreliable. But because Obama and the rest of his administration are unwilling to state that explicitly, they try a bunch of half measures, saying they’re doing something, without ever believing anything will actually work.

Occasionally, discipline breaks down. Thus you had White House spokesman Josh Earnest found guilty of a classic Washington, DC gaffe—speaking the truth, inadvertently—that they did the whole training thing to silence the critics. When pressed by reporters about the failure of the Syrian rebel training program, Earnest reiterated the administration’s position that “this was a more difficult endeavor than we assumed” and that it’s “time for our critics to ‘fess up in this regard as well. They were wrong.” But when the dust over that admission settles, we are back to where we started: a muddle. A disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

It is time for the president to forcefully state what everyone knows to be true: the United States has no magic formula for solving the Syrian conflict. Neither does Vladimir Putin. Outside involvement has fueled the multisided civil war, but failed to deliver a decisive victory for any one faction. Russian arms are unlikely to tip the scales. It appears to be a classic case of misplaced optimism on Putin’s part, or an act of desperation. That is not an argument for greater U.S. involvement, and President Obama should say that.

If the president’s critics disagree, let them make the case to the American people that it is again time for the United States to become embroiled in another civil war in the Middle East. Emotional calls to “do something” or vague invocations of the importance of American leadership, are no more useful than Obama’s half measures.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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Normalizing U.S. Relations with Cuba Leads to Escalation in Repression of Cuban Dissidents

Nat Hentoff

On Dec. 10, 2014, the Cuban government marked the 64th anniversary of international Human Rights Day with sweeping nationwide arrests of pro-democracy dissidents. One week later, on Dec. 17, President Obama announced that the United States and Cuba had agreed to begin the process of normalizing relations.

The agreement, reached after 18 months of negotiations, included plans to reopen the U.S. and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C., and a promise by President Obama to advocate for an end to the economic embargo of Cuba. In exchange, Cuba released 53 political prisoners on a list presented by the U.S. negotiators.

The Cuban government’s response at each stage in the process of reconciliation has been a steady escalation in the arbitrary harassment, abuse, arrest and detention of Cuba’s pro-democracy dissidents.

Human Rights Watch reports that “the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) — an independent group the (Cuban) government views as illegal — received over 7,188 reports of arbitrary detentions from January through August 2014, a sharp increase from approximately 2,900 in 2013 and 1,100 in 2010 during the same time period.”

Before CCDHRN’s blog stopped being updated in June, its monthly arrest reports reflected that Cuban security police had made over 2,000 detentions for peaceful political activity since President Obama announced the normalization of relations in December 2014.

“Detention is often used pre-emptively to prevent individuals from participating in peaceful marches or meetings to discuss politics,” Human Rights Watch noted in its 2015 report on Cuba. “Other repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment.”

Yilenni Aguilera Santos is a member of the Damas de Blanco (“Ladies in White”) protest movement, a group of wives and family members of former and current political prisoners. On June 22, 2014, she reported suffering a miscarriage following a severe beating by Cuban security police during her detention in Holguin.

On Sept. 27, 2015, the website Diario de Cuba reported that the 21-year-old daughter of Damas de Blanco member Daisy Basulto was arrested, violently stripped, forced to urinate in front of police officers and then held in a cell at a police station in Cotorro, where she was exposed to a toxic chemical that made her ill.

The Cuban government prides itself on the excellence of its free nationwide healthcare system. But it maintains an “overcrowded,” “unhygienic” prison system, where “unhealthy conditions lead to extensive malnutrition and illness,” according to Human Rights Watch. Inmates “who criticize the government, or engage in hunger strikes and other forms of protest, are subjected to extended solitary confinement, beatings, restrictions on family visits, and denial of medical care.”

During the Castros’ 2003 crackdown on pro-democracy dissidents, 10 independent librarians were among the 75 dissidents sentenced to 20 years or more in prison and forced to serve their terms in isolation cells 3 feet wide by 6 feet long.

