Thursday, May 29, 2014

the F-35 isn't that unusual

I have no strong feelings about the F-35, but when I see a story like this -- saying that the Marine version can't land vertically as it's supposed to without destroying the landing pad -- I chalk it up to the dilemmas of just about all major weapons programs. The military planners set performance goals beyond current capabilities, in order to justify the costs and provide technological superiority, and then they have to compromise and make tradeoffs to meet schedule and cost constraints.  Senior officials then are faced with approving a less-than-promised system at higher-than-promised costs, or going back to the drawing boards in the hope of doing better next time.  Dilemmas and tradeoffs are inherent. But we still get to complain.

pity the VA bureaucrats

Members of Congress, especially those up for election this year, are joining the angry chorus calling for the firing of the head of the Veterans Administration, Eric Shinseki.  These are the same folks who demand that the VA do the impossible -- treat everybody promptly and be sure no money goes to people who aren't eligible. If the IG had discovered evidence of waste and fraud, the lawmakers would be calling for scalps just as loudly, but now the problem is gross inefficiency and bureaucratic workarounds -- exactly the same thing that was documented by the VA in 2010 when senior officials warned supervisors to watch out for such behaviors.

Clerks who falsified records deserve no pity, but others in the VA deserve our sympathy for trying to do a tough and growing job with a gun at their heads.  Ezra Klein and his group at Vox have put together some useful information on the scandal, including this interview with author, Philip Longman, who studied the VA system and reported the high satisfaction [93%] users have. He also notes:
The metric here is they tried to get vets in for non-urgent appointments for care within 14 days. Compare that to a survey done in 2009 on average wait times outside the VA to see a family physician. In Los Angeles, people waited an average of 59 days. In Boston, they waited an average of 63 days. In Washington DC, they waited an average of 30 days. The average wait time in major metropolitan areas is about 20 days. The VA is attempting to create a performance metric by which it would be substantially superior to the rest of the health-care system.
The problem in Phoenix is clearly bad, but it's one of getting an initial primary care appointment, not one for urgent care. That requires verifying the eligibility of the veteran, and that requires reviewing a lot of  service records, much of which is still on paper.

Veterans groups reject the Republican call for sending vets to private health care providers and hospitals because there is even less accountability and fewer performance standards -- and the costs are higher, thus squeezing funds for veterans' health care.

At least Congress isn't likely to do what it usually does when problems arise in an agency -- cut its funds severely. They can't do that because it would be viewed as a vote against vets.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Obama, coalition warrior

President Obama laid out his foreign policy vision at West Point today. The New York Times calls it a "muscular but not militaristic" foreign policy. I see it as a defense -- and defensive in tone -- of his reluctance to use military force except in extreme cases and primarily in concert with others.

He uses the speaker's device of posing unacceptable alternatives -- between "self-described realists" and "interventionists on the left and right" -- and then asserting that he has found the middle way. He supports the use of force to build a world of "greater freedom and tolerance"as a "moral imperative," but is sharply critical of military adventures begun "without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required."

To me the most newsworthy aspect of the speech is the emphasis on seeking allies and partners for collective actions when matters do not pose a direct threat to the United States. He explains how this would work in countering terrorism by announcing a $5 billion "Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund." [This sounds a lot like a doubling of the existing "section 1206" program  that has already spent about half that amount since 2006.] This is good in theory but hasn't always worked out so well in practice. Let's see what difference it makes in his target countries of Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Mali.

Obama tries to defend the strength of his leadership against numerous critics by noting how well it has worked in gaining multilateral support for sanctions against Russia and Iran. He also snipes at critics who won't let America lead in combating the effects of climate change because they deny it is happening or who oppose the Law of the Sea Treaty when we want to enforce it against China.

Obama comes across as a reluctant unilateral warrior, but a more willing coalition fighter. He still wants international law to have some force and effect on all nations. It's useful to contrast his approach with that of George W. Bush, who in his own 2002 address at West Point broached the idea of preventive war. It's good to be moving in a different direction now.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

dear parents, I need money

With classes over until September, I'm reading for pleasure. Just started Andrew Pettegree's The Invention of News, a history of the development of printed news before the 19th century. It turns out that news letters and pamphlets were far more popular in the early centuries after the invention of printing than what became news papers.

But most fascinating so far is the development of letter delivery. At first, only monarchs could afford or much needed to send and receive messages. Later merchants involved in interregional trade needed to communicate with others, and they set up their own letter services. By the 13th century[!] several universities had their own mail systems, with their own couriers, to convey letters between students and parents.

And sure enough, here is a passage from an Oxford student to is parents in 1220:
This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. They city is expensive and makes many demands....
But news traveled both ways.
A French father wrote to his son at Orleans that he "recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work, and strumming a guitar while others are at their studies." 
Plus ca change...

