Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Politico parody

I'm deeply ambivalent about Politico, the newspaper cum website filled with political news and gossip. It lets us find out what all the various factions are saying and doing to win their political battles.  But much of its coverage is just reporting the one-sided releases of its sources. Just about every story is unbalanced, and the paper as a whole is a discordant hodgepodge. It also has the fake urgency of cable news, treating each story as breathtakingly significant. I used to read the comics as a kid; now I'd be embarrassed to do that. Similarly, I'm increasingly embarrassed to admit to reading Politico, but so far I can't stop.

I was pleased to see a parody of the paper by the New Republic, and I wanted to share it. Enjoy.

watchdog bites

Until now, the most vigorous defenders of the intelligence community have been the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees. The latest leaks about interception of friendly  foreign leaders' communications, however, have turned one of them them into a critic. Senator Diane Feinstein of California is promising a thorough review of the NSA.

It sounds as if her committee was not made fully aware of the "head of state collection" program -- just as  White House officials are saying, anonymously of course, that President Obama didn't know either until this summer. I'm not surprised that the President wasn't specifically told about the intercepts; senior leaders need assessed intelligence, not sources and methods details. But it's obvious now that the blowback from disclosures is damaging to U.S. interests that the President should have been told and asked for permission to continue what apparently started in 2002.

As President Eisenhower learned when he first tried to deny knowing about the U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, plausible deniability doesn't really help a president or the country when word of a secret activity gets out. Better to have a check and balance system of presidential decision and congressional notification.

That was my answer in 1974 when I helped write the Hughes-Ryan amendment that set up that system for CIA covert actions, and it's still a good recommendation for potentially embarrassing collection programs, as well as for lethal drone and offensive cyber operations.

Update: Foreign Policy's The Cable has an even fuller description of the significance of the Feinstein statement.

Monday, October 28, 2013

need fewer warriors, more managers

The Center for New American Security has a provocative new report on how to improve the senior leadership of the U.S. armed forces. Building Better Generals has some very persuasive analysis and worthwhile recommendations. The report recognizes that future conflicts are likely to be much different from what we have experienced since 2001, and that resources will be constrained for the foreseeable future.

"Problems previously solved with infusions of more resources will now demand innovative thinking and creative management by senior uniformed leaders."
The report recommends various improvements in existing Professional Military Education [PME] programs, plus new ones for officers given one or two star rank. It also calls for longer tours in senior jobs, rather than the less than two years for even four-star assignments. All this is reasonable.

Where the authors are likely to run into problems, however, is where they recommend splitting senior assignments into either "operational" or "enterprise-management." Operational jobs call for war-fighters who also understand political-military relations and linking operations to grand strategy. The so-called enterprise jobs are managerial, like those of senior corporate executive.

That distinction is reasonable; different skills are required for combatant commanders and those managing personnel systems, training, logistics, and even intelligence collection. But the report notes that, in the U.S. Army,
"approximately 65 percent of one-star billets, 80 percent of two-star billets, 82 percent of three-star billets and 92 percent of four-star billets are nonoperational enterprise-management
On the other hand, army colonels who become generals come overwhelmingly from the operational career fields: 
"In the Army alone, approximately 50 percent of one-star, 70 percent of two-star, 80 percent of three-star and 85 percent of four-star generals have been promoted from the operational
career fields."
It's not enough to say, give those operators the management training they need. This requires a cultural change in the services to reward more men and women who are not proven "warriors." And they need to persuade skilled operators that they won't be second class officers if they opt for the enterprise-management track.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Congress at its all-too-typical

I wasn't personally affected by the government shutdown because Congress failed to pass any appropriations bills for the new fiscal year that began October 1. But I was dismayed at the many politicians who tried to shift blame away from themselves -- for not doing their key Constitutional duty -- and onto government workers who -- suffered an immediate pay cut, tried to protect our parks and national monuments from harm by blocking access, were forbidden to use their emails even to help people seeking government permits to conduct their businesses, and were called "non-essential." We need to rename the categories to something like "Required for health and safety" and "Unfunded by Congress."

The settlement settled little, just kicked the can down the road to late January. But the nasty poll numbers may have reduced Republican willingness to threaten default again. Who knows? Two and a half months is a long time in politics.

spooked by Libya

"U.S. inattention to Libya breeds chaos," reads the headline over David Ignatius' latest column. He says that President Obama wants to increase U.S. support to the fledgling government including training several thousand Libyan troops, but that little has happened. Much of the blame he puts on "Congressional Republicans" for what he calls a "Libya phobia." He says top GOP lawmakers strongly opposed letting Libyans come to the U.S. for education and training.

My sense is that the whole government mostly would like Libya to go away. The State Department doesn't want another security problem like what led to the killing of the U.S. ambassador. Other agencies want to stay out until security is guaranteed. And congressional Republicans are following a version of the Giuliani method, where every sentence has a noun, a verb, and Benghazi.

