Monday, April 30, 2012

reduced likelihood of war with Iran

There's encouraging news for a change. As the NYTimes reports, U.S. officials and some other analysts think that the renewed talks with Iran have lowered the risks of near-term military action.  This is the latest in a series of reports that the supreme leader could agree to forego nuclear weaponization in return for a  civil nuclear program and that the United States could allow partial enrichment of uranium -- to 5% -- subject to international verification. Sounds like a deal to me -- but of course there still has to be agreement on the details.

Another indicator of a changed atmosphere is the situation in Israel. Two prominent retired officials last week disagreed with the Netanyahu-Barak line that Iran is irrational and the threat of an Iranian bomb is near. Now the government is talking about near-term elections, which would presumably put military action on hold for a while. I think it's also significant that former prime minister Olmert went public with his criticism of the Netanyahu government's position. His speech to American Jews in New York drew boos from the audience, thus exposing divisions among U.S. supporters of Israel. Such divisions make it harder for the Israeli government to avoid U.S. government pressures.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Peter Bergen, author of a new book on the Bin Laden raid, has an article in the New York Times discussing how warlike the president has been in practice, despite what Republicans and perhaps even Democrats expected from candidate Obama. It is certainly correct that Obama has been quite willing to use force abroad, but mainly semi-secret force or actions with low risk of American casualties. That's probably an accurate reading of US public opinion that still wants to punish bad guys overseas but doesn't want quagmires or body bags.

I think the president deserves credit for approaching his use of force decisions carefully and deliberately, not just following a gut reaction. What he hasn't done sufficiently, however, is to bring Congress into the process.

On the other hand, Congress as an institution and congressional Republicans in particular have a default setting that prompts immediate criticism and then reluctance to provide a collective response. In short, Congress continues evade the responsibility that comes with its war powers. If Congress favors military action, it should say so in decisive votes after due deliberation. If lawmakers oppose military operations, they should find a way  that a majority supports that sets conditions or limits on presidential action. What it shouldn't do, but did in Libya and is now doing in regard to Syria and Iran, is to complain and criticize but fail to legislate.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

ransom paid, hostages to be released

The Senate has a practice of allowing individuals to put"holds" on legislation and nominations that forestall agreements to debate and vote on the matters.  The party leaders honor the holds of their members because otherwise they might be voted out of the leadership.

For several months, a Texas Senator who favors selling Taiwan fighter jets built in the Lone Star state has been blocking action on a senior Defense Department nominee. There are now other DOD nominees in line to be voted on, when and if the hold is lifted. On Friday the White House sent  a letter that seems to say it will sell new jets to Taiwan, and the hold is expected to be lifted.

I find this pretty deplorable, but that's the way Senators use their leverage over the Executive Branch. The worst part is that successful hostage taking encourages the practice.

the devil's lexicographer

I see that the Library of America has published a volume of works by Ambrose Bierce, including his delightful Devil's Dictionary. It is almost a full 100 years since his strange disappearance and presumed death.

But his cynical definitions remain still applicable.

Among my favorites:
Plan: To bother about the best  method of achieving an accidental result.
Peace: In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
War: A by-product of the arts of peace.
Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
Senate: A body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors.
Conservative: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
Lawyer: One skilled in circumvention of the law.

See for yourself.

non-practicing perfectionist

I usually know the difference between right and wrong. I have often criticized, or at least sneered with disdain, at people making grammatical or spelling mistakes, like treating data as a singular noun or writing "capital" when "Capitol" is called for.

But I've grown sloppy or lazy over time. It has been ages since I went through the multiple keystrokes to put the accents and umlauts and other such marks on foreign words imported into English.  Thank goodness for the copy editor on my forthcoming book for insisting on -- and adding -- the appropriate marks.

Thank goodness also for The New Yorker and its astute copy editors who insist on using the diaeresis.

Someday I'll tell you about their extraordinary fact-checkers.

extremism in defense of victory

Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein have been observing American politics and the Congress for four decades. In recent years they have published critiques of Congress that have been widely accepted and praised. Now they have a new one that goes a giant step farther than in the past.  While they find much to criticize across the political spectrum, they find greatest fault with the Republican Party as it is today.
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
Read the whole piece. They note the disappearance of conservative but deal-making Republicans of the past and the capture of party control by an extremist fringe.

They offer few remedies, mainly a suggestion that the news media avoid even-handedness when that obscures the truth. But if the media do a better job, then maybe the voters will recognize it and vote for people who are willing to succeed at governing and not just campaigning.

