Friday, June 14, 2013

realism on Syria?

The White House announced yesterday that the United States would provide some small arms and ammunition to the Syrian rebels. This followed what has been reported as a debate between administration factions, with Sec.Kerry and Susan Rice favoring stronger action and Sec. Hagel and adviser Donilon urging caution.

The official rationale is that Syria crossed the president's "red line" by using some chemical weapons. Now that the U.S. has confirmed that use, something more significant had to be done.

The private rationale is that the rebel forces were losing and that something had to be done to prevent their collapse.

All that seems plausible to me: the president is deeply reluctant to get militarily involved, probably for many reasons. But he was backed into a corner by his own red line comments and picked the least escalatory action.

On the other hand, Dan Drezner has a very clever and plausible analysis -- that the president all along has wanted to tie down Iran and Hezbollah in a costly conflict for them, with very little cost to America. As he says:
  Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention.  This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare.  For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East. 
Drezner is uncomfortable with this policy, but says it's better than the alternatives.  Whatever the real explanation, I agree with him on that.

second thoughts on FDR

Earlier this year, I had a change of view on WWI war guilt after reading some new books on the start of that tragic conflict, and I now believe the Russians were also significantly to blame along with the Germans.
I’m now wondering whether I misanalyzed FDR’s policy of rearmament and aid to the allies in 1939-41. For years, and after much research, I accepted the conventional view that FDR worked hard to build public support for rearmament and aid, but never acted beyond the constraints of public opinion, which evolved especially after the fall of France. He also let Gen. Marshall take the public lead on the draft and aid because that seemed most likely to work and least risky to his own political standing. That’s the view I express in my FDR chapter in Warriors & Politicians.

Now I’m re-thinking because of what I read in Lynne Olson’s new book on that period. [To my  surprise, since Olson is not an academic and Susan Dunn is, and has done other fine books on FDR, Olson’s book is much better, livelier, broader in scope, with more telling details and anecdotes than Dunn’s 1940.]
Olson has details of the “Century Group,” a mostly Republican eastern establishment group, and its numerous efforts to build public support for support for the allies and U.S. intervention. She suggests that members directly orchestrated not only the introduction of the draft bill in Congress but also the timing and selection of Henry Stimson’s nomination to be secretary of war. I’m generally dubious of conspiracy theories even to accomplish desirable ends; maybe these folks were just bragging about actions that might have happened anyway.

Olson makes a more significant point as she quotes contemporaneous diary and other documents where administration officials express dismay at FDR’s vacillation. She argues that his fireside chats seemed to promise action that the president was then reluctant to take. I had always excused FDR’s behavior as politically necessary until public opinion caught up with him. Maybe I should see this more as a failure of leadership, since support for various escalatory actions did increase whenever the president openly endorsed them.

She also builds a case that many senior military officers were against aid and intervention, were convinced of German military superiority, and were conspiring with anti-interventionist press and members of Congress by leaking information to support their views. She even has evidence that Gen. Marshall failed to rein in these officers when he found out about their activities and would speak disparagingly of FDR behind his back. I think I need to reassess the FDR-military relationship with this new evidence.

In short, U.S. rearmament before Pearl Harbor may not have been the steady progress I previously described but instead was a halting process, partly aided by a well-placed pressure group and partly hindered by a vacillating president. Moreover, maybe the U.S. military leadership did more than I realized to undercut and slow administration policy of supporting the British. Hmmmm.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

endgame in Syria?

The news from Syria is discouraging for those who wanted and expected the Assad regime to fall. Pro-government forces have gained strategic advantages and the rebels are increasingly desperate. The prospects of an international conference are dimming, not least because the rebel side doesn't want to negotiate from a position of weakness. U.S. officials reportedly met yesterday to discuss policy options, but no leaks have yet emerged.

If Assad prevails,what are the consequences? For Syria, probably continued ethnic strife, maybe even regional and sectarian fragmentation. This is not unusual: think Yemen today, and perhaps Kabul in a year or two. For Iran and its proxies, a kind of victory. [But is that enough to justify U.S. intervention? Not for me. That would make it even harder for America to preserve a military option for dealing with Iranian nukes.] For the Sunni-led Gulf states, more uncertainty and worry, though that would also happen if a weak and divided rebel force succeeded. For Israel, probably a sense of relief, since it would be dealing with a known but weakened Syrian leadership.

Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that an Assad victory could mark the death of the noble Responsibility to Protect [R2P] policy endorsed by the United Nations. But he also notes the other likely costs of U.S. intervention.
But the strategic, economic, and human consequences of a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria are hard to predict. The costs—for regional instability, budgetary overstretch, and U.S. lives—could be gargantuan. And they need to be weighed against the likelihood (and benefits) of “success”—something the administration has yet to define. This cost-benefit analysis must also include an honest assessment of the expenses associated with “the responsibility to rebuild” the post-intervention society (something the Bush administration notoriously neglected to do in Iraq).
It's tragic that more than 93,000 Syrians have died in the fighting in the past two years, and that hundreds of thousands remain in refugee camps with dismal prospects for the future. Those tragedies have to be weighed against the large but unknowable tragedies of western military involvement.

women in Congress

Women are more numerous and more powerful in the 113th Congress than ever before. Nearly 1 in every 5 members are female, forcing the Senate to expand its women's restroom just outside the chamber. A woman chairs the appropriations committee [Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD] and several panel leaders now want to be called "chairwoman" rather than "Madame Chairman."

The growing number of women in Congress should be kept in mind when pundits complain that the number of members with prior military service is dropping -- from over 75% in 1971  to only 20% today. Those numbers were driven by the draft for two major wars. The all volunteer force since 1972 and the increased number of women -- who were never drafted and who volunteer in far smaller numbers -- has shrunk the population with military service. Nevertheless, Congress has a larger share of veterans than their proportion of the total population.

Over the years, women have forced their male colleagues to pay more attention to issues their often overlooked -- spousal needs, family benefits, housing and education, and now sexual harassment. These are positive developments, worth cheering about.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

what makes government spying legitimate?

There are many tests one could use to judge public policy: Does it work? Is it cost-effective? Are the side effects acceptable? Is it consistent with our political and moral values?

One of the most important tests to use on the newly reported electronic surveillance programs is, is the activity legitimate? If not, then it should be abandoned. If it is, then other tests can be applied.

For me, policy legitimacy requires adherence to the Constitution and to a fair formal process. From what I've learned so far, the NSA programs meet that test. They are based on, and restricted by,  laws passed by the Congress, not merely an assertion of presidential prerogatives in response to alleged dangers. They are subject to some kind of review -- also called oversight -- by the judicial and legislative branches of government. Unlike the warrantless wiretapping during the Bush administration, the NSA programs require approval by the FISA court. Unlike many other secret programs, they have been briefed to the congressional intelligence committees. And unlike many of the worst-case depictions of what theoretically could happen using the new technologies, they are targeted on foreigners and actions abroad, not on Americans here at home. NSA people have a strong culture against domestic activities.

These judgments do not mean that the process is perfect. Obviously the oversight could be more rigorous, as could the vetting of personnel given the clearances to participate. Maybe we have gone too far in outsourcing intelligence activities to contractors rather than sworn officials. [About 28% of the people working in the intelligence community are contract employees.] Maybe we have gone too far in stressing the "need to share" information to thwart terrorists and need to move back toward the "need to know" standard.

But for what it's worth, I'm more outraged by what the Government can't collect and keep regarding gun purchases than by what it can do through NSA surveillance.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

when political science ignores history

I'm a certified political scientist,though most of my work has been in qualitative rather than quantitative research. I see value in both approaches, but lately I have begun to despair at the obsession with quantitative techniques that seem to dominate my profession. 

Years ago, a sociology professor of mine remarked that much of his field was the quantification of common sense. I felt that way a few years later when I read a lengthy article by a political scientist proving that big, expensive defense programs got more scrutiny from Congress than small ones. Hello!

