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Abandoning the Iran Deal Is Just One Example of Irrational U.S. Diplomacy

Ted Galen Carpenter

All signs indicate that President Trump will rescind
Washington’s adherence to the nuclear agreement reached
between the leading international powers and Iran in 2015. That
agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), placed
significant restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program—at
the very least greatly slowing any quest for a nuclear-weapons
capability. Nevertheless, hawks in the United States have
excoriated the deal from the very beginning, arguing that Iran was
merely buying time and lulling a gullible Obama administration and
other governments into complacency while continuing to covertly
develop its nuclear capabilities. During the 2016
presidential-election campaign, Trump himself repeatedly blasted
the JCPOA as the “worst deal ever negotiated.” Other
opponents equated the agreement with Neville Chamberlain’s
appeasement of Nazi Germany at Munich in 1938.

The hostility to the JCPOA is merely the latest manifestation of
an unhealthylack of prudence and realism in U.S.
foreign policy on so many issues. Washington’s approach is
characterized too often by impossible objectives, boorish,
ham-handed diplomacy, and an unwillingness to make even the most
imperative concessions to achieve success.

The reality is that the JCPOA was probably the best deal that the United States and the
other signatories could hope to get from any Iranian government.
Indeed, it is surprising that Tehran was willing to accept even
those restrictions. And despite allegations from opponents that
Iran is violating the terms of the deal, the International Atomic
Energy Agency continues to certify that Tehran is in compliance.
Until now, even the Trump administration has had to concede,
however grudgingly, that Iran has abided by the JCPOA’s
requirements. Admittedly, the president did grouse that the
Iranians were violating “the spirit” of the agreement,
whatever that meant.

Pressing for a so-called
“better” nuclear deal reflects the lack of realism that has plagued
overall U.S. foreign policy in recent decades.

JCPOA supporters warn that trashing the accord will create
horrid dilemmas for the United States. The likelihood is that
Tehran would resume its full nuclear development program. U.S.
leaders might then face the choice of accepting Iran as a
nuclear-weapons power within a few years or launching a preemptive
war to thwart that outcome.

Most JCPOA critics deny that they are pushing for a war against
Iran—although there are exceptions, including Sen. Tom
Cotton. Less brazen types insist that they simply want “a
better deal”—one that would impose far more rigorous
restraints on Iran. Even if such individuals are sincere—and
there are substantial reasons to doubt their
sincerity—pressing for a so-called better deal reflects the
lack of realism that has plagued overall U.S. foreign policy in
recent decades.

The only reason that negotiators were able to conclude the JCPOA
with Tehran was because they backed off from some of their original
demands. Hardliners (especially in the United States) wanted Iran
to have no nuclear capabilities whatever—not even the
technology appropriate for developing peaceful nuclear energy. The
usual flock of hawks also wanted any agreement to include a virtual
ban on ballistic-missile development and a commitment from Tehran
to abandon its support of Hezbollah and other “terrorist
movements.” Indeed, critics still insist on those points. Had
negotiators demanded such concessions, however, there never would
have been a JCPOA.

Unfortunately, the lack of prudent realism that hawkish types
continue to exhibit regarding policy toward Iran is not confined to
that issue. Too often, U.S. officials and much of the
foreign-policy community act as though the only legitimate
diplomacy consists of making a laundry list of maximalist demands
to a foreign government—usually without offering any
meaningful concessions in return. That scenario has played out in
recent years regarding policy toward both North Korea and

Since the mid-1990s, Washington has insisted that Pyongyang
abandon its entire nuclear program. Given the U.S. track record of forcible regime change against
nonnuclear adversaries like Serbia, Iraq and Libya, Pyongyang was
not inclined to rely on vacuous assurances that the United States
would refrain from trying to achieve the same outcome in North
Korea. Moreover, Washington’s proposed substantive
concessions to Pyongyang consisted of little more than vague
promises of a partial lifting of the economic sanctions that had
been imposed. There never has been a clear willingness to address
the North Korean regime’s other goals—including a peace
treaty formally ending the Korean War, U.S. diplomatic recognition
of the regime, and the end to Washington’s annual
joint-military exercises with South Korea.

Insisting on Pyongyang’s return to nuclear virginity,
especially without offering major concessions, was not very
realistic even before North Korea conducted multiple nuclear and
ballistic-missile tests. Once developments reached that point and
it was clear that the country already had built a number of nuclear
weapons, U.S. policy became totally unmoored from reality. Yet
there is little indication that the Trump administration has
softened Washington’s negotiating strategy. Instead, the U.S.
position has hardened and become worrisomely belligerent.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have pursued a similar
futile, uncompromising stance toward Russia. The recent sanctions legislation that Congress
overwhelmingly passed and that the president signed into law
epitomizes that rigid, unproductive attitude. Among other
provisions, the measure cited Moscow’s alleged interference in
America’s 2016 election as a justification for imposing tighter
sanctions. But the legislation offers no hint of how Russia could
atone for that offense and get the sanctions lifted. Would a
written pledge never to engage in such conduct in future elections
be sufficient? Would something additional be necessary? There is no
way to tell.

In addition, the sanctions law codifies the previous White House
demands during the Obama and Trump administrations that the Kremlin
cease supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine and return
the Crimea Peninsula to Kiev’s control. Russia’s compliance with
the former demand is unlikely, especially given the Russian
government’s well-founded fears that the United States intends to
turn Ukraine into a Western client state with membership in both
the European Union and NATO. Brazen Western meddling in Ukraine’s political affairs to help
demonstrators unseat the democratically elected, pro-Russian
president in 2014 certainly does not incline Moscow to soften its
policy toward its neighbor.

Demanding that Moscow relinquish control of Crimea is even more
of a diplomatic nonstarter. The Kremlin will abandon that
acquisition at about the same time that Israel rescinds its
annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights or Turkey repudiates its puppet
Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and returns that occupied
territory to the Republic of Cyprus. That is to say, a Russian
capitulation on the Crimea issue likely will never take place.

Such examples underscore that Washington’s overall
diplomacy is dangerously unrealistic on multiple fronts. More
restrained and modest strategies are badly needed. A good place to
start is to refrain from torpedoing the constructive and beneficial
JCPOA. There is no “better agreement” in the offing, and the
consequences of pursuing such a mirage could be very
unpleasant—not only for the Middle East, but the United
States as well.

Ted Galen
, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a
contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of ten
books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more
than 650 articles on international affairs.

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The Legal Resistance to President Trump

Josh Blackman

Hillary Clinton was destined to shatter the glass ceiling and
pack the Supreme Court with liberal lions. The Left dreamed of the
day when federalism, the right to bear arms, and religious liberty
would be exiled from the Constitution, replaced by the progressive
jurisprudence they not-so-patiently waited for. Instead, on
November 8, 2016, Donald Trump shattered those dreams. The Left
awoke from this unfathomable nightmare to a painful hangover: The
45th president would shift the Supreme Court, and the entire
federal judiciary, to the right. Rather than advancing our
constitutional law closer to Justice Sotomayor’s wing of the Court,
the new judges would entrench Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence.

