Sunday, December 26, 2010

Do-over on Lavelle promotion

Last summer I got involved in the controversy over the proposed posthumous promotion for Air Force general John D. Lavelle, who was removed from command for disobeying bombing restrictions for operations against North Vietnam. Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee sent the nomination back to the Pentagon and demanded further study to resolve contradictions between the Air Force case for promotion and the fuller historical record on Vietnam bombing. While I think no further study is necessary, and the full record is clearly against this promotion, I understand the value of  this face-saving gesture.

Monday, December 13, 2010

squishy science

Although I am a longtime member of the American Political Science Association, I'm not really one of the white-coated number crunchers who seem to be a majority in the discipline. But I am interested in methodology, and was profoundly influenced by reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I even assigned it to students, so that they would better understand the social basis of much learning and how paradigm shifts come about.

Recently some general interest magazines have told those of us on the outside of "hard" science that something's rotten in those fields. The Atlantic had a piece highlighting the work of  Dr. John Ioannidis who says that much medical research reports are false. And now the New Yorker tells us that scientists trying to replicate earlier studies often find declining significance in their results. The author offers a few theories -- that there is a publication bias, or selective reporting, or just the end of an illusion.

We who believe in the scientific method, or who take pills or adjust their diets on the basis of scientific studies, should start sprinkling our certitude with a little caution.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

law-making and sausages

There is one good reason to quote the Kaiser's Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, on the legislative process. Research has shown that a powerful reason for public disgust of Congress is that people don't like to see lawmaking up close, especially since there are so often compromises and side deals. I think that's normal, necessary, and mostly good, but ordinary citizens don't like it.

But there are two reasons not to cite Bismarck's line that "those who love the law and those who love sausages should never see how either is made."  One was spelled out by Robert Pear in the New York Times last week: sausage-making is much better, because it's done by professionals to exacting standards. 

The second reason is historical: Bismarck is not one to judge the legislative process because he started and prosecuted three wars without ever asking the German parliament for authority and funds. He dishonored his own constitution.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Told you so

Congressional and media criticism of President Obama misses the point. As I wrote before the election, the only thing that matters to the White House now is the 2012 presidential election. That explains the logic behind the tax cut deal -- which was achieved largely by negotiations with Senate Republicans. No surprises here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

House-ification of the Senate

Many observers have noted the increased polarization and partisanship in the Senate in recent years. In 1995, then Republican Whip Alan Simpson of Wyoming said that "the galley slaves have taken over the ship." What he meant, and what is still evident, is that many newly elected Senators who previously served in the House of Representatives, bring their majoritarian instincts to the other chamber. In fact, there are more former House members in the Senate today than ever in US history.

As I looked for a way to explain to my class the cultural difference between the Senate and House, I offered  this metaphor: in the House, they play tackle football -- rough, physical, only winning counts; in the Senate, they were used to touch football -- where playing may be more important than winning all the time, and nobody wants to inflict or suffer a major injury. When the tackle players move onto the touch field, they play by their old rules and everything gets nastier.

Leaks and peeks

I'm as much a foreign policy voyeur as the next person, but the latest Wikileaks dumps are out of bounds. As a citizen, I welcome unauthorized disclosures of government lies to its own people or of morally questionable activities. But these State Department cables don't reveal Big Secrets, only the routine exchanges between headquarters and the field -- exchanges that are properly classified as one of those diplomatic niceties.

I agree with Peter Beinart's assessment that the document reveal little of importance but can cause serious problems for American diplomacy.

And I'm underwhelmed by the comments from various Arab leaders that they'd happily watch America launch a war against Iran while they stood by and cheered. If they fear the consequences for their own regimes of an Iranian nuclear capacity, they should be twisting the arms of every other nation not to go to war, but to enforce even tighter sanctions.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

deficit delusions

As Congress and the President try to make less of a mess of the economy, they face a rock wall of public opinion that constrain their options. For example, from one recent poll for the group Third Way:
Which of the following statements do you agree with more?
If we're serious about reducing the deficit, we have to raise taxes. 17%

We can balance the budget without raising taxes. We just need to cut government spending and get rid of government waste. 76%

Don't know 7%

Which of the following statements do you agree with more?
If we're serious about reducing the deficit, we have to reform Social Security and Medicare. 21%

We can balance the budget without touching Social Security and Medicare. We just need to cut other government spending and get rid of government waste. 75%

Don't know 5%
It's a shame the budget doesn't come with a line item for "government waste."

Friday, November 12, 2010

the sour politics of trade

The media are depicting the failure to reach agreement on revisions to a US-Korea free trade agreement as a sign of President Obama's political weakness in the wake of the midterm elections. A better explanation is that trade is a divisive domestic issue, with many Democrats and now Tea-Party Republicans dubious of the benefits of these agreements. A new Pew survey documents these attitudes, showing that over half the people believe that trade deals lead to job losses at home and nearly half believe that they lead to lower wages for Americans. It will take more than a chorus of economists singing a different tune to make trade agreements politically popular.

I remain concerned that the Administration's "National Export Initiative" is a hope-based strategy rather than a set of actions that can really boost US exports. So far, there isn't even a legislative package that could smooth the way.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Becoming House-broken

The Washington Post has an article suggesting that most of the newly elected Republican members of Congress will catch Potomac fever within a short time. As one conservative public relations person says, "They run against Washington calling it a cesspool and discover that it's really a hot tub." There's no news in the article, but it does raise the question of whether living and working in the capital leads to corruptive cooptation.

I think the real problem is the opposite: members spend so much time raising money and going back home that they never get to know their colleagues as human beings and never develop the institutional loyalty that allows Congress to see the national interest regardless of their local and political interests. In other words, a small case of Potomac fever protects against much worse diseases.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

New House rules and budget ploys

The likely majority leader in the incoming House, Eric Cantor of Virginia, has set forth some interesting ideas about how he hopes to run that chamber.It adds to ideas included in the leadership's Pledge to America.

Cantor complains of the "3-day work week and the overlapping schedule it creates" but doesn't say precisely how we wants to change it. He does say that vote-free times will be established for committee meetings.

He wants to eliminate most measures now handled by suspending the rules -- congratulatory resolutions and naming of post offices.

He wants to highlight one major oversight hearing each week and even suggests having the House debate and adopt committee reports that are investigatory rather than legislative. He laments the decline in congressional oversight of the executive but fails to note the irony in his chart, ending in 2006, which shows a steep drop in oversight during the recent GOP-controlled congresses.

On budgetary matters, he announces plans for weekly votes on rescission bills -- measures to cancel previously approved spending authority -- outside of the regular appropriations process.

He also says that bills that propose new spending have to say "explicitly" how they will be paid for. Tax cuts, of course, are not included in this requirement.

While he doesn't mention a balanced budget constitutional amendment, I expect that to be added to the Republican budget package.

What we can expect, therefore, is a publicity-sensitive series of spending reduction measures and oversight hearings that, even if enacted, will have little real impact on fiscal policy or management efficiency.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

the battle of the estimates

The way bureaucracies work, they are already drafting their assessments on Afghanistan for the scheduled December strategy review. One component of that review, of course, is U.S. public opinion. Already there are signs of the battle for it. A few days ago, Gen. Petraeus gave an interview to the Washington Post in Kabul in which he said that progress is faster than expected. Today, that paper carries a Washington-sourced story, apparently based largely on intelligence estimates, saying that coalition forces are having tactical successes but not strategic success against the Taliban.

Expect more of this in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

post-election politics

I'm annoyed by the speculation and, in my view, faulty analysis regarding how the president and congress will interact after the elections, especially if at least the House has a Republican majority. Nobody seems to recognize that the White House will go it alone, regardless. In the runup to reelection, first term presidents use congress as a punching bag if necessary and a co-conspirator only if it's in their personal/political interest. The insularity of Obama's White House staff only reenforces this tendency. They will focus entirely on what helps the president, not what might help Democrats in congress.

Meanwhile, congress will be more closely divided even if Democrats retain majorities. That leads to gridlock except on the only must-pass bills, chiefly appropriations to run the government. That's where the drama will be,  and not on much other legislation. Both sides will bluff and threaten, and only one side can win. Calls for congress to be more progressive or more conservative or more centrist won't matter. Each side will plot how to escape the OK Corral shootout with the fewest injuries.

the meaning of the elections

I want to write this now, before we are swamped by the usual punditry. Whoever wins on November 2, the only incontrovertible lesson is that the winners got more voters to the polls than the losers. Anything else is just speculation.

