Wednesday, September 23, 2015

quotable Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra, the great New York Yankees catcher, has died at the age of 90. What will live on, will be many clever sayings attributed to him over the years.  As the New York Times obit reports:
“You can observe a lot just by watching,” he is reputed to have declared once, describing his strategy as a manager.
“If you can’t imitate him,” he advised a young player who was mimicking the batting stance of the great slugger Frank Robinson, “don’t copy him.”
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” he said, giving directions to his house. Either path, it turned out, got you there.
“Nobody goes there anymore,” he said of a popular restaurant. “It’s too crowded.”
Whether Berra actually uttered the many things attributed to him, or was the first to say them, or phrased them precisely the way they were reported, has long been a matter of speculation. Berra himself published a book in 1998 called “The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!” But the Yogi-isms testified to a character — goofy and philosophical, flighty and down to earth — that came to define the man.
I would rank Berra along with Mark Twain and Winston Churchill as the authors of the most quoted aphorisms, whether or not they actually said them. Not a bad legacy.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

presidential intelligence

The CIA has just released a treasure trove of intelligence products -- 2,500 declassified Top Secret reports
 to the President between June, 1961 and January 1969, when Richard Nixon took office. What's now called the PDB [President's Daily Brief] was called the "pickle" [President's Intelligence Checklist] in the 1960s. Until now, only a few fragments of these reports had ever been declassified, including of course the August 2001 report that terrorists were planning to attack inside the United States.

I've been searching through the reports, looking especially for what the President was told the day of, or the day before, some of the big events of the 1960s.There are still many sections redacted.  [I'm puzzled, for example, why a several-paragraph report on the results of the British elections of 1964 is totally blank. What was so secret then and still now?]

Anybody can play the game, and I hope others will, and will let us know the nuggets they find. My reaction, however, is one of disappointment. Most of the reports are only a few sentences long. Many each day are almost trivial. The "breaking news" items -- when the Berlin wall went up, when Khrushchev was ousted, when the spy ship Pueblo was seized -- seem to contain little top secret information.  The items are terse enough to fit on one of today;s small screens very easily.

Maybe Huey Long was not assassinated

I'm very skeptical of conspiracy theories. There was a group involved in Lincoln's death, but not John F. Kennedy's.  James Garfield and William McKinley got what we now recognize as inadequate medical care, but there was no conspiracy of doctors. Warren Harding was not poisoned by an angry wife. FDR did not know about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance. And so forth...

But until reading historian Jonathan Alter's piece  today, I had believed that the flamboyant Louisiana Kingfish, Huey Long, was shot and killed by a young doctor whose family had clashed with the Long political machine. Alter bring together an array of evidence suggesting that the alleged assassin was unarmed but punched Long, and his bodyguards unleashed a torrent of bullets that hit or ricocheted into Long, who died 30 hours later after faulty medical care. The real gunmen then covered up their guilt.

Read it. At least the jury's verdict should now be that Scottish one of "Not Proven."

Friday, September 18, 2015

on the shoulders of giants

We who teach stand on the shoulders of our forebears, many of whom are giants. One of my most important mentors -- an intellectual giant and a helpful, decent man -- was Stanley Hoffmann, who died last week. His life was recounted, and honored, in several places: a New York Times obituary, a fine assessment by Prof. Gary Bass of Princeton, a warm remembrance by Yasha Mounk on Vox.

I am especially indebted to Hoffmann because he created the interdisciplinary field of study at Harvard called Social Studies and admitted me to the first class. The tutorials were mind-stretching for me, a public school kid from Denver whose parents had never been to college. [My mother was so worried after receiving a letter saying that my name was being placed on the Dean's List that she asked a friend at work whether I'd lose my scholarship.] Social Studies exposed me to the great scholars in history, political science, economics, sociology and pyschology. Hoffmann's exciting course on War [Soc Stud 112, I still remember] examined that subject from numerous disciplines. I owe him and that program an enormous intellectual debt.

When I was a senior, Hoffmann also helped me much more than my official thesis adviser as I researched and wrote a study of Eisenhower administration policy toward the Middle East. When I returned to Harvard for graduate school, he was always helpful with advice and even gave me an exciting job teaching international affairs in the Social Studies program.

