Thursday, April 20, 2017

gatekeepers matter

Now, in addition to all the books chronicling recent presidents and their national security advisers, we have a valuable book looking at recent presidencies by telling the stories of their chiefs of staff. Journalist and documentary filmmaker Chris Whipple has written The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define every Presidency.

Whipple notes that presidents with weak chiefs of staff had problems, especially chaos and conflict. Strong chiefs managed the flow of information, saving the president from minutiae, and better assured completion of decided policies. He starts his book with Bob Haldeman of the Nixon Administration, arguing without trying to prove that the spokes of the wheel approaches by Kennedy and Johnson didn't work well. I don't agree with that, but I am persuaded that Nixon had a good system [for flawed policies] and Jimmy Carter, who was his own chief, failed in part because of that arrangement.

The book makes it easier to assess the Trump system, with a nominal chief but several others vying for primus inter pares. If history is a reliable guide, things don't look good for the Trump White House.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

degrading diplomacy

I'm concerned about what's been happening to the State Department -- marginalization on several foreign policy issues, still unstaffed at senior levels, threatened with huge budget cuts and questionable reorganization. The Trump people are damaging what should be our strong arm of diplomacy.

Sad to report, similar developments are undermining Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office [FCO], as described in the Economist:
The department has lost a succession of turf wars that have left it a hollow shell. Downing Street has annexed the most high-profile pieces of foreign policy—Mr Blair exercised almost total control over his ill-starred Iraq policy and the wider “war on terrorism”. The Treasury has ground its next-door neighbour by a twin process of starving it of funds and stealing some of its plum jobs. Britain’s previous ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, was a Treasury man who had never worked for the Foreign Office. The Department for International Development (DfID), which was created only in 1997, has grown into a monster that overshadows its aristocratic stepbrother. DfID is rolling in money because a legally mandated formula allocates it 0.7% of national income; meanwhile the Foreign Office must downsize or sell off its embassies.
Government institutions can atrophy from neglect. Talented people will go elsewhere to make a difference. Great powers need robust diplomatic instruments. I hope Britain and America reverse course.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

back to nature

My black car is green; my green eyes are red; the stringy catkins are dropping from the oak trees. It's allergy season. At the same time, the tulips are still vibrant; the neighbor's dogwood is in full glory; and a lilac bush I frequently pass reminds me of childhood springtimes. Can the peonies be far behind? Best of all, another robin has nested in our yard and is protecting three beautiful blue eggs.

I'm not a very good gardener. Thank goodness my wife is. Among my failed attempts are putting a rhododendron in hot sunshine and roses in partial shade. Her green thumb has turned mere twigs into budding plants. Our yard is welcoming to everything but mosquitoes, unfortunately including squirrels.

A few years ago, after a nasty reaction to a common sunscreen, I endured the full allergic test and found that I was mostly immune, except for spring pollens and grasses. So the eyedrops have moved from the cabinet to the dresser and I'm ready for reaction.

To fellow-sufferers, my sympathy. To the rest of you, enjoy what you don't have, and what we all have.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

the real turning point in the Great War

On this 100th anniversary of American entry into World War I, I want to draw attention to a more significant series of events two years earlier, changes in the conduct of war that have been tragically consequential ever since.

As Diana Preston documented in her book, A Higher Form of Killing,
Between April 22 and May 30, 1915, Western civilization was shocked. World War I was already appalling in its brutality, but it had until then been fought on the battlefield and by rules long agreed by convention. Suddenly those rules were abandoned when Germany forever altered the way war would be fought. On April 22, at Ypres, German canisters spewed poison gas at French and Canadian soldiers in their trenches; on May 7, the German submarine, U-20, without warning, torpedoed the passenger liner Lusitania, killing 1,198 civilians; and on May 31, a German zeppelin began the first aerial bombardment of London and its inhabitants. Each of these actions violated rules of war carefully agreed to at the Hague Conventions of 1898 and 1907 and were deliberately breached by Germany in an attempt to spread terror and force the Allies to surrender. While that failed, the psychological damage caused by these attacks far outweighed the casualties. The era of weapons of mass destruction had dawned.
While the German began these tactics, their opponents quickly retaliated in kind. All deserve blame.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

America enters the Great War

Next Thursday, April 6, will mark the centennial of U.S. entry into what is now called World War I, a conflict that might have been avoided by better diplomacy and less rigid war plans. But given the circumstances of April, 1917, should the United States have gone to war?

I've been reading a somewhat revisionist book on American policy before and during the war by G. C. Meyer that finds plenty to blame Woodrow Wilson for, and shows some sympathy for the opponents of the declaration of war. I'm still undecided. The Germans were not as bad as British propaganda depicted them.  U.S. policy was willing to let Germans starve but not the British or French. Tsarist Russia was hardly fighting for democracy.

I agree with Meyer and others, however, that once into the war, Wilson behaved badly, with overpowering censorship and suppression of civil liberties. And he failed to get anything good out of the Versailles Treaty because of his self-centered rigidity when dealing with the Senate. So bad marks there.

Bot on the bigger question, unsure.

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.