Kevin Sullivan, writing in 2004 for The Washington Post, reported that at least 20 of the 75 dissidents “are seriously ill in Cuban prison cells.” According to Sullivan, “a picture emerged of inhumane prison conditions and continued harassment of the dissidents’ families by Cuban security agents.”

The conditions of confinement for political prisoners in Cuba have changed little since 2004. Alexander Roberto Fernandez Rico, one of the 53 prisoners released by Cuba in December, was arrested in April 2012 for shouting anti-Castro slogans while witnessing the police beating of a bus passenger. By the time he was released from prison, following a lengthy hunger strike, he was blind.

The Guardian newspaper reported that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, while attending the official flag raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Aug. 14, “insisted that Cubans should be reassured that a return to diplomatic relations with Washington would result in the country’s leaders being held to account over their human rights record.”

Meanwhile, Cuban dissidents were barred from attending the public ceremony at the insistence of Cuban authorities.

On Sept. 30, Carlos Manuel Figueroa Alvarez — who was arrested at a Human Rights Day protest in 2013 and was one of the 53 prisoners released — shouted, “Down with Raul!” as he climbed over the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. His efforts to seek the protection of U.S. authorities were rebuffed as he was forced off the embassy grounds by U.S. security personnel and turned over to Cuba’s security police.

His current whereabouts are unknown.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.

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And Coming Up on the Left, Bernie Sanders

Michael D. Tanner

As Hillary Clinton continues to stumble, her leading opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, is having quite a run. Sanders continues to lead Clinton in New Hampshire, is running close in Iowa, raised nearly as much money as Clinton during the last quarter, and attracts Trump-like crowds at his events. And, if Joe Biden jumps in, splitting the Democratic establishment vote, he could become an even bigger threat to Hillary’s coronation. Maybe, then, it is time to take Bernie, as his campaign posters style him, seriously.

Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist,” but he is not a socialist in the Jeremy Corbyn “nationalize industry” sense. He’s more of a tax-and-spend politician — on steroids.

You recall the old saying, “Don’t tax you; don’t tax me; tax the fellow behind the tree”? Well, Bernie wants to tax you, me, the fellow, and the tree too. He famously delivered an eight-hour Senate speech calling for higher taxes. So far, he has proposed, among other tax hikes, increasing the long-term capital-gains tax rate from 23.8 percent to a whopping 39.6 percent. At the same time, he wants to impose a transaction tax on every stock trade, which would wreak havoc with the average American’s pension fund and 401(k). He would end tax breaks for the coal, gas, and oil industries, and end the rule that allows U.S. corporations to defer taxes on earnings of overseas subsidiaries. He would also increase the estate tax and lower the threshold at which it applies. In addition, he would levy a 12.4 percent payroll tax on all earnings above $250,000, without a corresponding increase in benefits.

The progressives’ answer to Donald Trump.”

If that’s not enough, he has also pushed for a carbon tax. Moreover, although he hasn’t formally proposed it yet, he has said that he would not be opposed to a 90 percent top income-tax rate. And, while most other Democratic and Republican candidates — and even President Obama — would cut the corporate tax rate, currently the highest among major industrialized countries, to make us more competitive, Sanders hopes to raise corporate taxes.

Altogether, he would increase taxes by $3 to $6.5 trillion over ten years.

But all those new taxes wouldn’t come close to paying for his spending plans. Sanders calls for $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending, free tuition at public universities for everyone, federally financed family and sick leave, federal subsidies for private pensions, universal pre-school, and a special youth jobs program. Where most observers look at Social Security’s almost $26 trillion in unfunded liabilities and see a problem, Bernie calls for increased Social Security benefits. He also wants a single-payer health-care system. The initial price tag for his spending plans has been put at $18 trillion (though this may be too low, since it could underestimate rising health-care costs).

That means Sanders would pile an additional $12 trillion or more onto our national debt over the next ten years. It’s worth recalling that, even without this additional spending, our debt is scheduled to approach $27 trillion in a decade. Sanders would take that to something approaching an astronomical $40 trillion. Perhaps he should run for president of Greece.

