Wednesday, February 29, 2012

war dance

I'm an outsider, with no inside information, just reading the tea leaves, but here's my take on the U.S. and Israeli maneuvering regarding war with Iran. I previously indicated my doubts about the wisdom or effectiveness of a military strike at the present time.

The American and Israeli governments agree on the basic goal -- preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability. They define that goal differently, however, with the Israelis reluctant to let Iran achieve even a theoretical capability to build a weapon and delivery system in less than a year or so and the U.S. government concerned about a tested or at least testable warhead and delivery system. Those differing definitions, of course, lead to much different deadlines for action.

The current Israeli government -- despite warnings from several former high officials in military and intelligence posts -- seems determined to press for military action before the end of 2012. Israeli officials want the United States to act against Iran, or support their actions, or at least not oppose their actions. They may also believe that the Obama administration is more likely to be supportive prior to the November elections because of the continuing strong pro-Israeli support in Congress. [In fact, some Senators are pushing legislation that would adopt the Israeli definition of nuclear capability as official U.S. policy.]

The Obama administration has been using Israeli war talk to leverage support for tougher sanctions by other nations. And sanctions have been tightened, notably by the European decision to halt purchases of Iranian oil by midyear and by U.S. moves against financial institutions linked to Iran. The administration has also built up its military forces near Iran and has reportedly provided additional capabilities to Israel.

American intelligence assessments, however, still view Iranian activities as moving toward a nuclear weapons capability, but lacking a definitive decision to build one. U.S. officials have been traveling to Israel, apparently seeking to reassure the Netanyahu government and also to warn of the consequences of premature military action.  They have also gone public with warnings about the broad range of likely Iranian retaliatory acts.

Israeli officials now seem to be pressuring the administration to commit to military action even before Iran has a confirmed weapons program and an imminent warhead. The action-forcing events seem to be the AIPAC convention, where both leaders will speak, and an Oval Office meeting between them early next week.

This is a delicate moment for both nations. If they really want to collaborate and keep up the pressure on Iran, they can easily find public rhetoric to do so. That's the likely U.S. posture. But if the Israelis want to use their election year leverage and threaten Obama, they will likely leak unfavorable reports of private meetings. That would politicize the issue and raise doubts about U.S.-Israeli cooperation on their shared goal.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

responsibility for World War I

The first world war was obviously one of the great tragedies of human history -- a devastating conflict in its own right and a failure in its objective -- as stated by Woodrow Wilson -- of preventing future major wars.

Like other students of international relations, I read volumes on the outbreak of the war, its conduct especially in the trenches on the western front, and the failed peace reached at Versailles and later buried, at least from an American perspective, in the U.S. Senate. Scholars have found numerous lessons in the war regarding arms races, threats, offensive versus defensive strategies, civil-military relations, U.S. legislative-executive relations, and on and on.

One early and quite influential book -- on me and even on President Kennedy -- was Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. One of its lessons, which was quite relevant to the development of U.S. nuclear war planning, was the danger of rigid war plans that could not be altered to give diplomacy a chance. I still think that is an important lesson.

But I have been stimulated by a new book by historian Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War. Here's a review. McMeekin is deliberately provocative and revisionist. His main target is the historical consensus, enshrined in the war guilt section of the Versailles treaty, that Germany was principally responsible for the outbreak of the war. He builds his case painstakingly, drawing on Russian archives that few others have examined. He shows that Russia wanted to seize key territory from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, especially Constantinople and the straits from the Black Sea. He persuasively argues that Russian leaders misled their allies in France and Britain about their intentions and war plans, and that Russia actually started its military mobilization secretly and earlier than generally believed.

I still view Germany and Austria-Hungary as the major aggressors, but McMeekin convinces me that Russia shares significant guilt for starting the war. Anyway, it's refreshing to read a well-documented and argued revisionist history, which this is.

cyber fight

Who's in charge of America's defenses against cyber threats? According to Dana Priest and Bill Arkin, 21 federal agencies created after the 9/11 attacks have cybersecurity responsibilities and authorities. They continue to fight each other for money, power, and leadership on the issue. Earlier, the Air Force was trying to take control of the issue, only to be subordinated to a joint Cyber Command. Now NSA is in the fight.

