Thursday, January 31, 2013

John Kerry, Senator

The Washington Post has a nice piece reporting on John Kerry's farewell speech to the Senate. The whole text can be seen on pages S383-89 of the Congressional Record.

I was struck by how much an institutionalist Kerry was. He defended the Senate while criticizing some of its members behaviors. He didn't support ending the filibuster but instead urged more effort to listen to others when they did speak. He lamented the loss of comity and the corrosive influence of the money chase to fund campaigns.

Some excerpts:

Frankly, the problems we live
through today come from individual
choices of Senators themselves, not the
rules. When an individual Senator or a
colluding caucus determines that the
comity essential to an institution such
as the Senate is a barrier to individual
ambition or party ambition, the country
loses. Those are the moments in
which the Senate fulfills, not its responsibility
to the people but its reputation as a sanctuary of gridlock.

So what effort do we need to put into
our reason and spirit in order to do it?
I believe there are three most significant
challenges that have conspired to
bring about a dangerous but reversible
erosion in the quality of our democracy:
the decline of comity, the deluge
of money, and the disregard for facts.
First, I have witnessed what we all
have, a loss of simple comity, the respect
that we owe one another, and the
sense of common cause that brings all
of us here. The Senate as a body can
change its rules to make itself more efficient,
sure. But only Senators, one by
one in their own hearts, can change the
approach to legislating which Henry
Clay correctly defined as the art of

Our time here is not
meant to last forever. If we use the
time to posture politically in Washington,
we weaken our position across
the world. If democracy deadlocks
here, we raise doubts about democracy
everywhere. If we do not in our deeds
prove our own ideals, we undermine
our security and the sacred mission as
the best hope of Earth. But if we do our
jobs right, if we treat our colleagues
with respect and build the relationships
required to form consensus and
find the courage to follow through on our
promises of compromise, the work we do here will long endure.

new "leading from behind" analysis

Walter Pincus and Marc Ambinder both have articles judging the Obama foreign policy approach as "leading from behind" and approving it. Pincus quotes from former officials Bob Gates and Geeorge Shultz on the value of avoiding large ground combat operations. Ambinder notes how much criticism Obama gets when he refuses to get deeply involved, as in Syria.

Critics complain about inconsistency. "If Libya, why not Syria?" Or even, "If Syria, why not Congo?"

I think it's useful to remember that even Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his famous comment about consistency, noted that it shouldn't be welcomed in diplomacy. The full statement was:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

not the write answer

The Wall Street Journal reports that 45 states have now dropped the teaching of cursive writing from their required standards.  Even more troubling, the paper says that;s just what middle school kids want.

When asked whether they should have to learn cursive, 3,000 of 3,900 middle-school students surveyed by Junior Scholastic magazine in 2010 said it should be erased. "NO! OMG, 4get cursive, it's dead!"
Call me old-fashioned ... or worse. I also believe that kids should have to learn how to do multiplication and long division by mind and hand before they are allowed to use calculators.  I'm skeptical of any scientific study that tries to prove or disprove some major cognitive benefit from learning to write or calculate, but I still believe it's useful.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

bipartisan consensus on foreign policy?

The always interesting Shadow Government blog on Foreign Policy magazine's site reports research that seem to suggest an underlying bipartisanship on a broad range of foreign policy issues. The authors earlier did a survey of Democratic and Republican officials with executive branch experience and noted many areas of agreement. They have now completed a poll of congressional staffers on defense and foreign policy issues and report similar signs of potential agreement. More analysis here.

Don't get your hopes up yet. I think the researchers are exaggerating the areas of agreement and overlooking strong evidence of disagreement on things that matter. The actual tables are here.

What jumps out at me are the following:
  • On almost every issues, the congressional Republicans are significantly more critical of international institutions and international security agreements than their executive branch counterparts. It also turns out that they are about a decade younger -- suggesting they are the next generation of GOP leaders on these issues.
  • Republicans in general seem basically opposed to international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, compared to Democrats. Congressional Republicans don't even support George W. Bush's Proliferation Security Initiative.
  • The only one of the four groups still favorable to U.S. relations with Irag and Afghanistan is executive branch Republicans.
  • There is a profound split on climate change, with only 10% of executive branch and 3% [!] of congressional Republicans considering it an important issue.
The biggest reason that the areas of disagreement are likely to overwhelm the few items of agreement is the hyper-partisanship that makes even minor issues major confrontations that must be won at all costs. Until people on both sides recognize bipartisanship as a virtue rather than a sign of weakness, we're not going to get very far.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

originalism on trial

There is a school of judicial interpretation called "originalism."  Adherents claim that the Constitution should be interpreted solely by reference to its particular words and the meaning those words held at the time of ratification. Justice Antonin Scalia is perhaps the best known originalist, though even he sometimes accepts stare decisis, the view that over time some issues become settled over time, even if contrary to a current reading of original meaning and intent, and the weight of precedents should stand.

A 3-judge appeals court panel on Friday ruled that "recess appointments" made by President Obama to the National Labor Relations Board were invalid because they did not occur when the Senate was in "the Recess" between multi-month-long sessions. Despite numerous other legal opinions over the years, many of which defined the "recess" as more than 3 days, the appeals court ruled that the clear language of the Constitution and early precedents permitted such appoints only during that time window between sessions. The judges argued that the use of the definite article -- "the Recess" -- meant that the Framers contemplated a single occasion each Congress.  Two of the three judges also held that the word "happen" meant that recess appointments could only be made for positions that fell vacant during "the Recess" and not for positions that went vacant when the Senate was in session.

