To the extent bipartisan policy reform is possible, ideas must appeal to the instincts of both conservatives and liberal progressives.
In that tradition, Sen. Cory Booker’s proposal for ‘baby bonds’ may be a stroke of political genius. Founding special accounts for newborn children with a taxpayer-funded deposit, and means-tested government additions through childhood, has obvious appeal to liberals. It redistributes money and reduces measured wealth inequality.
But Booker is no doubt hoping it can pique conservative interest too. The so-called American Opportunity Accounts, on the face of it, introduce children to the concept of saving and support families, while providing young people with a nest egg to become more self-sufficient in achieving major life goals.
Booker’s idea is this: When an eligible child is born, an account would be opened with a $1,000 deposit from the taxpayer. Each year until the child turns 18, the government would deposit a means-tested sum rising to a maximum $2,000 contribution. The funds in these accounts would generate returns free of tax but could not be withdrawn until the child turns 18. After that point, the money could be accessed but only be used for specified investments, such as down payments on a house, college tuition, professional training, or retirement savings. The eventual sums could be significant, with a maximum of nearly $50,000 for someone in receipt of the highest annual contribution and returns of 3 percent per year.
There’s a crucial difference though between this proposal and child trust funds that have been previously tried in countries such as the United Kingdom. Under Booker’s plan, families would be prohibited from adding to government contributions with their own private funds. In the U.K., the government merely opened the accounts and administered two small payments at birth and at age 7. But the bigger idea was that parents and grandparents would scurry up to $1,000 more away each year, on top of the government deposits, valuing the tax advantages and the self-discipline of being unable to draw down the funds.
Booker’s proposal is entirely different. Being solely a public scheme, it amounts to pure redistribution — transfers from taxpayers to those on low incomes. As such, it has little to offer conservatives. The argument it will encourage saving or show children the power of investment is bogus. Saving is about deferring consumption — sacrificing today to fulfill other goals tomorrow. But this is pure taxpayer support: taxing or borrowing to take from Peter to pay Paul, with no sacrifice on the part of those enjoying the rewards.
It’s actually worse than that. Precisely because it amounts to pure redistribution, Booker would naturally impose conditions on what the funds could be used for. He recognizes, correctly, that taxpayers would be loath to grant young adults a huge lump sum at age 18 to blow on a fast car or an around-the-world travel excursion. Yet by restricting what the “savings” from the accounts can be used for, the program really amounts to just a backdoor subsidy for home-buying, college tuition, or retirement.
It would be one thing if such a one-time coming of age transfer replaced existing means-testing federal support elsewhere. But that is not what this is about. It is really just a whole new entitlement — an elaborate scheme, with a raft of new bureaucracy, which masks its effect: pumping $100 billion per year toward the same old usual liberal ambitions.
As my colleague Chris Edwards and I documented in a report last year, low-income people really do often have little to no savings. Conservatives should care about their financial security. But rather than support Booker’s phony savings scheme, which will do nothing to change behaviors, conservatives should instead push for Universal Savings Accounts — innovations that have been extraordinarily successful in encouraging modest savings for those on low incomes in Britain and Canada.
These accounts allow people to deposit after-tax income, which then grows tax-free, much like supercharged Roth IRAs. Crucially, they can be used for any purpose and funds withdrawn at any time. That flexibility overcomes one of the main reasons that poorer families do not save in tax-advantaged schemes: the fear they will not be able to access funds for unforeseen contingencies.
The best way to give people experience of savings and investment is to remove risk barriers that currently prevent them from saving formally. Booker’s scheme operates under the veneer of encouraging frugality. But it really just amounts to expanding federal government subsidies through the back-door.Ryan Bourne occupies the R Evan Scharf Chair in the Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
With Democrats seizing the House and Republicans keeping the Senate, bills beyond the proverbial post-office-naming will be hard-pressed to make it out of both chambers in the next Congress. The threat President Trump faces from Democrats, then, isn’t legislative obstruction, but the ready-aim-fire of the opposition’s “subpoena cannon.”
