Kurdistan, Catalonia and the Iran Deal: The Perils of Overreach

Ted Galen Carpenter

In just the past few weeks, two examples emerged to demonstrate
the harmful consequences when political leaders overplay their hand
and provoke harsh responses. One occurred in Iraqi Kurdistan, the
other in Spain’s Catalonia region. Both entities now teeter on the
brink of calamity. There also are pertinent lessons from those
episodes for U.S. policymakers.

Despite abundant warnings from multiple sources, the Kurdistan
Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil held a referendum on September
25 regarding independence from Iraq. President Masoud Barzani’s
administration should have realized even before the vote that
matters were not likely to turn out well. Not only did Iraq’s Prime
Minister Haider al-Abadi make it clear that such a referendum
was unacceptable and would lead immediately to
retaliatory measures, but neighboring states, including Iran, Syria
and Turkey, did so as well. Even the United States, which
regards Kurdish fighters in both Iraq and Syria as extremely
valuable allies in the struggle against ISIS, urged the KRG
to exercise more caution.

Barzani and his colleagues ignored such signs of trouble and
went ahead with the balloting. The results were predictable, with
more than 90 percent of voters favoring
independence. Both Baghdad and Tehran immediately closed air-traffic corridors into landlocked
Kurdistan, and those governments, together with Turkey, began to coordinate
policies to rein in the KRG. Abadi’s regime was the most proactive,
immediately dispatching troops to seize the disputed, oil-rich city
of Kirkuk and other sites in northern Iraq.
Peshmerga units (the KRG’s army) had to abandon Kirkuk and retreat
ignominiously from the other areas that were under siege.

Wise officials in any
country need to resist the temptation to overreach, thereby
jeopardizing existing achievements and the potential for modest
additional gains.

Within mere weeks after the bold referendum, the KRG had lost
much of what it had gained in the years since it established a
highly autonomous foothold in Iraq’s predominantly Kurdish region
following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraqi Kurdistan had
become independent in nearly everything but name. It had its own
army, flag and currency, and it largely controlled the export of
oil from northern Iraq. Baghdad’s sovereignty over the region was
minimal and tenuous. The KRG even had been successful in exploiting
the ISIS threat and the setbacks that Baghdad suffered to establish control over Kirkuk, a long-standing
Kurdish objective.

Prudent statesmanship would have dictated leaving well enough
alone and consolidating those gains. Instead, Erbil reached for
full, formal independence. That was a provocation that neither
Baghdad nor any of the other capitals could let go unchallenged.
The Kurds are the largest distinct population in the world without
a homeland, and major portions of that ethnic bloc are present in
Iran, northern Syria and especially Turkey (some 50 percent of the
total), as well as northern Iraq. An independent Kurdistan is seen
as a threat to the territorial integrity of all of
those countries. Therefore, there was no chance whatsoever that
they would tolerate the results of Erbil’s independence

Retaliation was predictable, yet the KRG went ahead even though
it lackedsufficient military power to repel
hostile forces and sustain its claim. At a minimum, it would have
been necessary to build up the power of the peshmerga enough to
pose a credible deterrent to coercive measures. Patiently
extracting more high-powered weaponry from Washington in exchange
for Erbil’s continued valuable assistance against militant Islamic
groups would have been a productive course. Instead, Barzani’s
government acted precipitously. In essence, his regime overreached
and wrote geopolitical checks that bounced. Now, many of the
hard-won gains since 2003 are probably lost-and perhaps lost forever.

Advocates of Catalonia’s independence from Spain appear to have
made a similar blunder. Sentiment for independence has been
building in that region for decades, and the regional government
decided to hold a referendum regarding that option on October 1. As
in the case of Kurdistan, there were clear warnings not to go down
that path. The central government in Madrid was emphatic that such a move would not be
tolerated. Indeed, the Spanish authorities sent police and other
security personnel to prevent the balloting. That move led to ugly
incidents in which those units behaved in a barbaric fashion, beating hundreds of mostly peaceful
pro-independence demonstrators in Barcelona.

Despite such actions, the referendum went forward and produced
an outcome favoring independence. Spanish authorities have since
greatly hardened their stance. Madrid’s first demand was for
Catalonia to hold new elections to replace the existing
regional government. When the Catalans refused, and instead issued
a declaration of independence, the Spanish parliament voted to oust
officials of that government and to dissolve the elected regional legislative body.
The vote also granted the prime minister unprecedented authority
under the Spanish constitution to put down the rebellion. Through
more subtle means, the Catalans might have achieved greatly
enhanced autonomy for their region. By boldly pushing for
independence, they are in danger of being subjected to harsh
repression from Madrid. As in the case of Kurdistan, overreaching
has led to a severe setback at a minimum and potential disaster at

One might think that U.S. leaders are perceptive enough to avoid
similar folly, but the record suggests otherwise. The United States
achieved its initial objectives in Afghanistan, routing Al Qaeda,
ousting the Taliban regime that had given that terrorist group safe
haven and eventually killing Osama bin Laden. However, Washington
was not content with such modest but important accomplishments.
Instead, U.S. leaders prolonged and escalated America’s military
intervention. They also changed the objective from punishing and
defanging Al Qaeda to a murky counterinsurgency and nation-building mission. The predictable result
is a war now in its sixteenth year, with little prospect of
achieving those impractical goals.’

The Trump administration shows signs of similar overreach with
regard to policy toward Iran. President Obama wisely collaborated
with other international powers to negotiate the Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action with Tehran to limit Iran’s
nuclear program. By all reasonable accounts, the plan is working
and Iran’s program remains under severe restraints that would
prevent a breakout to build nuclear weapons. But President Trump,
succumbing to the blandishments of ultra-hawkish Iranophobes, has
refused to certify Iran’s compliance with
the JCPOA, opening the door for new U.S. sanctions and the possible
torpedoing of the agreement. Once again, the United States flirts
with overreaching, undoing an agreement that is working well, and
creating the prospect of a renewed, very dangerous crisis with Iran.

Wise officials in any country need to resist the temptation to
overreach, thereby jeopardizing existing achievements and the
potential for modest additional gains. Veteran Wall Street
investors have a saying: “bulls make money, bears make money,
but pigs get slaughtered.” Political leaders should heed a
similar admonition.

Ted Galen
, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy
studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the
National Interest, is the author of 10 books, the contributing
editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 650 articles on
international affairs.

A Good Samaritan Law Would Save Lives during Opioid Overdoses

Jeffrey A. Singer

There is an undeniable opioid crisis in the United States
— and Arizona is certainly not immune to its effect.

Last month, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported
in its Opioid Action Plan that more than two Arizonans
die each day from opioid-related overdoses. The number of deaths
from heroin alone has more than tripled since 2012.

