Monday, June 16, 2014

identifying superpowers

I'm about to turn my attention to full-time grandparenting, but Micah Zenko's new article in Foreign Policy caught my eye. I don't agree with all his criticisms of U.S. policy in Iraq or his disparagement of the effectiveness of U.S. military training of foreign forces, but I do agree that too many politicians, pundits, and analysts seem to think that only military action counts in promoting U.S. national security.
Somewhere along the line, in many influential schools of punditry and analysis, the totality of U.S. foreign policy has been reduced to whether presidents bomb some country or adversary, and the alleged impressions that this decision leaves on other countries. The binary construction employed by these pundits and analysts is that a president either demonstrates strength and engagement with air strikes, or fecklessness and detachment in their absence.

Today, the U.S. military has over 400,000 troops stationed or deployed in 182 countries around the world -- primarily conducting force protection, training, or security cooperation missions, but these troops do not factor into this equation. The binary choice is either bombs, or isolationism. Of course, the activities of the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Treasury Department, or any other government agency and entity working abroad are wholly disregarded or given short shrift at promoting and implementing foreign policy objectives.
He is also right to point out that military missions only indirectly may contribute to how other nations calculate superpower status.
Though never referred to by proponents of militarism, there is an actual joint planning process and universal task list that the military uses when planning and conducting operations. These documents provide the common reference points and actions that all affected service members are supposed to know. Nowhere in U.S. military planning documents can you find missions like "demonstrating resolve," "exhibiting strength," or "retaining superpower status." It is impossible to make other countries think of you what you would like. Their impressions are highly situationally dependent, and the result of the power and interests that surround a discrete country or issue. Their opinions of the United States are not merely based upon whether the president decided to bomb someone or not. 
We are a superpower in terms of economic and military strength, and we have a sizable amount of "soft power" and moral stature from some of our past actions.  And while I don't agree with all of Robert Kagan's analysis and recommendations, his headline point is true: superpowers can't retire. I've also heard senior officials working in the NSC system say that "you can't avoid issues just because they are too hard."

So yes, we have to "do something" about Iraq, and other problems. But let's remember we have a large and diverse toolkit --  I do love that term -- beyond military attacks.

what size is your aircraft carrier?

Years ago, I worked in the budget shop at the start of the Navy's LHA program that produced the Tarawa class warships that are now being replaced by the 45,000 ton America versions. The LHAs can carry and launch short-take-off aircraft, including the new F-35, as well as helicopters. In most of the world's navies, these large and capable flat-deck ships would be called aircraft carriers, but not in the U.S. Navy, where that term is reserved for [now] even larger, nuclear-powered warships that have catapult launch capability for a wider range of aircraft.

A professor and blogger, Robert Farley, makes an interesting case for greater understanding of and respect for these amphibious assault ships. I know that the supercarriers are very capable for a wide range of missions -- and I hope they are not really vulnerable to the antiship weaponry of China and Iran. But we should avoid underestimating the potential role and value of LHA-type ships by accepting U.S. Navy terminology as if it were gospel.

why we had to leave Iraq

Colin Kahl, a senior Pentagon official working on Iraq in the early years of the Obama administration, explains why the United States was unable to conclude an agreement permitting several thousand U.S. forces to remain.
Ultimately, at great political risk, President Obama approved negotiations with the Iraqi government to allow a force of around 5,000 American troops to stay in Iraq to provide counterterrorism support and air cover and to train the Iraqi army. But, as commander in chief, he was unwilling to strand U.S. forces in a hostile, anti-American environment without the legal protections and immunities required to ensure soldiers didn’t end up in Iraqi jails. These protections, which are common in nearly every country where U.S. forces operate, were guaranteed under the 2008 status of forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration; Obama simply demanded that they continue under any follow-on accord.

Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, told U.S. negotiators that he was willing to sign an executive memorandum of understanding that included these legal protections. But for any agreement to be binding under the Iraqi constitution, it had to be approved by the Iraqi parliament. This was the judgment of every senior administration lawyer and Maliki’s own legal adviser, and no senior U.S. military commander made the case that we should leave forces behind without these protections. Even Sen. John McCain, perhaps the administration’s harshest Iraq critic, admitted in a December 2011 speech discussing the withdrawal that the president’s demand for binding legal immunities “was a matter of vital importance.” Moreover, because the 2008 security agreement had been approved by the Iraqi parliament, it seemed both unrealistic and politically unsustainable to apply a lower standard this time around.

Unfortunately, Iraqi domestic politics made it impossible to reach a deal.
That's the inside story, but it's never been a secret.

Friday, June 13, 2014

defeat has a thousand fathers

Iraq is demonstrating the opposite of what President Kennedy said when accepting blame for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He said, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan." In Iraq today, it's clear that blame for the collapsing security situation deserves to be widely shared.

Most culpable is Prime Minister Maliki, who failed to live up to his commitments to include Sunnis and Kurds in meaningful ways and to govern without sectarian bias. Instead, he concentrated power in his office and then used it to reward friends and punish those who could have been his allies. He also took a well-trained and equipped military -- thanks to $25 billion in U.S. spending -- and turned it into a hollow shell. The most professional officers were sidelined, replaced by loyalists who halted training and otherwise disregarded the advice of their American mentors. As the NYTimes reports, "The Iraqi army was crumbling long before its collapse."

The Obama administration failed to get an agreement with Baghdad to keep a few thousand American military personnel in the country to train, advise, gather intelligence, and be ready to help now. But the politicians who blame Obama for that outcome would have blamed him even more if the troops were there but subject to Iraqi courts. Immunity from prosecution was a nonnegotiable demand by the U.S. military, and the Iraqis were politically unwilling to pay that price for U.S. security assistance. Hence the mess we're in.

Maybe the situation is not quite as dire as most reports suggest. Doug Ollivant, a former official with both military and NSC staff experience with Iraq, says it's too early to conclude that Iraqi forces cannot recapture Mosul and other key areas.

Maybe U.S. air strikes could halt the jihadi advance. Maybe Maliki would agree to share power or even surrender it to a broader coalition. Maybe the Iraqi military would stage a coup. Maybe Iran would send in substantial forces and endure the problems faced by U.S. forces in prior years. There are clearly no easy answers and little good information to base decisions on.

the voters are no bargain either

No wonder politicians in Washington can't compromise and regularly demonize the opposition: that's how the voters feel.  A new Pew poll, with a much larger than usual sample of over 10,000 Americans, finds strong evidence of political and social bifurcation. Liberals and conservatives don't want to live in mixed communities, don't want their children to marry outside the political faith, and believe that the opposition party is a real threat to the country. The Post has a series of charts on the findings. Dan Balz has additional analysis.

We are ideologically divided and live in reinforcing echo chambers. What's surprising to me is how deep these feelings go, and how much they have grown in recent years. I've long lamented the fact that each of the last three presidents was viewed as fundamentally illegitimate by a large fraction of the opposition party. Those corrosive opinions have now poisoned all political discourse.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

country club democracy

I'm not a close student of governments in the Middle East, but an article from a Lebanese newspaper sounds distressingly accurate. Rami Khouri writes:
"...the agony of Iraq mirrors a wider Arab pattern of state mismanagement and mediocrity. Recent decades leave no doubt that the major modern Arab political problem is that entire countries are managed like private clubs by individual families. Such personalized states do not function efficiently or serve their people well, which ultimately leads to their fragmentation or total collapse.

"This frightening, decadesold pattern continues to this day. Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, Palestine, Sudan, Egypt, Somalia and Bahrain have all suffered debilitating civil conflicts, often coupled with fragmentation or collapse. The oil-rich Gulf states have avoided major political violence mainly because they have avoided anything that looks like political rights and activity among their citizens."

legislative constipation

Dana Milbank calls out the House Republican leadership for a record number of closed rules on bills coming before the House. He also notes that this tactic was used extensively by House Democrats when theywere last in the majority. A closed rule forbids debating or voting on any amendment not previously endorsed by the majority-dominated Rules Committee.

Of  course, "everybody does it" isn't really an excuse.

