Saturday, March 11, 2017

Congress and the navy

I ordered the book Congress Buys a Navy [U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2016] by naval historian Paul Pedisich hoping to find a story of how farsighted lawmakers overcame reluctant presidents and built a fleet for a global power role during the years it covers, 1881-1921. Instead I found a chronology of parochialism and porkbarrel politics. Hardly anyone in either the executive or legislative branch had a vision of a future navy, just requests for new ships a year at a time.

Pedisich tells how Congress repeatedly rejected proposals for navy reorganization because it valued the patronage possibilities in the service's 8 bureau system. He documents recurring fights over whether to build ships in navy shipyards or private ones. And prior to the Spanish-American war of 1898, Congress forced delays in actual ship construction by demanding that contractors meet a $300 per ton price for armor plate, far below the industry standard of $400-500.

Eventually, spurred by the 1898 war and later by a rearmament binge in 1916, Congress did build a navy "second to none." But it was accomplished without a strategic plan and only by compromises to serve member interests.

Pedisich mentions but does not seem to recognize the significance of one development that I think explains why Congress actually put serious money into naval modernization in the mid-1880s. In 1885, the House gave its naval affairs committee the power to write appropriations bills. Until then, that panel approved bills authorizing new ship programs, but they were ignored and slashed by the appropriations committee. The Senate made a similar change after 1898, and the navy committees retained appropriations power until after World War I. The power to shape actual money bills greatly improved the legislative chances of naval expansionists.

One reason Congress reverted to single appropriations committees in the early 1920s was to avoid the overspending by the many committees that could both authorize and appropriate. Lesson learned.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

best SecDef?

A writer for Tom Ricks' blog draws attention to a recent interview by former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates praising  two of his predecessors, Mel Laird [under Nixon] and Harold Brown [under Carter]. I share Gates' admiration and would add Bill Perry, Brown's deputy and later Clinton's second SecDef.

My own study of those who have held that office, SecDef: the nearly impossible job of Secretary of Defense, was published just before Gates took office in 2006. I praised Laird, Brown, and Perry as unsung heroes who performed all of their key tasks with great skill, and did not join the ranks of 1/3 of the Pentagon leaders who were fired or forced to resign. In addition to managing the department, the secretary has to maintain good relations with the President and other members of the National Security Council, with the military leadership, and with the Congress. He also functions as a war planner and an important diplomat.

Gates himself would rank first in my judgment. He maintained the confidence of two quite different presidents and kept strong congressional support, despite his own contempt for politicians, which he revealed only in his memoir. He also made many good calls -- in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in reorienting military thinking to the most urgent tasks, and in demanding accountability. He even fired people, which few of his predecessors had ever done.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

problem without a solution

Bill Bishop, who made us aware that a "Big Sort" had turned America into islands of like-minded people, has a discouraging piece in the Post detailing the enormous loss of trust in most institutions, except for the military. It has happened mainly since the 1970s [hello, Vietnam! hello, Watergate!].

While there have probably been multiple causes including individual self-absoprtion and a decline in community engagement, Bishop offers no remedies to restore trust.

I don't have any far-reaching ideas to offer either. Congress and the presidency can help their own situation by getting things done -- and that means centrist compromises. The news media are too numerous and fractured to save themselves as a group, but individual organizations can triumph through professionalism rather than partisanship. The counter example of the U.S. military offers a potential model -- of accomplishment, professionalism, nonpartisanship [mostly, so far], and built-in self-criticism mechanisms.

Trust can't be demanded; it has t be earned.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Are we better than Nazi Germany?

I hope so, but we may be tested. Timothy Snyder, distinguished historian of the Holocaust, has an article in the New York Review of Books noting that Hitler used a fire in the Reichstag  to suspend civil rights and later an attack on a German diplomat by an angry Jew to launch the kristallnacht pogrom. 

The 9/11 attacks led America to accept increased government surveillance and travel restrictions -- though I would note that Congress required the USA PATRIOT Act to be renewed every few years and did not adopt the Bush administration's open-ended authorization for wars on terrorists.

Nevertheless, Snyder's warning is valid. Even strong democracies can be turned authoritarian in the face of real or exaggerated threats.

politicization of the U.S.military

I have long warned against military personnel becoming politically identified with either political party. [See chapter 12 of my Warriors and Politicians.] Imagine how destructive it would be if the American people thought that the armed forces were a tool of a political party rather than a servant to the nation and defender of the Constitution. Imagine presidents searching for Republican or Democratic generals rather than the best warriors or strategists. Not good!

A new survey of West Point cadets and graduates warns that these military professionals are freely expressing their political views through social media, phenomena that have grown up since the last codification of rules for political activities. The existing rules limit the public display of political preferences, largely confining them to the secrecy of the ballot box and small bumper stickers.

The survey was limited -- to army officers -- but still can be taken as a warning. Officers should strive for nonpartisanship if they want to avoid becoming pawns in nasty political power struggles.

Friday, February 24, 2017

refresher course

It's good now and then to revisit those golden oldies of political thinking. There are still powerful insights in Max Weber's writings on bureaucracy and John Milton and John Stuart Mill on freedom of the press.

Today's assigned readings are from British writers: George Orwell's classic, "Politics and the English Language," and Jonathan Swift's "The Art of Political Lying."

Read and reflect.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Who said that?

I read a fine short biography of a famous man recently. Some things, however, jumped out at me -- a deja vu moment.

Here are three quotations from the great man:

1.“All of you know nothing; I alone know something. I alone decide.”

2.“My course is the right one, and in it I shall continue to steer. We are destined for greatness, and I shall lead you to glorious days.”

3.“Beware the time when I shall give the orders.”

And here is advice on dealing with him from his closest friend:

4.“[He] takes everything personally. Only personal arguments make any impression on him. He likes to give advice to others but is unwilling to take it himself. He cannot stand boredom; ponderous, stiff, excessively thorough people get on his nerves and cannot get anywhere with him. [He] wants to shine and to do and decide everything himself. What he wants to do himself unfortunately often goes wrong. He loves glory, he is ambitious and jealous. To get him to accept an idea one has to pretend that the idea came from him. …He is the sort of person who becomes sullen unless he is given recognition from time to time by someone of importance. You will always accomplish whatever you wish so long as you do not omit to express your appreciation when [he] deserves it. He is grateful for it like a good, clever child...We two will always carefully observe the boundaries of flattery.”

Who said that?

The three quotations in italics are from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who [mis]ruled Germany from 1888 until 1918. The advice was given to Foreign Minister Berhard von Bulow by Wilhelm's longtime friend, Count Philipp zu Eulenburg-Hertefeld. The book, Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1859-1941: A Concise Life, by John C.G. Rohl, who earlier had written a 3-volume life of the kaiser.

Sound familiar?