Monday, December 31, 2012

foreign policy vs. national security

Words matter. Different words are usually used to convey different meanings. I learned recently that "international" was coined only in the early 19th century by Jeremy Bentham. There are two terms that I tend to use interchangeably, though I realize that technically they are supposed to be different.

"Foreign policy" is the action of a state beyond its borders, usually with other states. Those actions encompass the full spectrum from trade and culture to war. "National security" deals with the various policies a state pursues to protect and support its people and institutions, especially in relation to other nations and peoples.

Those are crude definitions, but the terms also reflect longstanding debates and policy preferences among scholars and policymakers. "Foreign policy" is an older term, long used as a study in history that concentrated on diplomacy and wars. "Military history" is a subfield  dealing with armed forces and their use in conflicts. In my own field of political science, "foreign policy" has long been split between students of international relations in general -- especially the causes of war and conflict resolution -- and those concerned with the policies of particular countries. Academic specialization makes it hard to bridge those fields. The same is true in government: foreign policy in America is seen as the purview of the President and State Department. National security tends to be equated with "defense" and largely assigned to the Pentagon, with White House oversight and ultimate control.

An interesting historical development occurred in the United States in the 1930s. Civilian scholars such as Edward Mead Earle at Princeton began urging more academic and governmental attention to the foreign policy aspects of military policy. Earle complained about the "water-tight compartments" in both institutions and urged more attention to "effective coordination of military with foreign and domestic policies." Implicit in his argument was the notion that war was too important to be left to generals and that civilian control of the military required more knowledge of military matters by civilian officials. The term they adopted for this new field of study was "national security."

Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1919 had proposed a Joint Plan-Making Body from the State, War and Navy departments, to define wartime objectives and force levels, as president established an Army-Navy planning board in the White House. Wartime experience led civilian and military experts to call for greater coordination of the armed forces and between the military and the diplomats. They embraced the umbrella term of national security.

Accordingly, when Congress finally enacted a comprehensive law in 1947 putting the armed forces under a single secretary of defense and creating a White House level advisory body and establishing the Central Intelligence Agency, they called their law The National Security Act of 1947 and their panel the National Security Council.  Moreover, that law specifically said that the function of the council was to advise the President on "the integration of domestic, foreign and military policies relating to the national security."

Implicit in that new terminology was a policy preference for coordination across once-separate institutions. That's why "national security" has largely supplanted "foreign policy" when describing America's international relations. What still hasn't been widely recognized, however, is that the field properly includes foreign economic policy as well as defense and traditional diplomacy.  Since I teach in what historically has been called the "American foreign policy" department, I feel obliged to use that narrow term even when I mean the broader one.But I recognize the difference and wish the U.S. government took a more comprehensive approach in its policymaking.

how to please the bosses

The theory of representative government holds that lawmakers are the agents of the citizenry, who are deemed sovereign.  Some members of Congress claim they will do what their voters want, but they usually evolve into thinking that they'll do what seems to be in their voters' best interests.  They never forget that they can be held accountable, even for inconsequential but symbolic votes.

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza has a valuable column with the numbers: only 15 Republican House members represent districts that voted for Obama in 2012; only one of the 14 GOP Senators up for election in 2014 comes from a state that voted for Obama. Thus, few Republicans have any political incentive to compromise with the President.

That kind of disparity is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind. That's why they gave the President, Senators, and Representatives terms of different lengths. I remember calculating similar figures when President Clinton was first elected: 98 Democrats were elected with more votes in their districts than Clinton. They had no incentive to follow his lead, and many didn't.

We onlookers who advocate civility and compromise and fiscal prudence are not asking lawmakers to commit political suicide. We are asking them to recognize that the national interest is at stake, and continuing prosperity. A good deal will have elements that each side wants, and smart voters can be persuaded of its value.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

backing away from the brink

As we approach the fiscal "cliff" and related policy questions, it's important to keep in mind several deadlines, some real and unchangeable and some soft and more flexible.

1. Midnight, December 31. That's the time the expiring laws -- like the Bush tax cuts, the narrower alternative minimum tax [AMT], the Medicare "Doc Fix," extended unemployment insurance, and lower payroll tax -- actually expire. While legally significant, in practice Congress can make any new tax provisions retroactive. If lawmakers act fast enough, there would likely be no real impact on taxpayers. Moreover, missing this legal deadline also transforms the vote on any legislation into a "tax cut" from the restored rates.

