Saturday, December 21, 2013

too cheap for NSA

Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal has some very interesting background on how NSA scuttled a software program that wasn't as appealing as its much more expensive alternative.

The current NSA model relies largely on amassing as much data as it can obtain and trying to sort through it all later.
In its place, the presidentially appointed review panel suggested a drastic and fundamental change in the 20th of 46 recommendations in its report released Wednesday: "Software that would allow…intelligence agencies more easily to conduct targeted information acquisition rather than bulk-data collection."
 The panel proposed a feasibility study. But former NSA officials say such a transition is certainly doable. "That's exactly what we did," says former NSA official Ed Loomis. "It's not only feasible—the government threw away the software that did it."
Mr. Loomis said he and his colleagues developed just such a program 15 years ago. It was designed to cheaply search an array of data sets—wherever they happened to be—without first importing all the data into an NSA-held system.

The program helped spies conduct targeted searches of large amounts of data and included a number of privacy protections that performed well in pilot tests. But the program, known as ThinThread, lost an internal bureaucratic fight and wasn't deployed.
Bill Binney, another member of the ThinThread team, said ThinThread was also handicapped because it was too cheap. With a $3 million price tag, the program couldn't compete with a $4 billion program called Trailblazer that was backed by major contractors.
Maybe there's a better justification for NSA's decision, but a lot of bureaucratic battles in government are lost because officials think that bigger is better and expensive programs are harder to kill.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

a Christmas story

Many years ago, the House Master of my college residence held a Christmas party, inviting mostly faculty associated with the House but also a few of us undergraduates.

After a period of drinks and snacks, we gathered around a grand piano to sing carols. I told the woman next to me, the date of one of the junior faculty, "I hope you'll excuse me. I love to sing, especially Christmas carols, but I can't sing worth a darn." She smiled politely.

After we finished the second carol, she turned back to me. "A lot of people say they can't sing, but you really can't!"

I blushed.

unintended consequences

There are strong undercurrents of xenophobia and nativism in American politics. It spiked in the anti-Catholic "know nothings" in the middle of the 19th century, a little later with Asian exclusion laws, and in the early 20th century when a revived Ku Klux Klan opposed civil rights for immigrants as well as blacks.

The anti-immigrant fever led Alabama two years ago to enacted draconian limits on foreigners. As Benjy Sarlin of MSNBC reports,
The lead sponsor of the bill boasted to state representatives that the law “attacks every aspect of an illegal alien’s life.” Among its key provisions: landlords were banned from renting homes to undocumented immigrants, schools had to check students’ legal status, and police were required to arrest suspected immigration violators. Even giving unauthorized immigrants a ride became a crime.
After a sudden flurry of self-deportation, problems arose when foreign businessmen who brought jobs to Alabama were being stopped and even jailed until their status could be verified; sheriffs found their jails filled with people awaiting documentation and their officers diverted from serious crime-fighting by the paperwork requirements of the law. There were also some adverse court rulings.

As  a result of these unintended consequences, Alabama has backed off strenuous enforcement of the law, and even some former advocates feel better about it. Good.

oriental Orwellism

The Japanese government has approved a new five year defense plan calling for a five percent increase in military spending, including new drones and amphibious assault ships. Despite its Constitutional prohibition on maintaining " land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential," Prime Minister Abe has been pursuing a more muscular foreign policy as well as defense posture. Japan already has the world's fifth largest defense budget.

I have no problem with this buildup or the erosion of strict reading of article 9.

What bothers me, however, is Abe's description of this as "proactive pacifism."

Try again.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

fractured, failing Syrian opposition

It's discouraging, though not surprising, that the Syrian opposition to Assad is failing and Assad seems to be winning. A leader of the so-called moderates was forced to flee and the US and UK have suspended their nonlethal aid.

In the bad old days -- Iran 1952, Guatemala 1954 -- the United States could pick a horse and ride him into the presidential palace. Now there are several countries with the will and resources to overthrow governments, and in Syria they are backing different factions. Many in Congress who wanted to get rid of Assad thought it could be done at low cost and risk. While acknowledging public reluctance to get involved in another war in the Muslim world by promising "no boots on the ground," they pretended that weapons could go only to carefully vetted Arab fighters who wouldn't ally with al Qaeda or ever want to attack Israel.  In the chaos of Syria, that was too much to hope for, or achieve, given the many contending players.

can, kicked, down road

The Ryan-Murray [or should it be Murray-Ryan?] budget deal is better than the most likely alternative [government shutdown, fiscal uncertainty, vicious political gridlock], but mainly delays until some point in the future any big decisions on government spending.  To paraphrase Churchill's comment about his opposition Labor Party leader,it's a modest agreement with much to be modest about.

Stan Collender has a good analysis of the losers in this agreement. As he indicates, this deal avoids additional sequesters for the next two years, but tacks on the threat in 2022 and 2023. [Lots of luck for that.] It also makes less likely major tax reform, which probably has to piggyback on a grand bargain doing something about entitlement programs.

I would point out an important toe in the door in the package -- a very minor adjustment to military retired pay for members under age 62, one percent below inflation. Until now military retirees have received generous increases and not forced to share in pay freezes and other restrictions on civilian pay. This is a small step in the direction of fairness and equity.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

flawed analysis

Francis Fukuyama has a long essay pointing to what he calls the decay of American political institutions. I think his analysis is deeply flawed.  Here's the summary of his argument:
If we look more closely at American history as compared to that of other liberal democracies, we notice three key structural characteristics of American political culture that, however they developed and however effective they have been in the past, have become problematic in the present. 

The first is that, relative to other liberal democracies, the judiciary and the legislature (including the roles played by the two major political parties) continue to play outsized roles in American government at the expense of Executive Branch bureaucracies. Americans’ traditional distrust of government thus leads to judicial solutions for administrative problems. Over time this has become a very expensive and inefficient way to manage administrative requirements.

The second is that the accretion of interest group and lobbying influences has distorted democratic processes and eroded the ability of the government to operate effectively. What biologists label kin selection and reciprocal altruism (the favoring of family and friends with whom one has exchanged favors) are the two natural modes of human sociability. It is to these types of relationships that people revert when modern, impersonal government breaks down.

The third is that under conditions of ideological polarization in a federal governance structure, the American system of checks and balances, originally designed to prevent the emergence of too strong an executive authority, has become a vetocracy. The decision system has become too porous—too democratic—for its own good, giving too many actors the means to stifle adjustments in public policy. We need stronger mechanisms to force collective decisions but, because of the judicialization of government and the outsized role of interest groups, we are unlikely to acquire such mechanisms short of a systemic crisis. In that sense these three structural characteristics have become intertwined.
I agree that we are using the courts too much to resolve political issues, but I don't think the executive branch has such wisdom and virtue that the other two branches need to defer to it, nor that it needs further strengthening.

I disagree that interest groups and their lobbyists have undermined American democracy. There are potentially corrupting influences that have to be carefully monitored, but most groups have a clear First Amendment right to promote their favored policies.  There are so many groups, however, that they cancel each other out much of the time, leading to what Fukuyama calls "vetocracy."  I wish we had less gridlock, but I don't know how to get there when the Supreme Court outlaws effective limits on campaign contributions.

