Monday, April 29, 2013

logic, bribes, and threats

So the CIA has been bringing bags of cash to Afghan President Karzai since 2001. Was it worth it?

That depends, of curse, on the total cost -- so far -- and the opportunity cost of other expenditures.

It's easy to deplore this, as Spencer Ackerman does.

On the other hand, I remember hearing the preeminent realist scholar on international affairs, Hans Morgenthau, say that statesmen have only three tools to promote national interests -- logic, bribes, and threats. 

Isn't our whole foreign aid program, however beneficial in intent and results, just another bribe?

Syrian dilemmas

The apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria raises tough issues for U.S. policymakers.

The President is in a box because he earlier declared use of such weapons as a "red line" and "game changer."  He's trying to delay things by seeking more definitive proof of what, where, and why. That's reasonable, especially if we want the international community to join with America in any retaliatory action.

The most obvious actions would be to destroy Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons, or seize them. The first approach is unacceptable because it could likely spread chemical poisons and kill civilians. The second option would require a massive invasion, with numerous unintended and long term consequences, and it still might not work. Even John McCain says he doesn't want U.S. "boots on the ground" in Syria.

Somehow we have to separate the chemical weapons issue from the broader questions about intervention in the Syrian conflict. We shouldn't let the tail wag the dog.

It's notable that the Israelis are not pushing the United States to intervene significantly in Syria. Their ambassador to Washington is even cautious about arming anti-Assad forces. insisting that they be very carefully vetted. On the other hand, the Israelis don't American hesitation to embolden Iranian leaders to pursue their nuclear programs.

McCain and others favor a "no fly zone" over Syria, which sounds easy in theory but in practice would likely require massive attacks to destroy Syrian air defenses, which are quite formidable.

Arming rebel forces risks helping groups with anti-American terrorist connections.

All these steps are high risk, with great uncertainty over whether they will work or even help.

The other day, I heard an experienced Middle East hand invoke what he called "a technical term in policy analysis." Syria, he said, was "a mess."

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

presidential arm-twisting

A new meme is sweeping Washington, even faster than springtime pollen. "Obama is weak because he doesn't know how to twist arms in Congress." It was in the much-discussed Maureen Dowd column over the weekend and again by the Times' White House reporters today. The critics seem to long for the days when, they seem to remember, Lyndon Johnson intimidated members and got his way.

The truth is -- sort of, but not really. Yes, LBJ was his own congressional liaison. He knew members intimately --their personalities, personal and private behaviors, and pressure points. After all, he had been "Master of the Senate" for eight years and had been in Congress since 1937. Until Obama's election, only two presidents in the previous century had gone directly from Congress to the White House --Warren Harding and John F. Kennedy. LBJ also had large Democratic majorities from which to corral the needed votes.

No other president in our lifetimes had as much knowledge of Congress and its members as LBJ. Yet they all had congressional liaison offices that offered perks and made threats -- the carrots and sticks the pundits think Obama should use more assertively. Sometimes they won; sometimes they lost. Here's an interesting chart showing congressional voting where the president had an announced position on a matter up through 2006. As you can see, LBJ had an astonishing 82.2% success rate during his presidency. But there are anomalies: Eisenhower had even higher ratings his first two years, when the GOP controlled Congress. So did Clinton his first two years, before the GOP gained congressional majorities.

I haven't searched the literature, but here's an academic study from 2009 on what accounts for presidential success in Congress:

Overall, for Presidents Clinton and Bush, presidential popularity, economic conditions and control of Congress have shown to be significant in determining presidential success in Congress. Party unity was shown to not be significant, contrary to past theories and a hypothesis of this study. Control of Congress was demonstrated to be the strongest indicator of success, followed by popularity, and then by economic conditions.
 These results mean that arm-twisting works when your party controls Congress, your popularity is high, and the economy is humming. An in today's supermajoritarian Senate, "control" means 60 votes. In these circumstances, Obama has an uphill fight.

