Monday, December 28, 2015

what Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama have in common

Longtime Russia scholar and diplomat Steve Sestanovich have a provocative article in the new Atlantic magazine. Ostensibly it's a review of several new books about Richard Nixon and/or Henry Kissinger. Regarding them, he tiptoes between what he calls the "humanizers" and "vilifiers." The former are more sympathetic to Dick and Henry and accomplishments like the opening to China; the latter can't forget the lies and the killing mainly in the Vietnam war. In fact, I've read the several books he reviews and agree that the books say little new and are individually one-sided.

What's really provocative about his article, however, is his comparisons to the Eisenhower and Obama administrations. Those two, along with Nixon, had difficult first terms trying to end unpopular wars started by their predecessors. Sestanovich argues that each had a long-term strategic vision but suffered second-term criticisms when new crises left the pundits and public critical of their earlier retrenchment.
America’s retrenchment presidents teach an ironic lesson. Coming in to manage a disaster, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama all hoped to devise a foreign policy for the United States that would avoid big swings between over- and undercommitment. What they came up with, however, turned out to command support only as an interim measure. Once it became clear that the world was still a confusing and tumultuous place, the acclaim they had enjoyed was soon forgotten. The resurgence of heated policy debate didn’t just disappoint them—it infuriated them. They found their second terms a bumpy ride, full of criticisms they felt were unfair and unconstructive. They got angry at American politics, and at the American people.
I'm not sure I agree, but I think the argument deserves further consideration.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

binary analysis

Harry Truman complained that he wanted to hear from "a one-armed economist" because his own advisers kept saying, "on the one hand, but on the other hand." That's probably true of foreign policy analysis as well.

Is ISIL gaining strength or losing? There are well-argued points on both sides. Is China rising peacefully or preparing for a military confrontation with America? Again, evidence points both ways.

Michael Kofman of CNA shows how confusing and contradictory analysis of Russia is today. I don't know who's right, but the real lesson is to look behind any confident predictions.

leavings of an unhappy bureaucrat

Greg Archetto has written an angry resignation letter regarding his service as a U.S. official in Yemen and Jordan. He was supposed to be expediting military equipment to help the forces in those countries deal with insurgent threats, but what he got from Washington wasn't what the locals needed.
For two years, I did this dance. Requests would come from the country for helicopters, cargo aircraft, vehicles, weapons, boats, ammunition, bombs, spare parts, and we would put together what we thought we could sell to Congress. It would go into a black hole that was the upper echelons of the Pentagon, State, and the White House, and disappear. For months, bigger bureaucrats than I would re-prioritize aid packages based on the crisis du jour as reported by our 24-hour news networks. Operational paralysis eventually gave way to aid packages that seldom resembled what we had initially submitted, frustrating the U.S personnel in the host country and the rest of us inside the beltway that actually had to execute the programs.
In 2014, he began working on programs for Jordan and "moderate" Syrians.
Soon after, interagency discussions began on arming “moderate” Syrian rebels, but this was a farce. A combination of intelligence reports, regional experience, and common sense made it evident that there was no way to reliably vet the folks we would be sending weapons to, nor keep track of what was sent. Further, the items that were being suggested would have limited battlefield utility against Assad’s superior forces.
He concluded:
It was obvious that what American political leadership was asking for was seen as an impossible task by the operators that had to execute the program.
He's blaming the Obama Administration, but also the Congress, for pushing equipment that provided jobs back home, regardless of its utility abroad.

I'm sure there's another side to this story, but it rings depressingly true of how hard it is to turn ideas in Washington into effective actions in the field.

a nuclear war that never was

The National Security Archive has posted a newly declassified document, a 1956 Air Force nuclear targeting plan setting requirements to be fulfilled by 1959.  It lists over 1100 airfields and 1200 cities in the Soviet Union and allied states that were marked for destruction. The targeting also planned attacks on "population" as well as military installations.

I haven't studied the huge document, but I have some initial impressions. The targeting plan reflects the mindset of General Curtis LeMay and the Strategic Air Command during the 1950s: they wanted to make the USSR "a smoking radiating ruin at the end of two hours" and were willing to strike first. They showed no hesitation about hitting purely civilian targets. The 1956 plan was also probably part of SAC's campaign to increase the Air Force bomber budget, which was being threatened by the acceleration of programs for long range ballistic missiles.

It was precisely this plan for mindless destruction that appalled Defense Secretary Robert McNamara when he saw the first SIOP [Single Integrated Operational Plan] developed by SAC at the end of the Eisenhower Administration. He persuaded President Kennedy to develop options in the nuclear war plan, including withholds of civilian targets and "counterforce" against military ones.

As horrible as any nuclear exchange would be, there were and are ways to make it somewhat less horrible.

Monday, December 21, 2015

you can't deter cyber war

I noted earlier that it is misleading to think of cyber operations as a "domain" of war. Today I want to draw attention to a fine article by P.W. Singer arguing that it is also unhelpful to think of applying nuclear war deterrence theory to cyber operations. Singer notes many areas of difference, including the false promise of offensive dominance.
Perhaps where the Cold War parallels fall short the most is the idea that building up offensive capabilities will deliver deterrence. This is a constant refrain: not just the need to build up U.S. cyber offense, but the need to make sure others know the United States has those capabilities.
He argues instead for efforts to set international norms for cyber behavior, build diverse capabilities, and strive for resilience in case of attacks.

I think there's also a parallel with "nonlethal weapons," the 1990s push for capabilities that would reduce civilian casualties when America intervened abroad. The best ones were turned over to the special operations community because knowledge of the capability would lead to a loss of surprise and countermeasures. Many cyber tools are only good once. Exploiting a zero-day flaw exposes it and leads to fixes. So we have to keep our electronic "powder" dry as long as possible.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

It's their war; they have to win it.

The United States is offering more military help to Iraq, including special forces units and armed helicopter support, but the Iraqi government isn't accepting. This reminds me of President Kennedy's comments in a television interview three weeks before his assassination. Asked about greater U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Kennedy said, "In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it."

Don't the many Republican presidential candidates calling for greater U.S. troop presence and operations in Iraq realize that we can't act or succeed without the agreement of the Iraqi government?  As U.S. commander Lt, Gen. Sean MacFarland told reporters, 
“This is a very complex environment,” General MacFarland said, somewhat philosophically. “It is kind of hard to inflict support on somebody.”
"Inflicting support" is not a way to win a war.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why does government fail?

