Monday, December 19, 2011

Gingrich pluses and minuses

There's a lot to like and dislike about Newt Gingrich. I have long viewed him as an excellent political strategist because of the way he orchestrated the multi-year campaign to achieve Republican control of the House of Representatives after 40 years in the wilderness. I've admired his futurism, his willingness to embrace new ideas for public policy. He was an advocate of the Revolution in Military Affairs that brought U.S. armed forces into technological dominance. He was part of the Hart-Rudman Commission that, two years before the 9/11 attacks, warned of a terrorist attack on American soil and urged the creation of a department of homeland security. He has also endorsed some pretty wacky ideas, but that's the price of energetic creativity.

On the other hand, Gingrich is personally responsible for two decades of political nastiness and hyperpolarization. He refused to support President George H.W. Bush's 1990 budget deal that capped government spending and allowed a balanced budget a few years later. He undermined U.S. political institutions in his quest for Republican power. He even said, "We have to destroy the House [of Representatives] in order to save it."  E. J. Dionne has some more examples of Gingrich's political extremism, including his 1978 statement:
“One of the great problems we have had in the Republican Party is that we . . . encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal and faithful, and all those Boy Scout words which would be great around the campfire but are lousy in politics. ... You’re fighting a war. It is a war for power. ... Don’t try to educate. That is not your job. What is the primary purpose of a political leader? To build a majority.”
Although he was occasionally willing to compromise, he established a take-no-prisoners rhetorical standard that has made political gridlock dominant today.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

how not to do diplomacy

It's refreshing for an American to read that other nations screw up, too. I have long been puzzled by the European negotiations. European leaders had summits in March, May, October 2010 and July, October, and December, 2011. After each one, the headlines read something like "New rescue plan agreed." But things are still unsettled, probably worse, and the global financial system is on the brink of collapse.

The latest summit fell short after inept diplomacy by the British government, which has long experience at very skilled diplomacy. The Financial Times has the kind of tick-tock we often get on U.S. presidential decisions -- and it's not a pretty picture. Kevin Drum links to that article and discusses its significance in ways I agree with.

Lobbyists and national security

Americans as a whole are conflicted about lobbyists. We don't like to see them buying influence for "special interests" -- unless we personally are one of those interests. We probably put more trust in used car sellers than lobbyists. And, if pressed, we probably acknowledge that the First Amendment gives a Constitutional protection to lobbyists.

From my own experience and from reading the research on the topic, however, I think that the influence of lobbyists on national security issues is greatly exaggerated. Congress willingly funds a large defense establishment in part because of the arguments of military officials at the top and in part because of local interests at the grassroots who want jobs and bases at home. Most of the time lobbyists are just recyclers of those strategic and parochial arguments.

Where lobbying is huge -- and makes a difference -- is on domestic policy. A recent article in The Hill newspaper summarizes the "top 10" lobbying victories this year -- and none of them dealt with a national security issue. Further evidence comes in the fact that, in 2010, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone spent almost as much on lobbying ($132 million) as the entire defense industry ($145 million).

Pakistan's complaints

Bill Keller of the New York Times has an interesting piece describing Pakistan's perspective on the United States.
If you survey informed Americans, you will hear Pakistanis described as duplicitous, paranoid, self-pitying and generally infuriating. In turn, Pakistanis describe us as fickle, arrogant, shortsighted and chronically unreliable.
Neither country’s caricature of the other is entirely wrong, and it makes for a relationship that is less in need of diplomacy than couples therapy, which customarily starts by trying to see things from the other point of view. While the Pakistanis have hardly been innocent, they have a point when they say America has not been the easiest of partners.
That sounds reasonable to me -- and it doesn't make managing the relationship any easier.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Foreign policy contingency funds

In my work for the Project on National Security Reform, I learned that most executive branch officials felt that the greatest need was for more speed and flexibility in order to implement plans with adequate resources. Most complained that the Congress imposed too many hurdles and limitations, especially on the use of money.

I also learned -- from legislative branch people -- that Congress didn't trust the executive to act without close consultation with lawmakers. They had been burned too many times by commitments to foreign governments or military operations that turned sour. Repeated requests  for contingency funds by presidents over several decades were rejected on Capitol Hill.

To me, the obvious compromise was more flexibility in return for closer consultation and oversight. I pointed out that in 1960-61, Congress approved what would be  $1.5 billion in today's dollars as a foreign policy contingency fund for the President.  After some abuses of the spending authority, Congress cut the fund. In recent years it has been only $25 million.

The new Defense Authorization Bill has a section 1207 creating a "Global Security Contingency Fund" of $300 million. The money requires concurrence of the Secretaries of State and Defense and notification to congressional committees at least 15 days before the fund is tapped.

This strikes me as a good faith effort by Congress to provide a significant measure of flexibility, a confidence-building measure that requires good faith execution by State and Defense.

Congress approves military operations in Uganda

After failing to support or oppose U.S. operations in Libya, Congress now is ready to endorse U.S. support for operations against the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. Section 1209 of the newly agreed defense authorization bill for 2012 allows $35 million for logistical and intelligence support and supplies for such operations. It also forbids U.S. military personnel or civilian contractors to participate in combat operations, except for self-defense and rescue missions. The section also requires notifications to Congress within 5 days of obligation of funds as well as quarterly reports.

This is a reasonable way for Congress to act on proposed military operations -- approve a plan with conditions and require regular reports for oversight.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Pakistan dilemma

Since I believe that bureaucratic politics is usually the best way to understand what happens in U.S. foreign policy, I was pleased to see an excellent example of the influence in today's Washington Post. In an article on Pakistan policy, Karen De Young and Karin Brulliard report that the State and Defense Departments have different goals that repeatedly clash in practice. State wants to strengthen the civilian government and try to improve America's lousy standing in public opinion. The Pentagon and intelligence community are concerned primarily with counter-terrorism missions and want to continue help to the Pakistani military. In part, the problem is short term versus long term goals, but it's also a clash between tolerating Pakistani misbehavior or punishing officials.  No easy answers, but it's useful to see that each U.S. entity has good reasons for its actions.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

how to understand Pakistan

What a mess! Our putative ally, recipient in billions of dollars in aid in recent years, lies to us, gives aid and comfort to groups attacking us and our other allies, has nuclear weapons, and lacks an effective civilian government. The Pakistani people hate the United States and believe incredible and untrue things about us. We are classic co-dependents who can't stand each other but desperately need each other for certain things. The best analysis I've seen recently is this piece in the Atlantic by Jeffery Goldberg and Marc Ambinder. It's more sobering than reassuring.

politics with a historical dimension

I usually like books with a point of view. They are much more interesting to read than "one hand/other hand" works, or ones where the reader is never really sure what the author is trying to say. Here's a fascinating book that traces U.S. political segmentation back to early colonial settlements and later migration patterns -- Colin Woodard's "American Nations."

