Monday, March 25, 2013

for the deficit-neutral reserve fund near you

The ever-helpful Wonkblog at the Washington Post explains why most of the 500 or so amendments proposed to the budget resolution had the same, unusual wording related to a "deficit-neutral reserve fund." The answer:
Short version — “deficit-neutral reserve funds” are completely inconsequential amendments offered as a way to discuss budget-irrelevant topics without violating budget reconciliation rules around what you can and can’t include in a budget resolution.
In other words, to be in proper form for consideration, amendments to the budget resolution have to mention money [a reserve fund] and not increase the deficit. Even so, the budget measure itself can never become law: it's a "concurrent resolution" that only reflects the judgment of Congress and is never sent to the President for signature into law. Therefore, all of those amendments supposedly making judgments on what should be laws were really just window dressing.  They also will serve [misleadingly] as examples in television ads of how Senators stand on hot-button issues.

threats = opportuities, 3

Maybe there's a cyber contract in your future. Sign up here?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A good idea, parsed skeptically

I'm one of the people who, at various times and places, has called for what's labeled Unified National Security Budgeting.  Three noted analysts at the Congressional Research Service have just done a paper exploring what that idea might mean in practice. They are skeptical of the idea, in part because it could mean so many different things and could be done in many different ways.  I still like the idea but welcome the analysis showing the variety of approaches that fall under the umbrella.

For example, the concept could mean a single national security budget; or mission-based budgeting; or budget displays that cut across several agencies. Each has its presumed benefits and limitations. One of the most important but rarely considered consequence of any change in this direction is how it fits with congressional committees and processes.

I'll admit that many of my friends who endorse this idea do it because they think it would lead to shifts in funds from Defense to State. I'd like to see more of that, too, but I doubt that a unified budget would make much difference.  When studying U.S. conventional strategy in Europe in the 1970s, I was appalled to learn that both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army assumed that their service needed forces to destroy all Soviet tanks, that there was no reason to assume that airpower and ground power could each contribute to the fight. Today, both Defense and State have large foreign military aid programs that might be more efficient if they were evaluated and funded side by side rather than in different bills.

Some advocates of the concept believe that lumping State spending with Defense would protect the smaller department from knee-jerk cuts. That would be nice, too, but you can't really hide international affairs spending from its critics.

What for sure would improve national security policy making is for there to be stronger links between the NSC and OMB. Policy choices should include considerations of cost, and cost alternatives.

New revelations on Iraq surge

Michael Gordon of the NYTimes has an article on FP quoting from a transcript of a high level meeting in NSA Steve Hadley's office on a "Saturday in November" 2006, presumably the 11th, the day after a Bush decision to conduct a review of US Iraq policy and 3 days after Hadley's memo on the deteriorating situation there.

What Gordon thinks is important is that Secretary Rice opposed a surge and made the case for a more limited strategy. He fails to mention how widespread such feelings were, including among the U.S. military.

What I think is important is different:
-- The only attendees mentioned were Sec. Rice, her advisor Phil Zelikow, Cheney's advisor John Hannah, and NSC staff. No military. No DOD civilians.
-- A transcript was made. From a taping system? Detailed notes by someone? Why? How often was this done?
-- Peter Feaver, then on the NSC staff, specifically cites Karl Rove as saying public opinion would support a stronger military approach. This comes close to violating the taboo on mentioning domestic political considerations in WH foreign policy discussions.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Levin endorses "Title 60" idea

Senator Carl Levin [D-MI], chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, today endorsed "institutionalizing" congressional oversight of Pentagon-run operations such as lethal drone and offensive cyber attacks. In response to a question I asked at an on-the-record session at the Council on Foreign Relations, Levin expressed satisfaction with the current level of information provided to his committee but welcomed the idea of a formal process in law. I have long favored this kind of "Title 60" oversight.

Iraq in the rear-view mirror

The American public has mixed views on the Iraq war. Just in time for the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion, Gallup has a poll that finds 53% of the respondents calling America's action a mistake, compared to 42% saying ti was not a mistake. That's certainly the conventional wisdom is Washington, among the punditocracy.

What's interesting to me, however, is that the numbers have changed significantly since 2008, when 63% called the war a mistake and only 36% disagreed.

Majority opinion turned against the war in 2005, never to recover. The surge in US troops and decrease in violence connected with it and the "Anbar awakening" in early 2007 slowed the increase of criticism, but the 2008 campaigns boosted negative feelings.