Paul C. Light of New York University, writing for the Volker Alliance, has a sobering review of 48 major government "breakdowns" [which he calls "failure to faithfully execute the laws" because of some type of bureaucratic failure] since 2000. Building on his long career of studying government organizations and personnel, he also notes that all but two of the federal government's top 25 achievements between 1945 and 1999 "were in peril by 2015."

Most of his breakdowns were the result of multiple causes. The most frequent were policy failures because of problems in the design or difficulty of the mission. Next most common were resources problems,usually underfunding or understaffing. Third most common were organizational culture problems. Fourth were failures from structure such as no clear chain of command or accountability or poor contract management. Fifth were leadership problems.

While Light blames President G. W. Bush and Obama for not pushing harder for general reorganization authority or specific program reforms, he levels a heavy attack on congressional Republicans.
The blame for inaction falls on congressional Republicans and the president alike. The
Republicans have done everything in their power to undermine performance. They have never
met a freeze or cut they could not embrace, they have repeatedly stonewalled needed policy
changes, and they have made implementation of new programs as difficult as possible. The
Republicans have cut budgets, staffs, and collateral capacity to a minimum, proving the adage
that the logical extension of doing more with less is doing everything with nothing. They have
used the presidential-appointments process to decapitate key agencies and have appointed
more than their share of unqualified executives. Furthermore, they have muddied mission,
tolerated unethical conduct, and gamed the performance-measure process to guarantee failing
scores for a host of government policies that they oppose but cannot repeal through constitutional means. The repeal is de facto, not de jure—by practice, or the lack thereof, and not by law, or the lack thereof as well.
Light doubts that piecemeal reforms can make much difference. He favors comprehensive reforms that give greater attention to implementation of programs, not merely designing them, and to human capital factors like recruiting and retaining the broad range of people with needed skills.

We can't kill government; we need to save it.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Prohibition ruined America

Harvard professor Lisa McGirr has a fine new book on Prohibition, The War on Alcohol. She argues persuasively to me that, rather than being a foolish experiment sandwiched between World War I and the New Deal, it had a profound impact on the size and focus of government in America, and for the worst.

The 18th amendment was enacted under  pressure from a strange coalition of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Ku Klux Klan, big business leaders like John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford, and Protestant ministers. The need for grain for troops made it easy for Woodrow Wilson to restrict alcohol production and consumption at the start of American involvement in the first world war.

McGirr notes that the second decade of the 20th century saw adoption of several amendments to the Constitution, the first since the Civil War: direct election of Senators, income tax, prohibition, and female suffrage. Legalization of the income tax made banning liquor easier because as late at 1910, the liquor tax amounted to a full 30% of federal revenues.

The pernicious effects of the 18th amendment were numerous. Government expanded to regulate and enforce the Volstead Act. Prison populations ballooned. Politicians outbid each other with laws for draconian punishments of liquor violations. A double standard quickly evolved, poor whites and blacks were prosecuted; the rich went to their speakeasies. Federal law enforcement became more intrusive with techniques like the first wiretaps and when states refused to join the fight. [Gov. Al Smith got New York to repeal its state laws on prohibition in 1923.]

Organized crime expanded to service the violators, and federal and local police efforts were undercut by corruption. As people shifted from alcohol to other drugs, the politicians followed with harsh laws against other substances. As late as 1925, President Coolidge had said that "religion [is] the only remedy" against lawlessness. But he and successor Herbert Hoover enlarged the police state to fight the crimes linked to drugs and alcohol.

I don't know what if any lessons we might draw to deal with drug laws today -- though it is sad that the places in America with the most restrictive laws on alcohol today are also the places with the greatest amount of meth use.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

illiberal progressives

 When I first studied the progressive era in early 20th century America, I was excited to see how growing elements of both major parties embraced reforms that made government more efficient and more responsive. I thought they deserved to prevail over their adversaries -- the corrupt political machines that dominated so many cities and states. I saw nothing wrong with the direct election of Senators, laws by public referendum, recall of elected officials, and other progressive reforms. [After seeing California craziness on ballot initiatives, however, I'm  much more dubious of the value of referenda.]

Now I realize that many of the progressives had other views that are quite deplorable. They were arrogant and paternalistic, believing that they knew best. But worse, they were white Anglo-Saxon supremacists and supporters of eugenics, the racist pseudoscience  that flourished in the 'teens and 'twenties. Virginia Postrel has a fine piece documenting their illiberal views. Woodrow Wilson was in congenial company.

These illiberal views do not disqualify otherwise admirable public figures from having things named after them -- actions matter much more, pro and con, than mere beliefs -- but we should weigh these aspects of their character as part of their legacy.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

revisionist history

Not long after General Creighton Abrams returned from Vietnam and became Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, I had the privilege of sitting next to him at a breakfast briefing on the Army budget. "How are you finding your new job?" I asked. He smiled but grumbled, "All the acronyms have changed." He was having trouble following the briefings which typically used shorthand for everything.

I had a high regard for Abrams then and since. I think he ran the Vietnam war much better than his predecessor, General William Westmoreland. But I also came to believe that his restructuring of the Army was driven by a desire to prevent a future president from going to war without calling up the reserves and thereby risking popular opposition.

As an article by Army War College historian Conrad Crane argues, this belief became the conventional wisdom during the 1990s and was enshrined in a 1998 study of the Total Force. It said:
After acknowledging the problems with having so many critical combat support and combat service support enablers in reserve components that were “not designed to respond as rapidly overall as the regular Army,” the report recommended against changing that balance, arguing that the policy was designed to “limit the executive branch’s ability to commit troops to substantial overseas contingency operations without ensuring there was sufficient political support for the mission.” If the Army altered its force structure to better meet requirements for speedy deployments, “this political ‘check and balance’ would no longer exist.
Crane disputes that notion.
There is no documentation to support the claim that Abrams also had a dominant vision to ensure that no president could ever again fight a war without mobilizing the reserves. That motivation was never mentioned in congressional hearings or explanatory briefings or articles. In a series of interviews of Abrams’ subordinates conducted after his death that are housed at the Army Heritage and Education Center, that idea is never mentioned. In fact, Secretary of Defense Schlesinger considered the general the epitome of the “good servant” who always deferred to civilian control of the military and would not purposefully try to circumvent it.
The sources for the supposed "Abrams doctrine" were Army officers in the mid-1980s -- at precisely the time of the so-called Weinberger doctrine [which was never approved by President Reagan] that argued against future wars that were limited in objectives and lacked public support. It was a post facto argument for a force structure chosen for other reasons. I'm persuaded; in this case, the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence.