As policymakers tackle this urgent issue, it’s important to not
lose sight of the core principles of human dignity and individual
liberty — and one proposal in the Action Plan that deserves
applause for respecting these principles is the Good Samaritan Law
for bystanders reporting an overdose.

Arizona is one of a
handful of states without laws that protect people who help others
during an overdose – and that may be putting lives at

Many who could save lives are drug users

Naloxone (Narcan) is an effective antidote to an opioid
overdose; when given intravenously or by nasal spray, it works in
minutes to reverse respiratory depression. It has been used in
hospitals for decades to reverse opioid overdoses.

Since 2013, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
has encouraged jurisdictions to equip first responders with
naloxone and make it more available to other third parties —
friends and relatives — who are likely to encounter an
overdose victim.

As of July 2017, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have
enacted such naloxone access laws. While these laws vary among
states, they all make naloxone more available to third parties and
first responders. In Arizona, pharmacists who have undergone
appropriate training can prescribe naloxone, and many first
responders carry the antidote.

Numerous reports have shown these laws save lives, but there’s
an obstacle blocking first responders. In many cases, a person
wishing to report an overdose is also a drug user — in fact,
that person may have been using the drug along with the overdose
victim. Fear of arrest for drug or paraphernalia possession
prevents the friend from calling for help, and an opportunity to
save a life is missed.

Studies show these laws work

To overcome this obstacle, many states have enacted Good
Samaritan laws that assure people who report overdoses out of good
faith will not be arrested or prosecuted when first responders
arrive to help. All of these state laws share the goal of reducing
overdose deaths by encouraging bystanders to call for help.

To date, 40 states and the District of Columbia have enacted Good Samaritan laws. Arizona is
not one of them.

A 2011 University of Washington survey found 88 percent of drug
users were more likely to summon emergency personnel during a drug
overdose as a result of that state’s good Samaritan law.

A June 2017 Cato Institute study that analyzed
the effects of Good Samaritan and naloxone-access laws from 1999 to
2014 found that the two in combination led to a 9 to 11 percent
decrease in opioid-related deaths, with no evidence that these laws
increased recreational use of prescription painkillers.

While policymakers may disagree over the causes of the opioid
crisis and strategies for addressing it, all share the goal of
reducing overdose deaths. Naloxone is no magic bullet, but it has
an ability to save lives — and it’s not being used to its
full potential.

A Good Samaritan law for overdose reporters will help Arizona’s
first responders carry out their lifesaving mission.

Jeffrey A.
ppractices general surgery in Phoenix, is a visiting
fellow at the Goldwater Institute, and a Senior Fellow at the Cato

Time to Step Back from the War on Terror

Erik Goepner and A. Trevor Thrall

President Donald Trump has expanded every aspect of the war on
terror he inherited from his two predecessors. In his first nine
months Trump has ordered a renewed surge in Afghanistan, increased the
tempo of drone strikes, and granted the military
greater autonomy. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan,
the Taliban now control or contest more districts than at
any point since 2001. And last week four American soldiers died in
Niger, an increasingly active front in the war on terror.
Americans are now fighting — and dying — in at least
eight different countries across the Middle
East and Central Asia. The deaths of American forces are a
particularly sobering reminder of the war’s high costs and
should prompt people to ask whether the costs are worth it.

Unfortunately, the evidence of the past 16 years clearly
indicates that the answer is no. Enough time has now passed since
9/11 to reach two important conclusions. First, the threat posed by
Islamist-inspired terrorism does not justify such a mammoth effort.
Second, the aggressive military strategy the United States has
pursued since 2001 has not only failed to reduce the threat of
terrorism; it has likely made things worse.

The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were unprecedented. Twice as many
people died on 9/11 than in any other terror attack in history. America’s immediate response
— to attack al Qaeda and invade Afghanistan — made more
sense at the time than it does today, based on the severity of the
attack, lack of clarity from the intelligence services, and fear
among the public. Many at the time reasonably believed that
terrorism represented a major new threat to the United States. A
decade and a half later, however, a more dispassionate examination
of the threat suggests those initial assessments were wrong.

The terror threat to the
American homeland does not warrant a continued military presence in
the Middle East or South Asia, and the military-centric strategy
has failed to achieve the stated objectives of successive

The 9/11 attacks remain an outlier. No other attacks like them have ever
occurred, and mass casualty terrorist attacks rarely take place in
the West or North America, much less the United States. The
second-worst attack on U.S. soil is still the Oklahoma City Bombing, where Timothy McVeigh
— decidedly not an Islamist-inspired terrorist — took
the lives of 168 in 1995. And the second-worst attack in North America occurred more than 30 years ago
when Sikh (again, not Islamist-inspired) extremists bombed a plane
originating from Toronto, Canada and killed 329. The fact is that
terrorism, including large-scale attacks, almost always occurs in
failed or war-torn states.

And neither al Qaeda nor Islamic State has launched a successful
attack in the United States since 9/11. Though every death is
tragic, when compared to the 15,000
Americans who are murdered each year by “regular”
Americans, Islamist-inspired terrorism hardly registers as a

The persistence of Americans’ inflated view of the threat
stems from a misperception of the goals of groups like al Qaeda and
Islamic State. Americans tend to believe al Qaeda and the Islamic
State are at war with the United States. It’s true that Al
Qaeda has attacked the homeland of the “far enemy” (i.e., the United States ) and ISIS
does dedicate some effort to radicalizing U.S. citizens. But
these groups’ fundamental goals are more internal: They are
engaged in a generational struggle for power in the Middle East and
Central Asia. Al Qaeda aims to “rid the Muslim world of
Western influence, to destroy Israel, and to create an Islamic
caliphate stretching from Spain to Indonesia” and, similarly,
ISIL wants to establish an Islamic

These groups’ central problem is the presence of the
United States in the Middle East, not its existence. Osama bin
Laden’s outrage at Arab states for requesting that U.S.
forces, rather than a Muslim force, remove Saddam Hussein from
Kuwait in 1991 reveals this point. After Operation Desert Storm,
bin Laden railed against the continued presence of
U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina,
Islam’s two holiest sites. As long as the United States
continues to intervene, it will continue to draw the ire of
Islamist groups. Most fundamentally, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, and other similar groups seek
power and influence over their own neighborhood.