Who should be in charge? I don't know. Legislation in Congress wants to give the lead to the Department of Homeland Security. The National Security Agency [NSA] has been pushing itself -- to the point that the White House has told the agency to cool it, mainly out of concerns that the NSA-proposed plan raises major privacy concerns. At least that's what has surfaced in the Washington Post. I guess I sympathize with the notion of giving the lead to civilian agencies in order to avoid military dominance.

Meanwhile, there's a useful debate between skeptics and alarmists on the cyber threat. Take a look at the debate in Foreign Policy magazine between Thomas Rid and John Arquilla.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

enemies abroad

Many people think that the United States needs an enemy to rally people and the Congress behind large defense budgets and an assertive foreign policy. At least since World War II, there has always been a ready candidate -- first the Soviet Union and International Communism, then Japan [in economic terms only], then China, then Iraq and Terrorism, and now, according to Gallup, Iran.  Despite these public attitudes, the policymakers still focus on the only nations that truly can threaten America with sizable nuclear capabilities, China and Russia. That's what the DNI has testified.

Even with China and Russia, the most important question is intention, not just the capability. That's always harder to know, but I sure don't lose sleep over Russian, Chinese, or Iranian nuclear attacks on the United States.

Monday, February 20, 2012

an excellent political education

Harry McPherson died last week, but he left a memoir of his years working for Lyndon Johnson that captures the initial idealism and eventual realism/cynicism that migrants to Washington often develop. Since my own sojourn followed that trajectory, I have long enjoyed A Political Education.

The Monkey Cage draws attention to McPherson and quotes one passage from his book that describes how staffers write memos for the President.
“All the memoranda I have quoted were biased. All proceeded from the personal convictions of Johnson’s advisors, which we believed he shared…. The real danger was that we would weigh it wrong. The very process of reducing a dozen position papers and committee meetings to a three-page memorandum for the President required that we exclude some arguments and data, and emphasize others. We tried to give him both sides, but our judgments colored what we wrote. Presidents are not helpless in such matters…; [they] also choose staffs on whose values they believe they can rely. But the danger of bias or omission is always there, and it is unavoidable so long as Presidents make twenty decisions a day on the basis of information they can only receive through the filter of other men’s convictions.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

leaking and dumping

A leak is a (usually) unauthorized disclosure of inside information about government activities. There are, of course, trial balloon leaks that are authorized, but the leakers have to remain anonymous.

On the other hand, dumping is authorized release of (usually) embarrassing information. It is usually done late on Friday to minimize news coverage, and often in such large quantities of documents that reporters can't possibly review it all before writing their stories. Nothing new here. But Politico today has a neat article documenting how many items embarrassing to the Obama administration have been dumped on Friday. The practice goes back many years because it serves the political interests of embarrassed administrations.

How corrupt is Congress?

I'm unhappy with a lot about Congress, but I think personal corruption isn't widespread. Sexual misbehavior is probably more prevalent. Anyway, I'm underwhelmed by the lengthy Washington Post coverage today. The Post article documents earmarks for projects that were close to properties members owned in their home areas or to organizations where relatives had jobs.  Despite all the digging, the Post identified only 33 members --of 535 voting members of Congress -- who seemed to have sponsored such earmarks.

When you realize that about half the members are millionaires, it's not surprising that they would own property or businesses back home, nor that their relatives would be engaged in economically viable activities.

If such reports do raise your blood pressure, the right answer is more transparency on members' finances and assets, and more details about the beneficiaries of earmarks.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Infighting over Afghan policy

I've long believed that the best way to understand how U.S. foreign policy is made is to look at the bureaucratic process that is followed. In fact,,policymakers often bring different organizational perspectives and concerns to policy discussions. They do not always agree on what the problem is, what U.S. priorities should be, or what should be done.