Friday, April 27, 2012

better than nothing

Reform of the Senate's rules seems to be an ever-receding prospect. But something is better than nothing, and two senior Senators, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee propose a modest improvement in the current practice.
We propose an approach that should be useful on many pieces of legislation: If the minority members would allow the majority leader to bring a bill to the floor for a vote without the 60-vote process, the legislation would be open to all relevant amendments but not to nonrelevant amendments.
They say this is what happened last week on the postal reform bill and they think it makes sense for Senators to make it the informal rule.  I still think that there should be a formal rule change making the "motion to proceed" -- that is, to take up and begin debating a measure -- nondebatable and thus immune to filibuster tactics. In fact, about 1/3 of all  filibusters in recent decades have been on motion to proceed.

If we can't change the basic rules, it is helpful to change the norms and the practice. So, as used to be said about arms control agreements with the Russians, it's modest but useful.

let's go to war with Iran

That's not my recommendation, but it's what the House Armed Services Committee is about to authorize in its annual defense bill. According to The Hill newspaper, the committee plans to include extra money for military programs that could be useful in a US-Iranian conflict. That's not so troubling, but the committee reportedly wants to include language approving “all necessary measures, including military action if required” to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That isn't advisory language; those are the magic words that the attorney general during the Vietnam War considered "the functional equivalent of a declaration of war." Those are also the words used by the UN Security Council when it approves Chapter VII military operations.

Don't go there. At least not with open debate and clear understanding of what such words lead to.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

sexy science

I've worked on or followed research and development issues throughout my professional career. I remember sitting in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing when the then-director of DARPA said he wanted permission from Congress to fail in some of its programs, because otherwise DARPA would fall short of truly innovative programs. I believe DARPA has lived up to our expectations for it, multifold.

I believe the government has an important role to play in funding research in basic science -- "what makes grass green," as one Pentagon official described it. Private industry is pretty good at commercializing products inthe development phase, but not so well in research.

Despite the validity of those general principles, many politicians like to make fun -- or be downright derisive -- about some of the basic research grants the government has given. Yesterday, Cong. Jim Cooper [D-Tenn] spoke to the House of some of the benefits from weird-sounding research, including a study of "the sex life of the screwworm."

As Suzy Khimm of the Post's Wonkblog tells it,
Federally-funded research of dog urine ultimately gave scientists and understanding of the effect of hormones on the human kidney, which in turn has been helpful for diabetes patients. A study called “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig” resulted in treatment of early hearing loss in infants. And that randy screwworm study? It helped researchers control the population of a deadly parasite that targets cattle--costing the government $250,000 but ultimately saving the cattle industry more than $20 billion, according to Cooper’s office.
Hurrah for Cooper and his pro-science colleagues!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

reluctant warriors?

It seems that military and defense department people who contribute to presidential campaigns greatly prefer Ron Paul over President Obama or Mitt Romney. At least that's the finding from a search of contribution data compiled by Since the start of 2011, in fact, Paul has received almost twice as much money from military donors as has the President, and Obama has gotten four times as much as Romney.

How come? Well, Paul is the only one of the three who actually served in uniform -- in the Air Force as a doctor. But I think a stronger reason is that Paul is a consistent critic of U.S. intervention abroad, and that view is strong among military people.They'll follow the orders if given, of course, but they are reluctant to get involved when national survival is not at stake.

cybersecurity turf war

I commented earlier on the disagreements among supposed experts on how best to protect American critical infrastructure from cyber threats. I still have no settled views or strong recommendations.

But it's sad to see this real problem turning into a DOD vs DHS turf fight,as Josh Smith argues in the National Journal. It's also a shame that the divisions in the executive branch have been mirrored in Congress, where committees with different perspectives are pushing radically different measures.

I hope somebody can sort this out for the rest of us.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Title 60, again

Public officials often look for news "hooks" to link their proposals to. Worried about lead paint on children's toys or disarray in our counterterrorism organizations, they say, "I have a plan for you."

And so today, when I saw the first of several stories obviously based on a not for attribution briefing by a senior DOD official, I decided to remind you, dear readers, that this is further evidence that we need a new "Title 60" law. I've mentioned this before, but this underscores the need for congressional notification and oversight.

