Tuesday, February 26, 2013

fear and folly

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen obviously wants the United States to intervene in Syria. He also seems to believe that President Obama is naive and cowardly to resist such action. In a column today, he quotes from a forthcoming book by an official who worked with Richard Holbrooke on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Vali Nasr:
But the thrust of what he says supports the view that Obama shied from intervening in Syria out of domestic political considerations. A president who was campaigning as the peace candidate — out of Iraq and, soon, Afghanistan, too — could not risk anything bold in Syria. The country fell into the margin of error. “It is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations,” Nasr writes.
I'm certainly willing to suppose that political considerations governed U.S. foreign policy in 2012, when Obama rejected the advice of several top officials to give arms to the Syrian opposition. The relentless Republican search for some foreign policy issue to use against the President -- Benghazi? -- would have subjected Syrian action to nitpicking and micromanaging in ways that could have undermined the policy. That policy may be changing, not because of politics but because the Syrian opposition seems to be getting its act together.

But what's wrong with letting public opinion influence foreign policy? Influence, not necessarily determine. The American people want U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to diminish. Obama is accomplishing that. The American people are also dubious of getting involved in another war in a Muslim country, given recent experience.  That's not fear, but wisdom and caution.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Hollywood decoded

This has nothing to do with foreign policy, except perhaps as an illustration of negotiations even more complex than the Congress of Vienna or the Paris Peace Conference after World War I.  The New York Times has an explanation of all that stuff that is put in movie credits, why it's there and in such a particular order and with precise phrasing. I guess I knew some of that, but this puts it all together.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

public preferences for budget cuts

Once again, pollsters have discovered that foreign aid is the only federal program that a large number of Americans want to cut. The latest confirmation of this fact is in a new Pew poll.  I think these results explain why most members of Congress don't really want to propose substantial cuts. They would rather let an across the board cut -- same for everybody -- be done by a sequester, or let the opposition party take the blame for a list.

By suggesting that the March 1 cuts would lead to draconian results like fewer flights and food safety inspection,the Obama administration is trying to get the public outcry against the sequester that is almost equal to what may well come on March 27 when the government runs out of money pending a new law from Congress. That's a deadline with immediate consequences, unlike the sequester which can be applied over the next seven months.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


When I first learned of the Internet in the 1990s, I concluded that it would mark the end of both secrecy and certainty. Errors would circulate as fast as truth, and the desire to share inside information would be more powerful than most secrecy rules.

Now we have a telling example of how this works, and how journalism works in Washington. Those stories that Chuck Hagel might have given a speech to a "Friends of Hamas" group? Bogus. The source of the rumor tells all.  A New York Daily News reporter called a Republican congressional source and asked whether he knew of questionable Hagel speeches-for-hire. As an indication of the sort of thing he considered newsworthy, he suggested speaking to "Friends of Hamas," a non-existent group.  The Hill source shared the idea as speculation, and the rumor took off. The partisan echo chamber, eager to find dirt on the former Republican Senator, repeated the rumor as if it were true.  Sad, sad.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

trade tangle ahead

The United States and European Union have announced plans for talks on a giant trade agreement. Some preliminary talks have already been held, raising optimism that agreements can be reached on tough issues like trade in genetically modified agricultural products and intellectual property. Since the two economies are quite advanced and remaining tariffs are low, the disputes won't be about tariffs but about non tariff barriers like environmental and food safety regulations. Labor groups are less likely to oppose an agreement because both economies have high wages and strong environmental laws, unlike low-wage countries in Asia.

As usual, the Financial Times, now celebrating its 125th anniversary, has the best story on the proposed talks. What the story doesn't mention, however, is that no deal can be concluded, or even discussed very long, unless and until Congress passes a law granting Trade Promotion Authority, also called "fast-track," that guarantees a single up-or-down vote on the final agreement, with no amendments allowed. President Clinton asked for such authority but never got it; George W. Bush got it for four years, but it has since expired.

Nor does the story mention that the Obama administration still hasn't sorted out its organizational arrangement to do trade. The President proposed reorganization authority -- which Congress is usually reluctant to grant -- and said he would use it to create a Department of Trade, combining the Commerce Department, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative in the White House, and several export-promotion agencies. I don't think that's likely to be approved, but there's no clue how the administration will handle things otherwise.