Refusing to accept the outcome of the election, progressive
legal groups rallied around a hashtag that soon became a movement:
#Resist. The New York Times reported that advocacy
organizations “put aside institutional rivalries” to make “legal
resistance one of the defining attributes of the Trump era.” There
is nothing novel about sore-loser litigiousness. Republicans
resorted to this strategy over the last eight years. What is
remarkable, however, is the breadth and speed of the successes of
the anti-Trump lawyers in impeding a presidency. Their movement was
advanced by Obama-administration holdovers within the executive
branch, and even by federal judges, who abandoned their traditional
role out of a fear that Donald Trump posed an existential threat to
the republic.

The self-professed resistance must be understood for what it is:
a thinly veiled legal revolt. Our Constitution has built-in safety
valves to remove an unfit president, whether through impeachment or
through a declaration of incapacity. But the exercise of those
powers was not assigned to the judiciary. Judges can call balls and
strikes; they can’t throw the president out of the game.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court has remained a voice of reason
within the federal judiciary — a role that it must maintain
even as President Trump continues to disrupt legal norms. This
administration will come to an end sooner or later. But the
precedents set during this period will linger far, far longer.

The thinly veiled legal
revolt against President Trump playing out in the courts will set
lasting and dangerous precedents.

The first conflict came very early. Trump’s January 27 executive
order, which restricted entry into the United States, sent
shockwaves throughout our legal order. For 90 days, the admission
of certain aliens from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria,
and Yemen — whose admission was deemed “detrimental” to
American interests — were to be kept out. Almost immediately,
lawyers filed suit on behalf of travelers from these nations who
were being detained at airports, yet the policy would receive no
meaningful defense in court.

Because Democrats had delayed the confirmation of Senator Jeff
Sessions as attorney general, the agency was still headed by Sally
Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, when Trump signed
the executive order. Finding that the order was not “wise or just,”
she instructed the Justice Department to stand down. Rather than
resigning — the honorable choice if she believed the policy
to be unconstitutional — she simply stood by as federal
courts ruled against the government. President Trump had no choice
but to fire Yates, who willingly served herself up as the first
martyr of the legal resistance.

Then the resistance spread. The Washington Post
reported that lawyers within the Justice Department and other
federal agencies sought to “push back against the new president’s
initiatives” as part of a “resistance from within.” Concerns about
the so-called Deep State have been greatly exaggerated, but lawyers
in the civil service are all too willing to talk to the press about
their efforts to resist the president’s agenda. The public effects
of such internal insubordination are hard to calculate because they
are largely unseen.

Soon, the Washington State attorney general sought a temporary
restraining order to halt the travel ban nationwide — a
challenge that was planned well before the order had even been
signed. With Yates now out of the picture, administration lawyers
mounted a good-faith defense of the policy, though one that was not
victorious in court. After only an hour of oral argument, U.S.
district judge James L. Robart in Seattle ruled that the federal
government must immediately cease enforcing the executive

Robart’s seven-page order offered only the most threadbare
analysis, giving no indication whether he thought the policy
violated the due-process clause, the equal-protection clause, the
establishment clause, or the free-exercise clause. Solely on the
basis of this hasty and incomplete opinion, immigration officials
around the country and consular officials around the globe were now
enjoined from implementing the order. Less than a week later, a
panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district
court’s order — even though temporary restraining orders are
not subject to appeal. The court nonetheless reached out to resolve
difficult constitutional questions in this preliminary phase of the

This judicial blitz was a dry run of the legal resistance’s game
plan. It would be repeated again and again with respect to the
second iteration of the travel ban, sanctuary-city policies, and
efforts to unwind the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda.
First, President Trump takes an executive action. Second, litigants
file suit in multiple friendly forums. Third, the court disregards
prudential barriers that restrict suits against the executive
— a role exactly opposite to the one that the judiciary
usually plays. Fourth, looking beyond the four corners of the
policy, the court throws out the policy by psychoanalyzing the
commander-in-chief based on his tweets, cable-news interviews, and
even campaign statements. Finally, without affording the president
the traditional deference his office is due, the court issues a
nationwide injunction, stretching far beyond the judges’

By March, with several victories under its belt, the legal
resistance had been fortified. National Public Radio anointed David
Cole, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, as
“the man at the heart of the legal resistance to the Trump agenda.”
Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe was confirmed as the “Citizen
Attorney General” of a progressive group calling itself the “Shadow
Cabinet.” CNN enthused that the “legal resistance … already has
octopus-like tentacles with different groups seeking to unravel or
block” President Trump’s agenda.

But over the summer, their winning streak would come to an end.
On three separate occasions, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
ruled against the Trump administration concerning the travel ban.
And on all three occasions, the Supreme Court — without
recorded dissent — pushed back on the San Francisco-based
court. While the decisions were not unqualified victories for the
president, the justices consistently voted to restore the scope of
Trump’s executive power to deny entry to aliens he deemed
detrimental to American interests.

Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch would have allowed the
travel ban to go into effect in its entirety while the appeals
process played out. They explained that the “government has made a
strong showing that it is likely to succeed” on its claim that the
order was lawful, and that a decision against the government would
“interfer[e] with its compelling need to provide for the Nation’s
security.” This opinion, according to Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law
School, served to “turn down the temperature, and to interject a
better model of behavior into our corroded institutions and
discourteous civil discourse.” The lower courts, alas, have not yet
taken the hint. As it stands now, the justices are considering
whether to dismiss the appeals in light of the president’s
September 24, 2017 proclamation, which imposed a quasi-permanent
travel ban for aliens from seven nations.

The legal resistance often repeats the refrain that our polity
must resist “normalizing” Trump as president. Courts,
unfortunately, have followed the lead. When judges treat this
president as anything other than normal — such as when they
engage in law-office psychiatry — it sends a signal to the
public that the chief executive is not as legitimate as his
predecessors. Trump was elected through the same constitutional
process by which judges received their lifetime commissions. He
should be treated as such. It is true that Trump consistently
disrupts all political norms. The courts should not respond in kind
by disrupting judicial norms.

In Federalist No. 78, Alexander Hamilton wrote that
judges can exercise “neither FORCE nor WILL but merely judgment.”
Judge William H. Pryor Jr. of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals
observed that “Hamilton’s point was that we must depend on the
persuasiveness of our written opinions to command the respect of
our fellow citizens.” As a result, he wrote, judges have “the
foremost responsibility of safeguarding [their own]

The nationwide injunctions against President Trump are grounded
far more in “will” than in “judgment.” They reflect a sincere
concern that the 45th president poses an unprecedented risk and
that his acts warrant far more scrutiny than did those of his
predecessors. This approach, though well intentioned, is profoundly
flawed. In a recent speech, Justice Gorsuch offered some important
words of wisdom for the rest of the judiciary: “Judges should wear
robes,” he explained, “not capes.” Only the political process, and
not what was designed to be the least dangerous branch, can save us
from the consequences of our own decisions.

is a constitutional-law professor at the South Texas
College of Law in Houston, an adjunct scholar at the Cato
Institute, and the author of Unraveled: Obamacare, Religious Liberty, and
Executive Power

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Supreme Court Takes on Public-Sector Unions

Ilya Shapiro and Frank Garrison

At the start of this “momentous” Supreme Court term — as
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called it — most people are
focused on partisan gerrymandering. But it’s not clear that there
are five votes for inserting courts into every redistricting
decision, thereby creating an election-lawyer full-employment act.
Instead, as far as politics are concerned, what the term may become
known for is blunting the power and influence of public-sector

Two cases now before the Court pit the First Amendment rights of
millions of workers against a sort of government-union cartel that
makes the most feverish theories of Russian collusion with the
Trump campaign look like child’s play. Both revolve around one
fundamental question: whether state legislatures can force workers
into unwanted relationships with unions.