Woodard describes eleven regional "nations" of North America and argues that they each have strong unifying cultures that keep them separate even today, despite some recurring broad regional alliances.His case is probably overstated -- so I'd like to see a rebuttal by another historian -- but he argues it persuasively and with ample documentation to quite respected historical studies. His work also falls short in predictive value, but it does explain in more nuanced detail than I've seen before the differences, for example, between the "Deep South" and "Greater Appalachia," and between "Yankeedom" and the "Midlands." As a Colorado native, I've always felt that politics in my state were quite different from either New England liberalism or southern or midwestern conservative. Woodard gives a plausible explanation based on their motives for migration and their discomfort at being dependent on eastern bankers and railroad owners as well as on the Federal Government.

congressional dysfunction

I've been otherwise engaged lately, confining my comments to my class.  One recent discovery deserves broader attention -- the article by propublica exploring the reasons for congressional dysfunction and including many links to excellent articles by Norm Ornstein and others. The explanations are not surprising  -- party polarization, preoccupation with the money chase, hyper-vigilant and hyper-active media, and a belief that minor disputes merit battles to the death -- but they are well argued and well documented. Regrettably, nobody has a silver bullet answer. I have long shared Norm Ornstein's view that greater socialization would help, and that that could be promoted by forcing members to spend more time in Washington, ideally with their families in town. I also wish that something could be adopted to limit the money chase. But both of those changes seem unlikely in the short run. A key point in this article that usually doesn't get mentioned enough is that most of the changes date from the mid-1990s and especially the Gingrich revolution that drastically changed politics in the House of Representatives. The years before were different, and better. I wish they could be recaptured.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

private pay for public work

As a retired federal employee, I resent the ill-informed criticism of federal workers and the recurring efforts to punish them with across-the-board pay freezes. I am also concerned about the mushrooming growth of contracting out when it involves basic functions of government. About 1/4 of the intelligence community personnel are contractors, for example.

Much of this outsourcing has been done under the false impression that private contractors are cheaper than government personnel because the agencies don't have to pay federal health and retirement benefits. Now comes a solid study by the Project on Government Oversight showing that, in fact, contract personnel get about twice as much per person as federal employees doing the same work.  I hope the fed-bashers take notice.

much greener pastures

Lobbyists, like lawyers and taxi drivers, belong to an honorable profession. They all take their clients where they want to go. It's bad only when they break the rules getting there.

A new study shows that several thousand former members of Congress and their staff have moved from their high-pressure, moderately paid Hill jobs to richly rewarding K Street lobbying firms in recent years. That's actually a common career path for senior Hill staffers, especially on the committees that deal with taxes and business regulation. I was somewhat reassured to note [be sure to check the table] that defense and foreign policy staffers don't make the top ten list.

Friday, September 9, 2011

tattered SOFA

The policy pundits and media are politicizing U.S. policy in Iraq. That's unfortunate, since the situation is bad enough without turning the issue into Obama vs. the U.S. military.

The Obama administration has indicated a desire to keep about 3-4,000 American troops in Iraq after 2011. American military commanders reportedly prefer a much higher figure, like 14-18,000.  Even fair-minded critics like Peter Feaver are calling the policy reckless, and others are suggesting a renewed civil-military crisis.

Wait a minute. Yes, there are domestic American political pressures on the decision, not least the President's promise to end the U.S. combat role this year. And yes, the military has good arguments for having more American soldiers around for security than fewer.

But the real problem is in Baghdad, not Washington. The status of forces agreement [SOFA] signed by George W. Bush set the December 31, 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, despite the Bush administration's earlier criticism of any use of withdrawal timetables. The Iraqi government has failed to propose any alternatives to that deadline because of internal disputes among the ruling coalition. So the U.S. military is properly planning troop drawdowns to be compliant, even as it wishes for both certainty and specifics regarding any residual U.S. force. I say "Iraqi government," but the sad fact is that no successor government has been formed since the March 2010 elections. Iraq has a caretaker government that isn't taking care of the chief security issue that nation faces.  The Americans int he White House and Pentagon are just trying to cope with the dysfunctional government in Baghdad.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

toxic politics

Jim Fallows has drawn attention to a piece by a recently retired Republican Hill staffer who complains that his party is weakening public trust in government by the GOP's take-no-prisoners approach to public policy.I find much of the analysis persuasive. Congressional Republicans are denouncing proposals they once strongly supported and seem to enjoy the turmoil their obstructionist tactics create in their wake. The answer isn't a third party, since our system is structured in favor of two, but a return to civility and mutual respect even during disagreements.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Title 60, now more than ever

Washington has been recycling for decades. Government officials and think tank analysts readily recycle their favored but ignored proposals whenever some new development provides a "hook" for publicizing them. The practice usually involves saying that whatever just happened shows we need to adopt their ideas "now more than ever."

Since I am not immune to this disease myself, let me cite the Dana Priest-Bill Arkin article on the Joint Special Operations Command [JSOC] to argue that we need new "Title 60" legislation now more than ever. The article, based on a chapter in the authors' new book form of a Post series last year, points out the government's strong reliance on JSOC for major, risky national security activities -- some of which are like the "covert operations" by the CIA, which are subject to longstanding procedures for presidential approval and congressional notification. But, as the authors point out,

"Under President George W. Bush, JSOC’s operations were rarely briefed to Congress in advance — and usually not afterward, either — because government lawyers considered them to be “traditional military activities” not requiring such notification. President Obama has taken the same legal view, but he has insisted that JSOC’s sensitive missions be briefed to select congressional leaders. "
The absence of a legal regime including Congress for these activities looks like a risky loophole to me, one that has an easy fix.Some members of Congress have talked about "Title 60" legislation extending the current law to include Pentagon-run operations like those of JSOC. None of the committees that might look into this have acted yet. I hope they'll use this latest article to get busy.

budgets and priorities, California edition

Government budgets are mostly developed with tunnel vision: each agency gets more money or less as the chief executive and the legislature react to how well the agency has been doing and what else it might need to do. Rarely are tradeoffs made with other agencies, except for symbolic or political purposes (e.g., "there are more people in military bands than in the U.S. Foreign Service.")

Yet in fact, budgets reflect governmental priorities, whether or not they are consciously chosen. The United States Government does spend 19 times more on the Pentagon than on international affairs programs including diplomacy and foreign aid. Every now and then, somebody points out a comparison that grabs attention and maybe even shocks us a little. That's how I felt today reading that, for several recent years, California has been spending more on its prisons than on its universities.  As an educator today who is the son of a policeman, I see the value of both public universities and correctional facilities. But aren't things out of balance, at least in California?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

tax expenditures

In writing the original 1974 Budget Control and Impoundment Act, some liberals inserted a requirement that each year's presidential budget submission include a list of "tax expenditures" -- the estimated revenue lost because of particular tax provisions. Each year, that list sits as a menu of options for Congress to raise revenues without raising percentage tax rates.