I also disagree that these problems would be resolved by shifting to a parliamentary system, which Fukuyama seems to endorse.
Many of these problems could be solved if the United States moved to a more unified parliamentary system of government, but so radical a change in the country’s institutional structure is barely conceivable.
We could make major progress against gridlock and hyperpartisanship if the voters started punishing the extremists and rewarded the lawmakers who want to follow the"regular order" and legislate more than they campaign.

smart lawmaking

In order to maintain a record of passing a defense authorization bill for a 52d straight year, members of the Senate and House armed services committees have agreed on a compromise measure they hope will pass without amendments. The 1,105-page bill has many interesting provisions on issues I follow:

Sect. 932: requires a report on Cyber Command, establishes a post on OSD Policy called Principal Advisor on Military Cyber Force Matters and requires him/her to establish an inter-agency "Cross Functional Team."

Sect. 933: requires a comprehensive "Mission Analysis" for ccyber operations forces.

Sect. 940: requires President to establish "an interagency process" to provide an integrated policy to control proliferation of cyber weapons.

Sect. 941: requires President to establish an interagency process to develop an integrated policy to deter adversaries in cyberspace.

Sect. 1041: Requires prompt notification to defense committees of "sensitive military operations," defined as "lethal or capture operation[s] conducted by the armed forces outside the United States and outside a theater of major hostilities.

Sect. 1042: requires quarterly briefings to defense committees of counterterrorism operations.

Sect. 1043: requires report on porcess for determining targets of lethal or capture operations.

Sect. 1086: requires major "review and assessment" by SecDef of special operations forces and SOCOM. [Note: Sect. 1244 prohibits establishment of Regional Special Operations Forces Coordination Centers.]

Sect. 1087: requires report from defense, transportation and FAA on plans for collaborating on and coordinating useof Unmanned Aerial Systems.

To me, these are good examples of good oversight and lawmaking,the kind of "regular order" that Congress should be doing more often.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

turning inward

The American public is getting tired of foreign engagement. The latest quadrennial survey of opinion for the Council on Foreign Relations paints a gloomy picture.

For example
After the recent near-miss with U.S. military action against Syria, the NATO mission in Libya and lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, about half of Americans (51%) say the United States does too much in helping solve world problems, while just 17% say it does too little and 28% think it does the right amount. When those who say the U.S. does “too much” internationally are asked to describe in their own words why they feel this way, nearly half (47%) say problems at home, including the economy, should get more attention.
There are more interesting findings. but most reflect a kind of pessimism of events abroad and U.S. ability to affect change, and a preoccupation with domestic, especially economic, concerns.

These views make it a hard sell for any leaders who want to promote global engagement.

Monday, December 2, 2013

how much micromanagement is too much?

Obama can't win with the media, at least not this year. When he stays arm's length from an issue, such the budget talks, he's blamed for aloofness. When he gets directly and personally involved in a matter, like fixing the government's healthcare website, he's accused of micromanaging. Whatever the right balance is, the President doesn't seem to have it right now.

I've long believed, drawing on Richard Neustadt's analysis of presidential power, that presidents need to pay attention to some details of governance or else the subordinates would act independently. I also liked the line my former Senate boss, Lloyd Bentsen, used frequently: "Expect what you inspect."

All the management books in the world can't help a decision maker to find the right balance. Let's hope experience does.

reasoning by analogy

Not being a lawyer, I hadn't realized how challenging it is for lawyers to apply laws and cases from years ago to new situations, especially ones created by new technologies.  Politico has a nice piece explaining some of the issues involved.

For example:
Lower courts have been split on the authority of police to search your technology. Currently, court rulings have required warrants to search a cellphone in six states, while they are not required in 20 other states, according to a map put together by Forbes and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
One of the reasons the courts are divided, experts say, is that an important case on the subject was decided in 1973 and involved drugs found in a pack of cigarettes.
Reasoning by analogy can get you part way, but not all the way. Even action by Congress, if possible, would only deal with today's technology, not what might exist in just a few months.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

old words, newly rediscovered

There on the front page of the New York Times today was a word I'd never seen before: murmuration. And a picture that made perfect sense: a large group of starlings in flight. That's the kind of sound they must make.

There are all sorts of collective nouns that sound out of place but have a long history:
-an unkindness of ravens
- a wake of buzzards
- a murder of crows
- a scold of jays
- a pride of lions

Growing up in the city, I learned only a few of the specialized terms and used herd or flock for most of the rest. But it's good to keep the old words alive, so take a look at the list.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

the post-filibuster Senate

The Democratic majority leader of the Senate chose the nuclear option to end filibusters on nominations, just as the Republican majority leader almost did a decade ago. Too bad. It now seems as if, rather than causing a more fractious Senate, this action confirms the lack of comity and trust that has developed in recent years.

Democrats apparently concluded that the Republicans couldn't be trusted to keep the present rules whenever they become the majority, so the Democrats made the change now to reap the benefits in the meantime.

How will the Senate change? Sarah Binder has some good insights. I fear the Senate will continue to be more like the House, with deeper partisan divisions and less willingness to reach across the aisle. I regret this change, but I also regret the dysfunctions that led to it.

Politico exposed

I confess to guilty pleasures about Politico, the newspaper-website that covers the political game in Washington with gusto, and financial success. I appreciate that it's still mostly free, though I worry about the specialized PoliticoPro stories that cost $1,000 or more a year for subscribers.

But the tone of articles is often like a rant, and its eagerness for immediacy results in mostly one-sided stories. It often seems a dumping ground for unfiltered press releases by political campaigns and congressional offices. There's no effort to distinguish "important" from "latest" stories.

Now we have a media blogger at the Washington Post exposing the tactic of one of Politico's most-read column, Mike Allen's Playbook, of giving lots of friendly and free publicity to those who advertise there. Not a pretty site.

when strategy was grand

I wanted to note the passing of a man who was a major, though largely unrecognized, architect of U.S.. grand strategy early in the cold war, Robert R. Bowie. He also played an important role in my life: a key source for my senior thesis and later for my doctoral dissertation; a mentor who let me help run his graduate seminar; and a friendly advisor to an academic who also wanted to work in Washington.

Bowie (rhymes with Louie, as the Times obituary helpfully mentions) was the head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff under John Foster Dulles. He played a major role, and later wrote about it, in the Eisenhower administration's lengthy sessions that led to its new grand strategy -- reducing military spending by relying more on nuclear deterrence while increasing the other tools of foreign policy, challenging the Soviet Union but also offering cooperation.  I don't mean to defend all of the Eisenhower-Dulles foreign policy. (A new dual biography of the Dulles brothers is highly critical in many ways I share.) But I do believe that Eisenhower's policy review was an extraordinary example of a wise process to make grand strategy that has all too rarely be tried in later years.

Bowie had a full life. He died at 104.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

political turmoil watch list

The Economist has a special issue -- "The World in 2014" -- that includes an article and chart on areas that are "ripe for rebellion."  Look over the list of places at "very high risk" for social unrest in the coming year:
Argentina, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Bosnia, Egypt, Greece, Guinea, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Yemen, Zimbabwe.

Most of these places are already in the news, already in turmoil. But now we have some additional ones that should keep our intelligence community and national security officials busy. Imagine if you were in charge of tasking the intelligence community on these areas. Are there any you wouldn't want to follow closely? And what about the 46 countries deemed only "high risk"? "To govern is to choose," John F. Kennedy once said. Setting priorities on what to worry about and plan for is very difficult, as lists like this make clear.

nuclear option against Senate filibusters

Senate Democrats are ramping up discussion of a possible change in Senate rules because of frustration over several recent nominations, where Republicans have blocked votes by threatening filibusters. This may be the typical posturing about the so-called nuclear option to change the rules by majority vote parliamentary rulings which several times in recent years had led to informal agreements to back away from the brink.

