Thursday, February 27, 2014

how muchis enough for defense?

We are lucky to have the Gallup organization and its polls going back for decades, thus giving us longitudinal surveys that reveal a lot. This week they released a poll showing a continued plurality of Americans saying we spend too much for military purposes. These new numbers reenforce my own prediction that Congress will not reverse the Obama administration's proposed defense cuts, just as it failed to save defense spending from the automatic sequester cuts last year.

But look at the historical trends. At the height of the Vietnam war in 1969, over half the people thought we were spending too much on defense; only 8% said too little. Only in the late 1970s did the "too little" figure exceed "too much." That sentiment peaked at the start of the Reagan administration and dropped sharply by 1982, probably driven by concerns over nuclear weapons programs and evidence of wasteful spending [$600 hammers and $2,000 coffee makers for airplanes]. The "too much" sentiment peaked in 1990, as the cold war ended, then gradually declined until events like the U.S. embassy bombings and problems in the Balkans in the late 1990s. The 9/11 attacks led to an increase in those wanting to spend more, but the budget cutters surged as the Iraq war went sour and remain stronger than those who want increases.

Congress tends to follow this opinion, boosting defense when the public is in favor, and cutting back when that sentiment grows.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

democracy vs. liberty

Steve Walt makes an important distinction in his latest FP article between democratic governments and liberal societies [using the "L" word in its original, 19th century meaning]. He notes that all truly liberal societies are also democratic, the reverse is not true. And he notes how American governments tend to value democratic forms over liberal realities. We want other countries to follow the form of elections and so forth, when what we need most is a society with rule of law and protection of civic rights. That's worth keeping in mind when we outsiders try to help Ukraine fashion a new government.

you are what you tweet

That seems to be the conclusion of an interesting new report from Pew. On political topics, anyway, two distinct groups form on Twitter, and each draws on quite different news sources.

The report discusses other types of grouping depending on the subject matter. I guess social media are a more significant medium [note the proper use of Latin plurals] than I had realized.  Nevertheless, I'm not going to start tweeting because I think most ideas worth sharing require at least a paragraph, not just a bumper sticker or similar 140-character expression.

budget games

This is the season for budget games, when the winners and losers try to frame issues for the next round in Congress. This is when budget increases are labeled "cuts" because the figure is lower than somebody previously forecast. This is when one groups claims it was "targeted" because it got less than it wanted.

I don't know what size the U.S. Army should be two years from now, but I know that all of the services face severe budget constraints. I was disappointed, but not surprised, when the meme circulating in the media was "smallest army since before World War II."  Wrong on several counts, as various others have pointed out.
As one observer notes, the actual army strength in 1940 was barely half what the proposed cuts would leave, and that 1940 figure included what later became the independent air force. A much better reporter, Tony Capaccio for Bloomberg, notes that the proposed army force level is lower than just before the 9/11 attacks. Another analysis suggests that this was a win for the army.

I was also disappointed to see the knee-jerk reactions of groups representing military personnel in strident opposition to any increases in their fees and copayments for the military health insurance programs. Senior military leaders are now leading the charge, as only they can, is making the case for restraints on personnel costs in order to maintain readiness and modernization. I hope Congress takes their advice on this issue.

the short war illusion

There's a long, sad history of national leaders promising that the wars they were launching would be short. That was the common view in August 1914. After his dramatically successful Inchon landing in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur foolishly proclaimed the U.S. troops would be "home by Christmas." The G.W. Bush administration acted as if the war in Afghanistan was over after the Taliban left the major cities. And of course President Bush stood in front of a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" just as Iraq descended into sectarian violence.

To add to this list now" the French parliament has just extended its authorization of military operations in the Central African Republic for an indefinite period. Lawmakers had to act now because their original three-month operation has not yet succeeded. They had even named the action after a short-lived butterfly. Now they know better.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

be careful what you wish for

In 1950,the American Political Science Association published a major study by its leading scholars complaining about the state of U.S. politics and calling for parties that stood for clear and different policies, in contrast to the amorphous parties of the day. Well, now we have polarized parties with sharply clashing views, and few incentives to cooperate on much of anything. Gridlock, anger, public disgust with Congress.

