Friday, August 31, 2012

Americans ready for defense cuts

Despite the promises of even higher defense spending by the Republican platform and its nominee, Governor Romney, a conservative pollster says the American people are ready for cuts in military budgets and overseas commitments. Scott Rasmussen also notes that only about 1/3 of the people realize that the United States already spends as much on defense as the rest of the world combined.

It's discouraging to me that so much political rhetoric on national security is focused on dollars and percentages rather than threats and capabilities. It's also surprising that a presidential candidate who says he favors higher defense spending won't even mention [in his GOP convention speech] our current war in Afghanistan or how, other than by throwing dollars at the Pentagon, he would change current national security strategy.

consequences of attacking Iran

The New Yorker has a piece by editor David Remnick on Israeli thinking about Iran, including a fascinating interview with Meir Dagan, who headed Mossad from 2002 to 2011. Dagan succinctly lays out the dangers of attacking Iran as follows:
An Israeli bombing would lead to a regional war and solve the internal problems of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It would galvanize Iranian society behind the leadership and create unity around the nuclear issue. And it would justify Iran in rebuilding its nuclear project...."
Dagan predicts a wider regional war with dangerous additional consequences.

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests that many publications now seem to have outsourced their fact-checking to the Web -- that is, to those readers who might know what's accurate.

I agree with his point that good fact-checking promotes honesty and carefulness, values even higher than accuracy.
Being fact-checked is not very fun. Good fact-checkers have a preternatural inclination toward pedantry, and sometimes will address you in a prosecutorial tone. That is their job and the adversarial tone is even more important than the actual facts they correct. In my experience, seeing your name on the cover of a magazine will take you far in the journey toward believing your own bullshit. It is human to do so, and fact-checkers serve as a valuable check to prevent writers from lapsing into the kind of arrogant laziness which breeds plagiarism and the manufacture of facts. The fact-checker (and the copy-editor too actually) is a dam against you embarrassing yourself, or worse, being so arrogant that don't even realize you've embarrassed yourself. Put differently, a culture of fact-checking, of honesty, is as important as the actual fact-checking.
I had similar experiences many years ago when The New Yorker ran lengthy articles on my then-boss, Senator John Culver. "What's the color of the rug in his office," the fact-checker asked. I called a fellow staffer, who reported his opinion, "I'd call it cat-puke pink."  "Do you have Grant Wood paintings in your reception area?" "Well, I think they're charcoal drawings." "Do you wear rimless glasses?" "There's wire along the top rim but not the bottom."

More recently, I have written four books for reputable publishers and have endured almost no fact-checking. I'm glad they trust me, but I wish all publishers pushed back, if only randomly, to keep their authors on their toes.

the marketplace of ideas

The notion of a "marketplace of ideas" arose in jurisprudence in freedom of speech cases, but I think it has an important application for understanding how ideas become public policy.

There is a marketplace for ideas in Washington. The leading consumers are the president and other officials of the executive branch and members of Congress and their hungry, ambitious staff. The leading producers are so-called think tanks, a term that includes quasi-academic institutions and thinly-veiled partisan groups.

 A 2011 report identified 1,816 think tanks in the United States, of a worldwide total of over 6,480.             The federal government funds several think tanks of its own, including the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, and the Congressional Research Service. The Pentagon has a network of federally funded research and development centers [FFRDCs] like the RAND Corporation, Institute for Defense Analyses, and the Center for Naval Analysis.

For policymakers, think tanks are a valuable resource for developing, testing, promoting, and evaluating new policies. As John Hamre, former Deputy Secretary of Defense and now head of a think tank, says, “Bureaucracies do not invent new ideas. They elaborate old ones.” 
Competition is often fierce among think tanks. They compete for funding from private patrons, large foundations, and sometimes the government. They compete for attention to their ideas. They compete to have their proposals adopted by policymakers.  To market their ideas, they shape their products to appeal to their audience. A 4-page paper in memo form may be more effective than a 200-page book with charts and tables. Practical advice with feasible options is more welcome than theoretically pure but politically impossible proposals. 

Even the best ideas somehow need to break through the attention barrier of senior officials. The more effective think tanks find ways to get their ideas on the radar screens of senior officials, either directly or through the news media. Each week I get a message from a group called Linktank that lists conferences, briefings, and talks in the DC area that are open to the press and some public. Even with government offices nearly empty for August vacations, there are several dozen events listed this week, covering such topics as "U.S. Drones Policy," "Challenges to U.S. Competitiveness," "Cybersecurity," and "Assessing the Implications of Venezuela's Presidential Election." Many other groups have member-only events not included by Linktank.

