Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 16, 2014

Crimea, After the Referendum

In the annals of fixed elections, Sunday’s referendum in Crimea on Anschluss with Russia was a relatively restrained result. Vladimir Putin, the guiding intelligence behind this sham vote, was apparently content with a mere 96.7 percent vote in favor of unification with Russia. Give him props for not going for the full Castro–a 99 percent endorsement.

To say that the vote stealing was restrained is not, of course, the same thing as saying it was a fair or legal vote. Country A can’t simply invade a province of Country B and, under the guns of its army, call a snap election on unification with Country A. If that were permitted to occur, any semblance of the rule of law would be replaced with the law of the jungle. We would be back to the 1930s when predators ruled the international system.

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In the annals of fixed elections, Sunday’s referendum in Crimea on Anschluss with Russia was a relatively restrained result. Vladimir Putin, the guiding intelligence behind this sham vote, was apparently content with a mere 96.7 percent vote in favor of unification with Russia. Give him props for not going for the full Castro–a 99 percent endorsement.

To say that the vote stealing was restrained is not, of course, the same thing as saying it was a fair or legal vote. Country A can’t simply invade a province of Country B and, under the guns of its army, call a snap election on unification with Country A. If that were permitted to occur, any semblance of the rule of law would be replaced with the law of the jungle. We would be back to the 1930s when predators ruled the international system.

Of course it’s always possible that Putin will refuse to annex Crimea notwithstanding the pro-unification vote. Possible, but not likely. All the signs point to Russian troops digging in for the long term–witness the paratroopers who just seized a gas plant that supplies Crimea but which is located in Ukraine proper. This could well be the first step in more annexations designed to safeguard electrical and water supplies to Crimea and perhaps even to create a land bridge back to Russia proper.

Putin’s power grab is tremendously popular among Russians who think that Crimea (given to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev) and Ukraine as a whole (which only became independent in 1991) are properly part of the Russian empire. There is no doubt that there is a close historical association between Ukraine and Russia, but Ukraine is now recognized by the entire world as an independent country, and the majority of its people have no desire to be dominated much less ruled directly by the Kremlin. Putin’s power grab is, in truth, no more legitimate than Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990, which he claimed was properly Iraq’s 19th province.

Borders are disputed all over the world, and if Putin is again allowed to change borders by force this will set an incredibly dangerous precedent that can only embolden China, which abstained on a UN Security Council resolution (vetoed by Putin) condemning the Russian invasion. This is significant because of China’s abhorrence of the principle of self-determination for ethnic minorities such as the Russians in Crimea–a precedent that could apply equally well to Tibet or Xinjiang. Apparently China’s quasi-alliance with Russia, its hostility toward the West, and perhaps its desire to impose at gunpoint its own solution on disputed territories such as the Senkaku Islands weighed in the balance to prevent the Communist leaders in Beijing from breaking decisively with the former KGB agent in the Kremlin.

The bottom line is that, as I have been arguing, Putin cannot be allowed to get away with his criminal behavior with impunity. The higher the price he pays, the better the chances that he will think twice about such aggression in the future–and so will other dictators around the world. Now it’s up to the U.S. and EU to see how much courage they have to ramp up sanctions on Russia and suffer the inevitable Russian retaliation.

We don’t necessarily need a Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt leading the West today. We don’t even need a Ronald Reagan. But we could at least use a George H.W. Bush–the president who famously said, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”

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The Non-Debate About the Minimum Wage

According to today’s New York Times, a recent letter signed by more than 500 economists, including a number of Nobel Prize winners, opposing the increase in the minimum wage has been tainted by the fact that it was conceived and promoted by the National Restaurant Association. The conceit of the story is that the letter, which was distributed under the name of Chapman University’s Vernon L. Smith, a Nobel laureate in economics, was really hatched by an industry group with an ulterior motive and that this somehow changes the conversation about the arguments put forth in the piece.

