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.