That’s the term one senior Democratic source used last month in describing to Axios the opposition’s main anti-Trump weapon. Not all of the investigatory weapon’s payload will be fired at once, but the appetite for “resistance” is strong and will tie up significant White House and agency resources. (Full disclosure: My wife is a lawyer in the House general counsel’s office, but hasn’t participated in any discussions regarding the Democrats’ plans.)
In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with spending time on congressional oversight. Indeed it’s a salutary check, flowing from the “legislative powers” that Article I grants Congress. The Framers assumed Congress would follow the lead of the British House of Commons in questioning executive action. James Wilson, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and future Supreme Court justice, had written that members of parliament were considered “grand inquisitors of the realm. The proudest ministers of the proudest monarchs have trembled at their censures.” Accordingly, George Mason argued at the Convention that members of Congress “must meet frequently to inspect the Conduct of the public offices.”
When the first Congress convened in 1789, the House established a select committee to investigate the country’s accounts during the American Revolution, to clear Robert Morris, the superintendent of finances. In 1792, the House authorized a special committee to investigate the military defeat of General Arthur St. Clair. President George Washington ultimately agreed on rules of disclosure that formed the early basis of what we now know as “executive privilege.”
And so it went, with the Supreme Court eventually determining that it was constitutionally kosher for Congress to seek information when crafting or reviewing laws and overseeing federal programs — but that Congress must confine itself to “legislative purposes” and avoid purely private matters.
Congressional authority here ultimately boils down to the subpoena power: compelling the production of documents or appearance of witnesses, on pain of contempt and referral to federal prosecutors. In practice, few subpoenas actually issue — and even fewer are enforced through legal process — because committee staff and the target’s lawyers negotiate some sort of resolution that narrows the scope of information or questioning sought. For example, former FBI director James Comey just this week withdrew his motion to quash a House deposition subpoena because he “reached an acceptable accommodation” for voluntary testimony, with a public transcript to be made available within 24 hours.
Which brings us to the “cannon.” Axios counted “at least 85” potential House investigation goals. Those include 59 subpoena requests that Democrats on the Oversight Committee had already submitted (and Republicans had blocked), 18 more that came from a leaked GOP spreadsheet in September, and assorted others mentioned to the media by incoming Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and incoming Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey.
Their subject matter ranges from President Trump’s business relationship with Russia to his negotiations with North Korea, the administration’s targeting of the press to the initiation of the Space Force. Many of the issues are interrelated, so we shouldn’t get fixated on the total number of subpoenas.
There’s some potentially explosive stuff, like Trump’s tax returns or his ties to the shady (and criminal) dealings of Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, and others. Others relate to alleged governmental mismanagement, whether over the hurricane response in Puerto Rico and election security, or the firing of U.S. attorneys and the ambush of U.S. soldiers in Niger. Many involve potential ethical breaches, including the grant and revocation of security clearances, use of personal email for government work, and abuse of official travel, expense accounts, and other perks.
Policy disagreements motivate a large number, ranging from the
travel ban and family-separation border policy, to the citizenship
question on the Census and the dismissal of members of the EPA
board of scientific counselors. Not all are front-page news, let
alone presidency-jeopardizing, but they’re all embarrassing
in some way, and of course designed to score political points.
They’re also designed for maximum legal pressure, to force
the courts to eventually rule on various defenses the
administration might assert.
The administration may first try to claim that certain subject matter is beyond the scope of a particular committee, or of the House itself. But the bulk of objections will come in the form of executive privilege, which takes two forms: deliberative-process and presidential-communications.
Both are designed to protect the effective operation of the executive branch, essentially arguing that presidential decision making would be hampered if aides, Cabinet members, and other officials refrained from saying or writing something to the president in fear that it would make them look bad if disclosed. The deliberative privilege comes from the old common-law royal privilege and covers a large swath of the executive branch. The communication privilege stems from the separation of powers and covers only the president and his immediate advisers, thus typically requiring a higher burden of proof to overcome.
In either case, the privilege belongs to the president, so officials only disclose what the president authorizes. For example, when Steve Bannon appeared before the House Intelligence Committee in February, on White House instruction he answered 25 pre-approved questions with a curt “no” and invoked executive privilege in refusing to answer the rest.
