Friday, December 26, 2014

hit "pause" in the cyber war

Let me get this straight. Some evil-doer hacked into Sony's computers and did a lot of damage,  Enough that many in the media called him/her/them "terrorists." President Obama labeled the action "cybervandalism" and was excoriated by Republicans for weakness in the face of a serious threat. The FBI attributed the attack to North Korea, and then that isolated country suffered two denial of service attacks -- origin unspecified -- that cut their links to the Internet.

What next? How about "pause"? Why should the United States Government get all hot and bothered about an attack on a Japanese company that is distributing a stupid comedy that includes the assassination of the current North Korean leader as the main story line? Why should the U.S. Government treat this action as anything even approaching terrorism? Sony should have had better security for its business and intellectual property. It's now not even clear that North Korea perpetrated the attack [which would say something about the American government's cyber skills].

Private companies have their own interests in better security. The government has a role in ensuring that critical infrastructure companies, most of which are privately owned, have strong cyber security. Part of the problem Congress hasn't acted is that Republicans don't want to force companies to strengthen security and don't want to pay tax money for that purpose. And companies demand protection from lawsuits if their security measures fail. Something has to give, because better security is important.

But not by government for an entertainment company. And certainly not to the point of cyber war against a foreign government.

wars of choice

The Bush administration created a misleading dichotomy when it tried to distinguish between "wars of choice" and "wars of necessity" and argued, predictably, that both Afghanistan and Iraq fell into the latter category. Americans have always believed that the conflicts they chose to join were forced upon them, though in only a few instances did the United States face an existential peril. In fact, all wars are wars of choice, even if the choice is to avoid conquest or annihilation. All the aspects of war -- ends, ways, and means -- involve choices.

The best recent analysis of the military choices America faces is by Columbia's Dick Betts [a longtime friend] in his Foreign Affairs article, "Pick Your Battles," in the November-December 2014 issue. Among his recommendations:
First, the United States should fight wars less frequently but more decisively.... Second, the country should avoid fighting in places where victory depends on controlling the politics of chaotic countries, since local politicians will rarely do what Americans want when that differs from their own aims. And third, Washington should give priority to first-order challenges, focusing its military planning on fighting wars with great powers and focusing its diplomacy on preventing them.
That second point is especially relevant in figuring what to do about Syria and ISIL. A typical military-centered strategy by Gary Anderson in the Small Wars Journal makes this error. It is superficially encouraging and persuasive as it makes the case for a large-scale western military intervention -- massive boots on the ground that few armchair strategists are willing to recommend.

The problem comes in the second pillar of his strategy:
Phase II (Iraqi) stabilization. This should probably be simultaneous with the third Phase in Syria, but it should not require continued long-term US military involvement in Iraq. This should be primarily a diplomatic-political effort. The Iraqis need to re-forge a constitution that gives more local say and amore even distribution of oil and mineral assets to the Kurds and Sunnis.  Whether this means more federalism or a confederation is less important than eliminating the grievances that allowed for the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq.
Trouble is, that's what we've been trying in Afghanistan and Iraq for a dozen years, buying time for diplomacy and domestic politics with U.S. and allied forces. We bought the time, but we never could dictate the necessary local reconciliation or stabilization. So however brilliant the military activities may be, they are always insufficient.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Churchill as a manager

Good managers often reduce their techniques to simple aphorisms. "Expect what you inspect," was one often used by Senator Lloyd Bentsen [D-TX], for whom I worked for seven years.

I never thought much about Winston Churchill as a manager until recently. I knew that he was hard-driving, self-assured, often unresponsive to the advice of others, easily fixated on grand but dubious schemes -- and yet ultimately successful and much admired as a wartime leader.

In Warlords, by Simon Berthon and Joanna Potts (Da Capo Press, 2006), the authors quote an October 2, 1941 minute to the head of Britain's MI6. The Prime Minister was concerned that Britain share useful information gained from its breaking of German codes, without of course revealing that fact. The Germans had just launched a major operation against Moscow. Churchill wrote: "Are you warning the Russians of the developing concentration? Show me the last five messages  you have sent out to our missions on the subject."

Churchill wasn't satisfied with a simple report. He wanted proof. To me, that's good management.

[Note: The citation is to F.H. Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, London, 1979-1990, vol. 2, p. 59.]

second thoughts on the new offset strategy

Recently I praised the Pentagon's new offset strategy and repeated my support for a strong military R&D program. Today I see a War on the Rocks piece noting $53 billion in failed or cancelled programs that were part of the previous offset strategy, called the Revolution in Military Affairs [RMA].

To me the failures weren't in the concepts or the early research, but in the later phases of the design and procurement processes -- when unrealistic cost estimates soar and change orders complicate the program, slow it down, and add to costs.

I still agree with the view of the DARPA director when I worked on R&D matters for the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said, "For DARPA to succeed, we need the right to fail." He meant that DARPA would work on many cutting edge ideas that failure was inevitable and even helpful in showing what wouldn't work.

We still need to fix the acquisition process, but shouldn't worry so much about failed experiments.

