Obama’s Syria Strategy Is Doomed to Fail

Emma Ashford

The U.S. will send about 50 U.S. special forces troops to Syria, the White House announced Friday. The Pentagon has billed “direct action on the ground” as a remedy to the current stalemate between U.S.-backed ground forces and ISIS. Yet this approach is not likely to solve the underlying problems of the Syrian conflict.

Instead of this consistent mission creep — committing ever more U.S. troops and equipment to the conflict — U.S. leaders should focus less on military solutions. They should accept the de facto containment of ISIS, and instead prioritize non-military approaches, humanitarian support for the refugee crisis and aggressive pursuit of diplomatic options.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carton outlined the Pentagon strategy on Tuesday in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He described weapons shipments and air support for Syrian rebel groups, additional support and advisors for Iraqi army units, and raids by U.S. special operations forces.

Instead, the U.S. should focus on containing ISIS and helping the refugees.”

This is not a new strategy. U.S. Special Forces have previously engaged in raids in both Syria and Iraq. This includes last week’s prison raid in Iraq that rescued 70 hostages but also resulted in the first combat death of a U.S. soldier in the fight against ISIS. The U.S. has also previously provided arms and training to Syrian rebels. The main difference with the new plan will likely be that rebel groups will no longer be vetted as thoroughly, and that the U.S. troop presence will be long-term.

To date, the fight against ISIS has been unsuccessful largely because it has failed to address the conflict’s underlying causes: a bloody ongoing civil war between rebel forces and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, the involvement of various regional proxies in funding and arming militias, and the Iraqi army’s inability — despite a decade of U.S. training and funding — to provide a feasible on-the-ground counterpart to U.S. airstrikes.

As a result, new proposals to place more U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria will probably do little to turn the tide against ISIS, while placing American troops in harm’s way.

Though the campaign has been unsuccessful in rolling back ISIS, it has been more successful at containing it. Airstrikes have been effective inhalting ISIS’s momentum in Iraq and Syria, preventing them from seizing new territory. This de facto containment can be augmented by non-military means, in particular, pushing coalition allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar to target ISIS funding sources — including foreign financing and the smuggling of oil and antiquities — and the ongoing flow of foreign fighters.

Containment keeps ISIS small, weak and insignificant. While further large-scale military intervention has the potential to increase the turmoil in the region, providing ISIS with openings to expand, containment lowers the potential for regional spillover of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts.

The U.S. should also do more to ameliorate the burgeoning refugee crisis in the region, the brunt of which is being borne not by Europe, but by Syria’s neighbors, including states like Jordan, where the population has grown by an astounding 10% due to the refugee influx.

The U.S. can provide additional funds and humanitarian aid for those stuck in regional refugee camps. Policymakers can raise the caps on the number of Syrian refugees permitted to enter the U.S., and could even seek to create a swifter and more effective application process through the UNHCR, reducing the numbers of refugees who attempt the dangerous smuggling routes into Europe.

And the U.S. needs to actively pursue a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. This week’s decision to hold new talks with all key parties — including Russia and Iran — is a good first step. Peace talks are unlikely to provide any party with their preferred solution, but compromise is essential if a deal is to be reached. A diplomatic solution in Syria will both mitigate the refugee crisis and rob ISIS of its greatest recruiting tool.

Military options have formed the heart of U.S. strategy towards ISIS, and the new strategy will only increase that commitment. Unfortunately, the military-based solutions that have failed in prior iterations are unlikely to succeed in the future. In a conflict as complex as Syria’s, policymakers must resist the temptation to rely only on military means.

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

The New Propaganda

Ian Vásquez

Controlling information in a globalized world is harder than it used to be, much to the dismay of authoritarian regimes.

Yet such regimes today routinely use the trappings of democracy and the latest technology to stifle liberty. Finding it much harder to control information in a world of instant, decentralized communications, these regimes are using the Internet, elections, the media, and, to some extent, the market to consolidate their power. Those are the findings of a recent study by the London-based Legatum Institute. The study looks at the experiences of China, Turkey, Syria, and Venezuela, but its findings are relevant in much of the developing world and emerging markets.

It is well known that Bolivarian Venezuela — first under the leadership of Hugo Chavez and now under Nicolas Maduro — has been a pioneer in employing democratic formalism to consolidate the state’s power and trample citizens’ fundamental rights. Elections, though often manipulated, have contributed to the government’s narrative of legitimacy. Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, one of the study’s authors, documents the extent to which the regime has used this tool.

Hugo Chavez’s successful change of the Venezuelan constitution in 1999 was followed by a constant cycle of national elections — one a year on average. That put the country in a permanent campaign mode, in which the regime’s use of state resources put the opposition at a great disadvantage. As part of that “campaign,” Chavez made 2,000 television appearances during his first 11 years as president.

The Chavista regime has achieved near total control over the media, through direct state control, regulation, intimidation, and help from allies who buy media companies and then cease to criticize the government.

Authoritarian regimes today routinely use the trappings of democracy and the latest technology to stifle liberty.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this state propaganda — besides its high production quality — is its disconnection from reality. Venezuelans routinely experience blackouts, runaway inflation, violence, and widespread shortages of basic and other goods. Yet, official TV stations feature discussions of a possible invasion by the United States, and of why standing in line is good for you, for example.

The same phenomenon is happening in Syria, according to Abigail Fielding-Smith, another of the report’s authors. Even as Syrians suffer through a disastrous civil war, state television features incredible reports on how well the country is doing. In China, there is access to multiple sources of information and people don’t necessarily believe the state media. The point of these regimes’ new propaganda is not so much to indoctrinate or make people believe the official line, but to let the populace know that the state retains enough control that it can easily propagate absurd notions and have them repeated by people who either depend on those regimes or feel intimidated by them.

Flooding the media with officially approved “news” stories that diverge wildly from the facts — as Russia has been doing regarding its war in Ukraine — and having them cited by some independent media isn’t meant so much to convince people of these stories’ veracity, but rather to sow confusion and cast doubt on any other news story.

Neo-authoritarian censorship need not be absolute to be effective. There are millions of Chinese government critics online, but what does get censored, according to a recent study by Harvard University scholars, is any information that could facilitate organizing collective protests.

Something similar happened in Ecuador recently. The government of President Rafael Correa — whom the Inter-American Press Association has called “the great censor of the Americas” — intercepted some opposition figures’ private communications on WhatsApp and broadcast the contents on state television, in order to discourage more of the massive protests that were erupting across the country.