Presidents, Congresses, and courts have generally avoided open confrontations through compromise in view of previous practice. In modern times, presidents from Truman onwards have invoked various kinds of executive privilege relating to FBI and national-security investigations. President Eisenhower issued a sweeping command forbidding “the provision of any data about internal conversations, meetings, or written communication among staffers, with no exception to topics or people.” This directive was generally aimed at the Defense Department in response to the McCarthy hearing subpoenas relating to Army communications. President Reagan issued an order to executive-branch officials facing congressional queries potentially subject to executive privilege, directing them to “request the congressional body to hold its request in abeyance” until the president decides whether to invoke the privilege.
Only once has the Supreme Court ruled directly on executive privilege, in United States v. Nixon(1974), unanimously forcing President Nixon to produce Oval Office tapes as part of the Watergate investigation. The court held that there was no general privilege — except regarding military and diplomatic communications — but that particular invocations could be weighed against the public interest. Even military and diplomatic materials don’t enjoy absolute protection, but there the government can invoke an additional state-secrets privilege to exclude evidence at trial which, if disclosed, even under seal, would jeopardize national security. If push comes to shove and any of the subpoena cannon fodder results in the trial of particular officials with national-security responsibilities (for example, had Gen. Michael Flynn not taken a plea deal), this might be in play — but it’s not at issue right away.
President Clinton invoked executive privilege 14 times, including a failed attempt to stop his aides from being questioned as part of the Starr investigation. And recall that the Lewinsky part of that affair — and the impeachment that followed — stemmed from another unanimous Supreme Court ruling. While Clinton v. Jones (1997) didn’t involve an executive-privilege claim per se, it’s equally important to our current situation because the Court held that a sitting president wasn’t immune from civil suit for actions taken before taking office. Combining the Nixon and Jones cases suggests that federal prosecutors — including potentially those acting to enforce a House subpoena — would be able to compel Trump himself to testify under certain circumstances.
Most recently, President Obama asserted executive privilege over documents relating to the Justice Department’s Operation Fast and Furious gun-running scandal. The House Oversight Committee ended up holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for refusing to disclose them, a vote later confirmed by the House as a whole — but ultimately without legal consequence because the (Obama-appointed) prosecutor chose not to pursue the matter.
So how would all of this apply to what we’re about to see? Here’s a quick sketch of the top 10 highest-profile issues that are likely to occupy House and administration (and social-media) lawyers in the coming months:
1. Trump-Russia relations, including preparations for his meeting with Vladimir Putin.
This mainly concerns diplomacy, a generally protected category under Nixon that’s a strong defense here unless some specific allegations can be brought against the president. It won’t be enough to show that certain Russians (or Putin himself) interfered in the 2016 election; Dems must show that there was a strong likelihood that President Trump or his advisers were colluding on criminal activity. So the Mueller report will likely make this area moot regardless.
2. Trump’s business dealings with foreign governments.
This too concerns diplomacy, but the question is whether the president’s businesses benefited incidentally from presidential actions or he was motivated by selfish financial reasons to take them. The Foreign Emoluments Clause was meant to prevent foreign influence on the president, but it’s unclear what an “emolument” is. For example, China granted 38 trademarks to Trump businesses in response to the president’s One-China policy — but all presidents since Nixon have hewed to this policy. While previous presidents have avoided the issue by placing their assets into blind trusts, Trump is using a revocable trust managed by his son and CFO, opening him up to arguments of abuse of diplomatic privilege.
3. Trump’s tax returns.
Related to the two previous items, Democrats want to know whether President Trump has unsavory financial entanglements with Russia or other undisclosed conflicts of interest. An obscure provision of the tax code written in the wake of the 1920s’ Teapot Dome scandal makes the tax returns of any filer available to Congress for any “legitimate purpose.” House leaders could also use such an inquiry to determine whether Trump evaded taxes and any number of potentially embarrassing revelations that could be hidden in any billionaire’s voluminous filing. This may end up being the biggest legal fight of them all.