I still think it's good if the filibuster can be safe, legal, and rare -- and that changes should be made in the norms of the Senate, not the rules. I still worry about the legislative process if the filibuster tool is denied to a substantial minority that wants to fight a highly objectionable nominee, such as to the Supreme Court. I still wish that less drastic measures could be adopted that put more of the burden on filibusterers than on those who favor getting on with business.

But I sense that many more Democrats have become so frustrated, and distrustful of Republicans, that they would expect a GOP-controlled Senate to change the rules anyway, so they might as well make the move now and reap, at least for a while, the benefits.  The rest of the country is a prisoner of such short-range thinking, so I guess I shouldn't expect Senators to be any better. Too bad.

sex and corruption in the Senate

Lyndon Johnson's Senate had many epic legislative struggles and passed many landmark bills. There was a seamy side to that body, however, now exposed by the release of an interview by the Senate historian with Bobby Baker, LBJ's legislative fixer. Read it and weep...

From my observations and discussions, I'm convinced that Senators today are much more honorable and ethical, if only because it's harder to hide bad behavior.

Monday, November 11, 2013

the myth of cyber war

I used to fear that America faced a "digital Pearl Harbor." I didn't think that senior American defense officials were exaggerating the threat. Now I do.

The most comprehensive set of arguments on this comes in an article by Professor Eric Gartzke of UC San Diego. It's temporarily available, free of the normal paywall, from International Security. Like King's College London Professor Thomas Rid,  Gartzke argues that cyber operations are unlikely to be violent by themselves and thus not likely to be widely accepted as an act of war. Cyber effects are temporary and less likely to be decisive in a conflict, he argues.  Gartzke also believes that cyber attacks are most likely to be used, if at all,  in conjunction with kinetic military attacks. Thus they are most likely to be a tool of the militarily strong, not the weak.

What this means for the United States is that we need resilience in the case of cyber attacks, and should be doing everything possible to secure our critical infrastructure. In fact, however, our military seems to be
pouring resources into offensive cyber operations and neglecting the more important challenge of cyber defenses. That was certainly the take David Sanger took the other day when reporting the release of a new congressionally mandated review of intelligence community R&D efforts. Here's a link to the commission's unclassified report.

The U.S. military has a long history of preferring offense to defense, of wanting to match a presumed enemy's offensive capabilities before it concentrates on defenses against them. That's a part of military culture that's helpful in some cases, but quite risky in others, including cyber operations.

I see that Henry Farrell of  The Monkey Cage has a similar discussion of Gartzke's paper.

armistice day

On this day, 95 years ago, the combatants in the Great War concluded an armistice, ending the bloodiest and most widespread conflict known to historians. There was a peace treaty, signed at Versailles in 1919, but the United States failed to ratify it and its provisions -- predictably -- sowed the seeds of another global war two decades later.

America still celebrated the holiday. I remember marching in parades despite the chilly November weather. My grandfather had been drafted, but never sent to Europe before the armistice,so he had no war stories to tell.  With fewer and fewer doughboys surviving, Congress renamed the holiday Veterans Day. Lawmakers even acquiesced to pressure from veterans groups and returned the title to November 11 after several years as another one of those Monday holidays that supposedly saved energy and certainly gave everybody a three-day weekend. [Decoration Day, the May 30 holiday started so that the graves of Union veterans would be given flowers, was renamed Memorial Day and forever placed as the last Monday in May.]

As I recounted a few months ago, I have been reading many of the new books on World War I and have been revising my own thinking and judgments about it. Just finished Margaret MacMillan's The War that Ended Peace, a fine book and worthy successor to Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower. MacMillan spreads the blame around for starting the war, more widely than I now would.

From various authors, there are still important lessons for us today: irrational feelings about national reputation can lead to foolish actions; the fact that major wars are economic disasters isn't strong enough to prevent foolhardy politicians from starting them; expectations of quick victories are almost always wrong, and no war should be started with that as a key assumption. I also believe that Clemenceau was right: war is too important to be left to generals -- and certainly too important for civilians to acquiesce in rigid war plans that can't be turned off or ratcheted down for the sake of diplomacy.

As we commemorate the centennial of this tragic conflict, I hope we keep those lessons front and center.

JFK and me

    Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
          But to be young was very heaven!
Those were Wordsworth's lines about the start of the French Revolution, but they expressed my own feelings about the Kennedy years at the time. Youthful enthusiasm, romantic idealism.

I grew up in a solidly Republican family, but lost confidence in President Eisenhower after his dismissive reaction to the Soviet Sputnik. I felt that the United States was falling behind militarily, and in danger. Of course, I was a teenager and given to strong emotions.

I was excited about the Kennedy candidacy, both because of his policies and vitality, but also because I thought it would be good to elect a Catholic as a sign of America's political openness. I was starting Harvard at the time and considered him "one of us." [I had felt the same way about Eisenhower, since he vacationed in Denver and my grandmother had gone to high school with Mamie. My politics had a lot of localism.]

I saw Kennedy only twice: at the final campaign event at Faneuil Hall and shortly before his inauguration, when he came to Harvard for a Board of Overseers meeting. But I followed events daily in the New York Times and enjoyed watching his news conferences when I could get access a television. I took his eloquent and powerful inaugural address as my marching orders: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."  I was committed from that day forward to public service.

I knew or came to know many of the people who worked in the administration, including McGeorge Bundy, my freshman adviser, who was national security adviser and thus a model for my youthful ambitions. Bundy met with some of us the week after the Bay of Pigs, looking shaken and much less self-confident than before. He asked for our advice; I don't remember any of our comments. I later interviewed Dean Rusk, Averell Harriman, several of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other officials for my dissertation on U.S. policy toward Laos. Perhaps those conversations made me more empathetic with the administration and the problems they faced and less critical of what-might-have-beens.

The Cuban missile crisis was an anxious moment for many of us. I genuinely feared a nuclear war and felt exhilarated when the agreement with Khrushchev was announced. Only much later did I -- and the rest of us -- learn that it was a good compromise rather than a Soviet capitulation. Now, on reflection, I see Kennedy's conduct during that crisis as extraordinarily wise and brave, resisting the military pressure which likely would have resulted in a nuclear exchange.

Kennedy's domestic policies were a disappointment:  he temporized too much on civil rights. On other foreign policy matters he had better rhetoric [an "Alliance for Progress"] than actual performance.

So I am not surprised that the consensus of history text authors is less glowing and more subdued about Kennedy now. My own slide to disenchantment came only a few months after the assassination, when I was part of a student group meeting with Hugh Sidey, Time's White House correspondent. Sidey spoke quite openly about Kennedy's womanizing --a fact known to the press but never reported to the public during his presidency. How could he?

A half century later, I agree that Kennedy was only a good president, not a great one. But he did handle the Cuban missile crisis masterfully and paved the way for important agreements with the Soviet Union that reduced the danger of war.  And he gave those of us who saw the promise of the New Frontier a dream to keep in our hearts.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

NSA childishness

The National Security Agency has been in operation for just over half a century, but it appears to be behaving no better than a teenager. As David Ignatius argues in a persuasive column today,
The NSA documents that have surfaced reveal an exuberant, almost adolescent quality among the tech wizards who blew through privacy barriers. They gave their top-secret projects colorful code names such as Boundless Informant or Egotistical Giraffe. They created compartments with mottoes that sound like playground boasts: “Nothing but net” and “The mission never sleeps.” Hannah Arendt wrote famously of the “banality of evil.” This group makes one realize that childishness can be a characteristic, too. Like many hackers, NSA operatives seem to have done things sometimes for the thrill of it, just because they could.
Much of the NSA collection could potentially be valuable, but the sheer magnitude of its efforts increased the likelihood of disclosures and blowback, which we are now experiencing. Another must-read on this subject is Scott Shane's lengthy piece in the New York Times, with the headline, "No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming NSA."