But while it would have been appropriate for the restaurant lobby group to make its role in the organization of the letter known, it doesn’t change the fact that their view of the issue coincides with those of most competent non-socialist economists. Indeed, it’s not as if the Times itself paid much attention to the letter when it was first released on PR Newswire. The attempt to turn this into some kind of a scandal obscures the real issue here: the push by President Obama and the Democrats to “give America a raise” by an arbitrary decision to raise the minimum wage by $2.85 to $10.10 per hour is economic snake oil.

Yet the truly unfortunate thing about this minor kerfuffle is that this sort of story is what passes for debate in the mainstream media about a measure that could do serious damage to the economy as well as hurt the poor it is supposedly intended to help. Rather than discuss the merits of the arguments, almost of all the coverage of the issue in the Times and most other liberal outlets has been limited to the administration narrative about government needing to step in to prevent big business from exploiting the little guy. The effort to depict the letter from mainstream economists as an industry plot fits in with administration talking points but it does nothing to counter the arguments put forward in the document.

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According to today’s New York Times, a recent letter signed by more than 500 economists, including a number of Nobel Prize winners, opposing the increase in the minimum wage has been tainted by the fact that it was conceived and promoted by the National Restaurant Association. The conceit of the story is that the letter, which was distributed under the name of Chapman University’s Vernon L. Smith, a Nobel laureate in economics, was really hatched by an industry group with an ulterior motive and that this somehow changes the conversation about the arguments put forth in the piece.

But while it would have been appropriate for the restaurant lobby group to make its role in the organization of the letter known, it doesn’t change the fact that their view of the issue coincides with those of most competent non-socialist economists. Indeed, it’s not as if the Times itself paid much attention to the letter when it was first released on PR Newswire. The attempt to turn this into some kind of a scandal obscures the real issue here: the push by President Obama and the Democrats to “give America a raise” by an arbitrary decision to raise the minimum wage by $2.85 to $10.10 per hour is economic snake oil.

Yet the truly unfortunate thing about this minor kerfuffle is that this sort of story is what passes for debate in the mainstream media about a measure that could do serious damage to the economy as well as hurt the poor it is supposedly intended to help. Rather than discuss the merits of the arguments, almost of all the coverage of the issue in the Times and most other liberal outlets has been limited to the administration narrative about government needing to step in to prevent big business from exploiting the little guy. The effort to depict the letter from mainstream economists as an industry plot fits in with administration talking points but it does nothing to counter the arguments put forward in the document.

The Times contrasts the anti-minimum wage letter with another letter issued by economists endorsing the president’s proposal. According to the paper, that letter was the work of a liberal think tank backed largely by contributions from labor unions. The think tank involved didn’t conceal its role. But they did misrepresent many of its signers since they failed to note that many of those involved were either socialist now or admitted to supporting the failed god of the left at some point in their careers.

As even the Times had to admit, they couldn’t find a single signer of the anti-minimum-wage letter that thought they’d been hoodwinked into backing the statement. Nor were they paid to do so. All those quoted said its origin was a non-issue and that what they were interested in were the ideas that it presented. But that is exactly what the Times and the rest of the media on the Obama bandwagon don’t want to do.

The National Restaurant Association was wrong to be so shy about its participation in the effort. Its members, who represent a wide gamut of business owners, including many small and individual proprietors know all too well what happens when governments try to intervene in the market in this manner. Higher salaries at the lowest levels of employment sound like a nice thing and minimum-wage hikes are always popular. But most of those who benefit from it are not poor and the net effect of the measure is almost always to reduce the number of jobs. As the economists wrote:

As economists, we understand the fragile nature of this recovery and the dire financial realities of the nearly 50 million Americans living in poverty. To alleviate these burdens for families and improve our local, regional, and national economies, we need a mix of solutions that encourage employment, business creation, and boost earnings rather than across-the-board mandates that raise the cost of labor. One of the serious consequences of raising the minimum wage is that business owners saddled with a higher cost of labor will need to cut costs, or pass the increase to their consumers in order to make ends meet. Many of the businesses that pay their workers minimum wage operate on extremely tight profit margins, with any increase in the cost of labor threatening this delicate balance.


