Commentary Magazine


Topic: corruption

Narendra Modi for President!

Narendra Modi, the new prime minister of India, promised in his campaign to clean up the notoriously slovenly ways of the Indian bureaucracy. According to the Washington Posthe is doing exactly that. As the Post explains:

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Narendra Modi, the new prime minister of India, promised in his campaign to clean up the notoriously slovenly ways of the Indian bureaucracy. According to the Washington Posthe is doing exactly that. As the Post explains:

Babudom [“Babu” is the nickname for a member of the upper echelons of the bureaucracy] is now in peril. Modi signaled as much in the early days of his administration, when he summoned about 70 of the government’s top civil servants, gave them his personal cellphone number and e-mail address, and said it was time for work. A circular appeared the next day with what has been called Modi’s “11 Commandments” — orders to clean work spaces, shorten forms, weed out old files and review goals.

When the Home Ministry (roughly the equivalent of the Department of the Interior) cleaned out 150,000 files, they found some that went back to the British Raj. Then they allegedly compiled a list of bureaucrats known to frequent golf courses and stay at five-star hotels and sent it to the prime minister’s office. It seems to be working. About 200 babus were members of the elite Delhi Golf Club. Many have now resigned from the club and others are teeing off at 5:30 a.m. The prime minister is given to calling ministers on their landlines just to make sure they are in their offices.

Barack Obama is totally uninterested in managing the government he heads. That’s why he only finds out about, say, the mess at the Veterans Administration when he reads about it in the papers. But that’s part of the president’s job whether he likes it or not. And Republican presidential hopefuls for 2016 would be well advised to take a leaf from Modi’s playbook. The federal bureaucracy is nowhere near as corrupt, convoluted, rule-ridden, and slothful as the Indian one, which is the gold standard of bureaucratic inertia and dysfunction. But it is corrupt, convoluted, rule-ridden, and slothful enough. The federal government was last fundamentally reorganized in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the Hoover Commissions. The world has changed profoundly in the last sixty years and the government has not. Promising thoroughgoing government reform and reorganization, while riding herd on the bureaucracy, is a winning issue.

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Obama’s Awful Poll Reflects His PR Strategy

The latest Quinnipiac poll showing Americans believe Barack Obama to be the worst post-World War II president demonstrates that, in a perverse way, Obama’s PR strategy is working. The key part of the poll, which shows Americans overall coming to the realization that Obama’s presidency has been disastrous, is that a majority consider the president to be incompetent. Where would they get that idea? From the president himself, to judge by his characteristic responses to the manifold corruption and abuse-of-power scandals emanating from his White House.

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The latest Quinnipiac poll showing Americans believe Barack Obama to be the worst post-World War II president demonstrates that, in a perverse way, Obama’s PR strategy is working. The key part of the poll, which shows Americans overall coming to the realization that Obama’s presidency has been disastrous, is that a majority consider the president to be incompetent. Where would they get that idea? From the president himself, to judge by his characteristic responses to the manifold corruption and abuse-of-power scandals emanating from his White House.

Quinnipiac writes: “American voters say 54 – 44 percent that the Obama Administration is not competent running the government. The president is paying attention to what his administration is doing, 47 percent say, while 48 percent say he does not pay enough attention.” This is, in general, the president’s own strategy at work.

Back in May, the Washington Free Beacon’s David Rutz compiled a supercut of Obama and his spokesmen claiming he learned about various scandals from the media:

The latest ugly story that the White House claims Obama only learned of from the news is the VA scandal, where veterans’ hospitals around the country have mistreated or forgotten veterans seeking medical care.

“If you mean the specific allegations that I think were reported first by your network out of Phoenix, I believe we learned about them through the reports,” said Press Secretary Jay Carney Monday. “I will double-check if that’s not the case. But that’s when we learned about them, and that’s when, as I understand it, Secretary Shinseki learned about them and immediately took the action that he has taken, including instigating his own review — or initiating his own review, but also requesting that the Inspector General investigate.”

The story about the Justice Department seizing records from the Associated Press? The news that the IRS had deliberately targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status? The Fast & Furious gun-running scandal? That time the plane flew over Manhattan without authorization?

Obama learned about all of it on the news.

Obama has had to choose between two unpalatable options. Either he was aware of what he and his administration were doing, or he wasn’t. The latter is absurd and not remotely credible in some cases, but Obama sees it as preferable to the former, which would be openly admitting to the corruption the rest of the country sees unfolding practically daily.

Some attempts to absolve the president from his own presidency have been downright comical. Here, for example, was David Axelrod last year echoing conservative and libertarian critiques of the government in defense of Obama:

SCARBOROUGH: He’s saying to those at the University of Chicago’s school of politics, to students, to others, when they’re talking about looking at the IRS scandal and what an administration should or should not do.

AXELROD: Look, it’s an interesting case study because if you look at the inspector general’s report, apparently some folks down in the bureaucracy — you know we have a large government — took it upon themselves to shorthand these applications for tax-exempt status in a way that was, as I said, idiotic, and also dangerous because of the political implications. One prima facie bit of evidence that nobody political was involved in this, is that if anybody political was involved they would say: are you nuts?

Part of being president is there’s so much underneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.

Obama’s defenders are so desperate to avoid blame that they’ll even, as a last resort, take refuge in the idea that conservatives are right about the size and scope of the federal government. It’s true that government is so unwieldy as to insulate it from accountability and thus foster unmanageability and ultimately corruption. But this does not absolve the left. After all, Obama and his party want to continuously, recklessly expand the government even while claiming that doing so makes it impossible to govern properly.

And in this way Obama’s defenders end up indicting their hero (and themselves) anyway. The corruption they are enabling either helps them politically, as in the case of the IRS targeting Obama’s opponents, or perpetuates a fiction necessary to the liberal project, such as the Veterans Affairs scandal in which the failures of government-run health care were covered up rather than admitted while veterans died waiting for care.

Obama’s defense, then, has been incompetence. Perhaps that’s the silver lining in this poll, though also a warning: it might only be his incompetence that saves him from an even worse rating.

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Are Lois Lerner’s Emails Really Lost?

I wrote on Friday how the IRS, after a full year of stonewalling, sent a letter to Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, saying that a vast trove of emails between Lois Lerner and government agencies outside the IRS, including the White House, had been lost thanks to a hard drive crash on her computer. Friday afternoons, of course, are when people who want something to go unnoticed make a public announcement about it.

This did not go unnoticed, however. As you can see from the TaxProfBlog, which has been covering the unfolding IRS scandal like a glove, all the major news outlets ran stories on it, even such liberal bastions as ABC News and the Huffington Post. Its similarity to the event that radically shifted public opinion about Watergate—the conveniently missing 18 1/2 minutes of tape—was just too strong. However, the New York Times, ever increasingly the public-relations arm of the Obama administration, has run nothing whatever in the print editions and, indeed, the only mention of it whatsoever was on a blog on the Times website that quotes what other op-ed pages are saying, a one-paragraph overview of the conservative Washington Examiner’s editorial. The Washington Post did not do a story of its own, settling for AP coverage about a potentially huge story taking place in its own backyard. Both of these legendary American newspapers are going to be severely embarrassed if this turns into a major scandal, as it well may.

The reason it may is because there are very good reasons to doubt the idea that these emails are irretrievably lost due to a simple crash of a personal computer’s hard drive.  For one thing, downloading an email from an email server does not cause the email to be deleted from the server itself. And a lawyer in the Department of Justice, who understandably wishes to be anonymous, reports that government email servers are automatically backed up every night. So both Lerner’s computer and the email server would have had to crash for these emails to have been lost. That would be some coincidence.

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I wrote on Friday how the IRS, after a full year of stonewalling, sent a letter to Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, saying that a vast trove of emails between Lois Lerner and government agencies outside the IRS, including the White House, had been lost thanks to a hard drive crash on her computer. Friday afternoons, of course, are when people who want something to go unnoticed make a public announcement about it.

This did not go unnoticed, however. As you can see from the TaxProfBlog, which has been covering the unfolding IRS scandal like a glove, all the major news outlets ran stories on it, even such liberal bastions as ABC News and the Huffington Post. Its similarity to the event that radically shifted public opinion about Watergate—the conveniently missing 18 1/2 minutes of tape—was just too strong. However, the New York Times, ever increasingly the public-relations arm of the Obama administration, has run nothing whatever in the print editions and, indeed, the only mention of it whatsoever was on a blog on the Times website that quotes what other op-ed pages are saying, a one-paragraph overview of the conservative Washington Examiner’s editorial. The Washington Post did not do a story of its own, settling for AP coverage about a potentially huge story taking place in its own backyard. Both of these legendary American newspapers are going to be severely embarrassed if this turns into a major scandal, as it well may.

The reason it may is because there are very good reasons to doubt the idea that these emails are irretrievably lost due to a simple crash of a personal computer’s hard drive.  For one thing, downloading an email from an email server does not cause the email to be deleted from the server itself. And a lawyer in the Department of Justice, who understandably wishes to be anonymous, reports that government email servers are automatically backed up every night. So both Lerner’s computer and the email server would have had to crash for these emails to have been lost. That would be some coincidence.

John Hinderaker at Power Line has a great deal of experience in accessing emails in the course of legal discovery. He’s blunt: “The Obama administration is lying, and lying in a remarkably transparent way.” He points out that even if the email server were erased after a period of time, the IRS has elaborate protocols for the permanent storage of all electronic communications. Hinderaker also notes that even if a hard drive crashes, the information stored on it can usually be recovered. He politely offers to help:

One more thing: if it were true that the only copies of many thousands of emails existed on Lois Lerner’s desktop computer–which is certainly not true–and that computer’s hard drive crashed in 2011, the emails would in all probability be recoverable. Even if Lerner threw her computer into a lake, which has been known to happen. One of the world’s most famous data recovery firms is located here in the Twin Cities, and I would be happy to send Barack Obama the name and phone number of a person who, in all likelihood, could recover Lerner’s “lost” emails from her supposedly crashed hard drive. Even if the computer has been lying at the bottom of a lake since 2011.