A similar tactic has been used in the Senate under both Democratic and Republican control. It's called filling the amendment tree and blocks consideration of amendments opposed by the majority leader. Senate Republicans claim their increased use of the filibuster was in response to being denied opportunities to bring up their amendments.

What amendments are we missing?  Sad to say, most are probably "poison pill" measures designed to embarrass opponents and lay the groundwork for TV ads proclaiming that the incumbent supports sex pills for prisoners or favors tax increases for indigent veterans or some such. A few of the amendments are alternative public policies on which reasonable people can disagree, like how  much to tax multinational corporations or how to pay for disaster relief. But most of them are campaign weapons rather than better laws for better government.

I'm in favor of more open rules and fewer filled amendment trees, despite the mischief that allows.I think politicians are exaggerating the impact of ads based on misleading accounts of single votes. I could be wrong, but we need to clear these blockages if we're ever going to have responsible legislatin.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Congress likes military drones

Members of Congress have been strong supporters of military drone programs for two decades. In 2000, Congress ordered that “within ten years, one-third of U.S. military operational deep strike aircraft will be unmanned.” The 9/11 attacks gave added impetus to the effort to put precision-guided missiles on the reconnaissance drones, which were first utilized in Afghanistan. Both the Pentagon and the intelligence community rapidly increased their numbers of UAVs. In the case of the Department of Defense (DOD), the inventory grew from about fifty in 2001 to over 7500 by 2012, of which about 5 percent are armed. The budget jumped from $667 million in 2001 to $3.9 billion in 2012. The fraction of unmanned aircraft in the DOD inventory dropped from ninety-five percent in 2005 to 69 percent in 2011, and Congress in 2007 ordered a policy of giving “a preference for unmanned systems in acquisition programs for new systems.”

The Air Force was slow to embrace drones, not least because of the "white scarf" culture that believed pilots should fly war planes. Indeed, only rated pilots were allowed to guide drones.

Now the Navy is under pressure from Congress to emphasize stealthy drones over piloted warplanes, and the Navy is resisting for the same cultural reasons. 

This is the latest saga in an old story of military reluctance to seize the opportunities of new technologies because of the impact on how warriors see themselves and their missions.

Is American foreign policy predictable?

Yes and No. I sometimes ask my students what foreign leaders want to know about the United States and where they might get that information. Our society is so open -- exposed, really -- that outsiders can easily find out what officials say and what key institutions are doing. And yet, even our most plugged-in journalists can't predict how President Obama will act in Syria or Ukraine next week.

Winston Churchill claimed there was a regular pattern to U.S. behavior. He is said to have said -- by second-hand sources; no documentation exists; but the idea is too clever not to quote -- that "the Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing in the end, after exhausting all other possibilities."

An alternative point of view was expressed by senior foreign office officials in March, 1939, in a delicious quote cited by British historian David Reynolds: Predicting the course of U.S. foreign policy is "as simple as trying to weigh a wild cat on the kitchen scales."

Reynolds himself, looking at Anglo-American relations 1937-41, says U.S. policymakers "tended towards anglophilia culturally and anglophobia politically."

That's why granular predictions are hard: there are always cross-pressures and trade-offs that influence particular decisions. Even if the grand strategy is clear [itself a rarity in the American political system], its application to complex situations like Iran or China is not easily predictable.

Friday, June 6, 2014

incompetent generals

My summer reading has included Geoffrey Wawro's searing indictment of the Austro-Hungarian military at the start of World War I, A Mad Catastrophe. He places a lot of blame on the civilian leaders -- especially the Hungarians who used their unique veto to oppose military modernization and other measures that  would have helped the central government's abilities to fight. But the bulk of his book describes the misbehavior, misjudgments, and political jockeying of the senior military. They prepared war plans they knew could not be executed. They misled their German allies about their true plans and capabilities. Immediately after the assassination of the archduke, while arguing that the time had come for war with Serbia, several took preplanned vacations during much of July, 1914. They simultaneously let most soldiers go home in July to help with harvests. And when the war began, the commander divided his forces just enough to guarantee defeat by both Serbia and Russia. No wonder Austria-Hungary lost the war and was dismembered at Versailles.