I'm a better scholar, and maybe even a better person, thanks to Stanley Hoffmann.

America's Syria policy is a mess

Let's agree that America's policy in Syria is a mess. The blame should be widely shared. Peter Baker in the New York Times says the White House now argues that the President was always skeptical of arming and training moderate Syrian opposition, so "I told you so."

I would argue that the President deserves blame at least for failing to try to fix the program as its flaw became evident over the past two years. But the Pentagon also deserves blame for designing a program that was so slow and ultimately ineffective -- a half billion dollars producing only 4 or 5 soldiers.

But those in Congress now on their high horses shouting criticism are also to blame. There's some valuable background in this CRS report. But what I want to highlight is the law that Congress passed, Public Law 113-164. That law authorized funds only for limited purposes in Syria:
The Secretary of Defense is authorized, in coordination with the Secretary of State, to provide assistance, including training, equipment, supplies, and sustainment, to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition and other appropriately vetted Syrian groups and individuals for the following purposes: (1) Defending the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and securing territory controlled by the Syrian opposition. (2) Protecting the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threats posed by terrorists in Syria. (3) Promoting the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.
And the only people who could be armed were limited to those who would fight ISIS, not Assad.
 The term ‘‘appropriately vetted’’ means, with respect to elements of the Syrian opposition and other Syrian groups and individuals, at a minimum, assessments of such elements, groups, and individuals for associations with terrorist groups, Shia militias aligned with or supporting the Government of Syria, and groups associated with the Government of Iran. Such groups include, but are not limited to, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Jabhat al Nusrah, Ahrar al Sham, other al-Qaeda related groups, and Hezbollah. 
I'd agree that those conditions are nearly impossible to achieve. But that's the law. And if members of Congress now want a more robust force of Syrians, they'd better work to change that law.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Americans are scared and bellicose, but deeply split on immigration

Every few years the Chicago Council on Global Affairs conducts a comprehensive poll of American views on foreign policy matters. The latest survey, released, today, has some sobering findings. I guess the good news is that Americans still overwhelmingly [2/3] favor an active role in world affairs., and the number has climbed in recent years.

Americans are worried about the Islamic State and terrorist threats, with Republican fears surging to levels like those just after the 9/11 attacks. Republicans are also much more willing than Democrats and Independents to favor military action, including ground combat troops, against such threats.

Most disheartening is the huge partisan split on immigration and climate change. More than three times as many Republicans as Democrats [43% to 12%] oppose major steps on climate change "until we are sure [it's] really a problem," while Democrats overwhelmingly [56% to 12%] say it's a serious problem and we should begin taking action even if there are significant costs.

On immigration, the differences are even sharper. By 48% to 17%, Democrats say illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in their jobs and apply for citizenship. Republicans, by 45% to 14%, say they should be required to leave their jobs and the United States. Not much room for compromise there.

By the way, 2/3 of Americans still favor improved relations with Cuba.

Monday, September 14, 2015

missed opportunity on the Iran nuclear deal

I believe the Iran nuclear deal has strong security benefits for the United States and Israel, so I'm glad Democrats thwarted opponents in Congress. I'm troubled by how nasty the fight got, however, and the damage it did to the notion that we should strive for a unifying, bipartisan foreign policy.

Two articles today suggest there might have been a different path. Jamelle Bouie argues that Obama's greatest ally in the Iran fight was congressional Republicans, precisely because they were so stridently partisan.
When the administration announced the deal in mid-July, it was an open question whether Democrats would sign on. First, there was public opinion. No, Americans might not want another war, but that’s not the same as supporting an agreement with Iran, especially one that lifts sanctions. What’s more, Americans had concerns about Israel—would this open an important ally to danger from an economically emboldened Iran? Sensitive to both concerns, many elected Democrats were wary of the deal, and some—like New York Sen. Chuck Schumer—eventually came out against it.

Republicans could have capitalized on the division, running against the deal while offering an alternative and showing—in word and deed—that this was about the policy, not the president.
And Jeffrey Goldberg makes the case that Prime Minister Netanyahu could have avoided a humiliating defeat if he had recognized that Israel has other security concerns besides Iran and prioritized working with America on those rather than exacerbating a partisan fight.