Fox and Friends this morning reported that in addition to nightly email backups and permanent storage on another medium, IRS regulations require individuals to make paper backups of anything that falls under the rubric of a “federal record.”

The administration is desperately hoping that by making this public on a summer Friday afternoon, it will all have blown over by Monday morning, especially with the onrush of other news stories, such as the gathering debacle in Iraq, and the latter-day children’s crusade on our southern border. I doubt that will happen. I think enough elements of the media smell blood. If the Obama administration is caught in a bald-faced lie here, its political support might well collapse, just as Nixon’s did in the fall of 1973. That would sell a lot of newspapers.

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Where Is America’s Anti-Corruption Strategy?

Boko Haram’s kidnapping schoolgirls and its threats to sell them like chattel horrifies the international community, highlights the dangers of certain strains of Islamist thought, and has led to a decision to utilize American assets to help locate the hostages. There may be much more to the story than simply the headlines, however. It’s no secret that Nigeria is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Indeed, some reports place the embezzlement by Nigerian leaders at $400 billion since 1960.

A report in the Italian daily Il Foglio yesterday highlighted the rumors that Boko Haram couldn’t have conducted its operation without the complicity of corrupt officials. The Open Source Center provided a translation:

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Boko Haram’s kidnapping schoolgirls and its threats to sell them like chattel horrifies the international community, highlights the dangers of certain strains of Islamist thought, and has led to a decision to utilize American assets to help locate the hostages. There may be much more to the story than simply the headlines, however. It’s no secret that Nigeria is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Indeed, some reports place the embezzlement by Nigerian leaders at $400 billion since 1960.

A report in the Italian daily Il Foglio yesterday highlighted the rumors that Boko Haram couldn’t have conducted its operation without the complicity of corrupt officials. The Open Source Center provided a translation:

Some sources, that Il Foglio has spoken with, referred to the possible involvement of members of the police and the intelligence services in transforming the high school students into human shields, to prevent the intervention of the military. The second reason that makes international intervention necessary is the high level of corruption in the country, from which it is alleged that the jihadist groups, led by Abubakar Shekau, also profit. These groups allegedly benefit from consolidated collusion among certain political and government circles. On Sunday came news alleging that the former Governor of the Nigerian Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi, had his passport withdrawn on direct orders from the President, Goodluck Jonathan, and that he has been prevented from leaving the country to go to France. Sanusi was suspended in February from his post as Governor of the central bank, after accusing the national oil company of having fraudulently siphoned off more than 14 billion euros from public funds. Some of these funds allegedly later ended up, according to our talking-partners, in the hands of important political and government figures, as well as — and this is even more deplorable — in the hands of Boko Haram, in order to guarantee the security of oil installations. Obviously Lamido Sanusi was allegedly stopped, before his departure for France, by none other than the men from the “Secret Service for the Security of the State.” In other words, the security service that is most compromised with the Boko Haram jihadists.

Just because a European paper says it doesn’t make it true, nor does it diminish the ideological and theological component to Boko Haram. But it is important to recognize that corruption likely enables such groups to thrive, be it Boko Haram in northern Nigeria or Osama Bin Laden monitoring al-Qaeda from Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Back in 2005, I wrote a piece for Lebanon’s Daily Star calling corruption the real bane of the Middle East. I shouldn’t have limited that to the Middle East, however. While terrorism victimizes hundreds and perhaps thousands of people, corruption impacts hundreds of millions. It threatens to unravel all that has been done in Afghanistan, and it continues to undercut Iraq’s growth and development. While the State Department often talks about the need for foreign aid, it does far less to explain how that aid will be shielded from the impact of corruption or, indeed, whether flooding a country with money and resources might actually make that corruption worse. The World Bank, for its part, is no better: rather than address growing corruption, it simply ignores it or covers it up.

Corruption did not cause Boko Haram nor create al-Qaeda, nor does it alone explain the Taliban. Nevertheless, the failure of the West to create a comprehensive strategy to root out corruption enables the phenomenon to spread like a cancer, depressing societal immunity, and enabling groups like Boko Haram and al-Qaeda a broader ability to act. Rather than throw millions of dollars at problems as they occur, perhaps it is time for Secretary of State John Kerry to outline what America is doing to weed out corruption among its aid recipients, and the metrics if any that the State Department is using to judge its success.

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Who Buys Votes? Incumbents, Not the Rich

The furor over the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission handed down yesterday revolves, as I wrote earlier, around the problems liberals have with the First Amendment’s protections of political speech. But what liberals claim they are seeking to protect is the integrity of our democratic process from those seeking to buy the votes or the influence of public officials. Given the stringent rules that exist to limit the behavior of officeholders, the line between making your voice heard and a corrupt quid pro quo can be hazy at times, but it is still there. Yet what often goes unnoticed or is, in fact, tolerated, is a different sort of corruption that is far more common than millionaires purchasing members of Congress. As Byron York wrote yesterday in the Washington Examiner, the ability of incumbent politicians to raid the public treasury for expenditures to buy the votes of certain constituencies is not only legal, it is the most decisive form of campaign finance available.

York went to Louisiana to report on the uphill race of Senator Mary Landrieu, an ObamaCare supporting Democrat seeking reelection in an increasingly deep red state. Polls show her in a dead heat against likely Republican opponent Rep. Bill Cassidy. But, as York found out, a lot of people whom one would think would be working to defeat Landrieu—including at least one local GOP official—are backing her. Why? Because Landrieu, who is seeking a fourth term in the Senate, has been lavishing some of New Orleans’ white suburbs—whose swing voters will probably decide the election—with a deluge of federal money, including a loan forgiveness provision inserted into a Homeland Security Appropriations bill, and every manner of post-Hurricane Katrina disaster funding known to the federal government.

While the ability of incumbents to use earmarks to feather their own political nests was supposedly banned by new rules, it appears Landrieu and most of her colleagues are undaunted by the regulations that were supposed to make it harder for members of the House and Senate to selectively fund favored constituencies while portraying themselves as hard-working servants of the people. As York makes clear, Mary Landrieu is buying more votes in Louisiana with taxpayer money than any Republican with access to the checkbooks of the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson ever could.

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The furor over the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission handed down yesterday revolves, as I wrote earlier, around the problems liberals have with the First Amendment’s protections of political speech. But what liberals claim they are seeking to protect is the integrity of our democratic process from those seeking to buy the votes or the influence of public officials. Given the stringent rules that exist to limit the behavior of officeholders, the line between making your voice heard and a corrupt quid pro quo can be hazy at times, but it is still there. Yet what often goes unnoticed or is, in fact, tolerated, is a different sort of corruption that is far more common than millionaires purchasing members of Congress. As Byron York wrote yesterday in the Washington Examiner, the ability of incumbent politicians to raid the public treasury for expenditures to buy the votes of certain constituencies is not only legal, it is the most decisive form of campaign finance available.

York went to Louisiana to report on the uphill race of Senator Mary Landrieu, an ObamaCare supporting Democrat seeking reelection in an increasingly deep red state. Polls show her in a dead heat against likely Republican opponent Rep. Bill Cassidy. But, as York found out, a lot of people whom one would think would be working to defeat Landrieu—including at least one local GOP official—are backing her. Why? Because Landrieu, who is seeking a fourth term in the Senate, has been lavishing some of New Orleans’ white suburbs—whose swing voters will probably decide the election—with a deluge of federal money, including a loan forgiveness provision inserted into a Homeland Security Appropriations bill, and every manner of post-Hurricane Katrina disaster funding known to the federal government.

While the ability of incumbents to use earmarks to feather their own political nests was supposedly banned by new rules, it appears Landrieu and most of her colleagues are undaunted by the regulations that were supposed to make it harder for members of the House and Senate to selectively fund favored constituencies while portraying themselves as hard-working servants of the people. As York makes clear, Mary Landrieu is buying more votes in Louisiana with taxpayer money than any Republican with access to the checkbooks of the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson ever could.

Political machines have always thrived at what might euphemistically be called “constituent service” since the earliest days of the republic. The men who ran Tammany Hall were able to dominate New York politics and loot the city’s coffers with impunity for more than a century because they were always willing to give a little of the money in their control back to loyal voters for minimal services or charity while they kept most of it for themselves. The same applied to every other political machine in the country. But while we think of legendary thieves like Tammany’s George Washington Plunkett as in no way comparable to many of those who serve in our government, his concept of “honest graft” has more in common with the way Landrieu and other contemporary politicians play fast and loose with the rules than most of us would like to admit.

Like Plunkitt, Landrieu, who is part of a political dynasty in Louisiana, views the federal budget as a piñata waiting to be broken open for her benefit. The ability of senators and members of the House to lavish money on people they want to curry favor with—and deny it to those they don’t care about—remains the biggest ethical dilemma facing the nation.

You can call that constituent service, but after the excesses of the last decade in which both parties plundered the federal treasury and created our massive budget/entitlement crisis, Congress was supposed to have turned the page and adopted a more fiscally sound approach to governance. Landrieu’s stands on the issues, especially on ObamaCare, have left her out of step with the views of most Louisianans. But York’s reporting leads him to believe that her ability to manipulate allocations and use taxpayer dollars to buy the votes of Louisianans is enough to make the difference between winning and losing in November.

