Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hero 1st class, 2d class, 3d class

I see that a cable commentator stirred up a storm by saying he wasn't sure that every veteran should be called a "hero."  I agree with commentators on Tom Ricks' blog who argue that we have devalued the label by overuse.

The men and women who have volunteered for military duty -- especially since we got into nonstop conflict after the 9/11 attacks -- deserve our praise and support. They are brave, dedicated, and patriotic -- but not necessarily "heroes."  The same is true of the many other Americans who risk their lives for the rest of us -- police and firefighters, diplomats in dangerous posts, and the private sector workers in very risky jobs like miners, fishermen, utility workers, and so forth.

The best model is the military itself. The armed forces regularly make distinctions among  types of valor. The highest award, of course, is the Medal of Honor. It is awarded for: "Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against any enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party."

Next in prestige are the service Cross medals, awarded for: "Extraordinary heroism not justifying the award of a Medal of Honor; The act or acts of heroism must have been so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the individual apart from his or her comrades."  Below them are the Distinguished Service Medals that do not necessarily involve combat but are for: "any person who, while serving in any capacity with the United States Army, has distinguished himself or herself by exceptionally meritorious service to the Government in a duty of great responsibility. The performance must be such as to merit recognition for service which is clearly exceptional. Exceptional performance of normal duty will not alone justify an award of this decoration." [I quote from the Army language; each service is about the same.]

The third highest combat decoration is the Silver Star, awarded  for "Gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States."  Then there is the Bronze Star, for  “Heroic or meritorious achievement or service.”

It does not demean the winner of a Silver Star that he or she did not win the Medal of Honor.

All recipients deserve to be called "heroes," but it is useful to remember there are distinctions. What becomes questionable is whether everyone else also deserves the label. Well, the military has additional medals for being wounded in combat and for service in a war zone and a still different one for service during a period of conflict. I'm for praising their service, bravery, and patriotism, and rewarding them with generous pay and benefits, but not for routinely calling every one a "hero."

Obama death panels

Well, I guess the Obama administration does have "death panels." But they are not for medical care but counter-terrorism. The New York Times has a lengthy story detailing the process the President follows to decide on drone strikes and other actions against believed terrorists overseas. There's good news and bad news in the story.

The good news, in my view, is that the President is very careful about the attacks and is willing to accept full responsibility for them. The bad news is that the administration is becoming overly reliant on a tool that has a high potential for political blowback abroad and is morally ambiguous.  There are many bad guys out there who do not pose a clear threat to the United States yet might be targeted because they plot local terror attacks. I wonder whether we can make and are making all the necessary distinctions in Yemen, for example, where things seem to be going from bad to worse.

Dumb Congress? No, dumb research.

There has been a lot of media attention to a Sunlight Foundation report that says, "Today’s Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005." The trouble is, the researchers based their analyses on member statements in the Congressional Record but they failed to distinguish among types of statements. The best test of communication levels would be unfiltered member speeches, but there is little of that in the Record, though perhaps a little more in committee transcripts. That's because staff have the opportunity to "clean up the record" before publication. I've done it for four Senators, all very articulate and bright, but still prone to the occasional garbled or run-on sentence in the heat of debate. The staff's job is to make the prose sing.

Another difference is that a lot of material in the Record is staff-written statements. These reflect the skill, education level, and purposes of the staff much more than the member. Some statements are written for media releases and are punchy and quotable, and thus probably at a lower education level. Others are erudite and complex, reflecting the subject matter and the purposes of information and persuasion.

Given these different authors and goals of statements, it's highly misleading to conclude anything about the education level of congressional speech.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Congress never could keep secrets

I'm reading a fascinating biography of Robert Morris, the Philadelphia merchant who managed the revolutionary government's finances and arranged for clandestine acquisition of supplies for Washington's army.

In September, 1776, he and Ben Franklin were the only active members of the Committee on Secret Correspondence when they learned of French willingness to provide support to the rebels.

Franklin and Morris informed only the presiding officer of the Continental Congress on October 1, in a letter of explanation:

"We agree in opinion that it is our indispensable duty to keep it a secret, even from Congress..."

"We find, by fatal experience, the Congress consists of too many members to keep secrets...."

the second SecDef Gates

When my book comparing U.S. Secretaries of Defense was published in 2006, I had no hesitation subtitling it: "the nearly impossible job of Secretary of Defense." After all, more than one out of every three Pentagon leaders had been fired or forced to resign -- a fate then-serving Don Rumsfeld experienced a few months later.