Hagel's failings

Until now, the media explanation for the firing of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was that he clashed too often with with Susan Rice, the national security adviser; that he never spoke up in meetings, leaving the DOD position unclear or based on what General Dempsey said;  and that he allowed leaks of DOD views critical of the President.  Clearly, that was the White House perspective, conveyed to reporters.

Now we have a critique from somewhere inside the Pentagon. Tom Ricks has published a piece by an anonymous person claiming to be an "E Ring veteran," that is, someone who has worked in one of the senior civilian offices there. I trust that Ricks knows this person and believes him/her credible.

The critique is devastating:

First, Hagel was lazy. This may seem harsh, but the Secretary did not adequately prepare for meetings. Not even close. The 4-5 page briefing papers that Gates devoured, or the two-page memos that satisfied Panetta's intellectual cravings, were replaced by Hagel's preferred briefing material: an index card with 25 words on it. Policy papers were still drafted, but Hagel's inner circle repeatedly made it clear they would never be read. As one official said during a moment of frustration, "How can we prepare the secretary to speak on this complex issue with only a sentence fragment?" Hagel's aversion to words was most noticeable during meetings with foreign counterparts and heads of state where his lack of preparation all but guaranteed that he would have little to contribute aside from pleasantries and small talk. After such engagements, foreign staffers often inquired why Hagel was angry or aloof -- or even worse -- had offended their president or minister by wasting their time. The standard response, "The secretary is not feeling well," seldom proved adequate. Hagel didn't just waste everyone's time, he routinely missed opportunities to advance U.S. policy by learning how our partners viewed complex issues. He also failed to develop important personal relationships that might prove critical when serious problems emerged.

Second, Hagel filled his inner staff with real-life bobbleheads and poor managers. Loyalty is a cherished commodity in Washington, but Hagel's E-Ring office suffered the same groupthink that reportedly occurs in the Oval Office.  Subject-matter experts were routinely denied entry into briefings. Deputy assistant secretaries -- the Pentagon's true regional and functional experts -- often became meeting note-takers while a small army of "assistants to the secretary" took their seats at the table. Hagel's former and current chiefs of staff (Mark Lippert and Rexon Ryu, respectively) were unable to supervise basic office functions such as managing Hagel's official correspondence, calendar, or travel schedule. For example, a diplomatic incident occurred when Hagel's office took four months to respond to a European defense minister's invitation for Hagel to visit. Incidents like this were common during Hagel's tenure. Such dysfunction hurt international defense relationships and enabled close advisors such as Elissa Slotkin to promote their own agendas on the sidelines. Slotkin convinced Hagel to quietly launch his climate change initiative in October to better align the Pentagon's climate policy with the White House, while other issues -- Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine -- simmered in the background.

Third, Hagel never met a 4-star general whom he could refuse. As one military officer said, "The United States cannot have civilian control of the military if civilians are not willing to take control." The current crisis in civilian-military relations was not caused by General Dempsey's outspoken nature during White House meetings. It was created by senior civilian officials -- starting with Hagel -- who steadfastly refused to provide clear guidance to the military services and combatant commands. When the generals went outside their lane -- and they often did -- no one was willing to call them on it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

who lost America?

A year and a half ago, I read an illuminating book on British politics at the end of the Revolutionary War that first led me to try to answer this question. I've now just finished another excellent book that explains why Britain went to war with the colonies in the first place, Nick Bunker's An Empire on the Edge.

This book is a non-fiction thriller, propelled by a page-turning narrative and enlivened by delicious details. Bunker has also gone through a lot of archival material, especially the formal reports of colonial agents and the family letters of key players. I'm greatly impressed by the breadth of his research and the quality of his writing. No wasted words. No dull digressions.

What I learned from Bunker is that the British government stumbled into war with the colonies, dithering for months at a time and then making tactical decisions unrelated to a strategic plan. I also learned:

-- London was ill-served by its colonial agents. They were slow to report evidence of unrest and were overly optimistic about the loyalty of the locals.

-- Britain paid little attention to the colonies in 1771-74 because it had greater fears of war with France or Sweden or Russia. Those potential conflicts were of much greater concern than the possible loss of the American colonies.

-- The Boston Tea Party was a slow-motion crisis touched off by a glut in the global tea supply and near bankruptcy of the East India Company because of mismanagement. When it occurred, it was treated as an act of treason and rebellion that had to be severely punished to preserve the authority of the King and Parliament.

-- Despite the widespread view that only severe punishment would allow order to be restored, the actual measures before the cabinet and voted by Parliament were often delayed for weeks pending formal legal opinions on whether statements and actions by the colonists constituted treason.

-- The long times needed to transit the Atlantic, ranging from 4 to 7 weeks, caused additional confusion and uncertainty over what was happening at either end.

-- The colonists were not just angry over taxes but over Britain's assertions of sovereignty and retraction of rights they had enjoyed for many years.

Overall, I came away with the feeling that opportunities for reconciliation were missed at various times, so by 1774 both sides had hardened positions and rigid mindsets about each other that made each subsequent move tragically inevitable.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Rand Paul's curious declaration of war proposal

Senator Rand Paul [R-KY] has let it be known that he will propose a joint resolution to declare war against the so-called Islamic State. While the measure looks like a normal one for that purpose, in fact it is highly unusual, and for puzzling reasons that are not explained.