4. Payments to Stormy Daniels.
Under Clinton, there’s no executive privilege here — but unless there’s some public-policy hook, there’s also no congressional jurisdiction. Presumably the allegation would be that such payments violated federal election law, particularly if paid by a third party (Michael Cohen), but that’s weak. And anyway, is there anything we don’t yet know about this?
5. Firing of James Comey.
President Trump may have already waived his communication privilege by commenting on the matter, but the president has a general power to remove executive officers. Moreover, this again is part of the Mueller investigation — it was its trigger — so the House would have to first wait for Mueller’s report and then argue that the investigation was insufficient.
6. Firing of U.S. attorneys.
The Democrats could be aiming for a repeat of what happened when President George W. Bush fired seven U.S. Attorneys in 2006. Bush invoked privilege to stop several aides from testifying, ultimately leading to Congress’s holding chief of staff Josh Bolten and White House counsel Harriet Miers in contempt. But it’s traditional for all U.S. Attorneys to be asked to resign at the start of a new administration, so it’s unclear if anything here was improper and courts are unlikely to allow a fishing expedition.
7. Discussion of classified information at Mar-a-Lago.
Whatever was said at Mar-a-Lago may have been overheard by club members who shouldn’t have heard it. This may be bad form, but courts are unlikely to be sympathetic to claims that President Trump illegally revealed classified information (that he’s authorized to unclassify). Moreover, these episodes would seem to be tailor-made for the communication privilege.
8. The travel ban.
The substance of the restriction on entry of certain nationals from largely Muslim-majority countries has been litigated and ultimately approved by the Supreme Court. Anything left to uncover — was it really motivated by anti-Muslim animus? — would seem to be privileged both with respect to presidential communications and national-security concerns. House Democrats may still want to give West Wingers heartburn, but it’s unlikely that you’ll see Stephen Miller appear before a congressional committee.
9. Family separation policy.
Executive privilege would clearly apply to discussions between White House and Homeland Security officials about how to reconcile statutes requiring release of detained minors with a desire to more strictly enforce the law against illegal entry of their parents. While Democrats may hate the policy — and the administration took a p.r. hit from it — it’s unclear there’s evidence of wrongdoing for Congress to investigate.
10. Transgender ban for the military.
This ban is tied up in court precisely over whether the proper procedures were followed in enacting it. As for the reasons behind it, that would be precisely the “candid advice” executive privilege most protects.
One issue of concern to Democrats has already reached the Supreme Court: the citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Did Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross include it at the request of the Justice Department for better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act or at his own (or presidential) behest, to chill immigrant participation and potentially reduce the congressional apportionment of states like California and New York. The question has been asked in the past — though not for more than half a century — but a federal judge in New York is about to rule on whether the motivation for it now is improper. And the high court will hear argument in February about whether Ross can be forced to testify.
In sum, the subpoena cannon will produce scattershot results, hitting some targets — with the potential for collateral damage too — but missing the mark a fair bit. As far as Nancy Pelosi is concerned, that might be just fine because, in many cases, the process (and attendant media controversy) is the punishment she and her colleagues have been waiting to inflict. And news reports suggest that the administration is nowhere near prepared for the onslaught that awaits it. The White House counsel’s office in particular hasn’t been backfilling for natural attrition, which picked up with Don McGahn’s departure.
Then again, all this hubbub may well work to Trump’s benefit as he looks forward to a 2020 campaign where he can contrast do-nothing House Democrats looking to persecute him with confirm-everyone Senate Republicans. Suffice it to say, much stranger things have happened.Ilya Shapiro is a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, editor-in-chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review, and a contributor to the Washington Examiner ‘s Beltway Confidential blog.
BANGKOK-The friendly, informal nation of Thailand draws visitors from around the world. Filling some backstreet Bangkok neighborhoods of are impoverished Pakistani Christians, stranded in the Thai capital while hoping to gain religious asylum elsewhere. They survive with support from my friends at Christian Freedom International, which aids victims of religious persecution, and other humanitarian groups.
The situation reflects social and legal discrimination and persecution, often violent, against religious minorities in Pakistan. Noted the Global Minorities Alliance: “an increase of attacks against minorities in Pakistan … has led to Christians heavy-heartedly fleeing their country,” many to Thailand.