In case any businesses have somehow survived his tax plans, he would finish them off with a host of new regulations. He favors a $15 federal minimum wage. He would require all businesses to offer employees two weeks of paid vacation and twelve weeks of paid family leave. He would cap the pay for CEOs and other corporate executives. He backs all manner of new environmental, health, and safety mandates and regulations. He doesn’t think Dodd–Frank went far enough in regulating Wall Street. He would impose price controls on new drugs. He even has “serious problems” with Uber.

It’s not just crowds that Bernie has in common with Trump. He also embraces the same sort of knee-jerk protectionism. He has opposed every major trade agreement starting with NAFTA. It took about 30 seconds before he pronounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership “disastrous” and promised to lead the fight against it. On immigration, he has twisted himself into something of a pretzel trying to square his belief that immigrants take jobs from American workers with traditional Democratic support for immigrant rights. He now says he favors a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are already here, but opposes increased immigration, dismissing it as “a Koch brothers proposal.”

On foreign policy, Sanders has been consistently opposed to U.S. military intervention abroad. He not only opposed the Iraq War, he also voted against the first Gulf War (although he did support the use-of-force resolution on Afghanistan). Unlike many anti-war activists, he did not change his stance when Barack Obama entered the White House. He has opposed the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya and Syria. And he can sound a bit like Rand Paul in denouncing the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance.

Social issues have never been a priority for Sanders, but he takes standard pro-choice, pro-gay-rights positions. On gun control, he has been scrambling to the left, but his position historically has been somewhat more moderate than, say, Hillary Clinton’s.

Even if Bernie is unlikely to actually become the Democratic nominee, he has already succeeded in driving the Democratic debate even further to the left. He is a serious candidate. Unfortunately, his policies would be a serious disaster for our economy.

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Going for Broke: Deficits, Debt, and the Entitlement Crisis.

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Why Lifting Oil Export Ban Can Help U.S. Foreign Policy

Emma Ashford

A House of Representatives bill is due to go to the floor this week, one step closer to lifting the 40-year-old ban on the export of U.S. crude oil. The window of opportunity was opened by the continuing plunge in oil prices, now at a six-year low, as falling demand and booming production have created an overabundance of global supply.

Congress must seize this opportunity: Lifting the ban on crude oil export would not only be good for the economy, it could also benefit U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. firms have been unable to export crude oil since 1974 — a legacy of the energy security fears in the wake of the Arab oil embargo. The only exceptions are crude oil exports to Canada, and oil produced in Alaska. There are similar, if less draconian, export restrictions on natural gas, which requires a Department of Energy waiver.

These restrictions were an overreaction. But recent changes in the global oil market have made matters worse. Over the past decade, new technologies — particularly hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” — have enabled the extraction of oil and natural gas in previously inaccessible areas. The result has been a shift away from some traditional energy-producing countries — such as Russia or members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries – and toward newer producers.

Congress should seize the opportunity now to lift the ban, and reap the economic and foreign policy benefits so sure to follow.”

The biggest beneficiary of these technological advances has been the United States, now the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas. Even under current restrictions, U.S. crude exports to Canada have risen dramatically, from essentially zero in 2007 to more than 100,000 barrels a day by March 2013. U.S. producers could contribute far more globally, but are largely prevented from doing so under the current bans.

The new oil produced is also at odds with U.S. refining capacity, which complicates domestic consumption. Fracking usually produces light sweet crude oil. U.S. refineries, however, are primarily set up to process heavier crude oils from Mexico and Venezuela.

This has led to domestic market distortions. Refiners can buy oversupplied crude on the cheap, but then charge consumers world market prices for gasoline, pocketing the difference.

Various studies have shown, however, that ending the ban would help the U.S. economy. It would add an estimated 630,000 jobs, increase manufacturing and boost the gross domestic product in the long-term. Though some supporters of the ban argue that lifting it could raise pump prices, as more oil it made available for export, it is most likely to lower them in the long run.

A lack of domestic refining capacity now discourages production by lowering the prices that refineries pay for crude oil. If producers are instead able to export their excess crude oil, they would likely increase production, which would lower global oil prices.