First, it is against the "organization" known as IS. Most declarations of war are against other countries -- except for the 2001 authorization of military force against those connected to the 9/11 attacks, which -- nota bene -- was not actually a declaration of war.

Second, Paul's proposal expires after one year. No other declaration of war in U.S. history has had a time limit.

Third, it tries to limit the use of ground troops except for highly limited operations including rescue of U.S. personnel and attacks on "high value targets." Its actual wording, however, doesn't forbid other ground operations; it only declares that the resolution isn't supposed to be "construed" as allowing them. That's a pretty big loophole.

Fourth, it's especially surprising that a Republican Senator, one of many who has criticized President Obama for broadening executive powers in both domestic and foreign affairs, would use the "w word" -- war -- and thereby trigger a vast array of presidential powers exclusive to a time of war. Those powers include presidential control of trade, transportation, communications, and manufacturing. A declaration of war also suspends for up to 15 days the requirement for a court order for electronic surveillance and physical searches under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

A CRS study gives some examples. A declaration of war "give[s] the President the authority to order plants to convert to the production of armaments and to seize those that refuse to do so,  to assume control of transportation systems for military purposes, to condemn land for military uses, to have the right of first refusal over natural resources, and to take control of communications facilities.It also gives the President full power over agricultural exports. An authorization for the use of force, in itself, does not trigger any of these authorities."

the curse of the Pentagon

Chuck Hagel has just become the 9th of 24 secretaries of defense to have been fired or forced to resign. Once again, the job has proved nearly impossible.  And the cause appears to be a disagreement with the White House rather than poor management of the defense department.

I have no strong sense of Hagel's performance. He seemed competent and workmanlike, achieving neither dramatic successes nor failures. But obviously something went wrong, either a personality clash with somebody in the White House, or a fundamental policy disagreement.

It should have been apparent in late October, when the NY Times reported that he had sent a memo to Susan Rice criticizing unresolved issues in U.S. policy toward Syria and Iraq. Then there were stories about personnel changes that I should have taken more seriously.

By contrast, in the 225 years we've had a secretary of state, only two have been fired: Timothy Pickering in 1800 and Al Haig in 1982. Some of the others had strained relations with their president, but no overt ouster as we have seen so often with secretaries of defense.

Monday, November 17, 2014

military innovation for future wars

For many years I taught a course with that title at the National War College, building on an interest I developed while working on military R&D programs on the Senate Armed Services Committee in the 1970s. Given the rise of China and the proliferation of unconventional, asymmetric threats from many areas, I am pleased that so many good ideas are now being generated to reshape U.S. military forces.

Sec. Hagel has just announced a defense innovation initiative. Think tanks are releasing their own proposals for a new "offset strategy," modeled after Harold Brown's efforts in the 1970s to offset Soviet numerical superiorities with information technology and stealth. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments [CSBA] has one such paper. Here's CSBA's summary idea:
A third offset strategy, however, could counter adversarial investments in A2/AD capabilities in general -- and ever expanding missile inventories in particular -- by leveraging U.S. 'core competencies' in unmanned systems and automation, extended-range and low-observable air operations, undersea warfare, and compl4ex system engineering and integration in order to project power differently.
These are creative suggestions, and a possible answer to level or shrinking defense budgets.

Misleading Vietnam parallels

Two historians of the Vietnam War, Frederik Logevall and Gordon Goldstein, suggest that President Obama faces a situation with regard to Iraq and Syria that is similar to what President Kennedy faced in 1961 regarding Vietnam. "Today as then, it appears the nation’s top military officials are seeking to box the president in to a commitment the White House is extremely reluctant to make."

I don't agree. While it's obvious that many senior military officers believe that the fight against ISIL would be more efficient and effective if U.S. military personnel were on the ground advising and supporting Iraqi units, I believe they are not openly challenging the president's "no ground combat troops" limitation. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stopped short of saying either that we need American ground forces now, or that the strategy will likely fail if we don't employ them. Instead, he has responded to congressional questions with appropriate military judgments and advice, but without criticism of the commander-in-chief's clear condition.

I don't believe that Dempsey now, or Admiral Mullen when the Afghanistan troop surge was under review, were trying to "box the president in."

The more useful lesson comes from Goldstein's interview with Kennedy advisor McGeorge Bundy regarding the 1961 decisions. Yes, Kennedy repeatedly rejected the unanimous recommendations of his advisors for sending ground combat forces to Vietnam. But he refused to make that rejection declaratory policy. Bundy said, "The policy that is not acknowledged is easily reversed."

In other words, what's boxing the president in is his own words.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Will all the moderates raise your hand?

Congress has imposed on the executive branch, and in particular the CIA, a nearly impossible task of identifying and training only "moderate" Syrian opposition forces. The difficulties of sorting out the warriors who will be helpful to U.S. interests today -- and then tomorrow -- are outlined by this report in Newsweek.