Liberals can complain all they want about the efforts of large donors to support conservative causes and candidates, but neither the Kochs nor Adelson can boast of the kind of efficient vote buying that Landrieu is practicing on the banks of the Mississippi. Even more to the point, while those billionaires are trying to influence elections with their own money, pork-barrel politicians like Landrieu are doing it with yours.

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The Silver Lining in Israel’s Legal Dramas

The conviction of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on corruption charges, stemming from his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, no doubt dismays his supporters who were hoping he would stage a political comeback. It also, no doubt, dismays many Israelis who must be wondering about the quality of their political leaders.

Olmert is, of course, just the latest senior Israeli figure to be convicted of crimes. Former president Moshe Katsav is now serving a prison sentence for rape. Former finance minister Abraham Hirschson was sent to jail for five years in 2009 for “stealing more than $500,000 from a trade union he led before becoming a cabinet member.” Another former cabinet minister, Shlomo Benizri, was sentenced the same year for taking tribes. Former defense minister and general Yitzhak Mordechai was convicted in 2001 of two counts of sexual assault. Others, such as former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, have been tried and acquitted.

So should Israelis be worried that they are being governed by a pack of crooks and predators? Undoubtedly corruption is a problem in Israeli politics–as it is everywhere. But Israel still ranks head and shoulders above its neighbors on any measure of governance and (no coincidence) on economic performance.

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The conviction of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on corruption charges, stemming from his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, no doubt dismays his supporters who were hoping he would stage a political comeback. It also, no doubt, dismays many Israelis who must be wondering about the quality of their political leaders.

Olmert is, of course, just the latest senior Israeli figure to be convicted of crimes. Former president Moshe Katsav is now serving a prison sentence for rape. Former finance minister Abraham Hirschson was sent to jail for five years in 2009 for “stealing more than $500,000 from a trade union he led before becoming a cabinet member.” Another former cabinet minister, Shlomo Benizri, was sentenced the same year for taking tribes. Former defense minister and general Yitzhak Mordechai was convicted in 2001 of two counts of sexual assault. Others, such as former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, have been tried and acquitted.

So should Israelis be worried that they are being governed by a pack of crooks and predators? Undoubtedly corruption is a problem in Israeli politics–as it is everywhere. But Israel still ranks head and shoulders above its neighbors on any measure of governance and (no coincidence) on economic performance.

The latest Transparency International survey of global corruption puts Israel at No. 36 out of 177 countries. It is far behind clean government leaders Denmark and New Zealand, but it is ahead of every other country in the Middle East except for UAE and Qatar, where corruption is a lot more difficult to measure because it is hard to know where public revenues end and royal family income begins.

The fact that Israel is actually able to prosecute and convict former prime ministers and presidents is a stunning achievement which would be unthinkable in most countries where leaders wind up in the dock only when their regime is overthrown. (Think Egypt.) While Israelis do have some cause for concern about the quality of their politics, on the whole, I would argue that they should take pride in their ability to hold political leaders to account. While the neighboring Arab states may well crow over Olmert’s conviction–there is no love lost for him because of his role in directing the 2006 war against Hezbollah–their populations, reading the news, may well wonder why their own politicians aren’t being exposed for their far greater thievery.

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Turkey’s AKP Should Be Diplomatic Pariahs

The Turkish-American relationship was once tight, and rightfully so. Whatever Turkey’s domestic problems and its democracy deficit, it was a strong ally. It fought beside the United States and against Communist aggression in the Korean War, and was one of only two NATO countries to share a border with the Soviet Union. Turkey was also a source of moderation in an increasingly immoderate region, and stood in sharp contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without any appreciable oil resources, Turkey also transformed itself into an engine of growth through innovation and free-market enterprise.

Alas, today, Turkey is no longer much of an ally. While its supporters cite its contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it has often operated at cross purposes with the rest of ISAF. Of greater concern is:

  • Turkey’s embrace of Hamas;
  • Turkey’s support not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of that group’s most radical factions;
  • Turkey’s efforts to help Iran bust sanctions, apparently, if recent revelations are to be believed, for the personal profit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle;
  • Erdoğan’s support for al-Qaeda financiers such as Yasin al-Qadi; and
  • Turkey’s material support for al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and the free passage it gives international jihadists transiting into Syria.

There is, of course, much, much more, and these don’t even begin to touch Turkey’s domestic transformation into a police-state dismissive of basic freedom.

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The Turkish-American relationship was once tight, and rightfully so. Whatever Turkey’s domestic problems and its democracy deficit, it was a strong ally. It fought beside the United States and against Communist aggression in the Korean War, and was one of only two NATO countries to share a border with the Soviet Union. Turkey was also a source of moderation in an increasingly immoderate region, and stood in sharp contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without any appreciable oil resources, Turkey also transformed itself into an engine of growth through innovation and free-market enterprise.

Alas, today, Turkey is no longer much of an ally. While its supporters cite its contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it has often operated at cross purposes with the rest of ISAF. Of greater concern is:

  • Turkey’s embrace of Hamas;
  • Turkey’s support not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of that group’s most radical factions;
  • Turkey’s efforts to help Iran bust sanctions, apparently, if recent revelations are to be believed, for the personal profit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle;
  • Erdoğan’s support for al-Qaeda financiers such as Yasin al-Qadi; and
  • Turkey’s material support for al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and the free passage it gives international jihadists transiting into Syria.

There is, of course, much, much more, and these don’t even begin to touch Turkey’s domestic transformation into a police-state dismissive of basic freedom.

Many analysts, diplomats, and journalists privately recognized Turkey’s transformation, but whether because of a desire for access, cynical self-censorship as their think-tanks raised money from businessmen affiliated with the prime minister, or outright denial, many refused to declare publicly the change inside Turkey they privately acknowledged (the same holds true with Qatar, but no one has ever confused that state with a democracy). The ostrich-syndrome changed, of course, with the bombshell revelations of corruption and investigations that accompanied the divorce between Erdoğan and his one-time backer, powerful Islamist thinker Fethullah Gülen.

Whatever the motivations for making public the Erdoğan administration’s corruption, there are few who doubt the evidence regarding corruption is truthful. Perhaps that is why Erdoğan in recent weeks has redoubled his efforts to block any public discussion of the topic. In recent days, Erdoğan’s political party, which dominates parliament, has passed a law requiring all Internet providers to obey the government-appointed president of the State Communications Board or his state-appointed deputies to shut down any website or webpage they find objectionable within four hours. Because there is no longer a judicial process to seek a shutdown, Turkey now finds itself in the same category as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. So much for liberalizing and moving closer to Europe.

In addition, social media will be subject to bans based on keywords. Mention “bribery” or “corruption” on Facebook or Twitter, and the state will delete your entire account. To the State Department’s credit, it has expressed concern regarding the new Internet regulations, although the message from the U.S. embassy regarding recent events has been decidedly mixed.

Erdoğan has gone even farther in recent days. It has now emerged in Turkey that, while traveling in Morocco last June, he called the television station Habertürk to demand the manager remove coverage of an opposition leader. Alas, this has become a pattern. Last Tuesday, the official Turkish state broadcaster TRT cut its coverage of parliament during a speech by the opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. As soon as Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech ended, live coverage of the parliamentary session resumed.

Then, in order to quash coverage of the corruption allegations against several of Erdoğan’s hand-picked ministers, he changed procedure to prevent the case going to parliament, which addresses issues-based ministers’ immunity. The AKP-dominated parliament would not have allowed the prosecutions to continue at any rate, but by bypassing parliament, Erdoğan prevented publication of the details of the charges.

Nevertheless, the stories of corruption keep pouring in. In order to save an ailing media company owned by a close friend of the prime minister, Erdoğan reportedly had his minister of transportation ask several contractors doing business with his government to donate a total of $630 million to a pool. An armored car circulated to pick up the cash. Several businessmen had to take out loans from Ziraat Bankası, a government bank, to pay their shares.

What can be done? What happens in Turkey has never stayed in Turkey. When Turkey was liberalizing and developing as a democracy, successive U.S. administrations treated it as a model. Now that Turkey is reverting to a dictatorship, and a terror-supporting one at that, it is important to criticize its trajectory with the same vehemence with which the United States once supported it. Rather than supplicate to Turkey or provide bully pulpits for Erdoğan and ministers involved in corruption, it is time to treat them—and their representatives in the United States—as pariahs. Rather than meet senior U.S. officials, they should be offered face time only with desk officers or lower-ranking diplomats. Congressmen should re-think their participation in the Congressional Turkey Caucus, unless they really wish to endorse that for which Turkey now stands. And institutions and think-tanks which seek to profit off their partnership with Turkey should be shamed in the same way that those soliciting money from Iran, the Assad regime in Syria, or the Kremlin would.

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The Problem of the Middle East’s First Sons

The Turkish corruption scandal continues to boil as, in Ankara, the ministers of finance, interior, and environment have resigned. The latter, Erdoğan Bayraktar, went even further, calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also to step down. Bayraktar is not simply spitting into the wind. A cabinet reshuffle also claimed Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s widely disliked European Union affairs minister. As I wrote here last week, the investigation also appears to be closing in on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.

That rumors of shady business surround the prime minister’s son surprises no one. Years ago, as Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to explain his sudden increase in wealth that far outpaced his salary by suggesting that his mansions and millions of dollars were due to wedding gifts given to his son. Alas, when it comes to the Middle East—and, make no mistake, Erdoğan has moved Turkey so far from Europe and into the Middle Eastern sphere that it cannot be extricated—the problem of first sons is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

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The Turkish corruption scandal continues to boil as, in Ankara, the ministers of finance, interior, and environment have resigned. The latter, Erdoğan Bayraktar, went even further, calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also to step down. Bayraktar is not simply spitting into the wind. A cabinet reshuffle also claimed Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s widely disliked European Union affairs minister. As I wrote here last week, the investigation also appears to be closing in on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.