“Israel faces more than one threat to its existence.” In other words, even if you believe that the Iran nuclear agreement is treyf beyond treyf, why wouldn’t you make hay out of the fact that the first African American U.S. president, a liberal icon, not only believes that the cause of Israel is just, but states this openly and unapologetically at a time when many on the international left are working obsessively to delegitimize the Jewish state?
... I believe that Barack Obama represented for Israel, in perhaps its most crucial existential fight, not a threat but an opportunityan opportunity that was blown, I believe, by an Israeli prime minister too paranoid, too tactically minded, and too out of touch with current American Jewish political reality to see this opportunity when it presented itself.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

a military coup?

There are some questions about the opinions of the America people I don't really want the answer to. I get discouraged when a poll reveals the ignorance of voters about basic Constitutional and policy questions. I cringe when polls discover strongly held hatred of others because of their race or religion. And now I'm worried because a poll shows significant support for the idea of a military coup. While the overall figures are 29% imagining they could support a coup and 41% not, a plurality of Republicans [43% to 32%] are willing to consider supporting a coup.

It's one thing for Americans to have strong admiration for the military, especially compared to politicians. But to think that our system would be better off if the military could intervene - a la Egypt, say -- is deeply troubling.  Fortunately, at least for now, I am confident that U.S. military officers believe in civilian control and the Constitution that mandates it.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

deja vu all over again

They come from "a degraded and inferior race," one Senator said. Others called them "rats, beasts, and swine." They were accused of bringing drug use, prostitution, and gang activity into the United States. They caused "moral and racial pollution." They drove down wages and took jobs of those already here. As a congressman shouted, "The gate ... must be closed."

And it was. Those are arguments made during congressional debate on the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, a shameful episode discussed in Professor Erika Lee's new book, The Making of Asian America. While that act barred immigration for the most part, it allowed exceptions for students, teachers, travelers, merchants and diplomats. Prof. Lee calculates that of the 300,000 Chinese admitted under those and family-related exceptions during 1882-1943, 90-95% came on false papers, so-called "paper sons." As she says, "The first to be restricted, Chinese became the first 'illegal immigrants.'"

When the nativist trumpet blows today, we should remember the sour notes it blew before.

filibuster justified

I have long defended the Senate's rules allowing filibusters, though I have criticized its excessive use in recent years and for pretty trivial issues. The filibuster against legislation disapproving the Iran nuclear deal, however, was a proper use on a major policy issue -- and I am pleased that the filibusterers succeeded in blocking the measure, which would have undermined American and Israeli security and greatly increased the danger of another major war in the Middle East.

Senators deserve the right, when in minority positions but feeling deeply about a major policy issue, to obstruct through the filibuster, provided they can get 40 or more colleagues to agree.

I still favor eliminating the filibuster on the motion to proceed -- that is, to take up a measure. And I wish the rules would be changed to force the objecting 40+ to show up in the dark of night to keep the debate going, but the underlying rules are good for our democracy.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

assessing Obama's foreign policy

Blaming the administration in power for problems abroad is a major spectator sport in Washington. Each administration gets pretty defensive while in office and then airbrushes its mistakes in later memoirs.

For what it's worth, I think a piece in Foreign Affairs by its editor Gideon Rose is a well-argued defense of Obama's foreign policy.

I'd especially cite a couple paragraphs on the Middle East:

With regard to the Middle East, similarly, hawks fault Obama for letting conflict rage and turbulence spread. And it is true that the American withdrawal from Iraq and nonintervention in Syria were ultimately followed by the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, a vicious terrorist ministate, in the badlands of those countries.
But looking at recent history, the president concluded that the region’s various domestic problems are neither easily solvable nor his to solve. After all, as the former administration official Philip Gordon has noted, “In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.” And in Yemen, one might add, the United States relied on drone strikes and active diplomacy, and the result is a costly disaster. If the Middle East is bent on convulsing itself in costly disasters, as seems unfortunately true these days, trying to play a constructive role from the sidelines rather than getting embroiled directly represents not weakness but prudence