be careful about spy missions

James Bamford, a historian of the intelligence community, urges caution in using spy missions to challenge Chinese claims to maritime areas.
As tensions continue to mount between the United States and China, it’s time to take a closer look at U.S. spying practices and determine which ones aren’t worth the risks involved. Certainly, zooming planes over islands in the South China Sea — with or without a media team present — to draw Beijing’s ire seems unwise. But it’s also important for the White House and intelligence agencies to formally assess, through some kind of coordinated review process, which routine missions are no longer necessary. With so many spy satellites now in orbit, able to photograph even small objects on Earth and eavesdrop on everything from cell phones to radar signals, the need for expensive air and sea operations may be overkill: spying for the sake of spying, sometimes with lethal consequences.
Given that the purpose of intelligence should be to prevent wars rather than start them, the current U.S. administration would do well to ask when espionage is necessary to national security — and when it simply means playing with fire.
I certainly favor freedom of navigation patrols, They are much more defensible in world opinion. Intelligence-gathering missions have to be kept separate, secret, and with more careful risk assessments.

the missing piece

David Ignatius explains what's missing from President Obama's anti-ISIL strategy, and it turns out to be what's missing from those of his critics as well:
At the center of President Obama’s strategy for dealing with the Islamic State is an empty space. It’s supposed be filled by a “Sunni ground force,” but after more than a year of effort, it’s still not there. Unless this gap is filled, Obama’s plan won’t work.
What “local forces” is Obama talking about? If he means Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria, yes, they’ve performed admirably. In Kurdish areas. They don’t want to clear and hold the Sunni heartland of the Islamic State, nor should they. If Obama is talking about the Shiite-led Iraqi military, its performance is still just barely adequate, even backed by U.S. air power, and it is disdained and mistrusted by the Sunnis of Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul. If he’s talking about the Islamist brigades in Syria armed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, it’s still not entirely clear whether they’re friend or foe.
The disturbing fact is that a strong, reliable, indigenous Sunni ground force doesn’t exist yet in Iraq or Syria. The United States has been trying to fix this problem since the fall of Mosul in June 2014, with very little success.

Meanwhile, Tom Friedman notes that fighting ISIL is less important to the other nations of the region than some particular priority:
What Obama also has right is that old saying: “If you’re in a poker game and you don’t know who the sucker is, it’s probably you.” That’s the game we’re in in Iraq and Syria. All our allies for a coalition to take down ISIS want what we want, but as their second choice.
Kurds are not going to die to liberate Mosul from ISIS in order to hand it over to a Shiite-led government in Baghdad; they’ll want to keep it. The Turks primarily want to block the Kurds. The Iranians want ISIS crushed, but worry that if moderate Sunnis take over its territory they could one day threaten Iran’s allies in Iraq and Syria. The Saudi government would like ISIS to disappear, but its priority right now is crushing Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. And with 1,000 Saudi youth having joined ISIS as fighters — and with Saudi Arabia leading the world in pro-ISIS tweets, according to a recent Brookings study — the Saudi government is wary about leading the anti-ISIS fight. The Russians pretend to fight ISIS, but they are really in Syria to protect Bashar al-Assad and defeat his moderate foes.
Any policy against ISIL has to deal with these two basic facts.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

war plans

President Obama has challenged  Congress to join him in the fight against ISIL by passing a law authorizing the use of military force [AUMF]. The administration proposed one last February. It was limited to three years unless extended by law, authorized "necessary and appropriate" force, but declared that it was not intended to authorize "enduring offensive ground combat operations." Senators Kaine [D-VA] and Flake [R-AZ] have offered a slightly different measure that authorizes "necessary and appropriate" force for three years but calls "use of significant United States ground troops" inconsistent with its purpose.

Now we have Senators Graham [R-SC] and McCain [R-AZ] with their own alternative that, without other limitations or restrictions, simply authorizes "necessary and appropriate" force. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the Senators explain their proposal in more detail: they admit that the Iraqi government opposes a major U.S. troop deployment, so they suggest instead U.S. ground combat in Syria.
So the U.S. should lead an effort to assemble a multinational force, including up to 10,000 American troops, to clear and hold Raqqa and destroy ISIS in Syria. Such a force could also help to keep the peace in a post-Assad Syria, as was done in Bosnia and Kosovo.
That's a much more honorable proposal than what we've heard from most other Republican presidential candidates, who seem to think that "carpet bombing" will be sufficient. But it still doesn't answer the nagging questions that have kept current policy limited.

-- Where are the 90,000 Arab fighters going to come from?
-- How do we avoid an unintentional war with Russia?
-- Where do we stand on the competing claims of Turkey and the Kurds?
-- How do we fight against both Assad and ISIL?

Until the armchair generals have credible answers to these questions, they should keep their war plans in their pockets.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

where's Congress?

The British parliament tonight voted 397-223 to authorize British airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. Seven Tories voted against the proposal; 67 Labour members voted for, despite the opposition of their leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The text is here: “That this House notes that ISIL poses a direct threat to the United Kingdom; welcomes United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 which determines that ISIL constitutes an 'unprecedented threat to international peace and security' and calls on states to take 'all necessary measures' to prevent terrorist acts by ISIL and to 'eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria'; further notes the clear legal basis to defend the UK and our allies in accordance with the UN Charter; notes that military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria; welcomes the renewed impetus behind the Vienna talks on a ceasefire and political settlement; welcomes the Government's continuing commitment to providing humanitarian support to Syrian refugees; underlines the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria; welcomes the Government’s continued determination to cut ISIL’s sources of finance, fighters and weapons; notes the requests from France, the US and regional allies for UK military assistance; acknowledges the importance of seeking to avoid civilian casualties, using the UK’s particular capabilities; notes the Government will not deploy UK troops in ground combat operations; welcomes the Government's commitment to provide quarterly progress reports to the House; and accordingly supports Her Majesty's Government in taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against ISIL in Syria; and offers its wholehearted support to Her Majesty's Armed Forces .”

