Tuesday, July 29, 2014

who lost Libya?

There's an interesting pair of analyses this week regarding Libya. Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic, a self-proclaimed skeptic of intervention, cites the many triumphalist comments after the 2011 intervention that ousted Qaddhafi but still haven't succeeded in creating a stable government.
Most of all, I am struck by the willingness of prominent interventionists to have publicly declared their instincts in Libya vindicated when the country's future remained very much in doubt, as if they couldn't conceive of an intervention that would result in more lives lost than the alternative even as the possibility of that outcome was extremely plausible. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Washington, D.C. foreign-policy establishment seemed to perform no better at foreseeing how events would unfold than non-expert commentators who simply applied Murphy's Law. At the very most charitable, the common interventionist claim that Libya vindicated them in their dispute with non-interventionists was wildly premature. Perhaps the lesson to take from the NATO campaign is that even the most thoughtful interventionists have no idea how geopolitical events will unfold.
At the Washington Post's Monkey Cage, FredericWehrey, a Libya expert at the Carnegie Endowment, blames the failure on the lack of a strong enough central government faction or coalition.
Outside observers are often tempted toward a one-dimensional reading of Libya’s turmoil. It is easy to trace Libya’s breakdown as a political struggle between Islamists and liberals: The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party and more rejectionist, jihadi factions like Ansar al-Sharia versus the “liberals” under the National Forces Alliance (NFA). Another level of conflict seems to be regional: A contest between the towns of Zintan and Misrata for economic power and political leverage in Tripoli, or amongst federalists and their opponents in the long-marginalized east. Yet an additional layer is between remnants of the old order – ex-security men, long-serving and retired officers, former Gaddafi-era technocrats – and a newer, younger cadre of self-proclaimed “revolutionaries,” often Islamists, who were either exiled and/or imprisoned during the dictator’s rule.
Elements of all these dimensions are at play, but none of them alone has sufficient explanatory power. At its core, Libya’s violence is an intensely local affair, stemming from deeply entrenched patronage networks battling for economic resources and political power in a state afflicted by a gaping institutional vacuum and the absence of a central arbiter with a preponderance of force. There is not one faction strong enough to coerce or compel the others.
I think both authors have valid points: the overthrow of Qaddhafi was a textbook case of multinational intervention for largely humanitarian purposes; but the international community lacked the will, the vision, and the capability to install a new government.  Political leaders are often short-sighted once their initial goals seem to have been achieved as they lurch to new crises.  That surely didn't work in Libya.

Monday, July 28, 2014

secret money flooding congressional campaigns

Many of the news articles on various congressional campaigns duly list the fund raising efforts by each candidate. Those figures don't matter nearly as much as those in today's New York Times article about the secret money pouring into those contests.
An explosion of spending on political advertising on television — set to break $2 billion in congressional races, with overall spots up nearly 70 percent since the 2010 midterm election — is accelerating the rise of moneyed interests and wresting control from the candidates’ own efforts to reach voters.

In the first full midterm cycle where outside groups have developed a sophisticated infrastructure, the consequences are already becoming apparent: a harshly negative tone dictated by the groups and a nearly nonstop campaign season that could cause voters to tune out before Election Day.

The phenomenon, which is playing out in races across the country, is particularly pronounced in several competitive Senate contests — in places like Alaska, Colorado and North Carolina, among others. In the Senate races alone, the number of political television spots from outside groups is nearly six times as much as it was at the same point in the 2010 cycle. In fact, more political ads from outside groups have already aired during the relatively slow summer period of the 2014 Senate contests — roughly 150,000 spots through mid-July — than ran throughout the entire 2010 Senate elections.
The Supreme Court opened the floodgates for this secret money with its radical activism, throwing out a century-old set of campaign spending limits. There's no turning back until and unless the Court changes.

avoiding blowback from military aid

To deal with many of the conflicts raging around the globe, pundits and politicians seem eager for the United States to send military aid to our favored side. They rarely consider the second and third order questions that have to be answered to carry out such a policy. When both hawks and doves stipulate "No boots on the ground," they may not realize that many pieces of military equipment require trainers or advisers -- who then risk being killed or captured or caught u[p in firefights.

Despite the pleas of some onlookers, the Obama administration has resisted sending the most capable anti-aircraft weapons to Syrian rebels or Ukraine. When the pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine shot down a civilian airliner, that restraint looked wise.