The opinion polls indicate major Republican gains, which should be expected for several reasons. With few exceptions [1934. 1998, 2002] the President's party usually loses strength in Congress in mid-term elections. When the economy is bad, more incumbents lose. When the public feels the country is "on the wrong track" -- and that figure is now above 60% -- the President's party suffers.

What the national polls can't show, however, is why Candidate A beat Candidate B, since that outcome depends on multiple factors -- some local, some national, some related to personalities, some to ideologies.

So beware the instant analyses that try to draw broader lessons. Most will be the prescriptions the analyst would offer before the voting ["be more centrist," "be more conservative," "be more liberal," "be more negative," "be more positive"]. Instead, just congratulate the winners you like and console the losers you wish had won.

Friday, September 24, 2010

bureaucratic politics in China

Foreign policy officials and commentators all too often treat other governments as monolithic: "London believes," "India feels."  In fact, even non-democratic regimes face internal disagreements and pressures from stakeholders with different interests and perspectives.  Now the Washington Post is telling us the same is true in China. Different ministries are jockeying for control over aspects of Chinese foreign policy -- just as in the United States the White House, Pentagon, State Department,and Treasury are often not on the same page.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

don't take The Pledge

The House Republican leadership has released  a document setting forth their goals and plans if they regain the majority in this year's elections. It's full of hot button phrases ["job-killing tax hikes" "the red tape factory in Washington"] and hard-to-disagree-with statements. [Does anyone want to let terrorists come to America?]

I was struck by what it says regarding national security and congressional reform.

The Republican leaders pledge to "provide the resources,authority, and support our deployed military requires, fully fund missile defense, and enforce sanctions against Iran." I shouldn't be surprised, but missile defense is already getting $10 billion per year with little yet to show for it. They also pledge to freeze hiring and cap spending at 2008 levels for non-security discretionary accounts. What's that? It's everything except the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs. In other words, our international programs including military aid to Israel, Afghanistan, and other important countries, will be frozen or cut. The FBI can't hire more people, and federal prisons will have to stop expanding. But the TSA can buy more full-body scanners and hire more baggage checkers because they are "security."

What's interesting on congressional reform is that THEY DON'T PLEDGE TO STOP EARMARKS. They say all bills have to contain a citation to the constitutional authority for the measure and they promise not to bundle controversial bills with "must pass" measures and they will allow amendments to cut spending, but don't mention allowing increases or transfers. Seems like pretty weak tea.

discounting Woodward

Bob Woodward's new book is out. Here's a very informative review. I've ordered it; I'll read it, especially looking for things to assign students to illustrate the policy process. But I won't believe it all.

Insider books are valuable for the rest of us because they are the first draft of history and are available long before the reflective memoirs and declassified documents. Woodward usually has excellent access to the key players, who try to spin him to see things their way. You can usually tell who is a source, because they tend to get sympathetic treatment and favorable adjectives. Those who refuse to cooperate do so at their peril, for their side of the story doesn't get included.

Woodward's style is narrative, not analysis or assessment. That leads him to emphasize conflict, whether or not the conflict, which is inevitable in policymaking, was deep or persistent. But since I read newspapers and mystery novels, I enjoy finding out 'who shot John."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

enough to make a buzzard puke

Years ago, an older and wiser Senate staff colleague used to respond to outrageous examples of political demagoguery by saying, "It's enough to make a buzzard puke."

I'm feeling that way more often lately. I used to excuse inconsistencies and flipped arguments as just like lawyers picking the best arguments for their specific case. Now I see their comments as rank hypocrisy.

I'm thinking of Members of Congress who assert their war powers only when an opposition leader controls the White House and who accept executive assertiveness when their own leader is in charge. I'm thinking of self-professed budget hawks who turn into meek puppies [not Blue Dogs] when they have a rare chance to capture lost revenues. I'm thinking of those who want to limit or even cut health programs for civilians but who never are willing to deal with the soaring costs of military medical benefits beyond service-connected problems. I'm thinking of those senior military officers who oppose gays in uniform by offering exactly the same arguments -- "people would feel uncomfortable sharing the same living quarters and that would weaken morale and combat effectiveness" -- that were made in opposition to racial integration of the services in 1948.

I'm sure you can give additional examples of this phenomenon. Isn't it outrageous?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rue Britannia

I suppose I'm an Anglophile. I lived in London for a glorious year as a Fulbright scholar. I've traveled to Britain several times. I devour books on Churchill and World War II, and sample volumes on other periods of British history. My very first published article, at the end of my Fulbright year, was on the Labour Party's defence policy [sic on spelling]. I've subscribed to the Economist off and on over the years, and now even have time to read it.

Hence my feeling of sadness as I read the Economist's latest article on British defence policy. The Cameron government has even established a National Security Council [in the old days, the body that mattered was the Committee on Imperial Defence] and is undertaking a comprehensive strategic and budgetary review.

Lots of luck. Britain faces a smaller version of what the United States faces: expensive military capabilities confronting a restrictive fiscal environment. We shall see whether the new coalition government makes tough choices or papers them over for a while.

Meanwhile, the United States faces similar choices of whether or how to trim requirements and commitments, or military capabilities, or certain lines of expenditure. Like Britain, we have the studies, internal and external. But those analyses can never answer the big strategic questions. That requires a whole of government, and whole of society, judgment.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

second thoughts on nation-building

In recent years, I've subscribed to the view that the United States can shape overseas governments at least to be relatively stable and benign to our interests, if not actually free and democratic. I read how well we performed this task in postwar Japan and Germany, and dismissed our failures as special cases. I also endorsed recommendations to strengthen our civilian capacity to help in stabilization and reconstruction missions.

Now I'm having second thoughts. At best we seem only to have lucked out in Iraq, after years of trial and error. And while I want to believe that counterinsurgency theory will work in practice, the results so far in Afghanistan are far from encouraging. Then I came across a reference to an academic book review that looks at the literature on nation-building and raises further doubts in my mind. The author, Jason Brownlee, argues persuasively that the United States has succeeded in building viable states only where the right preconditions already existed, including well-functioning government at all levels and political institutions.

This isn't just an American problem, for the international community has also done a lousy job turning its interventions -- in Somalia, Congo, the Balkans -- into peaceful and viable entities.

Friday, September 10, 2010

conflicting goals and unintended consequences

I am also not an expert on Afghanistan. So I read with dismay but not surprise the Washington Post article saying that U.S. anti-corruption efforts in that country may have made things worse.

The United States has numerous, and not always compatible, goals in Afghanistan. ALready we have seen conflicts between the desire to strengthen the central government in Kabul and the desire to strengthen local warlords who are willing to fight the Taliban. Our aid programs are torn between U.S.-managed efficiency and accountability and locally empowered contractors who are accustomed to bribes and favoritism. We want Afghanistan to have a modern banking system but don't like the cronyism and overseas villas of the current banking leadership.

I hope U.S. officials have a clear sense of these inevitable conflicts and have a set of priorities that can allow them to navigate through them.

I guess I was right

There's confirmation today of my inexpert intuition of yesterday. The New York Times quotes Vice President Biden as follows:

Mr. Biden said in an interview in Baghdad last week that if Iraq went another six months without a new government it would raise concerns that Iraq’s military might intervene in politics. “My worry will be that generals in the military will start saying, ‘Wait a minute, which way is this going to go?’ ” he said.

“But I think we are far from that,” said Mr. Biden, who added that the Obama administration had been striving for a political breakthrough. “We have been deeply involved with each of the parties from the day after the election results came in,” he said, adding, “This has been constant.”

The administration may be aware of the potential problem, but I remain dubious that the United States can engineer a stable and effective grand coalition government -- in Iraq or much of anywhere.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

you read it here first

Disclaimer: I am not an Iraq expert. I have no current knowledge about Iraq. But I have an intuition that the current political impasse will be ended by a military coup.

Over the years, when I have had contact with people knowledgeable about Iraq and its politics, I've asked about the role of the military and civil-military relations. Often I was told that the senior officers are frustrated with the politicians but feared the international community's response to any coup attempt.

The situation is changing, not least with the withdrawal of many US troops and the change of mission for those remaining. The situation is also changing because of the new senior American personnel, who are unlikely to be as close to Iraqi officers as their predecessors. Western reporters haven't written about this, probably because most of their contacts are civilian politicians and the military wouldn't speak to them anyway. Yet there are continuing security problems and the politicians are seen as dithering.