The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) most recent report underscores the damage that a federal minimum wage increase would have. According to CBO, raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would cost the economy 500,000 jobs by 2016. Many of these jobs are held by entry-level workers with limited experience or vocational skills, the very employees meant to be helped.


The minimum wage is also a poorly targeted anti-poverty measure. Extra earnings generated by such an increase in the minimum wage would not substantially help the poor. As CBO noted, “many low-wage workers are not members of low-income families.” In fact, CBO estimates that less than 20 percent of the workers who would see a wage increase to $10.10 actually live in households that earn less than the federal poverty line.

These important points have been buried under the avalanche of populist propaganda engendered by the president’s campaign for the change. The minimum wage, as well as the overtime measure endorsed by the president this week, is the centerpiece of the administration’s effort to focus attention on income inequality. But the problem with the anemic economy that the president has presided over in his five years in office is not income inequality but the way government interventions in the market have impeded the growth that is the only answer for increasing the wealth of all Americans, including the poor. Instead of a debate about economics we get outdated talking points about business and labor that were best left behind in a past when Americans hadn’t learned how much damage liberal big-government schemes had done.

The president is counting on the non-debate about the merits of the minimum wage being trumped by a populist campaign intended to breathe life into his lame-duck administration. But let’s hope House Republicans listen to the common sense about the minimum wage in the economists’ letter rather than be buffaloed into doing something that will hurt the economy and the poor.

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Putin’s Precedent: Give Siberia to China?

If Russian strongman Vladimir Putin wants to redraw the map of Russia to protect ethnic minorities, with tongue-in-cheek, perhaps it’s time that those revisions go both ways. Siberia is resource-rich and population-poor, but home to a growing Chinese minority, or at least a mixed Russian-Chinese minority. The reason is simple (and this isn’t tongue-in-cheek): Many Russian women are marrying Chinese men simply because they drink less and don’t beat them as much. Regardless, what happens in Crimea or, perhaps next, Kharkov, won’t stay in Crimea or Kharkov.

Precedent matters. Had the West not acted with such impotence in the wake of the Russian invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia, perhaps Putin would have thought twice before rehashing the same playbook in Ukraine. Certainly, the Baltic States have reason for concern given Latvia and Estonia’s Russian minorities; Lithuania’s is considerably smaller. So too does Moldova, where Russians almost equal the Moldovan population in the Transnistrian region.

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If Russian strongman Vladimir Putin wants to redraw the map of Russia to protect ethnic minorities, with tongue-in-cheek, perhaps it’s time that those revisions go both ways. Siberia is resource-rich and population-poor, but home to a growing Chinese minority, or at least a mixed Russian-Chinese minority. The reason is simple (and this isn’t tongue-in-cheek): Many Russian women are marrying Chinese men simply because they drink less and don’t beat them as much. Regardless, what happens in Crimea or, perhaps next, Kharkov, won’t stay in Crimea or Kharkov.

Precedent matters. Had the West not acted with such impotence in the wake of the Russian invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia, perhaps Putin would have thought twice before rehashing the same playbook in Ukraine. Certainly, the Baltic States have reason for concern given Latvia and Estonia’s Russian minorities; Lithuania’s is considerably smaller. So too does Moldova, where Russians almost equal the Moldovan population in the Transnistrian region.

Early in the Crimea crisis, Putin claimed Chinese support for Russian actions. Rather than two aspiring powers cooperating to checkmate American dominance, however, China may have played Putin by endorsing a doctrine that ultimately might justify a resurgent China’s territorial ambition.

It is too bad that the Obama doctrine continues to be one of empty redlines that the United States neither has the power nor the will to enforce, and U.S. public diplomacy emphasizes tweeting for the sake of tweeting, with absolutely no evidence that officials using twitter adds an iota of credibility or effectiveness to American diplomacy. Perhaps it is time to play hardball and suggest publicly and often that the United States respects the rights of minorities within the borders of Russia to independence or to join neighboring states if those minorities so choose.