“Vetting is a word we throw a lot around a lot, but actually very few people know what it really means,” said the former CIA operative, who had several postings in the Middle East for a decade after the 9/11 attacks. “It’s not like you’ve got a booth set up at a camp somewhere. What normally happens is that a case officer will identify a source who is a leader in one of the Free Syrian Army groups. And he’ll say, ‘Hey...can you come up with 200 [guys] you can trust?’ And of course they say yes—they always say yes. So Ahmed brings you a list and the details you need to do the traces,” the CIA’s word for background checks. “So you’re taking that guy’s word on the people he’s recruited. So we rely on a source whom we’ve done traces on to do the recruiting. Does that make sense?”
I understand the goal of supporting moderates but I don't see how we can confidently accomplish it.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

more on Lincoln and the press

I've now finished Harold Holzer's excellent book on Lincoln and the press. It merits the favorable reviews seen earlier. Lincoln was canny and the press in those years pretty crazy.

Holzer details how Lincoln deftly signaled his plans for the Emancipation Proclamation while trying to limit the political damage. He met with a delegation of free blacks and proposed voluntary emigration of former slaves to Africa or Central America. He wrote and widely released a letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley in which he put saving the Union as more important than ending slavery. But he cleverly slipped in what he actually planned to do: "if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

The best line in the book about the press is this message to his reporters from Wilbur Storey, editor of the anti-Lincoln Chicago Times, early in the war: "Telegraph fully all news you can get, and when there is no news send rumors."   How times have changed?

a night to remember

One of my first research papers in college was on the Truman administration's handling of the Berlin blockade -- with the dramatic airlift. I thrilled to read John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold with its chase scenes across Berlin. I knew that the city was a potential flashpoint between NATO and the USSR.

I was excited when I finally had a chance to see the divided city in person. Several times during the cold war, I stood on a platform overlooking the wall and the no man's land where the East German guards would fire at people attempting to escape. I saw the contrast between the drab East and the vibrant, neon-lit West. A couple of times I even went through Checkpoint Charlie and felt as if a blanket of suspicion and surveillance had been thrown over me. I also had some close friends who had lived in West Berlin and told stories, happy and sad, of life there.

As demonstrations spread across eastern Europe in 1989, I followed the news, worried about another Soviet crackdown -- as in Germany and Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981. I hoped that there would be some liberalization but feared the worst.

The family was watching television that Thursday night, 25 years ago this weekend, when the networks interrupted their usual fare with dramatic pictures from Berlin. A checkpoint was open. People were pouring through from east to west, walking, cheering, peaceful. How ironic that this glorious moment of human liberty occurred on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.  I cried.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Lincoln manipulated the press ... masterfully

There's a new book on Abraham Lincoln that shows how, from his earliest days in public life to the bitterest days of the civil war, he seduced and used the newspaper reporters and editors of his day with great success.  Garry Wills has a fine review in the New York Review of Books.

Lincoln had an easier time than modern presidents, since there were few in the media, which itself consisted only of a few influential newspapers, and they were easily influenced by the carrots and sticks of a president. But that he did it so often and so well may help us to see Lincoln not as sitting for a marble statue but as a wily politician who succeeded precisely because of his political skills.

knives are out

Enterprising journalists are finding sources inside the Obama administration who are increasingly willing to criticize White House policies, albeit anonymously. Today, Michael Hirsh in Politico skewers National security Adviser Susan Rice as heading a "Team of Bumblers."  Last week, Joshua Green in Bloomberg Businessweek cited "administration veterans" criticizing Obama's "graduate seminar" style of governance with a headline, "Obama is Too Cool for Crisis Management."  Earlier, Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post chronicled the  "extended presidential dithering" over a policy for Syria and Iraq. And Mark Perry wrote in Politico that only pressure from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Martin Dempsey, in a rare one-on-one conversation with the president, forced the administration to get its act together to confront ISIL.

Not a pretty picture. While it's true that most Washington memoirs deserve a subtitle of "They Should have Listened to Me," the flurry of insider gripes reflects frustrations over White House efforts to control all aspects of foreign policy. That's normal on both sides: the White House wants consistency in policy and messaging; the rest of the government resents tight control without adequate consultation.

I am troubled by the insularity and defensiveness of the administration's defenders. They should have gotten their act together sooner on ISIL, and they certainly shouldn't have sent "arms and train" legislation relating to Syrian opposition forces without first advising the Pentagon.

On the other hand, they are trying to fashion a policy while juggling several inconsistent goals -- a fact of life, not mismanagement. I think the president is right to move very cautiously about military actions in Iraq and Syria, since many of the enemies of our enemies are also hostile to American interests.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

rallying 'round the flagpole

It looks as if American public opinion is strongly endorsing the military campaign against ISIL.  In fact, the president's approval rating for the issue has reached 50%, a big jump from his recent standing. Time will tell [as we analysts say when we don't want to risk predicting but do want to toss in a dollop of skepticism] whether public support remains strong as the costs rise and U.S. casualties are suffered.