I would note that the US Congress has so far failed to vote a specific measure authorizing, opposing, or limiting similar U.S. operations. The administration sent its proposed language last February. Several members have offered alternatives. So far, no action. Congress is abdicating its war powers.

PS: The House of Commons earlier -- in Sept. 2014 -- approved airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq. And Britain doesn't even have a written constitution giving parliament the power to declare war.

conspiracy theories spreading

The willingness to believe crazy conspiracy theories is not confined to Idaho, or Texas, or even the Trump campaign. The Post reports that there's a big new one in Iraq. Liz Sly says that many Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, believe that the United States is working with and aiding Islamic State fighters.
On the front lines of the battle against the Islamic State, suspicion of the United States runs deep. Iraqi fighters say they have all seen the videos purportedly showing U.S. helicopters airdropping weapons to the militants, and many claim they have friends and relatives who have witnessed similar instances of collusion.

Ordinary people also have seen the videos, heard the stories and reached the same conclusion — one that might seem absurd to Americans but is widely believed among Iraqis — that the United States is supporting the Islamic State for a variety of pernicious reasons that have to do with asserting U.S. control over Iraq, the wider Middle East and, perhaps, its oil.
And by the way, even the Iraqi government, weak as it is, opposes the sending of a large force of U.S. troops to help them.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Republican caution on Syria

Like Dan Drezner, I expected the Paris attacks to increase public pressure for deeper U.S. military involvement in the fight against ISIL. But now Drezner sees a less hawkish trend among GOP presidential candidates -- offset by loud words regarding Syrian refugees and immigration. Most notably, Sen. Ted Cruz sounds a lot like Sen. Rand Paul in this interview.  Since the polls have been inconsistent on ground troops, I guess the pols are holding back. Good.

Monday, November 30, 2015

why move to Colorado?

I'm proud to be a third-generation native of Denver, but I don't know for sure why my ancestors first moved there. With one exception: my maternal great grandparents moved from New Jersey in 1891 seeking a dry climate after my great grandfather doctor caught pneumonia treating patients during the blizzard of 1888.

My mother's father was born in Omaha in 1896 while his Swedish immigrant parents were on their way to Denver, where there already was a Swedish community. Why they left Sweden and why they picked Denver, I don't know.

My father's father moved from a farm outside Detroit around 1888 and his mother moved from Michigan City, Indiana around 1902. One of her sisters was already living and working in Denver. They settled and married and prospered.

This weekend, I was reading an article that offered a possible explanation for their migration -- the lure of economic opportunity. I hadn't realize how rich the west was toward the end of the 19th century, but it turns out that Colorado was the third richest state in terms of per capita income in 1880 and 1890 and fifth highest in 1900. Colorado's population more than doubled between 1880 and 1890 and grew another 30% in the following decade.  Much of this wealth came from gold and silver mining, of course, but the numbers suggest a booming economy that was widely shared.

Obviously much migration to and within the United States was driven by economic factors -- leaving declining areas and moving to growing ones. That's the best explanation I have so far for my own ancestors.

European warning signs

The "Europe whole and free" that emerged after the cold war is in danger. The single currency for many of its members, the Euro, is exacerbating the economic troubles of the poorer states. The checkpoint-free travel of the Schengen agreement has exacerbated the problems of coping with the surge of refugees from Syria and other Arab regions. The migrant crisis itself has fueled the rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties that could well gain significant power in elections in the coming months.

Since so much of European governance is done by consensus or unanimity, the coming to power of these once fringe parties could destroy Europe as a geopolitical power. Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post points to what has already happened in Poland.
It’s been just two weeks since Beata Szydlo, a mild-mannered parliamentarian from the right-wing Law and Justice party, was sworn in as the country’s prime minister. During that time, the administration nominally under her control has installed a new chief of the secret security services who was previously convicted of abuse of power for prosecuting political opponents, replaced five members of the Constitutional Court in order to avoid challenges to that first appointment, and named as defense minister an outspoken anti-Semite.
The trend lines are clear and ominous. European leaders have to get their act together and solve these most pressing problems before the whole system unravels.

Woodrow Wilson reconsidered

Princeton University is reconsidering the legacy of its former president as well as America's, Woodrow Wilson. I think we all should do likewise.  As readers here know, I have a much more negative view of Wilson than I did in earlier years. While I have specific complaints about some of his foreign policy, especially his mishandling of the Versailles treaty consideration by the Senate, I was also deeply troubled by his racism, something overlooked by most of the writers I had read over the years.

The Princeton demonstrations have made us all more aware of Wilson's bigotry and denial of rights and opportunities to black Americans. One writer describes a heated encounter between Wilson and some black leaders.

The most thorough account of his re-segregation of the executive branch appears to be in this excellent book by Eric Yellin, Racism in the Nation's Service. Here is his balanced judgment:

In public memory, Woodrow Wilson stands alone at the center of this story. While Wilson strongly supported segregation, there is no evidence that he oversaw its implementation or ensured consistency through a clear directive. Wilson was an aloof and shadowy chief executive when it came to personnel management, even in the area of racial discrimination. Instead, it was the men Wilson appointed to run his government who threaded white supremacy into the federal bureaucracy....The result was a more complex regime with a larger cast of characters. Wilson’s most remarkable role came after the dirty work was well underway, when he blessed the marriage of progressive politics and state-sponsored racism as necessary for good government.
That analysis persuades me that Princeton and we here in Washington can continue to honor Wilson for his praiseworthy accomplishments even while bearing in mind his objectionable views and actions. Hardly any  one is all saint or all sinner; we can weigh virtues and vices before rendering judgment.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

what do the generals say?

A frequent refrain from many politicians, when asked what to do about a vexing foreign problem, is to do what the generals recommend.  Well, listen to two of them.
The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Neller, said this yesterday:
“If we went there[to fight ISIL], is there any doubt in your mind, if we got a force together on the Syrian border and we drove into Raqqa, we would beat them into the ground like tent pegs?” Neller asked, again to shouts of “oorah.”

“So we’re in Raqqa and they’re all dead or captured or killed or wounded, and we’re standing in Raqqa and we’re like, ‘Now what?’ So before we go do that I think its fair we ask our political leadership ... when we’re done, what’s next?”

“Rebuilding, sir,” a Marine shouted from the audience.
“I don’t want to rebuild anything in Syria,” Neller answered. “I’ve been to this movie once before. It was called Iraq. I’ve been to this movie and it didn’t end the way we wanted it to end.”