America’s improved homeland security system may be another
reason for the low threat level. The 9/11 hijackers legally entered the United States using their real
identities. They conducted their pilot training here, with one
living with his American flight instructors. Two even successfully
argued their way back into the country, assuring U.S. customs and
border agents that they were authorized pilot training students.
Since then, the United States has started pre-screening all
before they fly into, within, or out of the country,
and 72 fusion centers have been established to facilitate information sharing. The risk of terror in the
most important potential safe haven — the United States
— has been substantially reduced. Homeland security
improvements have not reduced the risk of terrorism to zero, of
course. Nothing can. But they have made conducting large-scale
terrorist attacks significantly more difficult. These efforts
should have been the extent of America’s response to

Instead, the United States adopted an aggressive strategy focused on military intervention.
America invaded two countries, toppled three regimes, and conducted
military operations in eight nations The plan, in the words of the
Bush administration’s national security strategy, was to “destroy
terrorist organizations of global reach.” Though Presidents
Bush and Obama talked about the need to rebuild Afghanistan and
Iraq and weaken the conditions that gave rise to terrorism in the
first place, the American strategy has in practice emphasized
killing as many jihadist fighters as possible.

Donald Rumsfeld raised questions about this military-centric strategy
as early as 2003, asking whether the current situation was such
that “the harder we work the behinder we get.” American
military commanders have understood the difficulties posed by
irregular warfare against insurgents and terrorists, leading to the
adoption of an updated counterinsurgency
strategy in Iraq in 2007 and later in Afghanistan. Despite this innovation, General
Stanley McChrystal, the former head of Joint Special Operations
Command who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010,
answered Rumsfeld’s question in the affirmative six years
later. Calling it “COIN mathematics,” McChrystal noted that
military attacks likely create more insurgents than they eliminate
“because each one you killed has a brother, father, son and
friends, who do not necessarily think that they were killed because
they were doing something wrong. It does not matter — you
killed them.”

Scholarship has also weighed in, concluding that
“repression alone seldom ends
” and “military force has rarely been the
primary reason for the end of terrorist groups.” Most
commonly, terrorism ends when groups eventually implode for lack of
support or become politically integrated. To date, American efforts
to create political solutions have been overrun by the dynamics
generated on the battlefield.

The recent battlefield successes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq
have led some (including Trump) to argue that the military approach is
working and should be expanded. This is mistaken on two levels.
First, the “victory” over Islamic State has not created
conditions conducive to peace and stability in the long term. In
both 2001 and 2003, decisive military victories gave way to
escalating insurgency and terrorism. Most observers agree,
moreover, that ISIL will not disappear after military defeat, but
rather melt away into the population to continue the
fight. Second, the military campaign that defeated ISIL in Raqqa
and Mosul was effective only because the terrorist group adopted a
strategy of taking and defending territory. To date, neither
American airpower nor other military means have proved useful
against small and dispersed groups of terrorists or insurgents.

U.S. efforts have not materially reduced the terror threat in
the Middle East and may well have increased it. Sixteen years after
9/11, the United States has not defeated Al Qaeda, and Islamic
State has arisen and spread throughout the Middle East. In 2000,
the State Department identified 13 active Islamist-inspired
terrorist groups, fielding a total of roughly 32,000 fighters. By
2015 the number of groups had climbed to 44 and the number of
fighters had ballooned to almost 110,000. Terror attacks in the countries where America
has intervened increased 1,900 percent after the war on terror began as
compared to the 15 years prior to 2001. The terrible irony is that
although Islamist terrorist groups pose little threat to the United
States, American intervention to confront them may have
inadvertently made things worse for everyone else.

In spite of mounting evidence for the failures of the war on
terror, Trump is doubling down. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
recently noted that the United States would be
expanding its war on terror in Africa even as it again prepares to
surge forces into Afghanistan. Trump has promised victory in
Afghanistan and a quick defeat of ISIL, but he has offered little
on how this strategy will change or accomplish U.S. objectives.
History suggests these efforts will do little to change the facts
on the ground in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and even less to make
Americans more secure.

Instead, continued U.S. action is likely to fuel grievances,
amplify instability in the region, and generate more anti-American
sentiment. Evidence for growing anti-Americanism in the region
since 9/11 is plentiful. Survey data from the Pew Research Center
reveal a steady increase in anti-American views after
the invasion of Iraq. Several studies, as well as survey data, make it clear that Middle Eastern
publics have almost uniformly negative views of American drone
strikes, one of the most popular tools of the war on terror. Even
worse, the Arab Barometer found that between 53% and 74% of citizens in
Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, and Algeria felt that U.S.
intervention justified “attacks on Americans
everywhere.” Finally, a recent study of Arab Twitter discourse found deep
levels of anti-Americanism among Arabs and concluded that:
“levels of anti-Americanism are primarily driven by the
perceived impingement of America on the Middle East, and
specifically by United States intervention in the region.”
Sadly, the jihadist leadership appears to have a firmer grasp on
this dynamic than Americans do. In a 2005 letter to ISIL founder Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current al-Qaeda leader) wrote,
“The Muslim masses … do not rally except against an outside
occupying enemy, especially if the enemy is firstly Jewish, and
secondly American.”

As we argued in our recent Cato Institute policy analysis, the United States should step
back, withdraw military forces, and instead focus on incentivizing
local actors towards stability, capability, and transparency. The
removal of U.S. military personnel will require local governments
to professionalize their bureaucracies and security forces —
a difficult task, to be sure, but one the United States has not
managed despite 16 years of direct effort. Curtailing the flow of
billions of U.S. dollars and weapons into failed states should also
help reduce corruption and limit the available spoils of war. The
terror threat to the American homeland does not warrant a continued
military presence in the Middle East or South Asia, and the
military-centric strategy has failed to achieve the stated
objectives of successive administrations. Fortunately, the United
States has the luxury of not needing to win any war on terror.

Erik Goepner
commanded military units in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he is now a
visiting research fellow at the Cato Institute. A. Trevor Thrall

The Federal Reserve Needs Someone Who Understands Inflation

Tate Lacey

A worrying trend has developed among Federal Reserve officials
in the past month: They claim to no longer have a working theory of
inflation in the economy. This began at the September FOMC press
conference when Fed Chair Janet Yellen admitted, “The
shortfall of inflation from 2 percent … is more of a
mystery.” This is problematic.

It absolves the Fed from achieving one of their goals mandated
by Congress. Furthermore, a central bank that is both charged with
managing inflation and admits that inflation is a mystery has the
potential to lead to damaging policy decisions. As the president
considers a successor for Yellen, he should ensure the nominee
possesses a complete understanding of inflation dynamics and how
the Fed can and cannot affect them.

Maintaining stable prices — keeping inflation manageable
— is part of the Fed’s mandate. And in January 2012 the
Fed explicitly announced a 2 percent symmetric inflation target
saying it “is most consistent over the longer run with the
Federal Reserve’s statutory mandate.” Since then,
however, the Fed has consistently undershot that target.

