Archive for July, 2006

True Proportionality

Friday, July 28th, 2006

One of the tenets of Just War theory is the principle of “proportionality.”  Proportionality, or the lack there of, has become the chief focus of criticism of Israeli actions in Lebanon. Russia and the European Union claim the Israel has escalated the fight to a “disproportionate act of war.”  Speaking for Italians, the Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema observed, “We have the impression that this is a disproportionate and dangerous reaction in view of the consequences it could have…”

Hezbollah in Lebanon started the conflict by launching missiles into northern Israel and capturing soldiers along the Lebanon-Israel border and has made military response difficult by the deliberate intermingling of combatants and civilians. Nonetheless, the disproportionality argument rests on the fact that Israel has taken more lives than Hezbollah, many of them civilian. This naive argument misunderstands proportionality in its entirety. Moreover, it implies a sweeping misinterpretation that reduces proportionality, in the end, to mere revenge.

If Hezbollah kills two Israeli civilians through a rocket attack, it is not a proportional response to kill two Lebanese civilians. That is vengeance and retribution. These are principles of action specifically prohibited as legitimate justifications for the use of force under Just War Theory.

Proportionality is a broader, more complex principle. It is not the simple math of tallying injuries to achieve a rough parity. By its nature, war involves death and destruction. The principle of proportionality requires that the good to be achieved exceeds the costs in lives and property and that the minimum force possible is used.

The calculus of proportionality cannot be reduced to entries in an accountant’s ledger. Lives are invaluable, but so are non-tangible goods like liberty, freedom, security, political equality, self-determination, and justice. How the loss of life and suffering balance other values is not a straightforward appraisal. Reasonable people of good will can reach different conclusions.

An assessment of the proportionality of the Israeli response perhaps will only be determined at the outcome of hostilities, whether a sustainable peace of some sort is achieved. Ironically, if Israel were to cease hostilities at this time with the Hezbollah war machine intact enough to keep northern Israel hostage, as seems to be the case, all the lives lost on both sides would have been in vain because little would have been achieved. The balance of good and evil would be weighted to the evil.

The only chance for true proportionality lies in Israel following the difficult route of persuing the disarmament of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in a thoughtful and careful way. The Israelis have not yet achieved proportionality and prematurely ending their efforts would guarantee it will not soon be achieved.

Iron and Blood

Sunday, July 23rd, 2006

“The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood.” — Otto Von Bismarck, Prussian Prime Minister.

In 1984, I was afforded the opportunity to visit Israel for a two-week scientific conference. The El Al flight left from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and landed outside of Tel Aviv. The security of the flight was extremely strict by the standards of the time and even tighter than American post-9/11 security. Every potential passenger was questioned about the purpose of their trip. If you had bags transferred from another airline, you had to claim them and examine their contents to make sure nothing was added while the bags were out of your control. Any bags left in public places unattended were quickly confiscated.

The year 1984 was

One of the most surprising features about life in Israel was the ubiquity of automatic weapons. Soldiers always had them slung over their shoulders. Civilians carried them for protection even on school trips to tourist areas. The guns were a reminder of the precariousness of Israel’s position. Despite, and perhaps because of these weapons, we did not experience security problems. We drove around the country unhindered, visiting the Red Sea and Masada. We took a bus ride parallel to the Jordan River through much of the West Bank, toured the Golan Heights and the then quiet Israeli-Lebanese border, spent time at hotel in northern Israel, and visited the seaport at Haifa.

Now a drive through the West Bank might prove a little dangerous. If we ventured to the border with Lebanon or even to Haifa we would find ourselves within the range of Katyusha rockets raining down indiscriminately from Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon. What happened?

Allured by the success of peace with Egypt and relentlessly pushed by the Europe and the United States to take risks for peace, Israel has tried to apply the same formula with its other enemies. After rooting out terrorists from southern Lebanon, Israel retreated behind its internationally recognized border. As a consequence of the Oslo Accords, Israel has turned over much of the administration of the West Bank to Palestinian Arabs. Recently, Israel has withdrawn from the Gaza strip, even taking the politically difficult task of dismantling Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Unfortunately, the actions have not purchased peace and security. Israel has been forced to erect a wall to keep out terrorists from the West Bank. It has had to re-enter the Gaza Strip to stop attacks that commenced almost from the moment of the Israeli exit. In contravention of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, Hezbollah has been using southern Lebanon as a staging ground for anti-Israel attacks. Perhaps most despicably, Hezbollah is using private residences to store arms, inviting civilian causalities in the event of the present Israel military response.

