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U.S. Has No Moral Standing to Condemn Assad
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Blog, Commentary and Articles - Foreign Policy, Military and War
Written by Sheldon Richman   
Wednesday, 28 August 2013
U.S. Has No Moral Standing to Condemn Assad
by Sheldon Richman
 
Whether or not Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, President Obama has no legitimate grounds to intervene.
 
U.S. airstrikes, intended to punish and deter Assad and degrade his military but not overthrow his regime, would deepen the U.S. investment in the Syrian civil war and increase the chances of further intervention. Obama’s previous intervention is what has brought us to this point. Instead of steering clear of this regional conflict, he declared that Assad must go; designated the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” the crossing of which would bring a U.S. response; and armed and otherwise aided Assad’s opposition, which is dominated by al-Qaeda-style jihadists who have no good feelings toward America. Once an American president does these things, further steps are almost inevitable if for no other reason than that “American credibility” will be said to be at stake.
 
One can already hear the war hawks berating Obama for his “merely symbolic” punitive airstrike that had no real effect on the civil war. Once he’s taken that step, will Obama be able to resist the pressure for imposing a no-fly zone or for more bombing? He and the military seem unenthusiastic about getting in deeper, but political pressure can be formidable. Will the American people maintain their opposition to fuller involvement when the news media turn up the volume of the war drums? How long before the pictures from the war zone create public approval for “humanitarian intervention,” which the hawks will then point to in support of their cause?
 
Make no mistake: the United States would be committing an act of war against Syria — and judging by the 2011 Libyan intervention, it would be doing so unconstitutionally, without congressional authorization. If history teaches us anything, it is that war is unpredictable. Even limited “surgical” strikes can have unintended consequences (civilian deaths and American losses) and could elicit unanticipated responses, including from Syria’s allies Iran and Hezbollah.
 
Exploiting unsubstantiated allegations about chemical weapons also runs the risk of repeating the blunder of a decade ago, when dubious intelligence was used to justify an unlawful war of aggression against Iraq. Are there grounds for confidence in the claims that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons? Maybe they did, but something does not add up. Assad has much to lose by their use, while the rebels have much to gain: Western intervention on their behalf. (In May a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria concluded that the rebels may have used chemical weapons at that time.) As Peter Hitchens writes,
What could possibly have possessed [Assad] to do something so completely crazy? He was, until this event, actually doing quite well in his war against the Sunni rebels. Any conceivable gains from using chemical weapons would be cancelled out a million times by the diplomatic risk. It does not make sense.
Hitchens urges caution:
It seems to me that there are several reasons to be careful. The first is that we seek to believe evil of those we have already decided to be enemies, especially in democracies where voters must be persuaded to sign the vast blank cheque of war.
Finally, it is grotesque to see officials of the U.S. government, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, condemning anyone’s war tactics as something “morally obscene” that should “shock the conscience of the world.” Since 1945, the U.S. government has launched aggressive wars in violation of international law. It has tortured prisoners detained without charge. It has dropped atomic bombs on civilian centers, and used napalm, Agent Orange, depleted-uranium shells, and white phosphorus incendiary weapons. It has carpet bombed and firebombed cities. America’sunexploded landmines and cluster bombs still threaten the people of Vietnam and Cambodia. (Tens of thousands have been killed or injured since the war ended in 1975.)
 
Today the U.S. government cruelly inflicts suffering on Iranian men, women, and children through virtually comprehensive economic sanctions — just as it did to the Iraqi people from 1990 to 2003. It also threatens aggressive war against Iran.
 
And while it selectively laments the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the Obama administration bankrolls Egypt's military government, which massacred over a thousand street demonstrators, and Israel's repression of the Palestinians.
 
The U.S. government should get its own house in order and quit lecturing others.
 
Sheldon Richman  is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org).
 
Delete the Fed
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Blog, Commentary and Articles - Economics and Financial Services
Written by Sheldon Richman   
Tuesday, 20 August 2013
Delete the Fed
by Sheldon Richman
 
Who should run the Federal Reserve System when chairman Ben Bernanke’s term expires next year: Vice Chair Janet Yellen or former Obama adviser Lawrence Summers?
 
Neither.
 
Who then?
 
No one.
 