This is originalism pure and simple. The matter is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, which is likely to take it to resolve the differing rulings already among federal district courts. The ruling is fun to read because of its logical elegance and elevated pedantry. Most puzzling to me, however, is the claim [on page 20] that prior to 1947 there were only three cases of intrasession recess appointments, and none before 1867, thus suggesting that everybody agreed with their originalist interpretation. That's not what this CRS Report says, citing numerous recess appointments starting with George Washington. See also the Office of Legal Counsel's memo for the Obama Administration.

I'm not a lawyer, but I do think the weight of historical practice and legal precedent should prevail over tortured readings by originalists. I'm  more comfortable with a ruling that appointments can be made if the Senate is out for more than three days, and that there should be some business on each third day. Let's see what the Supreme Court decides.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


The effort to change the Senate rules to reduce the use of filibusters has ended with bipartisan agreement on a very limited set of changes, far short of what I had hoped for. The motion to proceed to new business is still debatable for 4 hours, which in Senate practice is most of a day. In return, the minority party is granted the right to offer an amendment, which likely could be the kind of poison pill that embarrasses the majority or guts the basic legislation. Nominees can still be filibustered, but "only" for eight hours of debate after 60 votes have been cast to end the filibuster.

There's nothing to put the real burden of opposition on opponents by requiring a "talking filibuster." I had thought and hoped that the threat to change the rules by majority vote would lead to more significant changes, but apparently the old bulls didn't want to use that tactic -- and one of the reform advocates, Sen. Merkley [D-OR] angered his colleagues by trying to get outside pressure on them. Not good.

COINcidentally, a band of brothers

In the final days before classes begin again, I've had time to read several new books. One of the most exciting has been Fred Kaplan's The Insurgents
It's a riveting story of how an idea -- counterinsurgency -- was grasped by a few far-sighted Army officers and then turned into military doctrine and operational practice in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kaplan's heroes -- Gen. David Petraeus at the center, but many mentors and acolytes as well -- are labeled "insurgents" because they challenged the Army's post-Vietnam conventional wisdom that irregular, asymmetric, "low intensity" conflicts would not and should not be fought. They won acceptance of their ideas after several years of unsuccessful combat in Afghanistan and Iraq because the old doctrine of just killing the enemy had failed. Regrettably, though the new approach was tried in both places, it was not matched by needed changes by the host governments.

Kaplan provides fascinating details of how the insurgents met each other, collaborated openly or secretly in developing ideas and policy recommendations, and ultimately won top level support to put their ideas into practice. For Washington insiders, it's a story of creative networking, how captains and majors made the contacts and got the jobs that led to influence and power years later. For them, whom they knew mattered at least as much as what they knew.

Unlike the typical journalist's book set in Washington and centered on the White House, this covers both Washington and Baghdad and Kabul, and tells the stories of the men and women who fought the wars and tried to learn useful lessons from the experience. It's not about national politics but about institutional change in one of our oldest institutions, the U.S. Army.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

McChrystal takeaways

I've just finished former General Stanley McChrystal's memoir, My Share of the Task. The book is overly long, with too many incidental details, but it provides illuminating insights and revelations about U.S. civil-military relations and the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While his removal from command in Afghanistan was necessary and proper after his staff made numerous demeaning comments about their civilian superiors, it's a shame that the consequence was the loss of such a thoroughly professional officer.

My takeaways:
  • Rumsfeld's "famously abrasive style" led to an atmosphere in the Pentagon that was "often tentative and sometimes anxious." [80]
  • In early 2004, there was "counterproductive infighting" among CIA, State, Defense and others over how to pursue Al Qaeda. "No alliance could be as infuriating or as productive as my relationship with the CIA." [116, 118]
  • When he became Director of the Joint Staff in June 2008, JCS Chairman Adm. Mullen told him to "attack and destroy the network." Which one? "Ours." [Joint Staff and Pentagon] "Tear it down and rebuild it to be faster, more transparent, and more effective." [279]
  • The first months of the Obama administration "saw the emergence of an unfortunate deficit of trust between the White House and the Department of Defense, largely arising from the decision-making process on Afghanistan." [284] "I saw good people all trying to reach a positive outcome, but approaching the problem from different cultures and perspectives, often speaking with different vocabularies. I hoped time working together would create more trust and a common picture." [287]
  • In preparing his assessment and recommendations for Afghanistan policy, "The process of formulating, negotiating, articulating, and then prosecuting even a largely military campaign involved politics at multiple levels that were impossible to ignore." [351]
  • The supposed fight over whether the mission was to "Defeat" or "Degrade" the Taliban was not significant. Either term fit the plan McChrystal envisioned. [352-53]
  • He told the president he could live with Obama's decisions in December 2009, and said the announcement of a withdrawal date was not fatal to the mission. [357] "As with most presidential decisions in wartime, there was something for everyone to like and something for everyone to hate." [359]

Europe's half-vast military capabilites

Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates repeatedly warned NATO members that they had to modernize their forces and not expect the United States to fill in all the gaps. The Libyan intervention exposed some weaknesses. Deeper intervention in Syria is limited by U.S. caution and European deficiencies. And now Mali is providing new evidence of at least French deficiencies.

According to the Financial Times, the French are complaining that U.S. officials are "dragging their feet" about providing three aerial refueling tankers.  The FT says the United States, after first demanding that the French pay the $20 million cost, has now agreed to use C-17s to ferry French troops into Mali at no cost.

As an American taxpayer, I have no problem with the U.S. government seeking reimbursement for services and equipment provided to allies except in very special cases. [In the 1991 Gulf War, allies provided funds offsetting U.S. costs.] But we should be cautious about being sucked into conflicts we might otherwise avoid. And our allies should learn that they need to have more capability if they wish to play in thebig leagues.