While competition is usually good for an economy, and I have long believed that well-structured debate can lead to better public policies,  I see some reasons for concern in this competition among ideas. First, ideas and their advocates tend to need shrillness and simplicity to be noticed. Moderate or even-handed analysis seems too soft and mushy. Second, the think tanks that generate well-received ideas can't change their views without risking their funding. So they become defensive and argumentative -- and less analytical. Third, their competition for attention and funding makes them enemies of those who should be their policy allies, driven by the "narcissism of small differences." 

I don't have any solutions to these problems, other than self-awareness. But I regret that these tendencies reinforce the shrill partisanship of the current election season and make it even harder for officials to reconcile differences --"compromise" is the now pejorative term -- in order to govern.



"Rules of the road" with China

One of the burdens of being a "great power" is that other nations, great and small, expect you to act like one. China, always big in population, is now a major economic power and is becoming a military power with modern and diverse capabilities for actions far beyond its borders. At the UN, where China is one of the permanent five members of the Security Council, Beijing has gradually become more willing to act in concert with the other major powers to try to shape outcomes in conflict areas, despite its rhetorical opposition to interfering in the internal affairs of other nations.

China's growing power and assertiveness, coupled with America's "pivot to Asia," calls for careful diplomacy to avoid disastrous accidents. Mike Krepon, founder of the Stimson Center and long an expert on arms control, has a persuasive piece in the Washington Post making the case for China and America to begin to work on "rules of the road" agreements for the two country's activities in space. While no comprehensive agreement is in the cards, smaller understandings are possible, and they could pave the way for confidence-building measures in the future.

choosing sides in Syria

Ken Pollack, whose enthusiasm for the war in Iraq troubled me but who at other times seems wise, has a fine piece in the Washington Post about the war in Syria. He says the conflict is already a civil war, and that U.S,. policymakers should understand that fact. He also warns that "an opposition victory could mean trading one regime of persecution and slaughter for another. All of this needs to be factored into any U.S. discussion of whether to help the rebels prevail."

Too much discussion about policy toward Syria, in my view, has been concentrated on the people in that country and not enough on the regional consequences of various outcomes. Opposing Assad is a weak guide to how to handle Iranian-sponsored militias, or the economic and political costs of trying to create a new, stable, and especially pro-western government in Damascus. The international community, not just the United States, has a bad track record on nation-building.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

fix the House, too

The Senate has its filibuster problem. Reducing the number of and incentives for filibusters would make the Senate more responsive and responsible.

The House has always been a majoritarian institution, but a former House Parliamentarian -- during the first decade of GOP control -- argues that the rules have been too restrictive in recent decades under both parties. Charles Johnson says that the Rules Committee has enforced the leadership's agenda and prevented bipartisan or even dissident amendments to be offered. He thinks the House would be less partisan if the rules were less restrictive. I agree.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Intell 2.0

The old-fashioned way of getting political intelligence was through inside sources, who often told inside stories to build their own credibility with journalists and other politicos.

Now there's a hypothesis that online media could inadvertently reveal campaign secrets. An article in Politico notes that a surge in last-minute edits to Wikipedia entries in 2008 forecast the vice presidential selections of Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. Interesting. We now can test this hypothesis in the runup to Romney's selection. Watch that space.

Monday, August 6, 2012

how much vacation do you get?

Most Europeans get the whole month of August, plus more time around the major Christian holidays. I think the U.S. average of paid vacation time is only 10-13 days outside of federal holidays, which amounts to 2-3 five-day weeks.

Then there's Congress. So far in 2012, the Senate has been in session 101 days, the House 102. Over the past year and half the 112th Congress has passed 153 bills signed into law by the President. Now both houses have no business until September 10, when lawmakers will have to rush to accomplish much of anything before they adjourn for the elections.

In fact, Congress has scheduled only 13 more days of legislative work before that adjournment.

I'm not against a modest amount of time for congressional recesses, but the official name for the days off -- "district work period" -- is really a euphemism for campaigning and fundraising. The real job of lawmakers is not to "listen" to constituents (which they rarely do, except briefly before giving the voters something to listen to), but to oversee the government and pass laws. They've done a poor job of that so far this year.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

cyber security allies

As expected, the Senate failed to stop a Republican-led filibuster on the much revised cyber security bill, and the measure now seems dead for this year. The Atlantic has an analysis showing that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce formed an unusual alliance with privacy advocates to block the bill.  That kind of opposition made it easier for Senators who wanted symbolic votes to prevent a time agreement that precluded their extraneous amendments.