It didn’t stop the protests, but it is worth keeping an eye on how far Ecuador and other “democracies” take these new forms of disinformation. Authoritarian regimes tend to mismanage their economies, and sooner or later reality intrudes, whether in the form of recession or otherwise, that is too painful to ignore even by erstwhile regime allies, making autocratic control even more challenging. That looks to be happening in today’s Venezuela. With the global slowdown and the end of the commodity boom that sustained such regimes, we can expect the world’s authoritarians to run into increasing difficulty imposing their power, much less their views, on their societies.

Ian Vásquez is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

Immigration Reform Ideas for the New Speaker

Alex Nowrasteh

Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) began his term as the youngest Speaker of the House of Representatives in living memory by tweeting “[w]e are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean.” The policy slate that needs the deepest sterilization is immigration. Speaker Ryan has been supportive of moderate immigration reform in the past, so here are some new conservative immigration reform ideas to help him get the ball rolling.

Immigrant use of welfare benefits is a great place to start. Non-citizens and unauthorized immigrants have access to few means-tested welfare benefits under current law. President Obama’s Justice Department actually sued the state of Pennsylvania for giving Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and food stamps to a handful of unauthorized immigrants — winning a $48.8 million settlement in early 2015.

Poor immigrant individuals are less likely to use means-tested welfare than poor native-born Americans. When eligible poor immigrants do use those programs, the dollar value of the benefits they consume also tends to be lower.

However, any use of welfare by non-citizens is a drain on taxpayers that could easily be remedied by building an even higher wall around the welfare state. A 2013 paper I wrote with Sophie Cole entitled “Building a Wall around the Welfare State, Instead of the Country,” lays out the economic and fiscal benefits of further restricting welfare use, explains why the public is worried about immigrant welfare use, and identifies the specific statutes that govern immigrant eligibility for benefits.

Fixing our legal immigration system is the key to stopping unauthorized immigration and allowing our economy to attract the workers it demands.”

Fixing our legal immigration system is the key to stopping unauthorized immigration and allowing our economy to attract the workers it demands. However, most federal visas get so hopelessly bogged down in regulations that they become practically unusable. Speaking of the federal H-2A visa for agricultural workers, Elaine Chao, President George W. Bush’s secretary of Labor, said that “Many who have tried [the H-2A visa] report such bad experiences that they stopped using it altogether.”

Although there has been an uptick in use of the H-2A visas recently, a program which is currently regulated by four different federal agencies, the visa remains underutilized due to bureaucratic ossification. Worse, there are no visas available for yearlong work in almost all occupations and thus little labor market flexibility.

The way around growing visa complexity and restrictions is to allow states to run their own visa systems parallel to the federal government’s. As Brandon Fuller and Sean Rust wrote in their Cato Institute policy analysis proposing state-based visas, introducing federalism to America’s legal migration system will allow states to get the actual workers they demand and experiment with different legal regimes.

Allowing states to run their own migrations systems is not an untried proposal; Canada and Australia have similar successful programs. Instead of inviting just workers at any skill level or education, states could also set up visas for entrepreneurs and smaller-scale investors — categories that don’t currently exist. A state-based visa could also prompt experimentation on enforcement techniques and strategies. American states test different policies like welfare reform, gun laws and tax regimes — it’s time they do it with migration, too.

There is considerable demand on the state level for this type of program. In 2015, both Texas and California considered asking the federal government for permission to experiment with their own migration programs. In previous years, at least 14 other states have considered setting up their own migration systems, asking the federal government for permission to do so, or lobbied for a special allotment. It’s time the federal government allows states to do this — at least as a pilot program.

No discussion of immigration reform ideas is complete without addressing the unauthorized immigrant population. Although their numbers have stabilized around 11.5 million, they need some sort of legalization. Conservatives are skeptical of a blanket amnesty for obvious reasons, so why not try a multi-tiered legalization? Instead of giving most unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship, there should be different paths toward legal status and the migrant should choose for him or her self.

The first tier can be very cheap and lead to a permanent renewable work permit. It won’t ever allow welfare benefits or family sponsorship, but it will allow the migrant to work legally, own property, get a drivers license, and otherwise participate in American life. The second tier can be a more expensive path to a permanent green card that doesn’t need renewal. It can allow partial family sponsorship, deny welfare, but it cannot lead to citizenship for the formerly illegal migrant himself.

The third step should lead to citizenship, but it should be the most expensive and difficult: mirroring the Senate’s legalization path in its 2013 bill. Most unauthorized immigrants will not choose this path, but the option of citizenship will be open to those who want it the most — at a price. Only 45 percent of those legalized under the 1986 Reagan amnesty actually chose to become citizens. Instead of the government creating a one-size-fits-all legalization program, a tiered system should be created that allows the migrants to choose for themselves.

The face of immigration is changing without Congress’s involvement. Latin American immigration is falling, while that from Asia is rising rapidly. These three new policy ideas would allow more immigration flexibility by incorporating federalist principles, limiting welfare and creating options for legalization. Importantly, they appeal to the heart and mind of American conservatism. Speaker Ryan will have some difficult immigration challenges ahead of him; these ideas can help him get ahead of them.

Alex Nowrasteh is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

How Would A President Ben Carson Overturn Roe v. Wade?

Ilya Shapiro

Dr. Ben Carson’s recent announcement on Meet the Press that he’d like to see Roe v. Wadeoverturned isn’t particularly surprising. The media is having a field day with Carson’s comparison of abortion to slavery, as well his cheeky explanation that “I’m a reasonable person and if people can come up with a reasonable explanation of why they would like to kill a baby, I’ll listen,” but that’s all par for the course.

After all, most Republicans and all the GOP presidential candidates—except George Pataki, but including the latest version of Donald Trump—are pro-life. There’s disagreement regarding appropriate exceptions: Carson says he’s open to discussing the “extraordinarily rare situation” where the mother’s life is in danger, but again, this isn’t particularly newsworthy unless you’re an MSNBC host.

Yet there is one thing about this episode that got me thinking: How exactly would a President Carson (or anyone else) go about overturning Roe v. Wade?

Before going through the legal mechanics, the first thing to recognize is that Roe isn’t even the governing legal precedent regarding abortion—and hasn’t been for over two decades, since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). While Roe recognized a right to abortion as part of constitutional privacy protections, it set up a trimester framework to balance that right against the governmental interest in protecting the “potentiality of human life.” First-trimester abortions were to be at the complete discretion of the woman and her doctor, states could ban third-trimester abortions, and there was a gray area in the middle.