That rumors of shady business surround the prime minister’s son surprises no one. Years ago, as Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to explain his sudden increase in wealth that far outpaced his salary by suggesting that his mansions and millions of dollars were due to wedding gifts given to his son. Alas, when it comes to the Middle East—and, make no mistake, Erdoğan has moved Turkey so far from Europe and into the Middle Eastern sphere that it cannot be extricated—the problem of first sons is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Moammar Gaddafi had Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, held by the new Libyan government and wanted by the International Criminal Court; and Hosni Mubarak had Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, both awaiting trial on various corruption charges (despite being acquitted in one case last week). Ailing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s eldest son Bafil is facing trial in Great Britain for defrauding investment partners in Iraqi Kurdistan, while younger son Qubad is neck deep in the family business. Iraqi Kurdish regional president Masud Barzani’s eldest son Masrour is, in theory, the intelligence chief for the autonomous Kurdish government. In practice, according to conversations with human-rights monitors, he uses his position and the security forces he has under his control to ensure businessmen understand that he and his family should get a piece of the pie. When Masud Barzani’s second son Mansour Barzani lost $3.2 million gambling in one of Dubai’s illegal casinos, the Kurdish leader quickly cut short an official visit and left the United Arab Emirates. The pattern continues: Iraqis resent the involvement of Ahmad Maliki, the son of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in businesses which benefit from his father’s position. Such business dealings and relationships go without saying in the monarchies of the Persian Gulf with the exception, of course, of Oman whose ruler Sultan Qaboos is unmarried and has no children.

It is true that such a pattern is not limited to the Middle East. While his father Kofi Annan was secretary-general of the United Nations, Kojo Annan sought to profit from UN deals. And both Africa’s dictatorships and its nascent democracies also see sons of presidents and rulers seeking to cash in on their fathers’ positions.

It may be fashionable to look the other way and pretend such corruption does not occur. Western universities go farther and happily welcome donations of questionable money to honor dictatorial dynasties. But building false images of such countries does no favors, nor does it reflect well on a new generation of rulers that they encourage their sons to accumulate as much money as possible rather than distinguish themselves as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals.

Erdoğan has been fond of describing Turkey as a democracy and bragging for more than a decade about the reforms he claims to have implemented. If attorneys are allowed to question Bilal Erdoğan and, if warranted, force him to face justice as a man equal to any Turk or Kurd in Turkey, then he should be congratulated for standing on principle. If he wants his son to stand above justice, however, then Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirms the notion that Turkey is no democracy and  he himself is little more than yet one more self-important Middle Eastern potentate.

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How to Cheat Americans in Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan has often been upheld as a model of stability in Iraq. Last month, it held largely free, even if limited elections. (Masud Barzani, facing a two-term limit, in tin-pot dictator fashion, simply decided to extend his second term so as to remain regional dictator). And while there’s much to that assessment—last week’s quintuple car bombings notwithstanding—Kurdistan has also become perhaps the most corrupt region within Iraq, which already is a pretty corrupt place.

Seldom, however, are the mechanisms of corruption exposed in great detail in the West. That has changed in an ongoing court case involving Bafil Talabani, the eldest son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Basically, a U.S.-based company won a contract to supply power plant equipment to the Kurdistan Regional Government for $187 million. The U.S. firm had an agreement with an offshore company to act as their agent for a commission of around $60 million, but Talabani and other Kurdish officials maneuvered to cheat the Americans out of their money. The court records allege in great detail how this occurred.

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Iraqi Kurdistan has often been upheld as a model of stability in Iraq. Last month, it held largely free, even if limited elections. (Masud Barzani, facing a two-term limit, in tin-pot dictator fashion, simply decided to extend his second term so as to remain regional dictator). And while there’s much to that assessment—last week’s quintuple car bombings notwithstanding—Kurdistan has also become perhaps the most corrupt region within Iraq, which already is a pretty corrupt place.

Seldom, however, are the mechanisms of corruption exposed in great detail in the West. That has changed in an ongoing court case involving Bafil Talabani, the eldest son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Basically, a U.S.-based company won a contract to supply power plant equipment to the Kurdistan Regional Government for $187 million. The U.S. firm had an agreement with an offshore company to act as their agent for a commission of around $60 million, but Talabani and other Kurdish officials maneuvered to cheat the Americans out of their money. The court records allege in great detail how this occurred.

Corruption remains a huge problem across the region, perhaps greater than terrorism even, and it remains a huge impediment in Kurdistan both for its own democratic development and for the bilateral relationship between Erbil and Washington. How sad it is, in effect, that so many family members of senior Kurdish politicians would mortgage the future of their region (and, perhaps one day, country) for the sake of a quick buck. Or a couple million of them.

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For ObamaCare’s Enemies, the Law

In my discussion recently of the scourge of bureaucratic lawmaking during the Obama administration, I’ve generally focused on federal agencies enacting rules that could not be passed by Congress, thus undermining the democratic process. But another important problem posed by the “rise of the fourth branch” of government, in Jonathan Turley’s phrase, is the treatment of duly passed legislation that simply empowers federal regulators without limiting them.

That’s not necessarily the fault of Congress, though it is a warning to those who seek to pass complex pieces of legislation. In the case of ObamaCare, it is simply the president who has decided that he has the power to suspend and postpone parts of the law at will, or else hand out waivers to favored constituencies. Though the beneficiaries of such governance seem obvious–the president and those who receive the favors they request from him–there is actually a third group whose members benefit greatly: the crafters of the law.

Conservatives often talk about the ill effects of moral hazards in politics. And the Hill reminded us over the weekend that the more complex the law, the more ad hoc its implementation, the more room for its interpretation, and the more troubled its legal groundwork, the more the crafters of the law stand to gain. The worse the governance, the better off its practitioners, at least in certain situations, will be. The members of Congress who voted for ObamaCare may not understand the law, but those who wrote it do–and are cashing in on the regulatory monstrosity:

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In my discussion recently of the scourge of bureaucratic lawmaking during the Obama administration, I’ve generally focused on federal agencies enacting rules that could not be passed by Congress, thus undermining the democratic process. But another important problem posed by the “rise of the fourth branch” of government, in Jonathan Turley’s phrase, is the treatment of duly passed legislation that simply empowers federal regulators without limiting them.

That’s not necessarily the fault of Congress, though it is a warning to those who seek to pass complex pieces of legislation. In the case of ObamaCare, it is simply the president who has decided that he has the power to suspend and postpone parts of the law at will, or else hand out waivers to favored constituencies. Though the beneficiaries of such governance seem obvious–the president and those who receive the favors they request from him–there is actually a third group whose members benefit greatly: the crafters of the law.

Conservatives often talk about the ill effects of moral hazards in politics. And the Hill reminded us over the weekend that the more complex the law, the more ad hoc its implementation, the more room for its interpretation, and the more troubled its legal groundwork, the more the crafters of the law stand to gain. The worse the governance, the better off its practitioners, at least in certain situations, will be. The members of Congress who voted for ObamaCare may not understand the law, but those who wrote it do–and are cashing in on the regulatory monstrosity:

ObamaCare has become big business for an elite network of Washington lobbyists and consultants who helped shape the law from the inside.
 
More than 30 former administration officials, lawmakers and congressional staffers who worked on the healthcare law have set up shop on K Street since 2010….

“Healthcare lobbying on K Street is as strong as it ever was, and it’s due to the fact that the Affordable Care Act seems to be ever-changing,” Adler said. “What’s at stake is huge. … Whenever there’s a lot of money at stake, there’s a lot of lobbying going on.”

The voracious need for lobbying help in dealing with ObamaCare has created a price premium for lobbyists who had first-hand experience in crafting or debating the law.
 
Experts say that those able to fetch the highest salaries have come from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or committees with oversight power over healthcare.

The most telling quote in the story, and the one that explains why ObamaCare belongs in the discussion of unaccountable bureaucracy usurping congressional authority, is this:

“Congress is easy to watch,” said Tim LaPira, a politics professor at James Madison University who researches the government affairs industry, “but agencies are harder to watch because their actions are often opaque. This leads to a greater demand on K Street” for people who understand the fine print, he said.

The delays and postponements and waivers so far have made it pretty clear that the Obama administration finally understands just how harmful ObamaCare is, but this hasn’t troubled them so much because they don’t feel bound by the law. The administration is the law, with regard to ObamaCare.

What recourse do you have if you are not part of Obama’s favored constituencies to whom the law doesn’t apply? You have the courts. In a sign of how problematic ObamaCare really is, it appears headed back to the Supreme Court because of the law’s unconstitutional abridgement of religious freedom. As the Hill reported late last week:

ObamaCare’s birth control mandate is putting the president’s signature legislative issue on a fast track back to the Supreme Court. 



Lawyers on both sides of the issue say the high court will almost certainly have to rule on the controversial policy, possibly as early as its next term. 



Two federal appeals courts have come down with opposite rulings on an important question related to the policy: whether for-profit businesses and their owners have the right to challenge in court the requirement that businesses provide contraception as part of their insurance coverage.

As Jonathan wrote in June, the high-profile case of the Hobby Lobby, a chain of stores owned by religious Christians, won a key victory this summer, though there have been setbacks in other similar cases. But the Hill story points out just why the battle over the contraception mandate is so important:

“Would an incorporated kosher butcher really have no claim to challenge a regulation mandating non-kosher butchering practices?” the 10th Circuit asked. “The kosher butcher, of course, might directly serve a religious community … But we see no reason why one must orient one’s business toward a religious community to preserve Free Exercise protections.”