Friday, May 23, 2014

priorities, dear boy, priorities

Watch what they do, not what they say. While investigations into the VA may be the exception to the general rule putting scandal over substance -- because the problems are real and Congress can make worthwhile changes -- I offer two factoids that fit the usual pattern.

1. In their desperate effort to make the Benghazi tragedy a political problem worthy of Watergate, House Republicans have now held almost as many hearings on Benghazi [17] as Congress did on the 9/11 attacks [22]. And even more are scheduled by Chairman Issa even before the new select committee begins its witch hunt.

2. As National Journal reports -- the headline says it all --

The House Science Committee Has Held More Hearings on Aliens Than on Climate Change


fixing the VA

National Journal has another very sensible article on the problems with the Veterans Administration health system. It recommends:

1. Congress could ask doctors—not veterans—to handle the paperwork.
2. Congress could require the VA to give more veterans the benefit of the doubt.
3. The VA could start rewarding its employees for quality, not quantity.
4. Congress can pressure the Pentagon and the VA to share electronic files.

 These all sound smart to me -- though I caution that #2, which calls for selective review of claims rather than full verification of each one, runs the risk of fraud and abuse, swinging the pendulum back against the officials who fail to catch the deception.

military partisanship

Peter Feaver of Duke is a longtime scholar of civil-military relations, and I count him as a friend. One of his most trenchant comments is that, since civilians have legal authority over the military, they get to make the big decisions, and "the civilians have the right to fail."

In an article for Foreign Policy, he repeats the argument that I strongly share that retired military officers should refrain from political endorsements of candidates. They have the right to speak their mind, but if they act in this way, they risk politicizing the officer corps and undermining the professional authority of those on active duty.
Eventually, if the practice runs rampant, the White House will seek assurances that the choices for the highest commands and offices are safe partisans rather than the very best officers for the job. Already some active duty officers have been accused of such partisan standing, lessening the persuasiveness of their professional judgment; in other words, the partisan activities among the senior retired ranks rebounds to lessen the influence and ability of their successors to fulfill their function in the nation's security.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

secret consultations?

There was some kind of off-the-record meeting between the president and a bipartisan group of Senators on Monday night. Senator Bob Corker [R-TN] told a Foreign Relations Committee hearing,

“I know several of us were involved in a very bizarre discussion last night. This continues a very bizarre discussion,” Corker said at another point.
The Tennessee Republican did not say where or with whom the meeting took place (or why it was bizarre).
I hope we learn more, but this is probably a good thing. The president has been criticized for not reaching out to members of Congress more frequently. And Senators are always demanding to be "consulted" and not just "informed" about administration policy.

I believe the best way to restore a collaborative approach to foreign policy, rather than the current highly partisan and contentious one, is to have genuine consultations, respect for the institutional roles of the legislative and executive branches, and a regular order for legislation -- that is, actually passing bills and considering amendments, not just posturing and poison pill amendments.

"yes" lawyers

The story goes that Lyndon Johnson was interviewing a candidate to be White House counsel. "What I want to know is, are you a "yes" lawyer or a "no" lawyer?"  Obviously, LBJ wanted someone who would not block what he wanted to do on narrow legal grounds.

It looks as if President Obama has "yes" lawyers at State and Defense. In a hearing yesterday, they reportedly argued that the President has sufficient Article II [of the Constitution] authority to go after terrorists, even in the 2001 law linked to the 9/11 attacks is repealed.  That leaves Congress' clear wording of that law -- where lawmakers rejected the Bush request for a blank check to use force even to deter terrorist attacks -- seemingly irrelevant.

Congress needs to fix this mess by passing a law that gives the President clear authority against today's terrorist threats but imposes limits and procedures to prevent a permanent or unconstrained war. War is too important to be left to lawyers.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

mistreating veterans

Until the United States created a large permanent military force after World War II, veterans care and pensions was often the largest part of the federal budget other than for the army and navy. Some sample figures:  
Veterans compensation as a percent of total federal expenditures
1820:  18%
1840:  11%
1870:  9%
1890:  34%
1910:  23%
1930:  6%
 It's evident from this excellent article in the National Journal that the VA has had management problems for decades, and Congress has added to its burdens by increasing eligibility for various problems.

One of the managerial problems is that giving bonuses for reducing waiting times for medical care created perverse incentives to keep some records off the books.

Don't expect miracles. But also don't pretend that the problem developed only in the past few years.

the cyber-industrial complex

I believe the U.S. government when it says that it doesn't spy on foreign companies in order to help U.S. companies. I also believe that several foreign governments are happy to conduct espionage for some of their own companies.

