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.]