Here's the latest from ABC News:
  • SEVEN IN 10 AMERICANS SUPPORT AIR STRIKES against Islamic State insurgents in Syria, but far fewer back sending U.S. forces to Iraq as advisers - evidence in a new ABC News-Washington Post poll of the political risks of returning U.S. soldiers to that volatile region, ABC NEWS POLLSTER GARY LANGER notes. Fifty-three percent support sending U.S. forces to train Iraqi government troops and coordinate air strikes against Islamic State positions. But that's comparatively modest in terms of support for military action, and 17 percentage points behind the public's endorsement of air strikes. The Obama administration's campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria includes placing U.S. advisers in Iraq to coordinate air strikes, and training of Iraqi forces may occur. The president - perhaps cognizant of broad public dismay with the U.S. intervention in Iraq under his predecessor, George W. Bush - has pledged not to engage U.S. forces in a combat role.
  • OBAMA HAS A 50 PERCENT APPROVAL RATING FOR HANDLING THE CONFLICT WITH ISIS in this poll, LANGER writes - far from stellar - but exceeding the 44 percent who disapprove. It's also more than the 42 percent approval of his handling of the situation in Iraq in June and August, before U.S.-led air strikes were extended to ISIS positions in Syria. Notably, Obama receives approval from 30 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of conservatives for his handling of the situation - well short of majorities, but also far above his overall job approval ratings from those groups, 10 and 19 percent, respectively, in an ABC/Post poll in early September. He also gets 45 percent approval from political independents for handling the confrontation with ISIS, 8 points better than his overall job rating from this group.

linguistic creativity

My linguistic skills beyond English are pretty limited, though I believe I can go to the bathroom in seven languages. And order a meal and take public transportation in almost as many. But not discuss current affairs or explain American foreign policy.

I was charmed by an article in the Economist reporting what some technology companies are doing to translate operating instructions into less widely spoken languages.

Here's what Mozilla has been doing:
Mozilla has 230 localisation teams, says Jeff Beatty, who co-ordinates some from his office in Utah. Their work takes both time and ingenuity. Firefox for a computer uses about 40,000 words; for the phone OS, 16,000. Translators must express technological terms in languages shaped by livestock, farming and fishing, and choose alternatives for culture-specific words such as “cookie”, “file” and “mouse”.

Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer “windows” became “eyes”.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

legislative intent matters

I've never understood why Justice Scalia and some of his acolytes believes that the Court should ignore what Congress intended by its laws and rely solely on the dictionary definitions of words used. As a Senate staffer, I worked hard to be sure our intent was spelled out in speeches, hearings, and committee reports.

Norm Ornstein draws on a new book by a sitting appeals court judge to make the case for attention to legislative intent in judicial proceedings.
The underlying point of Judging Statutes is that the American constitutional system requires a deep respect among the institutions of governance—which includes a respect by Congress and the courts for the key role that executive branch officials play in their front-line role of interpreting the meaning and intent of the laws Congress passes in order to implement them; a respect by Congress for the difficulty of that executive role and for the role of the judiciary as independent arbiter; and very importantly, the respect of judges for the inherently political nature of Congress, and the difficulty and messiness involved in building coalitions and passing statutes. The latter may be distasteful and often worthy of ridicule, but it is baked into the constitutional order.
I agree. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

football as it used to be

I don't follow football any more, but I still took great pleasure in reading noted writer John McPhee's piece in the New Yorker which has a lot of football history and his personal involvement with the game. I broke out laughing, for example, when I read this:
My father played football at Oberlin, class of 1917, notably in a game won by Ohio State 128–0.
College football was different a half century and a full century ago.  Read it and enjoy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Presidents in step with public opinion

If President Obama decides to launch major air strikes in Iraq and Syria and give arms to Kurdish forces in Iraq, he'll have support from American public opinion, a new poll says. The numbers are quite dramatic.
Today, 71 percent of all Americans say they support airstrikes in Iraq — up from 54 percent three weeks ago and from 45 percent in June. Among those who say Obama has been too cautious, 82 percent support the strikes; among those who think his handling of international affairs has been about right, 66 percent support them.

Nearly as many Americans — 65 percent — say they support the potentially more controversial action of launching airstrikes in Syria, which Obama has not done. That is more than double the level of support a year ago for launching airstrikes to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons.

Support for arming Kurdish forces opposing the Sunni insurgents in Iraq also has risen over the past month, from 45 percent in August to 58 percent in the new survey.

I have long believed that public opinion can provide a permissive consensus for military actions which presidents can seize upon if they wish. Obama may not want to get involved, but the political risks are much less than if opinion were more begative.

An important historical example can be found in Franklin Roosevelt's conduct before Pearl Harbor. Of course, FDR wanted to help those fighting Hitler.But he was constrained by various laws and by substantial public opposition.

As I've written:

[His] strategy, as described by his chief speechwriter, was “to keep one step ahead of public opinion, not to be stampeded into one direction or the other, and to encourage full debate before taking too drastic action.”