Truman and the bomb

August 6 is the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, the first and, thankfully, next to last time nuclear weapons have been used as a weapon of war. The usual analysis is that President Harry Truman decided to use atomic bombs because he wanted to avoid large scale U.S. casualties in the event of an American invasion of the Japanese home islands and alternative uses, such as a demonstration explosion, were not likely to force the Japanese to surrender.

I think a case can be made that Truman ordered the attacks because he didn't want to waste money and that he was president because Missouri wasn't getting enough pre-war defense contracts.

Here's the logic chain: Truman got to be President because he was FDR's Vice President. FDR selected him as running mate because he was a popular lawmaker with fewer political problems than the other likely candidates, Henry Wallace and James Byrne. He was well known and well regarded because of his leadership of a committee investigating wartime contracting. He got that job because he had proposed creation of such a committee and the competing chairmen of the military and naval affairs committees didn't want the other to chair, so Truman was a compromise. He proposed creation of the committee because some businessmen from Missouri complained that they weren't getting their fair share of rearmament contracts.

Given his background of exposing government waste, it's inconceivable that Truman would forego using a weapon developed in secret for almost $2 billion -- over $21 billion in today's dollars.

I don't see sunk cost as the necessary or sufficient condition for the use of the A-bombs, but it must have been a factor.

the laws governing cyber warfare

How much is cyber warfare like traditional "kinetic" warfare? What rules should apply? Can cyber attacks be deterred? What is the right response to a cyber attack?  These are tough and important questions.

Fortunately, I see that a lot of serious people, within and outside the Pentagon, have been giving careful thought to these issues. Perhaps the most succinct analysis was done in 2009 by a panel under the auspices of the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science, "Technology, Policy, Law, and Ethics Regarding U.S. Acquisition and Use of Cyberattack Capabilities."  The full report is over 300 pages long, but the 8 page summary is a gem!

The NRC study makes a distinction between destructive cyberattacks and cyberexploitation, the latter being an intelligence-gathering activity. It notes that cyberattack weapons "involve a much larger range of options and possible outcomes" than kinetic weapons, including uncertainties over possible collateral damage. It says that the laws of armed conflict should apply to cyber attacks in terms of their direct and indirect effects.
These are valuable distinctions, albeit hard to apply in every circumstance.

The NRC study made some important judgments with major policy implications. It said that unilateral dominance is not realistic or achievable by the United States. It doubted that a threat of in-kind response would be very effective at deterrence. It concluded that U.S. decision-making apparatus for cyber operations was unclear and inadequate.

These are sound principles. I especially agree that deterrence can't be achieved by some U.S. effort to dominate the cyber domain. I do think, however, that arms control offers some opportunities, despite the existence of non-state actors and difficulties of verification of any agreed limitations. But international discussions could lead to some rules of the road principles and perhaps some institutional mechanisms for information sharing in cases of suspected attacks.

I'm pleased to see that the NRC held a workshop with a raft of papers by leading analysts in this area. More food for thought in this issue area.

pivot to Asia

When the administration announced its new strategy including a so-called "pivot to Asia," Congress asked for a second opinion. A study was done by the Center for strategic and International Studies, and the unclassified portions made public last week in a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee. The CSIS report was generally supportive of the administration's approach, but recommended some tweaks. It urged more detailed planning of construction and deployment plans, development of access, prepositioning and overflight arrangements, and enhanced mil-to-mil engagement to allow for crisis-avoidance and de-escalation. CSIS also suggested sending additional capabilities to the Pacific and the replacement of current U.S. ground combat forces in South Korea with rotational troops.

The report stressed that "U.S. strategy is not to prepare for a fight with China." Rather, it requires a balancing of bilateral cooperation with regional security cooperation. The authors of the report gave a press briefing where they answered questions on their analysis and recommendations. Well worth reading.