The first is Janus v. American Federation of State, County
and Municipal Employees
, which the Court has already announced
it will hear. Alas, the lawsuit does not challenge AFSCME’s disdain
for the Oxford comma. Instead, Mark Janus, who works for the
Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, is
challenging a state law that mandates he pay “agency fees” to
support union collective-bargaining activities that he does not
support. Such a compulsion violates the First Amendment, he argues,
because collective bargaining in the public sector involves
advocacy on quintessentially political questions such as
taxpayer-funded wages and pensions, resource allocation, and
enforcement priorities. (Already this year, Illinois raised taxes
to pay a $100 billion public-pension debt.) Janus thus faces a
Hobson’s choice: Either fund advocacy he doesn’t like or find other

Two cases now before the
Court pit the First Amendment rights of millions of workers against
a sort of government-union cartel that makes the most feverish
theories of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign look like
child’s play.

Although the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of
non-union-member fees for public-sector workers in the 1977 case
Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, it has since
questioned Abood’s reasoning. In Abood, the Court
acknowledged that public-sector collective bargaining does
influence policy-making about “ideological” issues. Nonetheless,
the Court held that agency fees passed constitutional muster
because of “free rider” and “labor peace” concerns. The Court began
to scrutinize the flaws of this reasoning 35 years later in
Knox v. SEIU: “By allowing unions to collect any fees from
nonmembers … our cases have substantially impinged upon the
First Amendment rights of nonmembers.” Moreover, Justice Samuel
Alito noted for the majority, “Unions have no constitutional
entitlement to the fees of nonmember-employees.”

The Court then signaled the death knell for Abood in
the 2014 case Harris v. Quinn. Harris also originated in
Illinois, with then-governor Rod Blagojevich’s designation of
certain home-care providers as “public employees” for
collective-bargaining purposes (because they’re paid out of state
Medicaid funds). Despite many workers’ desire to remain
unaffiliated, a subsequent collective-bargaining agreement forced
them to fork over part of their wages to the Service Employees
International Union (SEIU). The Court struck down the law as a
violation of the non-union-member workers’ First Amendment rights
but did not overturn Abood. The Court reasoned that
because the law did not squarely concern “full-fledged public
employees” — as had been the case in Abood
it merely had to rule on whether Abood should be extended
to cover these workers. This is something the Court was unwilling
to do “because of Abood’s questionable foundations.” More
important, the Court, again through Justice Alito’s pen, announced
that it is a “bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest
of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to
subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to

Two terms ago, the Court in Friedrichs v. California
Teachers Association
seemed ready to overrule Abood,
but the untimely passing of Justice Antonin Scalia created a 4-4
deadlock that left the state laws in place. Now with a full Court,
the justices will have the opportunity to finally vindicate
public-sector workers’ First Amendment rights once and for all.

But what about workers who aren’t “full-fledged public
employees”? Thanks to Harris, they no longer must
pay unions, but should they have to be associated with
them at all? That’s the question in Hill v. SEIU, in which
a petition for Supreme Court review is pending. Rebecca Hill and
thousands of other home-care aides are still forced in certain
states to associate with a union that has been designated as their
“exclusive representative” for collective bargaining.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reasoned that
Abood and subsequent cases only require that Illinois
provide a “rational basis” for forcing workers to associate with
the SEIU — not the heightened scrutiny typically required in
First Amendment cases — and Harris didn’t change
that. But if the rationale for compelled fees in Harris
doesn’t stand up to constitutional scrutiny, neither should being
compelled into an association in the first place — even if
you don’t have to pay for it.

Justice Robert Jackson, one of the Court’s most legendary
members (whose seat Neil Gorsuch now occupies), wrote back in 1943,
“If there is any fixed star in our Constitutional constellation, it
is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be
orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of
opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith
therein.” With Janus and Hill, the Supreme Court
can uphold this fixed star by correcting a 40-year mistake and
returning some of the freedom (and money!) American workers have

Ilya Shapiro
is a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute,
where Frank
was until recently a legal associate.

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What If We Treated Guns Like Cars? Then We Might Be Able to Enact Truly “Common-Sense” Gun Laws

Trevor Burrus

Another mass shooting has sparked a gun-control debate in
America, and gun-control advocates and gun-rights supporters are
talking past each other as usual.

And there’s one question that often comes up: What if we treated
guns like cars?

Cars, after all, kill around 40,000 people per year-about as many as guns-with 2016 being
the deadliest year on American roads since 2007. Yet, in general,
we regard auto fatalities as an inevitable consequence of allowing
private citizens to own and drive cars. As long as cars are going
to be in private hands, then there will be car accidents, including
large accidents with multiple fatalities. We expect and accept that
the number of auto fatalities increases as more people own cars,
and we expect and accept that sometimes cars would be misused with
tragic consequences.

We can do this because there is broad agreement about the value
of cars and therefore little fear that cars will be banned or
regulated to the point that normal people won’t have access to
commonly used vehicles. And, due to that broad agreement, it is
easier to pass regulations to make both cars and drivers safer.

Through the guns/cars
comparison, we can see how the gun debate is fundamentally a
culture debate.

In fact, many gun-rights advocates would be okay with regulating
guns like cars. There would be no federal registration or
licensing, state-granted licenses would be given to people over 16,
17, or 18 years old after passing a simple test, the license would
be good in all 50 states, and using a gun on private property
wouldn’t require a license. As others have pointed out, in many ways this
would be less onerous than current firearm regulations. Purchasing
a car requires no background check or waiting period, and cars can
be purchased by people who have been convicted of a felony, use
illegal drugs, have been dishonorably discharged from the military,
or are illegal aliens-all of whom are “prohibited persons” under
current federal gun laws.

So why don’t we have such purportedly “common-sense” regulations
for guns? Quite frankly because many gun-control advocates want to
go much further than “common-sense” restrictions. Gun-rights
supporters know that gun-controllers won’t stop after enacting,
say, “universal” background checks. While a significant number of
gun-control advocates ultimately prefer total prohibition, the
majority likely prefer limiting access to guns in a manner that
would be akin to limiting cars to licensed NASCAR drivers on
official NASCAR tracks.