The latest disclosures concern what the Chinese are doing. As reported in Time magazine, their targets are:
1. Solar power technology

2. Nuclear power plant technology

3. Inside information on U.S. business strategy

4. Data enabling the Chinese to outwit U.S. regulators

It looks pretty smart from their point of view.

How the Pentagon would build the Ark

With the defense authorization bill under consideration in the House and in a Senate committee, I thought of something I wrote a long time ago.

How the Pentagon would build the Ark

1. CIA says it's really going to rain -- heavily and for a long time.
2. DOD starts designing the ark.
3. USAF insists on a flight deck.
4. Navy demands nuclear power.
5. Army wants treads for when the water level is low.
6. Marines demand berthing for 3 divisions.
7. When delays and cost overruns occur, Congress cuts funding.
8. As a final cost-saving measure, they take only one of each animal on board.

measure twice, cut once

It's refreshing to learn that other governments make stupid mistakes, not just our own.

Sure enough, the French railroad system [SCNF] has admitted that its newest model cars are too wide to fit in 1300 of its 8700 railway platforms, which will have to be widened before the cars can be used.

"We discovered the problem a bit late," the SCNF spokesman said. Yup.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Afghan legacy

Several years ago, when I first learned of the plans to greatly expand the Afghan army and national police, I expressed concern that Afghanistan would be turned into a garrison state, and the size of the forces was unsustainable.  That appears to be the judgment of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, too.

[John] Sopko, in prepared remarks for the Middle East Institute think tank, said U.S. funding for Afghan reconstruction has topped the amount spent rebuilding Britain or Germany following World War Two. Annual payments are more than what Washington gives to Israel, Egypt and Pakistan combined, he said.
The result is that the government of Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, needs an annual budget of about $7.6 billion, but is able to raise only about $2 billion from its people. Without contributions from donor countries, it will not be able to make up the shortfall, Sopko said.
Sopko also indicated that several planned development projects would not be completed or would not likely be used in the future because of their high costs.

How many U.S. politicians are going to be willing to vote for the foreign aid needed just to keep Afghanistan from going bankrupt, given all our prior aid?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

war powers revisions

There is a serious bipartisan effort under way to revise the war powers regime with a new law to replace the 1973 War Powers Resolution. Senator Tim Kaine [D-VA], lead sponsor with John McCain [R-AZ] spoke about it at CSIS today, and I had a chance to offer my own suggestions. See video here. The draft bill, S. 1939, offers two major improvements over the current law: [1] it changes the focus from ground troops "equipped for combat" to "significant armed conflicts" lasting more than a week; [2] it forces Congress to vote on the operation, in contrast to its long record of abdicating responsibility by avoiding definitive legislation either pro or con.

Sen. Kaine admitted that the bill was still being reviewed for possible changes, and I suggested one in line with an article I wrote last year.  to cover lethal drone attacks and offensive cyber operations, I think we need a law like the one on the books since 1974 [that I helped write] requiring personal presidential decisions and notifications to Congress. I think the principle should be: if the operation is risky enough that the president has to make the final decision, then Congress should be notified.

As a basis for discussion and action, the Kaine-McCain measure is a valuable step forward to bring the legislative-executive balance on war powers back into line.

What would America fight for?

That's the line on the cover of a recent Economist and the title of its leading article. A supposed news article asserts "The decline of deterrence" because "America is no longer as alarming to its foes or reassuring to its friends."  Both articles demonstrate a lack of understanding of either history or deterrence theory.

Start with what Americans have already fought for, among other things: independence for Spanish-controlled Cuba; freedom and independence for a lot of European countries; the status quo ante bellum in Korea and Kuwait; preservation of the comparatively democratic government of South Vietnam; overthrow of pretty nasty governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite some rhetoric at the time, few of these places were direct vital interests of the United States.

Many people on both sides of the Atlantic during the cold war doubted that the United States would really risk the nuclear annihilation of New York and Washington in order to protect Bonn or Ankara. Whatever the reasons, deterrence worked then, and remains a strong possibility even today for Talinn and Warsaw. Nuclear weapons should -- and do -- make national leaders cautious. [They also provide a powerful incentive for proliferation: remember the lesson of the first Gulf War, as expressed by the Indian defense minister at the time: "Never fight the United States without nuclear weapons."]

The logic of forward deployment goes back a long way. In the secret Anglo-French military talks in 1910, the British general asked how many troops he would have to provide to defend France against a German attack. General Foch memorably replied, "Give me a single British soldier, and I'll see that he is killed on the first day."  That's the logic behind even the small deployments of American military personnel to the Baltic nations and other allies -- not to prevent overwhelming attacking forces from succeeding at least at first, but to raise doubts about ultimate outcomes, and therefore to increase deterrence.