A central bank that
claims to be without a theory of inflation dynamics runs the risk
of becoming a further destabilizing force when a shock hits the

The reasons for this undershooting have changed, but the
Fed’s performance has not. First, the Fed argued inflation
was low due to temporary factors that the central bank felt would
not materially affect the longer run. Then the Fed offered more
exotic explanations, citing lower cost wireless plans and
decreasing prescription drug prices, as forces holding down
inflationary pressures. Yellen has also discussed the so-called
“Amazon effect” in which the growing share of online
shopping holds inflation low.

The Fed technically could change this by injecting more money
into the economy, allowing that money to circulate and raise
inflation. Basic monetary economics says that the monopoly supplier
of currency is capable of generating nearly any amount of

But excess money creation is dangerous. In the old operating
framework it led to uncomfortably high inflation throughout the
1970s. Society was forced to endure a good deal of pain as then-Fed
Chair Paul Volcker was forced to significantly raise interest
rates, thereby substantially increasing the price of credit, to
drain that excess money from the system.

Today, Fed officials are making the mistake of relying on the
Phillips Curve to guide policy decisions, and that is leading to
their confusion about inflation. The Phillips Curve says that when
the unemployment rate drops the inflation rate ought to increase,
and raise prices along with it. But this relationship is absent in
the data, something even Yellen has admitted.

Clinging to this outdated model is causing Fed officials to say
they’re without a working theory of inflation. To explain
this inflation “puzzle” they have cited supply-side
driven price changes. But trying to explain inflation with these
kinds of price changes may lead to the Fed inadvertently harming
the economy.

Here’s how that could play out: Were the economy to
undergo a boom in productivity, a welcome development, the drop in
prices would be a benefit to consumers. A positive supply shock of
this type would see a decline in measured inflation. Under
inflation targeting, falling prices would be a signal to the Fed to
cut interest rates. But excessive monetary stimulus creates its own
inflationary problems. It would be far better to let the price
change pass through and have consumers enjoy the lower prices.

Without properly understanding inflation, negative supply shocks
can cause even more problems than positive shocks. If prices rise
due to an oil shortage, this puts pressure on consumer budgets.
However, the inflation targeting central bank sees rising prices as
elevated inflation, and thus engages in tightening monetary policy.
This puts additional downward pressure on the economy.

Properly understood inflation is a monetary phenomenon and one
that the Fed can affect. This understanding of inflation is
different than supply-side effects on prices, which the Fed has far
less, if any, control over. And contrary to recent remarks from Fed
officials, understanding these differences does form a working
theory of inflation dynamics. In particular, such an understanding
highlights the dangers of reacting to all inflation and price
changes in the same way.

As he makes his selection, the president would be well advised
to ask potential nominees for their views on inflation, with a
special emphasis on how they would respond differently to different
shocks as Fed chair. Treating all inflationary pressures the same
can harm the economy, and the president needs a chair who’s aware
of this. A central bank that claims to be without a theory of
inflation dynamics runs the risk of becoming a further
destabilizing force when a shock hits the economy.

Tate Lacey is
a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Financial and
Monetary Alternatives.

Will Erdogan Permanently Damage the U.S.-Turkey Alliance?

Doug Bandow

An important part of international diplomacy is making the
outrageous palatable. Extortion and menace are routine aspects of
foreign relations. Other than extreme examples such as North Korea,
however, governments normally veil their threats. Pretense is a
diplomatic virtue.

Not for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a sultan wannabe
who has accumulated increasingly dictatorial powers along with an
extravagant presidential palace to match. He frankly admitted to
holding an American as a human chit to trade for Muslim cleric
Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of planning the unsuccessful
2016 coup attempt. “Give us the pastor back,” said
Erdogan. “You have one pastor” of ours. “Give him
to us. You can easily give him to us. You can give him right away.
Then we will try [American Andrew Brunson] and give him to

Despite President Donald Trump’s strange new respect for
dictators, Erdogan is hostile toward America. Washington should
drop the pretense that Ankara is an ally. There always will be
areas for cooperation, but these days the Turkish government is as
likely to oppose as support U.S. interests and values.

When Erdogan’s party first won election in 2002, the former
Istanbul mayor was a liberator. He helped dismantle the
authoritarian-nationalist state created by Turkey’s founder Mustafa
Kemal Ataturk. Among Erdogan’s most fervent backers were liberals.
One of his signal achievements was putting the military back into
its barracks. The Justice and Development Party, though Islamist,
even improved the treatment of women, addressing domestic violence,
for instance.

However, a few years ago Erdogan shifted course. He once stated
that democracy was like a train: you get off when you reach your
destination. He apparently reached that destination after the party
won its third parliamentary election in 2011. As charges of
corruption mushroomed, Erdogan’s government became more
authoritarian and Islamist. After losing his parliamentary majority
in 2015, he won it back by playing the Kurdish card, ramping up the
brutal campaign against the radical Kurdistan Workers’ Party
that had previously cost tens of thousands of lives.

The Erdogan presidency is
a great tragedy.

Erdogan’s rise was aided by Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim
cleric living in the United States who built a global religious and
social movement, known as Hizmet. Two decades ago Gulen received
political asylum when authoritarian secularists dominated Turkish
politics. Gulen’s loyalists were many, but his political
ambitions remained a matter of debate. In 2013, the politician and
preacher turned on each other. Gulen’s followers in police
and prosecution offices investigated alleged corruption reaching
Erdogan, and Erdogan retaliated by purging Gulenists from security

The Justice and Development Party also shrunk the space for
other critics. Opposition businessmen faced politically motivated
regulatory attacks and tax investigations. The regime seized
independent media organizations, arrested journalists and
intimidated critics. The government sued hundreds of Turks,
including school kids, for insulting Erdogan. The increasingly
brutal assault against the Kurds turned communities into war zones.
So far hundreds of civilians have died, perhaps a half million have
been displaced, scores of local officials have been dismissed, and
security forces have been immunized from prosecution.

The latest State Department human-rights report cited
“arbitrary deprivation of life and other unlawful or
politically motivated killings,” “inconsistent access
to due process,” “government interference with freedom
of expression,” “inadequate protection of
civilians,” “prison overcrowding,” failing to
“maintain effective control over security forces,”
“an atmosphere of fear that further limited judicial
independence,” and “threats, discrimination and
violence” against numerous minority groups.

Erdogan also turned Turkey in a more Islamist direction. As
prime minister (later president) he began by ending the
military-dominated Kemalist state’s enforced secularism,
freeing people to publicly live their faith. But he later
conscripted the system for religious ends, encroaching upon the
Turkish people’s social freedoms.