Retired General David Petraeus warned against sending U.S. ground troops into the fight.
Earlier in the interview, Petraeus urged against keeping American boots on the ground as "not sustainable."

"I would not at this point," Petraeus said. "Again, you need to have a hold force that has legitimacy in the eyes of people that has to be Sunni Arab forces."
Asked whether it should be American forces, Petraeus said, "it should not be."
Wise and valid points, in my view. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

not quite a declaration of war by the UN

Words matter to diplomats and lawyers. So when the UN Security Council voted unanimously to condemn the terrorist actions by ISIL and others in Paris, Beirut, and elsewhere policymakers pondered the careful wording.

UNSC Resolution 2249 says, in a key paragraph:

5.   Calls upon Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter, as well as international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, on the territory under the control of ISIL also known as Da’esh, in Syria and Iraq, to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh as well as ANF, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the United Nations Security Council, and as may further be agreed by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and endorsed by the UN Security Council, pursuant to the statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) of 14 November, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria;
A bit wordy,sure, touching many bases as required by a compromise document that all members could support. And as such it can be cited by the French, the British, the Americans,and the Russians if they want to conduct air strikes against ISIL.

But it's also important to realize what's missing from this tough-sounding document. The key omission is any mention of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the section authorizing the use of force in the name of the international community. That was a bridge too far for several UNSC members, especially those who felt that the U.S and NATO went too far under the Libya resolution [UNSC 1973] in 2011. That measure said:
Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations,
1 Demands the immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end
to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians;...
6.Decides to establish a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians;
The UN words are helpful but still limited.

winter of our discontent

Winter is four weeks away, but the mood of discontent has arrived already. A Pew survey finds shockingly high distrust of the U.S. government and anger over its activities. Only 19% of respondents say they trust the government most or all of the time. Republicans are more unhappy than Democrats, often by wide margins, but both groups feel that "their side" loses more often than it wins in politics.

The Pew survey was concluded in early October. No doubt the numbers are even worse now. A new poll by CBS News tapped into voter anger over President Obama and his policies toward ISIL and Syrian refugees. Americans doubt that the president has a clear plan for dealing with ISIL; half don't want to admit any Syrian refugees; and half now favor sending U.S. ground troops into battle.

Even though Obama is right morally, he has a significant political problem. The new American sense of fear is real and has to be dealt with. Instead of trying to defend his earlier remarks about ISIL being a "JV team" that was "contained" the day before the Paris attacks, he should admit his errors and give a new assessment. Instead of dismissing out of hand congressional efforts to limit a possible threat from Syrian refugees, he should work with members to fashion a more limited but still helpful measures to reduce the threat.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

how does this end?

The Wall Street Journal has a good roundup of various and conflicting views on what to do about the so-called Islamic State. Perhaps the most significant passage is this:
For military planners, destroying the terrorist group’s headquarters and crippling its fighting force is a relatively simple assignment, say strategists: It would require some 40,000 troops, air support and two months of fighting.

The problem is what do to after taking responsibility for won territory. With the recent experience of Afghanistan and Iraq, that is a job no Western leader wants.
There are of course military measures that could kill many of the ISIL fighters and lay waste to the territory they now hold. That is the easy part. The hard part, and the part that matters, is what happens next.

The American-led coalition took down Saddam Hussein's government but failed to replace it with an effective and sustainable regime. We did not want to "occupy" Iraq, and the successor government was unable to unify the nation. Iraq remains divided by ethnic, tribal, regional, and sectarian differences. There are unresolved disputes over the division of oil revenues and the degree of local autonomy for the Kurds.

Similarly with the suggested anti-ISIL coalition. Destroying ISIL is every member's secondary goal. The Turks care more about fighting Kurds. The Russians care more about keeping Assad in power. The Iranians care more about maintaining their links to Hezbollah in Lebanon and strengthening their influence in Iraq. The French care more about demonstrating their great power status and reducing the flow of migrants into Europe. And, truth be told, we Americans care more about ending viral videos of beheadings and standing up to Iran and Russia than building a new entity where ISIL now reigns.

The many critics ritually say, "We need a strategy." Any good strategy has to deal with more than the destruction of ISIL and offer an acceptable and achievable way for things to end up.

Friday, November 20, 2015

first they came for the Muslims...

The government will have a little list so there'll none of them be missed.

Pending deportation -- or more serious punishment -- they can be kept in well-guarded holiday camps.

Is this America?

Haven't these self-proclaimed defenders of the Constitution even re-read  the First Amendment?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

misleading cyber metaphors

Every now and then, I come across something that is mind-stretching and truly exciting to ponder. This week, that was my reaction to an article by RAND scholar Martin Libicki, "Cyberspace is Not a Warfighting Domain." I have long admired Libicki's intellectual creativity and used to have him speak to my class at the National War College on Military Innovation for Future Wars.

In this article, he warns against letting the metaphor of cyberspace as a "domain" like air, sea, land, and space limit and misdirect our thinking about cyber warfare. He notes, for example, that the U.S. military has rushed to create a cyber command but hasn't done the same for the radio-frequency spectrum. Isn't it just as important?

Calling cyberspace a "domain," he argues, leads the military to fall back on familiar concepts from the existing domains -- dominance, defense, retaliation, and so forth.

Thinking of cyberspace as a warfighting domain tends to convert the problems associated with operating in cyberspace—creating useful effects in your adversaries’ systems and preventing the same from being done to you—into a warfighting mold shaped by the four older domains. This shifts the focus of thought from the creation and prevention of specific effects to broader warfighting concepts, such as control, maneuver, and superiority. This approach emphasizes the normal attributes of military operations, such as mass, speed, synchronization, fires, command-and-control, and hierarchy, at the expense of other ways, such as engineering, as a way of creating or preventing effects. ...
More broadly, the emphasis on defending the domain puts the information assurance cart before the mission assurance horse. ...
In a sense, if defensive cyberwar is largely a question of engineering systems to make them resistant to attacks, then offensive cyberwar is reverse-engineering target systems to understand how they may be vulnerable to attacks. All this dynamism further argues against trying to force-fit cyber operations into any mold, not the least of which is domain dominance.
He is especially telling when contrasting the typical military organization with what we need for cyber operations.
 Finally, focusing on cyberspace as a domain suggests that cyber warriors be organized the same as warriors in other domains. Using/Implementing a division of authority in which the enlisted greatly outnumber officers (typically by more than four-to-one) implies converting cyber warfare into a set of operations in which most elements can be broken down into routines and taught to people who are well-trained but not extensively educated. The wiser alternative is to determine what skill mix the domain requires, then recruit and train appropriately without worrying too much about whether the resulting hierarchy characterizes what are understood to be warfare domains.
Think about these ideas.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

what would the generals do?