I agree with Ignatius that Edward Snowden is no hero. "The way he chose to reveal programs that were legally authorized (albeit in some cases unwisely) has created severe problems for the United States and will cost tens of billions of dollars for U.S. companies that cooperated with court orders and NSA requests."

The long-run consequences are likely to be even worse, as Ingatius suggests: "that nations will try to ring-fence their data within national borders. That anti-globalization move won’t stop the spies, but it will slow commerce and innovation and make digital life harder for everyone."

Saturday, November 2, 2013

JFK and Camelot

It's nearly a half century since President Kennedy was assassinated.  Only about 4 Americans in every ten was even alive in 1963, so most people have memories shaped by words and images from long ago. One of the most durable metaphors was promoted by Jackie Kennedy just days after her husband's death. She wanted JFK to be remembered as a hero, a "man of magic." In her first interview with a journalist after November 22, she told Life magazine writer Theodore White that she and JFK often listened to a recording of Lerner and Loewe's Broadway musical "Camelot," based on the legend of King Arthur, before going to bed. 

I've been trying to determine whether the Kennedys ever saw the stage production, which opened in December, 1960, just after his election, and closed in January 1963. There were no references to their attendance in the New York Times, and the JFK library database doesn't show a theater visit. But I don't doubt that the music was liked and heard in the White House.

The metaphor caught on -- despite no public discussion of JFK as a modern Arthur during his presidency -- because of some wonderful phrases in the title song.

Lerner wrote of a "fleeting wisp of glory:"
Ask ev'ry person if he's heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot.
And he ended the show asking us to remember that "one brief shining moment:"
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.
Thinking back today, the Kennedy presidency looks much less glamorous and successful than it seemed at the time, and even the impressions then were shaped by a worshipful and unchallenged media. But there was a palpable sense of loss, of a dashing leader struck down before his time, of opportunities missed and now unattainable. I was a naive young person at the time, caught up in the excitement of the Kennedy presidency, well attuned to Broadway musicals and the emotions they could stir, and thus quite willing to believe that we had had a glimpse of "Camelot."

Friday, November 1, 2013

overworked and underpaid?

Not Congress. The House Republican leadership has just released their planned calendar for 2014. Of the 300 or so days notionally available for legislative business [excluding Sundays and various holidays], the House plans to meet on 113 days.

That means close to 200 days when they can campaign and pretend to "listen" to their constituents.

Isn't that more important than passing appropriations bills, or budget resolutions, or laws to fix the problems even conservatives have identified?

the good old days in Congress

One of the most poignant speakers at the memorial service for former Speaker of the House Tom Foley was the Republican leader at that time, Bob Michel of Illinois. He noted that he and Foley served when politics was different in the House.

Michel then turned to another lost element of the Washington political scene: how politicians treat one another. When Foley and he could not find common ground on a subject, “we could at least use common courtesy in the way we conducted our politics. That’s not just good manners, it’s good politics,” Michel said.

When recently have you heard members of Congress show concern about how their institutions are viewed by the public and say, as Michel did Tuesday, “The way we argue can be as important in the long run as the decisions we reach.”

Today’s legislators are in perpetual campaigns, but he and Foley, Michel said, “knew there would always be a distinction and separation between campaigning for office and serving in office.”

Waler Pincus has the full story.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Politico parody

I'm deeply ambivalent about Politico, the newspaper cum website filled with political news and gossip. It lets us find out what all the various factions are saying and doing to win their political battles.  But much of its coverage is just reporting the one-sided releases of its sources. Just about every story is unbalanced, and the paper as a whole is a discordant hodgepodge. It also has the fake urgency of cable news, treating each story as breathtakingly significant. I used to read the comics as a kid; now I'd be embarrassed to do that. Similarly, I'm increasingly embarrassed to admit to reading Politico, but so far I can't stop.

I was pleased to see a parody of the paper by the New Republic, and I wanted to share it. Enjoy.

watchdog bites

Until now, the most vigorous defenders of the intelligence community have been the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees. The latest leaks about interception of friendly  foreign leaders' communications, however, have turned one of them them into a critic. Senator Diane Feinstein of California is promising a thorough review of the NSA.

It sounds as if her committee was not made fully aware of the "head of state collection" program -- just as  White House officials are saying, anonymously of course, that President Obama didn't know either until this summer. I'm not surprised that the President wasn't specifically told about the intercepts; senior leaders need assessed intelligence, not sources and methods details. But it's obvious now that the blowback from disclosures is damaging to U.S. interests that the President should have been told and asked for permission to continue what apparently started in 2002.

As President Eisenhower learned when he first tried to deny knowing about the U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, plausible deniability doesn't really help a president or the country when word of a secret activity gets out. Better to have a check and balance system of presidential decision and congressional notification.

That was my answer in 1974 when I helped write the Hughes-Ryan amendment that set up that system for CIA covert actions, and it's still a good recommendation for potentially embarrassing collection programs, as well as for lethal drone and offensive cyber operations.

Update: Foreign Policy's The Cable has an even fuller description of the significance of the Feinstein statement.

Monday, October 28, 2013

need fewer warriors, more managers

The Center for New American Security has a provocative new report on how to improve the senior leadership of the U.S. armed forces. Building Better Generals has some very persuasive analysis and worthwhile recommendations. The report recognizes that future conflicts are likely to be much different from what we have experienced since 2001, and that resources will be constrained for the foreseeable future.

"Problems previously solved with infusions of more resources will now demand innovative thinking and creative management by senior uniformed leaders."
The report recommends various improvements in existing Professional Military Education [PME] programs, plus new ones for officers given one or two star rank. It also calls for longer tours in senior jobs, rather than the less than two years for even four-star assignments. All this is reasonable.

Where the authors are likely to run into problems, however, is where they recommend splitting senior assignments into either "operational" or "enterprise-management." Operational jobs call for war-fighters who also understand political-military relations and linking operations to grand strategy. The so-called enterprise jobs are managerial, like those of senior corporate executive.

That distinction is reasonable; different skills are required for combatant commanders and those managing personnel systems, training, logistics, and even intelligence collection. But the report notes that, in the U.S. Army,
"approximately 65 percent of one-star billets, 80 percent of two-star billets, 82 percent of three-star billets and 92 percent of four-star billets are nonoperational enterprise-management
On the other hand, army colonels who become generals come overwhelmingly from the operational career fields: 
"In the Army alone, approximately 50 percent of one-star, 70 percent of two-star, 80 percent of three-star and 85 percent of four-star generals have been promoted from the operational
career fields."
It's not enough to say, give those operators the management training they need. This requires a cultural change in the services to reward more men and women who are not proven "warriors." And they need to persuade skilled operators that they won't be second class officers if they opt for the enterprise-management track.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Congress at its all-too-typical

I wasn't personally affected by the government shutdown because Congress failed to pass any appropriations bills for the new fiscal year that began October 1. But I was dismayed at the many politicians who tried to shift blame away from themselves -- for not doing their key Constitutional duty -- and onto government workers who -- suffered an immediate pay cut, tried to protect our parks and national monuments from harm by blocking access, were forbidden to use their emails even to help people seeking government permits to conduct their businesses, and were called "non-essential." We need to rename the categories to something like "Required for health and safety" and "Unfunded by Congress."