            In fact, as early as January, 1941, the American people agreed (48% to 42%)  that we were already in the war. By June the figures on that question were 79.1% to 10.9%. By July, they supported convoying ships as far as Iceland, 75%-15%. By September they were ready to have U.S. ships shoot on sight (62%) rather than waiting until they were first attacked (28%). By early October, they favored 72%-21% arming U.S. merchant ships—a change in the law approved by Congress a few weeks later. Perhaps most significantly, by mid-September, the American people overwhelmingly [71% to 22%] agreed that if the United States is to be free, the Nazi government must be destroyed.
When presidents are in step with public opinion, they can do much.

cowardly warriors

When Congress passed the war powers act over President Nixon's veto, its primary goal was to prevent "another Vietnam."  That meant a major war, lasting more than a few weeks, where the U.S. military involvement grew incrementally, despite presidential denials of escalation or a wider war. The wording of the law, referring to "troops equipped for combat" and "introduced into hostilities," suggested a concern regarding ground forces, army soldiers and marines, rather than air strikes or naval deployments.

Despite the many controversies over the law, including repeated presidential refusals to consider the law binding, it has achieved its authors' goal: no major military operation not authorized by Congress has lasted more than three or four months.

Now we face a potential conflict against ISIL which will likely last a long time, require significant numbers of American military personnel and a wide variety of military operations, and carry the risk of broader conflict and unintended consequences. Although the Obama administration will promise "no boots on the ground," meaning regular infantry, in fact it is likely to deploy personnel to gather intelligence and advise allied forces -- the same slippery slope seen in Vietnam.

If Congress cared about the Constitution, and its power to authorize major combat operations, it would stand up, debate, vote -- and keep voting until it passes something which can be signed into law. I fear, however, that Congress is too cowardly to act.  Measures have already been introduced. But the leadership in both parties seems reluctant. And many Senators are already wedded to conflicting positions. There is even one proposal that would allow those boots on the ground.

One of the most consistent advocates of force to deal with various problems, Senator Lindsey Graham [R-SC], explained his reluctance to have a vote.
"What if it comes over and you can't pass it? That would be a disaster. And what if you put so many conditions on it that it makes any military operation ineffective, that's what I worry about," Mr. Graham said.
Yes, those are bad outcomes. The only good outcome is a genuine vote on a compromise measure that fulfills congressional responsibility and makes them accountable.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

pay piper, call tune

The New York Times has a major story documenting foreign government contributions to think tanks as a tool of their foreign policy. The think tanks, of course, deny that the money has a pernicious influence. I think the U.S. recipients are naive.

A 1938 law, which also provided the framework for lobbying and election campaign laws, required agents of foreign governments to register and report their activities to influence U.S. officials and even the general public. The transparency of reporting was deemed sufficient to reduce secret influence. The law was passed to expose and counteract pro-Nazi activities.

The laws regulating lobbying also require registration of anyone, American or foreign, trying to influence executive or legislative branch actions. Many foreign governments regularly hire firms not only for direct lobbying but also for public relations campaigns on their behalf.

The whole field of conflict of interest has been steadily evolving toward greater disclosures and tighter restrictions. Members of Congress used to get "honoraria" for speeches to interest groups. No longer. But there are still loopholes.

The think tanks may like to believe that their views are independent of their sponsors, but the pressure is still there, if not for today, then for renewal of a contract in the future. And the Times quotes documents and some scholars that are much more explicit on the positions taken by the think tanks.

I hope we use this report to rethink all of the influence peddling techniques used, not just by foreign governments, and force recipients of funds to be more cautious and transparent when they take special interest money.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The fall of Atlanta and the 1864 elections

In one of the Marx Brothers movies, Chico is caught in a lie but bravely says, "Who do you believe, me or your own eyes?"  There's something of the same contradiction in a Monkey Cage post by a political science professor, Nathan Kalmoe.

Kalmoe cites the conventional historical wisdom -- which I have followed in my own writings -- that Lincoln was rescued from defeat in the 1864 elections by the capture and burning of Atlanta in early September. Like a good political scientist, he tests that proposition by analyzing election returns before and after that battle -- since even congressional elections were spread during the year. [They were all held on the same day in November only after an 1872 law.] Kalmoe finds that there was no post-Atlanta "bounce" for Republicans. In fact the GOP share of the vote shrank below earlier levels in some states. Accordingly, he concludes that Sherman's victory was not a game-changer for Lincoln.

Maybe. But many people at the time thought it did help Lincoln significantly. And maybe we should also pay close attention not only to party allegiance of voters but also to the "ground game" of the Republican officials. As I have written:

In 1862, the Republicans held on to 33 of 52 Senate seats, but saw their lead in the House drop from 108-44 [plus 34 of other parties] to 85-72 [with 27 from other parties].  These results could deny them a working majority.

Stanton reacted to these setbacks by working to guarantee a strong Republican turnout in the 1863 state elections and in the 1864 presidential contest. He made sure that Ohio defeated a leading peace Democrat running for Governor, for example, by arranging for Ohio troops to vote in the field and allowing war department clerks to travel home with free railroad passes. Lame-duck Democrats tried to pass a bill censuring Stanton and forbidding military officers from interfering in civil elections, but the measure failed.

In 1864, Stanton pressured military officials to help Republican state agents and to thwart the Democrats. Entire regiments were furloughed home to crucial states. As Charles Dana commented, “all the power and influence of the War Department … were employed to secure the re-election of Mr. Lincoln.”Stanton knew how strongly the men in uniform supported the president: Lincoln got 53% of the votes overall, but a rousing 78% of those of Union soldiers.
 I'm sure Atlanta helped Union troop morale, too.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

America in decay?

