Wednesday, August 9, 2017

when the military becomes an interest group

I have long worried about the politicization of the U.S. military. When officers openly identify with a particular party, they risk undermining their role as an instrument of whoever have legitimate power to control them. When American politicians court the armed forces and line up retired luminaries, they risk having the elected leaders seek out only Republican or Democratic officers for key posts.

That hasn't happened too much, yet, in the U.S., but it's a danger to be avoided. We now have another example where a foreign leader coopted the military to his own domestic policies -- Venezuela.

The NY Times explains how President Maduro has given military units and their leaders control over various domestic economic organizations, linking their personal interests to his own political success. He has created over 2,000 generals, using the army as a patronage bonanza. I believe the armed forces should be limited to their military roles, not used as a tool of political power.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

the next Korean war

It's time to get really concerned about a renewal of fighting on the Korean peninsula. There was only an armistice, not a peace agreement, that ended the fighting in 1953.

We have long been used to bombast from the Korean media and its leader. Now the American president is trying to match the explosive rhetoric. What makes Trump's comments more threatening is that they come at a time when U.S. public opinion is becoming increasingly hawkish. A quickie CBS poll  is "uneasy " about the Korean situation, and about Trump's ability to handle it. Some 29% favor "military action now." A more substantial survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds 40% of Americans favoring airstrikes on North Korean nuclear production facilities and 28% favor sending U.S. troops into the country to destroy its nuclear facilities. Only 11% of respondents are willing to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Although large majorities of 68-78% prefer sanctions against North Korea and China to try to end the nuclear programs, that approach has regularly failed in the past. I personally favor Bob Gates' proposal for joint US-Chinese inspection of a North Korean commitment to freeze its existing missile and warhead programs in return for US diplomatic recognition and other normalization. That's the best possible deal at the moment. But it would mean accepting a world where DPRK had a modet but real nuclear capability, a very tough stance for any US president to accept.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

war weariness in 1945

Americans like short, successful wars; they don't like long or unsuccessful conflicts. I've long viewed U.S. national security policy between the Nazi surrender on V-E Day and Japan's surrender on V-J Day as a struggle over the costs of an American invasion of the Japanese home islands and over the role of the emperor and the meaning of "unconditional surrender." I now see that there were powerful domestic factors also shaping U.S. policy in those crucial months.

As part of my summertime reading, I found Waldo Heinrichs and Marc Gallicchio's Implacable Foes. While the main focus of the book is on military planning for the defeat of Japan, it also provides surprising chapters on the domestic politics of the period. Truman's decisions on the atom bomb and Japanese surrender were made in a context where--

-- Congress was pushing for rapid demobilization and "reconversion" to a civilian economy and was skeptical of the need for large numbers of troops and military production once America had tro fight only a one-front war.

-- Soldiers and their families were pushing for rapid implementation of the Army's promised demobilization schedule, starting with individuals with the most points under a scheme that emphasized length of service and especially time in actual combat -- despite the disruptive impact on military units.

-- Many in government and in certain economic sectors demanded special treatment for soldiers with particular skills, such as coal minors and railway workers. Officials had to spend a lot of time responding to individual requests, often backed by congressional sponsors.

-- Congressmen regularly leaked details of classified hearings with Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and others to bolster their own calls for different military or economic policies.

-- The Army was faced with the nearly impossible task of organizing the movement of forces and equipment from Europe, where they were no longer needed, to the Pacific theater, often with 30-day furloughs en route.

One of the lessons for me is that American war weariness was a powerful factor in the spring and summer of 1945. Victory in Europe led many to switch prematurely to a civilian focus as if the war were already won.  This wasn't the last time we saw such sentiments.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

why we missed Trump's victory

As a fully frocked political scientist with some modest campaign experience, I watched last year's presidential contest with special attention to campaign organizations, spending, and themes and the resulting polling results. I knew that polls nowadays are failing to reach and get responses from over 90% of the people they try to contact, so I paid greater weight to aggregators.

I couldn't believe that Trump could win if he failed to run a traditional campaign of heavy media spending and strong organization, especially for getting out the vote [GOTV]. He didn't do either on a national scale, and even his swing-state efforts seemed modest -- though it was obviously enough in a few rust belt states that gave him electoral college victory.

Now I understand that I -- and we in the observer class -- missed where the Trump campaign was supercharged: on social media, often driven by bots. I don't follow or participate in social media, so I missed it, just as campaigns in earlier decades missed the new tactic surprise winners used.