The settlement settled little, just kicked the can down the road to late January. But the nasty poll numbers may have reduced Republican willingness to threaten default again. Who knows? Two and a half months is a long time in politics.

spooked by Libya

"U.S. inattention to Libya breeds chaos," reads the headline over David Ignatius' latest column. He says that President Obama wants to increase U.S. support to the fledgling government including training several thousand Libyan troops, but that little has happened. Much of the blame he puts on "Congressional Republicans" for what he calls a "Libya phobia." He says top GOP lawmakers strongly opposed letting Libyans come to the U.S. for education and training.

My sense is that the whole government mostly would like Libya to go away. The State Department doesn't want another security problem like what led to the killing of the U.S. ambassador. Other agencies want to stay out until security is guaranteed. And congressional Republicans are following a version of the Giuliani method, where every sentence has a noun, a verb, and Benghazi.

It's a shame we haven't learned to manage and cope with threats, and not be paralyzed by them.

whatever happened to the interagency process?

There's a strange article in the New York Times today about U.S. policy toward the Middle East that raises more questions than it answers. Susan Rice, the national security adviser since July 1, gave an interview discussing the policy review she recently conducted.

Its purpose was to find of way of containing Middle East policy issues so that they would not overwhelm other foreign policy issues. Its first fruits were announced by the President at the United Nations, where Obama said he would work on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, try to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace, and mitigate the problems in Syria. The Times says everything else in the region, including Egypt, would take a "back seat."

All that sounds reasonable. What troubles me, however, is the reporting that this new overarching policy was developed wholly within the White House, excluding participants from the State Department or Pentagon. Not even the Secretaries of State or Defense. They were "briefed" by Ms. Rice.

If the meetings really were only about messaging and crafting the UN speech, I could understand the exclusions. But if it was, or was meant to be, a substantive policy review, there should have been broader participation.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

what's the matter with the Republicans?

Gradually the news media have accepted the analysis of Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein that the Republican party -- at least its representatives in Washington -- has become a radical outlier. Gridlock is not the failure of two otherwise reasonable groups to compromise their differences but rather the inability of one side even to consider compromise. Other analysts point to the takeover of the GOP by a minority of a minority, the radical Tea Party types, and the collapse of traditional  institutional leadership.

Two new assessments of the GOP provide further insights into what has happened. Conservative writer David Frum lists "Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Political Parties." His list includes apocalyptic visions and politics as war, two traits that reinforce each other in intransigent radicalism. Meanwhile, Democratic strategists James Carville and Stanley Greenberg offer their own analysis, based on focus groups with GOP voters. They see Republicans as fearful of Obama and the future, much like Frum's apocalyptic visions.

If that's where Republican voters are coming from, no wonder their representatives are fight to the death extremists. Too bad for the country.

Monday, October 7, 2013

prayer time

The New York Times has an article about the Senate chaplain today. It notes that weekly prayer groups and Bible study sessions have been suspended during the lapse in appropriations which has led to the government shutdown.

The article brings to mind the story of the Senate chaplain's encounter with an angry citizen years ago, around 1950. "How can you pray for those jerks?" he was asked. His reply: "That's not what I do. What I do, as I stand at the front of the chamber and look out at the members, is pray for the country."

Sunday, October 6, 2013

gamesmanship vs. statesmanship

To mix metaphors, as befits our broken political system today, we are watching a slow motion train wreck that will propel us over the fiscal cliff. Everybody can see the disaster in the making, and almost everybody is spending more time trying to assure they won't be blamed than working for a solution.

The government needs to be funded and the debt limit raised to avoid default. A continuing resolution is the second stupidest way to allocate funds for government; the worst is the across the board sequester. But at least the CR is an easily understood tool, and it makes a deal easier because it's just about money, not other policy disputes.  The Republicans have failed repeatedly to block the new health care law, so they need to give way; the government shutdown is far worse for the country than the new law. Let the House vote on a clean CR!

Do intransigents deserve to have their faces saved? No, but it makes political sense for the Democrats  to offer something, not about health but about spending. The CR already has spending cuts to  this year's sequester level, so I suppose the spending deals have to be linked to the debt limit.

Is the President right to refuse negotiations on the shutdown and debt limit? Sure. He has enough experience to know that the current House GOP leadership can't deliver on its own deals. Are the Republicans hypocritical to call for negotiations after refusing to have them on the budget resolution for several months? Sure, but hypocrisy is as common in politics as mosquitoes in summer, and it's hard to get rid of both.

It's time for the insiders who care about the government and the economy to craft a package. The provisions don't have to be "negotiated," just put forward and supported by a critical mass of lawmakers. I don't have a package in mind, but I would expect it to recycle provisions like a super committee, or a time certain for an up-or-down vote on a tax reform deal, and maybe even some tweaks to Obamacare. Time is short.

touch wood

I'm a little bit superstitious. That's why I so readily believed the story I heard years ago about Albert Einstein.

The story goes that a reporter was ushered into Einstein's study in Princeton and noticed a good luck horseshoe over the door. "How could you, Professor Einstein, a supremely rational man, believe in such a superstition?" the reporter asked. The great man replied, "I'm told that it works whether you believe in it or not."

I was reminded of that anecdote when I read an article in today's New York Times by some academic researchers who say that actions like knocking on wood can have beneficial psychological effects.

Knocking on wood may not be magical, but superstition proved helpful in understanding why the ritual was effective. Across cultures, superstitions intended to reverse bad luck, like throwing salt or spitting, often share a common ingredient. In one way or another, they involve an avoidant action, one that exerts force away from oneself, as if pushing something away.
I believe.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

JFK and the military

I see that Robert Dallek has a new book coming out about the Kennedy administration and the Atlantic site is running a chapter on JFK's relationships with the military. I'm not sure I agree with all of Dallek's comments, since it's been a long time since I looked at the documents and transcripts myself,  but I agree that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were way of of line during the Cuban missile crisis -- insubordinate, disrespectful, and raising domestic political arguments.

By contrast, I think that General Dempsey has done an appropriate job with regard to Syria -- making clear when asked by Congress of the downsides of military options in Syria but not saying things that would constrain the President's options.Today's military is much more respectful of civilian control than some of their predecessors.

"we're not incompetent"

No, that isn't an actual quote from the briefing an unnamed official gave the media yesterday, but it was the implicit message. The official went to great lengths to counter the conventional wisdom that Secretary Kerry misspoke by mentioning the possibility of a deal where Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons and that the President in desperation seized on the Russian offer to work on such a plan.  No, the official argued, this idea has been bouncing around for over a year, Obama and Putin even discussed it recently in St. Petersburg. The official even detailed the number of minutes various phone calls lasted.

It might even be true, but the lemonade was surely made from lemons.  The most charitable interpretation that can be put on recent events is that the administration, fearing defeat on Capitol Hill, seized a lifeline thrown by the Russians. It may pull them to a safe harbor, but it's not clear what happens later. A second possibility is that the administration is truly muddled, jumping from one idea to another. The least credible interpretation is that the administration saw this as part of a calculated strategy to get UN action paving the way for an eventual airstrike when diplomacy fails and expecting Congress either to endorse force then or at least not complain.

The President's speech lacked a punch line. There was no call for action, no roadmap for how this diplomatic effort might lead to that better world when no one dares to use chemical weapons. "Wait and see," and "don't vote now" leave Congress and the rest of us puzzled rather than reassured. The most persuasive analysis comes from Dana Millbank, who says, "But it feels as if the ship of state is bobbing like a cork in international waters."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

assessment: muddle; prediction: muddle

Diplomats like the idea of backing their diplomacy with the threat of force. It's quite unusual, however, to have force yanked back by diplomacy.