To me, this looks like a situation where even a reluctant military may want to intervene to end the stalemate and preserve order.

Monday, September 6, 2010

voter ignorance

I've commented before on the appalling degree of voter ignorance. In a spirit of nonpartisan fairness, I wanted to note the column of Ilya Somin, a George Mason University professor, that mentions mistaken views among Democrats. While partisan orientation may explain some beliefs that get circulated among partisans, I certainly disagree with Professor Somin's conclusion -- that "The best response to voter ignorance is to reduce the size and scope of government."

I cannot follow the logic here. Would more people know who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks if the Federal budget were only 10% of GDP? Would the extent of U.S. dependence on foreign oil be better understood if there were no Energy Department or Department of Education?

No, ignorance can be combated, though not necessarily overcome, by the availability of information and education, and by citizen efforts to publicize falsehoods.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

party polarization

Dan Balz of the Washington Post draws on papers by political scientists trying to explain the political problems of the Obama presidency. Some blame Obama for trying to be above politics in 2008, offering a bipartisan vision that was impossible to achieve. Others say he exaggerated the effect of his rhetorical skills once president.

There's some wisdom in these analyses. American politics has been highly polarized for at least two decades. It's also sad but true that each of the last three presidents has been viewed as fundamentally illegitimate by a large segment of the opposition party. There are also deeper reasons for this situation -- the realignment of the parties into ideological opposites, the rise of safe congressional districts through clever redistricting, and the growth of influential interest groups outside of the party/electoral system. [I see nothing wrong with an interest group saying "we're right on corporate taxes, or relations with Taiwan, or prescription drugs. What I dislike is when those groups push for candidates using unrelated issues and hiding their real agenda.]

A more telling criticism of Obama comes from John Judis in the New Republic. He documents the inconsistencies in the administration's approach -- sounding a populist trumpet one week and sober nonpartisanship the next. Politicians should remember what harm an uncertain trumpet can do.

you are what you eat

The New York Times has a clever feature today, made even better by an interactive display on line, of the military rations for the international troops in Afghanistan. Take a look. The diversity is fascinating and the cultural significance profound. You have to wonder how happy soldiers would be to have to eat the rations from another country.

If this is one of the ways the Times is trying to reinvent itself for the digital age, then I'm more optimistic about its future.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

presidential power in wartime

I've come across an article that puts into words what I have long felt about the limits on presidential power in wartime. A father and son duo, both lawyers, one conservative and one liberal, have written a book condemning the use of torture but explaining ways to assess other executive actions arguably in defense of the whole community and nation.

I'm a Constitutionalist, not a Presidentialist like the Cheney-Addington-Yoo crowd. I believe that Congress has significant powers over the use of force at home and abroad. And I excuse the extra-Constitutional behavior of Jefferson and Lincoln because they asked Congress for ex post facto authorization.

I'm also highly dubious of arguments that torture sometimes works and is a necessary tool in those "ticking time bomb" scenarios that apologists envision. I guess I have faith that, if an official were willing to risk his career and risk severe punishment, a defense in court might prove successful.

That's where the Fried and Fried article is most persuasive. They suggest that Presidents can sometimes act illegally if they are willing to follow the model of civil disobedience and accept punishment for their illegal actions. But they can't keep those actions secret and they can't ever torture. In other words, they do not have inherent power because a war exists or a threat exists. They only have the right to be judged on their illegal actions.

Friday, September 3, 2010

the approaching storm

More and more election forecasters are predicting a Democratic wipeout in the November elections. They expect huge losses leading to a Republican-controlled House and maybe the same in the Senate. Strangely, voter discontent is anger at Democrats rather than support for Republicans, as another new poll demonstrates. There just isn't any good news for Democrats.

Things can change, of course. Some of the unknown newcomers winning GOP primaries may self destruct on the campaign trail. But the economy can't surge tangibly in the remaining weeks, and the economy is the main driver of voter unhappiness.

I was struck by what an anonymous "Democratic strategist" told the Washington Post today:
"We did the mosque, Katrina, Iraq, and now Middle East peace?" said a Democratic strategist who works closely with multiple candidates and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And in between you redo the Oval Office? It has become a joke."

On the one hand, this person rightly notes that all of the media obsessions in recent months have been bad news stories for Democrats, either in themselves or as distractions from efforts to help the economy. But did you notice that the person called the BP oil spill "Katrina"?

I think that the BP oil spill has become for Obama what Katrina was for Bush in the second term -- a metaphor for incompetent government, a long-running story of failure, despite valiant attempts to fix the problem. When even Democrats make that mental error, it suggests that the mindset has taken hold.

Monday, August 30, 2010

the romance of bipartisanship

Some time ago, I noted how partisan debates on foreign policy have been for a long time. Now there's a good article in the Weekly Standard explaining why partisanship is here to stay. Gary Andres cites some political science research arguing that party polarization is caused by a sorting process that made districts more homogeneous and the parties more ideological. But secondly, that empowered party leaders in Congress who delivered for the home team.

These are persuasive explanations to me. And I agree with the view that pundits' calls for bipartisanship as an unalloyed good thing are naive and romantic.

Afghan policy review

Marc Ambinder suggests that the Obama administration's review of policy in Afghanistan, slated for December, in fact will be strongly shaped by current perceptions of the conflict there. He notes that the process of agency position development and interagency coordination of paperwork is already beginning. I think he's only partly right.

As I see the policy process -- on almost any issue --within the Executive Branch, it's an ongoing contest between advocates of the status quo and advocates of change. The Afghan review has the added twist of an announced deadline, which is action-forcing. I expect that status quo advocates are preparing papers that emphasize progress being made and make all the usual "stay the course" arguments. Change advocates, however, know that this is their opportunity to make the case for whatever they feel is lacking. No doubt some military officers are saying things like, 'Drop the 2011 deadline, Give us even more time and more resources." No doubt others are saying, "Press Karzai harder," or "Go around Karzai," or whatever they have been urging in recent weeks. Somebody may even have ideas on how to "cut our losses" without suffering a "defeat."

I'm sure that the issues are quite complex, the trade-offs painful, with many goals conflicting. I just hope that, as the policymakers narrow down their options to simpler packages, they ground their choices in evidence-based possibilities and not just hope.

taxes more or less

The Volker Board has released its report on tax reform. It is an options paper, with advantages and disadvantages enumerated, rather than a recommended program. I hope Congress and the Administration study it carefully, for there really are a lot of ways to simplify the taxes we pay and the rules surrounding them.

Most public debate about taxes is on big, binary choices: increase or decrease; flat or progressive; pro- or anti-family. The Volker report shows that we have a very complex tax code, with a lot of individually reasonable provisions that, lumped together, create confusion and inconsistency. It suggests ways to simplify, consolidate, rationalize, and otherwise improve our tax system.

As I wrote several months ago, a large unexplored area for deficit-reducing revenues is in those "tax expenditures" [aka "tax breaks" or "loopholes"] that lawmakers have added over the years to promote seemingly good things like home ownership and business research and employer-paid health plans. A case can be made for each, but lawmakers and citizens need to weigh their current value and the priorities of each compared with ongoing governmental activities. Together with many of the modest options in the Volker report, there are worthwhile ideas for simplifying the tax code and regaining currently lost revenues.

foolish consistency

I'm surprised by how few people know the full wording of Emerson's famous statement on consistency and the insight it contains.

As he wrote in his essay "Self-Reliance,"
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

It's quite true that diplomats and other officials often make a fetish of consistency, at least until they have to change their positions. Sometimes it's a virtue, sometimes a hindrance to wise policy.

This point came home to me as I read, in this twilight of summer reading for pleasure now that classes resume, a very informative book on Churchill's views of the British empire. Author Richard Toye cites private and public statements by Churchill that show his sometimes ambivalent and often changing views of imperial subjects and colonial wars. While he was consistent in supporting British conquest and imperium, Churchill was inconsistently racist, inconsistently in favor of brutal tactics, and inconsistently confident that the efforts to preserve the empire were worth the cost.

Biographers often note that the vices of great leaders are usually the extreme form of their virtues. Churchill's obstinacy was noble against Hitler, but less admirable or effective against other adversaries. What is interesting to me -- in general, a Churchill admirer -- is how less consistent he was on many imperial issues than I had realized.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

too good to check

Most professors and public speakers have a few good stories and quips they especially like to use. In my experience, most of them seem to come from one of three people: Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, or Yogi Berra.