In the past year, more and more think tanks and commissions have seized upon items on the list for revenues to reduce future deficits. And even some Republicans have occasionally acknowledged that eliminating a tax break or "loophole" might be acceptable to those who have signed the "no new taxes" pledge.

I want to keep that hope alive,so I'm happy to draw attention to this new study by some tax policy analysts that explains how the tax expenditures work and why Congress is addicted to them. The authors also argue that using the tax expenditure approach rather than straightforward grants of federal money, makes it harder to achieve policy goals and creates an administrative burden on IRS that isn't well fulfilled.

Of course, as a homeowner [correction: as the owner of the right/obligation to pay a mortgage every month], I do very much like the home mortgage interest deduction. But if that's part of the price for sensible revenue increases, I won't bring out my pitchfork.


I've long been proud of the fact that my home state of Colorado was one of the earliest states granting women the right to vote -- in the early 1890s, three decades before the 19th amendment was added to the Constitution. [I learned only recently, however, that a major motivation for that reform was to strengthen the voting power of established families and reduce that of unmarried miners.]

I also strongly believe in encouraging maximum voter turnout, such as by early voting procedures, so that people do not miss the chance to vote because of the vagaries of weather or personal schedules on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  And I know the long history of efforts by the powerful then in control to prevent blacks from voting in the South and newer citizens in other places.

Accordingly, I have been appalled to learn of the widespread efforts to disenfranchise legal citizens who wish to vote by the enactment of various measures to raise obstacles to registration and voting. The supporters of these measures claim they are combating "widespread voter fraud," despite the absence of indictments or convictions for such offenses. Anecdotes are trumpeted to obscure the facts.

This appears to be a concerted Republican effort to prevent likely Democrats from getting registered and voting, but I hope even solid Republicans would oppose or condemn such challenges to liberty.

it's all about ME!

Senior officials in both the legislative and executive branches have a regrettable tendency to view external events as a response to whatever they are doing or care about. In fact, that is rarely the case. Foreign governments make policies with highest regard to their own polity and their own goals. Politicians are so self-centered they treat almost every action by allies and adversaries as a response to themselves rather than in pursuit of individualistic goals.

As a result, these officials assume conspiracies when -- as is usual in human events -- inadvertence or incompetence is a more accurate explanation. I think that's what happened yesterday between the President and the Speaker of the House. I'll bet a middle-ranking White House aide who often deals with the Speaker's office called and said, "The President would like to make his jobs speech Wednesday evening,the first full day after the August recess." And the House official, on his own or after checking with someone else, said, "No problem." The Republican operatives chimed in, noting the competition with the candidates' debate in California, and the Speaker decided to say no. He then wrote a letter with logistical excuses making Thursday a better night.

Now maybe somebody in the White House thought, how clever of us to preclude coverage of the GOP debate. And maybe somebody in the Speaker's office thought, how cool to pit Obama against the first NFL game on Thursday and angry football fans. I suspect those were quite secondary considerations. This is a staff screwup that never should have happened, and never should have been escalated into "Obama vs Boehner!"

What's also regrettable is the media's tendency to see things in the same way. Those covering presidential politics assume the GOP debate was foremost in the White House calculations. Those covering Congress automatically view it through the Obama-Boehner lens. And the political commentators weigh in assuming politics was the only consideration and the only way to view the events.

As I look over the coverage of the incident -- here and here and here -- I see nothing that disproves my hypothesis and a lot that reinforces it.

doin' what comes natcherly

Members of Congress offering legislation that benefits their districts and key contributors. Hello! I guess this is newsworthy because the particular members mentioned are Tea Party types, who supposedly don't believe in political pork. Hypocrisy is a chronic disease among politicians, so we shouldn't expect much different. On the other hand, many candidates run not only on Big Issues like the size of government or involvement in foreign wars but also on other issues, like local folks who feel unfairly treated by government regulations or the tax code or some foreign competitors. That can justify a lot of legislation with parochial benefits.

collapse of confidence

The whole debt ceiling fight undermined public trust and confidence in government, according to a noted pollster. As Dan Balz reports, Bill McInturff says: “The perception of how Washington handled the debt ceiling negotiation led to an immediate collapse in confidence in government and all the major players, including President Obama and Republicans in Congress.”

The American system of government was designed to allow gridlock, and the default assumption has usually been that doing anything big requires big consensus, not just 51% of the votes. But now both ends of the political spectrum are calling for major policy changes and each side can block the other. President Obama is boxed in both by the partisanship of his opponents and by his own political persona, which during and since 2008 has been to portray himself above the fray, unwilling to fight purely partisan battles.

Sadly, when people lose trust in their political institutions, it takes a long time and a lot of effort to restore it.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

the real deficit: willpower

Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center reports on a not-for-attribution gathering of budget experts where the consensus was that the supercommittee will fail, the sequester will be ordered, but Congress will somehow avoid its implementation. I agree with much of his analysis, but not his conclusions.  I still expect the panel to reach an agreement close to its mandate, triggering at most a small sequester. I don't see the politics of 2012 allowing Congress to agree to anything less than the mandated cut levels.

Libya and NATO

Once again proving its value for those of us who follow international affairs, the Financial Times has an excellent article assessing the lessons for NATO of the Libyan operation. Among other points, it notes,
"Europe lacked not just will. Even where allies wanted to engage, they struggled to find the means."Take a look.

Monday, August 29, 2011


I wish journalists and officials would refrain from trying to find or impose a "doctrine" on recent U.S. foreign policy. As I pointed out months ago, even Ralph Waldo Emerson thought that diplomats had a fetish for foolish consistencies. There are few 95-5 choices in national security; most are closer to 51-49. What may seem wise in one instance is risky or unattainable in another [e.g., Libya cf. Syria]. The latest example is from today's New York Times, where Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council staff claims that America's Libya policy illustrates important principles. Interesting, but not persuasive to me.


I live in a tree-filled community that frequently suffers power outages when strong winds blow through. This weekend the visitor was Hurricane Irene. The first night, the neighbors gathered by candlelight and shared food. [Gas grills and gas stoves allow cooking.] The next day and a half, we did yardwork and relaxed. It helped, of course, that the newspapers were delivered and the plumbing doesn't require electricity.

It is far better to lose power in summer than in winter, when a homeowner fears frozen pipes, ice dams in gutters, and so forth. The daylight also lasts longer.

