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.