Now a British professor, Robert Ford,  points out that Britain has what many say America needs, and it's just as bad there.
As America grapples with the problems of polarization, centrist politics, perhaps launched by a third party, looks like an enticing panacea. This is an illusion: moderation may solve some problems, but in deeply divided societies like America and Britain, it cannot be achieved without marginalizing many voters. Pushing unresolved conflicts out of the system may produce calmer politicians, but it also produces angrier voters, who may turn against the democratic system which denies them a voice. In politics, everything comes with a price. Moderation is no exception.
Yes, but... What Ford overlooks is the huge difference between a presidential and a parliamentary system. A majority in parliament is power to do just about anything. In America, even a president and congress of the same party can be checked by the unelected supreme court. Voters may be unhappy in both countries, but only one can still govern.

Syria reset?

The Washington Post's well-sourced David Ignatius has important news in his column, now published as an "opinion" piece. He says that intelligence chiefs from several friendly countries met in Washington last week to coordinate policy on Syria. The Saudis have replaced their former spy chief with another official, who seems more amenable to working with the United States. The Syrian opposition has also replaced its top general with another commander who seems to have better standing with the moderate militias. The Obama administration still wants to avoid direct U.S. military involvement but it willing to continue training military units in Jordan and supplying somewhat more effective arms.

I'm still dubious that the opposition can coalesce or that westerners can keep military aid from falling into the hands of extremists. But at least the anti-Assad forces are looking for alternatives to what has been an admittedly failed policy so far.

when do wars become unpopular?

It took a dozen years, but a plurality of Americans now view the Afghanistan war as a mistake, according to a new Gallup Poll. The accompanying news release also includes the tipping points for other major wars, showing a much shorter span of support.

Public opinion soured on the Iraq war after only 15 months. In Korea, views changed after only 6 months, when the war also changed with large scale Chinese intervention discredited General MacArthur's promise of an early victory. In the case of Vietnam, the tipping point was October 1967, just three years after the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Congress' authorization of force and a little over two years after the first major U.S. troop escalation.

The obvious lesson is that Americans like short, successful wars and grow weary of long, unresolved conflicts. Impatience isn't necessarily a virtue, but it is a fact of political life.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Chinese military expansion

Western influences are causing major problems for the People's Liberation Army. According to the Financial Times, Chinese soldiers are growing too tall and chubby to fit in current model tanks and airplanes. This generational growth is attributed to the more western diet, including fast foods.  Who knew that McDonalds is one of America's secret weapons?

follow the money abroad

A law professor and judge has compiled a revealing chart showing the correlations between campaign contributions and ambassadorial appointments. Not surprisingly, most non-career ambassadors go to countries where the quality of life is pretty high -- and often the local language is English.

Thus far, the Obama administration is tracking on the high side of the historical band of political appointees, at about 37% rather than 33% and sometimes less. Many have done fine jobs, as historically has been the case. But there always are clunkers.

intelligence mission impossible

The intelligence community faces an impossible task of pleasing the many demanding recipients of its products. As Will Imboden, a former NSC staffer admits, policymakers make contradictory demands on people in the IC: get what I need but don't get caught; don't ever make mistakes; don't water down analysis to the lowest common denominator, but don't confuse me with disagreements. His list of impossible demands sounds true, and discouraging.

Monday, February 17, 2014

remember the Maine!

To mark the anniversary of the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 16, 1898, the Wall Street Journal posts its original story online today.  What's especially interesting to me is that even this first report strongly suggests that the explosion was "internal,"  and thus not caused by a Spanish mine or other sabotage.  Scientific research in the 1970s reached the same definitive conclusion.

But in the days just after the incident, America's "yellow press" helped build public pressure to liberate Cuba from Spain. In fact, Democrats and Republicans in Congress teamed up to force a reluctant President McKinley to go to war.

Although "first reports are [almost] always wrong," a military aphorism worth remembering, this is a case where they were right.

don't know much about science, either

It seems that 26% of Americans in a new survey say that the sun revolves around the earth. Sigh.