According to a report in Politico, senior U.S. military leaders are dubious of getting involved in a major war against ISIL. They don't doubt our capability to do kinetic damage, but they question our ability to control the aftermath. Obliterating ISIL doesn't solve the Shia/Sunni/Kurd clashes in Iraq, or the civil war in Syria -- or the ISIL-linked or -inspired forces in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.

What's more, the Iraqis don't want a large U.S. fighting force back in their territory.

I'm sure some military planners can provide options for civilian leaders; they never say they can't do anything useful. But whatever they may suggest still has to be put in the context of what else? what next?

the American way

With politicians of all stripes now pandering to public fears of admitting Syrian refugees, it's worth remembering that American history is filled with such reactions. The Know Nothing Party in the mid-19th century opposed immigration, especially of Catholics. Congress outlawed Chinese immigration in the 1880s. The draconian 1924 immigration act drastically limited immigration of Jews and people from southern Europe.

And in the year before Nazi Germany launched World War II, Americans wanted to keep Jewish refugees away from our shores. As the Post usefully reminds us today,  2/3 of respondents to a Gallup Poll in July 1938 opposed taking in refugees from Germany and Austria.Six months later, 61% opposed even taking in 10,000 refugee children, mostly Jewish.

A more humane response is urged by former Ambassador Ryan Crocker:
When I served as ambassador to Iraq, I witnessed how the slow pace of processing left Iraqi refugees—including many who worked for the U.S. military—stranded in danger. Some died waiting for visas. That’s why the Obama administration should commit to resettling 100,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.
This is not an unmanageable security risk to U.S. citizens, as the governors and others have alleged. The U.S.’s vigorous screening process involves vetting from multiple security agencies. Refugees are also interviewed abroad by officers from the Department of Homeland Security before they are approved for resettlement. No population entering the U.S. is more closely examined than refugees.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

coalition of the willing?

"Do something!" That's the ritual response to problems, now seen as the necessary response to the Paris attacks. Presidential candidates are rushing to outbid their rivals with the toughest proposal. And the President took a grilling from the press over his reluctance to send in a large contingent of ground troops.

Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal, a serious and respected journalist in my view, wants a large western military force to go after ISIL. But as he ticks off the options, it's evident that they contain more sure problems than likelihood of success.
there are several possible paths:
A force organized and helped by NATO, consisting of troops from the region aided by Western air power, intelligence and advisers. The problem is that this option would smack of Western colonialism, and would exclude Russia, which can and should be part of the solution in Syria.
A force organized under U.N. auspices. That would provide a politically acceptable international cover, and show a united international and not merely Western stand against Islamic State. But U.N. politics are always tricky.
An ad hoc international “coalition of the willing,” much like the one formed by President George W. Bush to fight Iraq. It could be formed by U.S., French and even Russian leadership, drawing in all concerned nations and providing funding and a support system for local forces.
Sure, but...  Doug Ollivant, who has a lot of experience in Iraq, points out:
At the same time, the United States and Iraq find themselves confronting a dilemma. Policymakers in both countries insist that more must be done against ISIL. And yet there is no appetite in either U.S. or Iraqi politics (outside some very small pockets) for the deployment of U.S. troops, and plans that propose such do not pass the political feasibility test. While a U.S. audience will be very familiar with its own “war fatigue,” they may not be aware that years of U.S. occupation have made national sovereignty a very touchy subject in Iraqi politics. Even the recent joint U.S./Kurdish commando raid on Hawija was quickly condemned by factions both supportive and critical of the current Iraqi government. If the actions of a mere 30 U.S. commandos cross a political threshold, we can only imagine the political response to a larger contingent. Deployment of U.S. troops has no constituency in either the United States or Iraq — and it appears that any military benefit such a deployment might provide in the short term would be more than outweighed by its political costs over the long term. Looking back on our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, one might think this is a lesson people should have learned by now.
And as Eugene Robinson notes in the Post, the west has been much better at creating power vacuums in the Middle East than at filling them.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

tipping point on war

Even before the terrorist attacks in Paris, American public opinion was moving steadily in favor of military action against ISIL, even if it meant large numbers of U.S. ground troops.

As this compendium of polling results shows, support for sending group troops to Iraq to fight ISIL in June of 2014 was low -- 30% in an ABC poll, 19% in one for CBS, compared to 77% and 65% opposed. Americans were more willing, however, to use drones [56%] and manned airstrikes [43%].

By October, support for airstrikes surged to over 70% and support for ground troops climbed to 40%.

By March, 2015, support for ground troops almost equaled those opposed, 47% to 49%. In the following months, more and more Americans voiced support for military action including U.S. ground troops: 52%-41% in August and a stunning 58%-38% in October.

I think the beheadings of hostages by ISIL has tipped American opinion into this warlike mode. The first widely reported actions were in late summer 2014, with mass killings in November, December, February,and April. Americans are disgusted by these atrocities, troubled about the chaos in the Middle East, and fearful that jihadi violence may return to our homeland. The President and Congress have a permissive consensus for military action if they wish.

responding to the Paris attacks

Although first reports can be misleading and even quite wrong, it looks as if the terror attacks on Paris were done in the name of and possibly under the control of the so-called Islamic State or ISIL. If so, attacks against ISIL are fully justified.

The outpouring of solidarity with France and sympathy for the victims is similar to the worldwide reaction to the 9/11 attacks. At that time, NATO ministers for the first time invoked article 5 of its founding treaty, the section that obligates all members to respond to an attack on one. As we later learned, that action was take for symbolic and emotional reasons, not as a calculated response nor as part of a military strategy.

As Secretary General Lord Robertson recounted:
We knew that something fundamental had happened and that for the world a new chapter had opened. For us round that table, at the seat of the world’s most successful defence alliance, the sincere sympathy and solidarity expressed with the people of the US was overlaid with thoughts of what all this meant for our organisation and for wider global security.