What we seems to have now in regard to Syria is a time-out from air strikes and congressional votes while the French try to get the UN Security Council to mandate the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. That would be a welcome development, but one hard to nail down and achieve even in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, what happens?

The Obama administration sure looks as if it stumbled into this situation rather than marching there with a diplomatic initiative backed by the threat of force.

But as David Sanger of the New York Times says, it has many advantages:
But at this point, Mr. Obama is looking for a way to avoid defeat in Congress, Mr. Kerry is looking for a way to drive Mr. Assad and the rebels to the table, and the Russians are looking for a way to keep their Syrian client in power. And so the pressure seems likely to build to find a way for Mr. Assad to make a gesture that could avoid a strike, or at least an immediate one.
I'm not sure I agree with all of those points, but I do foresee days if not weeks of more muddle -- diplomatically at the UN and with Moscow and Damascus, and on Capitol Hill.  Congress will surely split into factions rather than coalescing behind a consensus policy on Syria, which I what I'd prefer.

Monday, September 9, 2013

use it or lose it

That's the theme of my op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times, calling on Congress to pass some kind of legislation on Syria or risk losing its standing to complain about war powers.

I also offer some historical examples that many commentators seem to have forgotten or ignored.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

presidential power to persuade

Dan Balz, veteran political reporter for the Washington Post, has a column indicating how hard it will be for President Obama to rally public opinion in support of his Syria policy. He also quotes presidential scholar George Edwards decrying the "personalization of politics" and "an exaggerated concept" of the power of the bully pulpit.

I agree with those points, and with these additional ones quoting Edwards:
“The most effective presidents do not create opportunities by reshaping the political landscape. Instead, they exploit opportunities already present in their environments to facilitate significant changes in public policy. . . . Effective facilitators are skilled leaders who must recognize the opportunities that exist in their environments, choose which opportunities to pursue, when and in what order, and exploit them with skill, energy, perseverance, and will.”

When I talked to Edwards about this on Friday in the context of Obama’s coming speech, he said, “There’s a broad, fundamental point, which is that presidents rarely move public opinion.” He also noted that the default position among the public is to do nothing. “The default position doesn’t advantage the president,” he said.
The trouble with a lot of faulty analysis is a belief in the bully pulpit and a misunderstanding of Richard Neustadt's famous point the presidential power was ultimately only the power to persuade. Presidential speeches can focus public attention -- 'framing' issues -- but rarely change public opinion.

Neustadt's point was first of all to contrast real presidential power with formal legal authority. His actual argument was that presidential power was only the power to persuade others that it was in their interest to do what the president wanted. That, he said, was the product of legal authority, public opinion, and the president's "professional reputation," meaning his skills at what Edwards called exploiting opportunities. Persuasion wasn't an intellectual result, but a power calculation that an official had more to gain by agreeing with than by opposing the president.

In this case, President Obama is in trouble, in Neustadtian terms, because of his falling overall level of public approval and because of congressional views that he is indecisive, uncertain, not tough, and not very skilled at using presidential tools.

While the public relations blitz is on for the Syria policy, it remains to be seen whether it can actually "persuade" enough members of Congress.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Woodrow Wilson reconsidered

As readers here know, I've been changing my mind a lot lately about some historical questions. A review article by Jill Lepore in the latest New Yorker [sorry, gated] reminds me why my views on Woodrow Wilson have become increasingly negative in recent years.

When I first started reading history, I saw him as a tragic figure, cut down by a stroke while trying to win the fight for the League of Nations. As a budding internationalist, I saw American isolationism after World War I as a dangerous error and I thought the UN was the precursor of a more peaceful world. The fact that he was the only President with a PhD earned him extra points in my estimation. So what's wrong with youthful idealism?

The more I have studied his presidency, however, the more flaws I see in Wilson. He probably could have won the Versailles Treaty fight if he hadn't been so stubborn. His interventions in Latin America were excessive and for the wrong reasons -- "to teach them to elect good men." The ways his wife hid his illnesses from Congress, the cabinet, and the public were indefensible and contrary to what we now see as the proper constitutional order. And he was an active racist, demanding the re-segregation of the federal government and the District of Columbia.

His record on domestic legislation is much more commendable and durable. [I'm not one of those who laments creation of the Fed and passage of a progressive income tax.]

The New Yorker piece does have one fact that I hadn't known before: in the 1916 election, where his main campaign slogan was "He Kept Us Out of War," his narrow Electoral College victory, 277-254, was probably determined by his winning 10 of the 12 states which had already granted women the right to vote.

the peril of 51-49 decisions

Few public policy choices are easy, with almost all the arguments on only one side of the ledger. Most issues are nested in complex contexts, with conflicting priorities and multiple goals at stake. Even if the decision is narrowly balanced, a 51-49 choice, it has to be defended 100%. That's the problem the administration has now with Syria -- and the problem faced by the members of Congress who will have to vote yea or nay.

There are strong arguments for supporting punitive strikes on Syria and strong arguments against. Now that the President has made his decision, his team is pulling out all the stops to win the fight in Congress -- secret briefings, a nationally televised speech, a lobbying alliance with AIPAC, and more to come. I wouldn't be surprised if someone launches a "are you with President Obama or President Putin?" campaign.

The opposition is fragmented -- Democrats who are anti-war; Republicans who are viscerally anti-Obama, no matter the issue; politicians who want to follow local public opinion, which so far has been pretty negative on air strikes. They know what they don't want but have no common vision of an alternative policy.

So be prepared for strident, black-or-white arguments in the days ahead. Despite the news articles giving overwhelmingly negative vote counts, my guess is that the Senate will approve the bipartisan measure from the Foreign Relations Committee and that that will give the administration momentum in the House that will lead to a very close vote, too close to call right now.

PS: I've been wrong on these calls before but try to forget when.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What happened to lethal aid to the Syrian opposition?

I don't know. The situation is confusing, not least because details about the assistance are supposed to be classified. The Wall Street Journal says that the aid, announced last spring, still hasn't been delivered. Another Journal report says that the Administration is considering shifting the job to the Pentagon.

Congress may be partly to blame, because the intelligence committees reportedly blocked delivery because it wasn't convinced that the equipment wouldn't fall into jihadist hands. Those committees have veto or at least delaying power over intelligence activities.

There are downsides to shifting to overt Pentagon management of the aid program. The CIA can use secret sources and channels, while the Defense Department is more open about its training activities. DOD is also much more bureaucratic about what it does, and thus slower and more cautious.

 I hope the proposed change isn't just a way to evade tight oversight by the intelligence committees in favor of the more forgiving oversight of the armed services committees.  At least the foreign policy committees would have a better chance of learning what's happening if DOD ran the program. Those panels are mostly denied access to CIA activities.

What will Congress vote on?

Congress, whose main output is words, is beginning to fight over which words to use on Syria policy. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee may vote as early as today on draft language worked out between the chairman and ranking Republican, Senators Menendez and Corker. Meanwhile, two House Democrats, who both worked on the Foreign Relations Committee decades ago, are circulating language approving military action but trying to limit the scope and duration of its use. No doubt other amendments will be offered in the Senate Committee today and later in the House.

That's good. Congress should act in some definitive way on the president's request, and the Senate language looks reasonable as a way of giving constrained support for military action. The most likely amendments, I would guess, would be measures authorizing support to the Syrian opposition short of U.S. troops.