In short, overturning Roe v. Wade has to be a long-term project that catches a bit of luck along the way.”

Casey collapsed that framework, upholding Roe’s “essential holding” about the abortion right but replacing the trimester framework with one that focused on viability. No regulations that placed an “undue burden” on the abortion right would be allowed before viability, while after viability states had more leeway so long as they made exceptions for maternal life and health. What constitutes an “undue burden”? In effect, it’s whatever you can get five votes for at the Supreme Court.

In other words, if you’re pro-life, returning to a world where Roe v. Wade is the law of the land would actually be an improvement over the current situation.

But let’s say that, like Ben Carson, you want to go back even further to the pre-Roe days, where abortion regulations were left to the political process. Setting aside the possibility of an executive order that nullifies a Supreme Court ruling—even President Obama hasn’t tried that—what can the nation’s chief executive really do?

The answer is not much, at least not directly. The president can’t simply ask the Supreme Court to reverse a precedent. He or she can’t even file a lawsuit, except perhaps in his or her individual capacity upon being personally harmed by an abortion regulation.

And even that sort of thinking is beside the point: Every year the Supreme Court is asked to review abortion-related cases. At least a couple of petitions are currently pending, involving challenges to new restrictions in Mississippi and Texas. The justices could take one of these cases and overrule Casey and Roe, or modify the governing doctrine in some way.

But that’s unlikely to happen as a practical matter. If and when the Court next takes an abortion case, it’s much more likely to tinker around the edges with the “undue burden” standard, or simply apply it in a particular case to uphold or strike down a specific regulation.

There simply aren’t five votes to overturn Roe, not while one of Casey’s authors, Justice Anthony Kennedy, remains the Court’s decision maker on this (and most) hot-button issues. There may not even be four votes, given that Chief Justice John Roberts believes strongly not just in jurisprudential stare decisis—not disturbing established precedents—but in maintaining the political status quo.

So the only thing left to an anti-Roe president is to wait for opportunities to replace pro-Roe justices, with the most likely such vacancies to come from the seats currently occupied by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who’ll be 83 at the next election) and Stephen Breyer (78), as well as Kennedy himself (80). And, of course, that president would have to be accurate with his assessment of that nominee—with which Republican presidents have had decidedly mixed results. (Forget John Roberts and Obamacare; President Reagan intended to overturn Roe but two of his three nominees, Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor, eventually joined with David Souter, a George H.W. Bush nominee, to reaffirm it in Casey.)

Finally, even if President Carson were absolutely sure that his nominees would fulfill his goal, such an assurance would provoke fierce resistance from Senate Democrats. Justice Samuel Alito was only confirmed by a 58-42 vote in 2006, and replacing liberal icon Ginsburg with a conservative would likely trigger a filibuster. It’s not at all clear that Senate Republicans would then extend Harry Reid’s “nuclear option” to eliminate filibusters of Supreme Court nominees.

And if Democrats retake the Senate—a possibility even if a Republican wins the White House, and again in 2018—fuhgeddaboudit.

In short, overturning Roe v. Wade has to be a long-term project that catches a bit of luck along the way. Good luck to Ben Carson, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to maintain “undue” hope (or fear), at least not in the near future.

Ilya Shapiro is a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute and editor-in-chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review.

President Obama Finally Opts in for Personaizled Teaching over Standardized Testing

Nat Hentoff

As the national opt-out movement against mandatory standardized testing gathered steam earlier this year, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan began to sound retreat. On April 21, the website Chalkbeat.org reported that Duncan — speaking at the Education Writers Association conference in Chicago — said that his department would be forced to intervene if states failed to address the surging number of students opting-out of federally mandated standardized tests.

Later that same month, the website EdSource.org reported that Duncan, speaking before the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, surprised audience members when he “acknowledged serious flaws in the standardized tests that currently drive American schools.”

On Oct. 24, President Obama finally surrendered, to my surprise, as he announced on a video posted to Facebook that his administration had gone too far in fostering an over-reliance on standardized testing.

“The administration called for a cap on assessment so that no child would spend more than 2 percent of classroom instruction time taking tests,” The New York Times reported.

Back on July 15, I wrote a column on the success of the nationwide opt-out movement titled “Personal Teaching Breaks Through Nationally.”

“Over time I have learned that when students are liberated from the effects of being taught as members of a group — say, for a standardized test — they are allowed to shine as individuals,” I wrote at the time. “Making teaching personal, and not based on the limits of standardized testing, is the first step to leading students to become active American citizens.”

The U.S. Department of Education learned a long time ago — notwithstanding the Obama administration’s seven years of amnesia — that a curriculum focused on personalized teaching is the key to success for low-income students.

This past summer marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Upward Bound program, launched in 1965 to use innovative, personalized teaching methods to help some of America’s poorest kids succeed by graduating from high school and going on to earn a college degree.

Among the eligibility requirements set by the Department of Education for student participation in the program are a demonstrated academic need, a desire to earn a bachelor’s degree and coming from a family where neither parent has a bachelor’s degree.

A 2014 study by Kaemanje S. Thomas, then a doctoral candidate at Clark Atlanta University, examined the effectiveness of the Upward Bound program. “This research study has shown that the successes of many low-income students are due to the personalization of the Upward Bound program structure,” Thomas concluded. “As such, the value of the staffs’ relationship cannot be underestimated as it embodies a cultural practice of student centeredness.”

Thomas also wrote that the personalized “emphasis of the program structure provides students with a sense of belonging … The Upward Bound supportive environment prevents low-income students from dropping out of school and motivates them to attend college.”

In Connecticut, 80 students from failing Bridgeport public high schools participate in the Upward Bound program sponsored by Fairfield University, where my sister, Janet Krauss, has taught creative writing and poetry for the past 37 years. Only students from three of Bridgeport’s most desperately challenged public schools are eligible to participate in the program. Two of these schools were labeled “dropout factories” in a 2007 Associated Press investigation into nationwide high school dropout rates.

The personalized teaching methods used by Fairfield University’s Upward Bound program go well beyond standardized test preparation and include, according to its website, “tutoring, mentoring, academic instruction, academic counseling … life skills workshops, cultural events, college visits, assistance with the college admissions and financial aid processes, financial literacy, career exploration, leadership development, and a summer residential program.”