It's a shame we haven't learned to manage and cope with threats, and not be paralyzed by them.

whatever happened to the interagency process?

There's a strange article in the New York Times today about U.S. policy toward the Middle East that raises more questions than it answers. Susan Rice, the national security adviser since July 1, gave an interview discussing the policy review she recently conducted.

Its purpose was to find of way of containing Middle East policy issues so that they would not overwhelm other foreign policy issues. Its first fruits were announced by the President at the United Nations, where Obama said he would work on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, try to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace, and mitigate the problems in Syria. The Times says everything else in the region, including Egypt, would take a "back seat."

All that sounds reasonable. What troubles me, however, is the reporting that this new overarching policy was developed wholly within the White House, excluding participants from the State Department or Pentagon. Not even the Secretaries of State or Defense. They were "briefed" by Ms. Rice.

If the meetings really were only about messaging and crafting the UN speech, I could understand the exclusions. But if it was, or was meant to be, a substantive policy review, there should have been broader participation.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

what's the matter with the Republicans?

Gradually the news media have accepted the analysis of Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein that the Republican party -- at least its representatives in Washington -- has become a radical outlier. Gridlock is not the failure of two otherwise reasonable groups to compromise their differences but rather the inability of one side even to consider compromise. Other analysts point to the takeover of the GOP by a minority of a minority, the radical Tea Party types, and the collapse of traditional  institutional leadership.

Two new assessments of the GOP provide further insights into what has happened. Conservative writer David Frum lists "Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Political Parties." His list includes apocalyptic visions and politics as war, two traits that reinforce each other in intransigent radicalism. Meanwhile, Democratic strategists James Carville and Stanley Greenberg offer their own analysis, based on focus groups with GOP voters. They see Republicans as fearful of Obama and the future, much like Frum's apocalyptic visions.

If that's where Republican voters are coming from, no wonder their representatives are fight to the death extremists. Too bad for the country.

Monday, October 7, 2013

prayer time

The New York Times has an article about the Senate chaplain today. It notes that weekly prayer groups and Bible study sessions have been suspended during the lapse in appropriations which has led to the government shutdown.

The article brings to mind the story of the Senate chaplain's encounter with an angry citizen years ago, around 1950. "How can you pray for those jerks?" he was asked. His reply: "That's not what I do. What I do, as I stand at the front of the chamber and look out at the members, is pray for the country."

Sunday, October 6, 2013

gamesmanship vs. statesmanship

To mix metaphors, as befits our broken political system today, we are watching a slow motion train wreck that will propel us over the fiscal cliff. Everybody can see the disaster in the making, and almost everybody is spending more time trying to assure they won't be blamed than working for a solution.

The government needs to be funded and the debt limit raised to avoid default. A continuing resolution is the second stupidest way to allocate funds for government; the worst is the across the board sequester. But at least the CR is an easily understood tool, and it makes a deal easier because it's just about money, not other policy disputes.  The Republicans have failed repeatedly to block the new health care law, so they need to give way; the government shutdown is far worse for the country than the new law. Let the House vote on a clean CR!

Do intransigents deserve to have their faces saved? No, but it makes political sense for the Democrats  to offer something, not about health but about spending. The CR already has spending cuts to  this year's sequester level, so I suppose the spending deals have to be linked to the debt limit.

Is the President right to refuse negotiations on the shutdown and debt limit? Sure. He has enough experience to know that the current House GOP leadership can't deliver on its own deals. Are the Republicans hypocritical to call for negotiations after refusing to have them on the budget resolution for several months? Sure, but hypocrisy is as common in politics as mosquitoes in summer, and it's hard to get rid of both.

It's time for the insiders who care about the government and the economy to craft a package. The provisions don't have to be "negotiated," just put forward and supported by a critical mass of lawmakers. I don't have a package in mind, but I would expect it to recycle provisions like a super committee, or a time certain for an up-or-down vote on a tax reform deal, and maybe even some tweaks to Obamacare. Time is short.

touch wood

I'm a little bit superstitious. That's why I so readily believed the story I heard years ago about Albert Einstein.

The story goes that a reporter was ushered into Einstein's study in Princeton and noticed a good luck horseshoe over the door. "How could you, Professor Einstein, a supremely rational man, believe in such a superstition?" the reporter asked. The great man replied, "I'm told that it works whether you believe in it or not."

I was reminded of that anecdote when I read an article in today's New York Times by some academic researchers who say that actions like knocking on wood can have beneficial psychological effects.

Knocking on wood may not be magical, but superstition proved helpful in understanding why the ritual was effective. Across cultures, superstitions intended to reverse bad luck, like throwing salt or spitting, often share a common ingredient. In one way or another, they involve an avoidant action, one that exerts force away from oneself, as if pushing something away.
I believe.