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.