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Big Data, Public and Private

The collection and maintaining of huge files of information on our communications, our movements, our online searching, and much else about our individual lives is, as Laura Bate notes, hardly something that the National Security Agency or any other arm of government originated. By far the greater share of the assembling, and the exploitation, of storehouses of data about the activities of individual Americans occurs in the private sector. So why should there be so much fuss about what a government agency may be doing along this line, while there is equanimity about the much greater amount of such activity by non-government enterprises? Is there something intrinsic to government that ought to make us more worried about such data mining? Let us consider the possible bases for concluding that there might be.

Potentially the strongest such basis has to do with the presence or absence of a free market, and related to that, whether or not the activity of the individuals on which data are being collected is voluntary. When I use a search engine on the Internet I am voluntarily using a free service in return for being exposed to some advertising and allowing the operator of the search engine or my Internet service provider to collect, and exploit, data about my interests. Most interactions with government agencies and especially security agencies do not involve as much voluntarism. So maybe it is logical to be more persnickety for this reason about what government entities are doing.

Gay Rights as Foreign Policy

“The mistreatment of the LGBT community is rightly viewed as a canary in the coalmine: a warning that democracy has gone off the tracks.” So say Andras Simonyi, once a top Hungarian diplomat, and Jamie Kirchick, a prominent conservative writer, in an essay on how the United States should respond to Russia’s new antigay laws, which have created an uproar in the West. These laws and the upcoming Sochi Olympics have put a spotlight on the treatment of gays in Russia.

Bashar al-Assad's Sick Sense of Humor

Here Bashar al Assad goes again. Joining the throngs of world leaders eulogizing the life and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, the Syrian presidency recently released a statement on its Facebook page declaring that Mandela’s “history of struggle has become an inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world, in the expectation that oppressors and aggressors will learn the lesson that in the end it is they who are the losers.” Emanating from the regime of a dictator who has presided over the multi-year – and seemingly unending – slaughter of “his own people,” few could overlook the statement’s profoundly offensive irony.

The absurdity of such a statement being issued by the Syrian regime suggests that Assad is just saying this stuff for fun, like some kind of sick joke – and indeed, he is. What’s more is that this is only the latest iteration in a longstanding pattern of caustic comedy by the Duck of Damascus.

Disentangling Diplomacy in the Middle East

David Ignatius offers in his column some thoughts inspired by results of a Pew Research Center poll in which the headline item is that nearly half of Americans believe the United States “should mind its own business internationally,” a finding that the Pew people describe as “one of the highest readings of isolationist sentiment in decades.” In commenting on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, Ignatius notes that completion of a final agreement will require President Obama to secure agreement from Congress and the public, and that it looks now that he will have a tough time securing that support. Ignatius is right insofar as there already is deal-scuppering trouble-making in Congress and likely to be more to come. But then he tries to summarize the public mood by saying, “The public doesn’t want war, but it doesn’t seem to like entangling diplomacy much, either.”

The Democratic Party's Civil War

Don't look now, but the GOP isn't the only party to be assailed by internal divisions. Democrats are facing a similar divide even if it isn't quite as heated as in the GOP. The division is between mainstream, establishment Democrats, who are close to Wall Street (Charles Schumer, the Clintons) and populist ones who are not (Elizabeth Warren).

The most telling evidence of a split among the ranks of Democrats comes in the form of a battle between members of the centrist Washington think-tank Third Way and progressive groups. Third Way has ignited what the Washington Post is calling an "ugly feud" by publishing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that attacked the new avatar of the left, Elizabeth Warren, and the idea of embracing economic populism. "Nothing," wrote Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler," would be more disastrous for Democrats." Their point is simple: the notion that Social Security and other entitlement programs can be expanded without harming the economy or exacerbating the national debt problem is bunkum.

They conclude,

Sanctions Hurt Us

An infatuation with economic sanctions, applied against countries Americans do not like such as Iran, loses sight of the concept that sanctions are only a tool for trying to accomplish some other objective, rather than being an objective in their own right. This lack of understanding shows up mainly in the tendency to think of the economic pain that sanctions inflict on the target country as an end in itself, as if we lived in a completely zero-sum world in which pain for a country we don't like equates to gain for us. We do not live in such a world, and pain for someone else does not directly mean any gain for us.