The fact is, we need the Federal Reserve like we need a hole in the head. Contrary to folklore, the Fed is not needed to stabilize the economy or to prevent unemployment. As the Fed heads into its second century, we ought to realize that its record is terrible. Even if we don’t count the interwar period (which some economists call the new Fed's practice round), America’s central bank is a flop. Monetary economists George A. Selgin, William D. Lastrapes, and Lawrence H. White wrote in “Has the Fed Been a Failure?”:
Drawing on a wide range of recent empirical research, we find the following: (1) The Fed’s full history (1914 to present) has been characterized by more rather than fewer symptoms of monetary and macroeconomic instability than the decades leading to the Fed’s establishment. (2) While the Fed’s performance has undoubtedly improved since World War II, even its postwar performance has not clearly surpassed that of its undoubtedly flawed predecessor, the National Banking system, before World War I.
The authors support that generalization with details. On inflation: “Far from achieving long-run price stability, [the Fed] has allowed the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar, which was hardly different on the eve of the Fed‘s creation from what it had been at the time of the dollar’s establishment as the official U.S. monetary unit, to fall dramatically” — by 95 percent.
 
Selgin, Lastrapes, and White also show that the central bank has given us longer recessions and slower recoveries.
 
But without the Fed, who would set interest rates to guide the economy? The first answer is that government policy and Fed manipulations can create the very recessions that the Fed then tries to reverse. If the politicians and their court economists would get over their hubristic belief that they are stewards of the economy, macroeconomic crises would disappear.
 
Besides, the Fed cannot set interest rates, not even its narrow federal-funds rate for overnight interbank loans. At most, it targets that rate by buying and selling government securities, but it doesn’t always hit its target. The idea that the Fed can even heavily influence mortgage and other interest rates ignores important facts.
 
First, the Fed’s operations are small compared to the complex U.S. and world economies. Writes monetary economist Richard Timberlake,
Traditional economics properly teaches that many complex market forces — countless investment and savings decisions not dependent on monetary factors — are essential in determining interest rates. The Fed funds rate that Fed policy can influence through its monopoly over the quantity of money is inconsequential in shaping most short-term and long-term rates in capital markets, unless that moneymaking power subsequently promotes a pervasive price inflation. [Emphasis added.]
Second, the Fed can’t lower rates through monetary inflation beyond the very short run. Why not? Because lenders will respond by raising their rates to avoid being screwed by price inflation – unless the Fed prevents the inflation, as it’s been doing, by effectively borrowing back the new money from the banks at interest.

Moreover, as monetary economist Jeffrey Rogers Hummel points out,
Globalization, with the corresponding relaxation of exchange controls in all major countries, allows [investors] easily to flee to foreign currencies, with the result that changes in central-bank policy are almost immediately priced by exchange rates and interest rates. Add to this the ability to purchase from many governments securities that are indexed to inflation, and it becomes highly unlikely investors will be caught off guard by anything less than sudden, catastrophic hyperinflation (defined as more than 50% per month) — and maybe even not then.
While inflation is not the threat it once was, the Fed is not harmless. “Bernanke has so expanded the Fed’s discretionary actions beyond merely controlling the money stock that it has become a gigantic, financial central planner,” Hummel writes.
 
No one should have such power.
 
Money was not invented by government. It was the spontaneous creation of people trying to ease exchange in the marketplace. Central banks like the Fed only messed money up, robbing the people while facilitating warfare and welfare spending through irresponsible large-scale government borrowing.
 
Thus the Fed should be deleted.

Sheldon Richman  is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org).
 
Stop-and-Frisk: How Government Creates Problems, Then Makes Them Worse
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Blog, Commentary and Articles - Crime, Law Enforcement and the Judiciary
Written by Sheldon Richman   
Wednesday, 14 August 2013
Stop-and-Frisk: How Government Creates Problems, Then Makes Them Worse
by Sheldon Richman
 
Two recent law-enforcement decisions illustrate yet again that when government sets out to solve a problem it created, things get much worse.
 
This week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will keep nonviolent small-scale drug sellers who have no links to criminal organizations from getting caught in the mandatory-minimum-sentence trap. Under current law, judges must impose a mandatory minimum prison term for defendants convicted of selling more than a specified quantity of illegal drugs.
 
With prison populations and costs mushrooming — America has more people behind bars than any other country in the world — Holder has instructed U.S. attorneys to evade the mandatory-minimum law by not specifying drug quantities when they charge qualifying suspects. He also wants alternatives to prison pursued where possible. While it’s good news that some people who would have faced long prison sentences now will not, we nevertheless should be concerned whenever the executive branch unilaterally declares it will write its own law.
 
The other decision, this one from a court, criticized New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, under which the police can stop, pat down, and question anyone on the street who arouses suspicion, a highly subjective criterion indeed. Federal District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the New York Police Department carries out the policy in a manner that violates the Fourth Amendment rights of blacks and Hispanics. The judge specified the ways that the city could fix the policy and appointed a monitor to keep an eye on the police.
 
