Friday, October 19, 2012

Wow! Is it that bad?

Rosa Brooks is a law professor who served in the Pentagon earlier in the Obama administration and is obviously well-connected to inside circles on national security policy. But she has a piece on the Foreign Policy website that argues that Obama's foreign policy team is dysfunctional.

Some of her criticisms are misplaced. She says the President has no grand strategy or a strategy-producing office -- but that's been largely true for most of the last 65 years, with a few minor exceptions such as the Nixon-Kissinger years. She suggests that current officials are bad managers and don't know enough about their jobs. That may be true of a few people, but I've seen and heard many of these folks -- outside of the policy discussions, of course -- and doubt that they merit such criticism. She goes further, and urges Obama to "get rid of the jerks."  She must have had some nasty arguments with somebody, for I think she exaggerates the number of truly objectionable personalities there are in high positions. [I remember a lot of people considered Dick Clarke, the counter-terrorism official at the NSC in three administrations, for having sharp elbows and a loud voice, but he got good results.]

I do agree with Ms Brooks in criticizing Obama's reluctance to use some of his political capital on the Hill to fight harder for some of his foreign policy goals. And I'm worried if some of her asides are true, such as her claim that "McDonough and Donilon can barely stand each other" and "Cronyism" determines who attends White House meetings.  But the bulk of her arguments sound like sour grapes.

missing debate issues

The respected, though aging, CBS newsman Bob Schieffer will moderate Monday's encounter between President Obama and Governor Romney on foreign policy issues.

Here's the list of broad topics issued by Schieffer:
America’s role in the world
Our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan
Red lines — Israel and Iran
The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism — I
The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism — II
The rise of China and tomorrow’s world
What's missing? Big stuff.

No questions on the Pentagon or defense spending -- a clear point of difference between the candidates.

No questions on the criteria for the use of force, whether in Iran or Syria or ... Mexico.

No questions on the war powers of the President, either regarding Iran or drones or targeted killings.

No questions on [my favorite topic of] civil-military relations.

Maybe Schieffer will shoehorn some of these issues into his announced topics, or maybe the candidates will broaden their answers. I hope so. Otherwise, this will be a truncated and woefully inadequate one.

budget pipe dreams

I got all excited when I read that the Bipartisan Policy Center had developed a "grand bargain to avoid the 'fiscal cliff." Then I read the 3-page proposal.  It's superficially interesting but could never happen in practice.

The BPC wants Congress to follow an "accelerated regular order" -- meaning, no Senate filibusters allowed and committees of jurisdiction do all the work -- to pass a deficit reduction package. That sounds reasonable, but Senators would have to agree to carve out an exception to their right to filibuster in this case. In fact, the same result could be achieved by following the reconciliation process, as was done to pass Obamacare.

The real flaw in the proposal is the demand for an automatic "backstop" that would occur if Congress failed to adopt the required laws. The last time we tried that, barely a year ago, it was called a "sequester" and now everybody is complaining that they passed it. The BPC explain this backstop this way:
The Executive Branch shall eliminate any shortfall – whether from the failure of the debt reduction bill to become law or from insufficient debt reduction contained therein – by achieving the requisite amount of debt reduction compared to the current policy baseline: half of the savings would come from reductions to all mandatory and entitlement programs (with the exception of Social Security) and half from reductions in all federal tax expenditures. The framework recognizes that the backstop of cuts in mandatory programs and tax expenditures will require flexible treatment – certainly, cutting an entitlement program involves different considerations than cutting a tax expenditure.

I really don't see how the President alone, absent votes by Congress on new laws, could reduce spending on mandatory and entitlement programs, and especially not on tax expenditures. Remember, his chief constitutional responsibility is to see that the laws are faithfully executed. If the law says people get a tax deduction for a charitable contribution or home mortgage interest, how can the President can change the law or the tax collection rules or the forms to make that happen. Dumb idea in pursuit of a worthy goal.