Monday, April 22, 2013

the Senate followed voters on gun control

As the son of a policeman, I have long favored strict limits on gun ownership -- as have many law enforcement leaders and organizations. So I was disappointed when the Senate fell short of enough votes to overcome a filibuster against what were widely seen as overwhelmingly popular restrictions.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Senators are chosen by their homestate voters, and feel some obligation to be responsive to their views.

What's interesting about the vote, as John Sides of The Monkey Cage pointed out, is that many of bill's opponents came from states with less than majority support for tougher controls.
Note that in every state where a majority favored stricter gun laws at least one of the two senators voted in favor of the assault weapons ban. On the other hand, only 17 of the 74 senators representing states where fewer than 50% of citizens wanted stricter regulations voted in favor of the ban. Also challenging for gun control advocates is the fact that while only 13 of the 50 states had 50% or higher support for stricter gun laws, many of these are the most populous states.
The demographic fact is that Senators from less populous states have disproportionate power in the Senate -- and that's the one feature of the Constitution that the Framers forever barred from amendment.

And while I wish at least a handful more Senators showed "courage" and "leadership" -- rather than cowardly followership, the outcome is Constitutionally understandable.

I would also call to your attention Sarah Binder's piece, which shows that the 60-vote requirement in the Unanimous Consent agreement on the bill was a reasonable response to the situation, and even prevented some objectionable conservative amendments from beings adopted.

that proves my point

One of the techniques I learned in competitive debate was to look for ways that an opponent's key fact or argument could be used to support my own case. I thought I was being clever but now realize I was just engaging in sophistry. As are a lot of political commentators with supposed lessons from the Boston marathon bombings.  We are also seeing a lot of the "now more than ever" gambit, where advocates claim that the best solution to whatever the new problem is should be whatever they have long proposed in different circumstances.

Accordingly, we have calls for treating the surviving suspect as an "enemy combatant," despite his U.S. citizenship and a crime committed on U.S. soil. This allows them to defend the military tribunal system and Guatanamo prisons, despite Supreme Court rulings. This also constitutes a sneaky rejection of the Miranda ruling by the liberal Warren Court.

As Conor Friedersdorf argues, many of the Iraq war advocates, whose judgment should be discredited, are now calling for preemptive action abroad to somehow prevent homegrown terrorists.

Others are casting aspersions at Muslims, as if banning that religion or its practice within our borders would make our streets safe again. Marc Ambinder skewers their arguments.

These recycled hatreds and prescriptions should have been left in the compost pile.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

preparedness requires practice

The old joke came to mind this week: How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

The terrible attacks at the end of the Boston Marathon were far less deadly than they could have been because people were prepared -- not only by having lots of police and medical personnel and vehicles as they routinely do for the event, but also by practicing how to handle emergency situations like mass casualties. The police and fire people did it; the hospital ER people did it; and the results are enormously gratifying.

Mark Ambinder gives more details:
A universal command center had been set up quickly; one dispatcher was in charge; one chief was in charge; orders were funneled up and down the chain. Boston uses relatively few frequencies for its special operations, and though this means that they could easily get clogged, it also makes it easier to communicate with everybody. 
Within a half hour, on the detective channel, the "Victors" — the detectives — were gathering at a point. On the main channel, a senior officer was handling the requests for EOD canines, a half dozen of which had just arrived from nearby jurisdictions.
It did seem as if the department had rehearsed for something like this, and indeed, I learned later that they had. The FBI and various Boston agencies have practiced responding to major mass casualty events.
We have a Department of Homeland Security and local emergency preparedness offices because we have learned that paper plans on a shelf aren't enough. First responders and the follow-on units all need to practice what they will have to do in a crisis so that in the crisis they will act without doubt or hesitation. In Boston this week they rose to the challenge.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

diplomacy is not a one-man band

I've been worried about Secretary of State Kerry's busy travel schedule. I'm not alone. David Rothkopf reports that people at State want their leader to "phone home." I also agree with his point:

   " Although his involvement will be critical going forward, he must view
his role as that of a conductor or a commanding general -- overseeing,
orchestrating, providing vision, reaching in to provide leadership where
needed, but empowering others to save him from getting trapped in the alluring
(if exhausting) illusion that shuttle diplomacy is actually getting something
done. It has its place. It sometimes helps. But it should be used sparingly, only when
necessary, or it is devalued. There will be no legacy of Kerry the statesman that does not effectively incorporate that of Kerry the effective leader of a global bureaucracy."
There is an experienced and very competent team at State. They should be empowered and used.

Monday, April 8, 2013

calibration of force

I'm not sure how to assess the reported agreement between U.S. and South Korean officials on a "counterprovocation" plan with immediate "response[s] in kind" that will still "prevent an escalation to broader war."

I strongly favor advance consultations and agreement where possible between military allies so that they are not confused by the fog of war or emotion in responding to provocative acts by Pyongyang.

I'm impressed by the level of detail and sophistication that seems to have gone into these contingency plans.

But I also know that military plans have to adapt to what happens in the real world, including what seems to be happening when those first reports turn out to be inaccurate.

And most of all, I'm worried about the hubris -- that overpowering assumption of rationality and control in the use of  and response to military force -- that is implicit in any such escalation ladder.

 I used to believe in Herman Kahn's escalation ladder for nuclear war; I thought both sides would be rational and not go all the way.  I used to believe in the wisdom and effectiveness of U.S. nuclear war plans and the withhold options that would "signal" our restraint. I even thought that American bombing strategies in the Vietnam war made sense and somehow should have worked -- but the North Vietnamese didn't react as our planners hoped and predicted.

And so I worry that what may seem "proportionate" to one side may not be viewed the same by the other, and that the spiral toward greater violence may grow out of control.

The world's greatest security threat -- not just in Korea but wherever there are nuclear weapons today -- is that leaders may actually decide to use such weapons and consider themselves rational.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

misleading medical metaphors

I'm not a medical doctor,but I still cringe when someone misuses a medical term, often as a metaphor for a policy problem. "Schizophrenic" appears frequently nowadays and seems to mean inconsistent, switching between opposites, or two-faced. That's not how the disease manifests itself. Bipolar disorder, quite different from schizophrenia, is a closer metaphor because of its associated mood swings, but it's still misleading.

Using these medical metaphors tends to trivialize the illness as well as compounding public ignorance about its nature, causes, and treatments. I have a writer friend who refuses to use "suicide" as a term for political self-destruction because a close family member committed actual suicide. I have close friends who are alcoholics or gambling addicts -- at best, they admit they are only "recovering" -- and I cringe at dramas that make light of such serious problems. I also have known people with real schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and the difficulties faced by their loved ones.

My point is that mental illnesses are too serious to make fun of and too important to use as misleading metaphors.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

foreign policy leadership

Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has a great piece demonstrating the emptiness of calls for more American "leadership" to solve all of our foreign policy problems. Someone in the Obama administration helped trigger this line of argument two years ago by saying, as intended praise, that Obama was "leading from behind," a stupid way of labeling coalition diplomacy.

Anyway, Zenko properly criticizes those pundits and politicians who talk as if other nations would quickly fall into line if the President just made a few more phone calls. The real world doesn't work like that. Interests and power matter much more than atmospherics.

the first world war will not take place

For students of international affairs, the outbreak and prosecution of the first world war is the premier test case for all kinds of theories -- about alliances, balances of power, crisis management, military technology and strategy, and so forth.

As one of those students, I was entranced by Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, which taught the important lesson of maintaining civilian political control in crises and avoiding rigid war plans -- a lesson which may even have helped the Kennedy Administration avoid accidental nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.