So when the latest issue of the American Political Science Review arrived yesterday, I glanced through it, looking for some enlightenment. Instead, I found this, as summarized in an APSR release:
In "Capitol Mobility: Madisonian Representation and the Location and Relocation of Capitals in the United States," Eric Engstrom, Jessie Hammond, and John Scott examine an important but seemingly underappreciated component of American political development and institutional design-the geographic placement of capital cities. They argue that decisions to locate capitals in the United States have been made in accordance with the theory of representative government that originated in this country, especially as articulated by James Madison. Using historical census and political boundaries data, the authors convincingly demonstrate that the original placement and subsequent relocation of state capital cities, as well as the placement of Washington, DC, follow a consistent pattern of being at or near the population center of the relevant jurisdiction, thereby maximizing citizens' access to their seat of government.
It is interesting that capital locations generally have been near the center of population. But one of the first rules in statistics is that correlation is not causation.

And when I read the authors' account of the choice of a site on the Potomac for the U.S. capital, I was dismayed that they glossed over the historical evidence that the decision in 1790 was a grand political bargain among Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton that linked the site favored by Virginia with the assumption of state war debts sought by Hamilton. Yes, it's nice that the political outcome was consistent with political theory of representation, but that ain't the way it happened in reality.  This isn't quite the same as the French joke that "it may work in practice but doesn't in theory," but it's close.

Ahistorical political science can't be very scientific.

Friday, June 7, 2013

low dudgeon

The electrons are flying fast and furious in response to reports of collection programs by the National Security Agency. Editorial boards, media commentators, and politicians are all in high dudgeon, treating this as worse than the outrageous domestic surveillance activities by the FBI and CIA in the 1960s.

Given what I've seen so far, however, I'm only in low dudgeon. There have been intrusive secret programs -- constrained by laws passed by Congress and subject to some oversight by a special court -- so that shouldn't be surprising. What would trouble me is if the electronic spies went beyond the limits that Congress intended and NSA officials have long accepted.

The strongest reason for suspecting that the spies may have gone too far is that someone put a career in jeopardy, and risked the aggressive prosecution of leaks that the Obama administration has conducted, by becoming a whistleblower. Whatever troubled that person deserves to be reviewed by the congressional intelligence committees.

But few leaks meet the high standard of democracy-enhancing. Many do more harm than good.

The least persuasive arguments defending these leaks come from the news media, who are self-interested in protecting leaks and leakers and who rarely restrain themselves.Walter Pincus wrote a helpful corrective analysis of the AP case this week that should be kept in mind as we assess these latest revelations.

personal diplomacy

The Presidents of the United States and China are meeting today. White House officials say they want an unscripted summit, one where the talking points are set aside and the two leaders can talk freely. Instead of pre-arranged agreements, these unnamed Americans say, they are relying on personal diplomacy to begin to resolve disputed issues.

I'm all for private meetings instead of ruffles and flourishes and state dinners attended by big contributors and celebrities. But I also favor carefully crafted talking points as the best way to probe for possible areas of understanding and future agreement. Diplomacy requires thoughtful planning, not just bonhomie.

I know it's better to have cordial personal relations between heads of government than hostile ones, especially if the antipathy is petty and personal rather than  a reflection of clashing national interests. But I fear that presidents too often think that personal chemistry is sufficient to resolve disputes. Not so.

I hope the two presidents are wiser than their media handlers and actually succeed at narrowing differences. It would be easier, however, if they hadn't made such a fetish of informality.

use and abuse of Shakespeare

The title for this series of comments, rants, and suggestions comes from Shakespeare's Henry IV, whenthe dying king tells his son:
"Be it thy course, to busy giddy minds/ With foreign quarrels"
I use it because it illustrates the sometimes connection between public opinion and foreign policy and lets me include a wide variety of topics.