In the margins of the meeting, my officials led by Assistant Secretary General Edgar Buckley and Private Office Director Jon Day, were already working on what we must urgently do in the face of this attack. One of the most momentous options considered was whether this assault on the US meant invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – the self-defence clause. An attack on one state to be considered as an attack on all then 19 NATO countries.

The work on that and on NATO’s wider response was to go on overnight. Then, in the early morning, there were conversations with US Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

I insisted that Article 5 was relevant and was the ultimate act of solidarity with the people of the US. What had the self-defence clause meant if it was not valid at this dramatic moment of aggression?
President Hollande has called the Paris attacks an "act of war." NATO may choose once again to invoke article 5, at least for reasons of solidarity with France. But the substantive response has to be deeper and broader, and not necessarily by  military forces under NATO command. Defeating ISIL requires coalition action in Syria and Iraq, including substantial Arab involvement, as well as security and intelligence cooperation against terrorist threats already embedded in member countries. Those details matter more than the symbolism.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

lethal cyber weapons

Here we go. Nextgov reports that a half-billion dollar contract is being offered for the development of lethal cyber weapons. I have long been troubled by the U.S. government's over emphasis on offensive cyber capability when our greatest needs are for stronger defenses. While the numbers are classified, there have been various reports that the federal government spends 3 or 4 times as much on offense as defense.

At a Council on Foreign Relations conference yesterday, I asked the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, what the right ratio should be. Here's the exchange:
Q: Charlie Stevenson, SAIS. Chairman McCaul said that we’re better at cyber offense than defense. There have been reports that the federal government spends three or four times as much on cyber offense as defense. What’s the right ratio?
MCCAUL: Well, you know, that’s a—our offensive capability is vitally important to the defense of the nation. We have used it in the past and it’s very effective. It’s a very dangerous world. Russia’s in Syria now, and it’s very complicated. So we need those tools. I wouldn’t say I’d take away from that, but I think we need to—it’s not a ratio, but we need to bring up our defensive capability to our offensive capability. And right now, it’s not there.
I understand his reluctance to cut back on offensive cyber programs, but I worry that the imbalance also reflects a mindset that offense can deter if we just have enough. That was the military mindset regarding nuclear weapons and it could weaken our cyber defenses if we carry this too far.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

two cheers for democracy

Please forgive me for appropriating the title of a book of essays by E.M. Forster, but it expresses my views on the recent budget deal just signed into law by President Obama.

The cheers are merited because our often gridlocked government in Washington finally did something necessary and worthwhile -- rescuing the national debt from political hostage status until 2017 and providing higher spending caps for both domestic and defense spending for two years. It was a Compromise, that judicious blending of ideas from competing sides that is so necessary for our political system but so hard to achieve in these days of hyperpartisanship.

The cheers a limited, however, because this deal leaves much still to be done: the actual appropriations; unfinished legislation on highways, immigration, the ExIm Bank, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and so forth. One speaker of the House sacrificed his career to enable this initial agreement. It remains to be seen whether his successor will show a profile in courage.

By the way, it also wouldn't hurt if Congress would reclaim the war power it often talks about but rarely acts on by voting something approving or forbidding U.S. military actions in Syria.

Woodrow Wilson in retrospect

As a schoolboy, I saw Woodrow Wilson as a tragic figure -- a brilliant man, with a progressive spirit, who failed to obtain support for the peace treaty that might have prevented World War II.  When I learned more about him and his presidency, however, his luster diminished in my view. He was very stubborn and determined to have his own way. He was an autocrat as president of Princeton, and he refused to accept conditions relating to the Versailles Treaty that might have allowed its ratification.

Most damaging of all was my discovery of his virulent racism. I've just been reading an engaging and informative new book, Washington: A History of Our National City, by retired professor Tom Lewis. He notes that Wilson imposed Jim Crow segregation practices on the Federal Government soon after taking office. Jobs that had traditionally gone to blacks, went to whites only. Blacks working in the Post Office and Treasury were moved into separate offices, forced to eat in separate dining rooms and drink from separate water fountains, and denied white subordinates.

Things were even worse after the war ended. "[R]eturning black soldiers found Washington to be a mre segregated city than the one they had left. Federal departments ... refused to consider blacks who had scored well on their civil service examinations... The Metropolitan Police Department turned down blacks for positions; the fire department so effectively kept blacks from promotion that the District commissioner in charge of public safety had to create an all-black brigade in an attempt to ensure a modicum of fair treatment."

Wilson shares the blame with white supremacist members of Congress, of course. But he set a terrible example that makes me think much less of him.

Friday, October 23, 2015

reluctant warriors

Time and again in recent decades, civilians recommending military strategy have said, "Listen to the generals." Of course senior officers have no better idea than anyone else how military actions can achieve diplomatic and political goals, other than reducing military threats and buying time for nonmilitary processes.

Sometimes, too, the military advice is not what the civilian hawks want to hear. Remember, the on-scene commanders in Iraq opposed the 2007 "surge" of troops.

Right now the administration is reportedly reconsidering what to do in Syria, and maybe moving toward creating some safe zones for civilians. Some anonymous sources suspect that the Pentagon is inflating the forces needed as a sign of resistance to the new policy. Let me tell you, that has often been the suspicion of civilian policymakers, as I've noted in much of my own research. While high projected costs are sometimes part of the bureaucratic politics, I believe the differences often derive from civilian naivete about military operations. "Surgical air strikes," for example, require suppression of enemy defenses and search and rescue capabilities along with the brave bombardiers.

In the case of Syria, the U.S. military has a long record of doubt regarding what limited measures could accomplish. At least the Times reporters mention this past history:
In a 2013 letter to Congress, General Martin E. Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said any military intervention in Syria would be an “act of war.” He estimated that establishing safe zones in Syria could cost more than $1 billion per month if American ground troops were used — even stationed outside Syria — to assist regional forces patrolling the zones.

General Dempsey’s letter also signaled his skepticism about either humanitarian zones or a no-fly zone across all of Syria.
If the warriors are reluctant, it's important to give their views very careful consideration.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Bush culpability for 9/11 attacks

Despite its emergence as an issue in the presidential contest and despite the source of the claim against George W. Bush, it is useful to look at the facts in the case. Bush had been president for almost nine months on the day of the attacks. His administration had been warned repeatedly by the intelligence community and by outside experts to take al Qaeda more seriously. Peter Beinart lists  the many warnings and responses by Bush administration officials in a new piece.