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Philip Roth, the Nobel Prize, and History

Today’s New York Times Book Review contains an interview that Philip Roth gave to Daniel Sandstrom, cultural editor at the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. The interview features a classic 25-word Roth answer to a 50-word question about his failure to win the Nobel Prize:

You have been awarded almost every literary prize, except one. And it is no secret that your name is always mentioned when there is talk of the Nobel Prize in Literature — how does it feel to be an eternal candidate? Does it bother you, or do you laugh about it?

I wonder if I had called “Portnoy’s Complaint” “The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,” if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.

Sometimes you cannot earn the favor of the Academy even if your accomplishments reflect a full half-century of some of the finest works of modern American literature, 31 books in all, ranging from Goodbye, Columbus in 1957 to Everyman in 2007. Sometimes you can earn the Academy’s favor with no accomplishments at all.

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Today’s New York Times Book Review contains an interview that Philip Roth gave to Daniel Sandstrom, cultural editor at the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. The interview features a classic 25-word Roth answer to a 50-word question about his failure to win the Nobel Prize:

You have been awarded almost every literary prize, except one. And it is no secret that your name is always mentioned when there is talk of the Nobel Prize in Literature — how does it feel to be an eternal candidate? Does it bother you, or do you laugh about it?

I wonder if I had called “Portnoy’s Complaint” “The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,” if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.

Sometimes you cannot earn the favor of the Academy even if your accomplishments reflect a full half-century of some of the finest works of modern American literature, 31 books in all, ranging from Goodbye, Columbus in 1957 to Everyman in 2007. Sometimes you can earn the Academy’s favor with no accomplishments at all.

 

The interview also features Roth’s remarkable response to a question about his treatment of the male characters in his novels — a sentence extending 116 words, which begins with Roth’s description of the challenges facing those characters and ends with an important insight about history:

[I]f you look at the male characters in your books, what traits do they share — what is their condition?

The drama issues from the assailability of vital, tenacious men with their share of peculiarities who are neither mired in weakness nor made of stone and who, almost inevitably, are bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic entanglements, consequential misjudgment, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying and, repeatedly, inescapable harm, the rude touch of the terrible surprise — unshrinking men stunned by the life one is defenseless against, including especially history: the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.

History is not a matter of bending arcs; or something the right side of which one gets on; or warning the 21st century against returning to the 19th. Those are mere rhetorical constructs. History is the result of daily acts in an ever-changing present: “the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.”

One day literary historians will marvel at the Academy’s failure to honor Philip Roth, while diplomatic historians will marvel at the decision to honor Barack Obama, whose Nobel Prize address, given “at the beginning … of my labors on the world stage,” noted that “my accomplishments are slight,” a statement still true more than five years later. 

Roth’s interview is a major piece of writing masquerading as an interview. Nowhere in his own book, Reading Myself Among Others, and nowhere in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s book, Roth Unbound:  A Writer and His Books, does he make anything as poignant,   eloquent,  and clear as the magnificent summation of his life’s work in this interview on the eve of his 81st birthday, which is March 19, 2014. 

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Malaysian Plane Not First Missing Boeing

While investigators remain puzzled as to the whereabouts and fate of Malaysian Air flight 370, lost in the discussion is the fact that the Boeing 777 is not the first jumbo jet to go missing. In 2003, a Boeing 727 went missing on a flight from Angola to Burkina Faso. The plane disappeared in the wake of an intelligence warning about al-Qaeda planning a suicide aerial attack on the U.S. consulate in Karachi. A worldwide search for the missing plane went nowhere and, despite FBI and CIA investigations, eventually the case faded from the headlines. Of course, that Boeing disappeared with only the pilot on board, rather than with a full complement of passengers.