Today's Post reports a similar problem in trying to arm Syrian rebels: the need to be sure that only "moderate" fighters get the training and equipment.
The latest deliveries of arms and money are in part the result of improved coordination between the chief partners in the 11-member Friends of Syria alliance, according to U.S. officials and rebels. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the opposition’s biggest backers, have halted their unilateral funding of rebel groups, which was blamed for the unchecked rise of Islamist factions. The countries are now cooperating with the United States and its European allies to ensure that supplies reach only U.S.-approved moderates.
 The effort got a big boost in March, when the United States authorized the first deliveries to the rebels of U.S.-made TOW antitank guided missiles, the most advanced weapons yet to be delivered to the battlefield. The missiles have propelled some important gains against government positions in the province of Idlib, and they have also helped the rebels slow the pace of gains by Assad loyalists around Aleppo.
The supplies are, however, being funneled to just eight relatively small groups that have been painstakingly vetted for their adherence to moderate goals. The increase in their support has not been enough to offset the reduction in assistance to some of the bigger groups behind the revolt’s early gains, who are not extremists but are Islamists, according to Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group.
This report suggests that the U.S. effort will fail because of its limitations. But remember the alternative: if radical Islamists got control of the weapons, the administration would have been blamed even more strongly and U.S. policy would be in even more trouble. The devil is in the details in these activities.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Senate willingness to consider an Iran deal

Sometimes the thing that doesn't happen is the big news. What didn't happen this week suggests that the U.S. Senate may actually consider a future agreement limiting Iran's nuclear program on its merits, rather than demanding a complete capitulation by Iran on major issues still to be resolved.

Last March, Foreign Relations Chairman Menendez [D-NJ] headed a list of 81 Senators signing a letter to President Obama laying out "core principles" that should be followed in reaching any deal with Iran. The letter was pushed by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby group, which usually can get 60+ Senators to sign any letter it urges, often within 24 hours.

On  July 11, Menendez and Lindsey Graham [R-SC] sent around a new letter with a much tougher and more explicit list of conditions, which they planned to send to the President on July 16. This week,  however, according to Politico, only about 20 Senators had signed on, and Sen.Graham was quoted as saying they'll wait until they have 30 signatories.

In a further sign of senatorial willingness to wait and see what any final agreement might contain, most of the Democratic and Republican leaders of the key committees have withheld their signatures. These include the top members of the armed services committee, the senior Republican on foreign relations, and the Democrat heading the banking committee, which writes the sanctions laws. All of these men had signed the March letter.
I don't want to do anything to undermine the negotiations," said Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the chair of the Armed Services Committee. "I think it's a mistake to put in stone what I would vote against unless certain criteria were met."
But even Republicans who agreed to the March letter, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, thought the latest letter went too far. Sessions, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he wanted to give the president the chance to present and argue for his deal.

"I don't want to gratuitously condemn or throw out suggestions as to what the right solution should be," Sessions said. "I think the president should negotiate something and I think he should run it by Congress."
To me these comments and non-actions are welcome signs of statesmanship on this difficult issue.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

another fine report, destined for oblivion

The Atlantic Council has a new report urging better interagency coordination of U.S. foreign policy and emphasizing regional diplomatic-military "commands."  Two key recommendations:
The United States should rebalance national instruments of power by providing enhanced Department of State capacity in key regions. Unbalanced resourcing and manpower between the Department of Defense and the Department of State creates significant roadblocks to enhancing interagency presence in the region. A more balanced approach would strengthen US engagement more broadly.

Department of State regional assistant secretaries should be further empowered to set and coordinate foreign policy within the regions. Currently, assistant secretaries have an explicit requirement to be responsible, but they lack sufficient resources and authority to be effective. Regional assistant secretaries should have the authority to integrate the full range of foreign and security policy as well as diplomatic resources to execute foreign policy on a regional scale.
It's especially significant that this report is signed by several former high-ranking military officers and draws upon interviews with several combatant commanders. When they agree on the need to increase the resources, capabilities and power of the State Department, that's newsworthy.

These recommendations are similar to other think tank reports in recent years, but little has been done to improve interagency coordination and whole-of-government thinking and planning for national security.

On the other hand, the report recycles the view that everything would be better if every department had a "common map" delineating the various regions. Ain't gonna happen, and shouldn't. The GAO reviewed this for Congress and found numerous justifications for the disparate alignments. For example, the Pentagon puts Mexico in the AOR [area of responsibility] of the Northern Command, which also included Canada and the United States, while State includes it with the Western Hemisphere countries. For example, DOD includes Israel under the European command so that the Centcom commander isn't expected to worry about the diplomatic aspects of Arab-Israeli issues. And while State logically puts India and Pakistan in the same region, the Pentagon splits them, again to avoid the challenge of dealing diplomatically with the disputing nations.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Watch for anti-interventionist rhetoric

If politicians read the poll numbers and tailor their rhetoric accordingly -- as I think they do -- then we'll see more doves than hawks in the battleground states and districts. A new poll by Politico of the most competitive states and districts this year found even a majority of self-identified Republican voters supporting pulling out of Afghanistan and maintaining or reducing U.S. involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine.

Additional overall numbers:
More than three-quarters of likely voters say they support plans to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Only 23 percent oppose the plan.