Now back to business as usual.

Friday, August 26, 2011

broadsheets better

We all like to have our prejudices confirmed. One of mine is that reading a dead-tree newspaper is far better than reading the same material online. Partly it's a matter of experience and comfort, partly a judgment about ease of browsing and so forth.  Jack Shafer in Slate has the same view and even found an academic study showing that retention is better when news is consumed via broadsheet instead of a screen.  I guess we're pretty close to an anecdotal consensus now.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The China threat

In the 1980s, defense hawks working for the Pentagon launched a series of annual reports on "Soviet Military Power."  The reports drew on intelligence assessments, but packaged them in the most alarming way. The Soviet forces were always depicted as 10 feet tall, with no mention of of weak knees or chronic alcoholism. Of course, the reports never indicated the likely collapse of the Soviet empire either.

I understand. Military analysts have to consider worse cases. They emphasize capabilities, regardless of evidence of intentions. But we on the outside have to sprinkle some salt on their analyses.

In the late 1990s, defense hawks were searching for a new enemy to justify large Pentagon budgets. Instead of noticing terrorism, however, they fixated on China -- the "near peer competitor."  A fashionable faction grew up, urging "contain China now," for they expected an eventual power struggle and confrontation. They ignored the bipartisan counter argument that adopting such an approach would become a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.

In 1999, they succeeded in adding a reporting requirement to the defense authorization bill that makes the Pentagon produce an annual assessment of Chinese military power. The latest one was released this week. In truth, I haven't read it yet. And I doubt that it distorts the classified intelligence estimates.  While knowing China's military capabilities is important, it is not the only factor to consider when developing policies toward China.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Libya "success"

There are many lessons to be learned from the NATO intervention in Libya -- and more to be encountered in the coming weeks and months. One important lesson is that NATO is not as militarily strong as many thought and more expected. Much of the Libya operation depended on US enablers. Yet the prospects for European defense enhancements seems to be slipping.

As the dust settles and the fog of war clears, I'll offer more lessons. Remember, however, that US military analysts still call their after-action studies "lessons learned," but the British -- more accurately -- have long called them "lessons identified."

budget failure

Despite a  new CBO study calculating that the Budget Control Act will cut the projected debt increases in half, I think Stan Collender has a more likely analysis -- that the supercommittee will be another failure, or at least short-lived in its accomplishments.

 I agree but think there will be partial success with enough downsides that the experiment won't be repeated, as was the case with Gramm-Rudman-Hollings in the 1980s. [When the media shortened the label to Gramm-Rudman, I remember Sen. Hollings explaining/complaining that 'we had to start cutting somewhere."]

Saturday, August 20, 2011

broken branch

Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein  lamented changes in Congress that turned it into what they called the "Broken Branch" in 2006. Obviously, things have only gotten worse since then. Jonathan Chait of the New Republic has a good recent diagnosis that I largely share. He points to increased partisanship, disputes over political legitimacy,  and a change in norms. He also notes that more obstructive tactics are just waiting to be discovered.

I'd make the same points in a slightly different way. Partisanship has become more strident because the parties have become more ideological and the redistricting process has tended to strengthen reliable-party constituencies. Questions of legitimacy have been major issues of partisan dispute since the 1990s: starting with Bill Clinton, each president has been viewed as fundamentally illegitimate by a large segment of the opposition party. In Congress, the ideological unity of the parties has reinforced party discipline.

The change in norms is, to me, even more troubling. For whatever reasons -- the way political news is covered, the benefits of stridency for fundraising, the locker-room competitiveness of the players -- even minor political disputes are treated as must-win great battles. Every day is D-Day; every battle is another Stalingrad.

In the Senate, this has led to filibusters or other obstruction on more nominations and almost all legislation. What used to be a last-ditch tool either to publicize a concern or block some broadly popular measure is now a routine device. In the House, it has led both parties, when in the majority, to block proposals by the minority.

I remember when Sen.Jesse Helms [R-NC] discovered that treaty texts could be amended, something not tried since the Versailles Treaty debates in 1919. Suddenly, everybody wanted to amend treaties rather than attaching reservations. Since there are more unused or undiscovered tools for mischief in the Senate's rules, Chait is right to expect more obstruction in the future.

The only remedies are shame from the attentive media and public and rejection by the voters. It would also help to undertake some of the measures urged by Mann and Ornstein to try to restore civility and collegiality in the legislative branch.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Obama's dilemma

Democrats who want the President to be nastier to Republicans and their policies have emotion on their side, but not political logic. Obama ran for president echoing the widely-held public view that Washington was somehow corrupt and Congress was broken. He called for less partisanship and more cooperation.

Once in office, he continued striking that above-the-fray pose, with only minor deviations. Despite vigorous and often effective Republican opposition,  he has achieved numerous legislative victories, though never enough to satisfy his most ardent supporters.

He can't change now. He has established his leadership persona, and he certainly has every incentive to stand apart from the partisanship and vitriol so strong in Washington today. Democrats don't like his criticizing "Congress" and not just Republicans, but that's consistent with his original campaign.

Nor is it reasonable to expect that he would be any more successful in the next 15 months, or on November 6, 2012, if he joins the mudfight now. Few of the undecideds would welcome strident partisanship from the White House.

battles ahead

The debt ceiling sideshow is over, but several major legislative-executive conflicts are just around the corner.

The biggest is over the 2012 appropriations, which have to be passed by September 30. The debt ceiling law sets specific spending caps for 2012 and 2013, but Congress has a lot of flexibility in deciding what gets in under the cap and what gets left out. Failure to agree could lead to a shutdown of unfunded federal agencies and many of the same scare stories that came out as the debt limit took hold.

In the foreign policy field, the busy and very knowledgeable John Rogin of Foreign Policy magazine has a checklist of unresolved issues still facing Congress. Read 'em and weep.

budget sausage

After three happy but hectic weeks with grandchildren, I now have had time to catch up on the news, especially the new budget control act that ended, at least for now, the debt ceiling crisis.
The new law doesn’t, by itself, cut government spending or make reforms to mandatory [entitlement] programs. Instead, it establishes several processes that push the government in those directions. It also creates incentives for Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget and for the new supercommittee to reach bipartisan agreement on additional spending cuts of at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade.

Lawmakers cobbled together several provisions of previous budget control laws, especially from the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law that contained automatic across-the-board “sequesters” and the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act that capped discretionary spending with specific dollar amounts. They added the idea of the Senate’s Republican Leader, Mitch McConnell [R-Ky], to allow some debt ceiling increases subject to vetoable resolutions of disapproval by Congress. Surprisingly, they restored the 1987 firewall protecting security spending and in particular programs for international affairs, veterans, and homeland security.
And they built in some loopholes. Spending for “Overseas Contingency Operations” – the $127 billion line item for Pentagon and State Department activities for ongoing wars and against terrorists – is exempt from the budget ceilings. As under earlier budget laws, Congress can also declare certain expenditures “emergencies” to get around the caps, although there are limits in the amounts allowed for disaster relief. Some domestic programs get special treatment or protection, but not the IMF as in earlier years.

