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.