Lifting the ban would also produce real benefits for U.S. foreign policy. Authoritarian regimes would no longer be able to cite Washington’s reluctance to open its energy markets to free trade as an excuse for their own unfair practices. It is harder, for example, for the United States to chide China on issues like currency manipulation while maintaining protectionist economic policies like the crude export ban.

More important, exporting U.S. oil and natural gas increases diversification within world energy production. Though energy security concerns can be overblown, increasing production in the United States would reduce global reliance on oil from volatile regions like the Middle East.

It’s certainly true that today’s low oil prices may make increased production less attractive to U.S. producers in the short-term. Yet states like those in Eastern Europe may well choose to switch to U.S. suppliers from Russia for non-economic reasons. Then, once oil prices rise again, the influx of U.S. oil and natural gas into the world market from new domestic production would certainly keep prices lower than they would have been otherwise. That would reduce the income and influence of various authoritarian states, which have long been among the world’s biggest producers of oil, such as Venezuela or Russia.

Lifting export bans on liquefied natural gas would be particularly helpful for U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe. These states rely on Russia for the majority of their energy, which limits their range of political and economic responses to Moscow’s recent aggression. By building liquefied natural gas terminals, these states would be able to import U.S. liquefied gas, and divest themselves of dependence on Russian gas over the long-term.

There has been other recent momentum in Congress on lifting the export ban. A bill passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this summer, and is awaiting full hearings. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in July had also signaled his support for ending the ban, comparing it to the sanctions on Iranian oil and gas producers.

Today’s depressed oil market is an ideal time to remove these outdated export restrictions. With oil prices so low, any protests about potential increases in gasoline prices would be muted. Lifting the ban on crude oil exports is long overdue. Increased U.S. production has also removed any solid justification for keeping it. Congress should seize the opportunity now to lift the ban, and reap the economic and foreign policy benefits so sure to follow.

Emma Ashford is a visiting research fellow at the Cato Institute.

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Obama Must Resist ‘Do More’ Calls on Syria

Brad Stapleton

Russia’s recent intervention in Syria has ruffled feathers in Western capitals. On Tuesday came claims from NATO that Russia had moved ground troops into Syria, only a week after Russia launched its first airstrikes in the country. The moves prompted renewed calls from many in Washington — including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — for the Obama administration to impose a no-fly zone and begin arming the Syrian rebels in earnest.

President Obama should resist such clarion calls and refrain from escalating the conflict in such a manner. Indeed, he should be wary of much of the talk we are hearing about “doing more,” lest he risk exacerbating an already growing crisis.

Western powers were able to impose a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011 with ease, making it tempting to try to repeat the trick in Syria. But Libya was an unusually permissive environment for such action, and NATO aircraft faced virtually no resistance. That would surely not be the case in Syria. Indeed, now that Russian pilots are flying throughout western Syria, any attempt to impose a no-fly zone would present an unacceptable risk of direct hostilities between U.S. and Russian forces.

Neither imposing a no-fly zone nor arming the Syrian rebels will contribute to the resolution of the war in Syria.”

Moreover, a no-fly zone would offer limited benefits. It is typically easiest to restrict the operation of fixed-wing aircraft. For the past few years, however, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have primarily used helicopters to deliver barrel bombs. A no-fly zone might therefore fail to counter what is actually the greatest threat to Syrian civilians.

Even if a no-fly zone were to succeed in grounding al-Assad’s helicopters, it would do little to arrest the fighting on the ground. In 2011, Obama authorized airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi’s ground forces because he recognized that a no-fly zone alone would do little to prevent them from attacking rebel forces holed up in Benghazi. Although al-Assad’s ground forces have been seriously weakened, similar airstrikes would surely be necessary to forestall attacks against rebel forces.

That said, President Obama has evinced little inclination to impose a no-fly zone. What he does appear to be more susceptible to, though, are calls to arm the Syrian rebels. Last week, for example, he approved the direct provision of ammunition and arms to Syrian rebel forces.

Yet that decision is fraught with risks. The Obama administration appears inclined to draw a clear distinction between its campaign to degrade and destroy ISIS and the fight to topple al-Assad. Yet maintaining that distinction is untenable. If U.S.-armed rebels are able to eradicate the Islamic State, an unlikely scenario to say the least, they are likely to then turn their attention toward the al-Assad regime.