2. January 1. That's when the Treasury Department says the U.S. debt would reach its legal ceiling, absent extraordinary measures. Not an immediate problem, however, since Treasury plans to take those steps, like delaying some intragovernmental financial transfers, as it has many times before. The real deadline can be pushed off until late February or so. Even then, in extremis the president might invoke the 14th amendment which arguably would make the debt ceiling law unconstitutional. Nevertheless, breaching the ceiling would force the United States into default on its debts in the view of the financial community.

3. January 2. That's the day that the 2011 Budget Control Act's sequester kicks in, requiring broad cuts in current spending across the government during the rest of the fiscal year. The actual cuts could be delayed for a while if there were a real prospect of a budget deal, since implementation is up to the Office of Management and Budget [OMB]. Or Congress could substitute some new law, either a grand bargain of many of the unresolved issues, or a kick-the-can-down-the-road law that imposes a different set of cuts totaling $110 billion over the next nine months.

4. Noon, January 3. That's the hour that the 112th Congress ends and the 113th Congress begins. If a bill hasn't quite passed, it's dead, and the new Congress would have to pass identical versions after that hour for the president to have a bill to sign. [There are historic examples when one chamber or the other literally stopped the clock for a few hours in order to squeeze within a legal deadline, but that can't happen with the change from one Congress to the next. Just as doubts over Chief Justice Roberts' erroneous wording of the Obama presidential oath, leading to a just-to-be-safe second swearing in, the risks of a legal challenge would make the noon deadline rigid.]

5. Afternoon, January 3. That's when two important events should have happened --the election of a Speaker of the House and adoption of some organizing motions by the Senate. If Republican rebels want to challenge John Boehner, that's their moment for action -- and perhaps a reason why Boehner has been reluctant to support a deal with the administration that increases taxes. Similarly, if the Senate adopts changes in its rules or procedures -- or gets into a big fight over the rules that poisons the legislative process for weeks to follow -- that will affect how easily any agreements may be handled by the Senate.

6. January 4 and beyond. That's when the new Congress gets organized, with many committees facing new leadership and with new members anxious to make their marks. The main consequence for economic policy questions is the greater unpredictability of congressional institutions.

7. January 20. Not really a legal deadline, since President Obama has been elected to a second term. He does have to take the oath of office two more times, however, once on Sunday, the 20th, and then again Monday, the 21st in the public ceremony at the Capitol.

8. March 27. That's the day the Continuing Appropriations law expires. Agencies will lose their spending authority. Unless superseded by particular appropriations bills, or extended, perhaps even for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends September 30, the U.S. government will have to halt all but emergency operations.

These various dates provide incentives and hurdles for lawmakers to develop and enact whatever measures they try in order to back away from the fiscal cliff. The terrain is tough any time, but particularly treacherous given current political polarization.

weak tea for Senate reform

The procedural reforms most likely to be approved by the Senate on January 3 are pretty weak, but better than nothing. Although a group of newer members, all Democrats, may have 51 votes for their more consequential  proposals, several senior Senators from both parties would prefer to avoid the precedent of a rules change by majority vote. Instead, this group, led by Senator Carl Levin [D-MI] and John McCain [R-AZ], has developed a proposal that changes the Standing Orders just for the 113th Congress. Those orders are usually adopted by unanimous consent, but could be filibustered.

The Levin-McCain proposal would end filibusters on motions to proceed to bills and nominations and would allow two amendments each for the majority and minority. This change would still allow filibusters, which would still require 60 votes to end, but could reduce the total number of filibusters. The proposal also limits filibusters on motions involving conferences with the House to resolve differences.

To speed up consideration of nominations -- except for cabinet officers and federal judges -- the proposal would automatically put the names of nominees for over 500 positions automatically on the Senate calendar, thus bypassing committees and possible delays at that level.

Levin and McCain encourage but don't require opponents to show up and debate when they mount a filibuster. They also require objectors to unanimous consent agreements to come to the Senate floor and voice their positions.

I wish the reformers had gone further, but this is the way the Senate usually handles pressure for reform: avoiding direct confrontations and worrisome precedents by developing alternatives informally. Since this is the most we are likely to get, I hope it doesn't get derailed in the chaos of dealing with the fiscal cliff as one congress ends and a new one begins.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

campaign assessment

One of the best journalistic accounts of how the two presidential campaigns assessed their respective efforts was developed the the Boston Globe, one of the few outlets with good sources in the Romney campaign. `I am still amazed by how the Obama campaign expanded the electorate by technological targeting of potential voters -- and by the insularity and ineptness of the Romney campaign, despite their vaunted devotion to management metriucs.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


The special review panel investigating the Benghazi attacks that left four Americans dead has submitted its report. In response, three State Department officials have resigned.  That's accountability in my book. The responsibility lies at the working level, not the Secretary, much less the UN Ambassador.