Gun-control supporters don’t get the comparison between guns and
cars. People need cars, but no one needs a gun, they argue. Whereas
they see cars as integral to a modern, flourishing civilization,
guns are throwbacks to a primitive time when we settled disputes
via duels. Moreover, there’s admittedly a significant difference
between an intentional and an accidental killing. If you think a
gun is only a tool for destruction, then the comparison makes no

But gun-rights supporters understand the analogy. A gun, like a
car, is both an effective tool and a deadly instrument. The
qualities that make a car or a gun an effective tool are the same
qualities that make it a deadly instrument. A good car or a good
gun is reliable, easily controllable, and gets the job done. And
while there are some cars and guns that are more dangerous due to
shoddy construction or because they go particularly fast, no car or
gun is good “only for killing.” Yes people die from guns or cars,
sometimes in horrific ways, but that’s no reason to ban either

Through the guns/cars comparison, we can see how the gun debate
is fundamentally a culture debate. Guns divide us like so many
other things. Liberals and conservatives live in different places,
go to different restaurants, and watch
different shows. Conservatives
own guns more often and are more
likely to understand that, while a gun is a tool that can be
misused, it is also enjoyable to spend an afternoon at the shooting
range. For some liberals, an afternoon at the shooting range is
akin to watching dog-fighting or bear-baiting.

There is no analogous culture debate about cars. Liberals and
conservatives alike enjoy cars, understand their value, and
generally understand how they work. We all understand that a car’s
deadliness is inexorably tied to its usefulness. And there is broad
support for “common sense” regulations to make cars and drivers
safer because we don’t worry that safety regulations or licensing
requirements are part of a plan to ultimately ban or severely
restrict cars.

But if only half the country owned cars, and that ownership
roughly tracked political divisions, then we’d see similar Facebook
debates sparked by posts exclaiming “40,000 people did in car
accidents last year. When will we stop the madness?!?” Jeeps might
be described as “military-style” vehicles that are clearly only
meant for war, ignoring the fact that Jeeps are just normal cars.
Car owners would try to explain that one person’s misuse of a car
doesn’t justify banning whole classes of cars; that the only way to
stop auto fatalities entirely is to ban and confiscate cars, an
unreasonable goal in a country with hundreds of millions of cars
and a deeply entrenched car culture; and that the focus should be
on drivers rather than cars because stopping bad drivers is more
effective than banning bad drivers’ cars. Bad drivers, after all,
will just switch to different cars.

If gun-control advocates could better understand the gun/car
comparison, then perhaps more productive conversations can
happen-or at least less hateful. A more productive conversation
about guns-like a more productive conversation about cars-would
look to the conditions that help create fatalities rather than just
focusing on the object itself. The battle against drunk driving
didn’t focus on banning drunk drivers’ cars; it focused on the
conditions that create drunk driving-such as being over-served in
bars-and sought to raise awareness through a variety of
informational campaigns. Similarly, a productive conversation about
guns would also examine the conditions that foment gun violence,
especially a failed and immoral drug war,
rather than just focusing on guns. Instead, gun-control proposals
are often arbitrary, ineffective, based in ignorance about guns, and
seemingly part of a long-term effort to ban guns entirely-and it
drives gun-rights supporters crazy.

Trevor Burrus is a Research Fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

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Better Hurricane Forecasting and Preparedness Mean Fewer Deaths

Patrick J. Michaels

What seemed impossible decades ago is now true: When they make
landfall, big hurricanes aren’t killing many people. Only truly
exceptional storms — or more likely exceptionally poor
preparedness — spawn large numbers of fatalities in the
United States when one comes ashore. The big death tolls are now
from flooding, often days later.

Of the top 30 killer hurricanes that have struck the U.S.
mainland since 1850, only three (Floyd in 1999, Katrina in 2005, and Harvey in 2017) were in
the past four decades. Half of the top 10 killer storms occurred
before the widespread adoption of radio.

The lesson? Surviving a landfalling hurricane is becoming
easier, thanks to communication, better forecasting and

Ten years ago, Category 5 Hurricane Dean slammed into Mexico’s
Riviera Maya and killed no one. The lowest barometric pressure at
landfall was 26.72 inches. If it had hit the United States, Dean
would have barometrically ranked third on the all-time monster
list, behind the 1935 Labor Day hurricane in the Florida Keys, and
1969 Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi coast.

A half-century before Dean, Category 5 Hurricane Janet hit in
the same spot, had a similar central pressure, and killed an
estimated 500 people. So what changed?

Preparation was the key. Dean was a well-behaved and
well-forecast storm, and the Mexican government embarked upon a
massive evacuation of vulnerable cities, towns and 80,000 tourists.
Undoubtedly, this saved a large number of people, as some of the
coastal towns were virtually wiped out. The government of Mexico
was rightfully proud of its remarkable achievement.

Irma’s death toll currently stands at 75, tragic but remarkably
low considering the tremendous reach of its damaging wind field,
all the way from Key West to Atlanta, affecting more than 20
million people. At landfall, when the storm’s center first crossed
the coast, there were nine fatalities in the Keys, but half appear
to have been from natural causes.

Apparently, there were only two deaths when Category 4 Harvey
slammed into Rockport and Corpus Christi, Texas. Subsequent inland
flooding, associated with about 80 fatalities, could just as easily
have occurred with a mere tropical storm. For example, in 1979
Tropical Storm Claudette drenched Alvin, Texas, also near Houston,
with 43 inches of rain in 24 hours, still the national daily
rainfall record.

Which goes to show that prediction makes all the difference.
Even with adequate communication, a bad forecast is deadly. An
abominable one resulted in about 700 fatalities (United States and
Canada) in the 1938 Great New England Hurricane. The 1935 Labor Day
hurricane pretty much came out of nowhere, and more than 400 people
died in the Florida Keys.

A bad forecast and bad communication is the worst-case scenario.
In 1900 in Galveston, Texas, an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 people
perished in a Category 4 storm not dissimilar to Harvey at
landfall. When warned by Cuban forecasters that a huge hurricane
was on track between there and the Gulf Coast, Washington’s Weather
Bureau brushed them off with an imperialist flick. By the time the
Galveston forecast office issued a hurricane warming, the island
was already overwashed.

Since the 1950s, forecasts have improved incrementally, and
mega-killers have become rare. Hurricane Audrey in 1957, a top-30
killer, unexpectedly pummeled Lake Charles, La., and led to an
increased research effort that greatly improved forecasts.

Since then, the distance between where a hurricane is forecast
to be and where it winds up has been reduced to about 200 miles for
four and five days in advance. Official three-day forecasts didn’t
even become operational until 1964, and five-day forecasts began in
2001. The combination of improved forecasts and mass communication
has been enhanced by the internet and 24-hour news and weather
channels that clamor for your attention by maximizing plausible

Storms with substantial mortality are now true freaks, or their
effects are enhanced by old-fashioned human bungling.

The 2005 Hurricane Katrina had elements of both. It was well
forecast, but that didn’t matter. While it was technically a
Category 3 storm at landfall, it was huge in extent and piled up
tremendous amounts of water in its northeastern quadrant,
unleashing it on the Mississippi and Alabama coasts. In both
places, the storm surge reached the U.S. record of 27.8 feet high,
and water surged a remarkable six miles inland. Altogether, 238
people died in Mississippi. Under any circumstance, Katrina was
going to be a big killer there.

But New Orleans was where human bungling came in. In 1965,
Category 3 Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans, killing nearly 60
people in floods. Levees that were supposed to hold back a
wind-whipped Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi River failed. In
response, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers promised a new levee
system that would withstand such a storm.