Even the Trump administration should welcome religious minorities fleeing Islamist oppression.
There’s not much the U.S. government can do to ease Christians’ plight in Pakistan, other than press Islamabad to protect the lives, dignity, and liberties of all its peoples. But Washington could accept the few thousand Pakistanis stuck in Bangkok, essentially people without a country. Even the Trump administration should welcome religious minorities fleeing Islamist oppression.
Pakistan long has been inhospitable to anyone other than Sunni Muslims. Open Doors ranked Pakistan as the world’s number five persecutor on its World Watch List. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom rated Pakistan a Country of Particular Concern. The State Department put Pakistan on its “Special Watch List.”
The British All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief recently detailed the awful state of religious liberty in Pakistan: “Pakistan presents a particularly bleak environment for individuals wishing to manifest their right to freedom of religion or belief. Across the country there are individual and communal cases of discrimination and oppression.” Noted Umair Javed, a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, “Violence against minority groups is deeply embedded within political and social processes in Pakistan.”
It is small wonder that many Pakistanis sought sanctuary elsewhere. I have talked with refugees now living in Bangkok and heard tragic stories of threats, attacks, hostility, and violence. Many were physically assaulted. Most had good reasons to flee.
A few years ago Thailand became a hoped-for way-station because the land of smiles was one of the few nations which permitted Pakistanis to enter as tourists. Moreover, the United Nations was present, having long certified as refugees Burmese fleeing persecution and conflict nearby. So Pakistani Christians hoped they could gain resettlement in the West, and especially America.
At one point there were an estimated 11,500 Pakistani Christians in Thailand, but it soon became evident that the latter was no sanctuary. Even my short visits over time, aided by CFI, highlighted the many challenges asylum seekers face.
The UN took months, even years, to interview Pakistani refugees. Thailand never ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and does not respect UN refugee designations. Pakistanis cannot legally work or purchase property.
Alas, the situation has worsened as the Thai government intensified efforts to find and arrest refugees. Detainees are stuck in overcrowded, squalid immigration detention centers. Some detainees end up in prisons, confined alongside hardened criminals.
CFI aids Pakistani refugees in numerous ways, providing food and sundries to families, supporting a church focused on refugees’ needs, visiting and bringing food to detainees, finding employment opportunities for adults, counseling family members, and running a school for children. But the group can only assist a limited number of families. Needs dramatically outrun resources, despite CFI’s best efforts.
Nevertheless, hope remains. CFI’s Wendy Wright relates stories of Pakistani refugees threatened at home who find spiritual growth and happiness among fellow believers. Pakistani expatriates who gain fulfillment serving their even more desperate countrymen and women. These brave souls fled utter darkness at home and now reflect God’s light in another country.
The Trump administration should encourage Bangkok to test alternatives to mass incarceration, such as bail backed by ankle bracelets and other forms of official supervision. Thailand also should consider creating official migrant housing and work opportunities, at least for religious refugees desiring to be resettled overseas.
Most important, Washington should take in Pakistanis currently stuck in Bangkok. The number is quite small. Having been persecuted, they are among the best candidates for U.S. citizenship, almost certain to appreciate their new home. Opening America’s door, even only a crack, would help ease criticism of the administration for its ungenerous approach to refugees.
It is easy for Americans to forget how blessed they are. Washington should allow Pakistani Christians stuck in Thailand to make the U.S. their home, to replace the one they gave up in their search for respect, safety, and liberty.Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics and Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
Three years ago, President Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Over time, this idea, in his words, “morphed into” various other policies that he calls “extreme vetting.” Despite challenges, courts have largely allowed these policies to take effect, and the results are now evident: The president is achieving his stated aim of slashing entries of Muslims into the United States.
A new analysis from the Cato Institute — based on data from the State Department — makes the facts clear. On refugee policy — the area where the president has the most discretion to enact his vision — his administration has almost completely shut out Muslims.
From 2016 to 2018, the government cut admissions for Muslim refugees - which Trump has called a “Trojan horse” designed to bring down America — by 91 percent. In 2016, the government accepted nearly 40,000 Muslim refugees around the world, compared with just 3,000 in 2018. And while refugee admissions overall have plummeted, the Muslim share dropped from 45 percent to 15 percent, meaning it’s fallen at an even faster rate. This reverses a prior trend: From 2009 to 2016, the Obama administration more than doubled Muslim refugee admissions.