At least they got more science answers right than the Europeans.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

don't know much about history

I have long admired Alexander Hamilton. His vision of America was far sounder than Thomas Jefferson's, and his work as the first Treasury Secretary put the new nation on a sound financial basis. He believed in promoting American industry and a federal government role in infrastructure, again in contrast to the Virginia Founders.

But he never became president. And it shocks me to read this release from Groupon trying to honor Hamilton on President's Day. Did they stop teaching history when Millennials went to school? Or did they just stop learning because they were too busy playing with their electronic devices?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Senate secrecy

Normally, the Senate clerk reads the names of Senators voting for and against a pending measure after completing the first call of the roll. Thereafter, the clerk usually reads each additional name as remaining Senators vote, but not noting if the lawmaker switched positions. Yesterday was different.

At the request of the Minority Leader, the Majority Leader told the clerk not to repeat the names. Sen. McConnell needed almost an hour to convince enough of his colleagues to vote to end debate on the debt limit increase bill. Eventually, and only after he and the Minority Whip themselves voted to end debate, another 6 Republicans changed their votes.

This became an issue because reporters asked why the usual "recap" procedure was not followed. Sen. Reid's staff finally explained.

to the barricades!

My wife and I have been discouraged lately by the poor video quality of Netflix streaming. We are not alone.

I called and complained to Netflix and an otherwise polite person refused to acknowledge that bad blood between Neflix and Verizon probably accounted for the poor quality. The agent kept trying to blame :uneven signal" inside our house, despite my protests that Amazon Prime was HD when Netflix struggled for a two-dot signal.

Now there's more information about the huge bandwidth Netflix uses and the few ISPs that have agreed to downloading work-arounds. As the National Journal notes:
And as of last month, the average U.S. Netflix speed bested only that of Mexico—and just barely—and of Argentina, where Netflix just arrived last month.

Much of the U.S.'s dropoff can be attributed to two of its biggest Internet service providers. Comcast and Verizon customers have seen their Netflix speed drop by around 10 to 25 percent in the past year.
I hope anyone with similar problems will join me in protesting to Netflix.

drone oversight kept limited

It's discouraging to read that an effort to have a comprehensive review of U.S. drone operations by Congress has been thwarted. According to the Los Angeles Times, Senator Carl Levin [D-Mich.] wanted a combined intelligence/armed services panel to hear about both CIA- and DOD-run drone operations. But the White House refused to grant clearances for the defense committee members, presumably supported by the intelligence committees jealous of their turf.

Congress can't fashion a drone policy, or even oversee what goes on now, if these jurisdictional stovepipes are kept so rigidly separate.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Reagan's retreat

Micah Zenko draws attention to the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan's abrupt change of policy, despite his apocalyptic rhetoric, and his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Lebanon. The American forces were part of a UN mission first sent in 1982 to police the withdrawal of PLO forces, and renewed in 1983 because of increased sectarian violence. Congress even approved an 18-month commitment under the War Powers Resolution.

Many in Congress called for a withdrawal of troops following the marine barracks car bombing that killed 142, but Reagan stood firm.
On the day after the barracks bombing, however, the president reaffirmed his commitment: "The reason they must stay there until the situation is under control is quite clear. We have vital interests in Lebanon. And our actions in Lebanon are in the cause of world peace."

Over a month later, on Dec. 1, Reagan stated that the Marines were in Beirut to "demonstrate the strength of our commitment to peace in the Middle East.... Their presence is making it possible for reason to triumph over the forces of violence, hatred, and intimidation." Nine days later, he told the nation: "Once internal stability is established and withdrawal of all foreign forces is assured, the Marines will leave."

Finally, on Feb. 4, 1984, Reagan stated something frequently heard in debates over Afghanistan and other theaters of conflict today -- if the United States withdraws, "we'll be sending one signal to terrorists everywhere: They can gain by waging war against innocent people.... If we're to be secure in our homes and in the world, we must stand together against those who threaten us."