Over time his foreign policy also turned hostile. Ankara long
tolerated Islamic State activities across its border into Syria.
Erdogan’s government conducted military operations against Syrian Kurds
working with the United States against Islamic State forces. The
Turkish military downed a Russian plane in Syria, raising tensions
with Moscow, but Erdogan later reconciled with Russia’s
Vladimir Putin. Ankara, nominally a member of NATO, recently
ordered S-400 anti-air missiles.

Erdogan’s relationship with U.S. and Western leaders
deteriorated even further after the failed July 2016 coup. Not
everyone in the West seemed disturbed by the attempted ouster of
the Turkish president—even though a military takeover would
have been the cure that killed the patient. His government had been
reelected multiple times; the likely result of a successful putsch
would have been civil war.

Unfortunately, rather like Adolf Hitler and the infamous 1933
Reichstag fire, the Turkish president used the attempted putsch as
an opportunity to crush all opposition. Any criticism was treated
as veritable treason. (So quick was he to take advantage of the
badly managed coup that some observers suggested that Erdogan
likely staged it.)

Even before the effort collapsed he contended that it had been
masterminded by his former ally, Gulen. Erdogan then sought to
destroy the Hizmet movement, dismantling schools, businesses and
other organizations associated with Gulen. Ankara initiated a
massive, Stalinist-style purge of anyone with the slightest
connection to the movement, including opening an account at a bank
owned by supposed Gulenists.

Some 170,000 people have been subject to various legal
proceedings, more than 150,000 have been fired or suspended, and
over fifty thousand have been arrested. Even the government does
not contend that most of these people were involved in the failed coup. Yet every week additional arrests
and dismissals are announced.

Targets include parliamentarians, judges, prosecutors,
professors, teachers and journalists. More than 160 media sources
have been closed. Websites have been blocked and around 150
journalists have been jailed. Nearly four hundred nongovernmental
organizations—including human rights, humanitarian and legal
groups—have been closed. The chairman and director of the
Turkish chapter of Amnesty International have been arrested.
Evidence of wrongdoing is irrelevant, since the charges typically
involve the barest association with someone in the Gulen movement
or Kurdish leadership.

Explained Human Rights Watch: “The crackdown that followed
the coup attempt was symptomatic of the government’s
increasing authoritarianism. Under the state of emergency, the
president presides over the cabinet, which can pass decrees without
parliamentary scrutiny or possibility of appeal to the
constitutional court. Many decrees passed contain measures that
conflict with basic human-rights safeguards and Turkey’s
obligations under international and domestic law.”

The Erdogan government also targeted Washington, stoking popular
conspiracy theories—four of five Turks have a
“negative” or “very negative” view of
America—that the United States was behind the coup. One
cabinet minister forthrightly blamed Washington. Ankara also
sharply criticized the U.S. government for failing to extradite
Gulen. (Given the political benefits of blaming Washington, some
suspect Erdogan hopes the United States will continue to spare him
the challenge of actually having to try Gulen.)

Unlike in Turkey, extradition requires evidence sufficient to
satisfy an independent judge. Although the Turkish government
insisted on his guilt, it has provided little evidence. The Gulen
movement never had much success in infiltrating the military
leadership, and most participants in the coup had no Gulenist
association. Western intelligence agencies saw no evidence that the
seventy-six-year-old imam masterminded the coup. The little
testimony cited by Ankara likely resulted from torture. Human
Rights Watch noted “increased reports of torture and
ill-treatment in police detention, such as beating and stripping
detainees, use of prolonged stress positions, and threats of rape,
as well as threats to lawyers and interference with medical

Washington’s refusal presumably led to Erdogan’s
offer to trade Brunson, an American pastor who has lived in Turkey
for twenty-three years, for Gulen. Brunson was arrested last fall
and has been charged with “terrorism” and attempting
“to overthrow the Turkish government,” though an
official indictment has yet to be filed. Ankara has arrested
several other Americans on equally dubious charges, including a
chemistry professor, NASA scientist, and real estate agent. Their
family members have been prevented from leaving the country. The
Erdogan government detained Europeans as well and suggested
releasing German citizens in return for Berlin’s arrest of
members of the Gulen movement sought by Ankara.

Further damaging relations was the assault by Erdogan’s
security personnel on peaceful demonstrators outside of the Turkish
embassy during his recent visit. Subsequently fifteen of them were
indicted, though they remain beyond justice in Turkey. Moreover,
the United States arrested Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab,
charging him with breaching sanctions against Iran. He is thought
to know details of high-level corruption in Ankara. Similar charges
were recently brought against a former cabinet member and others.
Erdogan called the investigation “a step against the Turkish

Turkey arrested U.S. embassy employees—Turkish
citizens—in February and early October. In the latter case
Ankara charged the defendant with being involved in the coup based
on four-year-old conversations with someone associated with Gulen.
Subsequently, the government summoned another local employee for
questioning after detaining his wife and son—a common tactic
used to force a confession.

In retaliation, the U.S. embassy announced that it was halting
the processing of visas to America. Turkey then responded in kind.
Unfortunately, relations seem destined to deteriorate further as
Erdogan attempts to force Washington to choose between acquiescence
to tyranny and commitment to human rights and the rule of law. In
August Erdogan said “Sooner or later the U.S. will make a
choice” between “the coup-plotting terrorist”
Gulen movement and Turkey. However, when asked about its
willingness to trade Gulen for Brunson, State Department
spokeswoman Heather Nauart said: “I can’t imagine that
we would go down that road.” Legally it cannot.

For years Washington has given Erdogan the benefit of the doubt
despite increasing authoritarianism at home and radicalism abroad.
Last month at the United Nations President Trump said bilateral
relations were “as close as we’ve ever been.” He
called Erdogan “a friend of mine” who deserved
“very high marks.”

But Erdogan is no friend to America. While the U.S.-Turkey
alliance goes back decades, its raison d’etre ended with the
Cold War. There is no longer a broad geopolitical conflict holding
the two states together. Indeed, Ankara is moving toward Russia.
Moreover, the United States and Turkey have very different
interests, or at least perceived interests, in the Middle East.

Still, Washington maintains access to Incirlik Air Base, which
is around sixty miles from Syria. This facility hosts U.S. aircraft
conducting operations in Iraq and Syria as well as some fifty
nuclear bombs. The base is convenient, but not essential. Retired
Gen. Chuck Wald, once a top air force commander in Europe, said
“It’s a good place to have a base, but can we do it
somewhere else? Absolutely.” Bulent Aliriza of the Center for
Strategic and International Studies made a similar argument.
“We could move out of Incirlik tomorrow,” he said.
“It is far less important in the fight against ISIS than it
was during the Gulf War.” Germany already has moved its
forces from Incirlik to Jordan’s al-Asrak airbase.