Monday, October 15, 2012

military endorsements of politicians

The Center for a New American Security has a report just out examining the influence of military endorsements of candidates. The CNAS press release summarizes the findings:

  • Military endorsements may benefit Democratic candidates more than Republicans by dispelling historical notions that Democrats are not strong on defense issues.
  • The extent to which military endorsements damage a candidate's campaign is modest enough that such warnings can be ignored.
  • However, endorsements may produce troubling effects regarding public views of the military. The survey provided some evidence that endorsements and politicization may undermine confidence in the military as an institution over the long term.
Ultimately, the authors conclude that "military endorsements are just attractive enough for campaigns to use them, yet not so attractive that it is impossible to think they would ever stop." They argue in support of those like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey who would seek to eliminate military endorsements in presidential campaigns, and suggest steps that campaigns can take to help establish a taboo against these endorsements.

Sounds reasonable to me. There's a real danger if the people view the military as a partisan force, and it's not correct to say that retired generals aren't really treated as spokesmen for the active force.

October surprises

There is a long and not very encouraging tradition of October surprises involving foreign policy shaking up presidential campaigns.In 1968, Nixon aides passed word to the South Vietnamese president to resist peace proposals from the Johnson administration that were aimed at helping the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey. In 1972 Henry Kissinger gave a dramatic -- and highly misleading -- news conference just before the election announcing that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam. In 1980, again just days before the election, the Iranians broke off negotiations with the Carter administration on releasing the Americans held hostage at the U.S. embassy. In 2000, the attack on the U.S. Navy ship Cole may have helped the chances of George W. Bush.

This year, the Republicans are trying to turn the Banghazi attacks into a foreign policy issue rather than a narrower question of balancing risks and resourcing security.  Now it turns out that the issue of an October surprise came up in the infamous "47 percent" tape of Gov. Romney's Florida fundraiser. One of the contributors asked whether Romney could take advantage of a problem like Carter's with the hostages, and Romney replied, "I mean, if something of that nature presents itself I will work to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity."  I guess that shouldn't be surprising any more.

Lincoln the politician

Abraham Lincoln was a great president -- and a skilled politician. He knew how to inspire people, build coalitions, sideline his rivals, and defeat his enemies. Too many people like to think he must have been above the fray because he accomplished so much and was personally quite admirable. It's useful to be reminded that Lincoln succeeded as he did because he was good at politics.  Years ago, I got my first understanding of Lincoln the politico in David Donald's great biography.

Now we have a long article on the same theme by Sidney Blumenthal.  Worth reading. In truth, all of our greatest presidents have been good at politics.

Romney and the neocons

Presidential campaigns attract people who want jobs, especially people who worked in an earlier administration and want back in the game. Once Mitt Romney was the likely Republican nominee, he was surrounded by former officials from Bush 41 and 43 administrations, both pragmatists like Bob Zoellick and neocons like John Bolton. Romney has sung from both hymnbooks in recent months, but now the campaign is putting out the word that it wants to put daylight between Romney and the neocons.

It might be true. It's certainly a useful line to put out when those advisers seem trigger happy, eager to get America into another war or two, and the public doesn't want to hear it.

deficit delusions

Russell Long, longtime Senator from Louisiana, summed up the American attitude toward taxation as, "Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind a tree." The same attitude applies to cutting federal programs in order to reduce the deficit. A new Pew poll not surprisingly finds that  the only changes approved by a majority of those surveyed are taxes on incomes over $250,000 and limiting the tax deductions for large corporations. Reducing funds for defense, science, education and the poor all get majority disapproval.

The only way around such views, I think, is a package of revenue increases and spending cuts that's big enough to make a difference, but with particular items small enough to be tolerable.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

telephone trivia

You can date a movie by the cars, the clothes and hairstyles, or by the telephone technology. I seen recent movies that depend on texting and older movies where the plot depended on an inability to reach someone on the move. There are even older films, like the gripping "Sorry, Wrong Number" that turn on the availability of a human operator. It's fun to watch, and to remember the old days.

