Wednesday, November 27, 2013

old words, newly rediscovered

There on the front page of the New York Times today was a word I'd never seen before: murmuration. And a picture that made perfect sense: a large group of starlings in flight. That's the kind of sound they must make.

There are all sorts of collective nouns that sound out of place but have a long history:
-an unkindness of ravens
- a wake of buzzards
- a murder of crows
- a scold of jays
- a pride of lions

Growing up in the city, I learned only a few of the specialized terms and used herd or flock for most of the rest. But it's good to keep the old words alive, so take a look at the list.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

the post-filibuster Senate

The Democratic majority leader of the Senate chose the nuclear option to end filibusters on nominations, just as the Republican majority leader almost did a decade ago. Too bad. It now seems as if, rather than causing a more fractious Senate, this action confirms the lack of comity and trust that has developed in recent years.

Democrats apparently concluded that the Republicans couldn't be trusted to keep the present rules whenever they become the majority, so the Democrats made the change now to reap the benefits in the meantime.

How will the Senate change? Sarah Binder has some good insights. I fear the Senate will continue to be more like the House, with deeper partisan divisions and less willingness to reach across the aisle. I regret this change, but I also regret the dysfunctions that led to it.

Politico exposed

I confess to guilty pleasures about Politico, the newspaper-website that covers the political game in Washington with gusto, and financial success. I appreciate that it's still mostly free, though I worry about the specialized PoliticoPro stories that cost $1,000 or more a year for subscribers.

But the tone of articles is often like a rant, and its eagerness for immediacy results in mostly one-sided stories. It often seems a dumping ground for unfiltered press releases by political campaigns and congressional offices. There's no effort to distinguish "important" from "latest" stories.

Now we have a media blogger at the Washington Post exposing the tactic of one of Politico's most-read column, Mike Allen's Playbook, of giving lots of friendly and free publicity to those who advertise there. Not a pretty site.

when strategy was grand

I wanted to note the passing of a man who was a major, though largely unrecognized, architect of U.S.. grand strategy early in the cold war, Robert R. Bowie. He also played an important role in my life: a key source for my senior thesis and later for my doctoral dissertation; a mentor who let me help run his graduate seminar; and a friendly advisor to an academic who also wanted to work in Washington.

Bowie (rhymes with Louie, as the Times obituary helpfully mentions) was the head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff under John Foster Dulles. He played a major role, and later wrote about it, in the Eisenhower administration's lengthy sessions that led to its new grand strategy -- reducing military spending by relying more on nuclear deterrence while increasing the other tools of foreign policy, challenging the Soviet Union but also offering cooperation.  I don't mean to defend all of the Eisenhower-Dulles foreign policy. (A new dual biography of the Dulles brothers is highly critical in many ways I share.) But I do believe that Eisenhower's policy review was an extraordinary example of a wise process to make grand strategy that has all too rarely be tried in later years.

Bowie had a full life. He died at 104.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

political turmoil watch list

The Economist has a special issue -- "The World in 2014" -- that includes an article and chart on areas that are "ripe for rebellion."  Look over the list of places at "very high risk" for social unrest in the coming year:
Argentina, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Bosnia, Egypt, Greece, Guinea, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Yemen, Zimbabwe.

Most of these places are already in the news, already in turmoil. But now we have some additional ones that should keep our intelligence community and national security officials busy. Imagine if you were in charge of tasking the intelligence community on these areas. Are there any you wouldn't want to follow closely? And what about the 46 countries deemed only "high risk"? "To govern is to choose," John F. Kennedy once said. Setting priorities on what to worry about and plan for is very difficult, as lists like this make clear.

nuclear option against Senate filibusters

Senate Democrats are ramping up discussion of a possible change in Senate rules because of frustration over several recent nominations, where Republicans have blocked votes by threatening filibusters. This may be the typical posturing about the so-called nuclear option to change the rules by majority vote parliamentary rulings which several times in recent years had led to informal agreements to back away from the brink.

I still think it's good if the filibuster can be safe, legal, and rare -- and that changes should be made in the norms of the Senate, not the rules. I still worry about the legislative process if the filibuster tool is denied to a substantial minority that wants to fight a highly objectionable nominee, such as to the Supreme Court. I still wish that less drastic measures could be adopted that put more of the burden on filibusterers than on those who favor getting on with business.

But I sense that many more Democrats have become so frustrated, and distrustful of Republicans, that they would expect a GOP-controlled Senate to change the rules anyway, so they might as well make the move now and reap, at least for a while, the benefits.  The rest of the country is a prisoner of such short-range thinking, so I guess I shouldn't expect Senators to be any better. Too bad.

sex and corruption in the Senate

Lyndon Johnson's Senate had many epic legislative struggles and passed many landmark bills. There was a seamy side to that body, however, now exposed by the release of an interview by the Senate historian with Bobby Baker, LBJ's legislative fixer. Read it and weep...

From my observations and discussions, I'm convinced that Senators today are much more honorable and ethical, if only because it's harder to hide bad behavior.