Then Bob Gates was named to the post, served with great distinction, and was then retained in office by the incoming president from a different political party. The first SecDef Gates, Thomas S., served with great distinction at the end of the Eisenhower administration and set the stage for the far-reaching reforms by Robert McNamara. The second SecDef Gates (no relation to the first) served with even greater distinction and managed to please two quite different presidents from different political parties as well as their national security teams and congressional leaders of both parties. No small accomplishment!

The National Academy of Public Administration recently honored Bob Gates with the Elliot Richardson Prize for Excellence in Public Service. [Richardson himself served only four months as SecDef, one of many posts in a distinguished career of public service.] Gates accepted the honor and displayed his knowledge and candor through a lengthy question and answer session. He described how he worked to win the confidence of his subordinates and how he forged a strong alliance with the Secretary of State. While he made good use of the Pentagon and its processes, he noted that, to get a rapid response from the bureaucracy, "I basically found that in every instance I had to go outside the bureaucracy and create something new."

Gates also lamented the "polarization of the partisanship" in American politics. "Compromise is the foundation of American political stability," he noted.  Many trenchant observations. Read the whole transcript.

conservatives versus the U.S. military

I've always wondered how journalists define "pro-military" and "pro-defense." The terms are usually applied to someone advocating more money for the Pentagon or opposing any cut from any budget item ever considered at any level of the Defense Department. The labels are rarely applied to someone who wants to cut a failed program or shift money into a promising alternative.

Thus I read with interest Heather Hurlburt's piece listing several areas where congressional conservatives are at odds with mainstream military thinking -- on the Law of the Sea Treaty, alternative energy sources, war with Iran, and military custody of terrorist suspects. Why don't the analysts call these ideological lawmakers "anti-military"?  The shoe seems to fit.

Friday, May 18, 2012

China on the march

Before the 9/11 attacks, when conservatives were searching for an enemy to justify ever higher defense budgets and to allow themselves to recycle their shopworn anti-Soviet rhetoric, the Republican-controlled Congress enacted a requirement for an annual report by the Pentagon on Chinese military power. I guess they hoped the rest of us would be scared enough to embrace their "containment now" strategy rather than the "engagement" approach by the Clinton and then Bush administrations.

Well,the latest report is out, and it has the usual hype. But Time magazine defense guy, Mark Thompson, has an appropriately skeptical analysis of it.

regrettable apologies

I'm not surprised, as the Wall Street Journal reports,  that the US government has been delaying and agonizing over what more to say about air strikes that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers last November. The US promptly expressed "regret," but the Pakistani government wants a formal "apology" along with other acts of contrition and compensation.

American political figures really hate the "A" word. Mitt Romney has a major campaign theme alleging that the Obama administration is apologizing for just about everything. No doubt that's a strong reason the administration doesn't want to use the "A" word itself.

What's the difference? It must be powerful, since those politicians who do use the word still use formulations that deny any personal responsibility: Romney himself dealt with verified reports of a high school hazing incident by saying," I did some dumb things. And if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize." He apologizes for the reactions of others rather than for his own behavior.

Words matter. But I think we're going too far in trying to take synonyms and put them on a rickety ladder.

smart and dumb congressional reforms

Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein have followed up their article saying the Republicans are more to blame for dysfunctional politics and Congress with a list of reforms, many of which they consider unhelpful. I agree that the ideas of a new Third Party, term limits, and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution won't help. I'm not sure about campaign finance reform, especially because of the uncertain reaction of the Supreme Court, but I'd be willing to try some sort of public financing. I heartily endorse their call for redistricting by independent commissions and restricting Senate filibusters to rare events -- and I'm willing to try mandatory voting and the instant runoff idea.  I hope that the politicians in power next January are sufficiently embarrassed by how things have gone recently to try some of these good ideas.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

congressional leadership pays

Perhaps more than most successful politicians, congressional leaders have to watch their back. Someone is always waiting to take over for them. They hold their jobs by keeping their troops happy -- winning legislative victories, avoiding embarrassing votes, causing trouble for the opposition.  And the vote to hold their job is truly secret.

Already we see signs of this competition. Speaker Boehner has been playing cat and mouse with Eric Cantor for years. Today congressman Clyburn is hinting he'll fight congressman Hoyer for the Democratic leadership if former speaker Pelosi retires. And Senator McConnell is clearly concerned that Senator De Mint might want his job. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats say they love Harry Reid, but many view Senator Schumer as leader-in-waiting.