The negotiators have a clear goal, but the American side lacks a clear institutional process to get the job done well.

the once-respected Senate Armed Services Committee

I despair. I worked on the Senate Armed Services Committee for ten years and have followed it closely ever since. We had big fights – over Vietnam, ending the draft, the B-1 bomber and MX missile – but members always recognized that they needed to compromise in order to pass a defense authorization bill, which the committee has now done for an amazing 51 years in a row. My boss sometimes put holds on nominations in order to get more information from the executive branch, and we even threatened filibusters a couple of times. But nobody abused those tactics. Sometimes the committee even voted against a presidential nominee, but still reported the nomination to let the full Senate decide – by simple majority vote. SASC members always put the institution ahead of party or politics.

The one glaring exception to that committee comity was over John Tower’s nomination to be secretary of defense. But the opposition to the former SASC chairman was bipartisan, over moral and character issues, and not to embarrass the president or fight administration policy.

The behavior of some of the new members on the Hagel nomination is way over the line – disgraceful! They show no respect for the institution and are likely to poison its ability to work in a collaborative way. They are also hurting the institution of the office of Secretary of Defense and thus undermining our system of civilian control. 

I still want to reserve the filibuster for rare and special cases, but the Hagel opponents are making it harder for us defenders of the Senate’s unique character to support our own case.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

the medium and the message

Every now and then I remember the young reporter who tried to demonstrate her knowledge of Latin singular and plural nouns by writing, "When the candidate landed at the airport, there was only one medium at his news conference."  For my part, I still correct student papers that treat the media as singular.

Nevertheless, the singular noun still has meaning and significance beyond fortune-telling. Nations often conduct their diplomacy through special people, especially when the normal channels like ambassadors are unavailable. The United States uses special "U.S. interests" sections of friendly embassies to maintain low level contacts with the Cuban and Iranian governments, for example.

Now we learn, via Foreign Policy's well-connected Josh Rogin, that a North Korean diplomat at the UN in New York alerted U.S. officials in advance of the DPRK's latest nuclear test. Reportedly this official has been a regular source of contact and information sharing that otherwise could not take place. It's even encouraging that North Korea would notify the American government, although the detonation itself is a worrisome sign that international sanctions are failing.  Encouraging because nations need channels of communication to limit errors and miscalculations that can lead to avoidable military responses. That's why one of the first US-Soviet agreements after the terrifying Cuban missile crisis was to establish a hotline between the leaders. Short of that, it's good when there are cold lines like the one from NYC.

problems to be solved

Many of the big public policy issues turn not on what to do, but how to do it. And answering "how" often depends on the skills and insights of technologists and managers rather than noted thinkers or leaders.

Paul Kennedy, a distinguished historian at Yale, has a fascinating new study of World War II that examines the problems that the Allies had to solve in order to gain victory, including command of the seas against German U-boats, command of the air to protect the operations of ground and naval forces, amphibious operations against heavy defenses, and long distance operations of both fighting forces and their suppliers.

The political and military leaders knew what they wanted and had grand strategies in mind, but it took their subordinates and those many mid-level engineers and operators to perfect the weapons and organizations and tactics that brought success. Kennedy criticizes analyses that focus on "wonder weapons" or monocausal explanations,but he persuasively links multiple causative factors as the solutions to each of the problems.

What's even more surprising to me, a footnote-besotted PhD, is how many of his endnotes cite, as the best sources for numerous topics, entries in Wikipedia.

Friday, February 8, 2013

misleading metaphor

Vice President Biden told this year's security conference in Munich that "Europe remains the cornerstone" of U.S. engagement with the rest of the world.

Fine. I like Europe and NATO. I think we can do a lot working together to make the world a better and safer place. But what does"cornerstone" really mean? The metaphor gets used often in foreign policy because it sounds good and makes people feel good.

I have a friend who has often reminded me that a cornerstone has no structural significance. The keystone of an arch, yes, but not the cornerstone.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

never, never, never give in

Churchill's advice helped sustain British morale during World War II. As a general rule, however, it can be seen either as steadfastness [a virtue] or obstinacy [a vice].  There now seems to be a partisan divide in America over how to resolve major political problems. Democrats [59%] and Independents [53%] say that they like "elected officials who compromise with people they disagree with." Only 36% of Republicans share that view. Now wonder Republican leaders in Congress oppose bipartisan deals.

Today at the National Prayer Breakfast President Obama noted the limited duration of good feelings at that event.
"I do worry that as soon as we leave the prayer breakfast everything we talked about ... will be forgotten," he said as the audience chuckled. "I go back to the Oval Office and I started watching the cable news networks, and it's like we didn't pray."
Of course, Congress is help in low opinion by people of all parties these days. Years ago, when the Senate chaplain was asked how he could pray for disreputable lawmakers, he replied: "I don't pray for them. I stand at the front of the chamber, look at the many Senators, and pray for the country."

where are the carriers?