My own view: lacking any inside knowledge, I felt persuaded that the war was a risk worth taking because of the potential threat posed by Saddam Hussein. I also believed that the congressional authorization of the war made it legitimate and appropriate. I also knew Pentagon & State people planning for the occupation and governmental reconstitution and thought they had good ideas.

Regrettably, those people were not heeded or resourced adequately when the war broke out. The "stuff" that happened was Rumsfeld's fault, and General Franks' refusal to plan for "Phase IV" was a supreme dereliction of duty. These avoidable errors turned a risky operation into a tragedy.

What happened in Cyrpus?

I read the Financial Times because it has news I can't get from other eminent publications. Today, while others are reporting the EU-IMF proposed bailout of Cypriot banks, only the FT has the insider story. It seems as if the Cypriots made a key concession, the Germans demanded more, and everybody else piled on.

Is this a Creditanstalt moment? Neil Irwin of the Washington Post worries that the unusual features of the deal, especially penalizing lower income depositors who thought their savings were insured, could set off a deeper and broader economic crisis in Europe.

I can't judge the financial aspects of the deal, but I worry when big countries, on behalf of their big bankers, force weaker democratic governments to impose austerity on their citizens. That could spark the flames of fanatical nationalism and anti-democratic movements.

The road signs may say "recovery around the corner," but the path is along a high cliff with no guardrails.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

angry white man

I grew up in Denver, Colorado at a time when its population was 2.4% black and the state as a whole was 98.5% white.  My first encounter with racial segregation came in a 1957 trip to the nation's capital, when I saw "white" and "colored" drinking fountains in a small Virginia town. I followed the civil rights movement with sympathy but never put myself at risk -- as did one of my high school friends who was badly beaten at Selma.

I later worked for crusading liberals, even did political organizing in Tennessee in 1968, but my professional interests were in foreign policy, not racial justice. I feel ashamed that I didn't do more for the cause.

Today I'm angry, not about what I failed to do, but at what I failed to know. Only now, reading a fine book on the Roosevelt-Truman years, Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself, did I learn how bad things really were before World War II.

Katznelson's main themes [so far, in my reading] are that FDR and the Congress saved America from dictatorship and fascism by their cooperative response to the Great Depression, and that southern Democrats dominated several congresses and used their power to preserve white supremacy even when they enacted otherwise progressive legislation.

But at what a cost! Southern Democrats insisted that New Deal social legislation not apply to maids or farmworkers, the kinds of jobs that 2/3 of southern blacks held. They wrote the laws giving discretionary power to state and local entities to distribute the federal benefits, discriminating as they saw fit. They blocked anti-lynching laws with FDR's support.

As late as 1938, only 4% of blacks were allowed to vote in the southern states.

I never knew until now how bad things were. I should have.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

threats = opportunities, 2

I'm a great believer in civil debate as a means to gain truth about a matter. Let each side make its best case, let distinctions be made and applied, and let a disinterested person judge.

In the case of cyber security, I have a nagging suspicion that the doom-sayers are exaggerating the threat, as well as a disposition to disregard arguments that the best defense is a big offense. I'm also concerned, however, that we are failing to take responsible defensive measures because of ideological factors.

Anyway, I welcome this piece by a British professor, Thomas Rid, arguing that many people, including the Defense Science Board, are exaggerating the threat in a search for bigger budgets.

threats = opportunities

Asteroids beware! The lobbyists are after you.  According to The Hill, the K Street crowd is pushing its various solutions to the potential threat of an asteroid collision with earth. All it takes is money. Then we can rest easy.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

who lost Afghanistan?

Last week, Foreign Policy printed a chapter from Vali Nasr's forthcoming book that criticizes the Obama White House and the U.S. military for failing to adopt Richard Holbrooke's policy advice for Afghanistan. Now Sarah Chayes, a civilian with long experience in that country who advised U.S. military commanders, writes a rejoinder.