Speculation on the fate of the Malaysian airliner is pointless, as information continues to trickle in about the last hours of flight 370. Two items remains constant, however. First is how vast swaths of sky remain largely uncovered by commercial aircraft and presumably the radar to track them. (When I first began to cross the Atlantic or Pacific on board U.S. naval vessels, one of the first things I noticed was what I didn’t see: aircraft contrails. While aircraft tend to follow certain circular routes, ships take quite a different routing that often does not coincide with relatively narrow flight paths. For what it is worth, the Indian Ocean is supposed to be even more desolate when it comes to air coverage).

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While investigators remain puzzled as to the whereabouts and fate of Malaysian Air flight 370, lost in the discussion is the fact that the Boeing 777 is not the first jumbo jet to go missing. In 2003, a Boeing 727 went missing on a flight from Angola to Burkina Faso. The plane disappeared in the wake of an intelligence warning about al-Qaeda planning a suicide aerial attack on the U.S. consulate in Karachi. A worldwide search for the missing plane went nowhere and, despite FBI and CIA investigations, eventually the case faded from the headlines. Of course, that Boeing disappeared with only the pilot on board, rather than with a full complement of passengers.

Speculation on the fate of the Malaysian airliner is pointless, as information continues to trickle in about the last hours of flight 370. Two items remains constant, however. First is how vast swaths of sky remain largely uncovered by commercial aircraft and presumably the radar to track them. (When I first began to cross the Atlantic or Pacific on board U.S. naval vessels, one of the first things I noticed was what I didn’t see: aircraft contrails. While aircraft tend to follow certain circular routes, ships take quite a different routing that often does not coincide with relatively narrow flight paths. For what it is worth, the Indian Ocean is supposed to be even more desolate when it comes to air coverage).

And, second, despite protestations by some politicians and many pundits that the war on terror is over, the threat that terrorists might hijack a plane to use it in a future attack remains real. That in the intervening decade since the Boeing went missing in Africa there was no progress on tracking such planes simply shows the short attention span of American and international leaders and their continued tendency to drop the ball when it comes from learning from past episodes.

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Prosecute Jihadists, Not Travelers

Beginning my first trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2000, I stopped by the U.S. embassy in Ankara to talk to some of the diplomats who watched Iraqi affairs out of that embassy at their urging. The diplomats were quite talented and we had a useful back-and-forth about a region that was then isolated under a double embargo: The UN embargo against Iraq, and the Iraqi central government’s blockade against Iraqi Kurdistan itself. While I was by no means working on behalf of the U.S. government—I was funded at the time by a Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs grant—the American diplomats urged that I keep in frequent touch and relay observations in a region difficult to cover from afar. As an afterthought, they asked that I stop by and “register” with the consular staff at the embassy.

That meeting was a shocker: I expected little more than a consular official to photocopy my passport and take down emergency contact information. Instead, I got a lecture from a pedantic bureaucrat who did not appear as if she had ever stepped foot outside the expatriate circle about how what I was planning to do was illegal for a U.S. citizen and could land me in prison since, she said, the United States strictly prohibited travel to Iraq. I explained that Iraqi Kurdistan was not governed by Saddam Hussein, but she said she could care less. I ignored her, and went anyway. Illegal or not, various folks at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Intelligence Agency, State Department, and White House sought debriefings when I returned: While the consular official could not see the forest through the trees, others in government understood the big picture even if, by the letter of the law, the consular official was right.

Fast forward 14 years: Frank Wolf, a Virginia congressman, has proposed a bill that would effectively ban Americans traveling to Syria and would impose a prison sentence of up to 20 years for traveling to that war-torn state without first getting government permission. The problem Wolf hopes to address is real: the flight of jihadists into Syria and the certainty that some Americans have now moved to that war-torn state to join up with al-Qaeda. But does he expect those fighting in Syria to be honest on their entry forms when they return to the United States? And does Wolf believe that the only indication U.S. intelligence would have of Americans fighting in Syria would be their honesty on such forms?