In Afghanistan to deal with Pakistan

At long last, the United States and Afghanistan have reached an agreement covering the withdrawal of combat troops and the post-combat relationship. Details are sketchy, and I hope we can avoid a politically-motivated fight between Republican "why isn't it better?" and Democratic "why should we continue to give so much aid?" complaints. I think the real significance is what Spencer Ackerman sees: the agreement serves two purposes -- to protect against a resurgence of al Qaeda, but more importantly, to allow a U.S. military presence to deal with threats inside Pakistan.

I've long believed that the strongest reason for military action in Afghanistan is to safeguard U.S. interests involving Pakistan. That's the argument Richard Holbrooke made early in the Obama administration, and I find it still persuasive. So I hope that public discussion of the new agreement keeps that context in mind.

shift happens

I had to use the title of the article I'm linking to; it was just too good. The article is a summary and celebration of the mind-expanding book by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published 50 years ago.  I've assigned the book in various courses over the years, including ones on military innovation and international relations theory, because it has a powerful message about how hard it is for people to change their minds, even in the supposedly empirical natural sciences. Kuhn developed the concept of a "paradigm shift" [hence the cute headline] and showed that in the history of the natural sciences it wasn't the result of changed minds but rather a change in which schools of thought came to dominate the field. If you're not going to read the original, at least look at this discussion of it.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

less trustworthy

There's discouraging news about Americans' level of trust in basic institutions. Drawing on  Gallup polls, Ron Brownstein and Sophie Quinton of National Journal note the decline in trust over the past decade. The disenchantment has occurred not only in the Congress and the presidency, but even in the Supreme Court, the news media, and the public school system. Even the U.S. military has suffered a slight decline. 

We can't, as a nation, solve our common problems unless we can trust our institutions to make fair assessments of what is needed and then to craft broadly acceptable remedies. Trust can't be regained by gimmicks, but only by the steady accumulation of confidence building measures. Congress could start,of course, by enacting a balanced economic recovery and long term deficit reduction plan -- and the Senate could start by finding ways to limit filibusters to only one or two a year.

all hands on deck

Lobbyists are people, too. But work comes first. And now we are told that lobbyists are being urged to schedule all vacation trips before the November elections and to do their Christmas shopping early. The Hill newspaper reports that lobbying firms are expecting a deluge of work in the expected lame duck session of Congress that will face questions of expiring tax cuts, the impending across the board budget cuts, an increase in the debt limit, and other unresolved matters. Congress can't act until the elections have determined who will be President and which party will control each house of Congress. Even assuming particular outcomes can help predict how things will turn out in the waning days of the 112th Congress.

Already lobbyists are being hired for the anticipated battles. As one noted, “Think of watching the U.S. track and field team at the Olympics. It may be a one-minute event, but it has taken years of preparation. Ninety percent of lobbying is preparation. Drafting, researching, negotiations — all prep work.”

Saturday, April 7, 2012

renminbi diplomacy

A century ago, the United States had a phase of what was called "dollar diplomacy," where American interests were pursued by economic instruments more often and more widely than by military force. There's growing evidence that China, with the  world's second largest economy, is undertaking its own version, which we probably should call "renminbi diplomacy." Chinese economic engagement in Africa has long been evident. Now the New York Times notes increased investment in the Caribbean, much closer to the United States and its longtime interests. I take a benign view of such efforts at the moment, but I sense that others, for real analytical reasons or for the sake of political ones, will view these developments with alarm.

pancakes and politics

I was surprised to learn, from a study by the Sunlight Foundation, that more political fundraising -- almost 25% -- is done over breakfast than at any other time or in any other venue.  Rubber chicken dinners account for only 10% of the fund-raising, though "receptions" account for 22%. Also high on the list [24%] are the myriad of other events, ranging from hunting trips and golf tournaments to birthday celebrations and St. Patrick's Day events.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is considering a new ethics rule on Executive Branch officials that would deny them the ability to participate in "widely attended" events sponsored by lobbyists.

Thus endeth the free lunch.

the Iraq legacy

There are worrisome trends in Iraq. The government has still not resolved its oil revenue issues, nor the status of Kirkuk, nor even the assignment of key ministries. A respected analyst, Toby Dodge of LSE, argues that      "the trajectory of Iraqi politics is clearly heading towards a new authoritarianism with the concentration of power in the hands of one man,[Prime Minister] Nuri al-Maliki."  Dodge also laments the U.S. policy of militarizing Iraqi society, which allows Maliki to dominate.  If this analysis is correct and the trends continue, this would be another sad legacy to the Iraq war.