Monday, November 11, 2013

the myth of cyber war

I used to fear that America faced a "digital Pearl Harbor." I didn't think that senior American defense officials were exaggerating the threat. Now I do.

The most comprehensive set of arguments on this comes in an article by Professor Eric Gartzke of UC San Diego. It's temporarily available, free of the normal paywall, from International Security. Like King's College London Professor Thomas Rid,  Gartzke argues that cyber operations are unlikely to be violent by themselves and thus not likely to be widely accepted as an act of war. Cyber effects are temporary and less likely to be decisive in a conflict, he argues.  Gartzke also believes that cyber attacks are most likely to be used, if at all,  in conjunction with kinetic military attacks. Thus they are most likely to be a tool of the militarily strong, not the weak.

What this means for the United States is that we need resilience in the case of cyber attacks, and should be doing everything possible to secure our critical infrastructure. In fact, however, our military seems to be
pouring resources into offensive cyber operations and neglecting the more important challenge of cyber defenses. That was certainly the take David Sanger took the other day when reporting the release of a new congressionally mandated review of intelligence community R&D efforts. Here's a link to the commission's unclassified report.

The U.S. military has a long history of preferring offense to defense, of wanting to match a presumed enemy's offensive capabilities before it concentrates on defenses against them. That's a part of military culture that's helpful in some cases, but quite risky in others, including cyber operations.

I see that Henry Farrell of  The Monkey Cage has a similar discussion of Gartzke's paper.

armistice day

On this day, 95 years ago, the combatants in the Great War concluded an armistice, ending the bloodiest and most widespread conflict known to historians. There was a peace treaty, signed at Versailles in 1919, but the United States failed to ratify it and its provisions -- predictably -- sowed the seeds of another global war two decades later.

America still celebrated the holiday. I remember marching in parades despite the chilly November weather. My grandfather had been drafted, but never sent to Europe before the armistice,so he had no war stories to tell.  With fewer and fewer doughboys surviving, Congress renamed the holiday Veterans Day. Lawmakers even acquiesced to pressure from veterans groups and returned the title to November 11 after several years as another one of those Monday holidays that supposedly saved energy and certainly gave everybody a three-day weekend. [Decoration Day, the May 30 holiday started so that the graves of Union veterans would be given flowers, was renamed Memorial Day and forever placed as the last Monday in May.]

As I recounted a few months ago, I have been reading many of the new books on World War I and have been revising my own thinking and judgments about it. Just finished Margaret MacMillan's The War that Ended Peace, a fine book and worthy successor to Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower. MacMillan spreads the blame around for starting the war, more widely than I now would.

From various authors, there are still important lessons for us today: irrational feelings about national reputation can lead to foolish actions; the fact that major wars are economic disasters isn't strong enough to prevent foolhardy politicians from starting them; expectations of quick victories are almost always wrong, and no war should be started with that as a key assumption. I also believe that Clemenceau was right: war is too important to be left to generals -- and certainly too important for civilians to acquiesce in rigid war plans that can't be turned off or ratcheted down for the sake of diplomacy.

As we commemorate the centennial of this tragic conflict, I hope we keep those lessons front and center.

JFK and me

    Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
          But to be young was very heaven!
Those were Wordsworth's lines about the start of the French Revolution, but they expressed my own feelings about the Kennedy years at the time. Youthful enthusiasm, romantic idealism.

I grew up in a solidly Republican family, but lost confidence in President Eisenhower after his dismissive reaction to the Soviet Sputnik. I felt that the United States was falling behind militarily, and in danger. Of course, I was a teenager and given to strong emotions.

I was excited about the Kennedy candidacy, both because of his policies and vitality, but also because I thought it would be good to elect a Catholic as a sign of America's political openness. I was starting Harvard at the time and considered him "one of us." [I had felt the same way about Eisenhower, since he vacationed in Denver and my grandmother had gone to high school with Mamie. My politics had a lot of localism.]

I saw Kennedy only twice: at the final campaign event at Faneuil Hall and shortly before his inauguration, when he came to Harvard for a Board of Overseers meeting. But I followed events daily in the New York Times and enjoyed watching his news conferences when I could get access a television. I took his eloquent and powerful inaugural address as my marching orders: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."  I was committed from that day forward to public service.

I knew or came to know many of the people who worked in the administration, including McGeorge Bundy, my freshman adviser, who was national security adviser and thus a model for my youthful ambitions. Bundy met with some of us the week after the Bay of Pigs, looking shaken and much less self-confident than before. He asked for our advice; I don't remember any of our comments. I later interviewed Dean Rusk, Averell Harriman, several of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other officials for my dissertation on U.S. policy toward Laos. Perhaps those conversations made me more empathetic with the administration and the problems they faced and less critical of what-might-have-beens.

The Cuban missile crisis was an anxious moment for many of us. I genuinely feared a nuclear war and felt exhilarated when the agreement with Khrushchev was announced. Only much later did I -- and the rest of us -- learn that it was a good compromise rather than a Soviet capitulation. Now, on reflection, I see Kennedy's conduct during that crisis as extraordinarily wise and brave, resisting the military pressure which likely would have resulted in a nuclear exchange.