I once tried to search the online collection of the complete works of Twain for two of the sayings. No luck. Zero items found. But I still like them, so I try to remember to say, "As Twain said, according to some attributions, ..." A professor friend of mine once asked his two research assistants to find the origin of an important insight attributed to General George Marshall: "There is no limit to what you can accomplish in this town [Washington], if you're willing to give someone else the credit." Again, no luck. No proof that Marshall ever said it. I still cite the statement, for the very absence of definitive proof somehow makes the truth of it even clearer.

I still believe in trying to verify statements attributed to others, and I welcome those researchers who can prove that Washington/Franklin/Lincoln or whoever did not in fact say some widely quoted line. But if I can skip the footnote, some of these sayings and stories are too good to check.


Peter Baker of the New York Times has a lengthy and balanced assessment of President Obama as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Most of his sources spoke on the record, including Defense Secretary Gates. Baker did not seem, however, to have spoken to senior military commanders.

Gates makes some surprising comments: that Obama suggested General Petraeus when he resolved to remove General McChrystal; that Gates and the President were surprised when McChrystal asked for additional troops for Afghanistan after receiving and urgently requested 21,000; and that the leak of McChrystal's request was "indiscipline" rather than a deliberate effort to "jam" the president.

I agree that Gates has been an excellent tutor and buffer for Obama with the senior military leadership. And I don't think Obama has made serious missteps in his dealings with the military. But civil-military relations are a fluid relationship, always subject to challenges.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

spreading falsehoods

I've long been troubled by how many Americans report believing in demonstrably false ideas, from Iraq's supposed involvement in the 9/11 attacks to the grossly inflated view of the size of the foreign aid budget and now to the president's religion.

Political scientists have a plausible answer. John Sides, one of the many interesting people who contribute to The Monkey Cage, shows that data that suggest that political elites have spread the idea that Obama is a Muslim through their insinuations. The weight of evidence is that the false belief has grown most in recent months among Republicans who follow politics closely than among those less engaged with political news.

I'm convinced.


I'm getting depressed about the direction of American politics, especially the self-assured, self-righteous people who refuse to acknowledge that there might be merit in opposing views. You can't fight a hate-monger with love and understanding.

Robert Reich has an explanation for the surging intolerance. He says that "Economic fear is the handmaiden of intolerance," and gives examples from prior economic downturns. I think he's right on this.

I was shocked to learn, years ago, that my own centrist, even-tempered state of Colorado had elected a Ku Klux Klan leader as Governor in the 1920s. And I was surprised and dismayed to visit a city park in Mason City, Iowa, another place of civility and tolerance, where I saw a small monument erected in 1923 by the Civil War veterans group, the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaiming "One Nation, One Flag, One Language."

I wish our political leaders and civic role models would stand up and speak out against the forces of intolerance, especially now and until economic recovery becomes a fact and not just a hope.

Monday, August 23, 2010

how to succeed at lobbying

I'm a card-carrying political scientist,but sometimes I feel as if my profession, as a colleague once said, is like late 19th century medicine, where for the first time we're doing more good than harm.

I've been intrigued by recent discussion over the effectiveness of lobbying. A major study by several professors and their many research assistants, summarized here, concludes that lobbyists with the greatest resources win in Congress only about half the time, and the general result of lobbying is preservation of the status quo. Taking issue with these findings, Lee Drutman of the Progressive Policy Institute, an analyst whose work I have found good and persuasive, argues that lobbying is a process that sometimes never ends.

I haven't read the book in question, but I know that many distinctions need to be made to answer the questions who won and why on any issue. Some issues have evenly matched lobbyists on each side; some are one-sided either in size or intensity. Some issues have action-forcing circumstances while others can delayed until atrophy. And perhaps most important from my view, some issues are decided outside Congress. Studies that look only at efforts to influence the legislative branch miss what is often the most effective influence -- on the executive branch.


The language column in Sunday's New York Times magazine tries to tell the story of the use of the term "leaks." Interesting, but wrong in one important respect: the usage is much older than the article suggests. The terminology of leaking information, as well as the fact of leaks, is over 210 years old. Here's John Quincy Adams, then posted abroad, writing to a colleague in 1798.

“The circumstance which you mention, proving that your private letters in cipher to the Secy. Of State, cannot escape the inspection of persons [not] entitled to them, is provoking, Our Government (I’m ashamed to say it, but it is a lamentable truth) our Government has in fact no more retention than a sieve. Everything leaks out, either through treachery or ungovernable curiosity or misplaced confidence. There is not the least safety for a man to tell them any thing that he is not willing to have proclaimed upon the house tops. I have complained again & again upon the subject, but to no purpose. I now give up the point, take it for granted that secrecy is not understood to be a property of good government with us, and mean to act accordingly.” John Quincy Adams to William van Murray in Berlin, July 7, 1798[emphasis supplied]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

fact checking

The New York Times magazine has a clever piece by a former New Yorker fact checker, the person charged with verifying every factual point in their articles. A longer, more detailed description of the magazine's process is, regrettably, behind a subscription firewall. I've read that only a few publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic still devote significant resources to fact checking -- for which we can all feel cheated, since so many errors become "facts" once published and Googled.

I draw attention to these articles because I have had two quite different experiences in fact checking. I've now written four books published by three different publishers -- and at no time in the editorial process was I aware of any attempt at fact checking what appeared, bound for eternity, in a printed book. I'm told that is not unusual. Lawyers may review manuscripts, but rarely people trying to verify statements.

On the other hand, The New Yorker ran a series of articles about my then boss in the 1970s, Senator John Culver [D-Iowa], and I was one of many recipients of quite detailed questions from the magazine's legendary fact checkers. "Do you wear rimless glasses?" one asked. "Well, there's wire around the top but not underneath the lenses," I replied, trying to be precise. "What's the color of the rug in Senator Culver's office?" I called the staffer sitting just outside. He looked in and told me, "I'd call it cat puke pink." The magazine used different terminology, but I thereafter always viewed New Yorker facts as the gold standard in accuracy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

unauthorized bombing

Years ago, working for Senator Harold Hughes [D-Iowa], I was involved in the investigation of Air Force Gen. John D. Lavelle, who was removed from command because of unauthorized attacks on North Vietnam and an elaborate system of falsified reports. We received a letter from an Iowan who was an Air Force sergeant based in Thailand, who asked whether it was legal to file false reports. That letter, with the author's identity concealed until he later gave permission, let to the Air Force investigation that prompted Lavelle's firing.

Now the President has accepted an Air Force recommendation that Lavelle be promoted posthumously on the retired list. I oppose that action for reasons laid out in a New York Times piece today. The only new evidence cited by the Air Force is White House tapes showing that President Nixon wanted Lavelle to conduct such strikes. There is no evidence that he ever ordered a change in the rules of engagement to allow such attacks, and the people he told of his wishes were not in the military chain of command to give any orders. That ain't good enough for civilian control in wartime. Nixon told his staff of a lot of things he wanted, but they wisely ignored many of his demands. In fact, that tendency to want actions he was unwilling to order in writing -- and thus be held accountable for -- led to another controversy when Sen. Hughes successfully authored an amendment I wrote, which is still the law, requiring the President personally to approve all CIA covert operations -- and for Congress to be promptly notified. But that's another story.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

political narcissism

I have long been troubled by the tendency of policymakers and analysts to infer causation in international relations when the evidence is weak or missing altogether. When an American official makes a statement and a foreign government subsequently acts, that action is almost always taken as a response to the U.S. statement. More likely, it was a choice derived from multiple actors and aimed at multiple audiences. Reporters and officials certainly see the actions of the Afghan and Pakistani leadership as responding to us, when the foreign leaders are probably trying to cope with multiple pressures, only one of which is the US government.

We see history the same misleading way. The Korean war is seen as a communist challenge to the United States, probably encouraged by official statements about the American "defense perimeter" not including Korea. I'm now ready to see it as the June, 1950 stop on a train that went through Japanese colonization and fighting Japan in World War II and then trying to build nations on either side of the 38th parallel. The precise role of American actions and other events is murky.

Ray Takeyh makes a similar point today regarding the Iranian coup of 1953 that ousted Prime Minister Mossadeq. I had previously believed the CIA claims that it engineered the coup in order in install a more pliant Shah. Takeyh says that in fact the US coup attempt failed, but the change in government owes more to the religious leaders than to the Americans.