The new law has several provisions to prevent Senate filibusters or procedural challenges to the various measures allowed under the new processes. No amendments or procedural delays can be used on the debt ceiling disapprovals or the supercommittee recommendations [if they can agree on something] or on the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

So what’s likely to happen? The debt ceiling is safe until 2013, for a 2/3 vote overriding a presidential  veto of a resolution of disapproval seems unlikely. The constitutional amendment has to be voted on between October 1 and December 31, but a 2/3 vote is unlikely for the latest version of that measure, which would require California-style supermajorities to increase taxes.

There there’s the supercommittee. If a majority does not agree on at least $1.2 trillion in additional cuts by November 23, then a full-scale “sequester” occurs in January, half of which must come from the Pentagon budget and some of the non-defense cuts must come from entitlement programs. This is supposed to scare lawmakers into making balanced and sensible cuts and perhaps even raising some revenue through changes in “tax expenditures” [also known as tax loopholes].

My first reaction was to agree that those automatic cuts were too draconian to be acceptable. And in fact, the very small first Gramm-Rudman-Hollings cuts were still deemed to be so disruptive, Congress found ways to evade ever facing them again.

On further study, however, I’m ready to predict a muddle-through. If the new panel packages the cuts tentatively agreed by the Biden group [$800 billion] and adds a few more items, the sequester would be limited to the difference, spread over nine years. Those figures would be painful, of course, but not as painful as $133 billion in any one year. 

Such a not-quite-good-enough outcome kicks the problem down the road to the 2012 elections and the expiration of all the Bush tax cuts. That may not help the country much, but it would probably look good to the politicians on all sides.

Friday, July 8, 2011

what's the Constitution among friends?

I'm always intrigued when people unearth little-known sections of the Constitution and force us to reexamine new aspects of our foundation document. [I do it myself. I'm particularly fond of Article IV's guarantee of a "Republican Form of Government" -- why the capital R? -- and Article VI's requirement that  state officials and lawmakers have to take a oath to support the federal Constitution. This forced opponents of ratification like George Mason, Patrick Henry, and James Monroe change positions in order to continue in public life.]

I had never noticed the 14th amendment's section 4 on public debt until recently, and at first I saw it as a neat fallback for the government if lawmakers failed to increase the debt ceiling. I also felt that it would be politically unwise for the Obama administration to use right away, without further negotiations and efforts to reach a public consensus on the wisdom of such a remedy.

Now I'm persuaded that the Constitution cannot be stretched that far. Harvard Law School's Larry Tribe  makes the case in the New York Times today. The 14th amendment might permit paying debt without congressional obstruction, but it does not allow the President to create new debt on his own. Since much debt is simply rolled over into new instruments when the older ones mature, that is where the debt ceiling law -- and the Constitution  -- bite.

So it's back to the negotiating table, with our fingers crossed.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

the mega-politics of debt ceilings and deficit reductions

Too many analysts keep putting the budget and debt fights into a partisan frame where Democrats are arguing with Republicans. In fact, it's a multi-level game where the President is fighting "Congress" -- notice that that is how he describes the other side, not "Republicans" -- and Democrats are fighting Republicans in two separate venues, House and Senate, which now and in the future fight each other.

I infer that the President is choosing his moves with an eye toward his reelection contest in 2012. He wants to lose as few voters from 2008 as possible, and motivate those who stayed home in 2010. He ran originally against conventional party politics and is trying to maintain that above-it-all stance. He needs deals on the debt ceiling, the deficit, and government programs for the sake of the country and to improve the economy over the next 18 months. And if problems arise, he wants everybody to recognize that he went the extra mile. I'm sure the White House is not indifferent to the needs of congressional Democrats, but those are far from their highest priority.

House Republicans think they have a mandate and should be able to dictate outcomes -- and they probably expect that the President will be blamed for whatever problems occur if they are intransigent.  House Democrats want to win back control in 2012, as they could if they could recapture Obama-won districts, so they want to avoid any votes that trouble their base.

Senate Republicans are in very good shape to recapture the Senate, so they are happy to postpone tough votes, or measures that help the economy much. Senate Democrats are desperate to keep their majority and are individually quite divided over what makes the best sense politically and economically. Overall, congressional Republicans are fairly united and congressional Democrats split into numerous factions.

Given these many diverse pressures, and the absence of enough leaders who can resist partisan incentives, it's hard to predict the outcome right now. But I wanted to lay out the forces in play since the reportage has been so binary.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

playing "chicken" with our economy

I'd heard of the teenage male game of "chicken," where two drivers race toward each other and hope that the oncoming car swerves first, but I never knew of any actual contests.  I guess it was a Hollywood idea that got put into a lot of teenage movies in the 1950s and then taken a a real phenomenon.

It now looks increasingly as if Democrats and Republicans are about to play "chicken" with the debt ceiling legislation. I agree with Norm Ornstein that the widespread view that the politicians will work something out may not be correct in this case. Too few lawmakers realize the damage that can come from even waiting til the last minute. Too many think the consequences of even temporary default are minor and remediable. I saw things work out in the 1990 summit that worked out the Budget Enforcement Act. There was some posturing, of course, but the negotiators knew they had to cut a deal, and they compromised accordingly. I worry that the same level of statesmanship is lacking today.

the hostage reduction act

President John Adams once said, "Every time I make a nomination, I create 99 enemies and one ingrate."  The way the Senate has been handling nominations in recent years, we can add a corollary: Every presidential nomination creates one hostage and 100 potential hostage-takers.

The Senate has now taken a baby step toward reducing the number of hostages. It has voted for a bill eliminating the need for Senate confirmation for about 220 officials. That still leaves over 3500 positions requiring Senate approval, but it's a step in the right direction. While Senators rightly want to be able to interrogate and occasionally reject nominees who wield significant power over policies and programs, the reclassified positions are mainly legislative and public affairs officials, and others below the rank of assistant secretary who have to report to a confirmed official.

The Senate took another useful step in passing a resolution automatically placing members of most advisory commissions that still require confirmation in a special status of "privileged nominations." Their names are on the calendar for approval after ten days unless a Senator asks specific referral to a committee for further inquiry. That still allows holds and delays, but creates a presumption of prompt action.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Senate plan for Libya

As expected, the Foreign Relations Committee yesterday approved, 14-5, the Kerry-McCain joint resolution authorizing U.S. participation in operations against Libya for one year after enactment. The Senators did approve three amendments: specifically barring the use of ground troops; prohibiting using contractors for military operations; and declaring that the American activities constitute "hostilities" under the War Powers Act. Those were minor concessions that seem to reflect the current Senate consensus.