In both matters, horrendous policies are to be tweaked to make them less egregious. But this won’t be satisfactory. New York police will still have the arbitrary power to stop people walking down the street, and the federal judges will still put some people away with long mandatory prison terms regardless of the particulars of their cases.
 
In other words, deeply flawed policies can’t be tweaked enough to make them acceptable. Stop-and-frisk and mandatory minimums should be abolished.
 
Yet even this would fall short of what’s needed. The problems purportedly addressed by stop-and-frisk and mandatory minimums are of the government’s own making. Thus, if we got to the root, the “need” for these bad policies would disappear.
 
Stop-and-frisk is largely aimed at finding youths who are carrying guns and drugs. Mandatory minimums are directed at drug sellers. It’s not hard to see what is at the root: drug prohibition. When government declares (certain) drugs illegal, those drugs don’t disappear; instead they move to the black market, which tends to be dominated by people skilled in the use of violence. Because the trade is illegal and the courts are off-limits for dispute resolution, contracts and turf will be protected by force. Those who operate on the street will find it wise to be armed.
 
So, as a result of prohibition and its attendant violence-prone black market, in some parts of town a percentage of young men will likely be walking around with guns and drugs. Seeing this, politicians and law-enforcement bureaucrats turn to stop-and-frisk and mandatory minimum sentences. But the only real solution is to repeal prohibition. There's no need for intrusive police tactics or prison terms.
 
In a free society, government has no business telling us what we can and can’t ingest or inject. Before drug prohibition, America had no drug problem. It’s prohibition that created the problem, just as alcohol prohibition gave America organized crime on a large scale. As we’ve seen, when government tries to ban drugs, it creates bigger problems by putting drugs in the streets and gangs in control.
 
Ask yourself why after so many decades of apparent failure — drugs are plentiful, accessible, and inexpensive — prohibition persists, as if spending more taxpayer dollars or coming up with some new law-enforcement gimmick will bring success. Maybe prohibition has not failed at all. Maybe the purpose is simply to spend the money and expand law enforcement. May all the moralizing is simply a ruse.
 
And maybe what Thomas Paine said about wars also applies to the war on drugs: “a bystander, not blinded by prejudice nor warped by interest, would declare that taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes.”
 
Sheldon Richman  is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org).
 
The U.S. Empire Provokes Terrorism
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Blog, Commentary and Articles - Foreign Policy, Military and War
Written by Sheldon Richman   
Wednesday, 07 August 2013
The U.S. Empire Provokes Terrorism
by Sheldon Richman
 
Perhaps we’ll never know if intercepted chatter between al-Qaeda leaders — which prompted the U.S. government to close dozens of diplomatic missions in the Muslim world and to issue a worldwide travel alert — was serious or not. But mischief shouldn’t be ruled out. Without cost or risk, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), can have a big laugh as they send American officials running around as though their hair were on fire. Why should they attempt to pull off some spectacular but risky action when they can disrupt things — closing embassies is no small deal — so easily? As a bonus, President Obama’s claim about al-Qaeda’s degradation is revealed as an empty boast. (Yemeni officials claim that they foiled a plot. But who knows?)
 
The United States has been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan for a dozen years, but not because the former rulers are a direct threat to the American people. Rather, the Bush and Obama administrations insisted, if the Taliban was not defeated, Afghanistan would again become a sanctuary for al-Qaeda. Now we see (if we hadn’t already) that this was a mere rationalization for the projection of American power. Al-Qaeda doesn’t need Afghanistan. Bin Laden wasn’t found there. Al-Zawahiri presumably isn’t there. And the latest alleged unspecified threat comes from Yemen, 2,000 miles from Kabul. Doesn’t that expose the 12 years of American-inflicted death and destruction, not to mention the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, as a monumental waste of life and treasure?
 
If the Obama administration has any doubts about the seriousness of the chatter, it’s not displaying them in public. CNN reports that the U.S. military has been readied for possible strikes against “potential al-Qaeda targets if those behind the most recent terror threats against U.S. interests can be identified.” Moreover, the Globe and Mail reported earlier that “a suspected U.S. drone killed four alleged al-Qaeda members in Yemen.”
 
Yet we can assume that the administration’s conduct would be the same whether or not it took the chatter seriously. Let’s remember that the “war on terror” (George W. Bush’s label) is an industry from which many both inside and outside the government profit handsomely. Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. response has poured trillions of dollars into the government-industrial complex. Agencies have multiplied and grown, and bureaucrats have acquired new power and prestige. None would want to give any of it up. But if things were to become too quiet, those Americans who pay the bill might wonder if it’s all worth the great cost. Quietude breeds complacency.
 
So a little heightened alert, from the complex’s point of view, would be welcome.
 