The Navy announced on Wednesday that it was cancelling the planned deployment of the USS Harry S Truman later this week. This action will leave the United States with only one aircraft carrier near the Persian Gulf for the first time in over two years. One consequence of the action is to reduce America's ability to deter Iranian military actions in the Gulf -- or to support any military operations against Iran.

One purpose of this action is to build pressure on Congress to vote for some alternative to the sequester cuts coming on March 1. Another is to adjust to painful budget adjustments in a rational way.

This sure looks like a "Washington monument cut," the kind of dramatic action budget officials take to forestall cuts, as if the only reduction the Interior Department could make its its spending was to close the Washington Monument. On the other hand, the sequester creates genuine dilemmas for rational planners.

Of course the defense budget can be trimmed. Significantly. But the sequester cuts require equal cuts in every program, the good, bad, and ugly alike. In the case of the Pentagon, military personnel spending is exempt, so the cuts fall on "operations and maintenance," which includes all civilian personnel and the ordinary fuel and other cuts just to train, transport, and operate the armed forces.

I wish hawks and doves would agree that military spending can and should be cut, but not in the stupid way the sequester requires -- and then find other spending cuts and revenue increases that make more sense.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

football inaction

The Wall Street Journal reports that the ball is in play for only 11 minutes in a 60-minute football game. This doesn't count, of course, the time when the clock has stopped [or the lights go out].

The isn't news to broadcasters, who have so many brilliant insights to share. It isn't news to advertisers, who have so many products to entice us to buy.

Nor is it news to George Will, who much prefers baseball to football. Will has called football "the quintessential American sport because it combines long committee meetings with brief bursts of violence."

blame for the late budget

Current law requires the President to submit his budget for the next fiscal year [2014, in this case] by the first Monday in February. The White House has said that it won't be able to meet that requirement until sometime in March. Congressional Republicans are apoplectic.

Hang on a minute. Current law also requires Congress to pass a budget resolution [not done for three years] and to pass appropriations bills before the October 1 start of the fiscal year [not done since 1997].

I would hate to work at OMB right now. They don't know how much spending will be allowed in 2013 because no appropriations have yet been enacted and the threat of further cuts are likely because of the March 1 sequester. Yet they have to come up with proposals for next year that build on whatever actually happens this year.  Lots of luck.

targeted killings

Someone has leaked to NBC news a Justice Department "white paper" explaining the justification for the targeted killings of American citizens who are believed to be active terrorists. The Washington Post reports that the document had been given to the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees last summer.

What's going on? Several Senators are demanding to see the legal justification for the program, which the White House has resisted. John Brennan, the official overseeing the program for the President, has a confirmation hearing on Thursday for his nomination to be CIA director where this is a likely topic of questioning. Some Senators have threatened to filibuster his nomination if they don't get satisfactory answers.

Since these "white papers" are often unclassified versions of the secret document, often with few if any deletions but lacking the imprimatur of the official version, I take this as probably the most the administration is willing to release, but still enough for discussion to take place. The long delay since the paper was turned over to some in Congress makes me think that the leak to NBC was administration-inspired to help Brennan, but it could have come from someone on the Hill who got access to it for the first time.

Anyway, we can now have a more informed discussion of the policy and its rationale.

"Who lost North Africa?"

Be on the lookout. The debate over who screwed up in North Africa, whose decisions or programs led to the problems of the coup and insurgency in Mali, the continuing unrest in Libya and Egypt, and so forth, is coming soon to newspapers, blogs and congressional hearings near you.  I don't have enough background even to begin to assess the arguments, but I think we need to think about whether our governmental programs are balanced and coordinated. We also need the humility to consider that events in that region may be beyond American control and subject only to limited U.S.influence.

Nevertheless, Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post has a lengthy article revealing interagency disputes over what to do and what failed.

Let the debate continue.

the spectre of 1914 in the western Pacific

All historical analogies are inexact, but some are still helpful in assessing foreign policy problems. Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times warns that the looming disputes in the waters of the western Pacific might trigger a 1914-like stumble into a major war. China is a rising power, as Germany was then. A major power [the United States] has given security guarantees to its allies, who might be emboldened to risk confrontations that could spiral out of hand.