The administration’s position, and that of some appeals courts, has been that the religious freedom of the owners of a corporate entity does not transfer to the company itself. That is, there is a separation between the business and its owners, and religious freedom applies to the latter. A company can’t pray, goes the simplistic logic.

Of course, the 10th Circuit judges had it right. The contraception case is important because it will set precedent on the issue, and will determine whether United States law considers religious practice a privilege, not a right, when it conflicts with the government’s agenda. In this way, it won’t be much different from the rest of ObamaCare’s arbitrary and corrupt implementation.

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Why Everyone’s Talking About John Sopko

If you read this morning’s edition of three of our prominent national newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, you may have noticed something: the sudden necessity of talking about a man named John Sopko. The Times and the Post each run different-but-not-really pieces intended to profile Sopko and his work. The Journal takes a slightly different tack, talking about Sopko through the most recent and newsworthy aspects of his work.

So who is John Sopko? Here is the Times’s lede: “John F. Sopko is a 61-year-old former prosecutor who believes ‘embarrassing people works.’ ” But the Kabul dateline is the tipoff. Sopko is in Afghanistan as the inspector general for American-led reconstruction efforts. He is in charge of keeping the bureaucracy honest, and he is not well-liked by his compatriots there; the Post calls him the “the bane of the existence of American bureaucrats scrambling to bring the war to a dignified end.” What Sopko is finding out firsthand is that political leaders love to talk–and often, only talk–about rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in any system. Everyone loves the idea of oversight.

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If you read this morning’s edition of three of our prominent national newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, you may have noticed something: the sudden necessity of talking about a man named John Sopko. The Times and the Post each run different-but-not-really pieces intended to profile Sopko and his work. The Journal takes a slightly different tack, talking about Sopko through the most recent and newsworthy aspects of his work.

So who is John Sopko? Here is the Times’s lede: “John F. Sopko is a 61-year-old former prosecutor who believes ‘embarrassing people works.’ ” But the Kabul dateline is the tipoff. Sopko is in Afghanistan as the inspector general for American-led reconstruction efforts. He is in charge of keeping the bureaucracy honest, and he is not well-liked by his compatriots there; the Post calls him the “the bane of the existence of American bureaucrats scrambling to bring the war to a dignified end.” What Sopko is finding out firsthand is that political leaders love to talk–and often, only talk–about rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in any system. Everyone loves the idea of oversight.

Sopko also clearly knows the value of publicity. The coincidental placement of A-Section stories on him in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on the same day is testament to that. But Sopko’s penchant for publicity doesn’t endear him to those under his watchful gaze. In fact, it seems his profiles were, in part at least, a result of his need to push back on the grumbling inspired, in circular fashion, by his need for publicity. As the Times explains:

He and his team spend their days cataloging the waste, mismanagement and fraud that have plagued American reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

Then they go out and publicize what they have found — aggressively. If they upset the generals and diplomats running the war, so much the better. Most officials “would love to have it all triple-wrapped in paper, classified and slipped under a door so it goes away — then they don’t have to do anything,” he said during a recent interview.

He added, “I’m into accountability.”

Sopko also sat for an interview with the Post, and they paint much the same picture:

“I didn’t take this job to be liked at the State Department or USAID or the Department of Defense,” he said in an interview. “We’re the umpire. My job is to call strikes.”

Bureaucratic battles within America’s wars are legion. But none has played out quite this publicly, and all sides agree that the stakes could hardly be higher. To a large extent, the U.S. ability to disengage smoothly from Afghanistan and retain influence after combat troops leave — by the end of 2014 — will depend on the work U.S. agencies are able to accomplish, as well as the amount of political will and confidence in the mission they can engender.

But it’s the Journal article that seems to do the most to legitimize the Times and Post articles. The Journal has always tended to take a slightly different approach to the same stories other papers cover, and in this case the Journal’s article on Sopko is a perfect companion piece to the others.

The Post explains that the office of inspector general for Afghan reconstruction had alternated between ridicule and vacancy. Sopko came in and fired up his staff, warning that the clock was ticking on the mission. The Journal article offers one example of the misbehavior uncovered by the newly energized office under Sopko’s leadership:

American anticorruption officials are investigating an alleged criminal ring working for U.S. Special Operations Command in southern Afghanistan that may have defrauded the U.S. government of more than $77 million, according to court documents and government officials.

Federal officials have frozen $63 million held in bank accounts around the world linked to a young Afghan businessman who allegedly bribed two foreign contractors to secure contracts to transport food and fuel for the U.S. military in southern Afghanistan, according to documents unsealed by the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The Afghan, Hikmatullah Shadman, is at the center of a continuing investigation that also could ensnare Americans working for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, said John Sopko, the special U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

“We’re not done with this matter in the least,” said Mr. Sopko, who spearheaded the legal action to freeze and seize Mr. Shadman’s bank accounts.

As Max Boot and Michael Rubin have written numerous times here at COMMENTARY, there is both the need and the ability to clean up Western efforts in Afghanistan. On that note, I think it’s worth restating Michael’s point from February on corruption and USAID waste/mismanagement in Afghanistan: “Terrorism impacts a small number of people, but corruption is a cancer on a whole society.”

That is exactly right, and that seems to be Sopko’s perspective. He has taken on a sense of urgency as well because the mission is indeed running low on time. I don’t think many of those complaining about Sopko’s intensity or publicity-seeking fully appreciate just how much of a black eye it will be for America’s reputation if after a decade-long nation building project we leave behind well-fed corruption rings and warlords with deeper pockets as our legacy. There is only so much control our agencies have, of course, in Afghanistan. But surely conducting themselves with transparency and integrity is not too much to ask.

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Dissolve USAID and Revamp Foreign Aid

Last month, I wrote about how much money the United States has wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan—not in terms of the military mission, which I continue to support, but rather because of the misguided notion that development assistance and foreign assistance bring security.

The problem with foreign assistance runs deeper. Many proponents of aid point out that the United States gives a smaller percentage of its GDP to foreign assistance than many smaller states. Speaking at the National Defense University last month, President Obama bought into this trope.

I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures that there is. That’s true for Democrats and Republicans–I’ve seen the polling–even though it amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget. In fact, a lot of folks think it’s 25 percent, if you ask people on the streets. Less than one percent–still wildly unpopular. But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security. And it’s fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism. 

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Last month, I wrote about how much money the United States has wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan—not in terms of the military mission, which I continue to support, but rather because of the misguided notion that development assistance and foreign assistance bring security.

The problem with foreign assistance runs deeper. Many proponents of aid point out that the United States gives a smaller percentage of its GDP to foreign assistance than many smaller states. Speaking at the National Defense University last month, President Obama bought into this trope.

I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures that there is. That’s true for Democrats and Republicans–I’ve seen the polling–even though it amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget. In fact, a lot of folks think it’s 25 percent, if you ask people on the streets. Less than one percent–still wildly unpopular. But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security. And it’s fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism. 

The complaint about foreign aid is dishonest for several reasons.

  • First, Americans give far more in charity than do their European counterparts: Just because aid is not coming from the government does not mean it is not American assistance.
  • Second, Sweden may at first glance give a higher proportion of both its GDP and budget, but when push comes to shove, America still gives more. To be blunt: the U.S. military does more to save people than to kill them. The U.S. military formed the backbone of tsunami relief in the Indian Ocean basin during the 2004 tsunami, and restored airport operations to enable relief in Haiti following that country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. If the cost of such operations is factored in, then the United States gives much more. (As an aside, sequestration and the resulting lack of naval readiness will mean that victims of the next massive natural disaster may have to fend for themselves, unless Swedes, Danes, or Norwegians find their own aircraft carrier.)
  • Many extremists—and most terrorists—are actually quite well-off and educated. The 9/11 bombers, for example, came from privileged upbringings, and the Boston bombers had access to a better education than many other residents in Boston. If policy were based strictly on the data, then the path to counter-terrorism would be to de-emphasize education and encourage poverty. I say that with tongue in cheek, of course, but it is important to recognize that ideology drives terrorism, not simply grievance or poverty. Just throwing money at countries does not make America more secure.

Foreign aid may represent less than one percent of the federal budget, but that alone is not justification for waste. Simply put, neither the State Department nor the White House have, across administrations, been able to propose metrics to demonstrate that foreign aid as currently distributed actually improves American security or furthers American interests. Most of the money is simply wasted on bureaucratic bloat, ill thought-out projects, conferences, or amorphous goals that provide no lasting benefit for the people. Management of aid money is notoriously bad, especially when people like disgraced former mayor and diplomat Andrew Young is put in charge.

While American administrations across parties will often pay lip service to democratization, a major problem with foreign aid is it actually promotes poor governance. Building schools, hospitals, and housing should be the job of the government, not a foreign aid organization. If such basic responsibilities of government are assumed by outsiders, then corrupt governments have no disincentive against pursuit of counterproductive social agendas or terror sponsorship.

The simple fact is that foreign aid has:

  • Encouraged corruption and poor governance in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Been the bane of Palestinian development. The best way to encourage the Palestinians to develop a functioning economy and responsible state would be to wean them off outside assistance altogether and eliminate UNRWA.
  • Passage and implementation of the Kerry-Lugar amendment and provision of its nearly $7 billion in assistance has increased rather than decreased anti-Americanism in Pakistan.
  • Failed to promote responsible government in Egypt. Rather than throw a lifeline to the Muslim Brotherhood, it should be an American interest to see the Muslim Brotherhood fail and retire disgraced. No, Egypt is not too big to fail.