The new levees failed utterly in Katrina. Congress didn’t
appropriate enough money, and the Corps drilled pilings supporting
the flood walls to only half the planned depth to ensure stability. As a
result, about 1,000 residents (the true number will never be known)
perished in a storm in which the local airport never even recorded
a hurricane-force wind.

Floods, human-assisted or otherwise, that can occur days after a
storm hits, are now the killers. Absent an extreme storm or poor
planning or infrastructure, we are now to the point where
hurricanes that previously killed hundreds or thousands as they
came ashore now produce few fatalities, testimony to our abilities
to increasingly adapt to these terrible storms with better
communication and better science.

Patrick J.
is the director of the Center for the Study of Science
at the Cato Institute.

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Don’t Blame the Librarian, Blame the System

Neal McCluskey

For several hours last Friday, Dr. Seuss sat near the top of the
Twitter trending list. Alas, the renowned children’s author was not
there because an unpublished manuscript had been unearthed, or
something pleasant like that. No, it was because a school librarian
had pointedly rejected free Seuss books from first lady Melania

It set off a firestorm about the librarian, but the true problem
is the public schooling system in which she works.

Cambridgeport Elementary School’s Liz Phipps Soeiro declared her
objections to the donation in an open letter. She had many complaints,
including that there were worse-off districts that could use free
books; Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had “marginalized and
maligned” low-income communities by supporting school choice and
decreased federal spending; and Seuss is “a tired and worn
ambassador for children’s literature” whose work is “steeped in
racist propaganda, caricatures and harmful stereotypes.”

Soeiro could have taken a less condescending tone. Right after
“thanking” Trump for the shipment, she added, “Sent second-day air,
no less! That must have been expensive.”

Photos of Soeiro celebrating Dr. Seuss —
cat hat and all! — just a couple of years ago didn’t help.
But agree with the substance of her points or not, they are matters
on which reasonable people can differ. Ultimately, the problem is
not her opinions or even her tone, but that in rejecting the books
she made values-based decisions for every taxpaying citizen of

Was she allowed to do that? District officials said that
Soeiro was counseledon “all relevant policies,
including donations policies and the policy against public
resources being used for political purposes.” But it is hardly
clear that she exceeded her authority. The “book donation procedures” page on the
district’s website states that a school’s librarian may decline to
stock donated books if, among other things, she decides that their
“content is not appropriate.”

That said, the process would not be any fairer if committees of
parents, or school boards, made the decisions. Taxpayers who found
accepted books inappropriate, maybe even immoral, would still be
compelled to pay to promulgate those views. Likewise, groups seeing
their views underrepresented or absent because books sharing them
were rejected would be rendered unequal under the law. Think Seuss
unacceptably stereotypes and mocks your race? Too bad if libraries
in your public school stock his books. Opposed to gay marriage, but
the public schools reject your offer of books making your case? Tough.

To be fair, the Cambridge situation is extreme in terms of the
heat it has generated. Publicly rejecting books from the wife of a
president, especially one as polarizing as Donald Trump, is bound to raise the temperature.
But book battles are hardly uncommon. Indeed, the hullabaloo
occurred in the midst of Banned Books Week, an observance created
by the American Library Association, among other groups.

Tracking challenges to books primarily in
public libraries, including in schools, the ALA from 2001 to 2016
confirmed between 275 and 547 challenges per year. And the
association estimates that between 82 and 97 percent of challenges
go unreported.

Especially likely is underreporting of decisions not to stock
books to begin with. The “reading material” category on the Cato
Institute’s Public Schooling Battle
draws incidents from media reports about conflicts dealing
with public school libraries, reading lists and class assignments.
Of the almost 240 such conflicts on the map, only a handful deal
with initial decisions about books, which for all intents and
purposes likely go on behind closed doors.

In the case of Cambridgeport Elementary, it seems that —
had she so chosen — Soeiro could have rejected the Seuss
award with nary a peep.

Of course, whether a rejection makes noise or not, or challenges
are relatively rare, the end result is the same: Some have their
views elevated by governments that are supposed to treat all people
equally and others do not. It is patently unjust, but it is
inescapable in a system for which all must pay, but only some
— or one — make decisions.

Thankfully, there is a solution: school choice. Attach money to
kids — preferably through a tax credit for people who choose
to donate to scholarship funds — and let parents select
schools with values they share. Choice is one of the policies to
which Soeiro objected, but if there is one lesson to take from her
run-in with Dr. Seuss, it’s that neither she, nor anyone else,
should get to decide whose speech everyone must support.

is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway
Confidential blog.

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This Government Agency Is Seriously Overstepping Its Bounds

Thaya Brook Knight

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has a mission:
to protect consumers from unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices.
According to a new national poll by the Cato Institute in collaboration
with YouGov, protection from deceptive practices is just what the
American public wants. Asked to prioritize regulatory goals, the
majority of respondents put “protect consumers from
fraud” front and center.

Unfortunately, the CFPB continually misses the mark, issuing
rules that make splashy headlines but in practice do little to stop
bad behavior. Its latest proposed rule, expected to become final
soon, doesn’t target fraud itself. Instead, it goes after an
entire industry and will significantly reduce consumers’
access to credit at the exact moments they need it most.

This rule would restrict the ability of short-term lenders,
often known as “payday” lenders, to continue offering
their services. These loans require no credit check and no
collateral. For a flat fee, usually about $15 per $100 borrowed,
the lender provides a loan lasting about two weeks. The borrower
gives the lender a post-dated check for the full amount of the
loan, plus the fee. At the end of two weeks, the lender deposits
the check. If the borrower does not have the funds to repay the
loan, the borrower can roll it over, taking out a new loan for
another $15 per $100 fee.

The CFPB has claimed that these loans create a “debt trap” for borrowers, the majority of
whom do roll over the loan. To protect people from these
“traps,” the CFPB wants to institute new compliance
requirements. If payday loan consumers end up accruing fees
equivalent to 36% or more of the amount originally borrowed as a
result of rollovers, the CFPB’s compliance requirements would
kick in, requiring lenders to assess the borrower’s ability
to repay the loan in the two-week period, and limiting the number
of times a loan can be rolled over.

But the word “trap” is misleading. In fact, the
terms of the loans are remarkably clear. “Borrow $100.”
“Pay $15 plus the amount borrowed.” “Payment is
due in full in two weeks.” Try putting the terms of any other
credit instrument—a credit card, an auto loan, a
mortgage—into just 15 words. Even putting such loans into 15
pages would be a challenge. In fact, payday loans are a viable
business model precisely because they’re quick and require
little paperwork, making it feasible for them to lend to people
with poor credit.