I also learned the beauty of solid diplomatic history, starting with Sidney Fay's The Origins of the World War, written in 1928. I learned about military strategy by studying the Schlieffen plan -- and then enjoyed the revisionist histories debunking the rigidity of that plan.

Last year, I was thrilled to read Sean McMeekin's revisionist history of Russian political-military strategy leading up to the 1914 war, based on Russian archives never before available to or used by other historians.

Now I've had a chance to read McMeekin's detailed study, July 1914: Countdown to War. His work is so persuasive, I've changed my mind about war guilt, which the Versailles Treaty attributed solely to Germany.

McMeekin spreads the blame around, noting various sins of commission or omission by all of the major figures in the sad drama. Austria-Hungary wanted a war with Serbia, but not Russia. Germany erred by giving Austria-Hungary a blank check of support. France and Britain each could have taken steps away from the brink. But McMeekin says that the crucial decision, knowingly, for a European war and not just another Balkan conflict, was made by Russian on July 29, 1914, when Russia began mobilization secretly,with the full expectation that war with Germany therefore became inevitable. [He also notes that Tuchman placed a key Russian-French consultation two days later than the facts now show.]

McMeekin also mentions counter-factuals. Absent the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo -- he himself would likely have blocked war with Serbia [as he had done 25 times in 1913!]; France would have remained caught up in a political scandal [the Caillaux affair] that threatened the pro-Russian Poincare; Britain would have remained consumed with the Irish problem and the mutiny in its own army over Irish home rule; Russia might still have gone to war -- but with Turkey,to prevent German domination of the Turkish military.

My subject line echoes another fine piece of literature I encountered in my studies of  World War I -- Jean Giraudoux's 1935 play, "The Trojan War Will Not Take Place," which used an ancient setting to criticize the failed diplomacy of 1914.  The war that did take place was a world-historical catastrophe, worthy studying in all its dimensions. I'm pleased to have come across an analysis that corrects some of the mistaken views many of us have previously held.

empty posts at State

Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin totes up the many senior level vacancies at the State Department. They may reflect a power struggle between the White House, which wants nominees more beholden to the President than to the Secretary, and Secretary Kerry, but more likely it's just another example of the slowness of the White House appointments office to settle on and nominate personnel. The problem has also been evident throughout the Obama years in judicial appointments, Federal Reserve appointments, and various sub-cabinet jobs. 

It's one thing to avoid bruising confirmation fights, but quite another to let vacancies remain for months.

analyzing North Korea

In 1939, Winston Churchill called Soviet Russia "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Not a bad description of North Korea today.

While there are exceptions in history, I generally believe that nations and their leaders are rarely "crazy," meaning stupidly irrational. Usually they act in pursuit of some important national interests, even if outsiders consider their actions puzzling or worse. On the other hand, outsiders have a tendency to "mirror image," to assume that others make cost-benefit calculations and visualize political contexts as they do. [Why didn't the North Vietnamese give up in response to heavy American bombing?]

I want to believe that the North Korean leadership is rational, that regime survival is its highest goal, and that it will not risk survival by starting a new war with the United States and South Korea. On the other hand, there are too many examples -- July 1914 being the best documented -- of miscalculations leading to a spiral into terrible war.

I guess we have to watch the evidence for signs that might point either way when it comes to North Korea.

caution on Syria

I consider David Ignatius of the Washington Post one of the most knowledgeable journalists on the Arab world. Consequently, I am even more wary about intervening in support of the Syrian rebels when he says, as he does today, that Syria has a "bottom-up rebellion, with towns and regions forming battalions that have merged into larger coalitions. These coalitions have tens of thousands of fighters. But they lack anything approaching the discipline of a normal army."

He paints a pessimistic picture of the future:
The disorganized, Muslim-dominated opposition prompts several conclusions: First, the United States will have limited influence, even if it steps up covert involvement over the next few months. Second, the post-Assad situation may be as chaotic and dangerous as the civil war itself.
Those are powerful warnings. I hope American officials heed them.