Forty-four percent of likely voters favor less involvement in Iraq’s civil war, versus 19 percent who favor more involvement and 23 percent who say the current level of involvement is appropriate.

A 51 percent majority said the situation in Iraq affects U.S. national security “a little” or “not at all.” Forty-two percent said it affects U.S. national security “a lot.”

Likely voters prefer less involvement in Syria’s civil war over more involvement, 42 percent to 15 percent. Twenty-six percent of likely voters support the current, limited level of involvement.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

James Garner and the politician's credo

James Garner has died at 86. I see from his obituary that his "Maverick" television show ran for only three years, but it gave me many hours of pleasure at the time and in reruns. His character, Bret Maverick, had wit and good humor. He was laid back before it became popular.

I don't know who wrote the scripts, but  I still remember fondly many of Garner's lines, often attributed to "My old pappy." Best of all is one I came to call "the politician's credo" after working in Washington for a few years.

"You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time," Bret Maverick said, "and those are pretty good odds."  How true.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

be careful what you wish for

Driver-less vehicles? The Army sees them as a fine way to resupply in combat zones.
The Army wants to retrofit a portion of its tactical wheeled vehicle fleet with robotic brains so that unmanned trucks, not troops, are put in harm's way during resupply and route clearance missions.

Removing drivers from truck cabs also frees up soldiers to perform more complex tasks at a time when declining budgets are putting a premium on manpower.

The Marine Corps has been testing autonomous resupply and casualty evacuation by ground and by air at its Warfighting Laboratory and in field tests at various installations. Unmanned helicopters that fly pre-planned routes to forward operating bases in Afghanistan have already proven their worth in combat.
But they can also be used for evil purposes. The FBI fears they can be used as bombs.
Criminals could use driverless cars to evade law enforcement, shoot cops from the back of the vehicle, and "conduct tasks that require use of both hands or taking one’s eyes off the road which would be impossible today," according to an internal report obtained by The Guardian. The last concern was outlined in a section called "multitasking."

Another fear is that criminals will pack a driverless car with explosives and program it to drive itself into a target.
Since there are no Second Amendment issues involved here, maybe tough regulations will solve the problem. Right.

Monday, July 14, 2014

revisionist history

Foreign Affairs, the magazine of the Council on Foreign Relations, has four articles in its latest issue aimed at telling "What Really Happened" in Iran in 1953, Congo in 1961, Pakistan in 1971 and Chile in 1973. To my surprise, the authors deny a major CIA role in either Iran or Chile.

Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at CFR, is most explicit:
"In reality, the CIA’s impact on the events of 1953 was ultimately insignificant.
"Contrary to [Kermit] Roosevelt’s account, the documentary record reveals that the Eisenhower administration was hardly in control and was in fact surprised by the way events played out."
Jack Devine, a CIA agent in Chile at the time of President Allende's overthrow in 1973  also denies the conventional wisdom:

"I can say with conviction that the CIA did not plot with the Chilean military to overthrow Allende in 1973."
I hope some historians with regional expertise weigh in on this issue. It's always hard to assess cause and effect, and many in the intelligence community have bragged about the agency's influence and skill in running covert operations in these countries. It could be that the CIA was active but its effects insignificant. I'd like to know the truth.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

avoiding painful subjects

There must be something in human nature that makes many of us go to great lengths to avoid painful subjects. People in my parents' generation would never mention when someone had cancer ["the big C"], as opposed to other illnesses because it was viewed as a death sentence. My late father in law was mostly silent about his 15 months in a German POW camp after his plane was shot down. Other friends say their relatives avoided discussing wartime experiences because they didn't want to relive any part of them by retelling.

A recent Israeli film makes this point even more powerfully. In "The Flat" Arnon Goldfinger starts filming the sorting through of his late grandmother's possessions in her Tel Aviv apartment only to discover a shocking secret -- evidence that his grandparents had close relations with a senior Nazi official before and even after World War II. Goldfinger's mother didn't know this and admits being reluctant to ask her parents about what happened to relatives who stayed in Germany after they emigrated to Palestine in 1936. He later interviews the daughter of the former Nazi official, who denies any wrongdoing by her father and is stiffly incurious about evidence that might reveal a different story.

I guess we all live in worlds of settled memories, accurate or not. I discovered, when reading some of the diaries I have kept since I was ten years old, that some of my favorite family stories were wrong in key details. I agree that autobiography is just another form of fiction. But I think people will enjoy the deeper meanings provided by this documentary.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

political news makes you sick

That's what a new study says. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found 86% of those surveyed saying they've been stressed out in the past month. That's not surprising.