Francis Fukuyama is a Big Thinker. He famously label the end of the cold war and the emerging global consensus on liberal democracy and market economies as "the end of history," using a term from Hegel. Now he has written a gloomy piece in Foreign Affairs [gated] lamenting "America in Decay."

Strangely, he starts to build his case not with foreign policy problems but what he sees as the decline of the U.S. Forest Service because of the conflicting pressures it faces in promoting conservation, fighting wildfires, and providing timber resources. He broadens his focus to the increased power and reliance on the courts as a means of governance. He decries the American political system as a "gift exchange" system, almost as bad as direct bribery. He wants to promote a parliamentary system but says that the once great British system is also decaying.

When he reaches the last page and feels compelled to offer solutions to the many problems, he sees "No Way Out." Somehow there has to be a coalition of "out-groups" because the in-groups have captured the political system and we also need "to roll back some of the would-be democratizing reforms."

Most of his complaints are the conventional wisdom, and his recommendations are both too weak and too radical.

We have a political gridlock because the Framers designed our system to make rapid and major changes close to impossible, and the voters are not angry enough to punish those who campaign but refuse to make compromises necessary to govern. I don't accept Fukuyama's pessimism because I have seen the system work; I have seen politicians become statesmen and make the tough choices on major issues, from war powers to constrained budgets. On the other hand, I'm not especially hopeful that we'll take corrective action soon.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

emergency powers, buried in the law

I came across an interesting piece of historical trivia in a book about U.S. financial sanctions against Japan in the decade before Pearl Harbor, Edward S. Miller's Bankrupting the Enemy (Naval Institute Press, 2008). After the United States declared war against Germany in April, 1917, the government needed new laws to control trade and it did not want the British system of deciding on each transaction.

The result was a Trading with the Enemy Act [let's call it TWEA]. The House approved its version of the measure, giving control to the Department of Commerce. In the Senate, however, the Secretary of the Treasury pressed for his department to be in charge and for the measure to include financial transactions as well as physical goods. In the bureaucratic food fight, Treasury came out ahead.

In the process, Senators accepted Treasury language giving the President overall broad authority. What became section 5(b) gave the President power to "investigate, regulate,or prohibit ... any transactions ... between the United States and any foreign country, whether enemy, ally of enemy, or otherwise..." Although TWEA was intended to be temporary and limited to the wartime situation, section 5(b) was permanent law. And its language was not limited to enemy nations -- probably just because Treasury lawyers wanted flexibility to deal with loophole situations.

Once in the statute books, there it stayed. And it was used by FDR to declare a bank holiday on the day he was inaugurated and to take other domestic economic measures including ending the gold standard pending congressional approval of emergency relief legislation, though Congress did limit the authority to "national emergencies" declared by the president.The authority is still there under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

This resort to long-buried legal authorities helps explain why Congress has not declared "war" since 1942 even while authorizing force on at least eight other occasions. Use of the "W word" triggers a broad range of legal changes such as the voiding of contracts and giving the President enormous domestic economic powers.

Friday, August 29, 2014

clashing views on how to deal with ISIL

Two usually well-sourced reporters, Josh Rogin and Eli Lake of the Daily Beast, have this inside picture of the administration debate over how to handle ISIL [I guess I'll use the administration's term for consistency].

There were deep divisions inside the administration's deliberations over Syria. One set of officials advocated for a campaign to decimate ISIS in both countries by striking ISIS targets across Syria. This camp pushed for hitting near Aleppo where they are advancing, and with at least some coordination with the moderate Syrian rebels. The group, which included officials from State Department, intelligence community and some parts of the military, came up with extensive targeting options for the president that included not only ISIS military assets, but their infrastructure, command and control, and their financial capabilities. Even the oil pipelines they use to export crude for cash were on the target list.
Another group of officials -- led by White House and National Security staffers but also including some intelligence and military officials -- favored a more cautious approach that spurned any cooperation with the Free Syrian Army and focused strikes inside Syria on targets near the Iraqi border. The objective: cut off ISIS supply lines to Iraq. That strategy would fall more squarely within the existing limited missions that Obama has already outlined for his war.
Inside the intelligence community, there is a dispute about whether the Free Syrian Army, which has been fighting ISIS in Syria all year with little international support, can be a reliable partner for any military mission inside Syria.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials say the official assessment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence recommended against working with the Free Syrian Army.
This suggests to me that the key issue for the President is whether the United States could have a reliable working relationship with the Syrian opposition, and we probably have limited information on which to make that judgment. So the problem is how to deal with the admitted threat of ISIL throughout the region while also dealing with the Syrian civil war, the unstable Iraqi political situation, and the growing disarray among Arab governments supposedly friendly to America.

anxious public

I don't want to make too much of this, since the American people remain anti-interventionist in terms of military power, but there has been a modest uptick in opinion favoring deeper involvement abroad. A new Pew survey finds this, along with 54% saying President Obama is "not tough enough."