The land-for-peace formula worked with Egypt, because Egyptian President Anwar Sadat genuinely desired to achieve some accommodation with Israel. However, with Palestinian Arabs, Hezbollah, and Hamas, no negotiations seem possible. These groups are institutionally committed to the destruction of the Israel and use any agreements as mere tactical concessions to enable future attacks. How is it possible for Israel to have a meaningful dialogue with a group that does not recognize Israel’s right to exit. Perhaps the worst part is that such groups have used their control to hide their own corruption and instill a new generation with an existential hatred of Israel.

Unfortunately for Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the region, the observations of Otto Von Bismarck, although made in a different historical context, may prove all too apt.

Laffer’s Ambiguous Curve

Sunday, July 16th, 2006

Physicist Niels Bohr once quipped that, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Just several months ago, the prediction was that the federal budget deficit for this year would be $423 billion dollars. A surge in economic growth increased revenues so that the deficit has dropped $127 billion to $296 billion. In other words, the deficit estimate was 30% too high, which is a measure of the accuracy of the science of economic prediction. President Bush claims that his tax cuts were responsible for the increase in economic growth. The results mitigate the Democrats’ critique that tax rates are too low.

Democrats argue that federal revenues are just passing the point where they were in 2001.However, in 2001 the economy was entering a recession and the attack on September 11, 2001 added to negative economic growth. The tax cuts did not begin their impact until 2002, so the effect of the 2001 recession and September 11 on tax revenues would have occurred whether or not the tax cuts were implemented.

Whether one accepts Bush’s argument or not, the logic behind the Laffer curve, named after economist Arthur Laffer, is inexorable. At a 0% tax rate, government would receive no revenue. At a confiscatory 100% tax rate, there would be such a distinctive to engage in economic activity, that the tax revenue would also be zero. At some tax rate in between, the government maximizes its revenue.

Tax rates also affect private income. There must be some government revenue to provide for a government that can at police economic transactions. Others argue that investment in education by government also increases private income. In any case, a 0% tax rate would not maximize private income. But certainly a rate that maximizes private income would be at a tax rate lower than the rate at which government income is maximized.

Indeed, the two functions can be coupled so that at some intermediate tax rate, the sum of private and government income is maximized. Whether a people select a tax rate that maximizes private income, government income, or the sum of the two is in part at matter of philosophy. Indeed, there are some on the Left who would raise income taxes on the wealthy in a punitive effort to reduce income disparity; even it meant that net tax revenues would be lower.

In addition, the optimum tax rate also depends on the economic distribution of the tax. The poor who are barely managing will continue to work quite hard in spite of high tax rates because they do not have the luxury of living on less. The rich, on the other hand, could decide to eschew the additional work or risk required to earn more income at lower rates of return. Changes in the rate of capital gains also affect the economy in a different way than the taxes on regular income.

The disappointing part is that politicians do not argue about what the optimum tax rate is. For Republicans, the tax rates are always too high. For Democrats, taxes are always too low. When President Ronald Reagan followed President Jimmy Carter into office in 1980, the highest marginal income tax rates were 70%. Reagan persuaded Congress to reduce the highest marginal rate to 28%. When President George Bush followed President Clinton, the highest marginal rates were in 39.5%. The Bush tax plan reduced the highest rate to 35%. Surely, the simulative effect of the Reagan tax cut would have been substantially larger than that associated with Bush’s tax cut. Is the tax rate that maximized federal income 28%, 35%, 39.5%, or 70%? Are we close to revenue maximizing rate now? At what rates are private income or the sum of private and public income maximized? What is the optimum mix of income, sales, and other taxes? These real questions are lost in the political noise.

The Lonely Liberal

Sunday, July 9th, 2006

The New Republic editor Peter Beinart is smart, articulate, literate, and politically lonely and isolated. He is perhaps the ranking member of the dwindling responsible Left. It is people like Beinart that keep the term “responsible Left” from becoming an oxymoron. In The Good Fight: Why Liberals — and Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, he makes the case that a only Liberals, in the tradition of the great Cold War warriors, Presidents Harry Truman and John Kennedy and Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, can execute a credible strategy to deal with the challenge of Islamofascism. The fact that many of Beinart’s fellow Leftists and Liberals are not quite sure there is really a “War on Terror” makes this task more difficult. Indeed, Beinart’s critiques on the execution of the War on Terror are more likely to be considered seriously by the Right rather than the Left.