Those who use payday loans agree. As the Cato poll finds, the
majority of payday borrowers say they receive good information
about rates and fees from their payday lenders. The fact that
payday borrowers remain in debt longer than two weeks is not
evidence of deception; according to a recent Pew survey, the majority of borrowers correctly
estimated how long it would take them to pay off the debt, even
though for most of them, that would mean several months of

Using payday loans can be expensive. Often opponents of the
loans cite the fact that the fees can ultimately total more than
the amount initially borrowed if the loan is rolled over many
times. Each time the loan is rolled over, the borrower effectively
takes out a new loan and pays the applicable fees on the amount

While some compare this fee to an interest rate, arguing that
the total fees paid on a loan are comparable to an annual
percentage rate (APR), in reality they are simply a flat fee for
each $100 borrowed for a set period of time. It’s true that
the fees can add up, especially if a borrower rolls over the loan
multiple times, but it doesn’t make the loans deceptive.
Limiting the effective APR would limit the number of times a loan
could be rolled over, requiring borrowers to pay on the spot. Given
the way payday loans are often used, being able to roll over the
loan is a benefit to borrowers who might need more time to save up
the cash.

New technologies and the widespread use of smartphones have made
financial transactions easier and more widely available. Reducing
regulatory barriers to the development of these products may be the
best way to improve financial access for low- and moderate-income
Americans. In the meantime, the CFPB needs to focus on preventing
and punishing fraud, rather than making news with rules no one
wants or needs.

Thaya Brook
is associate director of financial regulation studies at
the Cato Institute.

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A Few Thoughts on the Catalan Independence Referendum

Marian L. Tupy

Having observed the buildup to and consequences of the legal and
peaceful dissolution of my native land of Czechoslovakia in 1993
into two separate countries, I have developed an open mind about
separatist arguments. Since their separation, tensions between
Czechs and Slovaks have disappeared and the two are, once again,
the very best of friends. The Czechs no longer subsidize their
poorer cousins in the east, while Slovaks no longer blame their
problems on their “big brother” in the west. Everyone has won.

As such, I have kept an open mind about Scottish independence.
Many Scots resented their bigger neighbor to the south and wished
to regain the statehood they lost with the creation of Great
Britain in 1707. Scots, ultimately, balked at going it alone – a
decision partly influenced by the large financial subsidies that
Caledonia receives from England. The Brits handled the question of
the referendum in a typically cool-headed fashion. Unencumbered by
a “written Constitution,” a simple agreement between David Cameron,
the British Prime Minister and Alex Salmond, the Scottish First
Minister, paved the way for a vote north of the Hadrian’s Wall,
with 55 percent of the Scots opting for the status quo.

Madrid’s approach, while
legal and proportionate, seems to me politically unwise.

Spain, alas, has a Constitution, which was adopted in 1978 by 92
percent of the Spanish voters, including 95 percent of the voters
in Catalonia. The document does not provide for independence
referenda and specifically refers to the indivisibility of the
Kingdom of Spain. Consequently, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled
that the Catalan independence referendum was unconstitutional and
should not take place. The Catalan government ignored the Court’s
ruling and decided to hold the plebiscite anyway. The Spanish
government responded by sending in the national police and the
referendum was, for all practical purposes, derailed – amid some

With regard to the crackdown, a couple of things should be kept
in mind. First, nobody died, which is a bit of a miracle,
considering the red-hot passion on the Catalan side. From the film
footage I saw, it seemed to me that the Spanish police were
remarkably restrained and only responded with batons and rubber
bullets when under physical threat from the pro-independence
protesters. Second, given the Supreme Court ruling, the Spanish
government was obliged to enforce the rule of law and should not be
unduly blamed for the unpleasantness that followed.

That said, Madrid’s approach, while legal and proportionate,
seems to me politically unwise. The only way that the Catalans
could have held the vote legally was through constitutional change,
which is impossible, because the Spanish Parliament is filled with
unionists opposed to Catalan independence. The crackdown leaves the
Catalans with no recourse to rectify their grievances and could
lead to increased support for independence and, even, occasion a
rise of more extreme forms of Catalan resistance to the central

For most Europeans, Spain without Catalonia is as strange of a
concept as the United Kingdom without Scotland. But, independence
can be a good way to lower tensions between peoples who no longer
wish to remain a part of the same political entity and an excellent
way to increase inter-jurisdictional competition, thereby allowing
for greater institutional experimentation.

Prior to the rise of the European nation states in the 16th and
17th centuries, Europe was sub-divided into hundreds of different
states and statelets. Germany alone consisted of over 300 different
political entities prior to Napoleon’s consolidation of the
territories in 1806.

These states offered their residents different sets of rights
and responsibilities. They competed with one another in terms of
policies, including religious tolerance and taxation. In fact, it
was this territorial disunity that, scholars argue, enabled Europe
to zoom past heavily centralized China to become the world’s
leading economy.

Today, Europe is in a bit of a funk. Perhaps an injection of
greater jurisdictional competition is just what the old world needs
to take it out of its morass and reinvigorate it once more.

Marian L. Tupy
is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global
Liberty and Prosperity and editor of

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Kurdistan Ignites New Mideast Fires: National Independence at What Price?

Doug Bandow

The people of Kurdistan have voted for independence from Iraq.
Baghdad already has retaliated against its rebellious province.
Iran and Turkey have threatened to respond as well. The Kurdish
vote also will exacerbate tensions in Syria, where Washington and
Ankara already have clashed over America’s reliance on
Kurdish forces in battling the Islamic State.

Iraq’s Kurds suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein’s
rule: he used poison gas and killed nearly 200,000. An American
“no-fly” zone effectively freed them of his control and
Erbil has been autonomous since 1991. That status survived the U.S.
invasion and subsequent sectarian war, though all parties
acknowledged the fiction of Iraqi sovereignty. For instance,
Washington’s military assistance to the Kurdistan Regional
Government officially passed through Baghdad. The Kurdish statelet
doesn’t enjoy UN membership, but otherwise acts largely
independently. Until now visitors could fly directly into the KRG,
as did I last year.

Of course, the Kurdish desire for independence is not unique.
Spain faces a political crisis after the government in Madrid
employed riot police to disrupt an independence referendum in
Catalonia. Scottish independence remains a live possibility.
Belgium is badly divided and Flemish residents have pressed for
greater autonomy if not a full-scale split. The French-speaking
province of Quebec once came close to leaving Canada. Somaliland
exists de facto independent of chaotic Somalia, the prototype of a
failed state. Independence campaigns succeeded in South Sudan,
Slovakia, Kosovo, East Timor, and the multiple nations derived from

The most dangerous independence movement, at least from
America’s standpoint, today may be that in Taiwan. The Republic of
China survived the defeat of the nationalist government by the
Chinese communists when Chiang Kai-shek and his government moved
offshore to the island of Taiwan, which had been occupied by Japan.
Years ago the ROC gave up the pretense of ruling the mainland, but
the People’s Republic of China did not return the favor. Today few
Taiwanese identify with Beijing’s authoritarian rulers and by any
measure deserve their own internationally recognized state.
However, a formal declaration of independence would force the
Chinese government to act. And the rising nationalistic power is
unlikely to docilely accept the legal loss of such an important

Kurdistan could prove to be even more dangerous. The Kurds
joined a long line of peoples betrayed by the Versailles settlement
to World War I when the British and French divided up the Middle
East. There are as many as 45 million Kurds today and they
constitute one of the largest people groups without their own
nation. They are concentrated in several Middle Eastern nations
which increasingly look like failed states.

This is one potential
conflict Washington should stay out of.

But there is no agreed upon criteria as to who gets to create a
country where and when. In practice, people get to secede when they
are able to secede. Only a few succeed.