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Beginning my first trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2000, I stopped by the U.S. embassy in Ankara to talk to some of the diplomats who watched Iraqi affairs out of that embassy at their urging. The diplomats were quite talented and we had a useful back-and-forth about a region that was then isolated under a double embargo: The UN embargo against Iraq, and the Iraqi central government’s blockade against Iraqi Kurdistan itself. While I was by no means working on behalf of the U.S. government—I was funded at the time by a Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs grant—the American diplomats urged that I keep in frequent touch and relay observations in a region difficult to cover from afar. As an afterthought, they asked that I stop by and “register” with the consular staff at the embassy.

That meeting was a shocker: I expected little more than a consular official to photocopy my passport and take down emergency contact information. Instead, I got a lecture from a pedantic bureaucrat who did not appear as if she had ever stepped foot outside the expatriate circle about how what I was planning to do was illegal for a U.S. citizen and could land me in prison since, she said, the United States strictly prohibited travel to Iraq. I explained that Iraqi Kurdistan was not governed by Saddam Hussein, but she said she could care less. I ignored her, and went anyway. Illegal or not, various folks at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Intelligence Agency, State Department, and White House sought debriefings when I returned: While the consular official could not see the forest through the trees, others in government understood the big picture even if, by the letter of the law, the consular official was right.

Fast forward 14 years: Frank Wolf, a Virginia congressman, has proposed a bill that would effectively ban Americans traveling to Syria and would impose a prison sentence of up to 20 years for traveling to that war-torn state without first getting government permission. The problem Wolf hopes to address is real: the flight of jihadists into Syria and the certainty that some Americans have now moved to that war-torn state to join up with al-Qaeda. But does he expect those fighting in Syria to be honest on their entry forms when they return to the United States? And does Wolf believe that the only indication U.S. intelligence would have of Americans fighting in Syria would be their honesty on such forms?

If intelligence indicates that a person is fighting in Syria, then they should be prosecuted for their links to al-Qaeda (or to the Assad regime or Hezbollah) rather than simply for being in Syria. For what it’s worth, when I returned from Syria at the beginning of February, I listed on my entry forms that I had been in Iraq and Syria, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer at Dulles airport didn’t give me a second glance.

Wolf and his colleagues might also better support the security of the United States and its regional allies if he instead pushed efforts to force Turkey to stop allowing its borders to be a revolving door for jihadists. A CNN International documentary recently showed how jihadists simply pay Turkish border police $40 to cross into Syria unmolested. Some of the traffic goes two ways: Recent travelers through the Istanbul airport have overheard transiting jihadis chatting about fighting in Syria as they wait for their return flights to their countries of origin to visit family.

The problem is that there is plenty of reason to travel to Syria that has nothing to do with jihadism. Just as Iraqi Kurds effectively carved out a statelet in Iraq that was the polar opposite of what Saddam Hussein sought in Iraq, so too have Syria’s Kurds created a calm and relatively placid region that seeks to be both secular and democratic. Just as it was ridiculous for any U.S. official to punish assistance to the Iraqi Kurds in 2000, so too would it be counterproductive to prosecute assistance to the Syrian Kurds when what they seek coincides with U.S. interests. Wolf might argue that Americans could simply receive a Treasury Department waiver for travel into Syrian Kurdistan, but in practice officious employees uninterested in the fact that not all Syrians are the same would be more likely to sit on applications or say no rather than risk saying yes.

Empowering government to restrict travel in such ways simply undercuts liberty. That does not mean Americans should have free range to conduct illegal activities while abroad: Traveling to Iran with dual-use equipment in one’s suitcase should be illegal, as should be violating Cuba sanctions. Working with any al-Qaeda-affiliated group, be it in Yemen, Pakistan, Mali, or Somalia, should be illegal. But travel itself should not be. If U.S. intelligence capabilities are falling flat, then it is best to address that problem head on rather than recommending the legislative equivalent of slapping a bandaid on a sucking chest wound. Even the best intentions should not be an excuse to constrain American liberty.

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