I'm not trying to rewrite history. But I do believe that we need to take off our narcissistic blinders and see overseas developments in their own context and not just in our own.

Monday, August 16, 2010

a day in the life

As a professor, I keep looking for things that can capture and convey to my students the flavor of real life in Washington, in Congress and the Executive Branch. For that period before the 1980s or so, I love the novels of Ward Just and memoirs like Harry McPherson's. The insider tales of Bob Woodward do the same thing. And today, I learned of a long article in a magazine I rarely see, Vanity Fair, that details a day in the life of President Obama and adds comments about his political struggles and problems with the Congress. I'll probably assign it next term, but I'm happy to share it now.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tony Judt

A few months ago, I noted my admiration for historian Tony Judt's writing style and his comments on British education. His death last week after a long, painful, debilitating illness [ALS] led to many articles praising his life and work. One of the best in my view was in the Financial Times. I especially liked the statement he made about the duty of intellectuals to dissent, and yet not to be too sure of themselves.
His legacy and philosophy lie in his words, written and spoken: “I think intellectuals have a primary duty to dissent not from the conventional wisdom of the age (though that too) but, and above all, from the consensus of their own community.” In the same vein, he liked to quote Camus: “If there were a party of those who are not sure they are right, I’d belong to it.”
Don't you love that Camus quote?

Friday, August 13, 2010

non QED

The New York Times today tries to make the case that congressional appropriators have lost their local political appeal. There may be some truth in this -- still to be demonstrated at the ballot box -- but the evidence in the article is far from convincing. Carl Hulse notes that four of six members defeated in primary fights so far this year were appropriators. He mentions, but doesn't seem to see it as significant, that three of the four also faced serious ethics issues.

I've long been told, and persuaded, that appropriators are different from Republicans and Democrats. The appropriations committees have long traditions of bipartisan cooperation in sharing the bacon among fellow members. Members of other committees have fewer opportunities to brag about local programs they have won funds for. The outsiders use other arguments -- such as the Arizona Senator and Congressman [McCain and Flake] who are leaders of the anti-earmark forces in Congress. Different strokes for different folks.

Some appropriators may have abused their power, but the voters of many states seem to value seniority and the benefits it provides. This year may be a little different, but so far the evidence is quite murky.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

domestic politics and foreign policy

I want to share some comments by other bloggers trying to explain or understand how domestic political considerations affect a nation's foreign policy. Dan Drezner notes how poorly many foreign policy analysts do in integrating domestic political factors. The particular U.S. example he cites, however, raises a different point for me.

Yes, some pro-Israeli members of Congress want to withhold some previously appropriated military aid funds for Lebanon. The article suggests that the lawmakers have no legal basis for their action but that the State Department usually honors such requests. I don't know the particulars in this instance, but most foreign aid funds require notification of congressional committees in advance of disbursal, and in some cases existing rules require formal consent.

Whether or not aid to Lebanon right now is a good idea, Congress really needs to make a thorough revision of the basic foreign aid law. And in doing that, it really ought to codify and make clear the process for notification and approval of expenditures. Domestic political factors can never be excluded from U.S. foreign policy deliberations, but they can be channeled into regular and transparent venues and processes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

the empty Senate?

The New Yorker has many interesting and informative articles, as well as great cartoons. In a recent issue, the magazine also has a long article on the Senate by George Packer, previously better known for his writing on Iraq.

It has some good atmospherics, and quotes from frustrated Senators who want to change the rules. Overall, however, it is just another cynical observer's critique of the Senate. It laments -- as I do -- how much things have changed in a negative direction since the 1970s. Yet it fails to appreciate the political pressures and incentives that produced those changes and that now hinder reform.

I'm for reform, and have offered some ideas. But just as it takes votes to win elections and have the power to institute reforms, it takes work to convince those with the votes to make those changes.

Meanwhile, prepare for the September craziness as Congress tries to do all its regular work in only three weeks. [Hint: they won't succeed and will have to resort to the usual gimmicks in order to adjourn for the elections.]

Monday, June 28, 2010

Senator Robert C. Byrd, Jr.

The longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history, Senator Robert C. Byrd, Jr. of West Virginia, has died at 92. All those who love the U.S. Constitution, those wise restraints that make men free, and all those who respect the U.S. Senate should honor his memory.

Senator Byrd had his flaws and quirks, but he outgrew his prejudices and became a towering statesman. He steadfastly defended the Senate and its institutional role and responsibilities under the Constitution. While he supported Senate traditions like the filibuster -- as a guarantor of the rights of the parliamentary minority -- he also helped the Senate craft rules and precedents that prevented even greater obstructionist tactics. He also was a consistent defender of congressional powers over war and peace.

He won repeated elections because he served and satisfied the people of West Virginia. He used his legislative positions to channel vast sums of federal money into his state -- a practice many criticize but few would fail to do, given the chance.

It's a shame that there are so few Senators today who understand and defend the institution of the Senate as well as he did.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

bad-mouthing the boss

General Stanley McChrystal has been summoned to Washington to apologize in person for remarks he and his staff made to a reporter for Rolling Stone that are highly critical of several senior U.S. officials. It is shocking to see that the famously self-disciplined McChrystal has such an ill-disciplined staff.

I know that bureaucratic sub-units often build their own esprit de corps by complaining about their superiors -- and often the criticisms are quite valid. But to do so in wartime, in front of a reporter, risks undermining the military mission and perhaps costing lives. This is a serious offense.

As I read the quotes attributed to McChrystal, they seem more like tactical complaints and routine frustrations rather than fundamental opposition. But his staff felt free to make comments that cross the line into territory forbidden by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. One of the dysfunctions of military culture, especially in elite units like the special forces from which McChrystal and most of his staff come, is a tendency to disparage the will, the skill, and the patriotism of anyone outside their tight circle. That appears to be the case here.

President Obama would be fully justified in removing McChrystal from his post in order to assert proper civilian control over an unruly military contingent. There are, however, many other factors to consider, including the impact of such action on the war in Afghanistan. It's a shame we have this distraction from that most difficult campaign.

Monday, June 14, 2010

an explanation

Summertime, and the livin' is easy.
Fish are jumpin' and the blogging is slow.

-- with apologies to the Gershwins

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

generals in civilian posts

Yale's Bruce Ackerman makes a valuable point on civil-military relations in his piece in the Washington Post. While supporting the nomination of retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper as Director of National Intelligence, he notes that more and more long-serving military officers are now being put in key jobs traditionally reserved for civilians.

The constitutional principle of civilian control is losing its basis in sociological reality: Senior officers are talking to (retired) senior officers about high matters of policy on a regular basis -- and then forwarding their advice to more retired military men with privileged access to the Oval Office.

We owe our present situation more to drift than to design. When making individual appointments, presidents and Cabinet secretaries naturally focus on the abilities of particular candidates. It is easy to lose sight of the overall pattern of appointments. Yet it is precisely this pattern that puts the Founders' commitment to civilian control at risk.

That historic principal has been reasserted in many ways. The Constitution makes the president, not any senior general, "commander-in-chief." The 1947 law creating what is now the Defense Department requires that the Secretary of Defense be appointed "from civilian life." [A temporary change in the law was voted in 1950 to allow retired General George C. Marshall to take the post.] The only statutory position on the National Security Council staff, the staff secretary, is required to be a civilian. The law for the CIA used to require that at least one of the top two slots be a civilian.

These laws did not presume that military officers were unqualified for these positions, but rather that a civilian perspective and ultimately civilian ultimate control was necessary to preserve liberty. There were too many historical examples of generals on horseback becoming dictators. Our lawmakers also wanted to guard against an insular military elite that was separate from civilian life and concerns.

Of course, many senior officers are highly qualified for national security positions, and they should be assigned to those posts as conscious exceptions to the preferred pattern of civilian appointees. But the Senate and presidents should also monitor the pattern of military appointments and try to re-balance toward experienced civilians.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

national security strategy

The White House today released the required presidential report on National Security Strategy. No, I haven't read it yet. [But here are some expert assessments by folks at CNAS.]

With prior reports, I used to ask students to read them, looking for anything they disagreed with. Few found contentious statements, since most of the wording is positive and anodyne. Who could be against "strength" and "promoting democracy"?

While I don't expect anything startling, I am pleased with the process that led to this product. Some friends involved in that review and comment process report that there was good back-and-forth. And that's the real value of such reports. They force interagency dialogue on key issues and sometimes even get decisions on unresolved matters. That process is more valuable than the end product.

