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.