Rather than continue USAID as it is now structured, dissolve the organization. The time has come to defer items such as “capacity building” (whatever that means in practice) to endowments and NGOs, and dispense with contributing any development assistance to any state which votes with the United States less than—let’s say arbitrarily—80 percent of the time at the United Nations. There might be notable exceptions: Let the U.S. focus on disaster relief—where Washington can actually win hearts and minds—or promoting foreign direct investment by American companies which will benefit far more people at home and abroad than do USAID programs now.

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Does Development Really Bring Security?

Critics of U.S. involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan often make two mutually exclusive points. The first is that the wars have been tremendously costly, and the second is that the means to win security is through development.

Had the Iraq war ended soon after Saddam’s ouster—and had the Bush administration not abandoned its initial plans to withdraw after 90 days—then the cost of that war would have been tremendously reduced both in terms of blood and treasure. Iraq has made great strides in the decade since Saddam’s ouster, but most of the development in both southern and northern Iraq has more to do with the fact that Saddam is gone than with American investment. The billions spent on development (including the cost of providing those aid workers with security) have produced little if anything.

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Critics of U.S. involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan often make two mutually exclusive points. The first is that the wars have been tremendously costly, and the second is that the means to win security is through development.

Had the Iraq war ended soon after Saddam’s ouster—and had the Bush administration not abandoned its initial plans to withdraw after 90 days—then the cost of that war would have been tremendously reduced both in terms of blood and treasure. Iraq has made great strides in the decade since Saddam’s ouster, but most of the development in both southern and northern Iraq has more to do with the fact that Saddam is gone than with American investment. The billions spent on development (including the cost of providing those aid workers with security) have produced little if anything.

Nevertheless, soft power or peace through development remains the mantra of too many in the U.S. aid community or for that matter, among our European partners. The problem is that there’s no evidence that investment in development is worth it. What caught my eye was this report, from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). In short, two USAID-funded hospitals seem unsustainable, and several others likely won’t be able to function at true capacity. In recent months, SIGAR has released a number of damning reports allegedly leading to efforts by some in the administration to muzzle it.

USAID has spent billions of dollars in conflict zones. The U.S. aid community maintains a dashboard that purports to demonstrate bang for the buck. Alas, it never achieves that goal. Take this explanation of USAID investment in Iraq, for example. Stating that money will be applied toward a certain goal does not equate with wise investment. Nor is there evidence that flooding a country with cash improves security. Indeed, Afghanistan proves quite the opposite: USAID might brag about building roads and bridges, but Afghan villagers often beg to be left off the network so as to avoid the resulting land grabs by corrupt government, security and Afghan National Army officials. As a second order effect, local villagers sometimes seek protection in the Taliban, as the very Afghans who are supposed to guard USAID bridges and roads are the ones who seek to confiscate land and livelihood. Terrorism might be a tragedy for a handful of families when bombs kill or maim loved ones, but corruption is a cancer that impacts millions and too often USAID fuels that corruption.

As the Afghanistan conflict winds down and joins the Iraq campaign in something distinctly different from nation-building, some serious introspection is long past due about what benefits if any are derived from aid as it is currently managed. This is not a reason to dispense with aid entirely. But the idea that a multi-billion dollar, bureaucracy-bloated organization is the best way to promote development is questionable at best. Nor should the conventional wisdom that aid contributes to security be accepted as fact. It is long past time for USAID to prove that its investments are worth their cost. Perhaps the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan should not be that the cost of regime change is too high to bear, but rather than the development welfare that accompanies it is the problem. Perhaps it’s time to rebuild the infrastructure of U.S. foreign assistance from scratch.

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The Danger and Rampant Corruption of Traffic Light Cameras

The ongoing IRS scandal has struck such a nerve with the public because it is a clear example of a prying, ever-present government abusing its revenue-raising power and succumbing to the temptation of easy corruption. There are few things more outrageous with regard to the government’s ability to fund its own corrupt practices–but the latest scandal out of Florida may be one of those cases.

Media Trackers points to this investigation by Florida’s WTSP-St. Petersburg 10 News, which notes that the Florida Department of Transportation instituted a particularly dangerous way to wring more money out of motorists, and crossed federal standards to do so. At issue are the traffic light cameras, an unsafe plague on roadways rife with corruption across the country. The cameras are installed to catch motorists violating traffic rules, but the lawbreakers are usually on the other side of the cameras. From WTSP:

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The ongoing IRS scandal has struck such a nerve with the public because it is a clear example of a prying, ever-present government abusing its revenue-raising power and succumbing to the temptation of easy corruption. There are few things more outrageous with regard to the government’s ability to fund its own corrupt practices–but the latest scandal out of Florida may be one of those cases.

Media Trackers points to this investigation by Florida’s WTSP-St. Petersburg 10 News, which notes that the Florida Department of Transportation instituted a particularly dangerous way to wring more money out of motorists, and crossed federal standards to do so. At issue are the traffic light cameras, an unsafe plague on roadways rife with corruption across the country. The cameras are installed to catch motorists violating traffic rules, but the lawbreakers are usually on the other side of the cameras. From WTSP:

The 10 News Investigators discovered the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) quietly changed the state’s policy on yellow intervals in 2011, reducing the minimum below federal recommendations. The rule change was followed by engineers, both from FDOT and local municipalities, collaborating to shorten the length of yellow lights at key intersections, specifically those with red light cameras (RLCs).

While yellow light times were reduced by mere fractions of a second, research indicates a half-second reduction in the interval can double the number of RLC citations — and the revenue they create. The 10 News investigation stemmed from a December discovery of a dangerously short yellow light in Hernando County. After the story aired, the county promised to re-time all of its intersections, and the 10 News Investigators promised to dig into yellow light timing all across Tampa Bay.

The practice of reducing yellow light times without notifying motorists was blamed for at least one recent traffic death near Tampa, which prompted further investigation. The danger of the traffic light cameras–even without manipulating light times–is nothing new. As the Star-Ledger reported a few months ago, a study in New Jersey found that the installation of traffic light cameras resulted in increased accidents at those intersections, including a 20-percent rise in rear-end collisions.

Aside from the life-threatening risk to motorists and passengers in those accidents, the Star-Ledger noted that according to the study the “crash severity cost,” which calculates the cost of property and vehicle damage, as well as medical care for the crash victims and the expense to the municipality of emergency response, increased by about $1.2 million. The cameras are putting lives at risk every day, so why use them? Back to WTSP:

Red light cameras generated more than $100 million in revenue last year in approximately 70 Florida communities, with 52.5 percent of the revenue going to the state. The rest is divided by cities, counties, and the camera companies. In 2013, the cameras are on pace to generate $120 million.

“Red light cameras are a for-profit business between cities and camera companies and the state,” said James Walker, executive director of the nonprofit National Motorists Association.

They are a cash cow. But a “for-profit business between cities and camera companies” that incentivizes making the roads more dangerous for citizens doesn’t sound like a particularly ethical undertaking for the government. As it turns out, “ethical” is not a word often associated with how the traffic cameras are operated. As Holman Jenkins recently explained in the Wall Street Journal, the cameras have become a sleazy new form of taxation, and “When governments are engaged in sleazy new forms of taxation, sleaze happens.”

Jenkins points out that if you’re looking for corruption, Chicago is a good place to start–and in fact the Chicago traffic light camera regime has been engulfed in a graft scandal. Jenkins noted that in Baltimore, traffic light cameras were ticketing motionless vehicles, and have come under fire in Los Angeles and New York as well. “Ticket-racketeering has been, let’s just say, a contending motivation with safety since the automobile age was born,” Jenkins writes.

Even if Florida DOT officials don’t read out-of-state newspapers, they still can’t claim they weren’t warned, as WTSP makes clear:

Numerous U.S. Dept. of Transportation (USDOT) documents provide guidance to municipalities on how to install and operate RLC intersections. But FDOT and Florida communities are by-and-large ignoring those recommendations when it comes to yellow light intervals.

USDOT/Federal Highway Administration (FHA) report said cities should not use speed limit in the yellow interval equation because it results “in more red light violations and higher crash rates.”

Traffic light cameras aren’t about safety, because they diminish the safety of motorists. They are about money. And the fact that they are rife with corruption and deceit, and increase their financial gain by scamming drivers into unnecessary risks makes them, in many cases, morally indistinguishable from outright theft.

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Are Obama’s Scandals Reaching Critical Mass?

Last week was one of the worst for Obama in his presidency. This week looks no better. Indeed, it may be a long, hot summer for the White House. As Jonathan has pointed out, the IRS scandal is growing bigger, seemingly by the minute. The Benghazi scandal is continuing to percolate.

Now, the brand-new AP scandal has erupted. This one, because the victims are newsmen, is likely to have a powerful effect on the mainstream media. If the Justice Department has been going after the phone records of AP reporters, what other reporters are having their privacy violated? Even the New York Times, which thought page 11 was just fine for the IRS scandal, put this one on page 1, above the fold. The White House is “dodging and weaving” today according to the Times.

But wait, there’s more, as the TV commercials have it.

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Last week was one of the worst for Obama in his presidency. This week looks no better. Indeed, it may be a long, hot summer for the White House. As Jonathan has pointed out, the IRS scandal is growing bigger, seemingly by the minute. The Benghazi scandal is continuing to percolate.

Now, the brand-new AP scandal has erupted. This one, because the victims are newsmen, is likely to have a powerful effect on the mainstream media. If the Justice Department has been going after the phone records of AP reporters, what other reporters are having their privacy violated? Even the New York Times, which thought page 11 was just fine for the IRS scandal, put this one on page 1, above the fold. The White House is “dodging and weaving” today according to the Times.

But wait, there’s more, as the TV commercials have it.

