Monday, September 17, 2012

the sequestriation diversion

Congress has, and often needs, action-forcing processes and events to get things done. When I worked in the Senate, the majority leader often scheduled the defense bill just before a preplanned recess so that Senators would forego offering frivolous amendments in order to travel home or abroad as planned.

In 1985, lawmakers adopted the first law requiring a "sequestration" of funds in order to meet deficit reduction targets. The term was a misleading euphemism for automatic, across-the-board cuts. The device served an important political goal, however. It let the formula decide where to cut [everywhere] rather than forcing congressmen to make difficult priority choices.

The 2011 Budget Control Act provided another opportunity for punting the deficit problem away. It created a supercommittee that was supposed to come up with a grand bargain.  In order to force that panel to reach agreement, Congress created a fallback mechanism of new across-the-board cuts, equally from defense and non-defense accounts. Republicans voted for sequestration, as did Democrats, and now everybody is bemoaning the stupid and drastic cuts that are slated for January 1, 2013.

By the way, last week's report on who would be hurt by the cuts tells nothing new, and was really the result of a new law passed by Congress asking the President to tell everybody how bad their earlier law was. See Stan Collender on this and other budget issues.

It would be nice -- it would be good for the country -- if lawmakers would reach a grand bargain that includes revenue increases and entitlement reforms. What is more likely, I fear, is a one or two year deal offsetting the $109 billion required each year to avoid sequestration. Wait and see.

Romney's political skills

When political campaigns falter, they tend to turn into circular firing squads. That appears to be the case today, with unnamed Romney "advisers" blaming top strategist Stuart Stevens for the former governor's desurging campaign.

I think Romney's problems are largely his own -- his own personality, his own preferred campaign style, and his own policy judgments. A political consultant I know and respect suggests that the campaign's failure to introduce and humanize Romney to the electorate during the summer, when the Obama campaign was painting him as a vulture capitalist, was a major strategic mistake, and probably doe at the insistence of the candidate -- as was his avoidance of discussion of his religious faith and activities.

His campaign style and policy emphases also reflect the "tin ear" that dooms many politicians. Joshua Green has a good piece arguing that Romney's approach is just what a bloodless CEO would do, rather than what a seasoned politician would do. I find that persuasive as well.

Both Romney and Obama seem to be introverts; both have access to the best and the brightest political advisers in their respective parties; but only one seems to have learned how to be themselves and still run effective campaigns.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Constitution Day

September 17 is not one of those Hallmark holidays, nor even one when we don't have to go to work, but it's important nonetheless. The day commemorates the date in 1787 when the Constitution was signed, on the parchment now on display at the National Archives.

Too often, I feel,  Americans treat the Constitution as inspired Holy Writ, when in fact it was a compromise document, far from the final word on any of its sections.

There are many curious and interesting passages in the Constitution, often included to prevent abuses which the Framers had seen in Great Britain. One of the most revealing to me is this section from article VI:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution....
What this meant was that, once the Constitution was in force, no one could hold any political office in the country unless they swore support for it. In particular, patriots who opposed ratification -- such as Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Monroe -- would have been barred from public life unless they suppressed their dissent.  Remember, oaths meant something important in the 18th century.

Obama and the use of force

I don't understand the Republican critique of Obama's national security policy -- nor is it at all clear what a President Romney would do differently in terms of using force.

One Romney campaign official said last week that the anti-American riots in the Arab world would not have occurred if Romney were president. Really?

Eliot Cohen, a colleague of mine at SAIS who is a distinguished historian and now a Romney campaign adviser, pens a piece in the Washington Post that combines harsh words -- "hypocrisy," "unseemliness," "cringe-inducing" -- with few hard facts. Cohen blames the administration for "passivity" on Iran and Syria, as if Romney would be sending troops and bombers. He doesn't mention Libya, where Romney was for and against Obama's successful policy to oust Qaddafi without prolonged military involvement.

A more balanced analysis is in the Los Angeles Times in an article by Paul Richter. He says, quite rightly in my view, that Obama acts cautiously and tries to act in concert with others. Some unnamed aide once stupidly labeled this "leading from behind," but that does not connote the leadership required to assemble such coalitions.

what voters see and hear

Most congressional candidates spend the bulk of their budget on television advertising -- and often they prefer to put those ads on during local news shows. But changes in the economics of local stations has cut local coverage of political campaigns.