How many people today know why there are no letters on the dial -- sorry, I guess they're all keypads now -- for 1 and zero? The answer derives from the fact that early phones connected to a central operator by lifting the receiver and creating a click. More here. When direct dialing was introduced, and the system worked by the number of clicks, not the different tones on modern phones, a single click was reserved for reaching a trunk link or an operator.  The exchanges were built around names using the first two letters -- hence PEnnsylvania 6-5000, the Glen Miller song from World War II. Over time, phone numbers expanded from 6 to 7 to 10 digits. As recently as the 1980s, I had a weekend cottage served by a small rural telephone company that let us call anyone local by dialing only four numbers. You could also choose between private [individual] and "party" [shared] lines, where you could listen to your neighbors, and they to you, and new calls could not be made until the other party ended their call.

Another difference between now and then was the high cost of long distance calls. Many families had little 3-minute egg timer hourglasses by the phone so that they would keep their holiday calls to family members short. When I first started working in Washington, I would drive to work on weekends in order to use the office WATS [wide area telephone service] line for calls to my parents in Denver. Now we can have Skype video calls almost anywhere in the world for the price of an out of state call four decades ago.

Cuban missile crisis revisited

I finished the revisionist history book on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and was persuaded that Kennedy administration officials, including Bobby Kennedy and Ted Sorensen deliberately misled the American people on what happened.  There was no "Trollope ploy." The president actually overrode the unanimous views of his advisers when he decided to accept the Soviet offer to remove U.S. nuclear-armed Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy in exchange for withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. And despite years of denials, the United States did promise not to invade Castro's Cuba.

Les Gelb also has a good piece on the lessons of the crisis. There was a diplomatic bargain, deliberately kept secret but real nonetheless. This was not a case of Soviet surrender to American threats. I hope would-be commanders-in-chief would learn that lesson -- and also learn how close we came, through accidents and misjudgments to a nuclear exchange that likely would have led to a civilization-destroying nuclear war.

military measures

Campaign discussions of defense issues routinely degenerate into scary numbers and misleading comparisons. The GOP ticket, for example, warns that we will soon have the smallest navy since before World War I. Numerically true, but highly misleading. Many Democrats like to point out that the United States is spending  more on defense than the rest of the world combined and, even with recent cuts as we draw down from Iraq and Afghanistan, are spending at levels above the average during the Cold War. Also numerically true, but no justification for either cuts or increases in future spending. Still other analysts say that we are wasting money on the wrong kinds of weapons acquired in the least efficient way.

The true test of military strength is not what we spend, but what we get for those expenditures; not how many particular units, people, or weapons we have compared with others, but how well they can perform in combat. Regrettably, we have a predictable tendency to make decisions in peacetime on the basis of efficiency and in wartime on the basis of effectiveness.

Over time, these cross-pressures tend to balance out. We still tend to put a premium on systems that are best for offense rather than defense; we still prefer high tech promise over lower tech reliability; we continue to underestimate the true costs of most equipment we acquire. On the other hand, we eventually embraced unmanned aerial vehicles; we eventually adopted counterinsurgency doctrine and trained units for it; we traded numbers for capabilities time and again -- even when that left the navy with fewer ships than in 1916.

I wish our debates would focus on threats, capabilities, combat effectiveness, and ways to reduce long term costs rather than on the misleading measures tossed about in the current debates.

politicizing tragedy

I'm getting pretty disgusted with Republican efforts to make political gains as a result of the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya. That evidently is the new GOP strategy.

Their logic seems to be:  President Obama must be judged a failed president because: [1] the intelligence community changed its assessment as to whether the attack was premeditated by a terrorist group; [2] State Department security officials failed to field a large, well-armed force to defeat the attack which was launched; [3] those same officials denied a request to extend the tour of a military unit providing security for the embassy in Tripoli; and [4] somehow these actions by subordinate units of the U.S. government demonstrate the broader critique that America is less safe than four years ago, that the President is a failed leader, and that he apologizes for America.