Yet, just three days later, on Feb. 7, Reagan ordered the Marines to "redeploy" to their ships offshore -- which was actually a full withdrawal achieved in three weeks.
Zenko considers Reagan's action an admission of error. I think we should also recognize that U.S. military leaders  and the Secretary of Defense were strongly opposed to the operation, and Congress had limited the mission to defensive actions. It also raises the question of how much credibility the U.S. loses when it changes course so radically and abruptly.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

defense begins at home

Many lawmakers want to reduce defense spending in the abstract, but not when it means fewer jobs or contracts or installations back home. The Hill newspaper has a piece listing several of the cuts favored by the Pentagon that Congress is fighting.  The President won't even send his fiscal year 2015 budget to Congress for another month, but the preemptive attacks are already beginning.

Not content with a debate and fair fight over particular programs, some creative lawmakers are pushing legislation that would deny funds even to study particular cuts, or to make managerial shifts that might save money and thereby demonstrate the value of such cuts. It's not surprising that members of Congress are parochial -- that's built into the Constitution.  But it would be nice if their colleagues insisted on a careful review of Pentagon proposals, and not knee-jerk opposition.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

reading the eavesdroppings

It often happens when the headlines on a news item miss the important part of the story. That was certainly the case this week when somebody [who probably learned English and the Latin alphabet as a second language] leaked parts of a phone call between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.

The headline, and resulting controversy, went to Nuland's dismissive comment about the European Union's ineffective efforts to influence the current political unrest in Ukraine. As you can read below, her "Fuck the EU" comment is off-hand, the way most of us have felt one time or another when frustrated by the actions of a colleague or boss. It certainly was not the topic sentence in a diatribe about the many faults of European diplomacy.

The background of the call was explained by the State Department's press spokesperson:
It is no secret that Ambassador Pyatt and Assistant Secretary Nuland have been working with the Government of Ukraine, with the opposition, with business and civil society leaders to support their efforts, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that at any point, there have been discussions about recent events and offers and what is happening on the ground. And as you know, Assistant Secretary Nuland is on the ground right now continuing our efforts in that regard.
A more interesting analysis, along with the text of the leaked parts of the call, was in the Christian Science Monitor. Dan Murphy notes the likelihood that the call -- most improperly -- was made over an insecure line and thus easily tapped.

What strikes me is the language of these senior officials: overly slangy, with exaggerated metaphors. They use nicknames for the Ukrainian political leaders, use phrases like: "top dog," "help glue this thing,"  "we could land jelly side up," and Biden is willing to do "an attaboy."  Can't they be more professional and diplomatic?

Obama's disengagement?

Once again, Fred Kaplan has an excellent piece rebutting the notion that President Obama is somehow disengaging from the world and that a more activist policy would solve the problems facing Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Iran, and so forth.

No, Kaplan argues:
What many of these critics don’t like about Obama—what they mistakenly, or misleadingly, call “disinterest”—is his disinclination to go to war. And who can blame him? Two years after the last American soldier left Iraq, the place is ablaze in sectarian conflict, hundreds of civilians dying every week. Afghanistan awaits an uncertain fate as the troops head toward the exits there.
I think that's right, both as an assessment of how much difference unilateral American action can make on those intractable problems and as a reading of an overarching goal of Obama's foreign policy.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

party unity = gridlock

No wonder Congress didn't do much last year. CQ's annual rollcall analysis showed the highest levels ever of party unity: Ds and Rs poles apart and showing party loyalty. As National Journal's Elahe Izadi says:
House Republicans in 2013 voted with their caucus an average of 92 percent of the time, breaking the previous record of 91 percent in 2011, according to a new study from CQ Roll Call. The House GOP voted unanimously on party-unity votes—those that divided parties35 percent of the time, also inching past the previous record of 34 percent in 2010.

A look at the Senate offers a similar picture, but in reverse; Senate Democrats broke their previous record on party unity in 2013 when lawmakers voted an average of 94 percent with their caucus. Unanimous voting also reached a new high: the Democratic caucus voted unanimously 52 percent on party-unity votes, which shatters the record for either party in either chamber (the last high was 46 percent in 2011).
 Some of that unity was simple ideological agreement; some was defensive against primary challenges; and no doubt some was because of threats of punishment by the leadership. Whatever the causes, the results were the same.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Napoleon defeated by British bureaucrats

That’s the compelling, and persuasive, thesis of Roger Knight’s Britain against Napoleon. While most military history glorifies generals and admirals and has a “great man” focus, several recent writers have explored the role played by planners and technicians and managers – civil servants, lower-ranking officers, and private businessmen.