Timing of any Senate floor votes is highly uncertain, not least because the Senate is heading toward a long Independence Day recess from July 1-11.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

50/50 chance in Afghanistan?

There's a new study by the RAND Corporation of Afghanistan.  It applies a methodology used earlier to assess when governments and when insurgents win their conflicts. There are 15 "good" and 12 "bad" factors. In Afghanistan today, the RAND people say, the net calculation is lower than any successful counterinsurgent government but higher than any losing government.

That sounds about right to me. But I want to point out two questionable aspects of the study's methodology. First, it considers all 27 factors as of equal weight. That helps the calculation, of course, but it means that the competence of the local government and a perception of security are considered no more important than whether the government achieves two "strategic communication factors."  Second, most of the problem areas -- other than the "bad" factor that the primary counterinsurgency force is viewed as an external occupier -- are not really under the control of the international forces led by the United States. They depend on what the Afghan government and security forces do.

In other words, it's still their war to win or lose.

open sources

I've long been a consumer and admirer of Congressional Research Service [CRS] reports. They contain well-vetted information and are as politically neutral as possible, given that CRS depends on money from Democrats and Republicans in Congress.  Lawmakers view CRS as their think tank and research arm and want to be the purveyors of CRS products. [If you've ever gotten a packet of information from a member of Congress, it probably included several CRS products.] Some in CRS would like to distribute directly to the public, but Congress won't allow it.

However, the good old Department of State provides CRS reports to its embassies and through its Foreign Press Center. That's where people like you and me can go directly. Happy hunting!

Monday, June 27, 2011

lessons from the House Libya votes

What do the House votes on Libya measures mean? 1. House members care more about making political points than asserting their Constitutional powers over war and peace. 2. There is no majority either to authorize continued military action or to cut off funds for it.

On Friday, the House voted down a joint resolution, following the wording of the Kerry-McCain measure pending in the Senate, that would authorize continued U.S. participation in the Libya operations but disavow the use of ground troops. The vote was 123-225, with all but 8 Republicans in opposition. The House also voted down a bill to limit U.S. involvement to search and rescue, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, aerial refueling, and operational planning. The vote there was 180-238, with 144 Republicans for it and 149 Democrats against. The problem with the second measure was that it authorized more than many congressmen wanted and yet was depicted as a sharp rebuke the the President. Doves didn't like the first fact, and Democrats were persuaded by the second.

On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is supposed to consider amendments to the Kerry-McCain resolution. Senator Lugar [R-Ind.] is proposing several changes, including: a legally binding prohibition on ground troops and a narrowing of  missions as in the failed House bill.

I think the Senate can pass the Kerry-McCain measure, perhaps with the ground troop ban and other rhetoric about the need for further authorization down the road. If so, then the House has to decide whether to agree, punt, or negotiate modest changes.  The only thing that counts in legal terms is what Congress can send to the President and get signed into law.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

reassuring ignorance

As a professor, I worry about student ignorance -- both before and after they take my classes. But maybe, just maybe, the latest generation of American students is not as ignorant as the press reports suggest.

A short piece in the New Yorker gives this historical evidence:
“We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.” He pointed out that the first large-scale proficiency study—of Texas students, in 1915-16—demonstrated that many couldn’t tell Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson Davis or 1492 from 1776. A 1943 survey of seven thousand college freshmen found that, among other things, only six per cent of them could name the original thirteen colonies.

The article also notes that many of these repeated tests drop those questions that most students get right in order to have ones that follow a bell curve. So maybe we're into a Zeno's paradox in tests of student knowledge. We'll never get smart enough.

the center path

I recall riding with my Dad, who complained that an oncoming driver "wants to take his half [of the road] down the middle." I recall Henry Kissinger complaining that options memos in government always seemed tilted toward "option B," the supposed middle ground between capitulation and nuclear war.

I was not surprised when President Obama split the differences among his advisers by choosing a faster withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan than his military commanders favored but slower than what some political advisers urged. I was surprised,however, that the President actually announced this: "We must chart a centered course." I also recoiled from his use of the light at the end of the tunnel metaphor, when he said "And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance." I was not upset by the little white lie by senior administration officials, however, when they claimed that public opinion "really doesn't play a role" in the decision. That's what they have to say.

I leave it to the experts to assess whether we really are in a "position of strength" in Afghanistan.  I'm most dismayed by the failure -- for a lot of reasons -- of the U.S. government to carry out the "civilian surge" also promised at West Point, and the failure to make much progress at the political-strategic level with Kabul and the Karzai government.

The center path has some advantages, but it also can be dangerous to pursue.

UPDATE: More detailed reporting in National Journal says that Sec. Gates prevailed in a centrist compromise on the troop withdrawal plan.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kerry-McCain resolution

Unlike the House of Representatives, where the members seem widely split over what if anything to do regarding Libya, a bipartisan group of Senators are pressing binding legislation authorizing the "limited use" of U.S. military force in Libya for one year. The Kerry-McCain resolution is substantially different from an earlier version because that was merely a sense of Congress measure, and this would be sent to the President for signing into law. The use of force is limited to "support of U.S. national security interests as part of the NATO mission to enforce UNSC Resolution 1973."  While a "sense of Congress" section endorses the "departure from power" of Muammar Qaddafi, the operative language does not include that goal. And while another section is titled "Opposition to the use of U.S. Ground Troops," the actual language says only "Congress does not support" such action, rather than  more restrictive language, such as "no funds may be used."

Although I remain skeptical of the Libyan operation, I think this is a reasonable way for Congress to reassert its Constitutional role and set conditions for the use of force.  The measure also could be amended, if majorities could be found for different conditions.  If Congress really cares about preserving its war powers, it ought to pass something -- and work to be sure something passes.

guessing games

Numerous leaks are nourishing the news media today, but they're mainly muddying the water. The President will announce his Afghanistan troop withdrawal plans tomorrow. Will he announce a 5,000 person withdrawal? Or 10,000? Or some now and all 30,000 that were surged in by the end of 2012?

More important than the numbers, I think, is whether he has a political deal as solid as in December, 2009. And I suspect he does. He needs and probably has Sec. Gates' agreement. Indeed, I suspect that the timing was chosen to be sure Gates agreed before he retired and Gen. Petraeus agreed before he faced Senators regarding his nomination to head the CIA. There were probably be some implicit conditions in whatever is announced to satisfy the military, as there were in 2009.