As internal debates proceed, the side which thinks it is losing often resorts to leaks to the press to gain political allies.

Today's Washington Post has an excellent example of these phenomena.

The thrust of Karen De Young's story is that the administration is trying to revise its Afghanistan policy, but some aspects are becoming public before they can orchestrate a rollout. As a result, there is some confusion among officials. You may have noticed Sec. Panetta's comments last week about an early end to a US combat role, and his subsequent backpedaling at NATO.

Look at some of DeYoung's statements: A "senior official" says that in Washington and other capitals: “They use leaking as a tool.”

She also notes dissent inside the Obama administration: "Some senior officials privately echoed Republican critics, who argue that an earlier end to the combat mission — or even public discussion of one — would weaken the administration’s hand as State Department and National Security Council officials prepare for another meeting with Taliban representatives this month in Qatar, and as the military girds for this summer’s fighting season."

I suspect that this leak will lead to competitive leaking by others, so keep watch in other papers.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Barack Bush?

Peter Feaver, a scholar-practitioner at Duke, is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's "Shadow Government" blog. A staffer on the NSC in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, he also is a distinguished scholar on civil-military issues. [I agree with him on most of those matters, although I find his "principal-agent" analysis is incomplete because it doesn't account for Congress' role as an alternative source of civilian control.] I consider him a friend, and think his loyalties are more to policies and principles than to a political party.

Recently he has urged Republican presidential candidates to give more credit to President Obama's foreign policy. His reasoning is that "Obama's foreign policy successes have come when he has followed Bush policies; his failures have come when he has struck out on his own."  Mainly, he means that Obama was not as radical in pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan as many Republican foreign policy pundits had expected. 

In fact, of course, Obama followed the Bush policy -- codified in a formal agreement in November 2008 -- of keeping the 2011 deadline for troop withdrawals from Iraq, and of refusing to let Iraqis try U.S. military personnel for alleged crimes. Obama also surged more troops into Afghanistan -- and got U.S. military leaders to agree to begin drawdowns after a year.

I'm not sure what counts as Obama "failures." He tried to engage Iran and got a stiff arm. But he has rallied the Europeans to adopt progressively tougher sanctions that are having a significant impact on the Iranian regime. He also has begun a "pivot" to Asia. which I suspect any U.S. President would have wanted to do.

It would be nice -- though not very likely -- if presidential candidates looked for common, nonpartisan ground on foreign policy instead of pretending that the incumbent it totally wrong and they would somehow be totally different and better.

aid with strings

Congress often plays a "bad cop" role in foreign policy, letting U.S. diplomats play "good cop." Sometimes that undermines administration policy, but often it provides leverage to get others to adopt reforms -- such as in human rights and counter-narcotics.

The United States has been giving Egypt about $2 billion per year for over 30 years. In return, Egypt was mostly friendly to the U.S. and Israel. Now that Egypt has a fledgling democratic government, America wants its foreign policy to remain the same. So Congress put some conditions on aid:

In a bid to keep the country’s military on the path to democracy, members of Congress, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) tacked on conditions to U.S. aid to Egypt. The new rules required that the State Department certify that Egypt is committed to fair elections and abides by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and enact policies to protect “freedom of speech, association and religion and due process of law.”
While the Obama administration objected vociferously to those restrictions at the time, they have become the key leverage in its talks with Egypt’s leaders. Under the new law, the White House could waive the certification requirement on national security grounds, but senior officials say a waiver would be politically impossible given the current ire in Washington over the crackdown on NGOs.
This is a good example of responsible legislating -- setting some rules but giving the President waiver authority. But it's also a case where the U.S. doesn't really want to have to impose punishment, since that would likely be self-defeating. Somehow U.S. officials  need to convince Egypt to accept the aid and the strings in its own best interests.

UPDATE: Obviously, the prospect of a trial of Americans who had been working with civil society groups in Egypt creates a real crisis in US-Egyptian relations whether or not the Leahy amendment was on the books.