The Washington Post is reporting that Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is comparing Kathleen Sebelius’s attempt to raise money from private organizations to help implement ObamaCare to Iran-Contra. Alexander says,

This is arguably an even bigger issue because, in Iran-Contra, you had $30 million that was spent by Oliver North through private organizations for a purpose congress refused to authorize, in support of the rebels. Here, you’re wanting to spend millions more in support of private organizations to do something that Congress has refused.

And now the Washington Examiner is reporting that the EPA routinely waives the fees for FOIA requests made by liberal organizations and media outlets, but does not for those from conservative ones.

Let’s consider a few things here.

One is that separate scandals, such as IRS and Benghazi, tend to have synergistic effects on each other even though they are dissimilar. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Another is that scandals such as the IRS and EPA that are similar inevitably produce a hunt for an overall pattern. Where else has the federal government under Obama been stiffing conservatives and giving liberals a pass?

A third is that reports of abuse produce more and more reports of abuse, as people and organizations realize that what happened to them was part of a pattern. John Podhoretz’s tale of COMMENTARY magazine’s woe at the hands of the IRS is very unlikely to be the only one to come out.

Finally, as the separate scandals begin to grow and, worse for Obama, begin to coalesce, even a media that has been an army of water-carriers for the Obama administration up until now will, despite themselves, smell the blood in the water and their instincts as journalists will kick in. Off they will go on the hunt for scoops. Undoubtedly they will find them.

When and if that happens, the scandals will have reached critical mass and the Obama presidency will be in mortal danger. The beating up of Jay Carney at the White House daily news briefing last Friday by the media generally was not a good sign.

If Obama loses the media, what does he have left? A record of accomplishment at home and abroad? Not exactly.

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What Would Montesquieu Make of Modern New York?

In the wake of the latest New York City corruption scandal, the New York Times convened a panel to answer an interesting question: Mayor Michael Bloomberg remains, to our knowledge, above and disconnected from the sea of corruption around him; it is because rich politicians have less need for the money of others, and are therefore less corruptible?

Leave aside the low expectations–Bloomberg may be many things, but at least he’s no crook–and the liberal goggles through which the Times views the issue–Mitt Romney’s honest wealth makes him cold and out of touch; Bloomberg’s honest wealth makes him honest–and there is actually a very old question here about politics and the ideal nature of republican governance.

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In the wake of the latest New York City corruption scandal, the New York Times convened a panel to answer an interesting question: Mayor Michael Bloomberg remains, to our knowledge, above and disconnected from the sea of corruption around him; it is because rich politicians have less need for the money of others, and are therefore less corruptible?

Leave aside the low expectations–Bloomberg may be many things, but at least he’s no crook–and the liberal goggles through which the Times views the issue–Mitt Romney’s honest wealth makes him cold and out of touch; Bloomberg’s honest wealth makes him honest–and there is actually a very old question here about politics and the ideal nature of republican governance.

Montesquieu believed that because bad laws and their consequences are so difficult to undo or unravel in a democracy, representative government required that its elected practitioners possess virtue. This may sound obvious, but he wasn’t arguing the benefit of virtuous leaders; he was arguing the necessity of them for the system to survive. Virtue, to a monarch, was highly preferable to the alternative but its absence, in his mind, did not fatally undermine the functionality of the government. He also made the seemingly counterintuitive point that men who make laws to which they are not obligated have less need for virtue. (This is highly debatable, and something on which I think he was mistaken. But his underlying point is sound: self-interest begets temptation.)

He restates this explicitly in his collection My Thoughts: “What usually makes a man wicked is that he finds himself in circumstances in which he is more influenced by the utility of committing crimes than by the shame or danger in committing them.” Virtue–offering shame in this case–is a form of rationality. Earlier in that passage Montesquieu also makes an eloquent case for the kind of Western democracy that would later emerge and prove him prescient in the cauldron of the 20th century:

The laws make good and bad citizens. The same spirit of timidity that makes a man exacting in his duties in one republic will make a man cunning in another. The same spirit of boldness that makes a man love his Country and sacrifice himself for it in one State will make a highway robber in another.

The system matters. So, as Montesquieu might say were he to visit modern-day America: What’s the deal with New York? The city, like the state and many others, is high on democracy but seemingly low on virtue. Bloomberg, who governs much like a classic British aristocrat buoyed by his wealth and noblesse oblige, appears to possess the virtue his colleagues lack but is somewhat mystified by the self-rule they practice. What gives?

As one might imagine, the answer is complex. In part, the corruption around the mayor is encouraged, but by no means justified of course, by the distortions to the democratic process; the city might gain from more freedom, not less. State Senator Malcolm Smith, at the center of the current corruption scandal, wanted to bribe his way onto the mayoral ballot which, thanks to campaign finance law, was the destination, not the journey, as Bob McManus explains in the New York Post today:

But the ballot, not the office, was where Smith’s real opportunity lay. Running for office brings access to the city’s six-dollars-for-one, taxpayer-funded campaign-contribution-matching system.

Clearly Smith was in a position to deliver state money to others — see above, Bharara’s complaint — so why not use that influence to attract “contributions” from corrupt favor-seekers? Multiplied by the match, that would create a pot of cash that an imaginative fellow like Malcolm Smith would have no trouble putting to beneficial use.

There is also the question of defining corruption. It’s true that Bloomberg hasn’t been caught doing anything that would land him in prison, but is that where we draw the moral line too? Bloomberg’s vast riches enabled him to skirt the normal party process and shape-shift politically to ease his path to office in the way citizens of more modest means could never hope to. Once in power, he used his private wealth to essentially buy the acquiescence and silence of those who might otherwise be tempted to criticize or challenge him, as Sol Stern and Fred Siegel explained in COMMENTARY in 2011:

The difference is that Bloomberg was able to channel his private philanthropic giving each year to hundreds of the city’s arts and social-service groups with the reasonable expectation that the gratitude these groups felt to their patron would extend to their patron’s political causes. At the very least, it would make the groups and their influential boards of trustees think twice before criticizing the mayor’s policies.

The vehicle for Bloomberg’s gifts was the Carnegie Corporation. During the 2005 election year alone, Bloomberg donated $20 million to Carnegie, which in turn distributed the mayor’s largesse to 400 arts and social-service groups in gifts of $10,000 to $100,000. Officially, the donor to Carnegie was listed as “anonymous,” but as New York Times reporter Sam Roberts pointed out, all the groups were aware that the generous benefactor also had a day job at City Hall. “That Mr. Bloomberg is the source of the Carnegie contributions has long been an open secret and cannot help but benefit the mayor politically,” Roberts wrote.

His political shape-shifting also meant Bloomberg was less constrained by principle and less accountable for his actions in office. He also was prevented by law from serving a third term, so he simply had the law changed so he could stay in power. That may make him more ethical than Malcolm Smith, but that’s a low bar–and it’s far less clear that Montesquieu would approve.

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Political Princes and Corruption

The rise and fall of Jesse L. Jackson Jr. provides an object lesson in the one kind of entitlement that Washington has yet to successfully wipe out. The former congressman pled guilty today to counts of wire and mail fraud in connection with his embezzlement of $750,000 in campaign funds. The son of the famed civil rights leader who once seemed likely to occupy Barack Obama’s Senate seat will instead soon be residing in federal prison for a few years.

He’s not the first crook to take up space in Congress and won’t be the last. But he does tell us a little about the way some of our political class regard the system over which they preside as well as the problems that can result when one parachutes into the system the way Jackson did. It also illustrates why the creation of Congressional rotten boroughs in Congress is not good for the health of the body politic.

Most politicians who run afoul of the law tend to fall into two categories.

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The rise and fall of Jesse L. Jackson Jr. provides an object lesson in the one kind of entitlement that Washington has yet to successfully wipe out. The former congressman pled guilty today to counts of wire and mail fraud in connection with his embezzlement of $750,000 in campaign funds. The son of the famed civil rights leader who once seemed likely to occupy Barack Obama’s Senate seat will instead soon be residing in federal prison for a few years.

He’s not the first crook to take up space in Congress and won’t be the last. But he does tell us a little about the way some of our political class regard the system over which they preside as well as the problems that can result when one parachutes into the system the way Jackson did. It also illustrates why the creation of Congressional rotten boroughs in Congress is not good for the health of the body politic.

Most politicians who run afoul of the law tend to fall into two categories.

Some are middle class Americans who often find that their political power is not matched by the financial rewards that accrue to public servants. Governors, members of the House of Representatives and senators spend much of their time hobnobbing with the wealthy to raise funds or to be chatted up by lobbyists and business owners who want favors. For those politicians with limited resources of their own, their disparity between their own meager incomes and the settings in which they find themselves is sometimes so great that those without a moral compass succumb to the temptation to take free stuff in exchange for their influence.

That is no excuse but it also puts the complaints about Congressional pay into perspective. That is especially true when you consider that those members who are not independently wealthy are forced to maintain two households and to entertain on salaries that are far less than most of them would get in the private sector.

But Jackson is a different sort of case. The son of the famed preacher and sometime presidential candidate did not grow up in poverty. The elder Jackson became prosperous in no small measure by pressuring companies into supporting his non-profit groups via threats of boycotts. Though done in the name of equality and the service of the poor, it was nonetheless corrupt even if his victims uniformly believed it was cheaper to pay than to protest it.

Jackson, Jr.’s may have though the immunity that accrued to his father via his status as the man who cradled the dying Martin Luther King Jr. in his arms might attach to him. Having crossed the line from the private to the public sector, he failed to understand that even unopposed congressman couldn’t always get away with skimming campaign funds.

But Jackson’s problem can’t only be attributed to being the son of a civil rights figure that got very little scrutiny when not running for president.