Although access to the facility is convenient, it is not
important enough to allow an unreliable, authoritarian and
increasingly hostile government to hold America hostage. In 2003
the Turkish government refused to allow Washington to use Turkish
bases in its invasion of Iraq. Ankara maintains ties with Iran; top
officials are suspected of helping to evade U.S. sanctions. The
Turkish government looked the other way in the early days as the
Islamic State used Turkish territory as a conduit into Syria. Even
today Ankara appears more interested in killing Syrian Kurds than
ISIS fighters.

Turkish cooperation is less likely in the future. With a hostile
public, transformed military and arbitrary president, even access
to Incirlik is not assured. Indeed, President Erdogan does little
to disguise his attacks on America. On the anniversary of the
attempted coup he criticized “our so-called allies, who are
trying to besiege us along our borders.”

The Erdogan presidency is a great tragedy. The principal victims
of the new sultan’s misrule are Turks. But he also has
destroyed the pretense that Ankara and Washington are united in a
valuable alliance worth preserving. The United States increasingly
must defend America’s interests and values from Turkey. That
includes preserving the rule of law at home and standing up for
those unjustly imprisoned abroad.

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

Misconceptions about Free Speech Begin before College

John Samples

Autumn brings another host of freshmen to their respective
universities to grapple with unfamiliar and often deeply
challenging ideas. While college campuses have increasingly become
fraught fronts in our nation’s totalizing culture war,
American parents trust that a high school education has equipped
their children with all the civic knowledge required to engage
responsibly with a world of new — and sometimes deeply
offensive — ideas.

Such trust is unwarranted. College students often seem
uncomfortable with, if not hostile to, unorthodox ideas, yet the
crisis of free speech does not begin at the university. A 2016
survey of high school teachers and students found that only 45
percent of students agreed that “People should be allowed to
say what they want in public, even if it is offensive to
others,” and only 43 percent concurred with the statement
that “People should be allowed to say what they want on
social media, even if it is offensive to others.” A scant
majority of teachers would allow these forms of offensive

Those concerned by the
state of free speech on college campuses should look to the dismal
state of free expression in American high schools, where students
are routinely treated to a multiyear lesson in the value of
quashing expression.

Such opinions contravene free speech. Americans have a right to
say what they please, even if it’s offensive. First Amendment
expert Jeffrey Herbst notes that young people appear to have a
different understanding of free speech that is essentially
“the right to non-offensive speech.” Mr. Herbst thinks
elementary and high schools inculcate a respect for diversity
understood as “Don’t say things that could hurt

That’s good advice for life, but not for constitutional
law. Most people find some political expression objectionable.
Recognizing an “offensive speech” exception to the
First Amendment would prohibit a lot of valuable speech.

Kids learn from experience as well as from books, and their
experiences all too often suggest that order trumps freedom. A half
century ago, the Supreme Court recognized that “students do
not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or
expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The Court ruled that
several young Iowans could not be punished by their principal for
wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War.

But the Court only offered protection to nondisruptive speech, a
category that subsequent courts have shrunk to include only the
most milquetoast of expressions. Students have faced punishment for
wearing clothing celebrating the United States Marine Corps,
questioning President George W. Bush’s fitness for office,
proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter,” and bearing an
image of Old Glory. All were prohibited because printed images or
words could provoke disruptive conversations between students.

High schools also have nearly unlimited power to censor student
speech that is or appears to be sponsored by the school. School
officials can control the output of student newspapers and student
election campaign materials. This power is wielded to ensure that
student papers and elections are completely free of the sorts of
controversies common in their real-world equivalents, grossly
limiting the value of these exercises.

School administrators have exercised prior restraint over school
newspaper articles concerning student drug use, teen pregnancy and
the dismissal of favored teachers. In one particularly egregious
case, a student paper was shut down in its entirety for reporting
on the death of a student injured in a school wrestling match.
Anything that might provoke uncomfortable discussion between
students, teachers and parents — or might diminish the
school’s reputation — seems fair game for censorship. Student
electoral speech faces similarly arbitrary restrictions, appeals to
religion — even in jest — are prohibited, and
candidates have been barred from running due to extracurricular
Facebook posts critical of school administrators.

High schools have a higher purpose than occupying the time of
young people and keeping them out of trouble. We require our
children to attend school because we expect the experience to
cultivate the sorts of values required to be good democratic
citizens. We encourage students to publish newspapers and hold
elections not because they are enjoyable, but because we believe
that these activities will prepare them to publish real newspapers
and participate in actual elections. In school, as in life, such
lessons can be disruptive to teachers and objectionable to fellow
students. Avoiding both disorder and offense has fostered a
generation at best indifferent to vital constitutional values.

Students who are taught that they cannot be trusted to express
themselves freely as high school seniors are unlikely to
drastically change their expectations upon becoming college
freshmen. Teenagers told that quietude born of censorship is
preferable to uncomfortable debate will not develop the ability to
engage responsibly with perspectives they find offensive, and are
likely to embrace censorship, the preferred tactic of adults with
power over their lives. Those concerned by the state of free speech
on college campuses should look to the dismal state of free
expression in American high schools, where students are routinely
treated to a multiyear lesson in the value of quashing

John Samples,
Ph.D., is Vice President and Publisher at the Cato Institute, where
he oversees the Cato Institute Press.

Do We Really Need a Drug Czar?

Michael D. Tanner

Last week, Representative Tom Marino withdrew from consideration
as drug czar, after reports emerged suggesting that he had played a
role in legislation making it easier to import Fentanyl, the
painkiller that has become a driving force behind America’s opioid
crisis. Most will chalk this up to another case of poor vetting by
the Trump administration and move on to speculation about the next
nominee. But maybe we should be asking another question:

Why do we need a drug czar in the first place?

Well, we will undoubtedly be told, the country is facing an
opioid epidemic. We have to do something. But even setting
aside the fact that we already have an “opioid czar” —
President Trump appointed New Jersey governor Chris Christie to
that position in March — the idea of a drug czar is
symptomatic of Washington’s belief that every problem must have a
government solution. Moreover, that solution must be undertaken by
the federal government, not the states, and should involve as much
bureaucracy and spending as possible. The drug czar oversees some
$31.4 billion in federal anti-drug programs. The fancy title is an
extra bonus.

The office spends
billions, to no avail. Maybe Congress should abolish it.

The appointment of any “czar” — the drug czar, the
bioethics czar, the auto-industry-recovery czar — is meant to
show how serious the government takes one societal problem or
another. Such symbolism would be costly in the best of cases. But
ever since its creation in 1988, the drug czar’s office —
officially the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)
— has been the source of both scandal and bad policy.