Each member of Congress is probably calculating, How will it look at the next election if I vote for this, and we wind up in a messy war, or if I vote against it and Assad makes further use of chemical weapons? They remember the many Democrats who voted against the 1991 war against Iraq and later regretted their votes, as well as those who voted for the 2003 war against Iraq [like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton] and later regretted those votes.

It's worth noting, by the way, that because the language specifically invokes the 1973 War Powers Act, the measure is guaranteed expedited floor consideration, with no filibuster allowed in the Senate.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

What should Congress vote on?

President Obama's request for congressional authorization for retaliatory strikes in Syria creates tough choices for members of Congress. Do they want to assert their constitutional role in war powers by taking decisive action, or do they want to play political games? Does a majority want to support action, oppose it, or try to set limits and conditions?

The best model for congressional action is the law they passed in 1983 authorizing participation in the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, the only time Congress specifically authorized force under the War Powers Act. Public Law 98-119 has several features that should be part of any measure on Syria:
- It declared the action is part of the War Powers Act process, thus reasserting that mostly ignored law as a proper basis for action.
- It limited U.S. military participation to a peacekeeping mission as President Reagan had promised -- that the U.S. forces would not engage in combat.
- It provided expedited, no filibuster rules for considering subsequent amendments to the law.

The best test of the Obama policy would be a simple up-or-down vote on a joint resolution authorizing the attack but limiting its purpose and scope.  If that is not enough, if some members want to promote a policy of military aid to the Syrian opposition or a no-fly zone, let them vote on that and abide by the results. If it's too much, let them vote that way and deny the President the support he seeks.

If Congress can't come together and agree on a common policy, they will forfeit their claims to war powers.

But can Congress get its act together?

On Syria, not likely. They sure haven't been able to come together on much else this year.

With few exceptions since 1973, Congress has not really accepted its own responsibilities under the War Powers Act. Lawmakers, especially from the President’s opposition party, have pounded the table demanding a congressional role, but rarely have they actually tried to pass legislation that would support, oppose, or condition the use of force. Unless and until they actually negotiate and pass something, they should shut up about presidential abuses of the war power.

Thus far, the only bill that has even passed a committee is a Senate measure, S. 960,  that calls for assistance and training, including defense articles, to elements of the Syrian opposition that are " vetted" as not being connected to identified terrorist groups and are "committed to rejecting terrorism and extremist ideologies." [Maybe they'll hire the same firm that did the security clearance for Edward Snowden.]

The most popular pro-Syrian aid bill in the House hasn't been approved by any of the three committees it was referred to months ago.

Congress wants to have it both ways: look tough but avoid blame if things go sour. Still, it would be good for the country if lawmakers actually had to decide whether they supported or opposed retaliatory action in response to the evident Syrian use of chemical weapons, or whether they could agree on a policy in law that set some conditions or restrictions on the President.

Congress can say no to war and mean it

It's a shame that the Obama administration hasn't even tried to force Congress to take a stand on Syrian use of chemical weapons. Prior to 1950 and the start of the Korean War, that was the practice in cases of major military operations.

John Adams asked for and got a military build up to prepare for possible war with France in 1798.

Thomas Jefferson sent ships with strictly defensive orders against Barbary pirates while Congress was out of session for several months, but asked for authority and more ships -- and Congress responded not only with formal authority to fight but even voted new taxes to pay for the operations.

Just recently, while researching the war of 1812, I discovered that Congress had actually authorized the seizure of Spanish-held East Florida in 1811 in a secret law not disclosed until many years later. I’d missed it because the war did not take place. [Andrew Jackson took Florida on his own a few years later.] I also learned that, despite that 1811 law, Congress in 1812 defeated a bill sought by President Madison  to occupy and establish a government in East Florida. Madison decided to withdraw troops already deployed for the attack.

I also learned that President Buchanan twice –in 1858 and 1859 -- asked Congress for the authority to send troops into northern Mexico and establish a protectorate there. There was ongoing widespread civil conflict and atrocities against Americans and Mexicans. He never sent the troops because the Senate first defeated such a bill and then failed to act on his second request.

These are worthwhile examples of when Presidents heeded the will of Congress on military actions.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

British vote on Syria

It's time for the Obama administration to listen to their GPS device, which is saying "recalculating." The road to Damascus has suddenly been blocked.

The British parliament tonight voted 285-272 against a fairly mild government proposal that read as follows:
That this House, ... Believes that the United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken, and notes that before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place; and
Notes that this Resolution relates solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives.
Note that the language urges military action but conditions it on UN Security Council approval and a subsequent parliamentary vote. Note that it stops short of calling for regime change,

Despite those provisions, parliament voted no.-

Meanwhile, the French want to wait for the formal UN inspectors' report.

Isn't this reason enough for the administration to stand down? Isn't it time to "recalculate'?

walking the cat back beyond the Syria red lines

Deterrence works fine in theory: if you do X, I will punish you severely -- at a time and place of my choosing with actions you will find unacceptable. The threat must be clear and credible.

In practice, however, there are many difficulties applying that theory. The forbidden action might be hard to verify [such as the origin of many cyber attacks]; or the target state might have a different calculus of how much pain it can bear [why did North Vietnam keep fighting?]; or the warning state might lack the capability or the political will to carry out the threatened action [would a president really risk the nuclear destruction of even one American city by using nuclear weapons to prevent occupation of, say, Estonia or the disputed islands in the South China Sea?]

The Obama Administration thought it could deter any Syria "use or transfer" of chemical weapons by saying that would cross a "red line."  It didn't work. Now what?

The administration seems headed on a path toward some kind of punitive air strike, as one unnamed official told the L.A, Times, "just muscular enough not to get mocked" but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.  If that's their criterion, I bet they end up on the "just enough" to be mocked -- and thus further weaken U.S. credibility for future deterrence warnings, such as to Iran.

Since Presidents don't say "I was wrong," the administration needs another way to walk the cat back beyond those Syrian red lines.

The President could establish additional conditions for punitive action, and then stick to them. Conditions like an endorsing vote by some international organization -- such as NATO at the time of Kosovo in 1999. Conditions like formal approval by Congress.

The United States could also buy some time for diplomacy by offering or threatening to deploy more troops outside Syria for military training and refugee relief.

The strongest argument for action is that U.S. credibility is undermined if we make a threat and don't carry through. But remember that deterrence theory requires threats to be credible -- and a mockable military action now wouldn't bolster credibility in a future faceoff with Iran.

Obama originally said that the crossing of the red line "would change my calculus." A revised calculus would still show that a punitive strike would fail to achieve our announced strategic goals in Syria. So don't do it.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

two sides on Syria from one author

I have to share this: George Packer's imaginary dialog over what to do in Syria. There are strong arguments on both sides. But we are dealing with enormous uncertainties and unforeseen consequences of action and inaction. Sad to say, whatever the President's decision, it will be presented as if there were no doubts, no alternatives. That's the way Presidents announce and defend their policies. But remember that foreign policy isn't brain surgery but more structured improvisation.

legal justification for action in Syria

I'm not a lawyer and I do not believe that legal opinions should always constrain state actions. But I do believe that widely shared international principles governing the behavior of states should be taken into consideration.

I await with interest how the Obama administration explains how its actions in Syria in response to apparent chemical weapons attacks -- whatever they may be -- fit within international law.