Congress has required this report since an amendment by Senator John Warner [R-Va.] to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act. That far-sighted measure built on one I helped write in 1975 requiring State-Defense consultation on the annual military posture statement, which has always said a lot about foreign policy.

Regrettably, Congress has tended to pay little attention to their presidential reports, despite their importance within the Executive Branch. One of the reasons, I believe, is that no one is qualified to testify on the document as a whole except the president himself, and his national security adviser, who is not allowed to testify. I think this deficiency should be resolved by making the NSC staff director's position confirmable by the Senate -- but that's another controversy.

Monday, May 24, 2010

the team

A lot of the "who's up? who's down?" reporting on administration officials is just gossip. It's fun for us outsiders to read, but not necessarily reliable. Nevertheless, sometimes these stories have nuggets of fact that help to confirm their theses.

Last March the Financial Times ran an excellent piece describing the Obama National Security Council and revealed that the Deputies Committee, the #2's in each department, met 270 times in the first year, which would work out to once almost every single weekday. I still believe the number, and conclude that the NSC process was very active under Obama and General Jones.

That same article made the point that Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton had developed a "strong working relationship" that helped them in dealing with their colleagues. A new article in Politico makes the same point, and cites a congressman as saying that they present a united front and speak "seamlessly and ... on the same page" in joint closed door briefings on the Hill. This, of course, is a sharp and welcome contrast with several previous administrations.

Instead of psychological explanations for why the two cabinet officers work together so well, just remember that it is in each one's interest to do so. Their alliance and cooperation enables each to accomplish more of what they want to achieve.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

evocative memoir

If I ever write my own memoir, I hope I can begin to approach the style of Tony Judt, a distinguished historian of Europe, now wasting away with ALS. In a series of short essays in the New York Review of Books, he has told stories of his childhood in England and his astonishment when visiting, and eventually living in America. Read them, for their humor, their insights, and their evocative impact. I don't know whether or when there will be a published volume, but I would buy it in an instant.

Few of his writings are outside the NYRB subscription firewall, but one that is describes life in postwar Britain, a period of great austerity.
"After the war everything was in short supply. Churchill had mortgaged Great Britain and bankrupted the Treasury in order to defeat Hitler. Clothes were rationed until 1949, cheap and simple “utility furniture” until 1952, food until 1954. The rules were briefly suspended for the coronation of Elizabeth, in June 1953: everyone was allowed one extra pound of sugar and four ounces of margarine. But this exercise in supererogatory generosity served only to underscore the dreary regime of daily life."

As a Fulbright scholar in London in the 1960s, I remember puzzling over my colleagues' obsession with chocolate bars -- until I learned that chocolate had been rationed until 1951, making it the denied indulgence which they could at last enjoy without restraint.

Judt goes on to make a point quite relevant to America's I agree.economic circumstances.

"We have substituted endless commerce for public purpose, and expect no higher aspirations from our leaders. Sixty years after Churchill could offer only “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” our very own war president—notwithstanding the hyperventilated moralism of his rhetoric—could think of nothing more to ask of us in the wake of September 11, 2001, than to continue shopping. This impoverished view of community—the “togetherness” of consumption—is all we deserve from those who now govern us. If we want better rulers, we must learn to ask more from them and less for ourselves. A little austerity might be in order."

I agree.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

the bravery of politicians

I know that many Americans, historically and now, have a very jaded view of politicians. I was especially troubled when many of my students who were senior military officers were openly disdainful of the constitutional officers whom they were sworn to obey. And while military personnel have to risk their lives, it is important to remember that political candidates regularly risk something almost as precious -- their honor.

Think what they have to do. They have to ask people for money -- not for a worthy cause, but for themselves. They have to endure the often surly and ill-informed questions and criticisms of voters. Although they may be bright, and accomplished in their profession, they regularly enter contests which fewer than half of them can win.

The agony of defeat, of rejection by one's friends and neighbors, must be very painful. [I don't know myself; I've never been brave enough to risk running for office and doing those things a successful candidate must do.]

And what are the fruits of victory? A job that requires them to maintain two residences, one at home and one in Washington. A salary that, adjusting for inflation, is less than what Members were paid in 1955. Fewer and fewer perks every year -- and more and more abuse from angry voters.

Yes, they have the power to vote on pubic policies and budgets, and the diminished prestige of being a constitutional officer. While some are venal and corrupt, most are hard-working and sincere. And they are brave for risking their reputations in democratic elections.

Monday, May 17, 2010

civil-military relations

Another insider tale of Obama administration decision-making raises an important issue of civil-military relations under the U.S. Constitution -- a subject I feel strongly about. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter says that the president, angry over suspected Pentagon leaks about Afghanistan policy, summoned Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mullen to the oval office to express his anger over the leaks and to demand that they pledge to support his eventual decision. Newsweek reprints the relevant chapter from Alter's book.

While I agree with CNAS's "Abu Muqawama" that Alter seems to have been spun by some White House officials into dramatizing the situation more than the facts required, I also agree that Obama's actions are fully in line with the way U.S. civil-military relations are supposed to work. There has to be genuine dialogue, albeit an unequal one, and the president has a right to ask about military actions that could have strategic consequences.

In my view, the new president and his extraordinarily able Secretary of Defense have done a pretty good job of managing what is a supremely important relationship and what can be a source of enormous problems.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

national security professional

Every day, it seems, I find another reason to admire Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- despite the fact that he is disproving my thesis that his position is a "nearly impossible job." Unlike his predecessors, eight of whom were fired or forced to resign, he was kept in place by the new president of the opposition party. He has asserted his authority without provoking a backlash, and he has imposed much-needed accountability by actually firing malperforming subordinates.

Today he deserves praise for speaking tough love and fiscal realism to the Pentagon establishment. In a speech at Abilene, Kansas, he lauded former president and general of the army Dwight Eisenhower for running an administration where "real choices were made, priorities set, and limits enforced."

Gates also acknowledged that the 9/11 attacks "opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the past decade, not counting supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." But with America now facing "difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition," he warned, "The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time."

True national security requires more than just defense. Gates is exhibiting the best form of national security professionalism by reminding the military establishment and its advocates that they must practice restraint for the greater good. Political pressures will make this difficult,but no less important.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Senate reform

I tied my bow tie to look particularly professorial and went on CSPAN's Washington Journal today to talk about Senate reform. I echoed points made earlier here and elsewhere about the need to look beyond the filibuster to the broader range of reforms that could make the Senate more collegial and more productive. I remain hopeful that public pressure and Senatorial disgust with recent proceedings may produce the votes needed for reform.

Friday, April 23, 2010

confidence in U.S. foreign policy

A new survey by Public Agenda finds Americans more confident in the nation's foreign policy. While half the respondents say that relations with the rest of the world are "off on the wrong track," that's a 15% drop from the levels of 2007-8. Increases in confidence were, not surprisingly, greatest among Democrats and independents.

These attitude polls strike me as better indicators of public feelings than issue-specific polls, where the level of public information and the wording of the question can make big differences.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

illegitimate presidents

One reason for the deep polarization of American politics in recent years, in my view, is the widespread view that the winning presidential candidate has been viewed as fundamentally illegitimate by the losing party. Democrats cite Al Gore's half-million vote lead over George W. Bush and the 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court in favor of the Republican. Republicans note that Bill Clinton received only 43% of the popular vote in 1992 and then argue that he should have been thrown out of office for lying. Now comes new evidence of how deeply rooted these beliefs were.

Jonathan Chait in The New Republic, in an article currently behind a subscription firewall that may be opened to all later, reports an interview a decade ago with "a very high-ranking Republican member of Congress" who asserted that Bill Clinton stole the 1996 election with ballot stuffing and other dirty tricks. In fact, of course, Clinton won 8.2 million more popular votes than Bob Dole and 70% of the electoral college votes.

In 2004, of course, Democrats complained that Bush won a second term only because of voting irregularities in Ohio that should have been resolved in favor of John Kerry.

If these hard feelings didn't do enough to poison our politics, the 2008 election, convincingly won by Barack Obama with 52.9% of the popular vote, now is doubted by the "birthers" who dispute his U.S. citizenship. This has got to stop. The "birthers" are wrong factually and legally, and responsible officials should stop lending sympathy to those charges.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

where the money goes

When people are protesting taxes, as they always are, it's useful to remember just where those tax dollars go. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has two great charts showing federal and aggregate state expenditures. Note how much of the federal money goes for old people, sick people, and national security [2/3] and thus how little goes for all federal activities. With state governments, note how much goes for education [39%] and how little for public assistance [1%].