We also tend to overlook, however, how our own sanctions inflict direct costs on ourselves. Think about this partly as a matter of economic theory. Sanctions represent government interference in the workings of the market. They prevent enterprises from doing what the market would otherwise determine to be the most efficient way of supply meeting demand. The interference inevitably entails added costs, which we Americans share.

Andrew Jackson Lives! America's Foreign-Policy Populism

In his well-known book Special Providence, Walter Russell Mead laid out a typology that divided American foreign-policy thinking into four broad schools: the big-government, pro-business Hamiltonians; the Wilsonians, determined to spread U.S. values around the world; the Jeffersonians, concerned primarily with preserving America’s identity at home; and a group that he dubbed the Jacksonians. While the first three are readily identifiable—and well represented within the Washington elite (especially the the first two)—the Jacksonian school is at once the most difficult to describe and the most interesting. Mead calls it a “large populist school” that “believes that the most important goal of the U.S. government in foreign and domestic policy should be the physical security and the economic well-being of the American people.” Its adherents believe that America should not seek out foreign wars. But should it become involved in them, then “there is no substitute for victory,” in the words of Douglas MacArthur.

Asia: Obama Isn't Listening

As events continue to unfold surrounding China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), Vice President Joe Biden began his visit to Asia this week in Japan where he condemned China’s actions as “increase[ing] the risk of accidents and miscalculation.” His visit during these tense times in Northeast Asia demonstrates the United States’ vested interests in maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet the White House isn't making it clear it fully appreciates those interests.

This was on display on November 20, when White House national-security adviser Susan Rice outlined the future of U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific during a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Rice gave a comprehensive overview of current and future areas of cooperation between the United States and Asian countries in a variety of areas, from security to economic prosperity to ensuring human dignity. However, concerns remain that the United States a) is not committed to the region in light of ongoing crises in the Middle East and b) does not reliably to commit to foreign policy objectives in light of the recent government shutdown. Ambassador Rice failed to address either of these issues outright, calling the pivot’s viability into question by the very countries the Administration is trying to reassure.

The Lesson of Pre-World War II Germany

The victorious allies at the end of World War I were not entirely of one mind regarding the handling of the peace, but a strong sentiment (especially in France) was that it ought to be a tough, punitive peace. Germany had been defeated but not crushed during the war, and most of the combat had not even taken place on its territory. It was therefore the peace, in the minds of many of the victors, that ought to be crushing, including the payment by Germany of heavy reparations.

Given such terms, German consent to the treaty in 1919 was, as described by the British historian A.J. P. Taylor in his classic The Origins of the Second World War, “given grudgingly and unwillingly, after long debate whether it would not be better to refuse to sign.” Germans called the Versailles treaty “a Diktat or a slave-treaty.”

The Diktat had three unfortunate and major effects in Germany. One was a determination to undermine the treaty itself. In Taylor's words:

The peace of Versailles lacked moral validity from the start. It had to be enforced; it did not, as it were, enforce itself. This was obviously true in regard to the Germans. No German accepted the treaty as a fair settlement between equals...All Germans meant to shake off at any rate some part of the peace treaty as soon as it was convenient to do so.

Afghanistan: Why the Zero Option Is No Option

Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the US has official Washington all but calling for his head. Senator Dianne Feinstein says he is “a cipher.” Tom Donilon, President Obama’s former national security adviser, says he is “reckless.” They’re right: Karzai is all of these things, and then some.

After Afghanistan’s traditional decision-making body, the Loya Jirga, gave the BSA their blessing, Karzai refused to sign it unless Washington moves to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and guarantees that the U.S. military will no longer raid Afghan homes. On the former matter, Karzai is living in an alternative reality: the United States has been trying to get a recalcitrant Karzai to consent to peace talks for years. On the latter issue, he conveniently ignores that his own security forces and the Taliban represent the greatest threats to Afghan civilians. And, as recent events have shown, he is not too keen to criticize either party, preferring to instead turn his ire on the foreigners who have kept the lights on for his opium republic with their own blood and treasure since 2002.

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April 25, 2014