Kennedy's domestic policies were a disappointment:  he temporized too much on civil rights. On other foreign policy matters he had better rhetoric [an "Alliance for Progress"] than actual performance.

So I am not surprised that the consensus of history text authors is less glowing and more subdued about Kennedy now. My own slide to disenchantment came only a few months after the assassination, when I was part of a student group meeting with Hugh Sidey, Time's White House correspondent. Sidey spoke quite openly about Kennedy's womanizing --a fact known to the press but never reported to the public during his presidency. How could he?

A half century later, I agree that Kennedy was only a good president, not a great one. But he did handle the Cuban missile crisis masterfully and paved the way for important agreements with the Soviet Union that reduced the danger of war.  And he gave those of us who saw the promise of the New Frontier a dream to keep in our hearts.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

NSA childishness

The National Security Agency has been in operation for just over half a century, but it appears to be behaving no better than a teenager. As David Ignatius argues in a persuasive column today,
The NSA documents that have surfaced reveal an exuberant, almost adolescent quality among the tech wizards who blew through privacy barriers. They gave their top-secret projects colorful code names such as Boundless Informant or Egotistical Giraffe. They created compartments with mottoes that sound like playground boasts: “Nothing but net” and “The mission never sleeps.” Hannah Arendt wrote famously of the “banality of evil.” This group makes one realize that childishness can be a characteristic, too. Like many hackers, NSA operatives seem to have done things sometimes for the thrill of it, just because they could.
Much of the NSA collection could potentially be valuable, but the sheer magnitude of its efforts increased the likelihood of disclosures and blowback, which we are now experiencing. Another must-read on this subject is Scott Shane's lengthy piece in the New York Times, with the headline, "No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming NSA."

I agree with Ignatius that Edward Snowden is no hero. "The way he chose to reveal programs that were legally authorized (albeit in some cases unwisely) has created severe problems for the United States and will cost tens of billions of dollars for U.S. companies that cooperated with court orders and NSA requests."

The long-run consequences are likely to be even worse, as Ingatius suggests: "that nations will try to ring-fence their data within national borders. That anti-globalization move won’t stop the spies, but it will slow commerce and innovation and make digital life harder for everyone."

Saturday, November 2, 2013

JFK and Camelot

It's nearly a half century since President Kennedy was assassinated.  Only about 4 Americans in every ten was even alive in 1963, so most people have memories shaped by words and images from long ago. One of the most durable metaphors was promoted by Jackie Kennedy just days after her husband's death. She wanted JFK to be remembered as a hero, a "man of magic." In her first interview with a journalist after November 22, she told Life magazine writer Theodore White that she and JFK often listened to a recording of Lerner and Loewe's Broadway musical "Camelot," based on the legend of King Arthur, before going to bed. 

I've been trying to determine whether the Kennedys ever saw the stage production, which opened in December, 1960, just after his election, and closed in January 1963. There were no references to their attendance in the New York Times, and the JFK library database doesn't show a theater visit. But I don't doubt that the music was liked and heard in the White House.

The metaphor caught on -- despite no public discussion of JFK as a modern Arthur during his presidency -- because of some wonderful phrases in the title song.

Lerner wrote of a "fleeting wisp of glory:"
Ask ev'ry person if he's heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot.
And he ended the show asking us to remember that "one brief shining moment:"
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.
Thinking back today, the Kennedy presidency looks much less glamorous and successful than it seemed at the time, and even the impressions then were shaped by a worshipful and unchallenged media. But there was a palpable sense of loss, of a dashing leader struck down before his time, of opportunities missed and now unattainable. I was a naive young person at the time, caught up in the excitement of the Kennedy presidency, well attuned to Broadway musicals and the emotions they could stir, and thus quite willing to believe that we had had a glimpse of "Camelot."

Friday, November 1, 2013

overworked and underpaid?

Not Congress. The House Republican leadership has just released their planned calendar for 2014. Of the 300 or so days notionally available for legislative business [excluding Sundays and various holidays], the House plans to meet on 113 days.

That means close to 200 days when they can campaign and pretend to "listen" to their constituents.

Isn't that more important than passing appropriations bills, or budget resolutions, or laws to fix the problems even conservatives have identified?

the good old days in Congress

One of the most poignant speakers at the memorial service for former Speaker of the House Tom Foley was the Republican leader at that time, Bob Michel of Illinois. He noted that he and Foley served when politics was different in the House.

Michel then turned to another lost element of the Washington political scene: how politicians treat one another. When Foley and he could not find common ground on a subject, “we could at least use common courtesy in the way we conducted our politics. That’s not just good manners, it’s good politics,” Michel said.

When recently have you heard members of Congress show concern about how their institutions are viewed by the public and say, as Michel did Tuesday, “The way we argue can be as important in the long run as the decisions we reach.”

Today’s legislators are in perpetual campaigns, but he and Foley, Michel said, “knew there would always be a distinction and separation between campaigning for office and serving in office.”

Waler Pincus has the full story.