The net result is this, according to the Columbia Journalism Review:
"CJR's analysis of a hard-fought congressional primary near Scranton, PA found that six local stations aired some 28 hours of political ads, and only half a dozen news reports, over nearly eight weeks."
No wonder voters get turned off.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Costs and benefits of an Iran war

A bunch of foreign policy luminaries has signed a report noting the high costs and limited benefits of military action to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. No former Secretary of State or Defense is on the list, but it includes Rich Armitage, Nick Burns, Tom Pickering, Tony Zinni and Sam Nunn.

The group says military action should be a last resort. It notes that the objective of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons is unlikely to be achieved by military action limited to air strikes, cyber attacks, and covert operations. When toting up the various costs, it expects retaliation against the United States and Israel, globalpolitical and economic instability, a breakdown of the international solidarity against an Iranian weapon, and "increased likelihood of Iran becoming a nuclear state."

This analysis doesn't make military action unthinkable, just risky and costly.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

a Congress of ombudsmen

The New York Times has a strange article by Fred A. Bernstein, described as a lawyer and journalist, criticizing Congress for spending time on constituent services, also known as casework.

He says:
For the country, what government workers call “constituent services” — really the meddling of representatives in the business of executive agencies — is a sign of federal dysfunction, and one with consequences. Congress, arguably the most powerful branch of government, seems to have given up on the main thing the Constitution authorizes it to do: pass laws.
Mr. Bernstein misreads the Constitution and misunderstands U.S. history. I agree with him on only one point -- that the current Congress has done too little passing laws. I see no proof that it has done too much to help individual citizens and their problems with the government.

The United States has never had the Nordic system of ombudsmen because it has the Congress. Elected Representatives from the earliest days of the Republic contacted Executive Branch officials on behalf of their constituents, often to get them jobs and sometimes to resolve disputes.

As for passing laws, prior to the 1950s, the bulk of actual laws passed by Congress each year were Private Bills that granted named individuals pensions or immigration status or the like. Before deciding to sponsor such bills, members often spent hours in the offices of Executive Branch officials seeking to understand the circumstances of the decisions in that case before offering legislative relief.

Even today, a significant part of every member's staff is devoted to answering constituent complaints and requests, such as getting a missed Social Security check or obtaining  compassionate leave for a soldier or unsnarling an agency decision that has caused objectionable local consequences. This does not prevent lawmakers from working on legislation; it gives them direct evidence from the voters as to how well the government is working.

George Will and football

George Will doesn't like football. In a column this weekend, he claims that football became a popular national sport because of "progressivism" -- a very pejorative term in the Will lexicon. He blames late 19th century political progressives for elevating football and turning universities into "football factories."

More pointedly, he says:
College football became a national phenomenon because it supposedly served the values of progressivism, in two ways. It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management. And it would reconcile the public to the transformation of universities, especially public universities, into something progressivism desired but the public found alien. Replicating industrialism’s division of labor, universities introduced the fragmentation of the old curriculum of moral instruction into increasingly specialized and arcane disciplines. These included the recently founded social sciences — economics, sociology, political science — that were supposed to supply progressive governments with the expertise to manage the complexities of the modern economy and the simplicities of the uninstructed masses.
Maybe there are some connections between political ideologies and some sports -- I liked the individualism and aggressiveness of squash myself -- but I find it hard to conclude that football should be condemned by conservatives.

As a student of government, I found myself in agreement with Will on another line he had about football many years ago. Will called the game "the quintessential American sport, because it combines long committee meetings with brief bursts of violence." That comparison I think is valid.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Iran war plan

The more I dealt with military officers and learned about their operational planning, the more I realized that my civilian notions of "surgical strikes" were foolish. Yet many policymakers and armchair generals like to think of low cost, low risk military operations that somehow have major strategic effects.

Danger Room has an excellent summary of Tony Cordesman's expert analysis of what a military strike at Iran's nuclear facilities would have to entail.

