Were Iraq's WMDs just a bluff?
Michael Schrage wrote a controversial op-ed piece in the Outlook section of the Washington Post on May 11, entitled "No Weapons, No Matter. We Called Saddam's Bluff." He explained that the failure (thus far) to find significant "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq does not undermine U.S. justification for the war. This outraged critics of President Bush, some of whom wrote letters asserting that this proves their belief that the decision to go to war was based on flimsy, trumped-up charges. Schrage's point is that, whether or not Saddam actually had a substantial stockpile of VX gas, anthrax, or fissionable materials, he deliberately conveyed the impression that he did have them, by refusing to cooperate with inspectors. The mere possibility that he could unleash mass death was the basis for the fear that kept his regime in power. Such ambiguity was a classic example of the "neurotic" or "passive-aggressive" behavior that is typical of ambitious emerging nation-states ruled by military regimes. It is a point that has been aptly articulated by Prof. Mohammed Ayoob (Michigan State), and I dealt extensively with this issue in my dissertation. As I summarized in Section II of Chapter 1:
This consideration [of Thomas Schelling] and those of Handel, Jackson, Ayoob, and Singer lead us to expect that, relative to advanced nation-states, emerging states' foreign policies are much more likely to rely on a deliberately confusing mixture of opportunistic bluffs, cunning manipulation of great powers, and pious appeals to global norms of humanitarianism and nonintervention. That is, whereas great powers' behavior can be generally be explained in terms of objective power conditions (as Morgenthau said), the difficulties in defining the national interests of the weaker powers incline them toward a coy, elusive ambiguity that raises unique challenges for the outside observer.
Got that? Are you beginning to understand North Korea?
May 19, 2003
Tax cuts: Is now the right time?
Once again, President Bush has overcome doubters, winning a big battle in the U.S. Senate, which passed his tax cut bill largely intact. As a former activist with the Concord Coalition, I take budget deficits very seriously. As a conservative with libertarian leanings, I also favor the long-term goal of substantially reducing the size and expense of government. Those two goals often go hand in hand, but not always. I would like to think that the large tax cuts proposed by President Bush would generate enough economic growth to offset a large portion of the anticipated revenue loss they would cause, based on static analysis. Although I sympathize to some extent with populists, especially in hard times such as these, I deeply detest the whiny "tax cuts for the wealthy" rhetoric, which does nothing more than poison the well of social trust on which our democratic capitalist system depends. In any such system, economic recovery will ultimately depend on restoring investor confidence. The only question is whether tax cuts are the most efficient means of stimulating demand at this particular point in the business cycle.
Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar has fallen against the Euro in recent weeks, as bond markets have discounted the likely increase in U.S. budget deficits. While this may make U.S. exports more competitive, it is not a positive signal from the investors' point of view. In any case, the rationale behind the President's tax plan thus far rings a little hollow, reminding me of the "supply side" theories upon which President Reagan's original (1981) tax cut was based. From what I've observed out here in the real world of recession, the primary impediment to job-creating investment is not the allegedly punitive marginal rate of taxation on business income, but rather the myriad legal barriers, mandatory benefits (such as health insurance), and government regulations. Get rid of some of those on a permanent basis, and I bet you'll see companies start hiring more people in short order. Now, if the tax cuts are really intended as a long-term tourniquet to starve the Federal government's ability to spend, then I could see that as a worthy goal. Ideally, I would like to see overall Federal spending reduced by 20 percent or more. President Bush is right to act boldly to stimulate the economy, but he needs to either adjust his aim a little, or else speak more frankly about his long-term political-economic strategy.
May 19, 2003
Hart on Republic and Empire
In the May 16 entry of his new blog, former Senator Gary Hart rued the newly assertive use of U.S. military power exemplified by the war in Iraq:
In a few short months we have gone from a benign internationalist, cooperative, alliance-based nation to a preemptive, unilateralist, aggressive hyper-power.
Such cliches are becoming a little tiresome, but Hart does have solid grounds for raising questions about the potentially corrupting effects of imperialist expansionism. But is that really an accurate description of what is taking place? A few years ago I argued that President Clinton's extension of U.S. military power into the Balkans constituted an unwarranted, perilous step toward imperialism, but few Democrats spoke out against it. To me, the assertive policies of Bush II are an appropriate response to a genuine security threat that cannot be adequately met by multilateral means. I do not deny the pernicious risks that power-mongering politicians may abuse national defense policy for their own ends, but so far I see little evidence of it. In brief, I think Hart is overreacting. However, his claim that the historic shift in foreign policy orientation undertaken by the Bush administration since the 9/11 attacks has not been seriously debated in Congress is grossly mistaken. Hasn't he heard any speeches by Senators Robert Byrd, Tom Daschle, or John Kerry? The truth is that the vehement opposition to the war manifested in many parts of America has been loudly echoed on Capitol Hill, though not always in coherent terms. Hart recently disavowed any intention of running for president again, which I suppose is just as well, since there is already a crowd of candidates on the Democratic side.