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.

Friday, August 15, 2014

an attack on national security professionals

I like books and articles with Big Ideas. They can be lively, persuasive, or infuriating -- and usually better than the standard soporific pieces. But Michael Glennon, a lawyer and professor, has taken an analysis of 19th century Britain by Walter Bagheot, applied it to the United States, and in the process argued that James Madison's theory of government is not working in practice in America.

Glennon's basic argument that that U.S. national security policy is not really controlled by the President, or Congress, or the Judiciary, but rather by a large coven of "Trumanites." These national security professionals, moving in and out of government and between branches, provide a continuity that prevents elected officials from making major changes. Their name comes from the fact that the basic building blocks of the national security state -- the Defense Department, CIA, NSC -- were created under President Harry Truman.

Glennon describes this hidden government of careerists this way:
Unlike “the best and the brightest” of earlier times, the Trumanites
are not part of big decisions because of wealth, family connections, or an
elite education. Most have no assured financial or social safety net to save
them should they slip. They are “in” because they are smart, hard-working,
and reliable, which among other things means unlikely to embarrass their
superiors. What they may lack in subtlety of mind or force of intellect they
make up in judgment. Love of country draws the Trumanites to their
work but so also do the adrenaline rush of urgent top-secret news flashes,
hurried hallway briefings, emergency teleconferences, intense
confrontation, knowing the confidential sub-plot, and, more broadly, their
authority. The decisions they secretly shape are the government’s most
crucial. They are Trollope’s Tom Towers: “It is true he wore no ermine, bore
no outward marks of a world’s respect; but with what a load of inward
importance was he charged! It is true his name appeared in no large
capitals . . . but what member of Parliament had half his power?”
Glennon exaggerates and is ultimately wrong, in my opinion. The Constitutional officers of government are more powerful than their staffs -- if they choose to be. There is much less continuity or consensus among careerists than Glennon claims. He argues that there are just enough counter examples to keep people from accepting his thesis. On the contrary, those counter examples are the reality; his "double government" is the illusion.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Joe Biden unscripted

Evan Osnos understands and has captured some essential features of Joe Biden in his New Yorker article. I know something about the Vice President myself, for I worked on his Senate staff for over four years in the early 1980s -- a period, I would note, that neither he in his autobiography nor his principal biographer ever discuss. But they were exciting years for me, and I came to admire Biden's political skills even as I sometimes chafed at his tendency to disregard staff materials and wing it.

I was also troubled by Biden's tendency to gild the lily, exaggerating his own personal role in certain events when the truth was sufficiently praiseworthy. Osnos has a very plausible diagnosis of Biden's behavior:
Looking over the record of his exaggerations and plagiarism, I came to see them as the excesses of a man who wants every story to sing, even at the risk of embarrassment.
Biden connects with audiences better than most public figures, and I guess that's part of the reason. 

an alternative assessment of Obama's foreign policy

The conventional wisdom -- a J.K. Galbraith term that suggests unthinking consensus rather than an agreed understanding -- is that President Obama's foreign policy is confused, unpredictable, weak, inconsistent, and ultimately a failure. If the administration has a vision, much less a strategy, it hasn't been communicated to the journalists and pundits.

In my studies of American foreign policy, I have rarely found an administration or a particular policy that didn't deserve one or more of those criticisms. Policymakers more often than not muddle through, with a short term focus and tunnel vision, trying to deal with the most urgent problems with mitigation rather than solutions.

I do think the Obama administration has been overly and inconsistently criticized on many aspects of its foreign policy. I'm also glad that the president has strategic patience in dealing with big problems and is a reluctant warrior, unlike his 2008 Republican opponent.

Last year, when "everybody" was criticizing his Syria policy, professor Dan Drezner argued that it was sensible and effective -- doing just enough to put pressure on Assad and tie down Iran without committing U.S. military power to a chaotic situation.

This week, Matt Yglesias, who normally writes on economic issues for Vox, has a similarly favorable evaluation of Obama as a foreign policy realist.
To its detractors, realism is a policy of cynicism — one that, in the name a cold-hearted national interest, leaves on the table a bounty of humanitarian gains ripe for the plucking.
The more generous view is that realism is a policy of limits. A recognition that for a moral foreign policy to do any good in the world it must be feasible, and that even the mightiest empire the world has ever known faces daunting challenges when it attempts to remake the domestic politics of foreign countries. A recognition that the long-term ability of the United States to do any good for anyone hinges on maintaining domestic strength and advancing foreign goals in cost-effective ways.

Friday, August 8, 2014

U.S. troops in 20 African countries

Just look at this Financial Times graphic:

August 4, 2014 4:39 pm

Pentagon confronts militant dilemma in Africa

US military presence in Africa

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Should the White House delegate more power over foreign policy?

Many observers of the Obama administration have complained about the tight, centralized control exerted by the White House over all aspects of American foreign policy. Former defense secretary Bob Gates made that point, and now even loyal Democrats are saying the same thing.

I'm sure they're complaining. People outside the White House always complain about micromanagement. I know I was frequently unhappy with the ways the Clinton NSC dealt with me and my colleagues in the State Department at the time.

But I also believe that the Executive Office of the President should run a tight ship, both for policy consistency and problem avoidance. Nevertheless, I think the number of current problems is great enough, and the bandwidth [and hours in the day] available for the most senior officials to consider options, that more needs to be delegated to subordinate officials.  Give clear guidance, but then get out of the way.

U.S. public unsure about American foreign policy

I have been puzzled over the fact that President Obama's approval ratings for his handling of foreign policy has been dropping, despite public agreement with most of those policies -- such as avoiding direct military involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine and supporting Israel in Gaza. Now I think I have the answer: the people "don't know enough" about U.S. policy.

That's the real lesson from the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll.

Just notice the figures for "Don't know enough/not sure." In every case, those figures are larger than either "satisfied" or "dissatisfied."

Successful messaging requires not just saying the right thing one time, but repeating the point in memorable language, and placing it in a broader explanatory context. The White House, admittedly trying to juggle multiple crises at the same time, still hasn't broken through the fog of ignorance on any of its issues.

the enemy of my enemy is my friend

According to the Wall Street Journal, Israel and Egypt colluded over Gaza,leaving the United States on the sidelines.
The U.S. encouraged Israel and Egypt to forge a close security partnership. What Washington never anticipated was that the two countries would come to trust each other more than the Americans, who would watch events in Gaza unfold largely from the sidelines as the Israelis and the Egyptians planned out their next steps. 
          The Journal report details growing Israeli-Egyptian cooperation under President Sisi driven by a shared antipathy toward Gaza-ruling Hamas.
U.S. officials, who tried to intervene in the initial days after the conflict broke out on July 8 to try to find a negotiated solution, soon realized that Mr. Netanyahu's office wanted to run the show with Egypt and to keep the Americans at a distance, according to U.S., European and Israeli officials.
The Americans, in turn, felt betrayed by what they saw as a series of "mean spirited" leaks, which they interpreted as a message from Mr. Netanyahu that U.S. involvement was neither welcomed nor needed.

       Israel also gained goodwill with Egypt by using its political clout in Washington to win resumed aid to Egypt, despite a U.S. law requiring a cutoff in the event of a military coup.

         While this is a good example of realpolitik in operation, it makes it even harder for the U.S. to provide a leadership role in the conflict.