Paul Kennedy did it for World War II in Engineers of Victory. As Amazon’s description says, “Kennedy recounts the inside stories of the invention of the cavity magnetron, a miniature radar “as small as a soup plate,” and the Hedgehog, a multi-headed grenade launcher that allowed the Allies to overcome the threat to their convoys crossing the Atlantic; the critical decision by engineers to install a super-charged Rolls-Royce engine in the P-51 Mustang, creating a fighter plane more powerful than the Luftwaffe’s; and the innovative use of pontoon bridges (made from rafts strung together) to help Russian troops cross rivers and elude the Nazi blitzkrieg.”

Arthur Herman showed in Freedom’s Forge the role played by the auto and shipbuilding industry in building America’s arsenal of democracy. Maury Klein paints a larger canvas in his A Call to Arms.
Historian Thomas McCraw explained how Alexander Hamilton and others developed a system of finance that allowed America to win its revolutionary war and put its new government on a sound financial basis in his The Founders.

Knight shows how Britain drastically reorganized its government after the loss of the American colonies and before the French revolution. Prime Minister William Pitt the younger modernized the shipyards; began a regular shipbuilding program while other nations enjoyed a peace dividend; eliminated costly sinecure jobs in the military establishment; put all the often-feuding navy offices under a single roof; and expanded the intelligence services [though still allowing three separate organizations – in the admiralty, foreign office, and home office – to remain independent]. As the war continued under Napoleon, Knight tells how the British learned from their mistakes and improved the efficiency of their government. They had numerous setbacks and even disasters, along with numerous investigations and parliamentary oversight, but those events combined to give Britain a more capable force. It’s also fascinating to learn how informally governments operated in that distant era.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Is it cheating to read historical fiction?

I hope not, because I have indulged in some lately. My latest enthusiasm is for Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy, his dramatic account of the Dreyfus affair. I had only a 3 x 5 card's worth of knowledge about it from earlier histories: Jewish army officer convicted of spying, imprisoned on devil's island, evidence proves another officer was the spy, French politics in turmoil for a decade over Dreyfus, Zola accuses officials of miscarriage of justice, Dreyfus eventually exonerated. Harris centers is story on the intelligence officer who is involved in the first trial, shares the casual anti-Semitism of the officer corps, but who discovers the evidence of Dreyfus' innocence and of forged documents used to convict him and then suffers ostracism and imprisonment for challenging his military superiors.

I've never been able to get into the thick volumes by historians on the Dreyfus affair, but couldn't put down this novel. It doesn't tell me everything I want to know about the broader political battles over Dreyfus, but I think I'll remember the outline better as a result.

Most historical fiction brings to life an earlier era, but through invented characters. I enjoy it when an author takes real people and adds missing dialogue and plausible if not documented events. At the National War College, we studied the battle of Gettysburg by reading Michael Shaara's Killer Angels. I think I learned more about our 30th president by reading John Derbyshire's Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream than I ever did in a history book.  On the other hand, I refused to read Edmund Morris' life of Ronald Reagan, Dutch,because he invented characters to tell his purportedly nonfiction story.

One of our best current authors of historical fiction set in Washington is Thomas Mallon, who has written about Watergate, the McCarthy era, and the sad but fascinating Henry and Clara, the story of the young couple who sat with the Lincolns at Ford's Theater. Henry Rathbone, severely wounded by Booth's knife, was troubled for years by his failure to somehow protect Lincoln. In the 1880s he killed his wife Clara and spent his final years in an insane asylum.

Add these to your reading list.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

where is America at war today?

South Sudan
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Central African Republic
and on the high seas in "Maritime Interception Operations"

Needless to say, only a few of these conflicts are well known to us. But President Obama, in the most recent report to Congress "consistent with the War Powers Resolution," says that U.S. forces equipped for combat have been deployed to these places.  In addition, there may be secret operations run by the CIA and reported secretly to the congressional intelligence committees.

This is one of the few provisions of the 1973 war powers law that presidents have complied with -- notification of sending troops. But it's a useful reminder of the many hostile situations in which U.S. forces are deployed.