The Fairfield Upward Bound program requires students — in addition to the regular coursework at their high school — to attend instructional, tutoring and enrichment classes at Fairfield University two to three Saturdays per month. The students also receive regular visits from Upward Bound staff members at the student’s high school.

Personalized teaching has long been a feature enjoyed by students in elite private schools — and many wealthy suburban public school districts — which can afford to attract the best teachers and support the low student-teacher ratios essential to a student-centered approach to education.

While running for president in 2008, Sen. Obama gave a speech at a school in Thornton, Colorado, in which he invoked Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth or birth.”

It is now time — in the last year of his presidency and through a renewed partnership with Congress — for Obama to take action and turn his promises into an everyday reality for America’s low-income school children across the nation.

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.

Repeal REAL ID

Jim Harper

A common lament aimed at federal representatives is that they “go native” and start representing the federal government to their states rather than seeking the best for their constituents back home. Last week, a Roll Call commentary (“Congress Should Pressure States, Not DHS, on REAL ID”) openly encouraged members of Congress to abandon their proper roles and help the Department of Homeland Security pressure states into implementing a U.S. national ID system. What Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) should do, along with representatives of every state the DHS menaces, is defund and repeal the REAL ID Act.

Nobody has ever articulated how a national ID would cost-effectively improve security of any kind, much less how it would have prevented the 9/11 attacks. But over a decade ago Congress rushed the REAL ID Act into law without a hearing or an up-or-down vote in the Senate. REAL ID repealed federal legislation on driver licensing that was passed in the wake of the 9/11, canceling a negotiated rulemaking that was bringing together federal officials, state motor vehicle bureaucrats, and a variety of other stakeholders, including privacy advocates.

Instead, REAL ID set up a high-handed system to threaten states that didn’t kowtow to federal driver licensing rules. If states didn’t obey the federal national ID mandate, the Transportation Security Administration would start refusing their residents’ licenses at airports.

Congress should restore common sense, protect state authority, and support Americans’ liberties by defunding and repealing the REAL ID Act.”

When they saw the expense and intrusiveness of implementing the federal government’s national ID plans, though, governors and legislators from across the country and the political spectrum refused. The “REAL ID Rebellion” saw more than half the states pass legislation or resolutions barring themselves from complying with REAL ID or asking their congressional delegations to revisit the national ID law.

When the statutory deadline for compliance came around in 2008, the Department of Homeland Security had barely finished writing the regulations. It pushed compliance deadlines back for the first of many times, asking only that states declare their obedience to the national ID law. A number of state governors refused even to pledge cooperation, and the DHS gave them extensions, too.

Since then, deadlines have come and gone several times, with the DHS, motor vehicle bureaucrats, and national ID proponents touting the threat that TSA would bar law-abiding Americans from exercising their right to travel if they didn’t have a national ID. The latest deadline of sometime in 2016 is already a dead letter.

The DHS has tried to create the appearance of widespread compliance by scaling REAL ID’s requirements back to a “material compliance checklist” and liberally granting extensions to some states. It has threatened a small number of states as if they are holdouts, when, in fact, no state will be compliant with REAL ID in 2016.

The effort to break down state authority and herd Americans into a national ID continues because of a steady funding stream in the annual DHS appropriations bills. Congress puts tens of millions of dollars annually into REAL ID. These federal funds send DHS officials out to dissemble about the program to state elected leaders, and a grant fund encourages motor vehicle bureaucrats to push mission creep in their states when they should be streamlining the simple, basic mission of licensing people to drive cars.

The success of the REAL ID effort would lengthen lines at DMVs across the country and raise the cost and paperwork burden of getting a driver’s license. Worst of all, having this national ID offers essentially no security benefit. Congress should stop allowing Americans’ tax dollars to threaten Americans’ privacy and the security of their personal information.

Security is the most important issue, of course. If a national ID system had the security benefits people imagine, it might be worth all of the costs. But the ways to avoid and defeat a national ID system are legion, including ever-common bribery of DMV workers. A national ID is not the solution to identity fraud, which has a weak relationship to driver licensing. State-issued licenses and IDs are not used when people apply for credit and open accounts online and through the mail, the processes in which the bulk of identity fraud occurs.

In the panicky years after 9/11, a thousand security ships sailed, many without a destination. REAL ID is one such program. It does not offer security benefits to justify its substantial costs.

So far, the common sense of state leaders has avoided the spending of the billions of dollars it would take to implement a national ID. State leaders have resisted making their residents’ data available to DMVs across the country, and many have declined to push policies that lengthen lines and deepen the paperwork burdens at DMVs.

Should New Hampshire’s senators and others in Congress undercut the sensibilities of their states at the behest of the Department of Homeland Security? They should not. Rather, they should restore common sense, protect state authority, and support Americans’ liberties by defunding and repealing the REAL ID Act.

Jim Harper is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

Pictures for the Pope and Progressives

Steve H. Hanke

In September, Pope Francis visited the United States, where he addressed the U.S. Congress. His address, while nuanced, hit on social justice themes. The Pope’s remarks were well received by left-of-center politicians who embrace progressive policies. When the Pope left the U.S., he traveled to Latin America, where he spoke in his native Spanish and was more direct. While in Bolivia, Pope Francis had this to say: “Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change,” the Pope said, decrying a system that “has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.”

Has the spread of free markets improved people’s lives?”

Pope Francis’ rhetoric inspired the anti-free market forces in Bolivia, and elsewhere. They believe that the goals of social justice and poverty reduction can best be achieved by collective efforts, not by free markets.

Pope Francis raises an important question. Has the spread of free markets improved people’s lives?

Interestingly, the recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics, Angus Deaton, answers that question. Indeed, Deaton’s 2013 book, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, opens with: “Life is better now than at almost any time in history.”

Deaton’s conclusion was echoed in an edifying essay, “The Age of Milton Friedman,” penned by Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer in 2009. In that essay, Shleifer observed that, from about 1980, the world had embraced the free markets that Nobelist Friedman had championed. Shleifer also indicated that living standards had risen sharply, poverty had declined dramatically, while life expectancy had increased. Shleifer asked whether the spread of free markets accounted for the improvements, and he answered with a resounding, “Yes.” With a series of charts, Shleifer let the data talk. In what follows, I do the same.

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The best elixir to address the concerns of Pope Francis and other progressives is more free markets, not fewer. Just look at the pictures. As the saying goes, they are worth a thousand words.