On the other hand, U.S. policy in the region is still in great peril. Whatever security gains have been achieved, the political situation in Kabul is still a mess. And I find myself in sympathy with David Brooks' comments about failures in our aid programs. I also worry that we are creating a garrison state in Afghanistan that cannot be sustained after western withdrawal.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Gates legacy

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been giving valedictory speeches and press interviews as his June 30 retirement approaches. As someone who has studied the various Pentagon leaders, I have nothing but praise for Gates in all of his challenging roles -- manager of the Pentagon, presidential adviser, diplomat, and war planner and war fighter. Leon Panetta may turn out to be an excellent SecDef, but he'll certainly be different from Gates and it's unlikely he'll be as effective.

Gates has been mild-mannered (at least in public) but tough -- especially in firing several senior officials for poor performance of their duties. He also imposed a near-term focus on an institution that historically cares mainly about preparing for future wars.

Among the best recent articles are ones by Fred Kaplan at Slate and Mike Allen in Politico. When more good retrospectives are written, I'll send them along.

Title 60, US Code

Title 10 of the US Code encompasses the laws for the military and the Defense Department. Title 50 has the laws for espionage, intelligence, the National Security Council and war powers. An amendment I helped my then-boss write nearly four decades ago required that, if the CIA wanted to conduct a covert operation, the President had to give formal approval and the Congress had to be notified. That law, slightly revised, is still on the books. It's codified under Title 50, though the amendment was to a foreign aid bill, which is mostly codified under title 22.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld saw an opening to use military forces for secret operations that Congress wouldn't have to be notified about, as David Ignatius discussed recently. He also notes some post-Rumsfeld reforms.  In recent years, including the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the intelligence communities paramilitary forces and the Pentagon's special operations forces have collaborated very effectively.

Several members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans,  have expressed interest in broadening the Hughes-Ryan amendment to cover DOD-run covert operations with what some call a "Title 60" provision, covering operations whether conducted by Title 10, Title 50, or combined forces. This is an encouraging example -- at a time when there are so many discouraging ones -- of bipartisan cooperation to assure accountability in national security activities.

Friday, June 17, 2011

stories too good to check

Like many other speakers, I'm quite comfortable using quotations that are pithy and relevant, even if I can't document their sources. In academic mode, however, I know I need a footnote.  For a long time, I quoted Mark Twain as saying, "History doesn't repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes." I've now seen enough commentary that I feel constrained to say, "As attributed to Mark Twain."  It seems that almost all really good quotes come from --or have been attributed to -- Twain, Churchill, or Yogi Berra.

The same with stories. I've often cited Lyndon Johnson's comment supposedly made to a sergeant at a military base:. The enlisted man had said, "Not this one, Mr. President, your helicopter is over there." And Johnson replied, "Son, they're all my helicopters." [Sorry, this isn't in the Public Papers of the President.]

The discussion about the White House report on war powers in Libya -- where the White House lawyers defended the President's actions -- reminded me of another LBJ story too good to verify.  It's said that he called a newly named White House counsel into the Oval Office and raised an important question" "What I want to know is, are you a "yes" lawyer or a "no" lawyer?"  [He should have known that almost all government lawyers, perhaps except in the White House house, are congenitally "no" lawyers, just as most lawyers in private practice as "yes" lawyers.]

the politics of Afghanistan troop withdrawals

The Wall Street Journal says that "the military" wants to delay significant U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, notwithstanding presidential promises to begin them starting in July. No surprises here. The December 2009 decision to surge troops was a compromise. Withdrawals were to start next month, but the pace would be "conditions based." That kept the politicians like the Vice President happy, and the military leaders reassured.

It shouldn't be hard to fashion a renewed compromise, since it's just a numbers game. Do we want 3,000 to come home next month, and another 5-8,000 by the end of the year, as the military reportedly proposes. Or do we want a higher initial figure and vague words about the pace of withdrawals during 2012? It's all manageable.

What's new is the growing political pressure from Republicans to pull out faster. That was the theme of the GOP presidential contenders' debate and is evident in growing criticism in Congress. The politicians are all reading the opinion polls. I think "the military" will recognize this fact and accommodate the President with symbolic evidence of speedier withdrawals even if it gets private assurances of subsequent reviews.

Libya and war powers, again

There's a lot of fussing and fuming over the White House report to Congress on the Libya operations -- and most of it is misdirected. The real issue isn't a legal question, it's a policy and political question: will Congress express its collective judgment on Libya or just play political games?

The White House paper on Libya is actually a reasonable response to Speaker Boehner's lengthy list of questions -- the same sort of information made available in the ten hearings and 30 briefings on Libya documented by the Administration. Now it's up to Congress to take action. The paper argues that the United States is not involved in "hostilities" because U.S. forces are largely in a support role.

What do you expect White House lawyers to say? For four decades, they all have argued that the President doesn't have to comply with the War Powers Act. Even eminent scholars like Harold Koh found ways to "stand where they sit" in the Executive Branch.

The purpose of the War Powers Act was to prevent, or at least limit, presidential warmaking. The actual language, of course, allows it for 60 days. But in practice, every major military operation not authorized by Congress [as was done for Lebanon, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq] has been limited both in scope and duration, usually to under four months. So regardless of the legalities, the law has had the intended beneficial result. In the case of Libya, it sure looks as if the lawyers -- as well as Sec. Gates and the military leaders -- weighed in to keep the US role limited.

As President Obama said in reporting, as required by the law, the deployment of US forces against Libya, it's time for the Congress to express its will. Regrettably, Congresses of both parties have regularly evaded their responsibilities over the decades by failing to pass legislation, either to authorize or limit or halt the ongoing military operations. Lawmakers have the power of the purse. They also can impose goals and conditions for the operation -- as they have done in past conflicts. [Be one of the few in the world to have read my book on this, Congress at War.]

It doesn't matter what the lawyers say about this. What matters is what the lawmakers do. And if that means finding majorities for something less than the most extreme positions,  tough; that's the legislative process.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The inscrutable Chinese

There is a little 3-year old girl in San Francisco who calls me "Grandpa Charlie" and who is now in a Mandarin immersion school. I hope she learns a lot and retains in later in life. Then she won't make the same mistakes as so often get reported in the western press.

I was delighted to read in the Financial Times that the statement by Chinese Premier Zhou en-lai in 1972 was a fairly ordinary comment on current events rather than a sign of Chinese patience and historical perspective. When asked by Henry Kissinger about the French revolution, Zhou replied that "it's too soon to tell." Now we have confirmation that the "revolution" in question was the 1968 youth rebellion, not the events of 1789.

I was also reassured to learn that the old chestnut from motivational speakers, that the Chinese word for "crisis" combines the characters for "danger" and "opportunity," is incorrect.