While the risks from Muslim immigrants are insignificant, the costs of keeping them out are real.
This extends to legal immigration as well. The State Department fortunately does not require visa applicants to record their religion in applying for visas (imagine how Trump, who once justified his proposed ban on his stated belief that “Islam hates us,” might use that information). Nonetheless, it is clear from data on nationality of that visa approvals for Muslims have fallen.
Visa approvals for immigrants from the world’s 48 majority-Muslim countries plummeted 30 percent since 2016, amounting to 35,000 fewer immigrants from these countries in 2018. This, too, translates to a fall in the share of total immigrant visas from these countries (from 19 percent in 2016 to 15 percent this year) and reverses a trend of growing approvals for such applicants during the Obama administration. Most of this decline can be attributed to a fall in family-sponsored immigration — what Trump refers to as “chain migration.”
A similar trend has played out for temporary visitors — tourists, students and guest workers — as well. Almost 155,000 fewer people traveled to the United States from the Muslim world this past year than in 2016, an 18 percent drop. Fewer visitors for business or pleasure explain about three quarters of this decline; fewer guest workers and students explain the rest.
These declines are primarily policy driven. Trump has total authority over the refugee program and has made a conscious decision to cut the refugee program to the smallest size in its history. And even within this cap, the administration has deprioritized Muslim immigrants — especially from Syria.
Since January 2017, Trump has also targeted at various times eight specific majority-Muslim countries — Chad, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Somalia and Yemen — with a “travel ban,” which prohibited entries from those countries unless the applicants fit into narrow exceptions. The decline in approvals for these countries were much steeper: 62 percent for visitors and 70 percent for immigrants.
The Cato Institute calculates that the travel ban countries explain two-thirds of the decline in immigrants and 28 percent of the decline for visitors. Three of those countries — Chad, Iraq and Sudan — are now off the list. While the immigrant visa approvals for Chad and Sudan are back up, Iraqis were still down 42 percent in 2018. This highlights that policies at work are much broader than the highly publicized ban.
The administration might not have gotten the “Muslim ban” Trump promised, but it clearly found other ways to achieve the results he wanted by implementing “extreme vetting.” Immigrants from majority-Muslim countries have been reporting that their applications seem to disappear into an “administrative processing” hole — code for extra security screening.
The government has also doubled or even tripled the length of immigration forms with vague new “security” questions such as, “Have you ever been arrested . . . or detained by any law enforcement officer?” Many people might say, “No,” but does “detained” include at airports? These legally complex forms are costly to fill out and result in longer delays and more denials.
These policies are based on the mistaken view that Muslim Americans are a significant threat to our country. Yet the evidence shows that any threat they pose is minuscule. The annual likelihood of being killed in a terrorist attack by a foreigner since 1975 is just 1 in 3.6 million. No one from the travel ban countries, nor any Muslim refugee, has killed anyone in a terrorist attack in the United States in more than 40 years.
While the risks from Muslim immigrants are insignificant, the costs of keeping them out are real. Not only do Americans lose out on the economic benefits that immigrants and visitors provide — through purchases, employment and entrepreneurship — but also we lose an essential principle that have guided America since its founding: that America is a home for all faiths.David Bier is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute
Ted Galen Carpenter
kraine’s behavior in the Kerch Strait is another example of a U.S. ally (or security dependent) trying to gain American military backing for its own parochial agenda. Georgia sought to do that in 2008 regarding its territorial dispute with Russia over two secessionist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A European Union-sponsored report subsequently concluded that Georgia started the fighting that broke out in August of that year. And there is little doubt that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili expected to get much stronger support from the United States and NATO than he ultimately received.
There are other examples of such self-serving behavior. Saudi Arabia routinely attempts to entangle the United States in Riyadh’s regional power struggle with Tehran. Washington’s shameful support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen suggests that the effort has not been in vain.
Americans must not let the Ukrainian tail wag the American dog, or the result could be tragic for all concerned.