Steve H. Hanke is a professor of Applied Economics at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter: @Steve_Hanke

Further Militarizing the South China Sea May Undermine Freedom of Navigation

Doug Bandow and Eric Gomez

In the near future the U.S. Navy (USN) reportedly will sail within 12 nautical miles of islands claimed by China in the South China Sea (SCS). This is welcome news for those who believe that Washington’s weakness in the face of China’s “blatantly illegal” island reclamation campaign has encouraged Beijing’s bad behavior. Now the question is: what comes next?

The idea that FONOPS will rein in Chinese actions in the SCS is appealing. Administration critics charge that China has been making all the right moves to bolster its territorial claims while the United States sits on its hands. However, FONOPS will not resolve SCS territorial disputes. In fact, this approach likely will complicate U.S.-Chinese relations and make a peaceful settlement of territorial disputes more difficult.

Past Performance Does Not Guarantee Future Results

Those who believe a show of force by Washington will bring Beijing to heel point to the East China Sea. In November 2013 the Chinese government announced an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over most of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Beijing demanded that aircraft flying through the ADIZ identify themselves and warned that China’s armed forces would “adopt defensive emergency measures” against noncompliant aircraft. Three days later the U.S. Air Force sent two B-52 bomber aircraft through the ADIZ, resulting in little more than Chinese finger wagging.

U.S. plans to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea will further destabilize the region.”

Relative calm ensued in the skies above the East China Sea. Japan and South Korea flew military aircraft through the ADIZ without incident and the American military reported no changes in its interactions with the Chinese military. Tensions eventually rose when the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) began enforcing the ADIZ, but the East China Sea generally has been peaceful. At the start of 2015, for example, Chinese aviation authorities announced that they would not take “defensive emergency measures” against civilian aircraft that did not recognize the ADIZ.

Superficially, then, the initial B-52 flight appeared to force China to back down from its overzealous territorial claims. However, a host of other factors influenced China’s decision not to aggressively defend the ADIZ.

First, the PLAAF lacked sufficient military capabilities to do so. Second, Beijing recognized that the ADIZ undermined the diplomatic goodwill that President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang were building in the region. Third, Japan mounted a firm response to the ADIZ, demonstrating its willingness to stand up for itself.

The planned FONOP in the SCS is unlikely to produce a similar result. China’s South Sea Fleet is more capable of enforcing Chinese territorial claims than the PLAAF was at enforcing the East China Sea ADIZ. For example, the South Sea Fleet has two new Type-052D LuyangIII-class destroyers in its inventory, which pose a major threat to USN surface ships and aircraft.

Moreover, other SCS claimants have less capacity to promote freedom of navigation compared to the countries that opposed the ADIZ. The willingness of many neighboring countries to ignore the ADIZ was an important reason why it failed. In particular, Japan has a relatively strong and capable military. Southeast Asian nations plan to expand and improve their navies, but these forces still trail China’s fleet by a significant margin.

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

A FONOP also is likely to spark a Chinese backlash, hindering a peaceful resolution of SCS disputes. As MIT’s Taylor Fravel observed, a FONOP “gives China an opportunity to assert that the United States is the country ‘militarizing’ the South China Sea,” providing Beijing with an excuse to respond in kind. It would be better to instead test Chinese pledges of goodwill.

Xi Jinping’s recent promise not to militarize the artificial islands may be insincere, but conducting a FONOP will create pressure for Xi to respond aggressively, even if his commitment to eschew militarization was genuine. Likewise, China would appear aggressive, dangerous, and duplicitous if it continued to take provocative actions after promising to not militarize, making an American response appear reasonable. Additionally, a FONOP plays into Chinese nationalist rhetoric that paints American actions as hypocritical and one-sided.

What about America’s allies and friends? Reassuring Washington’s partners appears to be the true objective of the upcoming FONOP. To make up for their limited military capabilities, other claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines have turned to the United States. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has repeatedly proclaimed that American participation in the SCS dispute is intended to reassure allies that Washington will not leave them flapping in the wind.

For instance, at the Shangri La Dialogue, Carter declared, “There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” A FONOP in the SCS would back his rhetoric. However, if China uses the U.S. action as a rationale for maintaining or increasing the rate of island reclamation then friendly states likely would feel even more threatened. This would counteract the FONOP’s original purpose and would likely push the United States and China into a dangerous spiral, requiring more shows of force to reassure allies against an assertive China acting aggressively in response to American shows of force.

Chinese behavior in the SCS is a legitimate concern for the United States, but Washington should realize that this dispute is unlikely to be resolved with military power. Indeed, problems will only grow if both Washington and Beijing keep poking each other in the eye. Maintaining peace in the SCS instead requires the United States and China to work together to resolve precisely these kinds of contentious issues.

Doug Bandow is Senior Fellow and Eric Gomez is Research Associate at the Cato Institute.

Higher Ed Problems “God’s Will or Somebody Else’s Fault”

Neal McCluskey

Aficionados of the movie — not the TV show — M*A*S*H might recall what Captain Augustus “Duke” Forrest says about overbearing, incompetent surgeon Major Frank Burns: “Frank Burns is a menace! Every time a patient croaks on him, he says it’s God’s will or somebody else’s fault.” That line pops into my head whenever I hear federal politicians explain why the higher ed patient is dying, and it’s in my noggin again with new attacks on accreditation.

Back in the George W. Bush era, the scapegoating was often of rich colleges with big endowments. In particular, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) castigated endowment-hoarders like Harvard and Yale, and with Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) sent letters requesting information on endowment growth and student aid to every college with a stash of $500 million or above.

That really put heat on the Ivory Tower, right? Nope. Only 136 schools out of 4,300 had endowments of that size.

More recently, the big bad guys have been for-profit colleges, which have been targeted by the Obama administration and senators such as Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL). While students at for-profits account for a large percentage of loan defaults, when you put everything into context for-profits are not the problem. They work with by far the most challenging student bodies, don’t get direct taxpayer subsidies like public institutions, actually pay taxes, and you can’t get tax deductions for donating to them unlike, say, those colleges with the huge endowments. And schools’ outcomes appear to be much more influenced by the backgrounds of their students than what the schools do. So for-profits may do great jobs relative to other schools, but they have by far the toughest challenge.