I doubt that I'll ever learn more Chinese than a few tourist phrases, but I'm glad to have these reports, and the continuing ones by James Fallows and his wife Deborah on Chinese for Americans.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Is the USA PATRIOT Act extension legal?

I was surprised to learn that the President "authorized use of an autopen" to sign the law extending the life of the USA PATRIOT before the midnight deadline that would have caused the law to lapse.  [Special Bonus Points to anyone who -- without checking Google or elsewhere -- can list the full title of the law that has that catchy acronym.]

After all, this was the President who took the oath of office twice to be sure that no one could challenge his presidency on that point.

It turns out that the legal counsel for President Bush prepared a formal memorandum allowing such signatures in 2005. I guess that proves that White House lawyers know how to make things easy for the President.

libya: the ball's in Congress' court

Many commentators got all worked up that sixty days had passed since the start of the air operations in Libya. Some said the U.S. actions were illegal, since the War Powers Resolution sets a time limit on military operations absent authorization by Congress.

Well nobody expected the President to say, "Oops, I gotta obey the law," since no President ever has acknowledged the law as binding. Instead, President Obama did a clever -- and fully justified --thing. He sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to authorize the action.  He also said the Administration had been in consultations with some members and urged approval of a Kerry-McCain resolution, S. Res. 194. That measure is not binding law, but does express the sense of the Senate "support[ing] the limited use of military force  by the United States in Libya." It also endorses regime change in Tripoli, a goal broader than the official UN Security Council mandate.

Congress has done this often in the past, before and since the War Powers Resolution was enacted.It would be appropriate now as well.  I still believe that that law is Constitutional and binding, but I also recognize that Congress has often failed to assert its war powers.The Kerry-McCain resolution is a better-than-nothing way to play its proper role.  That resolution, by the way, has been held up by Senators who want votes on more extreme pro- and anti-war provisions. If any of them succeed, however, Congress will end up leaving executive power unchallenged.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

terrorist interest group

I know and respect that Americans have a Constitutional right to organize and petition the government for a redress of grievances, but I'm uneasy when former senior officials with major national security responsibilities start shilling for an organization that's been on the official list of terrorist supporters for over a dozen years. According to the Wall Street Journal, many of these former officials even take five-figure speaking fees to endorse the Mujahedin-e-Khalq [MeK], a group that opposes the current regime in Tehran. Shared dislikes are not the same as shared values. If the MeK has renounced its violent past and has enough in common with U.S. policy to warrant removal from the terrorist list, then let that be determined by officials with access to all the intelligence -- and not by former officials who get big speaking fees.

war powers and the Libya operation

I tend to tune out when lawyers start arguing war powers. Nobody listens to them other than other lawyers. Going to war is a political decision by the two political branches of government, and it should be treated as a serious policy question.

I was skeptical about the wisdom and likely success of the Libyan air strikes, but not about their legality. The UN Security Council had approved action; the North Atlantic Council had approved, and even the Senate had passed a nonbinding "go get 'em" resolution. It would have been nice if the President had asked for congressional endorsement either before or after he ordered the strikes, but I wasn't surprised when Congress failed to assert its Constitutional prerogatives since their assertiveness has been pretty spotty in recent decades.

Now the administration is acknowledging that the war powers act does exist and maybe should do something, even though no President has ever said that it was binding. That law does allow military action for 60 days without congressional approval, and that deadline is approaching. I hope U.S. officials will at least review what has been accomplished and what is feasible if U.S. participation continues. If the moribund law can accomplish that, it will be useful service.

the system worked

The military operation that killed Osama bin Laden appears to have been a textbook example of good presidential and military planning.

But it also proved that Congress can keep a secret. As Vice President Biden told the Atlantic Council:
"What was even more extraordinary was -- and I’m sure former administration officials will appreciate this more than anyone -- there was such an absolute, overwhelming desire to accomplish this mission that although for over several months we were in the process of planning it and there were are many as 16 members of Congress who were briefed on it, not a single solitary thing leaked. I find that absolutely amazing."
Since I helped write the law that requires presidential findings prior to CIA covert actions and notification to Congress, I was gratified that this aspect worked well, too.

I also used an on-the-record meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations to ask the current chairman of the House Intelligence Committee,Cong. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), whether his panel would consider extending this law to cover covert actions conducted solely by non-CIA personnel. He indicated that they had been following what he called "Title 10 operations" (after the part of the U.S. Code controlling the Pentagon) and would be considering whether to make any changes in the law.

no excuses

But I do have an explanation for my tardiness in posting. I have shared some news items with my class, but didn't take the time to blog with them. I also had academic responsibilities. And I have come very close to finishing a book manuscript much earlier than expected. So I've been busy.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

a flawed intervention

I’ve been reading and thinking about the U.S. military actions in Libya and have some still tentative views. But I’ve been upset by enough commentary, I want to react in some way.

The Obama Administration deserves great credit for: [1] insisting that military action be clearly and explicitly authorized by the UN Security Council; [2] forming a coalition of the willing through an established, practiced military organization, NATO; [3] limiting its operations to the authorized mission of protecting civilians, despite the rhetorical calls for regime change; [4] consulting frequently with a large segment of congressional leadership; [5] following the precedent of earlier administrations of notifying Congress of the operations in a way consistent with the War Powers Act.

On the other hand, the administration can be faulted for: [1] adopting “regime change” language before it had decided what to do; [2] launching military operations before the important command and control and other precursor military arrangements had been determined; [3] relying on military actions which carry a high risk of leading to stalemate. [Steve Biddle’s commentary on this point is especially persuasive to me.] 
I disagree with the critics who say Congress needed to act beforehand to authorize the operation – though I would prefer if lawmakers now adopt some measure authorizing but limiting the use of force in ways consistent with the UNSC Resolution. The operation could end within the time limits prescribed by the War Powers Act, thus confirming its legality.

I disagree with those who demand unilateral American “leadership” in a matter where other nations have important stakes and capabilities to share the burden.

I disagree with those who complain about U.S. inconsistency in intervening in Libya but not elsewhere when dictators are killing their people. Governance is about choosing, even at the risk of painful trade-offs and inconsistencies. I am not fully persuaded, however, that Libya was about to experience “Srebrenica on steroids.” In fact, I fear that we may have far too little reliable information regarding conditions within Libya and especially among those most powerful in the opposition.

I’m willing to wait and see whether the President can articulate a rationale for this actions and whether the U.S. military can design a strategy consistent with that guidance. That need not be fully spelled out openly at this time, but it had better be thought through.

I wish I felt more confident about the operation and the strategy underpinning it, for the costs are significant and the risks to other U.S. policy interests high.