It doesn't follow. What Benghazi showed was how chaotic Libya and much of the post-Arab spring world is. And that chaos is not, as Gov. Romney seems to argue, because the Obama administration failed to side with demonstrators earlier or because the struggle is between "democracy and despotism." Moreover, the answer is not a platoon of soldiers with tanks and helicopters accompanying every U.S. diplomat, but careful assessments balancing risks and diplomatic needs. Sec. Clinton made that point well yesterday. Right now, we have the ridiculous situation where officials can't do their jobs with tight security and thus face risks that can lead to tragedy. That's a dilemma, not proof of a failed presidency.

Monday, October 8, 2012

historical revisions

I'm getting exposed to a lot of historical revisionism this week. I'm reading a book on the Cuban missile crisis that cites persuasive evidence from the secretly recorded tapes to show that most Kennedy administration officials, especially the president's brother, distorted the facts to make themselves look good to history.

I read another persuasive piece that casts doubt on James K. Polk's strategic goals, demonstrating that the most persuasive evidence was created only long after the fact.

And now, here's a piece arguing that Manhattan was not purchased from the Native Americans by the Dutch for $24. Whatever deal was made, and it's not clear what the property involved was, should be valued around $951 in today's dollars.

Who knows? At this rate, I may read that Columbus didn't really discover America....

military politics

The not surprising news today is that military personnel tend to be Republican and pro-Romney. The Military Times newspapers conduct a poll of subscribers and report results here. The respondents are probably a reasonable cross section of subscribers, but hardly of the armed forces. Only 16% of the people in uniform are officers; over 1/3 of those in the poll were in the middle officer grades. Moreover, 80% of the respondents were white and 91% male. So older white male people in uniform tend to be Republican. Hardly breaking news.

My worry is not how people in the armed forces vote, but whether they identify openly with a party and proselytize for it, and thus undercut public confidence in their ability to follow the orders of whoever is commander in chief. I don't think we are anywhere near a danger point on that score, as we were during the Clinton years, but civilian control is always a fragile thing.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

sputnik anniversary

October 4 marked the 55th anniversary of the shock and awe when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first space satellite, and Americans worried that the United States was suddenly threatened by Soviet missiles.

            While U.S. concerns now seem exaggerated, the American response to the Soviet sputnik was far-reaching in its scope and in its consequences. In fact, the reaction led to U.S. leadership in space, science, education, and defense for many years to come.

            On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union sent its 184-pound sputnik  into orbit, shocking Americans who had assumed that scientific breakthroughs were always “Made in the USA.” The United States had planned only a 3-pound, grapefruit-sized Vanguard satellite, not realizing that the world was ready to watch a space race in which both speed and size mattered.

     There was other evidence of Soviet prowess in missiles. In August and September of 1957, the USSR had two successful flights of its first intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs], compared to two test failures of the American Atlas missile. Six months before, the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that the Russians would not likely have any operational ICBMs until 1961. A new National Intelligence Estimate forecast 10 operational Soviet  ICBMs by 1959, 100 by 1960 and 500 by 1962 – compared to an expected U.S. force of only 24 ICBMs  by 1960 and 65 by 1961.

     A month after the first sputnik, the Russians launched a dog into orbit in a satellite weighing more than half a ton. The very next day, President Eisenhower met with a panel of scientists and defense experts –the Gaither Committee – that he had appointed several months earlier. That group concluded that  the USSR had “probably surpassed us in ICBM development” and warned of “an increasing threat which may become critical in 1959 or early 1960.”

     This was the basis for the feared “missile gap,” which helped John F. Kennedy win the presidency in 1960.

In fact, that gap was turned in the United States’ favor by the American response to sputnik. Eisenhower adopted many of the Gaither group’s recommendations, though not their rhetoric. He accelerated U.S. missile programs as well as the effort to build a nuclear-powered submarine. He increased his next defense budget almost 4% and approved increases in the planned size of the ICBM force by 62% and a tripling of the planned intermediate range missile [IRBM] force. To guard against surprise Soviet attacks, the president ordered greater dispersal of U.S. bombers as well as the start of a limited airborne alert bomber force. He also secured NATO agreement to allow the European basing of American IRBMs.