Of course, support for toughness is not the same as support for military intervention. I think the poll reflects the numerous, simultaneous, and quite serious problems in the news. Americans want a stable world, not one in turmoil.

only himself to blame

President Obama blundered badly when trying to explain his foreign policy on Thursday when he said, "We don't have a strategy yet." Aides had to try to explain what he meant, since that statement played right into the criticism made of that policy. What he "meant" seems reasonable -- that military and diplomatic options were being developed and weren't ready for disclosure. But what he said matches the definition of a gaffe by journalist Michael Kinsley: "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say."

The administration has long been plagued by some anonymous staffer's description of its foreign policy in places like Libya as "leading from behind."  What they meant was leading along with others, but it didn't sound that way.

It seems to me that the administration is deferring military action not least because it needs both actionable intelligence and coordination arrangements with the Iraqis and others. Meanwhile, it is still trying to push the formation of a durable Iraqi government and is working diplomatically to get more regional allies to join in the fight against the IS jihadists.  Good luck.

Russian military doctrine revealed

In the bad old days of the cold war, Kremlinologists poured over Soviet newspapers and other publications, looking for clues to power structure and plans. They knew that Communists were big believers in doctrine, as are most modern armed forces. We in the West learned of Soviet interest in the "revolution in military affairs" long before we began pursuing it ourselves.

Now it turns out that the Russians under Putin have been quite open about their military doctrine and their use of all forms of power to pursue their goals.  A fine article in the Financial Times discusses that. And it includes this nugget:
Nato refers to this form of conflict as “hybrid war”. The phrase refers to a broad range of hostile actions, of which military force is only a small part, that are invariably executed in concert as part of a flexible strategy with long-term objectives.

Predictably, the most lucid exposition of the concept is Russian. In February 2013, Valery Gerasimov, the newly appointed chief of Russia’s general staff, penned an article in the Russian defence journal VPK.

War and peace, Mr Gerasimov wrote, in remarks that now seem prophetic, are becoming more blurred.

“Methods of conflict,” he wrote, have changed, and now involve “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures”. All of this, he said, could be supplemented by firing up the local populace as a fifth column and by “concealed” armed forces.
Mr Gerasimov quoted the Soviet military theoretician Georgii Isserson: mobilisation does not occur after a war is declared, but “unnoticed, proceeds long before that”.
Thanks to Google, I found a translation of Gerasimov's article.

The lesson here is that we should not have been surprised by Russian tactics in Ulraine.

Monday, August 25, 2014

mission creep vs mission leap in Iraq

The stars seem to be aligning in favor of some expansion of the U.S. military role in Iraq. I'm open to that, but I have some concerns, questions, and suggestions.

The ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State jihadists are truly frightening and at least a dangerous regional threat. Some of the concerns which limited U.S. willingness to act are being mitigated, such as the emerging new government in Baghdad and the intelligence and situational awareness being provided by U.S. personnel already deployed. And now even Syria's Assad, who seems to have concentrated on fighting the more moderate Syrian opposition, now can't avoid fighting ISISetc directly.

As Micah Zenko explains quite well, there is a real risk of mission creep in the current situation, where we respond incrementally to each new problem without an overall strategy and agreed endstate.

The situation is not helped by congressional figures and policy pundits who demand "leadership" and forceful actions without themselves answering the strategic questions.

To me, the right course is for the President and his advisors to craft a reasonable strategy and then ask for congressional support. The existing authorization for force in Iraq is outmoded, focused only on Saddam Hussein's misdeeds, and the 2001 law allowing action against those connected with the 9/11 attacks is being stretched to the breaking point by the administration. A new law could set the precise military mission and any constraints.  It should, for example, take a stand either for or against "boots on the ground" and set any numerical or time limits that would force both branches of government to reexamine their strategy depending on future outcomes. That wouldn't make the many difficult choices easier, but would allow us to act with our eyes open and fixed on an agreed goal.

presidential leadership, TR style

One of the last of my summer readings was a revealing book about the rise of progressives to power in early 20th century Washington by Michael Wolraich.  He tells a story that has current echoes -- a fight between a pragmatic party leader, Theodore Roosevelt, and an ideological purist, Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin. Both wanted the same things, but pursued quite different tactics. LaFollette refused to compromise and traveled the country exposing the cowardice of his colleagues who failed to vote with him. [He really reminds me of the tactics of Sen. Cruz of Texas today.] President Roosevelt -- to a degree surprising to me -- had almost daily meetings with congressional leaders, trying to work out details of compromises. While most of the action was in the Republican Party, the progressives wound up splitting both parties, leading to Woodrow Wilson's amazing first term and its progressive legislation.

I'm sick and tired of the calls from Capitol Hill for President Obama to "show more leadership" and spend more time schmoozing with lawmakers of both parties, as if that would overcome the hyperpartisanship and legislative gridlock that has captured Washington.  Yes, Lyndon Johnson intimidated congressmen into doing his bidding -- but he had significant Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, as well as longstanding personal relationships to draw on. So did FDR. Even Teddy Roosevelt had strong Republican majorities in Congress -- and leaders who could deliver the rank and file behind whatever they agreed.

Obama faces a GOP-controlled House, a Senate gridlocked by GOP obstructionists, and congressional leaders like Speaker Boehner who cannot deliver their troops in support of any compromises.