Beinart begins with a tutorial history of the Cold War that should remind modern Liberals of the fateful and important choices they made at the Cold War’s beginning. For much of the 1930s, the Left was very sympathetic with the Soviet Union and what were perceived to be its progressive social policies. After World War II, the seizure of Eastern Europe and the blockade of Berlin made it apparent to all but the ideologically blinded that the Soviet Union was not a real ally but a totalitarian regime. Nonetheless, important elements of the Democratic Party steadfastly embraced alliance with the Soviet Union. Henry Wallace, former Vice-President for President Franklin Roosevelt, even went so far as to oppose the Marshall Plan to rescue Western Europe economically because he feared that such a plan threatened the Soviet Union. It was Harry Truman and his contemporaries who realized that supporting progressive policies at home was consistent with opposing totalitarianism abroad, even from Socialist regimes.

Despite the fact that the Cold War was finally won during a Conservative Administration and long after Liberals abandoned any pretense of being anti-totalitarian; Beinart’s bases his assertion that the War on Terror can only be one by Liberals on three theses, none of which bears critical scrutiny.

Multilateralism: Beinart argues that the War on Terror may require military intervention, but such intervention is legitimized by the endorsement of multilateral organizations. Moreover such organizations can lend expertise in reconstruction.

While it is true that Liberals pay greater lip service to multilateralism and boast a greater deference to international opinion the differences in practice are not obvious.

In both Gulf Wars, the Bushes, father and son, took their case to the United Nations and secured Senate votes of support before intervention. In both cases the UN did not endorse action, but a rag-tag alliance of the willing was form dominated by the US. Though there was greater international support for the first Gulf War, both Bushes paid a decent respect to the opinion of mankind.

By contrast, Bill Clinton did not secure Congressional approval for intervention into Kosovo. He did not even attempt to secure approval from the United Nations, knowing that Russia would veto any action. Ultimately, he pulled in (or was pulled in by) NATO to deal with a European problem in which the United States had no vital interest.

In two of the most pressing international confrontations, Iran and North Korea, the Bush Administration has steadfastly involved its allies. It has given the lead to the Europeans on Iran and is insisting on including Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea in talks with North Korea. The real irony is that many Liberals who argued for multilateralism are now urging the US to eschew other countries and negotiate one-on-one with Iraq and North Korea. Former Clinton Administration officials are even recommending that the US preemptively strike missile testing facilities in North Korea. Who is seeking to act unilaterally now?

Economic Development: Beinart plausibly argues that poverty and hopelessness breeds terrorists. Conservatives are willing, in Beinart’s world, to fund wars and political development but short funding for economic development. This is sort of a mirror to Beinart’s perception of domestic parsimony by Conservatives. Without such true economic development, anti-terrorists efforts will not succeed. Beinart criticizes the Bush Administration for ignoring Arab economic development. He argues for an Arab Marshall Plan, analogous to the one instituted by hawkish Democrats to provide for European reconstruction after World War II.

Only Liberals, according to Beinart, are inclined to do this. Beinart forgets that although Truman pushed for the original Marshall Plan, it was not solely a Liberal effort.� The plan passed by wide margins in a Republican Congress and was endorsed by Republican Presidential candidates Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey. Aid to Europe continued under the Eisenhower Administration, though Eisenhower was not a Liberal. Economic development aid can at times be a wise prescription, but both sides of the political aisle can recognize its advantages.

Moreover, Beinart’s calculation of how much aid is provided the Arab world neglects non-governmental organizations that are usually far more effective than direct government aid. The original Marshall Plan worked, in large measure, because there was a middle class culture in Europe than needed mostly economic resources for development. In many places in the Arab world massive economic aid would at best be squandered inefficiently or at worst be siphoned off by corrupt leaders. The US has invested over $50 billion into Egypt since 1979 with only modest economic development and little movement toward a pluralistic democracy.

Much of the Arab world does not lack funds, but rather requires a political structure and culture that would encourage both economic and social development. One of the chief sources of terrorists is Saudi Arabia which is awash in oil riches, but has not managed to provide true economic development for its people.

Taxes: One can not read a Liberal political track very long before an increase in taxes is urged. Beinart argues that the War on Terror needs resources and Conservatives are not willing to raise the necessary funds through taxation. Beinart believes the Department of Homeland Security is under funded. If anything, recent evidence suggests that the Department of Homeland Security is not particularly efficient at using the resources that it has.

As far as overall resources are concerned, Beinart must have finished the final draft of his book before the statistics on a rapidly falling deficit were in. Not only is the deficit falling, the debt load of the country is at historically sustainable level because of the massive growth spurred on by taxes cuts early in the Bush Administration. The US debt load compares very favorably with the debt load of the stagnant economies of Europe who suffer under far higher tax rates than the US.