Congressional leaders have power -- over the agenda, the policies, the committee budgets, even the perks like office spaces. But they also have money to back up that power and to hire patronage employees. It turns out that the Senate leadership got $21,658,000 in fiscal year 2010 and the House leadership got $25,881,800, according to an informative chapter in this book. That makes winning all the more valuable.

how many wars are we fighting now?

Let's see. US forces are still fighting in Afghanistan and we're getting ready for possible action against Iran and we're part of anti-piracy patrols and related operations against Somalia. Now there are reports that we are helping to funnel arms to the Syrian opposition along with the "nonlethal aid" we've announced.

And today, there's a report that DEA agents are involved in armed operations in Honduras against drug traffickers.

Even more significant is the L.A. Times report that U.S. military and CIA personnel are escalating the clandestine war in Yemen.

I'm not necessarily opposed to these operations. But I wish we knew more about them, and I hope that members of Congress are being regularly informed and consulted about them. If we're going to get so involved in so many places, we should do it with our eyes open.

NATO, R. I. P.?

It's easy to predict the death of NATO. It's been done repeatedly for several decades. Eventually, I suppose, the prediction will come true.  I have come to praise NATO, not to bury it -- but my praise is muted by concerns.

NATO lost its original mission -- deterring a Soviet attack on western Europe -- and has struggled to deal with more recent missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya. [Of course, the "real" mission of NATO, as its first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, memorably said, was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."]

Next week at the big NATO summit in Chicago, the allies are set to approve a new "Smart Defense" plan. Based on this analysis by the respected International Institute for Strategic Studies in London , it sounds more like a set of catchy labels and wish lists.  Maybe it will be more valuable and significant than that.

The problem is that European members are cutting their defense budgets and failing to coordinate and collaborate enough. As the IISS study notes:

The net effect of defence budget cuts by individual governments motivated by national priorities and political needs has been a haphazard, incoherent series of capability reductions at the European and NATO level, with little attempt at coordination. Regardless of their membership of NATO or the EU, European states guard their sovereignty jealously when it comes to security and defence. The danger of this approach, however, is that Europe's ability to respond collectively with credible force to a future security crisis could be seriously undermined. The 2011 NATO-led operation in Libya, for example, revealed shortages in key capability areas. With budget cuts certain to continue in most European countries as governments enact austerity programmes, the Smart Defence initiative seeks to persuade NATO members to bolster collective capabilities through prioritisation, cooperation and specialisation.
The defence challenges facing European states are not new: their armed forces are mostly characterised by low levels of deployable troops (in 2011 less than 3% of Europe's 1.7 million troops were deployed); there is a tendency to allocate too great a share of dwindling resources to personnel costs and too small a share to equipment procurement and research and development; states appear unwilling or unable to collaborate effectively on acquisition, resulting in duplication (for example, multiple fighter-aircraft programmes); and they have failed to deliver sufficient capability in important areas, such as strategic airlift and surveillance systems.
Given the eurozone economic problems, I doubt that defense spending is going to increase. So other security enhancements have to be found. Good luck, NATO.

bureaucratic politics in the South China Sea

The longer I study government, the less inclined I am to accept conspiracy theories -- that governments can secretly carry out major policies without the rest of us finding out. My default presumption is that some subordinate organization did its own thing without  approval or direction from above, or that there was simple incompetence.

Given that orientation, I have been puzzled by the apparent ratcheting up of pressure by China over disputed islands in the South China Sea.  Today I have a plausible explanation in a report from the respected International Crisis Group.  The key observation:

The conflicting mandates and lack of coordination among
Chinese government agencies, many of which strive to
increase their power and budget, have stoked tensions in
the South China Sea. Repeated proposals to establish a
more centralised mechanism have foundered while the
only agency with a coordinating mandate, the foreign ministry,
does not have the authority or resources to manage
other actors.
China’s maritime policy circles use the term “Nine dragons
stirring up the sea” to describe the lack of coordination
among the various government agencies involved in
the South China Sea. Most of them have traditionally been
domestic policy actors with little experience in foreign
affairs. While some agencies act aggressively to compete
with one another for greater portions of the budget pie,
others (primarily local governments) attempt to expand
their economic activities in disputed areas due to their
single-minded focus on economic growth. Yet despite the
domestic nature of their motivations, the implications of
their activities are increasingly international.
Of course, there are broader strategic issues involved as well, as the ICG report notes. But these "nine dragons" could propel this controversy into quite dangerous waters unless Beijing asserts central control.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

broadsheet bonus on the Internet

I remain a dedicated reader -- and subscriber -- of broadsheet newspapers and general interest magazines. I started in high school, with parental support, and continued throughout my often hectic academic and professional career. In the Senate, I had to read the papers to do my job. As a professor, I looked for lessons in the daily news.  Of course, sometimes The New Yorkers piled up, unread, until I had time at least to look at the cartoons. But I maintained the subscription.

