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.