For all the talk about the corrupting influence of campaign finance contributions, nothing is more inimical to good government than the creation of single party Congressional districts that serve to create a class of politicians who need not fear the wrath of the voters. While we have many single party seats in this country where the issue is decided in primaries rather than general elections, those elected in districts that were crafted on the basis of race rather than on a purely partisan basis are especially unaccountable. While not all or even most of those who occupy those seats are corrupt, there are enough examples to illustrate why politicians who need not fear the voters or the press are especially vulnerable to temptation.

Just four years ago, Jackson was immersed in another corrupt scheme — the effort to bribe Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich via intermediaries to appoint him to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he won the presidency. He dodged that bullet as only the governor went down in that scandal. But the sense of entitlement that pervaded Jackson’s personal and political life was impervious to the message that perhaps he should clean up his act.

The tragedy of Jackson’s truncated political career is an object lesson in the perils of creating political princes who seem to be immune to the normal limits on behavior that restrain most politicians. His fall reminds us that even such persons can’t always count on avoiding the long arm of the law.

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Implications and Lessons of Afghanistan Corruption

According to the United Nations, Afghans spent $3.9 billion on bribery in 2012. According to the Associated Press report:

The cost of corruption in Afghanistan rose sharply last year to $3.9 billion, and half of all Afghans bribed public officials for services, the U.N. said Thursday. The findings came despite repeated promises by President Hamid Karzai to clean up his government… Lemahieu added the problem leads “towards alienation, frustration and a disconnect to those who should be able to give you the service provided.” Fifty percent of the adult population had to pay at least one bribe to a public official in 2012, a 9 percent drop from 2009, according to the findings, which were based on interviews last year with 6,700 Afghan adults from across the country. Meanwhile, the total cost of bribes paid to public officials increased 40 percent to $3.9 billion. That amount was double the revenue collected by the government to provide services, said [Jean-Luc] Lemahieu, head of the UNODC [U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime].

That’s nearly as much as the $4.1 billion Afghan National Security Forces need on an annual basis. In other words, if Afghanistan did not suffer the corruption problem it now does, it would be able to fund its own security forces absent endless subsidies.

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According to the United Nations, Afghans spent $3.9 billion on bribery in 2012. According to the Associated Press report:

The cost of corruption in Afghanistan rose sharply last year to $3.9 billion, and half of all Afghans bribed public officials for services, the U.N. said Thursday. The findings came despite repeated promises by President Hamid Karzai to clean up his government… Lemahieu added the problem leads “towards alienation, frustration and a disconnect to those who should be able to give you the service provided.” Fifty percent of the adult population had to pay at least one bribe to a public official in 2012, a 9 percent drop from 2009, according to the findings, which were based on interviews last year with 6,700 Afghan adults from across the country. Meanwhile, the total cost of bribes paid to public officials increased 40 percent to $3.9 billion. That amount was double the revenue collected by the government to provide services, said [Jean-Luc] Lemahieu, head of the UNODC [U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime].

That’s nearly as much as the $4.1 billion Afghan National Security Forces need on an annual basis. In other words, if Afghanistan did not suffer the corruption problem it now does, it would be able to fund its own security forces absent endless subsidies.

After more than 12 years of war in Afghanstan, American patience has worn thin. President Obama has promised to withdraw U.S. forces “on schedule.” Many will undoubtedly applaud that decision, and some will question the wisdom of involving ourselves in Afghanistan in the first place. It is important to fill security vacuums lest al-Qaeda sink its roots in ungoverned areas. The real lesson Washington should learn is not whether the United States should have taken on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but rather whether we should have pumped so much money into Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Many progressives and realists say Pentagon spending is too high.

The real waste of money over the past decade in both Iraq and Afghanistan, however, has been USAID, which has very little to show for its efforts in other places. Plans that sound good on paper can be disastrous in real life, not only because they waste taxpayer money but also—as this corruption report would suggest—they catalyze corruption. Terrorism impacts a small number of people, but corruption is a cancer on a whole society. Perhaps the best way to contain corruption is to simply not flood countries with cash, no matter how well-meaning the motives of our diplomats and development advocates.

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Is the U.S. Cracking Down on Corruption in Afghanistan?

There has been a lot of blowback in Afghanistan and Washington about the decision by U.S. military commanders to blacklist Kam Air, a large civilian airline, from receiving military contracts because it is allegedly used to ship tons of drugs to Central Asia. Predictably Kam Air is mobilizing its supporters, including Hamid Karzai, to denounce the U.S. action as an insult to a proud nation.

Hooey. There is nothing pro-Afghan about allowing U.S. government dollars to be used to support corruption and drug trafficking that is at odds with the values of the vast majority of ordinary Afghans. Yet for all too long U.S. spending has not been closely monitored and has gone to benefit kleptocrats and warlords, two categories that are almost synonymous in Afghanistan. Abusive government has been the Taliban’s biggest recruiting tool and U.S. failure to do more to stem the misuse of its funds the biggest mistake the U.S. has made during a decade of war.

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There has been a lot of blowback in Afghanistan and Washington about the decision by U.S. military commanders to blacklist Kam Air, a large civilian airline, from receiving military contracts because it is allegedly used to ship tons of drugs to Central Asia. Predictably Kam Air is mobilizing its supporters, including Hamid Karzai, to denounce the U.S. action as an insult to a proud nation.

Hooey. There is nothing pro-Afghan about allowing U.S. government dollars to be used to support corruption and drug trafficking that is at odds with the values of the vast majority of ordinary Afghans. Yet for all too long U.S. spending has not been closely monitored and has gone to benefit kleptocrats and warlords, two categories that are almost synonymous in Afghanistan. Abusive government has been the Taliban’s biggest recruiting tool and U.S. failure to do more to stem the misuse of its funds the biggest mistake the U.S. has made during a decade of war.

Not enough is being done, even now, to enforce some accountability and to bring corrupt Afghan allies to heel. But at least the decision on Kam Air–assuming it is founded upon solid intelligence–is in all likelihood a step in the right direction. The U.S. military should not be deterred by the resultant squawking from doing more to control our contracting.

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Can Social Media Bring Free Speech to China?

Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts to block the spread and influence of social media, it appears that its stranglehold on information is slipping, forcing the government to take steps toward reform. Earlier this month, the Twitter feed administered by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began to report on the dangerously toxic air quality in the capital. The New York Times reported on the government’s efforts to shut it down:

The existence of the embassy’s machine and the @BeijingAir Twitter feed have been a diplomatic sore point for Chinese officials. In July 2009, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Wang Shu’ai, told American diplomats to halt the Twitter feed, saying that the data “is not only confusing but also insulting,” according to a State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks. Mr. Wang said the embassy’s data could lead to “social consequences.”

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Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts to block the spread and influence of social media, it appears that its stranglehold on information is slipping, forcing the government to take steps toward reform. Earlier this month, the Twitter feed administered by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began to report on the dangerously toxic air quality in the capital. The New York Times reported on the government’s efforts to shut it down:

The existence of the embassy’s machine and the @BeijingAir Twitter feed have been a diplomatic sore point for Chinese officials. In July 2009, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Wang Shu’ai, told American diplomats to halt the Twitter feed, saying that the data “is not only confusing but also insulting,” according to a State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks. Mr. Wang said the embassy’s data could lead to “social consequences.”

Despite these requests, the feed remains open to this day and is again reporting on hazardous and “beyond index” readings over the last several days. The Twitter feed confirms what Beijing residents already knew: smog levels in the capital are dangerous and are only becoming worse. Two years ago the feed infamously called that day’s pollution levels “crazy bad” when it was reported that the levels had surpassed the scale of the EPA’s Air Quality Index. Earlier this month, the feed registered readings of 755, far above the Index’s upper limit of 500. What was considered “crazy bad” by the U.S. Embassy two years ago is now becoming the city’s new normal. The Atlantic reported on the shift from the state-run national media’s reporting on the crisis, in which the presence of social media was credited with a surprising degree of frankness from officials:

Why, then, would the Chinese government allow such candor on the pollution question? Social media plays a role. Prominent Beijing real estate developer Pan Shiyi regularly tweets information about pollution to his several million followers on Sina’s Weibo [a microblogging site similar to Twitter], and the flurry of similar comments by more ordinary users has brought the pollution issue into the open. At a basic level, the government understands that once an issue hits critical mass, there’s little point in perpetuating the myth any further.

To downplay the pollution levels would have required the state-run media to ask Chinese citizens to completely ignore reality and sources on the readings from trusted social media accounts like those of the U.S. Embassy. Another test of the ability of social media to bring about change in China is currently taking place with the case of a blogger, Zhu Ruifeng, who has forced government officials to face the improper sexual and corrupt behavior of some of their peers. The Wall Street Journal reported on the phenomenon last week:

Officials running into trouble over sexual exploits isn’t new in China, but interest in their illicit sexual affairs of officials has recently soared, fueled by social media, the proliferation of pocket-size video cameras and rising public concerns over officials’ misbehavior.

Unfortunately, in this instance, it appears the Chinese government is striking back against Zhu’s reporting; police made an appearance at the blogger’s door last night. The Washington Post covered the intimidation:

“If tomorrow I still end up being taken away by Chongqing policemen,” Zhu said in his last message of the night, “I hope all of you will continue supporting me.”

That post was quickly deleted, apparently by censors.

The Post also explained the far-reaching implications of Zhu’s case: “If local authorities are allowed to punish whistleblowers, experts warn, the anti-corruption campaign will lose what little momentum it has gained in the past two months.”

The Chinese government’s response to outcry over Beijing pollution was heartening and it was hoped that with the increasing prevalence and power of social media, the government would have to bend more frequently to public opinion. The situation with Zhu could demonstrate the limits to the government’s new-found flexibility. How Zhu’s readers respond to his muffling has implications not only for his case and the latest anti-corruption campaign, but also for the future of free speech in China. 

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