In 2005, the GAO found that the drug czar’s office had violated
laws against domestic government propaganda by distributing
pre-packaged “news” stories without disclosing their origin. Nor
was this the first time that the office found itself in hot water
for its propaganda efforts. For instance, the FCC has ruled that
the ONDCP was violating agency rules by failing to disclose that it
was paying television networks to embed anti-drug messages in their

The ONDCP also appears to have frequently skirted
campaign-finance laws, using taxpayer money to campaign against
ballot initiatives that would legalize marijuana. However, despite
frequent complaints, the Federal Elections Commission has so far
held that the office does not have to disclose how much it has
spent trying to influence elections.

The drug czar also directly administers $380 million in federal
grant programs, with little oversight or accountability. These are
programs that even the White House Office of Management and Budget
has called duplicative and wasteful.

But most concerning is the fact that the head of the ONDCP
continues to act as the top general in the failed and
counterproductive War on Drugs. Ignoring all available evidence to
the contrary, the office continues to cling to the idea that it’s
best to treat drug use as a criminal problem rather than a
public-health issue.

Aside from the way such thinking can damage both lives and
communities — and contribute to racial disparities in the
criminal-justice system — the continued reliance on law
enforcement to solve our drug problems is often counterproductive.
For example, studies show that opioid use goes down when a state
legalizes marijuana. Yet the Office of National Drug Control Policy
remains the tip of the spear in the campaign against marijuana

Maybe, just maybe, it is time to take a step back and realize
that Washington is not the font of all wisdom — and that not
every problem in America requires its own federal office,
bureaucracy, or czar.

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

The Conservative Plan to Hike Taxes without You Noticing

Ryan Bourne

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a seventeenth-century French finance
minister, once said “the art of taxation consists in so
plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of
feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”.

He might have been describing rumoured Tory plans to raise the
income tax burden for millions by stealth in November’s

One might think that, with the overall tax burden at its highest
level in three decades, the government would be focusing on
spending incontinence.

Instead, documents photographed on Downing Street suggest the
Tories plan to raise your income tax without you noticing.

This is exactly the sort
of stealth taxation that the Conservatives criticized Gordon Brown

Once they have achieved their manifesto pledge of raising the
personal allowance to £12,500 and the higher rate (40p)
threshold to £50,000, the document suggests they are
considering “freezing” these thresholds, leading to
more and more people being dragged into higher tax bands as nominal
earnings rise from then on.

This is exactly the sort of stealth taxation that the
Conservatives criticised Gordon Brown for. No wonder the idea drew
purring delight from former Labour Treasury official Torsten Bell.
Ending increases to the thresholds was, according to his tweets,
“a sensible budget proposal… to get some cash in the

On the contrary, this would be terrible economics and politics
for the Conservative party.

It should not be normal for tax bands to be set arbitrarily by
government year on year. Other countries, such as the US,
automatically uprate them in line with inflation.

The current higher rate threshold is £45,000, but this has
increased by only 2.6 per cent from its £43,875 level in
2010. During that time the price level has risen by 15 per cent and
nominal GDP by 29 per cent. Even to just maintain its real value
since 2010, the threshold should already be above

Increasing the 40p threshold to £50,000 is not some big
giveaway or “tax cut” for higher rate earners. Rather,
raising it so slowly has been — properly judged — a tax
rise. The consequence of the starting threshold rising so little is
growing numbers of people paying higher marginal rates.

In 1990, one in fifteen taxpayers found themselves in what was
then the highest 40p tax bracket. This increased to one in 10
paying the higher or additional rates when the coalition government
came to power in 2010.

Since then, the number has exploded from 3.3m to 4.5m, meaning
one in every seven taxpayers now finds themselves in the 40p or 45p

This is economically damaging. More people facing higher
marginal rates reduces their return to work, and disincentivises
them from making investments in their own human capital.

But reinstituting this type of taxation by stealth is
politically daft too.

Many in the middle classes facing these tax hikes would be
natural Tory voters. Rather than taking a greater proportion of
their earnings, Conservatives should be trying to trim government
and lower their taxes, allowing these individuals to keep a larger
proportion of their own money to spend on themselves and their

The recent Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler’s
“nudge” concept is about the importance of framing
choices to avoid human biases which lead to bad decision-making.
Politicians try to tax us stealthily in a non-transparent way, to
hide the true burden of their decisions.

To avoid this bias and ensure they are honest, we need to
“nudge” them by making it the default that all tax
thresholds rise by either the inflation rate or nominal GDP each
year. That way, if politicians want to tax us more, they would have
to do so transparently, facing any political cost head-on.

Ryan Bourne
occupies the R Evan Scharf Chair in the Public Understanding of
Economics at the Cato Institute in Washington DC.

The Plight of the Iraqi Kurds Poses a Difficult U.S. Foreign Policy Challenge

John Glaser and Christopher A. Preble

Following the Iraqi army’s move into the Kurdish-held city
of Kirkuk in northern Iraq this week, some have argued forcefully
that the United States should intervene to protect the Kurds and
even aid in their aspirations for an independent state. A Wall Street Journal editorial warns
that abandoning the Kurds “would damage America’s
credibility,” and undermine President Trump’s
“ability to enlist allies against Iran’s expansion
across the Middle East.”

We fully appreciate the injustices, abuse and denial of basic
political rights the Kurds have endured for more than a century.
The Kurds have also been reliable allies to U.S. troops in the
region in many ways. In the abstract, the Kurds deserve independence and self-determination, and we
hope they achieve something that satisfies them in the end.

But U.S. foreign policy can’t be constructed in the abstract. It
must take account of the world as it is, and acknowledge the
critical role that power still plays in global politics. In that
context, the question of whether the United States should, as a
matter of policy, support Kurdish independence is devilishly

Despite good intentions,
the United States should not pursue high-minded objectives that are
peripheral to national security.

First, there is the strategic question of what kind of impact
Kurdish independence would have. It would of course infuriate the
Turks, who have long fought against Kurdish secession. A handful of
Kurds responded to Ankara’s intransigence with violence, waging a
protracted terrorism campaign that has claimed more than forty
thousand livesin thirty years, according to conservative estimates.
U.S.-Turkish relations have been strained for years, and appear to
be worsening. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an has systematically stifled
civil liberties in his country, and has defied U.S. policy in Syria
and Iraq. Still, Turkey is a NATO member, and hosts U.S. troops at
major facilities such as the Incirlik Air Base. Defying Erdo?an by
supporting Kurdish independence may gain us a new and fragile ally,
but only at the expense of losing a mature and relatively powerful

Then there is Iraq. If the country fractures in two, or more, that could further
enhance Iranian influence in Baghdad and the rest of
Shiite-dominated Iraq—something U.S. policy has consistently
resisted. It would also ruin any hope for an overall reduction in
violence in Iraq. The prospective breakup of states from
secessionist movements tends to be destabilizing; governments
generally don’t like to forfeit territory.