It's also sobering to realize that this is just the preplanned attack, which would prompt Iranian retaliation and most likely a much bigger war than we have seen in the past two decades.

analyzing the future

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future," Yogi Berra famously said.  Yet that it what the President, Congress, and many of the rest of us expect from the intelligence community. Two professors at the University of Pennsylvania take a look at how well analysts have done in their 15-year assessments, the first of which came out in 1997. They also offer suggestions for doing this difficult job a little better. A good read with useful proposals.

One of their points is that the process may be as valuable as the end product:
There is also value to conducting Global Trends exercises even if the results only minimally improve our knowledge of the future. The process of creating these reports links the intelligence community with smart outsiders -- in academia and business -- who have different perspectives on the world. The reports also force policymakers to step back from the day-to-day and think hard about big-picture trends.
I think that's part of the value of some other government studies and reports, including the National Security Strategy Report required of the President. The final document is often fuzzy, but the effort to solicit views and craft it is enormously useful for any administration.

By the way, this report appears on a new section of the already quite excellent Foreign Policy magazine site. FP has added a "National Security Channel" and some blogs, including one on the Pentagon that appears to be as newsworthy as the existing blog on the State Department, The Cable.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

military officers and politics

Good for General Dempsey! The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned military officers, including retirees, to "remain apolitical."

There are legal limits on what active duty personnel can do politically: they can vote, but not endorse candidates publicly or appear in uniform at rallies. Retirees are not prohibited from openly supporting candidates, but their advocacy can be seen as institutional support.

Both parties have trotted out their four-star celebrities, with the Democrats probably doing more than the Republicans because of their perceived anti-military feelings, probably a legacy of the Vietnam war.

It's bad. It shouldn't happen, And the retirees should not politicize the military by engaging in such activities.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

political conventions

I used to watch them religiously, gavel to gavel, both Republicans and Democrats.  Now, I find it's hard to develop any enthusiasm for the effort. Also, since we don't have cable and since the broadcast networks cover only an hour a night, forget it. All the good stuff can be seen on the 'Net anyway.

In those long ago days, things sometimes happened at conventions. Sometimes even the outcome wasn't clear until the votes were taken.  Now the conventions are coronation parties for the winners, with their content [usually] tightly controlled and scripted. One team, one fight, one endlessly repeated message.

It's important to remember that the Democratic and Republican parties really exist only at their quadrennial conventions. The rest of the time they are only a fundraising and publicity staff in Washington. The rest of the time they are split into 50 state parties that nominate candidates and run elections.

Given these facts, I'm surprised/appalled that there are 15,000 journalists in Charlotte trying to find news from the 5,000 delegates and their friends.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

science reminder

I can't pass up a chance to urge people to read, or re-read Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book I've praised before as being valuable even for students of foreign policy and national security. Dan Drezner has similar words of praise for it today.

In a book published 50 years ago this year, Kuhn showed that the major sciences did not evolve according to careful logic and persuasive experimentation, but rather only after power struggles between the old order and its defenders and the challengers who sought to answer new questions and to resolve existing anomalies. He coined the phrase "paradigm shift" and used it more carefully than many since.

military moves on hold before the election

The Obama Administration is sending strong signals that it wants to avoid major military actions before the November 6 elections. Over the holiday weekend, the NY Times reported numerous steps the administration is taking to persuade Israel not to launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, including air defenses and a naval buildup.  At the same time, the Washington Post quoted officials suggesting that the likelihood of U.S. intervention in Syria was remote.

Neither report is surprising. No president wants the risks and distractions of military operations just before elections. Although the Romney camp seems to favor arming Syrian rebels and supporting Israel no matter what on Iran, I doubt that it wants anything to take voters' minds off the economy.

Despite the title of this site -- drawing on Henry IV's advice to his son to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" -- American political leaders rarely follow that advice.

SecDef Panetta

Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post has a good profile of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. I agree that Panetta is different, and less impressive, than his predecessor, Bob Gates, who was probably the best -- most effective -- SecDef in history. But Panetta's shortcomings, according to the article, have been more errors of omission than commission: he hasn't done enough to change things.

Jaffe makes one particularly insightful point: "Panetta sometimes sounds more like a congressman representing the “Pentagon district” than the leader of the world’s largest military."  Every SecDef has to be an advocate for his institution with the rest of the government, and Panetta seems to do that well. But he also has to be part of the national security team, and the evidence is that he has done that well, too. So the bottom line has to be that Panetta so far is well above average for the job.