Tuesday, July 30, 2013

military advice on Syria

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has sent a letter to senators setting forth possible options for using force in Syria and the costs and consequences of each. We already knew that Gen. Dempsey has been  highly skeptical on the use of force there; now we have more specifics.

Sure, we could establish a no fly zone for about a billion dollars a month, he says. But --
"Risks include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces. It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires—mortars, artillery, and missiles."
Or we could establish buffer zones outside of Syria along with a limited no fly zone. But --
"A limited no-fly zone coupled with U.S. ground forces would push the costs over one billion dollars per month. Over time, the impact would be an improvement in opposition capabilities. Human suffering could also be reduced, and some pressure could be lifted off Jordan and Turkey. Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added problem of regime surface fires into the zones, killing more refugees due to their concentration. The zones could also become operational bases for extremists. "
Or we could try to control Syrian chemical weapons. But --
"Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month. The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons. It would also help prevent their further proliferation into the hands of extremist groups. Our inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access. Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground. "
These are plausible options and fair assessments. I believe Gen. Dempsey has met his obligation to give Congress his personal and professional judgment on the issue. There have also been classified briefings, he says.

The most interesting part of the letter to me is at the end, when he puts the issue in a broader geopolitical context.

"We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime's institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.
"I know that the decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less
than an act of war. As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some
confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome. We must also
understand risk-not just to our forces, but to our other global responsibilities. This is especially
critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty. Some options may not be
feasible in time or cost without compromising our security elsewhere. Once we take action, we
should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid. We should also
act in accordance with the law, and to the extent possible, in concert with our allies and partners to share the burden and solidify the outcome."

Think about what he means by those words.  Military power isn't enough to achieve our political goals. There will likely be unintended consequences, perhaps empowering extremists and unleashing chemical weapons. Using lethal force is "an act of war," and "we should act in accordance with the law," suggesting that Congress should have the guts to authorize it. Finally, he says that we have to be ready for likely "deeper involvement." 

Those are the issues on which action in Syria should be considered, not just whether some move might have temporary benefits.

Monday, July 29, 2013

the slow return of Congress to normal politics

Whether the political fever has broken, or the single digit public approval numbers have forced members of Congress to change their behavior, the end result is an evident improvement in the healthy functioning of the legislative branch.

  • The Senate backed away from the "nuclear option" of reforming the rules by majority vote in a welcome bipartisan compromise. Why? First because a small group of Senators reached across the aisle and found areas of agreement. Second, as Sarah Binder persuasively argues, because the Democratic majority had the votes and the Republican minority was divided. She also lays out conditions when a threat to use that option might work again in the future: when it is narrowly targeted, when the minority has been overreaching, and when the issue is central to the majority's core interests. I'm happy with the outcome, since I think  filibusters should be safe, legal, and rare, but I'm also pleased with the bipartisan process that led to that result.
  • The Senate has been acting responsibly -- that is, actually passing important legislation -- again by bipartisan cooperation. It passed immigration reform, a farm bill, and even a budget resolution.
  • There are signs of bipartisanship in the House of Representatives, too. While I'm skeptical of revising NSA surveillance by floor amendments on appropriations bills, I'm heartened by the bipartisan efforts on that issue and related ones that have surfaced in recent weeks.
On the other hand, the prospects for sensible agreements on this year's spending bills, and the debt limit, and immigration reform are still gloomy. But maybe members will discover that actually passing legislation and getting it signed into law is worth the effort.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

re-thinking the revolution in military affairs

Every now and then, I come across something that makes me stop and reconsider a long-held belief. As an academic, I welcome revisionist historians, even though I don't always agree with them.

This weekend, returning from a trip to rural Ireland, I came across an op-ed piece by a warrior-scholar I have long admired, Army Major General H.R. McMaster. His main points are received wisdom: war is political; war is human; and war is uncertain. I suspect one motivation is to remind us that we can't reduce our land-based fighting forces too far without incurring major risks in the future.

But McMaster's major point is that, in reaction to second thoughts about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our understandable wish to avoid similar conflicts in the future, we are hearing false prophets of technological solutions to our military challenges.

I guess I was one of those misguided prophets in earlier years. Working for the Senate Armed Services Committee in the 1970s, I was a strong advocate of a vigorous R&D program across the board, especially basic research and DARPA-style efforts. When many of my colleagues pointed to unsuccessful programs and urged cuts, I agreed with the then-director at DARPA who told us, "To do our job right, we need the right to fail."

