Guns don't kill dictatorships, people do

As he's wont to do, Matt Drudge has kicked up a fuss today by plastering photos of Hitler and Stalin above the headline "White House Threatens 'Executive Orders' on Guns." FP contributor Michael Moynihan has a good piece at Tablet looking into what's accurate and inaccurate in the commonly cited narrative that Nazi laws curtailing Jewish gun ownership were a prelude to the Holocaust. But Godwin's law violations aside, I was curious about whether there's any evidence in the modern world for the old notion that a well-armed populace is the best defense against tyranny. Do countries with high gun-ownership rights tend to be more democratic? Or more likely to overthrow dictatorships?

I haven't been able to find any published academic studies to this effect (if readers know of any, please post in the comments), but from a look at the Small Arms Survey's international rankings from 2007, it's hard to detect a pattern. (I wrote about this data in greater depth here.)

The top 10 gun-owning countries in the world (after the United States) include both democracies like Switzerland and Finland, as well as authoritarian countries like Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

With 34.2 guns per 100 people, Iraq is ranked eighth on the survey. More to the point, the country already had a well-established gun culture and a high rate of gun ownership before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. We can't know for sure if a well-armed population could have stopped Hitler's genocide, but it certainly didn't stop Saddam's.

Given the advanced deadly weaponry available to governments these days -- as opposed to the late 18th century -- most tyrants aren't all that threatened by citizens with conventional weapons. Like the Iraqis, Libyans were fairly well armed under Muammar al-Qaddafi -- 15.5 guns per 100 people as of 2007 -- but it still took an assist from NATO air power to finally bring him down.  

On the other extreme, the country ranked last on the survey -- with only 0.1 guns per 100 people -- is Tunisia, which as you'll recall was still able to overthrow a longtime dictator in 2011. With only 3.5 guns per 100 people, the Egyptian population that overthrew Hosni Mubarak was hardly well armed either. On the other hand, Bahrain, where a popular revolution failed to unseat the country's monarchy, has 24.8 guns per 100 people, putting it in the top 20 worldwide. A relatively high rate of 10.7 guns per 100 people in Venezuela hasn't stopped the deterioration of democracy under Hugo Chávez.

I don't mean to suggest there's a negative correlation between dictatorship and gun ownership. The countries where there are virtually no guns in private hands include places like North Korea and Eritrea along with places like Japan and Lithuania. I'd love to see a more sophisticated analysis on this, but from looking at the data, it's hard to see a trend either way.



Trillion-dollar COIN

There's a ridiculous debate going on in the wonkosphere about an outlandish idea: minting a trillion-dollar coin so that President Obama can avoid the upcoming debt ceiling, which Republicans are threatening to use as leverage to extract major entitlement cuts. To make a long story short, there's supposedly a loophole in the law that allows the Treasury Department to mint platinum coins of any denomination, so the president could order up a trillion-dollar coin to pay the federal government's bills. Et voilà -- no worries on the debt ceiling.

I'm convinced that nobody -- not even Paul Krugman -- is actually serious about this, and in any case Kevin Drum succinctly dispenses with the idea here, here, and here. He writes:

Like it or not, the debt ceiling is legal. Congress has the power of the purse. On the other hand, using a ridiculous loophole in a statute about commemorative and bullion coins in order to evade the debt limit isn't legal. Seriously, folks: just forget it. I know I'll never have to pay up on a bet over this since it will never be tested, but this would go against Obama 9-0 if it ever made it to the Supreme Court.

But there's a much more serious debate going on in Washington right now, one that could ultimately prove a lot more important: the debate over another trillion-dollar COIN operation, the war in Afghanistan. In a nutshell: How many troops will the United States leave behind after 2014, and what will they do? The White House is said to be deciding between 3,000 and 9,000 troops, according to the New York Times. David Barno, the retired lieutenant general who headed the U.S. war effort from 2003 to 2004, writes this week that President Obama might decide to go down all the way to zero -- and White House Ben Rhodes acknowledged Tuesday that the "zero option" is on the table.

Supporters of the war in Afghanistan are apopleptic about this possibility. One of them told me today that even 6,000 U.S. troops would essentially be zero, since they would be generally confined to Bagram Air Base and Kabul. In his estimation, the CIA's base at Khost would become untenable, and then the United States would have to conduct drone strikes inside Pakistan from much further away, with a concomitant decline in effectiveness. In other words, the notion that we'd be able to simply continue doing counterterrorism work at the same level is a chimera.

I have some sympathy for this view. There are a lot of bad dudes across the Durand Line in places like Waziristan, and they want to kill Americans. It would be naive to think that they would simply give up the fight because we left. Jihadi groups, including al Qaeda, will undoubtedly proclaim a huge victory, boosting their recruiting. They'll be right.

And here's where historical analogies break down. When the United States withdrew from Vietnam, we weren't worried about North Vietnamese communists and Viet Cong cadres blowing up car bombs in American cities. They took over the South, and that was a shame, but the so-called domino effect proved vastly overblown. You know the story: Henry Kissinger cleverly exploited the "Sino-Soviet split." And today, Vietnam is a budding American ally against a rising China.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, the bad guys really will come after us. That may sound alarmist. But left unmolested, they will increasingly have the means to do so. Drones are hugely unpopular in Pakistan; they don't seem like a sustainable long-term option, particularly after the United States leaves. And what, then, will prevent al Qaeda and friends from coming back? The Afghan military? Eventually, the region's poison will drain. But there will be many dangerous years ahead of us before then.

I'm not saying we should stay in Afghanistan. After all, it's been more than a decade, and the U.S. military and intelligence community have achieved precious little for all the blood and treasure that has been expended there. It hardly makes sense to spend tens of billions of dollars propping up an ungrateful, kleptocratic narcostate. This ain't postwar Germany or Japan, or even South Korea, however hard war supporters try to sell that analogy. "The juice ain't worth the squeeze," as one officer put it. But recognizing that doesn't solve our problem across the border in Waziristan.

Staying in Afghanistan doesn't make much sense. Leaving doesn't make sense either. What should we do?