But since deterrence is psychological, the doubters risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


From the Wall Street Journal:

Russia Cracks Down on Profanity in the Arts

Putin Signs Law to Restrict 'Foul Language' in Books, on Stage and in Film

Updated May 5, 2014 3:28 p.m. ET

MOSCOW—President Vladimir Putin signed a law that restricts the use of profanity in the arts, the latest move in a push to reinforce what the Kremlin calls traditional values in Russia.
The legislation is the latest in a flurry of bills tightening control over freedom of speech and the Internet as well as toughening punishments for terrorism and extremism.
The new law, which takes effect July 1, covers literature, theater, film and recorded music. It was opposed by some theater personalities, writers and performers, whose works will now have to be issued in special packaging indicating that they include profanities.
The law doesn't spell out specifically what constitutes "foul language" but sets fines for its use in works of art ranging from 2,000 rubles ($56) for individuals to as high as 100,000 rubles for legal entities. The law also restricts the public showing of films containing swearing.
An expert panel may be called to determine if a word in question is profane in case of disputes.
Under another law also signed Monday, bloggers with more than 3,000 daily pages views will be subject to hefty fines for using profanities beginning in August, when they will be effectively equated with media outlets.
Mr. Putin signed a similar law penalizing swearing in the media last year. News agency Rosbalt was briefly shut down by a court decision for posting videos containing foul language after the law had been enacted.
Russia has a strong tradition of using swear words in works of art, which is why leading Russian artists, including theater director and actor Oleg Tabakov, call the law excessive. Its critics doubt that the law can be properly enforced.
"I think that no one will have any kinds of problems over this," Sergei Shnurov, the frontman of Leningrad, Russia's most popular punk band, said in a recent interview with the newspaper Argumenty I Fakty.
"The future will tell. I've lived awhile and laws have been different during this time, even money has changed, to my memory, four times. Well, now they ban swearing, and tomorrow maybe they'll allow it again," he said."I treat these things calmly."
Mr. Shnurov, whose lyrics often consist almost solely of profanities, said antigovernment protesters "are shouting about how laws aren't being enforced. So why worry if they aren't being enforced?"
Russian has an unusually rich and diverse vocabulary of curse words, some of which were used in prominent works of literature as far back as the 19th century.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

taking risks for innovation

George Heilmeier has died. A respected scientist noted for his work to develop liquid crystal display technology, he earned my admiration four decades ago for his leadership of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA] as it worked on many of the technologies -- like stealth, GPS, advanced computers -- that gave the United States the most advanced weaponry and a vibrant high technology industry in later decades.

I remember most vividly the day he came before the R&D subcommittee and pleased, "For us to succeed, we need the right to fail." He wanted Congress to let him try a broad range of efforts; he didn't want to feel risk averse, shadowed by lawmakers eager to pounce on shortfalls. He was right then, and I hope that spirit prevails at DARPA and among our leading edge innovators.

useless reports

The Washington Post has done a major public service by drawing attention to the numerous reports -- 4,291 by their calculation -- that government agencies currently prepare each year. Even better, they have a searchable database where any of us can look over the list.

The Post overreaches, however, by suggesting that most of those reports are unnecessary and/or never read. The article cites some truly stupid topics -- dog and cat fur -- and reports written into law years ago and never revisited.

I'm in favor of sunsetting every report and of repealing the vast number of current reports after careful review. But please understand how some of these reports get mandated, and the value they serve. More than once my Senate boss or I had a bright idea that we proposed, only to agree to a report on the idea instead of a change in permanent law. At other times, the report was to make the bureaucracy aware that Congress cared about a topic and wanted close supervision of the matter by senior officials.  I noticed, for example, on page 14 of the list of 391 reports the Pentagon is supposed to prepare, the quarterly report on unit readiness that my boss and I wrote into law back in 1977. Of course the data would be gathered in any event, but we thought we should all take regular notice of readiness conditions.

There's another report, based on an amendment by Senator John Warner [R-VA] in 1986 calling for the president to submit an annual report explaining U.S. national security strategy. Recent presidents have submitted only one or two reports a term, and the language is usually so anodyne that they are dismissed as pabulum. But I know from working in the State Department that the interagency process to prepare these reports is valuable for surfacing differences and alternative approaches. I also know that Congress never pays attention to them -- but mainly because no one from the White House is allowed to testify about them because the National Security Adviser is not allowed to testify on the Hill.

The State Department also has to submit a host of reports -- 74 are listed -- that may seem repetitive or useless, on human rights, religious liberty, anti-narcotic programs, and the like. But diplomats have told me that the reporting requirement gives them leverage with foreign governments as they seek some positive evidence so that the country won't be as embarrassed by the report.

I'm sure the total number of reports is far higher than the Post's list, for each year the armed services and appropriations committees ask for one-time reports on current or new programs as part of their regular oversight. Let's prune the list but not jettison it.