I later enjoyed teaching courses on Military Innovation for Future Wars, where I cited historical examples showing that successful innovation required advocates willing to risk their careers and sponsors willing to devote scarce resources to uncertain efforts and ultimately career rewards for those pioneers.

In the late 1990s I thought that the Revolution in Military Affairs, so popular that its acronym, RMA, was sufficient to draw hundreds to conferences and roundtables, was the answer for America's armed forces. I thought we could have jointness across services and technology that made the battle space transparent and targettable. The high tech "shock and awe" promised victory without large standing armies.

I still believe in R&D, and I know there are likely to be very valuable technologies waiting to be weaponized that can make America safer and stronger. But I also believe in robust ground forces for those times when technology falls short.

In the fall of 2002, when Congress was debating authorizing use of force against Iraq, a majority of students at the National War College, where I taught, wrote papers urging continued diplomatic measures to contain Saddam Hussein rather than going to war. Air Force officers seemed most confident about winning a war if it came. But some of my Army students strongly opposed invading Iraq. They warned, quite accurately as things turned out, "We can knock him out, but then we in the Army will be stuck there."

back in the saddle again

So I go away for two weeks, but the world doesn't stop. In fact, all kinds of fascinating reports have piled up during my absence. Let me list some of the most important ones. I'll try to say more later.

  • The Senate marched to the brink of a constitutional crisis and then found a face-saving way to avoid it. I thought this might happen, but failed to issue a prediction I could now boast about. But I'm glad that wiser heads prevailed on both sides.
  • The House narrowly defeated, with both parties sharply split, an amendment to halt funds for some NSA data gathering programs, thus showing how troubled members are by the recent revelations.
  • The newly strengthened Japanese prime minister announced new steps to increase Japan's military capabilities and activities. Asia is finding its own ways of "rebalancing."
  • The Obama Administration confusingly halted the delivery of F-16 fighters to Egypt as a sign of displeasure over the recent military coup, but also decided that other aid can continue because the U.S. government isn't legally required to make a determination that a coup has occurred.
  • Public support for U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan has dropped to its lowest level, even below support for the Iraq war. Only 28% of respondents say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting.
  • An intelligence official said the war in Syria could go on for years and has already stalemated. Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, sent Congress a letter outlining several U.S. courses of action for Syria, aptly summarized by own journalist as "Every military option in Syria sucks."  I'm glad to see his advice on the record.
While all this was happening, my wife and I were enjoying the rural splendor of western Ireland, watching pounding surf and grazing sheep while staying in an old stone house that geographically is the westernmost home in Europe, at least by a few yards.  We hiked along rugged cliffs, ate local seafood and lamb, and drank local beers. We didn't worry about the rest of the world for a while.

In my pre-trip reading of Irish history, I learned that one of the major factors boosting public support for those favoring full independence from Britain after the 1916 Easter Rebellion and weakening support for the Home Rule advocates was the prospect of conscription to fight in World War I. There had been no Irish draft until 1918,when it was set for males up to the age of 51.

Friday, July 12, 2013

running on empty

After initial enthusiasm for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, I have become less confident that the merger of so many disparate agencies was wise and workable. Today, I'm even more worried than ever that DHS is imploding from neglect. I hadn't realized until reading Christian Beckner's column in Foreign Policy that 15 senior posts in the department are vacant, many lacking even a presidential nomination.

Sad to say, this situation is consistent with other failures of the Obama White House to nominate people for key positions in a timely way.

It's especially ironic that Senate Democrats are considering a dangerous rules change simply to make it easier to approve executive branch nominees when the administration itself is failing to send them forward.

Not good.

here a coup, there a coup

The question is how to respond to the post-Morsi government of Egypt isn't only a policy matter, but a legal and constitutional one as well. On policy grounds, it makes sense to follow a wait-and-see approach, nudging the new regime to have quick and fair elections and other reforms. There are even technical, bureaucratic issues -- like the disbursement schedule of various types of aid --  that might allow for delay in applying the legal requirement to halt aid when a duly elected head of government is overthrown by a military coup.

But the law is a law. And while the current law lacks a waiver provision, which some in Congress are now contemplating, I believe it should be enforced pending such a change in the law.

Presidentialists believe that legal provisions can never restrict a president on national security matters. Policy advocates who favor results rather than proper processes also urge not calling a coup a coup. David Rothkopf even slams the whole legal profession for being "literalists" and making "foreign policy by dictionary."

Wrong. This is foreign policy by law, consistent with the Constitution.  I have to admit, however, that U.S. application of this law has been spotty and inconsistent, as Max Fisher documents in the Post.