As Harvard professor Graham Allison says:
“The mechanism in 1914 is instructive. Who could imagine that Serbian terrorists could kill an archduke no one had heard of and trigger a great war, at the end of which all contestants were devastated? My view is that the Chinese leadership has no intention of challenging the US militarily, yet. But what about the hothead nationalists in China or Japan?”
I worry about those "hothead nationalists" too. A Chinese friend says that his relatives bought their first car last year but have kept it garaged ever since because they fear the vandalism some of their neighbors have suffered --because it's a Japanese model car.

Until the various parties are willing to try to negotiate a settlement, they should at least work to develop emergency communications links ["hotlines"] and rules of the road understandings like the U.S.-Soviet incidents at sea agreement of the 1970s. Such mechanisms were lacking in 1914.

Monday, February 4, 2013

history vs fiction

So they think they've identified the bones of King Richard III. Good. Now it's time to reconsider what kind of a person and monarch he was.

Like most English-speaking people, I learned about Richard from Shakespeare's play. And then, while reading British mystery novels, I came across Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time. She argued, and convinced me, that Richard was falsely maligned by Tudor historians, who rewrote history,m as the victors always do, to make him more villainous than he was in truth. Read it, and see it you agree.

I guess it's the novelist's skills, but many politicians come across as more interesting, and even more forgivable, when they appear as fictional characters than when we read regular biographies. Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men makes his Huey Long character  lovable and understandable. Even Joe Klein's Bill Clinton figure in Primary Colors is more forgivable than the former president himself. And Gore Vidal's Burr made the treasonous Vice President more likable and three-dimensional.

My two favorite Washington novelists are Ward Just  and Thomas Mallon. Check them out, too.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

tunnel vision

The Washington Post reports that one of the leading regional managers of the National Weather Service has been fired, terminating a 50-year career with the service, and suggests that the real cause was the official's criticism of the budget for his organization. The article also gives the official explanation:
The stated reason for his firing dates to June 2012, when the agency was embroiled in a controversy over a widespread practice used by financial managers at Washington headquarters to deal with persistent deficits. Agency leaders siphoned money allocated for equipment, technology upgrades and other programs to fund salaries and day-to-day operations without permission from Congress. The practice, called “reprogramming,” has since stopped.
 I don't know the inside story, but I think the Post is exaggerating its influence. Bureaucrats always complain about inadequate budgets, and members of Congress often welcome those complaints as ammunition in their own struggles to protect their clients when budgets are being cut. [After all, why do the defense committee members seek out forecasts of doom and defeat from the Pentagon if the budget sequester cuts occur?]
What members of Congress don't tolerate, however, are actions contrary to legislative directives on spending money. Reprogramming -- shifting funds from one approved purpose and account to another -- is strictly limited, sometimes to the point of requiring committee approval in advance. If an agency routinely ignores the congressional rules on reprogramming, there will be severe consequences.  That might be the real explanation in this case.

the president versus the vice president

The one executive branch official the president can't fire is the vice president. But he can be ignored, sidelined, sent to funerals overseas, and otherwise abused. History provides a full spectrum of examples, from familial to deeply conflicted. I think it's good for the country that recent presidents have given their vice presidents important roles in various policy areas, the kind of experience that would help them if they ever succeeded to the presidency.

There are some new books about Richard Nixon and how he was treated by President Eisenhower.

Here's just one example of how the old warrior dealt with his running mate:
At a formal launch of the 1956 campaign on Eisenhower's Gettysburg, Pa., farm Nixon offered a rousing defense of the president and dutifully posed with his ticketmate and the property's livestock. But when the photo-ops and speeches were done, Nixon was left with his nose pressed against the proverbial glass. "Afterward," Mr. Frank recounts, "Eisenhower went off to the farmhouse, joined by a couple of pals. A Nixon friend told the journalist Theodore White that as Nixon watched them disappear inside, he said—bitterly, as the friend recalled—'Do you know, he's never asked me into that house yet?' "

This was after nearly four years of serving together in the White House. And it was hardly the only slight. Nixon never would see the inside of the Gettysburg house or even Eisenhower's White House living quarters. But what bruised more than Nixon's fragile ego was what Eisenhower said in 1960, when he was asked at a news conference to name a "major idea" that his vice president, then the GOP presidential nominee, had offered over the previous eight years: "If you give me a week I might think of one." The comment undercut Nixon's claims of having superior executive experience compared with his opponent, John F. Kennedy, and burned Nixon deeply.
That's from a review in the Wall Street Journal. A longer piece in the New Yorker by Thomas Mallon, a talented novelist of stories set in Washington, covers Nixon's career and marriage. The point to remember is that these officials are human beings, and the organization chart does not predict how well they work together.