So it was with dismay, when reading a fine new book about U.S. politics in 1940, that the noted American historian, Charles Beard, had written a pamphlet of the same title arguing for an isolationist foreign policy. He cites Washington's farewell address and Monroe's doctrine as sufficient enough to protect America. He also says:
Not until some formidable European power comes into the western Atlantic, breathing the fire of aggression and conquest, need the United States become alarmed about the ups and downs of European conflicts, intrigues, aggressions, and wars. And this peril is slight at worst. To take on worries is to add useless burdens, to breed distempers at home, and to discover, in the course of time, how foolish and vain it all has been. The destiny of Europe and Asia has not been committed, under God, to the keeping of the United States; and only conceit, dreams of grandeur, vain imaginings, lust for power, or a desire to escape from our domestic perils and obligations could possibly make us suppose that Providence has appointed us his chosen people for the pacification of the earth.
What's worse, I learned from the book that an isolationist committee receiving substantial money from the German embassy circulated thousands of copies of the Beard pamphlet.

Well,I'm not going to change the name of this blog, but I do hope that readers never confuse it with the views of Professor Beard. As you may know, copyright applies to texts but not to the titles of works.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Donilon's legacy

I'm a process guy. That's what I study and what I teach -- and what I think explains best why American does what it does in foreign policy. Accordingly, I have a high regard for Tom Donilon's conduct as President Obama's national security adviser.

As David Rothkopf says, Donilon was unusually self-effacing and played the "honest broker" role as head of the NSC staff.
He also instituted regular weekly meetings with the secretaries of State and Defense and with the leadership of the intelligence community, including the heads and deputies from the CIA, the Directorate of National Intelligence, and the Defense Intelligence Agency.  And he consulted not only with them: His policy process included, I'm told, more than 1,000 deputies committee meetings, at which key policy choices were debated by senior officials in preparation for meetings of the NSC principals. Those policy processes were rigorous as were the processes within meetings chaired by Donilon, which often began with him enumerating the handful of key administration objectives that needed to be served.
In short, he made the trains run on time. He got deputy-level officials to engage frequently on the whole spectrum of foreign policy issues, nit just the headline-grabbing ones.

He also did some personal diplomacy for the president, but not in a way to rival his colleagues.

That's good public service -- and a high standard for his successor, Susan Rice.

Syria good enough

I've long been surprised that administration critics did not jump on the decision to call its policy "Afghanistan good enough" rather than something like "victory secured."  Maybe everybody recognized that "victory" was unachievable given the corruption and ineffectiveness of the government in Kabul and the loss of support for the war among the American people.

Today, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations reveals the dirty little secret about those who have been calling for U.S. intervention in Syria, either by providing lethal aid or establishing "no fly zones." Zenko reports that even the interventionists don't want to do enough to win -- to assure the overthrow of Assad and the creation of a U.S.-friendly successor government.

Even the most prominent and vocal advocate of intervention, Sen. John McCain, has proposed military options that would be wholly insufficient to defeat the Syrian Army, associated paramilitary forces, and foreign fighters....
 When it comes to enhancing the lethality of the Syrian rebels -- beyond deciding who receives the weapons, or wondering where they go after Assad falls -- intervention advocates are also unwilling to provide the advanced weapons that could tip the battlefield in their favor....
Syria intervention advocates rarely describe how modest military options or defensive weapons transfers would plausibly achieve some strategic objective -- which is almost never articulated. Rather, the goal of intervention is to "do something," while limiting America's exposure -- in troops, treasure, and reputation -- to the outcome. 
Meanwhile, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll finds little support for U.S. involvement: only 15% favoring U.S. military action and only 11% supporting giving arms to the rebels. Some 42% favored humanitarian aid only, and 24% wanted no action at all.

It's hard to justify a risky policy that has almost no hope of achieving the desired objectives. I wish the Syrian interventionists were more honest in explaining their goals and expectations.

the new civil-military clash

It's curious that the sharpest disagreements between civilian officials and the U.S. military leadership in recent years have not been over policy, such as how to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but over personnel or social policy. The southern-dominated services nominally accepted the integration of African-Americans in 1948, but slow-rolled the process into the 1970s. The male-only senior leadership grudgingly accepted women at the service academies in 1976 but long resisted opening most command positions to females. The Joint Chiefs of Staff willingly sided with conservative members of Congress to block openly gay people in uniform by imposing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law on the Pentagon. It took until 2010, and the astute maneuvering of Defense Secretary Gates, to get the chiefs on board with a change in policy.