The reality is that even with the benefit of American arms, rebel forces are unlikely to be able to overcome Russian-backed regime forces. As during the Cold War, U.S. and Russian arms supplies will simply fan the flames of conflict and beget more death and destruction.

The most likely outcome of such a proxy war would be some sort of stalemate in which the al-Assad regime controlled most of Syria’s coastal region and the rebels controlled most of the territory to the east. Since the Syrian opposition is made up of a patchwork of rebel groups, with different ethnicities, beliefs and goals, such partition would be inherently unstable. In all likelihood, the various rebel forces would begin fighting amongst themselves.

That highlights one of the potentially fundamental flaws with arming the Syrian rebels. Although the provision of arms might increase their ability to combat ISIS (and al-Assad), it would do nothing to increase their capacity to construct effective governance structures in the territory under their control. More arms would simply increase the eventual need for the international community to deploy some kind of post-conflict stabilization force when it comes time to rebuild Syria.

Up to this point, President Obama has exercised commendable restraint in resisting pressure to “do more” in Syria. It would be folly to abandon that course in some sort of knee-jerk reaction to Russian intervention. Neither imposing a no-fly zone nor arming the Syrian rebels will contribute to the resolution of the war in Syria.

As the President has said repeatedly, there can be no military solution to the conflict. He should continue to heed his own advice.

Brad Stapleton is a visiting research fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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Trump Exploits Rational Political Ignorance

Ilya Somin

Despite some recent stumbles in his campaign, the most dramatic development of the 2016 presidential race has been the meteoric ascent of Donald Trump to the status of front-runner for the Republican nomination. Trump’s rise is a particularly blatant example of a much deeper problem at the heart of modern democracy: widespread voter ignorance.

Trump’s success so far is in large part the result of an almost perfect storm of political ignorance. As a longtime celebrity, he had a built-in advantage with voters who don’t know much about politics, and therefore know little about more conventional politicians. With them, the name recognition that comes from being an entertainment celebrity is crucial.

Polls also consistently show that Trump’s support comes disproportionately from those with relatively low levels of education. For instance, a recent ABC/Washington Post survey found that 40% of Republican-leaning voters without college degrees support Trump, compared with only 19% of college graduates. Low education correlates with support for Trump far more than political ideology, or any other demographic variable. Education and political knowledge are not the same thing. Many college graduates know very little about politics, and some who lack college degrees know a lot. Nonetheless, the two are highly correlated.

Voters generally don’t pay close attention to the details. Even when Trump is gone politicians will still be exploiting that fact.”

Political ignorance could also help explain why Trump has won the support of a large share of the generally conservative Republican primary electorate, despite his long history of liberal stances on issues such as health care, taxes, government spending and property rights. Relatively ignorant voters rarely pay close attention to issue positions and are likely unaware of the details of Trump’s record.

Some argue that lesser-educated voters are attracted to Trump because of his anti-immigration platform. Americans with lower education could be more exposed to competition from immigrant workers. But many surveys show that there is little or no correlation between opposition to immigration and exposure to job competition from immigrants. Indeed, opposition to immigration is disproportionately high in states where the immigrant population is relatively small. Moreover, the people most exposed to competition from new immigrants are other recent immigrants with similar job skills. Yet immigrants consistently show stronger support for additional immigration than do native-born Americans.

In both the United States and Europe, support for tighter restrictions on immigration is highly correlated with ignorance about the true number of immigrants (restrictionists tend to greatly overestimate it) and with xenophobic hostility toward foreigners. Opposition to immigration is also often correlated with ignorance of economics. In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, economist Bryan Caplan found that the economists on both the left and right take a far more favorable view of the impact of immigration on the economy than ordinary voters, particularly those who have low levels of education and economic knowledge. Economists understand that the economy is not a zero-sum game between immigrants and natives; rather, each group can benefit from the work of the other.