There's new academic analysis of the role of the bots, as summarized here, with a link to the journal article, by Columbia Journalism Review:

Bots played a huge role in promoting the spread of misinformation and disinformation during and following the 2016 campaign season. A just-released study from a group of scholars at Indiana University in Bloomington, which analyzed 14 million Twitter messages, finds that bots were more likely than humans to be “super spreaders” of fake stories, playing a crucial, early role in making certain stories go viral. Bots spread the stories through tweets, retweets, replies, and mentions. Bots will repetitively add @realDonaldTrump to a tweet with a false claim, for instance, to propel false stories to surface more often.

While this is not a eureka moment in the battle against fake news, it is compelling evidence that so-called “bot armies” are a cornerstone of the misinformation strategy. The study’s findings also suggest a path forward for the fight against fake news. If bots are able to take advantage of an ecosystem that rewards their sheer force of numbers, then disabling overactive bots would be a way to slow the spread of such claims. Researchers, including those at Indiana, are developing more reliable ways to detect whether a particular account is a bot or not. The study I described above relies on a tool called a Bot-o-meter, which scores Twitter accounts based on how likely they are to belong to a human.

This story also comes after the recent controversy in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in which bot armies promoted smear campaigns against Qatar and Al Jazeera. As David Carroll pointed out: “[Bot armies are a] global problem deployed as info ops against media outlets.” BahrainWatch.org provides a fascinating list of propaganda bot networks and hashtags involved.
Now we know where else to look for campaign information, but not what to do about it.

the marginalization of the State Department

Further evidence today on how Secretary of State Tillerson is succeeding in weakening,marginalizing, and ultimately destroying the State Department. See this article by Roger Cohen.

Tillerson is refusing the nominate people to key positions, including many major ambassadorships and 20 of 22 assistant secretary posts. He is outsourcing a planned reorganization of the department,which seems driven by org chart elegance and money savings rather than roles and missions. He has acquiesced in savage budget cuts and failed to take even simple steps to boost the morale of career professionals.

Here's an example:
In the Saudi-Qatar eruption last month, the extent of dysfunction was clear. Saudi Arabia, with clear support from Trump, orchestrated a blockade of Qatar, where the United States has its largest regional air base, accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism. Never mind that such accusations coming from the Saudis are pretty rich. That was on June 5. Four days later, Tillerson appealed for reconciliation. The blockade was “impairing U.S. and other international business activities.” Barely an hour later, Trump called Qatar a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

Throughout this time, Tillerson never contacted Smith, who was then still the Qatar ambassador, she told me. By contrast, she spoke four times to Defense Secretary James Mattis during the first week of the embargo; that communication line, at least, was open. Finally, this month, Tillerson spent a few days in the region trying to broker a deal between Doha and Riyadh, to no avail.
So far, at least, Congress is resisting the deepest budget cuts, but unless Tillerson changes course, lawmakers will be funding a hollowed-out, aimless diplomatic instrument.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

who won the Iraq war?

It looks like Iran. A lengthy article in the New York Times shows how Iran has become dominant in Iraq. That's the legacy of our ill-considered war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The Times notes that Iran not only decides who has power in the Iraqi government but also is using its position to provide military support to pro-Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon.

It is not surprising that a Shiite-majority Iraq would have cordial relations with Shiite Iran, but Tehran's dominance makes it much harder to build a unified country where Sunnis and Kurds feel welcome and safe.

America's defeat has many causes, but the most valuable lesson we can learn is, Be Careful about going to war.


Monday, July 10, 2017

leadership abandoned

It's really discouraging to return to the news after a family vacation and see the further crumbling of America's position in the world -- in just a few weeks. Personally and professionally, I believe that U.S. leadership in world affairs in a good thing for us and for most others. The international institutions and norms we created after 1945 have been force multipliers for our security, our values,  and global prosperity.

That doesn't mean we have to lead everything, be policeman trying to solve every conflict, or insist on subservience to our policies. But we should still try to lead, to persuade, to shape a better future.

When an American president doesn't even try to lead other nations, doesn't listen to reasonable alternative points of view, embraces inconsistency as a virtue, he puts the rest of us at risk. That clearly was the result of the G20 summit. The other economic powers are lining up against us; they are working around our confused president. What has been and could still be a forum for international cooperation showed instead how much the U.S. has abandoned its former leadership role. America First has become America Alone.  Sad. Very sad.