Now we have a new clash over how to handle sexual assault. Members of Congress say that the evidence of impropriety is widespread and that assault victims often are punished for reporting incidents and the perpetrators get off because senior commanders value their military skills. Yesterday all of the service chiefs testified that they opposed letting special prosecutors, rather than officers in the chain of command, decide the issues. They argued that this would upset the authority commanders need for military operations.

I can see that the Chiefs' concerns might apply in some circumstances of combat, but it's hard to believe that the home-based peacetime forces would collapse under a different system. The best suggestion I saw coming out of the hearings was to see how other nations handle such matters. That's one of the ways that the Chiefs became convinced that gays could be accommodated, since the evidence from overseas was positive and the fears of commanders largely unfounded.

Unlike the situation with gays in 1993, the politics today makes military resistance a loser, so they had better figure out how to implement a heightened sensitivity to sexual assault problems.

missed opportunity at the NSC

President Obama is reported to be replacing his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, with UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who was probably not nominated to be Secretary of State because that post requires Senate confirmation while the White House job does not.

One of my longtime hopes has been that the NSA position be codified and empowered in law, an action that would require Senate confirmation. This idea has been strongly resisted by former advisers like Brent Scowcroft, who argue that it would deny presidents the right to choose their advisers. Nowadays they could add another objection: the hyperpartisanship over even nonpartisan national security jobs makes confirmation an uncertain, slow, and bitter process.

Nevertheless, I think presidents [who can seek advice from anyone, regardless of their official positions] would be more effective if their primary foreign policy person had the legal authority to get things done that involve more than one cabinet department. I would like the NSA to have the power to convene interagency groups, task them, and maybe even give them some limited money for activities. But no official can do that without the formal authority conveyed by Senate confirmation.

It's ironic -- and sad -- that the absence of Senate-confirmed officials at the NSC, in contrast to much of the rest of the Executive Office of the President, means there is no one to testify before Congress regarding the various National Security Strategy reports required from the President. Nor could nonconfirmed officials like Richard Holbrooke testify about their interagency policy efforts as a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Obama administration missed its opportunity in the first term to seek legislation strengthening the NSC interagency process and is missing another opportunity now by continuing to centralize policy in the national security staff without centralizing authority in its leader.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

responsible congressional action

That's almost an oxymoron, isn't it? Or at least a headline-grabbing surprise these days.

I am pleased to report that the House Armed Services Committee included several sensible foreign policy provisions in its defense authorization bill, approved yesterday.

-- Section 1041 establishes a procedure for Congress to be "promptly" notified of "sensitive military operations," defined as lethal or capture operations conducted by U.S. armed forces. There is already an informal notification process. This makes is statutory and regular.

-- Section 1042 demands a report on the "legal and policy considerations and approval processes" for determining targets of lethal operations.  This is reasonable, though I would have preferred a Hughes-Ryan type process requiring presidential determinations as well as notifications.

-- Section 1203 continues the Global Security Contingency Fund, a joint State-Defense enterprise.

-- Section 1211 cuts military aid to Pakistan by 10% and requires certification that Pakistan is allowing movement of supplies to and from Afghanistan and is cooperating on counterterrorism operations. This tough provision can be waived by the Secretary of Defense for "national security interests."

-- Section 1241 requires a report on U.S. military ability to respond to terrorist attacks in Africa and the Middle East. This is better than mandating the creation of a special force to deal with Benghazi-type situations.

-- Section 1251 recites a lot of concerns about Syria, then offers "sense of Congress" language urging the President to "consider all courses of action to remove" President Assad from power.It also calls for "rigorous planning" to secure Syrian chemical weapons as well as "nonlethal aid" to the Syrian opposition. This is much more restrained than pro-interventionist calls for "no fly" zones and offensive military aid.

 Somewhat surprisingly, the committee made no attempt to revise the 2001 authorization of military force law that has been the basis for the operations in Afghanistan as well as drone operations and other military activities elsewhere.  Nor did the lawmakers add either reporting or other directive language on offensive cyber operations.