Where does the money come from? For the federal government, OMB has a table [see 2.2]that shows that this year 43.7% of receipts come from income taxes, 11.6% from corporate taxes, 36.4% from social insurance and retirement receipts, and 2.9% from excise taxes. All other federal receipts, including customs duties and estate taxes, amount to 5.4%.

I know that there's waste and inefficiency in government. Trouble is, it's not in a single, separate line item.

Monday, April 19, 2010

unanimous consent

Why does the Senate do so much business using unanimous consent agreements? In the House of Representatives, the Rules Committee reports a rule governing each measure to be debated, including limits on time and number of amendments. Passage of the rule by majority vote establishes those terms for debate.

In the Senate, prior agreement on the terms and conditions for considering a measure reduces uncertainty and allows more efficient scheduling. But it also empowers any Senator who wants to object for whatever reason -- and often the reason is to get a political side payment on an unrelated matter.

In a piece in the Capitol Hill paper Rollcall [sorry, subscription firewall] , I suggest a rules change that would reduce the number of filibusters, eliminate holds on legislation and nominations, and reduce the need for unanimous consent agreements. That can be accomplished by making the motion to proceed to any measure non-debatable.

As of now, that procedural motion can be filibustered, and over 1/4 of the filibusters in recent decades have been on such motions. The motion is necessary because, under the basic Senate rules, going to the legislative or executive calendars means taking up the oldest item first and disposing of each measure in order. That rule could also be changed, but I think the motion to proceed reform could be a middle ground compromise that allows filibusters on substance but not procedures. The Senate Rules Committee is supposed to be having hearings on the broad question of rules reform later this spring.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

tax expenditures

Why talk about taxes in a blog on the politics of U.S. foreign policy? Because I believe that economic weakness hurts foreign policy both at home and abroad, and that record high deficits can lead to such weakness. Also because I'm interested in the topic and find it largely neglected.

The history of the concept is interesting politically. When Congress developed its budget process in 1973-4, liberals pressed for information on tax loopholes -- that is, the revenue foregone because of various provisions in the tax code. As part of its budget submissions every year, OMB has to provide data on these "tax expenditures." Here's the latest table.

Some "loopholes" are widely loved -- such as the $92 billion for the deduction for home mortgage interest and the $12.6 billion for excluding benefits and allowances for military personnel. But when lawmakers consider how to reduce the deficit, they should not limit themselves to cuts in programs, services, and benefits and to increases in existing taxes. They should also consider the $1.3 trillion in tax expenditures, some of which could be eliminated in order to gain some of the revenue lost. The Center for American Progress has a good overview report.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

don't tax you, don't tax me, tax the fellow behind the tree

That was the principle that Senator Russell Long [D-La] thought the voters wanted his Senate Finance Committee to use in its decisions on raising revenue.

I guess I'm a budget hawk, or maybe an eagle, who watches for weak prey to devour in order to sustain the monetary ecosystem. While I recognize that Congress doesn't like to raise taxes or cut programs, I also know that it can be responsible --as I observed during the deliberations leading up to the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, which for the first time set real limits on federal spending.

Nevertheless, I was dismayed but not surprised by a new Economist/YouGov poll which showed the inconsistent views of American respondents. They are concerned about federal deficits. They do support some tax increases, at least on the rich. But when it comes to cutting federal programs, only our meager expenditures on foreign aid [1% of the total] generates much enthusiasm. That has been the case for decades, and it shows the challenge lawmakers face in trying to balance budgets and reduce federal deficits.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

shifting borders

As a student of American history, I didn't have to learn much about changes in territorial sovereignty. There was the Louisiana purchase from France, the war with Mexico, the dispute over our northern border with the British, the purchase of Alaska, and the annexation of Hawaii. Maybe there had been six flags over Texas, but it didn't mean much to the Texans I met.

Then I began to learn about Europe, where centuries of conquests and re-conquests have redrawn borders, often with killings and expulsions of the losers. In spite of my impressive academic credentials, I only recently began to understand, for example, the enormous disruptions that accompanied the fall of the Ottoman empire. For a longer time, I had been aware of some of the changes that occurred in Central and Eastern Europe. But they are still astonishing to contemplate.

One of the best illustrations of what happened is the story of Lviv, formerly Lvov and formerly Lemberg. On a visit there a few years ago, I noted that my students could encounter a person my mother's age [she was then in her mid-80s] who had been born in Austria-Hungary, went to school in Poland, got married in Germany, retired in the Soviet Union and now lives in Ukraine -- all while living in the same house on the same street.

Similar tales could be told of other towns, but Lviv reinforced for me the important lesson that people may harbor historic memories and loyalties that may run counter to their current sovereigns.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

short classics in bureaucratic politics

"History never repeats itself," Mark Twain supposedly said, "but sometimes it rhymes." I've never been able to verify the source, but the line is too good not to use.

Today I was reminded of two short pieces on U.S. policy in Vietnam that have classic status because they describe broader processes of government than the historical incidents they describe.

James C. Thomson, Jr., an Asia scholar who served on the Kennedy-Johnson NSC staff, in 1968 wrote an "autopsy" on U.S. policy that coined several concepts still useful for understanding how officials think and behave -- the domestication of dissenters, the effectiveness, the curator mentality.

Four years later, "Blowtorch Bob"Komer, an LBJ staffer who argued for and later was given directive power over a combined military-civilian counterinsurgency program in Vietnam, wrote an analysis for the RAND corporation explaining U.S. failures. Among other insights, he mentioned the "institutional inertia -- the built-in reluctance of organizations to change preferred ways of functioning except slowly and incrementally." He also noted the power of weakness: "But for many reasons we did not use vigorously the leverage over Veitnamese leaders that our contributions gave us. We became their prisoners rather than they ours: the GVN [Government of South Vietnam] used its weakness far more effectively as leverage on us than we used our strength to lever it."

I knew and admired both men, and I cite their work now not to make any particular comparisons between Vietnam and our current conflicts, but rather to draw attention to the value of their insights -- not as a conclusion about policy but as a set of tests worth performing on any major policy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

follow the money

The purpose of government budgets is to control spending. That's why the president and congress fight so hard to assert that control over federal agencies. Budgets also serve another purpose -- as a pie chart of governmental priorities. When the government spends tens times as much on defense as on education, that has consequences. When interest on our debt is 3% of federal spending, and likely to surge in the coming years, that limits everything else that government can do.

The American people pay their taxes, but they don't really follow where their money goes. They hear a lot they don't like about "foreign aid" and assume that it must be a huge slice of the budget, far more than the actual 1%. A recent survey showed this general lack of knowledge, with 60% of the respondents saying that international assistance is at least 6-10% of the budget or higher.

On the other hand, the answers on defense and Medicare and Medicaid were much closer to the mark. Take a look.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

causes and correlations

I think there's something in western culture that demands causes for major events. In the years before the Enlightenment, I suppose people were willing to attribute outcomes to God, or the devil. In our more secular and scientific era, we want theories and formulas that demonstrate causation.

I've always been puzzled by news reports attempting to explain why the stock market went up or down on a particular day. Too many factors are at work most of the time.

I hope that my political science colleagues will not de-frock me for saying that we do a poor job of explaining election outcomes, too. Sometimes there are multiple indicators that point the same way and can be combined to show why Jones won and Smith lost. But most of the time the only sure conclusion is that Jones did a better job of getting his supporters to the polls than Smith did.

The media, even more than scholars, want instant analyses, and are willing to ascribe changes in opinion polls to whatever they are focusing on at the moment. Presidential popularity tracks with economic data much of the time, as Brendan Nyhan points out. He makes this telling point: "If/when the economy picks up, Obama's speeches will start "connecting" and everyone will marvel at how effective the White House political team has become."

What's more useful than single point apparent causes are the trends of multiple indicators.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

critical mass for Senate reform?

There are cycles in congressional reform, usually driven by newly empowered members who sense more than usual public disgust with the legislative branch. One such time was 1946; another, 1974-7; more recently, 1995. Maybe we are on the verge of another such time, especially with regard to the Senate.