U.S. leaders need to be far more alert to such maneuvers and take steps to make certain that the American republic does not become entangled in conflicts that have little or no connection to important American interests. Too often, members of this country’s political, policy, and media elites act as though the interests and ambitions of an ally or “friend” are congruent with the best interests of the American people. That notion is not only erroneous but dangerous.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s conduct before, during, and after the November Kerch Strait incident, should trouble all thoughtful Americans. Three Ukrainian naval vessels sought to transit the strait—a narrow waterway between Russia’s Taman Peninsula and Crimea—that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Kiev considers the strait international waters and points to a 2003 bilateral navigation treaty with Russia to vindicate its position. However, after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and annexed that territory in 2014, Moscow now treats the strait as Russian territorial waters. It insists on forty-eight hours notice and explicit Russian approval before Ukrainian ships can use the strait.
Ukraine had complied with that requirement a few months earlier, but in late November declined to do so and attempted to carry out an unapproved crossing. Russian security forces rammed a Ukrainian tug, fired on the two other ships (wounding several sailors) and then seized all three vessels.
The motive for Kiev’s challenge was murky and the timing extremely suspicious. Poroshenko faces a tough reelection campaign in Ukraine’s presidential election at the end of March. Polls showed him languishing in a crowded field, lagging far behind the leading candidate, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and sometimes registering in the single digits. Indeed, it was doubtful that he would be one of the top two vote-getters who would qualify for an almost certain runoff round.
Thus, Poroshenko had ample political reasons for wanting a crisis. And he quickly exploited the Kerch Strait clash to stoke nationalist fervor and create a “rally around the flag” effect. Not only did he appear in public in full military attire, but he imposed martial law on ten regions near the border with Russia—regions that were among the least supportive of his presidency. Furthermore, one provision of that proclamation also banned any demonstrations for the next 30 days.
Far worse than such domestic maneuvers, though, Poroshenko sought the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) military backing. He called on the Alliance to send warships to the Sea of Azov. Such a step in defiance of Moscow’s wishes would be extremely dangerous. It would constitute an armed intrusion into Russia’s core security zone, and it would likely lead to war. Even deploying more NATO ships to the eastern portion of the Black Sea would be a major provocation.
Yet, incredibly, some American leaders seem receptive to such a course. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) called for a coordinated response between the United States and its European allies, including “inserting a greater U.S. and NATO presence in the Black Sea region and increasing military assistance for Ukraine.” Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) echoed those views. Menendez called for additional NATO exercises on the Black Sea and more U.S. security aid to Ukraine, “including lethal maritime equipment and weapons.”
Washington’s security ties to Kiev were already growing to an unhealthy degree, exemplified by the Trump administration’s approval of two arms sales, long before the Kerch Strait episode. The administration seemed poised to approve yet another arms deal. American and Ukrainian officials were in “close discussion” for Washington to supply another tranche of powerful weapons for Kiev’s fight against Russian-backed secessionist rebels in eastern Ukraine. For instance, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told reporters this on November 18 after he met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. His announcement also took place barely a week before the clash in the Kerch Strait.
Even more worrisome, a strong lobbying effort in favor of admitting Ukraine to NATO keeps surfacing, and successive American administrations have refused to abandon that goal. Under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, giving Kiev NATO membership would obligate the United States to come to Ukraine’s defense in the event of war with an outside power. Given Ukraine’s strategic importance to Russia, that is a commitment Washington should never undertake.
These various developments indicate that the United States is drifting toward a perilous confrontational policy toward Russia on Ukraine’s behalf. The status of the Kerch Strait or even the broader controversy about Crimea’s status can and should be a matter of indifference to America. It is hard to see how risking a major war with Russia benefits even Ukraine (although some Ukrainian nationalists apparently to think that it would), but it is impossible to see how such a course benefits the United States. The Trump administration needs to put far greater distance between U.S. and Ukrainian policies, not close that distance. Americans must not let the Ukrainian tail wag the American dog, or the result could be tragic for all concerned.Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of 12 books and more than 750 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Gullible Superpower: U.S. Support for Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements (forthcoming, February 2019).