New Iran sanctions

Behind-the-scenes bipartisanship occurred last week as Congress rapidly passed and sent to the president a new law with tougher sanctions on Iran. As reported by Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin, the bill was worked out by the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen [R-FL], and the chair of the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Tim Johnson [D-SD] (whose panel has jurisdiction over sanctions legislation because most sanctions apply to financial services institutions). The White House reportedly participated in the discussions. What's most interesting to me is the number of proposals not accepted in the final bill, including amendments that would have penalized directors of he international financial transaction clearinghouse SWIFT or that would have barred any dealings with the Iranian petroleum sector by outside entities.  My sense is that some of those rejected amendments would have been "feel good" measures that have counter-productive unintended consequences. Here's the bill as passed.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

unintended consequences of government spending deal

The agreement between congressional leaders and the White House to pass a six-month "continuing resolution" [CR] solves one big problem and creates many small ones. It removes the threat of a government shutdown in October over hard-to-reconcile disagreements on spending. That's important to both parties since they fear being blamed for the shutdown and can't be sure who would benefit.

It causes all kinds of problems, however, for the federal agencies who have "new starts," since CRs typically allow only existing programs and only at last year's level. As an article in Politico notes, the ban on new starts would halt a program to improve cyber security in government computers, prevent nuclear modernization programs [insisted on by some Republicans as a condition of approving the new Start treaty with Russia], and force the Coast Guard to delay buying a new icebreaker.

The CR hasn't been written yet, much less passed, and there are precedents for including exceptions. But with hundreds of programs and issues at stake, lawmakers are likely to insist on a "clean CR" rather than a Christmas tree of exceptions.

The deeper problem caused by reliance on long-term CRs is that it prevents the appropriations committee from functioning as intended, and thus weakens congressional oversight and budget control. When budgets become just issues of dollars, and not programs, priorities, and effectiveness, we all lose.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

congressional games on cyber security

I'm still undecided, or more truthfully, confused, over how seriously to take the cyber threats and how intrusive federal efforts need to be. Already the Senate bill has been revised ["watered down"?] to respond to business concerns.

The remaining bill, however, is now the target for conservative political games. The Senate can't even reach an agreement to pass the bill this week because some Senators want to offer amendments repealing the health care law and further restricting abortions.  You'd think Congress was about to go on vacation for five weeks and these guys want something to trumpet in their campaigns. By gosh, that's true!

a baby step toward congressional reform

On Tuesday the House of Representatives passed a Senate bill intended to reduce somewhat the Senate gridlock over presidential nominations in the executive branch by reducing the number of positions requiring Senate confirmation [labeled PAS by OMB].  In fact, it made only a small dent in the 3,000+ PAS posts, primarily in advisory boards and assistant secretaries for public affairs and congressional relations. No real policy positions involved.

While any reduction in the number of potential hostages is welcome, further cuts risk putting officials beyond one of the key oversight powers of Congress. And the measure does nothing to prevent secret holds on nominations or threatened filibusters that can prevent action even if the nominee eventually wins more than 60 votes.

Twilight of the moderate Republicans

Republican Congressman Stephen LaTourrette announced suddenly this week that he is no longer a candidate for reelection. He has given up on the dysfunctional Congress.

As he told a news conference:
"The change that I’ve noticed is, it used to be there was Election Day and then there was governance. You fight like cats and dogs on election time and then you govern,” LaTourette said in a press conference at his district office in Painesville. Not so now, he said: “For a long time now, words like compromise have been considered to be dirty words. And there are people on the right and the left who think that if you compromise you’re a coward, you’re a facilitator, you’re an appeaser.”
The 9-term lawmaker was a moderate, a dying breed in the Republican party. It's a shame for the party and the country that lawmakers who believe in governance and not just campaigning arebeing driven away by the radicals.

Colorado day

August 1 marks the entry of Colorado into the Union in 1876, the Centennial State. It's a state holiday, which my family used to enjoy with picnics and family gatherings. [It helped that my grandmother and a cousin had August 2 birthdays.] I'm proud of my Colorado heritage. It was and is a great state. Katherine Lee Bates wrote "America the Beautiful" just after a trip up Pike's Peak. Those majestic mountains were crystal clear when I was growing up, before the brown cloud of pollution shrouded them. Progress has been made on cutting pollution and other environmental causes.

Colorado has competitive politics, which makes for less corruption and more accountability. It's one of the healthiest states, with low obesity and high exercise rates. The weather is ideal: 300 days of sunshine, cool nights, and warm but not humid summer days. If it bordered an ocean, it would be heaven -- or crowded like California.

For what it's worth, Colorado also has one of the better-designed state flags -- clean and clear, unlike the cluttered designs of West Virginia or Pennsylvania, for example. A schoolkid can draw the design.

I don't remember what the state song was, but several years ago the State Legislature adopted "Rocky Mountain High" as an alternative, despite its mention of "getting high" around a campfire.