I'm less troubled than many commentators by the existence of the filibuster in the Senate, for I see it as only one of many devices for delay and I find value in protecting minority views against a political juggernaut. But I would welcome a whole range of Senate rules and procedural reforms to make that body more efficient, including changes that allow obstructive tactics only rarely.

I sense that the Republicans may be overreaching with their vastly increased use of the filibuster and related tactics like "holds" on bills and nominations. That error has been compounded by the dramatic use of obstructive tactics by Senator Jim Bunning [R-KY], who has prevented passage of a bill extending unemployment benefits and funding transportation projects. This is the kind of event that has immediate, tangible consequences to make voters angry and more willing to support reform.

By the way, as the reconciliation process appears to be the likely path for ultimate passage of health care reform legislation, Sam Stein of Huffington Post reminds us that the Vice President is indeed President of the Senate and thereby empowered to make parliamentary rulings that can smooth the passage of such legislation in a rancorous Senate.

Monday, March 1, 2010

the priesthood of secrecy

I've had security clearances for several decades. In my first job in government, a summer long ago, while still awaiting my clearance to come through, I wrote a paper which my boss deemed worth sending to several other offices and embassies -- and which he promptly classified "Confidential," thereby denying me the right to read it until my clearance eventually was granted.

I've had access to Top Secret materials, atomic energy information, and even intelligence community products. While I've seen some questionable classification actions, I've also learned the value of keeping classified information secret from those without the need or right to know.

When I read Daniel Ellsberg's fascinating -- and of course self-serving -- autobiography a few years ago, I was struck by one passage in which he recounts a conversation with Henry Kissinger at the start of the Nixon administration. Kevin Drum repeats that passage today. I think it tells powerful truth: that many officials become too enamored of classified information and too willing to trust it more than contradictory open source information. I think the priesthood of secrecy is too closed for wise policymaking.

Friday, February 26, 2010

lopsided toolkit

The United States has a broad range of capabilities and resources to carry out its national security policies. But the civilian side of government is woefully underfunded as more and more activities are assigned to the Defense Department and our military forces. The imbalance is outlined by some noted budget analysts at the Stimson Center who label the problem "the lopsided toolkit."

As they note, "The defense budget is nearly 13 times bigger than all U.S. civilian foreign policy budgets combined."

That contrasts with what I call "the golden year" -- 1950 -- when the State Department budget, which included Marshall Plan funds, was equal to half the entire Pentagon budget. Harry Truman insisted on fighting the Cold War with robust diplomacy, substantial foreign economic measures, public diplomacy, and intelligence activities -- as well as military strength. It's a shame we haven't kept pace with civilian capabilities in recent decades.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"broken but can be fixed"

The notion that the U.S. government is "broken" is gaining wider currency, as evidenced in today's CNN Poll that found 81% of those surveyed agreeing that "Our system of government is broken but can be fixed," a 10% increase since October 2006, when that question had previously been asked. Most of the increase came from those who previously denied that the system was fractured.

I guess we should take some comfort from the "can be fixed" part of the response, since only 5% said the system was broken but "cannot be fixed."

So what are the fixes? As I've noted earlier, a healthy, growing economy will do more than any other single thing to restore trust and confidence in our system. Second, we need changes in our political culture, which now has too many incentives to fight rather than to bargain to agreements. Third, we need changes in Congress -- not only rules changes going far beyond the filibuster but also institutional changes to try to restore civility and mutual respect.

Retiring Senator Evan Bayh has some useful suggestions in an op-ed in today's New York Times. This week's health legislation summit, however, is a high-risk effort that is more likely to showcase disagreements than to generate compromises.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"broken" government

"Washington, right now, is broken," says Vice President Biden. Many other commentators are labeling our political system "dysfunctional." Congress is in low esteem, with the Senate filibuster especially criticized.

Now wait a minute. I share many of the criticisms but believe that much of the analysis is flawed. Jim Fallows of the Atlantic has a more balanced view of America's strengths and weaknesses, and his ultimate recommendation is to "muddle through."

A professor at the always interesting Monkey Cage demonstrates that Americans' trust in government varies over time -- highest when the economy is growing and least when we're in recession.

I'm troubled by the polarization of our politics and the gridlock preventing action on long term deficits, health care reform, energy issues, and reform of banking and finance. But this polarization has been increasing over time, fueled by politicians who have no incentive to be statesmen. Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal has a good analysis of how this has happened in the Senate -- and the explanation is largely a loss in the human interactions that buffered the political conflicts.

Too few in Congress today have institutional loyalty and respect. They have too many incentives to disparage the institution rather than working to make modest reforms. Many in the GOP minority seem to be ready to repeat the Gingrich strategy, which he famously described as destroying Congress in order to save it.

I'm not totally discouraged because I know that "better angels" can arise. There are moments when partisans became statesmen. It happened in 1948 with the Marshall Plan. It happened in 1958 when, in response to Sputnik, President Eisenhower and the Democratic Congress agreed to a broad based response: some defense increases [including DARPA], creation of NASA, and the National Defense Education Act with emphasis on science, math and foreign languages. It happened in 1964-65 with the civil rights and voting rights acts. It happened in 1982 with the Greenspan commission on Social Security. I saw it happen in 1990 with the Budget Enforcement Act that put us on the path toward a balanced budget. And it started to happen after the 9/11 attacks with the Patriot Act, subject to sunset, until the Bush Administration opted for partisan polarization instead of cooperation.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

substance and perceptions

I don't feel qualified to answer the question, what is reality? in scientific or philosophical terms. But I know that policymakers in Washington often acknowledge, and lament, that perceptions are frequently judged as reality.

When presidents have trouble persuading public opinion of the wisdom and value of what they are doing, they change their messaging approach in search of better poll results. That appears to be the plan of the Obama White House.

It's useful to remember, however, that American journalistic culture is predisposed to focus on messages and perceptions to the exclusion of substance, as George Packer brilliantly argues.

While I love political process and tactics stories, just as I love salted cashews, I don't want them to drive out reports on the substance of policies. We citizens need to know, for example, exactly what our troops and civilians are doing in Afghanistan, in addition to whatever public diplomacy or information operations may be under way.

Monday, February 15, 2010

civilization and its disconnects

I'm still trying to get into the blogging rhythm. I've been distracted the past two weeks, in part by paralyzing snowstorms in the Washington area.

As a third-generation Colorado native, I know about snow. I like snow, and the seasonal changes that bring buds in spring and brightly colored leaves in autumn. I don't mind shoveling snow -- or at least I didn't until I developed a tennis-elbow type injury during the 18-incher in December.

But I don't like losing power, as occurred in the first heavy storm of February, when a big tree on our tree-lined street toppled across the road, bringing down the power lines. For 18 hours, we had no power. That meant no heat, no electric lights, no electronic entertainment devices, no Internet. I had to use my cellphone sparingly, since there was no way to recharge the battery.

I wasn't in danger. I had candles and flashlights, a gas stove to boil water and heat pans, and a cozy duvet. Some neighbors held a party: the wine was well chilled. But as the house grew colder, I began to worry about frozen pipes and damaged houseplants. Since we had been without power for four days one summer after a hurricane, I was apprehensive that the repair crews might take just as long getting through the snow and ice. But after 18 hours, the lights and heat were restored.

The biggest lesson for me was how much I depend on connections to the outside world: reliable phone service, daily newspapers, radio and television, and of course the on-line world. At times i the past, I've survived quite well without each or all of those connections, sometimes for days at a time. But now I crave my news fixes, my ability to check out weather-traffic-public services-shopping information immediately. I guess I've become addicted to modern communications and I can't bear even temporary withdrawal.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

public ignorance

The Pew Research Center, which otherwise does a commendable job of surveying public opinion on a wide range of issues, goes too far this week in a poll designed to test public knowledge of some newsworthy topics.

It is not surprising that fewer than half the Americans polled know that Harry Reid is Senate Majority Leader, or that no Republican Senator voted for the health reform bill, or that it takes 60 votes to break a Senate filibuster. Those may be useful facts to some, but they are not crucial to citizenship. We might even take some comfort from the fact that 55% of those surveyed know that our unemployment rate is around 10%, that 57% know we import 2/3 of our oil, or that 59% knw that China holds most of the U.S. debt.

Public ignorance is often shockingly high on truly consequential issues. In 2006, half the respondents said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded in 2003. And a poll in 2007 found one-third believing that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks.

The only remedy for ignorance is knowledge -- and it has to be pushed out into the media and repeated again and again so that it takes hold.