I would add the warnings by the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission, which as early as 1999 warned that there would be a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland and which early in 2001 recommended creation of a National Homeland Security Agency. [Their recommendations later became the template for creation of DHS.] Another early proponent of these ideas was  Mac Thornberry of Texas, now the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Of course President Bush responded admirably after the attacks. So did the Congress, in a remarkable display of bipartisan cooperation -- until the administration wanted to expand the war to Iraq and targeted even hawkish Democrats as somehow weak on terrorism. Remember how hard the White House worked to hide the evidence of its negligence and tried to shift the blame to the FBI and CIA. In fact, the buck always sits on the president's desk.

Monday, October 12, 2015

eye on the ball

Several good pieces of analysis and advice today. Dan Drezner points out the confusion, especially by Syria hawks, of the difference between policy outputs and outcomes. He asks what would follow a successful U.S. intervention to get rid of Assad and fears it would be like the results of ousting the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and Qaddafi -- chaos.

Steve Walt asks whether Obama or Putin is the better strategist and concludes its a tie.
So who’s the better strategist? On one side, Obama does have an underlying sense of realism and understands that U.S. interests in many places are limited. He also grasps that our capacity to dictate outcomes is equally constrained, especially when it involves complicated matters of social engineering in divided societies very different from our own. In other words: Nation-building is expensive, goddamn hard, and for the most part unnecessary. But he has to lead a foreign-policy establishment that is addicted to “global leadership” — if only to keep giving itself something to do — and he faces an opposition party that derides any form of “inaction,” even when its proposed alternatives are “mumbo-jumbo.”

Putin, by contrast, has done a better job of matching his goals to the resources he has available, which is one of the hallmarks of a good strategist. His failing is that it’s all short-term and essentially defensive; he is fighting a series of rearguard actions designed to prevent Russia’s global position from deteriorating further, instead of pursuing a program that might enhance Russia’s power and status over the longer term.

So let’s call it a tie. The real losers, alas, are the unfortunate people in Ukraine, Syria, and several other places.
And Adam Elkus at War on the Rocks cleverly explains why the U.S. is so bad at strategy.

I'd offer one other critique of planners and analysts: not keeping their eye on the ball that matters. Our biggest strategic reason for action in Syria is really Iraq, to protect the Abadi government and the unified Iraq we want it to represent. And the real problem in Afghanistan is Pakistan; that's where the solution has to be found, if anywhere.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

news then and now

Last summer, with grandchildren in tow, I was in the small house that is now the town library for Inverness, California, a lovely community overlooking Tomales Bay.  The house had been the residence of a longtime newspaper reporter who had saved many historic front pages. Alongside papers reporting King Edward VIII's abdication, FDR's death, JFK's assassination, and similar events, was the San Francisco Chronicle for December 8, 1941, the first edition with news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The paper quoted White House Press Secretary Stephen Early as saying that in Sunday’s attack on Hawaii an “old” battleship was capsized; that an American destroyer was blown up and several other small ships were hit seriously; that a large number of American planes were knocked out, and that 3000 persons had been killed or wounded.  In fact, of course, eight battleships were hit; one capsized and another sank in the shallow water, the others were eventually repaired and sent into action months later; 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers, and 200 planes were sunk or destroyed. The casualty figure was 3,500. Even a year later, the U.S. Navy fudged the damage by saying only five battleships were "sunk or damaged."

I understand the need for censorship in wartime, but was curious to learn what people had actually been told in official reports. Looking at historical archives, however, I discovered that some news organizations got around the censorship. The New York Times included a report from NBC news: “The U.S. battleship Oklahoma was set afire by the Japanese attackers, according to a[n] NBC observer, who also reported that two other ships in Pearl Harbor were attacked.” The Washington Post quoted damage claims reported from  Tokyo and Berlin.

Event though first reports are often incorrect, it's interesting that we still can learn more than officials are willing to tell us.

Friday, October 9, 2015

tail wags dog; dog angry

House Republicans are in "turmoil," "chaos," disarray. Why would anyone want to be speaker under current conditions? Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, a very talented lawmaker from Texas cattle country says, "I'd rather be a vegetarian."

The search for a new speaker is now a huge political game of promises and salesmanship. What concessions would a candidate have to make in order to win support from the Freedom Caucus or other GOP radicals?

Politico has a story listing some of their demands:

"The House Freedom Caucus passed out a questionnaire and suggested changes to the House rules to every candidate for speaker of the House. Here is POLITICO's analysis of their requests:

  • The group of conservative hardliners wants to "decentralize" the Steering Committee, the panel that decides committee assignments. The HFC wanted to strip the speaker and majority leader of their outsized influence on the panel.

  • The HFC wanted to know if the new speaker would agree to only pass a debt limit increase if it included entitlement reform.

  • They asked if the candidates would commit to impeaching IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

  • The HFC asked if the new speaker would commit to passing all 12 spending bills, and "not acquiesce to a continuing resolution in the event Senate Democrats try to block the appropriations process."
I think a prospective leader could grant slots on party and legislative committees, and I believe a return to the "regular order" of  reliance on committees and more open debate and amendments on the floor is a good thing -- for the Senate as well as the House.

But I can't see how a Speaker can promise accepting government default and shutdowns if the Senate and President don't go along with whatever passes the House. That would let a minority of a minority hobble the economy and the government.

Is today July, 1914?

Fred Kaplan has a good column warning us that the situation in Syria, with combat aircraft of both the United States and Russia flying in the same airspace on behalf of warring clients, is ominously like Europe in July, 1914.
Like the Europe of 101 years ago, the Middle East today is a tinderbox, with plenty of kindling supplied by the combination of weak regimes, millenarian militias, and freelance rebels of various persuasion, each faction backed (or directly armed and aided) by larger powers, some engaged in proxy wars, others drawn in for converging motives while trying to resist the centripetal pull of deeper involvement (with diminishing success). It doesn’t require a wild imagination to envision the lighting of a match—some contemporary counterpart to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
I'm hopeful that Putin will fall short of achieving his maximalist goals in Syria -- as some of his cruise missiles already have -- and that Syria can be stabilized and ISIL contained. That should be the goal of the outside powers, even while they disagree on the role of Iran, the Kurds, Turkey, or the US and Russia. The risks are evident. Statesmanship is required.