What about the Kurds? No event precipitated last week’s vote.
With presidential elections scheduled next month domestic politics
was an important factor. Still, the KRG has a bill of particulars
against Baghdad—broken promises, constitutional violations,
political failures—that makes a plausible case for
separation. However, Kurdistan’s ability to sustain an independent
existence is uncertain at best. The landlocked territory is
surrounded by adversaries which control its access to the world.
The Islamic State’s surge stalled Kurdistan’s economic development;
financially the KRG is dependent on declining oil revenue shipped
through other states.

Until now Kurdistan has survived as an autonomous zone because
of both the weakness of the Iraqi state and Washington’s informal
protection. Moreover, Kurds in Syria have created an autonomous
region out of the collapse of the Syrian state and chaotic civil
war. Opposition to the Islamic State yielded American military
support though not political sponsorship.

In contrast, Turkey’s Kurds have suffered under the full weight
of the Turkish military. The first round, from about 1978 to 1999,
displaced hundreds of thousands, imprisoned scores of thousands,
and killed tens of thousands. Thousands of villages were destroyed.
The war reignited two years ago, with a resurgence of brutality,
destruction, and death. Iran’s Kurds have avoided a similar fate
because they are better integrated nationally, though armed
resistance occurred even there. But their dissatisfaction

There is no inherent reason why Washington must take a position
when other people seek independence. However, U.S. policymakers
find it almost impossible to resist the temptation to meddle in
affairs of no particular interest to America. And in this case
Washington’s seemingly hopeless entanglement in the Mideast makes
Kurdish affairs important.

America never paid much attention to Kurds in Iran and
Syria—there were no militant independence movements, the
ruling regimes were hostile to America, and both nations posed
larger security challenges. In Turkey, which contains the largest
number of Kurds, Washington ignored the ill consequences of the
government’s brutal military campaign, fought with
U.S.-supplied weapons. Then, at least, Ankara was a key American
ally. Humanitarian considerations were of little concern.

In Iraq support for Kurdish autonomy advanced America’s
geopolitical ends, most notably constraining Saddam Hussein’s
government. The Kurds have remained helpful allies over the 14
years since the U.S. invasion, during which the Baghdad government
has not been in position to reassert authority over Kurdish
territory. However, tensions have risen as Kurdish forces extended
their territorial control while defending against ISIS, including
to Kirkuk, a contested city also claimed by Arabs and Turkmen. As
the threat from the Islamic State receded the Abadi government was
likely to turn its attention toward the KRG.

Now Erbil’s referendum multiplied the dangers. Opposition
to Kurdish independence may be the one issue uniting Iran, Iraq,
Syria, and Turkey. Ellen Laipson of the Stimson Center argued that
“It should not be beyond imagination for statesmen of good
will to negotiate a new status for Iraqi Kurdistan.” Of
course, one can imagine that. But this is the Middle East. It is
going to remain a matter of imagination.

Erbil rejected proposals for mediated talks with Baghdad:
Kurdistan desires independence. However, such talks would not
likely have yielded a solution. Behind Prime Minister Haider
al-Abadi hovers his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, who originally
won power using the Shia nationalist card.

Abadi demanded nullification of the “illegal” and
“unconstitutional” referendum results. He promised to
take all “necessary measures to preserve the unity of the
country.” His government also requested control of Erbil and
Sulaimani airports; refused by Kurdistan, Baghdad closed down air
traffic into the autonomous territory. Baghdad has moved to take
control of Iraq’s border posts in Kurdish territory. The
Abadi government is conducting joint military exercises with Turkey
and announced similar maneuvers with Iran. More ominously, the
Iraqi parliament authorized the movement of military forces into
the disputed city of Kirkuk and use of troops to take control of
oil resources under the Kurds’ control; legislators also
urged the Abadi government to bring charges against the Kurdish

Turkey, busy waging a war against its Kurdish citizens,
conducted military maneuvers along its border with Kurdistan and
threatened to close the border and cut the oil pipeline
transporting Kurdish oil. Said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan:
“We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then
it’s done.” Turkey’s parliament extended the
authorization for Turkish troops in both Iraq and Syria. He warned
that the KRG risked bearing “the shame of having dragged the
region into an ethnic and sectarian war.” Kurdish leaders
believe that Erdogan is bluffing, given economic considerations,
but they may underestimate the power of the same nationalism which
is pushing them toward independence.

Iran closed its airspace to KRG flights and banned
transportation of refined oil products in and out of Kurdistan.
Tehran also conducted military operations along its border with the
KRG. Militias allied with Tehran, the Popular Mobilization Units or
Quds Forces, have been operating in Iraq and also could become

In Syria the Assad government backed away from Kurdish areas
early in the civil war, giving greater space to the Kurdish
Democratic Union Party, which has created an autonomous region
called Rojava. But the YPG is tied to Turkey’s Kurdistan
Workers Party, and Ankara used its military to constrain the
ambitions of Syrian Kurds. Moreover, if President Bashar al-Assad
consolidates control he also may move to curb Kurdish autonomy.

In short, the cause of Kurdish independence could spark multiple
conflicts. And Washington would face pressure to choose sides.

Kurdistan has its advocates. Kurds fought Hussein, gave refuge
to religious minorities, and battled the Islamic State, playing an
especially important role in the liberation of Mosul and battle for
Raqqa. Kurds are religious moderates, friendly to Israel, and
pro-Western. Kurdistan is not as democratic and free as sometimes
claimed; it is essentially a Barzani family enterprise. Kurdish
parliamentarian Rabbon Marof, who promoted the “No for
Now” campaign, complained: “We don’t have rule of
law—we have a monarchy.” But given its neighbors, Iraq,
Iran, Syria, and, these days, Turkey, the Kurdish statelet
doesn’t look so bad even on this score.

Washington long offered the Kurdish leadership discreet, private
assurances of support, but then strongly opposed the
“provocative” referendum. Secretary of State Tillerson
said that Washington did not recognize a referendum that
“lacked legitimacy.” That stance probably was inevitable,
given fears of further destabilizing an already war-ravaged

Some analysts urged Washington to intervene to at least calm the
waters. For instance, said the Washington Post’s
David Ignatius: “The United States owes it to the Kurds
to help broker their dialogue with Baghdad” and
“de-escalate tensions that could destabilize” the KRG.
Guardian’sSimon Tisdall argued that it “is
time to settle the debt” from the Western allies to the
Kurds. Bloomberg’s Eli Lake suggested that U.S. officials
“could exercise some leverage—not only to protect their
Kurdish allies, but also to stabilize the region.” He would
threaten to cut off aid to Ankara and Baghdad.

The belief that U.S. officials can limit regional opposition to
the KRG’s unilateral moves toward independence evokes
thoughts of the Tooth Fairy and Great Pumpkin. After all, if it was
possible for Washington to stabilize the region, America would
already have done so. To cut aid to Iraq would undercut the regime
that Washington just went to great expense and effort to save from
destruction by the Islamic State.