Chayes is also concerned that U.S. policy is failing in Afghanistan, but she blames the Karzai government's corruption and interference by Pakistan for most of the problem. She also faults Holbrooke and the State Department for failing to develop policies to deal with those problems. She writes:
But the notion that pre-existing partisan animosity toward Holbrooke was a main factor driving policy decisions verges on the paranoid. In fact, deep and passionate philosophical disagreements on the substance divided members of executive branch agencies over how the war should be conducted. And it was these differences of analysis and prescription that shaped the policy debate -- not personal rivalry. 
It's obvious that the Obama administration was divided over how best to handle the many problems in Afghanistan, and that well-meaning officials felt strongly that they were right and should have been listened to.  For us on the outside, let the debates continue.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

live news on the radio

I grew up listening to news on the radio, especially CBS news on Denver's clear channel KLZ. Washing the dinner dishes in the 1950s, I listened to Edward R.Murrow's nightly newscast. [My parents waited until my sister and I went off to college before they bought a dishwashing machine.]  I found a book by Paul White, founder of CBS news, in a used bookstore and I devoured its stories about the early years of network news. My loyalty carried over to television, where I regularly watched Walter Cronkite.

I was fascinated to find this report on The Atlantic site, noting that March 13 marks the 75th [!] anniversary of the CBS World News Roundup, a radio news show that's still on the air. The article tells of that first broadcast and links to a recording. The lead story was the annexation [anschluss] of Austria by Hitler's Germany, and it brought together several legendary newsmen, including Murrow, William L. Shirer, and Robert Trout. 

Yes,I listened to the Lone Ranger on the radio, too, but the "thrilling days of yesteryear" for me were the radio newscasts -- about Suez and sputnik and civil rights demonstrations.

Congress on the sidelines

Former Senator Jim Webb [D-VA] says there has been "a breakdown of our constitutional process." Time and again in recent years, presidents have taken unilateral actions sending armed forces abroad and concluding "binding" agreements with foreign governments -- all without the participation, much less support, of Congress.

"Congress is mostly tolerated and frequently ignored," he writes. But Webb blames lawmakers more than the chief executive for this sorry state of affairs. As the title of his piece indicates, what we have here is "congressional abdication" of its proper constitutional role.

I agree with that conclusion, though not with all of Webb's particular criticisms. I'm not as bothered as Webb is about presidential actions in Libya in 2011; there is was Congress that failed to pass any measure either supporting or opposing or limiting U.S. military operations. Nor do I view the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq in 2008 as a measure requiring 2/3 Senate approval; earlier SOFAs with other nations were routinely accepted as executive agreements.

But on the broader issue of war powers, Congress has repeatedly failed to step up to the plate. No wonder presidents have ignored lawmakers when they tried to enter the contest. By the way, the Congressional Research Service has a new report detailing the many precedents for congressional limits on military operations, just as I did in Congress at War. All it takes is political will.

Monday, March 11, 2013

short-sighted and eventually blind

There's a sad story from PBS's Nova about our dying weather satellites. By 2016 the United States is likely to lose its only remaining weather satellite in polar orbit. Our whole system is failing because of a host of bureaucratic and budget problems. NOAA, NASA and the Pentagon are all to blame, but NOAA most of all. Each agency tried to pass the buck. Actual coordination was minimal. Future programs were delayed when budgets got squeezed. And some satellites failed during launch. As a result, we are likely to have greatly reduced weather data in just a few years, with avoidable human and commercial costs as a result.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

stretching the law

Since the 9/11 attacks, the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly argued that the legal authority for most of their counter-terrorism activities, including drone operations and targeted killing and the growing U.S. military presence in Africa, is the law authorizing the use of force enacted a week after the Twin Towers fell [Public Law 107-40].  As an article in the Washington Post today reveals, however, that law covers only people and entities directly linked to the al Qaeda attackers. The law has been stretched to cover actions against "offshoots" of Osama Bin Laden's group. This situation also creates incentives for American counter-terrorist planners to find links to al Qaeda, however, tenuous, to justify military actions.

This ain't the way to run a war. It would help if Congress passed some new measure, but any such law would have to confront difficult issues of defining adversaries and placing some limits on the nature and size of the force authorized.

That's what Congress did in 2001. The Bush White House wanted authority to go after any terrorist anywhere who might be thinking about attacking Americans. The Senate leadership, Tom Daschle [D-SD] and Trent Lott [R-MS], wisely resisted giving that blank check and instead agreed to a measure limited to those directly connected to the 9/11 attacks.They also failed to include a White House request to authorize use of force inside the United States. Cleverly, the leaders adjourned the Senate for several days immediately after its vote, forcing the Republican-controlled House to accept the Senate language or cause a delay in passing the bill. [A year later, debating the authorizing of force against Iraq, the House bipartisan leadership pulled a similar ploy, undercutting Senate efforts to limit the mission of the war against Iraq.]