Friday, December 14, 2012

the talking filibuster

While some analysts doubt that changing the Senate rules to require a "talking filibuster" will make much difference, I am persuaded that Sen. Jeff Merkley's will help. The Oregon Democrat has released a long explanation with Q&As that convinces me the change will work as designed.

If coupled with nondebatable motions to proceed to begin debate, I think that fewer filibusters would be threatened and even fewer conducted. While the skeptics suggest that Senators will welcome the opportunity to grandstand, in fact I believe they will limit their battles -- if only t allow more time for fundraising and homestate travel.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

be careful what you vote for

ABC News and Garance Franke-Ruta of the Atlantic have made a useful discovery: the resolution passed by the Senate condemning the Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans was worded to suggest that demonstrations led to the attacks. The measure also failed to label the attackers terrorists or extremists. Since the resolution passed unanimously, perhaps those Senators who have been sharply criticizing the comments of Ambassador Susan Rice should revise and extend their own remarks.

treaty defeat

For only the fourth time since before World War II,the Senate today defeated a treaty, the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, by a vote of 61-38, five votes short of the required 2/3 vote. Opponents claimed that the measure would somehow interfere with home schooling of disabled children, while supporters argued that the agreement created no rules beyond current U.S. law.

It's a shame that Tea Party know-nothingism has infected so many Senators.

crime and punishment on Capitol Hill

Until now Speaker John Boehner has refused to punish Republican dissenters from the party line. This week, however, he exiled several members from key committees, apparently because they had voted the wrong way too often.  One consequence, I suspect, is that this strengthens Boehner's hand in passing whatever he might agree to with Obama on fiscal policy.

the story behind the Benghazi talking points

The Wall Street Journal has a long story -- the hour-by-hour account that journalists call the "tick tock" -- describing how the CIA and later other organizations coordinated and ultimately agreed on unclassified talking points regarding the Benghazi attacks. Its most significant conclusion is:
No evidence has so far emerged that the White House interfered to tone down the public intelligence assessment, despite the attention the charge has received.

The story is a typical one illustrating bureaucratic politics, the way each agency has different perspectives on common problems and how they act to defend and protect their own interests. There are no bad guys in the story, no coverups, just different people trying to do their jobs.

China's interagency tangle

Whatever problems the U.S. government has in getting its act together, China has even greater ones.

Consider these facts from the Economist:

  • There has been no foreign affairs specialist in the 25-member Politburo since 2002.
  • The Ministry of Defense lacks command authority over China's armed forces.
  • There is a profound lack of coordination between the foreign ministry and the military.
  • Eleven government agencies assert various authorities over matters related to the disputed islands in the South China Sea.
  • Many heads of State Owned Enterprises outrank local party and government leaders and thus can ignore their orders.
If China is going to play a responsible role in world affairs, and especially if it is going to avoid stupid mistakes and avoidable escalation into military confrontations, it needs to develop mechanisms and processes to coordinate decisions and monitor government actions. 

Monday, December 3, 2012


American politics remains caught in a hyperpartisan gridlock. We keep fighting many of the same old fights while the new problems and issues get ignored.

There's real wisdom in a quote from Republican campaign operative Ken Mehlman resurrected by Joshua Green:
“If you look back over the last few decades, an era of politics has run its course,” Mehlman told me at the time. “Both parties achieved some of their highest goals. Democrats got civil rights, women’s rights, the New Deal, and recognition of the need for a cleaner environment. Republicans got the defeat of the Soviet Union, less violent crime, lower tax rates, and welfare reform. The public agrees on this. So the issues now become: How do you deal with the terrorist threat? How do you deal with the retirement of the baby boomers? How do you deliver health care with people changing jobs? How do you make sure America retains its economic strength with the rise of China and India? How that plays out is something we don’t know yet.”
Mehlman's questions are the ones the politicians should be dealing with, and their answers need to go beyond the shopworn formulas of "tax the rich," "slash government spending," and "let the market decide."

pedants' revolt

English teachers across America are resisting the new Common Core Standards for elementary and secondary schools because they require half the readings to be nonfiction. I like the new standards. I think students should read more and write more, but they need to go beyond "literature" if they are to develop critical thinking skills. I also like it when students have to memorize poems and recite then aloud. But that doesn't help them to dissect an argument for a new environmental regulation or comprehend instructions for filling out a government form.

Nonfiction doesn't have to be boring. There are exciting history books, biographies, travel and science books, even policy books advocating different approaches to deal with poverty or climate change or internet technology. Even speeches in Congress now score at the junior high school level. Read 'em and weep.

UPDATE: Here is more information on those standards and a sample reading list. Any objections?