Of course, al-Qaeda did attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, as well as various other targets outside the United States before and afterwards. One of its so-called affiliates could certainly strike.
 
Does that mean the U.S. government must maintain a global empire in order to eradicate the sources of anti-American terrorism? Absolutely not — quite the contrary. It is the global empire that provoked the al-Qaeda attacks in the first place. Contrary to the popular notion that the organization struck U.S. “interests” out of the blue while our country minded its own business, the U.S. government for decades has supported violent regimes in the Middle East and North Africa: from Saudi Arabia’s corrupt and brutal monarchy, to the Egyptian military dictatorship, to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to Israel’s unconscionable occupation of Palestine. American administrations, Republican and Democrat, have directly inflicted death and suffering on people in the Muslim world — through the 1990s economic sanctions on Iraq, for example. (Today’s sanctions on Iran now impose hardship on another group of Muslims.) Every time an al-Qaeda official or operative has the chance, he points out that his hatred of America stems not from its “freedoms” but from this bloody record. Unrelenting U.S. drone attacks on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, in which noncombatants are killed, don’t win friends. They recruit enemies bent on revenge.
 
It follows therefore that the best way to dramatically reduce, if not eliminate, the threat of terrorism is to dramatically change U.S. foreign policy — from imperial intervention to strict nonintervention.
 
Sheldon Richman  is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org).
 
Why Not Just Abolish the NSA?
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Blog, Commentary and Articles - Foreign Policy, Military and War
Written by Jacob G. Hornberger   
Monday, 05 August 2013
Why Not Just Abolish the NSA?
by Jacob G. Hornberger
 
Notice that all the public discussion about the NSA’s supersecret, massive surveillance scheme assumes that the NSA has become a permanent part of American life. The debate revolves around what restrictions, if any, should be placed on the NSA’s authority to spy on people.
 
But the real question that Americans should be debating is, Why not simply abolish the NSA?
 
The NSA was brought into existence as part of the national-security state apparatus that was grafted onto our constitutional order to fight the Cold War against America’s World War II partner and ally, the Soviet Union. This apparatus brought a fundamental change in our constitutional order, and it was created without even the semblance of a constitutional amendment.

But the Cold War is over. It ended more than two decades ago. Why do we need a gigantic, supersecret, Cold War–era spy agency in our midst?
 
NSA proponents say that despite the end of the Cold War, the NSA is still necessary to “keep us safe.”
 
Really? Safe from what? Safe from the dangers that the two other major components of the national-security state — the military and the CIA — produce through their policies and programs overseas! At the risk of belaboring the obvious, that’s quite a racket.
 
Recall that immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the first thing that national-security officials said was that the terrorists were motivated by hatred for America’s “freedom and values.”
 
That was palpable nonsense. The real motive was rooted in anger and hatred over the horrific things that the U.S. government had been doing to people in the Middle East, especially since the end of the Cold War, when the national-security state lost its official enemy — Communism — the enemy that had been used to justify the existence and expansion of the national-security state for some 40 years.
 
The anger and hatred that was inducing foreigners to join the terrorist ranks was the last thing that U.S. officials wanted Americans to focus on. If Americans figured out that it was U.S. foreign policy at the hands of the national-security state that was responsible for the constant threat of terrorism, then they might begin asking critical questions: Why not end foreign aid and foreign interventionism? Why not dismantle America’s vast military empire, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and the CIA, along with the NSA? Why not limit the U.S. government to defending of the country, much like the Swiss government does for Switzerland?
 
The most important question that Americans need to be asking themselves is, Does the national-security state have any role in a free society?
 
The Founding Fathers certainly didn’t think so. Their deep antipathy to standing armies was, in fact, based on the grave threat to freedom and prosperity that standing armies present. Moreover, given their fervent opposition to meddling in the affairs of other countries, they would never have countenanced a supersecret paramilitary organization like the CIA. And given their ardent commitment to liberty and privacy, our Founding Fathers certainly would never have permitted a supersecret spy agency like the NSA to exist in our country.
 
Anyway, what good does the NSA do at this point? How can it honestly purport to “keep us safe” with a massive surveillance scheme that everyone concedes isn’t going to catch any terrorists, given that terrorists are not going to be using emails and cell phones to organize their plans. All that the NSA is left with is a massive surveillance scheme that keeps track of the American people, but not terrorists.
 
When the Cold War ended, Americans had a grand opportunity to bring an end to the Cold War national-security state apparatus. Now that the United States has ended its occupation of Iraq and is ending its occupation of Afghanistan, that opportunity is once again presenting itself. What better time to seize the opportunity, in order to restore a peaceful, harmonious, free, and prosperous society to our land?
 
Jacob G. Hornberger is president of The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org).
 
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