Peaceful separations—think Czechoslovakia separating into
the Czech and Slovak republics, for example—are the
exceptions, not the norm. When a group or region attempts to secede
from the mother country, years of fighting and insurgency are the
likely consequence. Indeed, the majority of conflicts since the end
of World War II have involved states fighting their own aspiring
statelets, not resistance to foreign aggression.

What does this mean for U.S. foreign policy and the role we
ought to play in the world? Adopting an explicit policy of support
for Kurdish independence would seem to obligate Americans—for
the sake of moral consistency—to carry the banner for other
secessionist movements, from Taiwan and Tibet in China to the
Armenians in Azerbaijan, from the Raizal people in Colombia to the
Bengali Hindus in Bangladesh, and, of course, the Catalans in
Spain. Where to draw the line? There are over five hundred distinct
languages and perhaps as many as five thousand distinct ethnic
groups in the world. Affording the right to self-determination for
all such peoples, and committing the United States to defend their
rights if challenged, would be an impossible and ruinously costly

The nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill
anticipated this problem. Though he believed in
the principle of self-determination, he advised against foreign
intervention on behalf of peoples attempting to throw off the yoke
of an oppressive or unrepresentative government. Though motivated
by the noblest of impulses, such intervention would likely
fail—proving costly to the intervener, and delivering only
temporary liberty for the prospective beneficiaries of such

In short, open support for Kurdish independence would, at a
minimum, greatly complicate U.S. foreign policy, and might set us
on the path to even more military intervention and post-conflict
nation-building. All this in the service of high-minded objectives
that are, nevertheless, peripheral to our own national

That doesn’t mean the United States shouldn’t use its influence
to prevent the ruthless crushing of the Kurdish people, by Baghdad,
Ankara or anyone else. The Trump administration should use the
leverage it has with those capitals to encourage them to approach
the Kurdish question cautiously, non-violently and through
negotiation. And when the Turkish and Iraqi governments stray from
that path, verbal criticism is in order.

Beyond that, however, there is a serious risk that we’ll get
ourselves—and the Kurds—into more trouble.

John Glaser is
the director of foreign policy studies, and Christopher
is the vice president for defense and foreign policy
studies, at the Cato Institute.

FBI Sets Eyes on Black Freedom of Speech

Matthew Feeney

The FBI has identified a new threat: the “Black Identity
Extremist” (BIE), whose perceptions of police brutality are
very likely to serve as justification for violence toward police
officers, according to a counterterrorism document recently obtained by
Foreign Policymagazine

The murder of police officers is clearly wrong and tragic, but
in creating this new category of extremist, the FBI risks stifling
innocent Americans’ First Amendment-protected activity.

To its credit, the FBI narrowly defines BIEs as those who seek
to use force or violence to create “a separate black homeland
or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing
organizations within the United States.” The FBI further
notes that activism and the use of strong and even violent
rhetoric, “may not constitute extremism, and may be
constitutionally protected.”

The murder of police
officers is clearly wrong and tragic, but in creating a new
category of extremist, the FBI risks stifling innocent Americans’
First Amendment-protected activity.

At first glance, this should offer some reassurance to Black
Lives Matter activists and protesters from similar organizations.
After all, Black Lives Matter isn’t advocating a black
ethno-state, let alone urging members to harm police officers. Yet,
given the FBI’s history with black activists, it’s
understandable that some people might be wary of engaging in
protests knowing that the FBI has a designation for black identity

The FBI’s COINTELPRO surveillance program, begun in 1956,
targeted black civil rights leaders, among many others. The FBI
went so far as to send Martin Luther King Jr. a letter urging him
to commit suicide. The Senate’s Church Committee, which in
1976 published a report on intelligence activities and the rights
of Americans, found that the FBI’s “Black
Nationalist” program included organizations that
weren’t advocating independence at all; they were just
primarily black.

The FBI eventually acknowledged some of its mistakes, but
mistakes can be made more than once. While the FBI’s
counterterrorism document on BIE focuses on violent nationalists,
we should be prepared for the FBI to put black organizations under
increased surveillance. We should also be prepared for the FBI to
establish tenuous links between BIE violence and unrelated crimes.
As Foreign Policy noted, former FBI special agent Michael German
found that the agency connected radical “black
separatists” from the 1970s with attacks in 2010, despite
their being no clear connection.

And it’s not just black activists and civil rights leaders
who need to be wary of increased FBI scrutiny; the bureau’s
long history includes all kinds of specialized snooping based on
race and political views. Shortly after a string of letter bombings
inspired by an Italian anarchist in 1919, J. Edgar Hoover, then the
head of the “Anti-Radical” division, organized a
massive index card database that eventually contributed to hundreds
of deportations and thousands of arrests. In 1920, Assistant
Secretary of Labor Louis Freeland Post canceled more than 1,000 of
1,600 remaining deportation orders after finding little solid
evidence that those rounded up in raids posed any threat.

Innocent people having their rights violated is a risk when the
government casts a wide net, but even if the FBI’s activities
related to BIEs remain narrow, news of the designation and the
FBI’s interest in BIE could prompt a stifling effect on speech.

Research on Internet activity unsurprisingly suggests that
innocent Americans chilled their own online curiosity in the wake
of Edward Snowden’s revelations. If you know that the FBI is
keeping an eye out for BIEs, how likely will you be to attend a
Black Lives Matter protest, even if you have no intention to commit
a crime? And although the FBI’s counterintelligence document
notes that “mere advocacy” of a particular view
“may not constitute extremism, and may be constitutionally
protected,” the use of the word “may” leaves the
FBI with plenty of leeway.

Some protesters may take comfort in the fact that the historian
and King biographer David Garrow views the FBI as too incompetent
to be a threat, telling Foreign Policy that the FBI, “are
often so clueless.” Nonetheless, when it comes to federal
government law enforcement and surveillance, it’s safe to err
on the side of concern.

The murders of police officers in Dallas, Baton Rouge and New
York City were awful and unforgivable. Whatever one thinks about
the police-involved killings of black men such as Walter Scott,
Samuel Dubose, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and many others,
violence against police officers won’t help implement reforms
that will increase police accountability and transparency.

Yet in responding to this violence the law enforcement community
should resist designations that could be abused, leading to the
surveillance of innocent Americans participating in activities
protected by the First Amendment. It has happened before, and it
can happen again.

is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.