     Eisenhower also seized upon the sputnik crisis to push for a new law, long resisted by Congress but finally adopted in 1958, strengthening the power of the Secretary of Defense and consolidating military research and development programs. One outgrowth was the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency [ARPA, later DARPA], which funded the basic research that subsequently led to stealth aircraft, high speed computers, and the Internet.

The president and congress also concluded that America needed to boost its brainpower as well as its military firepower. Eisenhower named the first Presidential Science Advisor and supported creation of a civilian space agency, NASA. Lawmakers supported his defense budget increases, but also tripled the funds going to the National Science Foundation.

One of the most far-reaching educational measures was the National Defense Act of 1958 [NDEA], establishing a four-year program college student loans,  science, math and foreign language teaching, and graduate student fellowships in science, engineering, and foreign area study. That program totaled almost $4.4 billion in today’s dollars. [Full disclosure: thanks to NDEA money, I was able to be the first in my family to go to college.]

In the decade after sputnik, these measures tripled the number of doctorates awarded and doubled the share of U.S. GNP devoted to basic scientific research. The success of the NDEA led to other federal programs aiding education at all levels.

Today we are richer, better educated, more technologically advanced, and better protected against a wide range of military threats thanks to the way Americans came together in a bipartisan way to respond to sputnik a half century ago.

the first debate

I don't like to use this space to promote my party preferences, but I probably should comment on the Obama-Romney debate because I used to be a pretty good college debater and even a debate coach.

I know what a winning debater looks like, and this week his name was Mitt Romney. He was fluent, well-prepared, well-organized with both general propositions and pertinent facts. He had an effective style and substance. President Obama, by contrast, had some reasonable substance, but he sure lacked the style.

I saw the contest as one between the Salesman and the Professor. And politics is mostly a sales job. [Remember my citation of Maverick's line that I consider the politician's credo: If you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, those are pretty good odds.]

What's really surprising to me is that this really was a "debate," not just a joint news conference. Jim Lehrer invited the candidates to explain their differences with their opponent on each topic. Romney was prepared to do that; Obama was less well-prepared or at least less eager to engage combatively.

What Romney needs for the remaining two debates is more of the same, plus practice responding to a more aggressive opponent.

What Obama needs is more practice, more concentration on key arguments -- both main points and vivid examples, and recognition that appearances are important. He has to look up, not down; show eagerness to be there and to engage on the substance; and be dignified ["presidential"] but relaxed.

science news has to be newsworthy

Surprise: the only science news that makes the news is whatever is new and different.  It's the same pattern followed by the Big Lie that gets attention, while the correction comes in small print in an obscure place.

This shouldn't be surprising to anyone who followed the conventional wisdom of foods to avoid or hormone treatments to try or to avoid, only to learn much later -- never mind.  Researchers find it hard to get money or publications if they show lack of confirmation of exciting theories, much less a solid alternative theory.

There's hard evidence in a report cited by Ezra Klein and the Economist.

Read them and remember next time you see a science story.

intelligence infighting

A lot went wrong in Benghazi before and during the attacks that killed four Americans. It's a shame that so many people are trying to score partisan and bureaucratic political points before we get a lot more information and put it into perspective. The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece describing the infighting int he intelligence community as it made initial assessments on the attacks. One unsurprising lesson is that first reports are often wrong and always incomplete. Another lesson is that the new system under a Director of National Intelligence [DNI] isn't the panacea that led to its embrace by the 9/11 commission and the Bush administration.

I think the real flaws may turn out to be at the lower rungs of the bureaucratic ladder, where the embassy was operating and a shoestring and a lot of hope and State's Diplomatic Security people weren't agile or foresighted enough to strengthen the Benghazi compound. I also think we deserve a better explanation of why U.S.personnel didn't move sooner to secure the damaged buildings and interview witnesses.

I understand but regret the politicization of the tragedy, especially on the basis of incomplete information. This is hardly a failure of presidential leadership or action.