Today, for-profits are still high on the blame list, but accreditors seem to be rising to meet them, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan talking up how awful they are for not punishing schools with low completion rates and other poor outcomes. And it’s not just Duncan — there seems to be bipartisan support for blaming accreditors. Bad outcomes must be their fault because they don’t somehow make schools get everyone — no matter how unsuited for college — to graduation, good jobs, and on-time loan repayment.

But it’s not their fault. It is the federal government’s fault, because it gives almost any amount of money to almost any person to go to college, regardless of their demonstrated desire or ability to do college-level work. The federal government, for all intents and purposes, begs colleges to take such people and charge great sums.

Ultimately, the huge waste and failure in higher education is primarily the fault of Washington politicians who love to hand out money and be the “good guys” even when they know they are setting millions of unprepared people up for failure. It is the fault of federal politicians who are, essentially, Frank Burns, blaming everyone else — endowments, schools, accreditors — when their patients fail.

Neal McCluskey is the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

Dealing with Bad Allies: the Case for Moral Realism

Ted Galen Carpenter

IN THE West Wing episode “The Women of Qumar,” the White House concludes a $1.5 billion arms sale to the fictional country of Qumar on the Persian Gulf in exchange for an extended lease on a base for the U.S. Air Force. C. J. Cregg, the president’s press secretary, is livid about the deal because of the Qumari government’s nasty treatment of women. (The parallel with the conduct of the governments of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was not terribly subtle.) As a woman herself, Gregg views a close relationship between the United States and an odious regime as utterly unacceptable. In the climatic scene she confronts the president’s national-security adviser, also a woman, about the deal. The national-security adviser justifies the arrangement as strengthening the U.S. military’s position in that part of the world. Gregg will have no part of such an excuse, and she wrings an admission out of her colleague that the military base was not essential; it was merely “convenient.”

That level of justification should never be acceptable in the real world. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that U.S. administrations adopt that standard routinely. The convenience standard for backing corrupt, thuggish rulers is especially worrisome given Washington’s excessively interventionist foreign policy. Indeed, there are many initiatives that are considered necessities within the context of that policy that would come nowhere close to clearing the bar if the United States had a more restrained and cautious policy largely confined to the defense of vital American security interests. While there may be times when, for legitimate security reasons, it is necessary to make ethical compromises, it is nonetheless imperative to establish some standards to determine when a situation warrants making that sacrifice and when it does not. Three factors must be considered. First, how crucial is the U.S. interest at stake? Second, how seriously is that interest threatened? Finally, just how odious is Washington’s prospective partner? The first consideration is the most important, but the others are far from minor.

In determining what kind of interest—security, economic or political—is involved and how important it is to the well being of the American people, it is essential to define the pertinent terms. Unfortunately, that is something U.S. officials often fail to do at all, or at best do in a perfunctory, slipshod fashion. But not all interests are created equal; some are vastly more important than others, and threats to less important ones mandate greater restraint about making ethical compromises.

Determining the nature and level of national interests is a complex exercise, and the following is merely a rough guide to that task. In general, though, interests can (and should) be divided into four broad categories: vital,secondary or conditionalperipheral, and barely relevant. Each category warrants a different level of response from the United States and a different degree of association with potential authoritarian partners.

UNFORTUNATELY, IN both the Cold War and the so-called War on Terror, U.S. leaders have had a tendency to lump almost everything into the “vital interest” category. That is unfortunate on several levels, not the least because such thinking provides a rationale for unnecessarily embracing repulsive regimes. The reality is that for any nation, but especially for the United States, vital interests are few in number. National survival is obviously the most important interest, but the preservation of political independence, domestic liberty and economic well-being from external threats all are part of the mix as well. How secure those vital interests are depends heavily on both the threat environment and the capabilities of the adversary in question.

The United States may be the most secure great power in history. Not only does it benefit from having two vast oceans on its eastern and western flanks, which renders a large-scale conventional attack on the American homeland virtually impossible, but it also has the luxury of dealing with an assortment of weak, and for the most part friendly, neighbors throughout the hemisphere. There is no country that even approaches being a serious military peer competitor in America’s neighborhood. For all the talk of Brazil’s rise, even that country has an enormous distance to go before it could achieve the status of economic peer competitor. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States is, and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, the utterly dominant strategic and economic player.

Even viewing the security environment on a global basis, it is difficult to identify many credible threats to America’s vital interests. Although there are a handful of rising powers (most notably India and China), the United States still has a sizable economic edge and an enormous military advantage. Moreover, both of those rising powers have a considerable stake in maintaining decent relations with the United States. Indeed, New Delhi’s strategic interests substantially overlap those of Washington. The situation with Beijing is more complex and ambiguous, and there are some issues that could lead to significant bilateral tensions. China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan remains a point of conflict, as do Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Even so, there are important factors, especially the mutually lucrative trade relationship, that serve to mute those tensions.

Moreover, even if a major power or an alliance of major powers did seek to challenge the United States, it is difficult to see how they could menace America’s survival, political independence, domestic liberty or economic health. A direct threat to any of those interests seems far-fetched. Even a campaign to so substantially alter the global distribution of power that the shift could pose an indirect threat to America’s vital interests is an extremely remote danger. That scenario would require a hostile power or an alliance of hostile powers being poised to dominate multiple regions that have crucial security and economic assets. Specifically, in today’s world, such an adversary would have to be capable of gaining control of Europe and East Asia and the South Asia/Persian Gulf region.

World affairs are not akin to a fairy tale with easy moral lessons and preordained happy endings.”

U.S. policymakers feared precisely that kind of outcome during World War II with the alliance between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and Washington fretted about a similar danger during the late 1940s and early 1950s when the Soviet Union’s power was ascendant. Whatever the legitimacy of those worries in earlier decades—and the danger was substantially overblown—the notion of an adversary or adversaries dominating all three regions today or in the foreseeable future is the stuff of paranoid fantasy.

The mere emergence of a global peer competitor—much less an outright global adversary on the scale of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union—is improbable for the next several decades. In the unlikely event that such an adversary emerges, the United States is more than capable of dealing with the challenge. Despite its recent economic malaise—and the self-inflicted wounds caused by the federal government’s fiscal mismanagement—the United States still has the largest and most impressive economy in the world, accounting for more than one-fifth of global output. Washington’s military advantages are even more daunting. No nation can come close to fielding conventional forces that rival America’s.