Now I have more time to read for pleasure -- but also more venues, especially on line. One of the special benefits of broadsheet newspapers is that they often have stories you are glad to know but wouldn't have searched for, human interest or cultural or megatrend stories outside my usual foreign policy/politics focus.

If you are at all like me in this regard, I want to direct your attention to a British site, The Browser, which culls diverse if not quirky stories and longform articles from American and British publications and websites. Go there and be amused and informed about things you might otherwise have missed.

downsized ambitions

I keep seeing indications that maybe the United States doesn't really know how to do nation-building overseas. I like the ideas I see in the military manuals and the strategic plan briefings, but somehow they often fail in practice, despite enormous efforts by dedicated professionals.

Today we have the sad story of cutbacks and failed efforts in Iraq, where the civilian training efforts for Iraqi police have been spurned by the recipients. Instead of a 16,000-person embassy, the bulk of them contractors, we are cutting back to around 12,000 -- and many of them will do less than expected because of security concerns. I've long supported a strengthened and enlarged "civilian capacity" for foreign policy activities, but I'm dismayed by how things have worked out.

It also appears that U.S. ambitions have been downsized in Afghanistan, when General Allen is scrapping much of the counter-insurgency strategy in order to speed U.S. withdrawals. Did we get the strategy wrong before? Or are we getting it wrong now? I don't know. But I do know that the American people support the downsizing, and that's a powerful incentive.

roadblocks to Senate reform

Several Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate are strongly aligned with the radical "tea party" movement and some of them may win election. Already, that prospect is affecting the Senate's business and making it less likely that there will be bipartisan support for even minor reforms.  That's the lesson hidden in the New York Times story about the Senate elections.  While the article says that Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky already has enough pledges to secure his status in the new Congress, it also notes that he is already having trouble with the existing tea party fringe in the Senate. That will likely be the story for the rest of this year. Remember, the only secret vote in the U.S. Senate is the one for party leader, so there is no sure way to know if promises of support are being kept. Fear of losing power, most likely to Senator DeMint of South Carolina, will keep McConnell from making too many deals with the Democrats.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

half a declaration of war

The House Armed Services Committee is marking up a defense authorization bill that contains the following language:
DECLARATION OF POLICY.—It shall be the policy of the United States to take all necessary measures, including military action if required, to prevent Iran from  threatening the United States, its allies, or Iran’s neighbors with a nuclear weapon.
This provision follow a long list of threatening behaviors by Iran. The good news is that this language seems to endorse military action only if Iran has an actual nuclear weapon and is threatening the United States or its allies. The bad news is that this sort of language can be taken by the Executive Branch as the functional equivalent of an authorization of force or declaration of war -- as the Bush Administration did with similar language passed in the Clinton Administration.  We should do these things with our eyes wide open.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Lugar lessons

There are ominous signs that Indiana Senator Dick Lugar [R] will be defeated in tomorrow's primary by a strident conservative who thinks bipartisanship is a punishable offense. Too bad. Lugar's public service has spanned more than four decades, from when he was "Richard Nixon's favorite mayor" to when he became "Barack Obama's favorite Republican." He has been a voice for a centrist, bipartisan foreign policy. His impending defeat -- if that is the outcome -- reminds me of the feeling in Washington in 1974 when J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lost a primary fight in Arkansas. Fulbright had been a powerful lawmaker who had done much to influence U.S. foreign policy for three decades. Didn't the homefolks know that and appreciate it? Nope. He had caught Potomac fever, displayed his own "arrogance of power," and made enough mistakes to tip the balance against him.

Lugar's mistakes are well-analyzed in Politico today. He didn't run scared enough early enough, didn't spend his campaign funds fast enough, waited to go negative against his opponent until he looked desperate doing it, and made the little mistakes that modern media coverage amplifies. It's hard being a moderate politician when the voters cry out for true believers. If Lugar loses, he still will have earned a silver star for bravery in the vicious combat our politics has become.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Senate rules reform

I'm pleased to learn that retired Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin favors a couple of reforms I have been pushing for in recent years. He wants to end all filibusters on the "motion to proceed" -- that is, to take up a measure -- and to limit filibusters on short-term presidential appointees, though not on Supreme Court justices serving for life. Like me, Frumin sees value in some ultimate filibuster power, but he wants to cut the frequency and limit the abuses.