Turkey spent decades brutally suppressing Kurdish separatism;
how likely is President Erdogan, who has greatly enhanced his
domestic power by playing the nationalism card, to back down
regarding Kurdistan? Ankara already is putting distance between
Turkey and the U.S. and NATO. Additional threats aren’t
likely to dissuade the Erdogan government from protecting what it
views as vital interests.

Obviously, negotiation among the interested parties would be
better than confrontation and conflict. Indeed, it probably would
be best for Kurdistan to focus on enacting economic reform, freeing
its political system, improving relations with Baghdad and Ankara,
and strengthening its autonomous status. However, Kurds have been
waiting a long time to move from de facto to de jure

Moreover, from Iraq’s standpoint there is nothing to negotiate:
Baghdad has no reason to accept an independent Kurdistan. Iran and
Turkey gain nothing from tolerating what looks to be a contagion
which could divide their nations. The Assad government can make few
demands now, but Ankara might act to prevent a de facto Syrian
Kurdish state on its border.

Kurds are entitled to their own country. In theory. But reality
is very different. Kurds live in a dangerous region, surrounded by
opponents of their independence ambitions. If they make a nation,
they deserve Americans’ best wishes. But this is one potential
conflict Washington should stay out of.

Ike Brannon is
a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute and president of Capital
Policy Analytics.

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The Rise of the Trauma State: Afghanistan and America’s Unwinnable War

Erik Goepner

Post-traumatic stress disorder afflicts 11 to 20 percent of U.S. military members after
they serve in Afghanistan or Iraq. The military expends significant
effort to provide them with needed care. Commanders move the
psychologically injured out of the combat zone. Medical and mental
health providers deliver needed aid. And, commanders may
temporarily suspend individuals’ authority to bear firearms
to minimize any threat they pose to themselves or others. For good
reason: studies indicate that combat veteran status and
PTSD associate with a two to three times increase in the risk of violence against others.

If trauma has such negative effects on U.S. service members
despite all of the assistance available, what are its effects on
Afghans who have lived in a combat zone for 40 years straight with
little access to care? More importantly for the United States, how
does all of that trauma and PTSD affect America’s longest
war? I argue that Afghanistan’s national trauma assures U.S.
policy goals will continue to go unmet and, as a result, U.S.
forces should be withdrawn.

When at war, the U.S. military prioritizes winning, not mental
health. Grievous psychological harm has remained the concern of
helping agencies and religious organizations. Warfighters rightly
eschewed such issues in order to focus on killing enemy forces and
destroying their warfighting capability. But this war is different.
It is as much (or more) about the villagers caught in the middle
and their government as it is about the insurgents. General
Petraeus observed that “the human terrain is the decisive
terrain.” For this type of war, doctrine calls on military
members to have “an adaptive and flexible mindset to understand the population,” in contrast to the
traditional enemy-centric focus. However, despite the U.S.
military’s attempts to learn the languages, religion, and
culture, the decades of psychological trauma experienced by Afghans
have gone unexamined.

The scope and scale of trauma endured by Afghans is staggering.
Upwards of 50 percent likely met the criteria for PTSD, major
depressive disorder, or both before the U.S. invaded in
2001. A meta-analysis of conflict-affected populationspublished in the
Journal of the American Medical Association calculated
that half of a population exposed to extremely high rates of
torture and political terror will meet the criteria for one or more
mental disorders. Afghanistan has met those criteria for

America has no good
choices in Afghanistan. The least bad option, though, is likely the
withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Severe and repetitive trauma over four decades has had at least
three major consequences for Afghans. Violence has become
normalized as a legitimate means for goal achievement and problem
resolution. The people lack the capacity for trust required for an
enduring settlement across dissimilar ethnic and religious groups.
And, Afghans do not have the ability to govern effectively,
especially problematic for a nascent democracy.

Hurt People Hurt People

Trauma states like Afghanistan become more violent as a result
of all the trauma and negative effects which often accompany it.
Increased exposure to severe traumatic stressors, such as torture,
rape, and war, results in more mental
, substance abuse, and diminished impulse
control. Taken together, those three factors dramatically increase
violence rates.

Larry Goodson observes that killing has become “a way of
life in Afghanistan, creating “a cult of violence.” Others have
expounded on the role of psychological factors on violence,
observing that previous trauma negatively alters violence
. Explaining societal violence after civil conflict has
ended, Chrissie Steenkamp refers to a “culture of violence” in which “the
norms and values that underpin the sustained use of violence”
become established in the society.

A scene during my deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 (and right
out of Dr. Strangelove) makes the point. An argument took place in
the “war room” between two Afghan colonels. The senior
police official drew his pistol to shoot a peer from the security
directorate over an insult. An American military officer—and
friend—bravely placed himself between the gun and intended
target and spoke the only English the middle-aged police chief
understood, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” With
the situation peacefully resolved, they banned the police leader
from the operations center for 30 days and all government buildings
posted makeshift signs indicating no guns allowed.

The police chief serves as an archetype of the traumatized
Afghan. A brave fighter against the insurgents, he has been at war
for all of his adult life and has become a drug addict in response.
Self-medication was preferable to no medication, and soberly
confronting his demons was too painful. The Colonel’s impulse
control had plummeted well below safe levels. Violence has become
his reflexive tool for goal achievement and problem resolution.

Eroding Trust

Repeated exposure to traumatic events severely erodes a
person’s ability to trust. Additionally, victims of
repeated traumas often develop attentional bias towards expressions
of anger and fear and they tend to miss cues associated
with happiness, amplifying the cycle of distrust. The effects appear particularly pronounced when the
traumas occur early in life. The fact that Afghans have suffered so
much trauma at the hands of so many different actors intensifies
the erosion of trust.

Diminished Capacity, Diminished Governance

Adverse changes to the brain can also follow severe and repeated trauma.
These alterations include reduced hippocampal volume
and hemispheric integration, decreases in corpus callosum size, and
diminished activity in the basal ganglia. These changes associate
with a variety of negative outcomes, including lowered intelligence
quotient, diminished capacity to reason, and poor problem-solving

Everyone, government officials included, becomes less competent.
Governance and the delivery of basic goods and services suffer.
This is particularly problematic in a democracy, where government
legitimacy derives from its competence.

Militaries Can’t Fix Trauma States

Afghanistan’s national trauma helps explain why nation
building efforts have been so difficult and the gains from American
combat power so temporary. Only Afghans can bring about enduring
change, and they are too traumatized to do it. The trauma-induced
“cult of violence” fuels the war, eroding the
possibility for negotiation. Politicians cannot trust each other,
which further incentivizes the use of violence rather than dialogue
for goal achievement. The cognitive deficits resulting from decades
of trauma reduce the capacity of government bureaucrats and
security forces, adding to the population’s grievances. And
because the trauma is on-going—civilian deaths are at record highs—and
Afghans have meager mental health infrastructure, these problems
should only get worse.

Implications for U.S. Policy

America has no good choices in Afghanistan. The least bad
option, though, is likely the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Sixteen
years of fighting later and the Afghan government remains egregiously corrupt and incompetent, while the
Taliban now control more territory than at any
time since 2001. Traumatized Afghans have a lot to do with it, and
American combat power has no answer for that.

, a visiting research fellow at the Cato Institute.
During his earlier military career, he commanded units in
Afghanistan and Iraq.