Washington’s advantage in nuclear weaponry is equally apparent. The only country that has an arsenal comparable to that of the United States is Russia. And Russia’s economic, political and demographic problems make that country a one-dimensional, anemic peer competitor. China deploys a meager arsenal of a few hundred nuclear weapons, most of which are configured to be useful only in a second-strike (i.e., a response to a nuclear attack) scenario. It would take at least a decade, and probably much longer, for China to deploy a nuclear capability that came close to matching America’s.

A direct military challenge by a would-be peer competitor is far-fetched and would require a suicidal mentality by that country’s political leadership. America’s other adversaries are strictly second-tier or even third-tier powers, such as Iran and North Korea. Such countries are totally outclassed by Washington’s conventional military power, and although Pyongyang is attempting to barge into the global nuclear-weapons club (and Tehran may still harbor ambitions to do so), any arsenals that they might develop would be miniscule compared to the vast U.S. stockpile. Indeed, their purpose in developing a small nuclear-weapons capability appears to be primarily to deter the United States from making them the target of the kind of coercion that Washington employed against such nonnuclear adversaries as Serbia, Iraq and Libya.

What about the possible threat that terrorism (either state-sponsored or nonstate) poses to America’s vital interests? Experts who highlight that threat note the logic of deterrence that applies to states may not be relevant to nonstate actors. America’s vast military superiority, including its strategic nuclear deterrent, they argue, would mean little, since there would often be no return address for a retaliatory strike. Furthermore, terrorists are much more likely than leaders of nation states to be suicidal, since they benefit little or nothing from the status quo and, therefore, have far less to lose by engaging in rash actions.

Some pundits and policy experts contend that the leadership of certain countries, especially Iran, might be similarly indifferent to the consequences to themselves or their populations of launching an attack on the United States or U.S. allies, such as Israel. But there is little evidence to support that thesis, and considerable evidence to refute it, especially in the case of Iran. Meir Dagan, the former chief of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, told 60 Minutes in 2012 that the Iranian government, while ruthless, behaves in a rational fashion. Tehran’s conduct over the past three-and-a-half decades supports that conclusion. Despite vowing never to make peace with Saddam Hussein’s government after Iraqi forces attacked Iran in the early 1980s, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did agree to a peace accord at the end of that decade. Tehran did so when Khomeini and other Iranian officials concluded that the costs of continuing the war would exceed any probable benefits, and that a favorable outcome, even after more years of warfare, was anything but certain. That behavior reflected sober calculation, not suicidal impulses. Attacking the United States, which has thousands of nuclear weapons, or even Israel, which experts estimate possesses at least seventy or eighty such weapons, would constitute the height of folly.

It is also indicative of rational Iranian conduct that there is no evidence Tehran has given chemical weapons to Hezbollah, Hamas or other extremist, nonstate allies. That restraint is all the more impressive because Iran has had those weapons in its arsenal since the mid-1980s. Again, the behavior of the mullahs regarding chemical weapons indicates that they understand the dire consequences of provoking the United States or its allies by distributing such nonconventional weapons to third parties, and they apparently have decided that the costs and risks overshadow any plausible benefits. That is a characteristic of rational and calculating, rather than suicidal, reasoning.

THE ATTACKS of September 11, 2001, of course, demonstrated that expectations of similar cautious logic apparently do not apply to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Those attacks also created the impression of this country’s extreme vulnerability to terrorism in the minds of many Americans. But it is important to put that terrible day—and the more general threat that terrorism poses—into perspective. Terrorism is, and always has been, a tactic used by weak parties, not strong ones. That is especially true of nonstate actors.

Al Qaeda got lucky on September 11; not only did U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies fail to detect blatant signs of a terrorist plot using aircraft in the months leading up to the attack, but the execution (especially the complete collapse of both World Trade Center towers) was extraordinary. It would be extremely difficult for Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization to carry off another assault on the scale of September 11—much less anything larger. Indeed, all of the other attacks conducted since September 11 have been much smaller in nature. The nightmare scenario of a terrorist group gaining control of a nuclear weapon—the one development that could produce an attack on a massive scale—cannot be ignored, but it is also a scenario that is exceedingly improbable.

Terrorism is more accurately viewed as a chronic security annoyance that must be managed rather than as an existential threat to America. It is important to remember, however, that ten times as many Americans die in automobile accidents each year than perished on that awful September day. The terrorist problem, while worrisome, can never pose a threat to America’s survival as a nation. It cannot—unless our policymakers overreact—even pose a serious menace to our economic health or domestic liberty. Most of the adverse consequences on those fronts since September 11 were not the result of that attack but of policies (the PATRIOT Act, the quagmire wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the pervasive domestic spying perpetrated by the National Security Agency) that overzealous U.S. leaders adopted.

The bottom line is that vital interests are rare, and serious threats to them are equally rare. In most cases, the United States would be able to neutralize such a threat by itself or in cooperation with democratic allies. If and when a sufficiently lethal threat exists, there is a legitimate case for working with almost any security partner, however odious. British statesman Winston Churchill, a staunch anti-Communist, undoubtedly had to hold his nose when his country forged an alliance with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. But the threat that Nazi Germany posed to Britain’s security, perhaps even to its existence as an independent nation, made such a moral concession necessary. The only bona fide criticism that could be made of the British (and U.S.) willingness to work with Stalin was the tendency of some policymakers to pretend (or delude themselves into believing) that their security partner was anything other than a despot.

When national survival or another vital interest is truly in jeopardy, close relationships with even the most repulsive leaders and regimes are justified. But that ought to be the great exception, not the rule, when it comes to the conduct of America’s foreign policy. Even an effort to protect the next highest category of interests, secondary or conditional interests, requires a different, more rigorous, cost-benefit calculation.

SECONDARY INTERESTS are assets that are pertinent but not indispensable to the preservation of America’s physical integrity, independence, domestic liberty and economic health. For example, if one of the regions mentioned earlier came under the domination of an adversary, it would not automatically threaten the vital interests of the United States. America could still do reasonably well, for instance, even if China became the hegemon of East Asia, as long as Europe and the South Asia/Persian Gulf region remained outside Beijing’s orbit. Chinese dominion over East Asia, however, would make for a significantly more uncomfortable existence, and U.S. leaders would quite understandably want to prevent such an outcome. There are limits, though, to how far policymakers should go in adopting amoral, much less immoral, measures to contain China’s power.

Unlike the defense of vital interests, the defense of (or promotion of) secondary interests justifies only modest exertions. Washington might deem it beneficial to encourage and lend political and diplomatic support to the efforts of friendly countries to resist the growing power of an emerging, adversarial regional hegemon. In some cases, the transfer of militarily relevant technology, and even direct arms sales, to such countries might be warranted. But whereas the United States must be willing even to risk war to defend vital interests, that stance is usually unwarranted in the case of dealing with secondary interests.