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

straight ticket voting

Finally I've come across a source listing those states that allow straight-ticket voting, where a single mark casts votes for all the candidates of the chosen party. The Hill newspaper has an article regarding a bill to ban the practice. FYI, those 15 states are: Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

The ability to vote a straight ticket is a legacy of the party machines that wanted to make it easy for voters to support the full slate. As far as I remember, my home state of Colorado never had the provision.

I don't feel strongly about forbidding the practice. There are such more important electoral reforms the federal government should be pushing, such as increasing the number of polling sites to avoid the long lines and increasing days for registration and voting.

Another legacy practice, in Virginia at least, is the failure to list part affiliation on the ballot -- because the pro-segregationist Virginia Democratic party in the 1960s didn't want to be hurt by linkage to the pro-civil rights national Democratic party. I don't think that should be required nationally either.

Holbrooke's revenge

Foreign Policy has a chapter from the forthcoming book by Vali Nasr, formerly a member of Richard Holbrooke's team as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Nasr complains that the "White House jealously guarded all foreign policymaking" and funneled major decisions "through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics."  He details how President Obama ignored Holbrooke's repeated proposals for peace negotiations with the Taliban and calls his own experience "deeply disillusioning."

Maybe the book has more persuasive details, but this chapter strikes me as sour grapes from an official whose boss was mistreated and whose supposedly brilliant ideas were ignored. Happens allt he time in Washington. That doesn't invalidate Nasr's complaint, but does provide a perspective.

I also think that Nasr doesn't really understand how the White House works.

- There have always been turf wars -- Holbrooke himself fought several quite successfully. Working at State at the end of the Clinton administration, I felt many times that the White House was our biggest enemy. But Holbrooke was long recognized as someone who should be excluded from meetings if he was expected to be disruptive. [Tony Lake did it in the Clinton years].
- The Obama people gave Holbrooke  a bureaucratically weak position and a nearly impossible task [including "solving" Pakistan while being excluded from anything to do with India]. Holbrooke was one of many "czars" [more under Obama than the Romanov family produced over 300 years] who had no legal authority, no Senate confirmation, and no budget.
- Nasr's complaint that that White House dominated policy and was run by political operatives who were neophytes on foreign policy is half right and half wrong. Of course the WH runs policy, especially the most important issues like ongoing wars. There is ample evidence is that Tom Donilon has run a very inclusive and deliberative process. Holbrooke just lost his share of battles, probably because his plans for negotiations with the Taliban weren't that persuasive. Political input to NSC matters has always been allowed, and welcomed by Presidents. Karl Rove and Karen Hughes were designated members of the NSC in the Bush years; the WH chief of staff has been for several administrations. They don't speak up in meetings but are on the circulation list for memos and thus know what is going on. They can weigh in in other ways.

I know a lot of people who worked with Holbrooke over the years. He was brilliant and forceful, which is wonderful when you agree with him and disruptive when you don't.

Iraq post-mortem

Congress did a smart thing by creating a special inspector general for U.S. activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The final report of the Iraq SIGIR is now out. Read it and weep.

Michael Gordon has a summary, mainly citing statements by US officials explaining what they saw going wrong.  I've just begun to look at the report, but what strikes me is hw much we tried to do, how much we spent, the noble aspirations, and the piddling results.

I know governments waste money in wartime, when urgency trumps efficiency. But I'm stunned and disappointed at how poorly coordinated and planned our nation-building turned out to be.

UPDATE: A key factoid from the report: Congress appropriated $60.6 billion for Iraqi reconstruction; $58.3 billion was actually expended. The money was channeled through five major programs and 18 smaller ones. The Defense Department controlled 87% of the funds.

Oversight of drone and offensive cyber operations

RollCall has my piece today calling for a "Title 60" law putting drone and offensive cyber operations under a regime similar to the one for CIA covert operations, with presidential findings and congressional notification. I hope lawmakers will consider such a measure in order to provide more transparency and accountability for such activities. Meanwhile, I see that the Defense Science Board has a new report calling existing cyber defenses weak.  That's a separate issue: I want to be sure that, if we want to conduct cyber attacks, we do it in a legally bounded way.