However, the key flaw in Beinart argument does not fall under these three theses. Rather, it is the nostalgic illusion that any significant portion of the Democratic Party is serious about terrorism. There is no core Democratic vision for dealing with terror save more law enforcement. For the most vocal in the Democratic Party, the real threat to the US is the Bush Administration and not terrorists. More importantly, Liberals have not articulated a vision of American greatness.

The core of the Democratic Party has only two positions on the Iraq War: get out soon or get out now, with nary a concern as to whether the government that remains has the ability to deal with both security and economic development. The Democratic argument is not that Iraq is so secure or its government so capable that they do not need our military help, but that we should leave regardless of the security situation. There are few if any anti-totalitarian Democrats in the mold of Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey or Scoop Jackson left. Perhaps the only conspicuous Democrat that could be so classified is Senator Joe Lieberman who, a few short years ago, was the Vice-Presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. He is under a severe primary challenge by Ned Lamont, a candidate. Party heavy weights like Senators Russ Feingold and John Kerry, refuse to state a preference on the outcome of the primary. How can Beinart’s argument that the far-Left, Michael Moore wing of the party should be shed be considered seriously, when that wing of the party is busy clipping off moderate Democrats? Beinart plainly pines for a party that has long ago disappeared.

Beinart’s book is engaging and well-written. Conservatives would do well to take to heart many of his critiques. However, we should all hope that the sub-title of his book is mistaken. If only Liberals can win the War on Terror, then it will not be won.

The New York Times – Not Too SWIFT

Monday, July 3rd, 2006

Maintaining a measure of consistency in opinion over time can be difficult. Often, it is easy to avoid thinking thoroughly through one’s positions without appreciating their full import. This is especially true when statements are separated by substantial gaps of time. However, when conspicuously contradictory statements are juxtaposed, yet pass unrecognized as incongruous and oxymoronic, lunacy prevails.

On June 23, 2003 the New York Times revealed a “secret Bush administration program” that allowed the government access to international financial transactions to track terrorist financing. The program centers on a Belgium financial clearing house, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). According to the article, the program is legal and effective. The NY Times’ report also actually describes terrorists who had been apprehended as a consequence of the program.

Immediately, the President and others criticized both the original leak of the information and the decision by the NY Times to publish despite bi-partisan requests that the paper show uncharacteristic restraint. In the wake of this criticism, the Boston Globe picked up on the talking points of the Left, and ran an article five days later entitled “Terrorist funds-tracking no secret, some say”. Since nothing was revealed, the NY Times did nothing wrong.

The unseen hilarious incongruity is either the SWIFT program was, as the NY Times reported, “secret” and important enough to be on front page of the paper, or it was common knowledge. Both conditions cannot be true. Moreover, if terrorists are being caught, then the program could not be very common knowledge. Once again anti-Bush animosity blinded normally sane people from seeing the obvious.

Publishing leaked classified information can arguably be consistent with journalistic standards, if the program was either illegal or being abused. The NY Times itself makes no such claim. Moreover, relevant members of Congress were being informed. Republican and Democratic politicians, including vocal Administration critic Representative John Murtha (D-PA), and Democratic co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton, urged that the NY Times not divulge the program. The paper was not persuaded.

Why then would the NY Times publish the article? The key may lie in the unintentionally revelatory statement by Bill Keller, executive editor of the NY Times: “We remain convinced that the administration’s [italics added-FMM] extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest.” The editor’s concern was not the general government’s access to listing of financial transaction, but this “administration’s” access.

It is also worthy to note that in a June 25, 2006 piece, Editor Bill Keller explained his decision “to disregard the wishes of the President and his appointees.” But he does not bother to mention that he was disregarding the wishes of not only the President but people on both sides of the aisle and in Congress as well. Again we see the pattern of an almost pathological fixation on the Bush Administration.

The editors have been eloquent in explaining the necessity of a free press and the obligations of such a press to be responsible what it chooses to publish about national security matters. However, they have been unable to offer a sustainable reason why it was necessary or important to reveal the details of this particular program at this particular time.

It is no secret that the editors of the NY Times pretty much don’t like this Administration. Anything that might conceivably cast it in a negative light is given great weight, perhaps even outweighing possible compromises in the nation’s ability to deal with terror. Annoyance with the President has clouded the judgment of the paper. Perhaps the paper suffers because there are not enough Conservatives in the newsroom to provide balance. Regardless of the reason, because the editors of the NY Times are not sufficiently introspective to recognize their own biases, the paper, the country, and the War on Terror all suffer.