But the survey also asked about smaller, daily stressors — the little exasperations that can add up to a miserable day. And here something surprising emerges: Americans cited "hearing about what the government or politicians are doing" as the most frequent daily stressor on their lives, and at a substantially higher rate than the usual annoyances like commuting, chores and general schedule-juggling.
Maybe it's time for us all to unplug.

the shame of voter fraud

Like most Americans born before the creation Fox News, I shared the widely held view that the more qualified people who vote, the better is our democracy -- in theory and in practice. I supported "motor voter" laws automatically registering people to vote when they get their driver's licenses. I welcomed early voting when I saw how much easier it was for my elderly mother to vote when the window was less restrictive.  I wasn't willing to go as far as Australia, where voting is mandatory and fines are imposed on nonvoters, but I still welcomed broad participation.

I heard stories about voter fraud, but most of them were long ago, before our more regular system of trained election personnel and pollwatchers became the usual practice.

And I'm highly suspicious of Republican attempts to limit the franchise by imposing restrictions that mainly hurt Democrats. Thus, I am pleased to see this Wonkblog summary of academic research on the matter. the headline makes the point, but many of the supporting details are fascinating:

7 papers, 4 government inquiries, 2 news investigations and 1 court ruling proving voter fraud is mostly a myth

who should get fired?

When there are problems in government programs, who should get fired? There are many answers, but no easy ones. Some cultures, like the Japanese, place blame on the person at the top. So does the U.S. Navy, removing the ship captain when it goes aground because of a crew error. By contrast, the U.S. Air Force tries to locate a precise source of the error and not hold higher officers accountable.

In an interesting article for the Atlantic, Norm Ornstein worries that proposed bills aimed at overcoming problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs go too far in allowing the firing of career civil servants with little or no due process. He cites the history of civil service as a response to the patronage basis of the "spoils system" and the 1940 Hatch Act as a response to politicization of some government jobs during the New Deal. He also notes that job protections have been eroded in many states.
But in recent years, a majority of states have moved to expand at-will hiring and firing, to erode civil-service protections, and to give more leverage to governors' political appointees.
Activist governors, Democratic and Republican, pushed for more control over the past decade-plus, and the trend has accelerated in the past few years in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Throw in the assault on public-employee unions in Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and other states, and the pattern is clear: a move away from a merit-based civil-service system to one with substantial additional political control.
I do worry that political appointees-- who deserve to be held accountable much more than career subordinates -- might abuse their firing power to intimidate subordinates loyal to the law but maybe not their boss' party.

poor info sharing on Benghazi

Newly released military testimony on Benghazi raises different issues and different causes of security failures than we had heard earlier. Now it seems that there were two attacks on two different sites, widely separated in time and space. It also seems that Benghazi was primarily a CIA base: only 7 of the 30+ Americans assigned there were from State. Only the attack on the CIA facility appears to have been done by forces with military training and discipline.

There was a gross lack of communication between the U.S. government components:

Many of the military officials said they didn't even know about the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, let alone the CIA's clandestine installation nearby. Few knew of Stevens visiting the city that day.
 There are many issues to be sorted out about Benghazi, but the effort to blame only the State Department, and especially Secretary Clinton, seems wide of the mark.

Monday, July 7, 2014

"Maliki must go"

In a revealing, but somewhat unnerving, opinion piece in the Washington Post, Ali Khedery, tries to explain "Why we stuck with Maliki, and lost Iraq." An Iraqi-American, Khedery says he worked closely as a special assistant to American ambassadors and other officials in Baghdad during 2003-2010. He claims to have befriended "Abu Isra," better known to us as Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki, and urged U.S. officials to back him as premier in 2006. By 2010, however, he concluded that Maliki was almost as bad as Saddam Hussein and then and now urged U.S. officials to support someone else to lead Iraq.

His story of Maliki's descent into sectarian brutality and authoritarianism is consistent with what other observers have reported -- and justification for his "Maliki must go" recommendation. What is more puzzling, however, is his claim that U.S. policy "lost" Iraq.  He blames the Bush administration's "desperation" for agreeing to "a bad deal" in 2008 and the Obama administration for sticking with Maliki in 2010.

Khedery cites meetings to which he was privy where he and others argued against Maliki but failed to persuade their superiors. He argues that Iranian officials dictated the makeup of Maliki's government. If that is true -- and it's plausible because of Iran's material and religious leverage over Iraq -- then how could the United States have succeeded in dictating alternative leadership?

It's morally unsettling to think that we should be trying to pick Iraqi leaders when we have claimed to fight a war to give them those choices. But it's intellectually wrong to think that U.S. power could have somehow prevailed where Maliki's background and Iran's influence coalesced.

I agree that Maliki is a deeply flawed leader, that a unity government would be nice, that it would be helpful to prevent the jihadists from forming a brutal Islamic caliphate, that Iran needs to be contained. I just doubt that any American moves could guarantee all of those results, and so we should recalculate.