I think there are widely shared international principles -- the just war doctrine. When the Security Council was unable to act in Kosovo in 1999. NATO members decided to act. In my view, that constituted the "legitimate authority" required for action since it was a determination by an existing international organization that even operated under a unanimity principle.

Thus it would help if some other existing international organization formally authorized a punitive response to the use of the chemical weapons.  I know U.S. military doctrine works to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties, another just war principle. Perhaps harder to justify is the principle that the actions "must have a reasonable chance of success." Although the goal of many nations is to overthrow the Assad regime, that is beyond the reach of limited air strikes, so some other goal must be chosen, for which there is a chance of success.

Let's see what the lawyers say, and whether they blush as they say it.

Monday, August 26, 2013

catching up with the spy stories

Now that I'm back home from the beach and gearing up for the new academic year, I've tried to catch up with the news, including the avalanche of reports from the Snowden leaks.

There's a good summary of recent revelations at TPM. I also valued the comments of Dana Priest and Walter Pincus of the Post and Marc Ambinder.

I don't accept the "trust us" approach of some in the intelligence community, but neither do I accept the "we weren't told" complaints by those in Congress who were not on the intelligence committees. What I'm waiting to hear is a documented assessment of how well those committees with jurisdiction did their jobs.

making sense of the Mideast mess

There's a sad irony in the New York Times headline over Ed Luttwak's article, "In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins." The United States has no good options, and it's hard to sort out bad from worse.

President Obama backed himself into a corner when he said Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line." Even though there are no low cost or low risk ways to deal with Assad's arsenal, it looks as if there will be some cruise missile strikes -- that will then be derided as ineffective. Meanwhile, the Saudis are pressing their own campaign to defeat Assad. But the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  notes that there are many sides in the conflict and none are currently ready to promote our interests as well as their own in a future Syria.

As if Syria weren't enough of a problem, we still have Egypt to deal with. The military leadership in Cairo rejected our advice to show restraint to demonstrators and former officials. Now the President faces a legal problem of continuing aid when the law requires a cutoff. Here, the most salient fact is that U.S. aid would total $1.3 billion, but the conservative Gulf monarchies have already pledged $12 billion to the new Egyptian government. No wonder our leverage is limited. In addition, even the Israelis are pressing the U.S. government not to cut off aid.

Since there are no good options, I hope the administration continues a cautious, temporizing, hedging approach -- not because that might work out, but because significant military action in Syria or a break in relations with Egypt would be even worse.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

two sides to every story

It must be shocking to most people to read this in FP's Situation Report:
There are 148 senior civilians at DOD who never finished high school. The vast majority of GS-12 to GS-15 workers across the Defense Department are well-schooled. A handful aren't. According to the Pentagon, there are 148 DOD civilians who do not possess a high school degree or its equivalent. That's despite the fact that GS-12 workers can make, if they live in the greater Washington area, between $75,000 and $97,000 per year; GS-15 workers make between $124,000 and $156,000 annually in the same locale.  It's not clear where the individuals who didn't finish high school reside across DOD, and it may not be in the D.C. area. But at a time when the Pentagon is furloughing civilian workers and examining compensation issues among the uniformed military, even the small number of civilian workers making such high salaries without completing high school is striking. According to DOD data provided to Situation Report, there are 105 GS-12 employees with no completed high school degree; there are 36 GS-13 workers with no high school degree; Among GS-14 workers, there is five. And among GS-15s, there are two individuals in the DOD work force who never finished high school. "There is not a general policy on education requirements for General Schedule (GS) positions ranging from 12 to 15," according to a Pentagon spokesperson, who pointed out that many GS positions - such as engineers and psychologists - have "positive education requirements."
On the other hand , listen to this story about a friend who served as U.S. ambassador to several countries but also never finished high school.

He was evacuated from Egypt, where his father worked for the U.S. aid program, at the start of the Suez war, so he didn't complete his senior year in high school there.

No problem,  because he had been admitted to college. Four years later, however, the bursar's office called just before graduation, noting they had no record of his high school diploma  and could not give him his BA unless and until he had one.

He didn't want to take the time or trouble to do a GED because he had already been admitted to graduate school. So he was not given his college diploma.

Several years later, ready to accept his PhD,  university officials said they couldn't award that degree unless they had proof he had a BA.

He gave his explanations, but the administrators were unyielding. Never mind, he said, I've been accepted into the Foreign Service.

What's the moral to this story?

Monday, August 12, 2013

dividing up the world

Defense News reports that the Pentagon is seriously considering redrawing the map of its combatant commands. Among the options are disestablishment of the Africa Command, combining the Northern and Southern Commands into a single Western [hemisphere] command,and putting Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Pacific Command, where India already is.

The impetus appears to be to save money, plus to put the South Asian countries together for military planning purposes. Those actions make sense.  I don't know about Africom, since it had a promising start but a troubled history.

What's ironic is that the Pentagon has long insisted that its regional divisions made such good sense that they should be copied by the rest of the government. President Obama's first national security adviser, General Jim Jones, apparently tried to do that, without success.

In fact, the DOD map made little sense because it kept political fault lines under different commands, so that the commander would not have to worry about offending one adversary when visiting or dealing with another. Israel and the Arab countries are in different commands, as are India and Pakistan. The State Department, much more logically, puts the Middle East, South Asia, and the Western Hemisphere into coherent units.

secret war discovered

For several years now, I have prided myself on my list of 20 authorizations of force passed by Congress, only five of which were declarations of war. Another five were what I called contingent authorizations of force, which included the two conflicts with Iraq.

Now as part of my summer reading, I've been reading more on early 19th century disputes, and I discover, in an interesting book about that period, that in January, 1811 Congress specifically authorized President Madison to seize East Florida from Spain.

From an online source:
On January 15, 1811, Congress gave its approval for an act to “enable the president of the United States, under certain contingencies, to take possession of the country lying east of the river Perdido, and south of the State of Georgia and the Mississippi Territory, and for other purposes.”
The President was given several powers in accordance with the bill: 1) To employ the military for the purpose of controlling the province if it became necessary 2) To appropriate 100,000 dollars for the necessary expenses of coveting the territory 3) To establish a temporary government over the territory in the process. 
To my chagrin, I had missed this. Nor is included in the Library of Congress' wonderful database of debates, laws, and state papers from the Continental Congress through 1876. So I dashed to the library and found a reference to a 1918 publication by the State Department with all the declassified material.

I missed this, I think, because the military operation was later called off. It's a war that didn't take place. But in 1818 Andrew Jackson invaded Florida in a reprisal raid authorized by President Monroe ostensibly to protect U.S. citizens from Seminole Indians, and Spain agreed a year later to cede Florida to the United States.

Sorry about that....  I hope there aren't any others I missed.

Friday, August 9, 2013

the joy of leaving

National Journal has another collection of quotes making the point that Congress isn't fun anymore. Sad but true.  To get elected, they have to give up their privacy, raise money from thousands of strangers, make promises they can keep without blushing, and then win more votes than anybody else.

Once elected, they get little respect and lots of abuse. They have to maintain two residences and somehow balance family and work life in two places. For this they are paid $174,000 per year. There's little likelihood of a pay increase --there hasn't been one since 2009. Today's pay is 18% below the 1992 level in purchasing power. No wonder half the members of Congress are millionaires.

In the old days -- they weren't necessary good, but they were better -- members had time to know each other and even formed friendships across the aisle. Now they are told to spend 4 hours a day raising money for their campaigns and bipartisanship is a punishable offense. There was occasional gridlock in the past over big political questions. Now it's there on the most trivial issues.

No wonder so many want to leave.