Anti-immigration voters might also be misled by claims that immigrants increase the crime rate, an assertion embodied in Trump’s notorious statement that Mexico is sending us “criminals” and “rapists.” In reality, studies consistently show that immigrants have a much lower violent crime rate than natives. Not all opposition to immigration is the result of ignorance. But a great deal is.

Unfortunately, political ignorance is not a problem unique to Trump’s supporters or this particular campaign, or to any one side of the political spectrum. Decades of survey data show that most Americans have low levels of political knowledge. For example, an Annenberg Public Policy Center survey taken during the 2014 campaign, which decided control of Congress, found that only 38% knew which party controlled the House of Representatives at the time, and the same low percentage knew which one controlled the Senate.

Exploitation of ignorance was a standard political tool long before Trump decided to run for president. It was not Trump but the far more respectable President Obama who secured passage of his signature health reform law in large part by manipulating what Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber called “the stupidity of the American voter.”  The president lied to the public when he repeatedly assured them that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” A 2012 YG Policy Center poll showed that 64% of Americans fell for that deception.

The problem is not that voters are stupid, or that accurate information is unavailable. Rather, for most voters, political ignorance is actually rational. No matter how well-informed you are, the probability that your vote will change the outcome of an election is tiny — only one in 60 million in a presidential election. Few Americans know the exact odds. But most have an intuitive sense that there is little payoff to carefully studying political issues. Quite rationally, they act accordingly. That behavior, however, leaves them vulnerable to Trump and others who seek to manipulate ignorance for political gain.

Despite his current lead in the polls, Trump probably won’t win the GOP nomination, much less the presidency. But even when his star fades, the political ignorance that fueled his rise will remain, ripe for exploitation by other candidates and interest groups. That, far more than his crude rhetoric, is the truly frightening reality revealed by The Donald.

Ilya Somin is a law professor at George Mason University, and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

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America Is Not Japan, and ‘Common Sense’ Won’t End Mass Shootings

Trevor Burrus

Yesterday, another horrendous and tragic shooting occurred on an American college campus. I will hold off conjecturing about the shooter, how he obtained his weapons, and whether he was able to evade existing restrictions to acquire his guns and ammunition.

Such decorum, however, is not the modus operandi for President Obama and others who never tire of using these horrible occasions to call for “commonsense” gun regulations. Our Conscience-in-Chief believes “common-sense gun safety laws” can stop these tragedies, and his strategy is once again to essentially blame such acts on people who oppose his “common sense” and, in particular, on the NRA. Few shibboleths are as vacuous as the call for “common sense.” The implication is that such things are easy to stop and that, if Obama were king for a day, with no dullards standing in his way, then he could stop it.

Similar piffle is posted on social media, as the self-styled caring class takes the opportunity to sanctimoniously post the Onion article headlined “?‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” or to link to a YouTube video of a comedian riffing on America’s love affair with the Second Amendment. People will claim that this doesn’t happen elsewhere (it does), or ask a “commonsense” question like “How can you need a license to drive a car but not to own a gun?” (Actually, gun-rights advocates would be pretty okay with regulating guns like cars.)

Our conversations about guns in America are imbued with sanctimony and indictment, and you’re certain to lose a few friends on Facebook if you post something sufficiently provocative. You might even lose friends by posting this article.

Start with the fact that there are more than 300 million guns in the United States.”

So let’s have a serious conversation about how to stop these tragedies. First, understand that there are more than 300 million guns in America, and that’s not changing anytime soon. You can bemoan this fact as an indication of America’s barbarism, you can be disgusted by anyone who owns a gun, or you can talk about the excellent policies they have in Japan, where gun ownership is almost non-existent. Fine.

But all of that is just policymaking in fantasy land until you accept that there are 300 million guns in America. And, in case you haven’t noticed, America is not Japan.

Perhaps you think all guns should be confiscated. Okay, tell us how you will do that without stormtroopers roaming the country systematically violating our Fourth Amendment rights in a way that makes Donald Trump’s call for the mass deportation of illegal immigrants look like taking a census.