Let's get back on the right track. Make clear the law will be enforced as pressure for reforms and a timetable. Ask Congress to add a waiver in one of the upcoming appropriations bills. And consider using it if and when it becomes law.

no nukes

Senate Democrats seem to be moving toward using a questionable parliamentary ploy to prevent filibusters on executive branch nominees -- what many call "the nuclear option."  I think that would be a stupid and dangerous mistake.

The filibuster and other delaying tactics have been used to excess in recent years in the Senate, so I favor measures to reduce opportunities and incentives to delay. But I don't want to eliminate the filibuster entirely, and I certainly don't want the Senate to become a majoritarian institution like the House. That's why I've recommended ending debate on motions to take up legislation and changing the rules to require opponents to produce 40 members to sustain debate, rather than the current system that forces the majority to keep producing 51 members.

I especially want to preserve the filibuster for opponents of Supreme Court nominees, who serve a lifetime, and for final passage of major legislation. I wouldn't mind a rules change allowing an up-or-down vote on executive branch nominees after a reasonable time certain.

What Majority Leader Reid seems to plan, however, uses a highly controversial parliamentary ruling to achieve a minor change related only to executive branch nominees. It would be much better to take such steps at the start of a Congress, when the case for a rules change by majority vote is more defensible, and when the threat might make the minority more amenable to a package of reforms.

There is a lot of obstruction and delay right now, but delays on executive branch nominees are hardly the biggest problem. Yet such a move only poisons the atmosphere for cooperation even more -- and creates an attractive precedent for majoritarian actions by a future Republican majority.

Don't go there now. It's just not worth it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Congress and Syria

Who in Congress should have primary responsibility for action on aid to Syrian rebels? The foreign policy committees think they should, and they have even been voting on Syrian aid bills. But the intelligence committees are the only panels authorized by Congress to handle CIA covert operations, and only they have been briefed on the administration's supposedly secret actions so far.

Now, it appears, there is a policy disagreement between the two groups: the foreign policy committees favor U.S. actions on behalf of the rebels and the intelligence committees are raising doubts. Reportedly they have even voted against the administration's limited secret effort.

Historically, negative reactions to proposed covert operations have been quite influential on presidential decisions, even though White House lawyers argue that the President doesn't have to be bound by committee votes.

I'm sympathetic to the intelligence committees on this one,not only because I have my own doubts about how well we understand the opposition and how effectively we can limit what the radical jihadists get in the process, but also on congressional grounds. The intelligence committees are best suited to assess the administration plan; they have the experience and the jurisdiction.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

who lost America?

One of the delights of summer for me is the chance to do more reading for pleasure. I like to look at books which offer to fill gaps in my knowledge or to answer questions that have long puzzled me. For example, that's why I enjoyed several books on the outbreak of World War I that revised my thinking about German war guilt.  That's also why I enjoyed books on the interaction between domestic politics and American foreign policy in 1939-41, leading to revised thinking about FDR.

I've just finished Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy's fine study of The Men Who Lost America that looks at the British side during the Revolutionary War. Previously, I knew little of what was happening in London and tended to think that our patriots won because they had a righteous cause, clever diplomacy, and armed forces that managed to struggle and avoid defeat while even winning a few important battles. But why, I wondered, did the war actually last 18 months after the battle of Yorktown and why did the British troops not evacuate New York until November, 1783?

Now I know. I don't pretend to offer a grand synthesis explaining British defeat, but I have learned some important facts and gained a British perspective on the conflict. Following are some nuggets gleaned from O'Shaughnessy's book:

-- King George III opposed American independence until the very last, succumbing only when his long-serving Prime Minister, Lord North, lost the confidence of parliament over the war and resigned in March, 1782.

-- North's own cabinet was riven by disputes throughout the fight with America and he lacked any real political tools for enforcing unity.

-- Most British leaders relied on bad intelligence and wishful thinking, always believing that the rebels were far outnumbered by loyalists. Best scholarly estimates now put the figure below 20%.

-- The British forces faced enormous logistical challenges in trying to resupply some 27 garrisons they maintained in America, as well as their armies on the move. These were compounded by bureaucratic conflicts not least because three different offices had responsibilities for supplying troops.

-- The civilian cabinet officer directly responsible for the war, Lord George Germain, was often in conflict with the first lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich, who gave greater priority to Royal Navy actions in the Caribbean than on the continent and who often failed to support land operations he opposed.

-- British forces wanted to practice what we would now call counterinsurgency but were quite inconsistent about it. They tried to limit their confiscation of supplies but still refused to relax martial law on cities thet occupied, like New York.