Such a distinction also applies to the willingness to cooperate with unsavory foreign security partners. When secondary rather than vital interests are at stake, the bar should be higher for taking on such allies. It might be too much to insist that such a partner be a full-fledged democracy or have a squeaky-clean record on the issue of corruption, but at the same time there needs to be limits to Washington’s tolerance. Partnering with a Stalin (or a Chiang Kai-shek) was arguably necessary to counter the security threat to the United States that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan posed after Pearl Harbor, but one could not make the same argument for embracing such individuals merely for the defense of secondary interests. To use a contemporary example, it would not be acceptable to establish a close relationship with North Korea’s totalitarian regime (in the unlikely event such an association were possible) merely to blunt China’s growing power in East Asia—even though preventing Chinese hegemony in that region is a secondary interest of the United States.

THE COST-BENEFIT calculation shifts further in the direction of caution when the matter involved is one ofperipheral interests. That category consists of assets that marginally enhance America’s security, liberty and economic well being, but the loss of which would be more of an annoyance than a significant blow. The existence of a hostile regime in a midsize country in Latin America (Venezuela comes to mind) is an example of a threat to a peripheral interest. Another example would be the onset of extensive political turbulence in the Middle East, given the probable impact on oil prices. It is asking too much for Washington to be indifferent to such matters, but there is nothing at stake that normally requires more than diplomatic exertions. Joint naval maneuvers between Venezuelan and Russian forces, which occurred in 2008, or a spike in oil prices, which occurred in 2011 during the so-called Arab Awakening political upheavals, were unsettling developments, but they hardly warranted any kind of U.S. military response or even a covert Central Intelligence Agency operation.

Restraint about creating relationships with autocratic security partners is even more essential in the case of peripheral interests than it is with secondary interests. To establish alliances with brutal and corrupt regimes in such cases is simply unwarranted. Unfortunately, most of the close relationships that Washington developed with such allies and clients during the Cold War involved little more than the protection or promotion of peripheral interests. That was certainly true of the ties with such tyrants as Ferdinand Marcos, the Somoza family or Mobutu Sese Seko. One would have been hard pressed to make a credible case that those associations advanced even legitimate secondary American interests, much less vital ones.

Many situations in the world do not rise even to the level of peripheral interests. They instead fall into the category of barely relevant matters. Whether Bosnia remains intact or divides into a Muslim-dominated ministate and a Serb republic, whether East Timor is well-governed, whether Ukraine or Russia has rightful title to Crimea—each can and should be a matter of indifference to the United States. It is highly improbable that such developments would have a measurable impact on America’s security, liberty or economic health. Washington ought to confine any role to one of routine diplomatic involvement on the margins—and sometimes not even that. In settings where not even peripheral U.S. interests are at stake, there is no justification at all for compromising American values to create security partnerships with unsavory allies or clients.

WHILE THE nature and extent of U.S. interests should be the principal screening mechanism for determining whether an alliance with an authoritarian regime is justified, an important secondary screening mechanism should be a determination of just how bad the prospective partner is. It is one thing if a potential ally or client is engaged in garden-variety corruption or harassment of political opponents. It is quite another if the corruption is pervasive, or even worse, if Washington’s new “friend” perpetrates systematic torture and murder.

The hardest call regarding a moral balancing act occurs when secondary interests are at stake. U.S. leaders can and should take a firm position against acquiring unsavory partners when only peripheral interests are involved—much less when the issue is barely relevant. Conversely, as noted earlier, the defense of vital interests sometimes requires making painful moral compromises. The defense of secondary interests, however, constitutes a grey area, and it is in that situation that judgment calls about the severity of the moral deficiency of a potential ally take on special importance. There are instances in which the balance may tilt in favor of establishing or maintaining a cooperative relationship with a morally defective ally.

At some point, though, the repulsive quality of a security partner is so bad that nothing except thwarting a serious threat to vital American interests can justify a close working relationship. Only repelling such a threat could possibly warrant backing the likes of Mobutu, the Guatemalan military dictators or even Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. That Washington supported such partners—often enthusiastically—even though far milder interests were at stake was an especially damning indictment of U.S. policy.

U.S. leaders sometimes seem inclined to make similar, casual compromises of fundamental American values in the campaign against radical Islamic terrorism. That is unfortunate for two reasons. On a practical level, crawling into bed with the likes of the Saudi royal family or the Pakistani military leadership risks incurring serious blowback from angry populations. Indeed, Washington’s willingness to back such corrupt and brutal elites provides fodder for the very terrorist movements we seek to neutralize.

But beyond the practical foreign policy and security considerations, those kinds of relationships create a moral rot within America’s own polity. It is not merely hypocritical; it is destructive to America’s values and sense of self-worth to betray fundamental principles for anything less than compelling reasons. The most practical way to minimize the temptation to back clients needlessly, and incurring the likely unpleasant consequences, is to adopt a policy of ethical pragmatism. That approach recognizes that world affairs are not akin to a fairy tale with easy moral lessons and preordained happy endings. Instead, world conditions require that the United States be flexible and practical in its conduct of foreign policy. But there is a great deal of territory between adopting cynical, Machiavellian practices and adhering to starry-eyed idealism that cannot work in the real world. The self-proclaimed realism of a Henry Kissinger leans too far toward the first pole, while the policy preferences of pacifist organizations tilt too far toward the second.

Ethical pragmatism endeavors to strike a balance between the extremes of those two approaches. It accepts the need for some dilution of moral standards in the conduct of foreign policy—but only if the American interests at stake are sufficiently important, the threat to those interests is serious and the compromise of values is not excessive, given the circumstances. Admittedly, all of that is dependent on the subjective judgment of policymakers, with all their human frailties. But ethical pragmatism at least provides some guidance for officials as they make their decisions. It guards against an “anything goes” mentality that needlessly sacrifices important principles. Applying such a standard might well have prevented the United States from engaging in some embarrassing, and at times shameful, actions during the Cold War and its aftermath. Developing and applying that standard holds the promise of minimizing the danger of such behavior in the future. C. J. Cregg was on to something.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The National Interest, is the author of ten books and more than six hundred articles on international affairs. His latest book, coauthored with Malou Innocent, is Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes (Cato Institute, 2015).