Or perhaps President Obama’s moral exhortations will work wonders on the American psyche and over the next two months an astounding 90 percent of American firearms are turned over to the government. That still leaves 30 million guns in private hands, and you can imagine how law-abiding those who didn’t turn in their weapons are.

Perhaps you think that all guns should be registered and licensed. Again, explain how you will do that without a battalion of stormtroopers kicking down doors. Sure, some people will voluntarily register their guns, but they are unlikely to be criminals or would-be mass shooters. Canada tried to register guns and eventually gave up. New York’s attempt to register “assault weapons” has been a glorious failure.

Or let’s talk about “commonsense” restrictions like “universal background checks” and whether they can stop mass shootings. Colorado is trying “universal background checks,” and of a predicted 420,000 checks, they’ve carried only out 13,600. Oregon’s universal-background-check system, which went into effect in August, is also off to a shaky start.

Unfortunately, mass shooters look an awful lot like normal, law-abiding gun owners before they commit their atrocities. And highly motivated, would-be mass shooters would be unlikely to subject themselves to increased screenings when obtaining guns illegally is relatively easy.

Mass shootings should not be the centerpiece of gun-control policy. Mass shooters are motivated, difficult to detect, and commit only a tiny fraction of gun violence in America. Pretending that stopping these psychopaths is a matter of passing “commonsense” laws is just moral grandstanding for cheap political points. If all that is keeping us from being mass-shooter-free is failure to heed the suggestions of Obama and other champions of “common sense,” then I invite them to try — and then to take personal responsibility for every one that they miss.

Passing effective gun-control policies in a nation brimming with 300 million guns is difficult; don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Have we come to accept that a certain amount of gun violence in our country is inevitable? The hard truth is that we have, just as we accept that deaths by automobile accidents, drowning in swimming pools, and industrial accidents are inevitable. This doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can or should do, but the first thing that we must do is to stop pretending that ending mass shootings is merely a matter of “common sense.”

Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

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Public Must Be Allowed to Watch Watchmen

Matthew Feeney

The Department of Justice announced this week that it has awarded $23.2 million to 72 law enforcement agencies in 32 states to fund body cameras for police officers. Unfortunately, some of this money will be sent to departments that lack good body camera policies. If the federal government is going to continue to provide these grants, it should make them conditional on policies that promote accountability and transparency.

In recent months, successive high-profile controversies over police abuse have provoked an intense debate throughout the country. Although research on body cameras is limited, what research does exist shows that the introduction of police body cameras is consistently followed by a reduction in use-of-force incidents and complaints against police officers. Both civilians and officers are protected.

But these encouraging signs can backfire without the right kind of policies in place.

For example, the Los Angeles Police Department will receive $1 million for body cameras, despite having really detrimental policies. The LAPD currently requires officers involved in misconduct or deadly use-of-force incidents to review body camera footage before making a statement, allowing officers an unfair chance to exculpate themselves.

If the Justice Department is interested in promoting accountability and transparency in law enforcement, stricter conditions should be associated with body camera grants.”

This kind of policy will tend to undermine the public’s trust in the police, who may be portrayed as being more interested in protecting their own than they are in unearthing the truth.

The LAPD also, as a matter of policy, will not release body camera footage to the public, which, crucially, defeats much of the purpose behind body cameras. Indeed, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has said that the department considers body camera footage exempt from public record requests and will only release the footage if required to do so due to a criminal or civil court proceeding.

Again, the public’s attitudes toward the LAPD are unlikely to improve as long as body camera footage is exempt from public record requests. It also runs counter to the DOJ’s own recommendations.

Its Bureau of Justice Assistance cites the body camera policy implementation proposals outlined by the Police Executive Research Forum, saying that successful grant applicants “will demonstrate a thorough understanding and appreciation of the issues discussed and will incorporate the most important program design elements in their proposal.”

PERF’s proposal states that “body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request — not only because the videos are public records but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.”

If the Justice Department is interested in promoting accountability and transparency in law enforcement, stricter conditions should be associated with body camera grants.

If we want body cameras to improve trust between police officers and the communities they serve, we must ensure that the footage is publicly available and that officers don’t unfairly use footage to their own advantage.

Matthew Feeney is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.