-- However much we Americans would like to think we won our independence, it seems to me now that Britain gave up because of broader strategic challenges: a war with France after 1778 that threatened an invasion of the home island; a strategic situation that left Britain with fewer military allies than even in the desperate summer of 1940; military challenges in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and even India.

-- Also interesting to me was the fact that public opinion was a growing force in British politics, with a surge in the number and circulation of newspapers and, starting only in the mid-1770s, the right of journalists to report on debates in parliament, including inflammatory speeches by those opposed to the war.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

who lost Egypt?

Let's not go there. Already the pundits and partisans are trying to blame someone in America for the inept government and assertive military in Egypt. It was Obama's fault, because of a dithering response to the Arab spring. It was Ambassador Patterson's fault, because she was too supportive,  or insufficiently supportive, of the Morsi government. It was Kerry's fault, because he was otherwise occupied with Israeli-Palestinian issues. It was Congress' fault, because it send conflicting signals over what Egypt had to do to keep the aid flowing. It was America's fault, because we didn't pull the strings and make the threats to get the outcomes we wanted.

Why do we so easily fall into the pattern of assuming that actors in other countries always respond to what we say and do, and assuming that we ought to have the ability to control events abroad? That has rarely been the case, even at the height of American unipolar power.

To me, Egypt looks like a sad case of poor governance, poor political skills, and numerous lingering social and economic problems that would challenge any dictator or democratic polity. I hope we can help, but we shouldn't expect to be able to do much.

in-fighting over Syria

As I try to catch up on the news after some travel, I see that the administration is still disputing what to do about Syria. [Now, of course, they can also fight over what could have been done and what now to do regarding Egypt.] The Financial Times sees a split between the cautious president and a secretary of state who wants to bomb Syrian airfields. Whoever is putting out this line should realize that this doesn't help Kerry or his cause.

A fuller account of the fractious NSC meeting and the debate between Kerry and General Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, comes from Jeffrey Goldberg. Meanwhile, Qatar is pursuing its own armament plan, giving Syrian rebels that could be turned on us.  Not good.

political self interest

Self interest is the best predictor and motivation for human political activity. Rarely do other factors matter more. As I read the news about Senate passage of immigration reform legislation, and about the dismal prospects for House action, self interest seemed to matter most.

Senate Republicans, many of whom would like to be presidential candidates, saw the demographic writing on the wall and wanted to make their party more attractive to Hispanics. House Republicans, by contrast, often come from districts with small minority populations and fear nativist opposition if they seem to grant benefits to undocumented foreigners.

While that analysis might be sufficient, it was fascinating to read Ryan Lizza's account of the immigration reform fight in the Senate in The New Yorker. He depicts a welcome but rare bipartisan effort to craft a bill that served Republican, Democratic, administration, and Senate institutional interests. The "gang of eight" undertook to find bridge-building compromises, especially to keep Marco Rubio part of the process. That's the way the process is supposed to work when power is closely divided.

It's useful to contrast this latest "gang" effort with two earlier failures. Chairman Baucus of the Senate Finance Committee tried to work out a bipartisan health care reform bill in 2009, and the president wisely stood aside, but Baucus couldn't make it work and the whole reform effort almost failed completely. Another "gang" worked quietly to develop a deficit reduction and tax reform package in 2011 but was out of synch with the Obama-Boehner discussions and the associated political games.  These bipartisan groups can succeed, but they take a lot of effort, skill -- and luck.

history rhymes

I've always liked the line, variously attributed, that history doesn't repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. The truth of the statement is evident in a fine new history of the U.S. Senate by the late Neil MacNeill and Richard Baker. They describe periods of gridlock and personal animosities and devious parliamentary tactics that sound a lot like what we see today. While I still believe that the "golden age" I observed first hand in the 1970s and a while thereafter was one of civility and compromise and wise public policy, I see now that hyperpartisanship and nastiness have their own precedents.

Another book I'd recommend deals with Abraham Lincoln's one term in Congress at the height of the war with Mexico. Written by someone with recent campaign and congressional staff experience, the author takes note of aspects of Lincoln's activities that resonate with Congress today. He gained office by hard work on behalf of his party and its candidates. He gained respect and a little power in Washington by more hard work, and a talent for lively conversation and joke-telling with his colleagues. He made full use of the perks of office, and was one of the half dozen largest users of the franking privilege that allowed members to mail copies of speeches and other materials free of charge. It's useful to take Lincoln off his pedestal now and then and see how he learned and practiced politics.

These reading adventures, plus grandparenting and travel, may explain why I have posted so little lately.