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.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

who lost Kunduz?

An excerpt::
The fall of the provincial capital, Kunduz City, to the Taliban nine days ago was partly born of years of disgust with and distrust in the main representatives of the central government there: a succession of corrupt or ineffective governors and aides, and a horde of Afghan Local Police militiamen who were more often abusive than responsible.
Interviews with officials and residents of Kunduz indicate that despite Mr. Ghani’s vow to improve things, frustrations in the province had been boiling even before the Taliban’s recent assault.
Most of those interviewed described feeling abandoned by the government, and left at the mercy of local strongmen and militia leaders — including the Afghan Local Police — and, in recent months, to the steady advance of the Taliban toward the city.
Increasingly, that distrust has manifested in ethnic and factional divisions that carry uncomfortable echoes of the Afghan civil war. Deeply disillusioned by the government’s and the security forces’ failure in Kunduz, many residents are simply leaving. Others are looking for help from ethnic militias, or even the Taliban.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Supreme Court attacks free enterprise

The U. S. Supreme Court has banned  the use of hired people in waiting lines to see court sessions. Now lawyers wishing to observe the proceedings have to wait in line themselves, often for hours. This deprives them of billable hours for clients and forces them to endure the vagaries of Washington weather. It denies penurious students and interns vitally needed income. Have the Justices no shame? Is Uber next? Don't they recognize the dignity of the legal profession? Well, at least the Court still bans video cameras.

Congress is to blame

Much like Bob Gates, who sharply criticized Congress after he left office after wisely courting it during his tenure, former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has tough words about lawmakers in his new memoir.

His sharpest words, however, are reserved for Congress. Mr. Bernanke, a former economics professor at Princeton, often seemed to suffer through his appearances before lawmakers; he writes of those encounters, “It was inevitable that they would ask questions for all sorts of purposes, but rarely because they were curious about the answer.”

He also expresses puzzlement that politicians who were friendly in person would sometimes turn on him in public settings. “I could never get used to the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of politicians,” he writes. Most of all, however, he chastises Congress for damaging the economy, citing several episodes, including the 2013 government shutdown.

“I also felt frustrated that fiscal policy makers, far from helping the economy, appeared to be actively working to hinder it,” Mr. Bernanke says.
I agree that Congress failed to use its fiscal tools to aid the economic recovery -- and it undermined America's international financial leadership by failing to enact IMF reforms, thus isolating the United States and letting China take the lead.

Monday, October 5, 2015

no fly no fly

Soviet intervention in Syria, including combat air operations, makes it unlikely that the United States and its allies could establish no fly zones over regions of the embattled country. As the Financial Times notes:
“The Russian forces now in place make it very, very obvious that any kind of no-fly zone on the Libyan model imposed by the US and allies is now impossible, unless the coalition is actually willing to shoot down Russian aircraft,” says Justin Bronk, research analyst at RUSI, the military think-tank.   

“The Russian’s are not playing ball at deconfliction — they are just saying, ‘keep out of our way’. The coalition’s operations in Syria will be vastly more complex from a risk assessment point of view and from a mission planning point of view.”   

Even surveillance missions above Syria by US and coalition aircraft will be complicated. One Nato air force officer said the organisation expected to start seeing the kind of “cold war tactics” and brinkmanship Russia has recently been using in the Baltics. Pilots will be briefed to expect powerful Russian radar systems “lighting up” their aircraft in shows of strength, he said.
Maybe it should have been done sooner, but now is clearly too late. Professor Dan Drezner, in a column headed "The 10 things that worry me about Russian air strikes in Syria,"  lists "A military clash between Russian and American air forces over Syrian airspace" for all but two of the ten worries. He's right. That's how wars spiral out of control -- and we don't ever want that between nuclear powers.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

don't sweat defense bill vetoes

How could a President veto a defense bill? How could members vote against overriding such a veto? The White House is threatening a veto of the defense authorization bill and some members of Congress are forecasting dire results.

Relax. It has happened before and with little consequence. The armed services committees have an astounding record of getting a bill enacted every year for 53 years. Along the way, however, there have been four vetoes [1978, 1988, 1996, and 2007]. In each case, the committees fairly promptly -- usually about 6 weeks --  introduced measures without the offending sections and got them passed and signed by the president. Details in this CRS report :

That means an Obama veto might lead to a failed override attempt, but more likely the committees will just admit defeat and start over with a revised bill. The members have a stronger incentive to maintain their record of successful enactments than leaving their 1,951 page bill and report in the trash can.

training foreign forces

I'm increasingly concerned that America's plans for training foreign forces are flawed and inadequate for the countries and armies we want to help. A New York Times article today offers more details of widespread problems and with special attention to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

American-trained forces face different problems in each place, some of which are out of the United States’ control. But what many of them have in common, American military and counterterrorism officials say, is poor leadership, a lack of will and the need to function in the face of intractable political problems with little support. Without their American advisers, many local forces have repeatedly shown an inability to fight.
We can't solve those local political problems, but maybe they should caution our efforts and expectations.

I wonder if the locals' "will to fight" is related to trying to make them like U.S. forces in ways that are unsustainable -- air cover, medical evacuations, robust logistics, intelligence capabilities, redundant communications.

The Times story also has discouraging news about Iraq.
The reality is that Iraq’s Shiite majority seems to be settling in to a divided Iraq and increasingly questioning whether it is worth shedding Shiite blood in areas like Anbar Province or Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which the Islamic State captured in June 2014. The battle against the Islamic State is no longer the national priority it was a year ago, when the militants threatened Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south.
Maybe Iraq is settling into the tripartite division once advocated by people like Joe Biden.

Friday, October 2, 2015

re-framing Russia in Syria

Foreign policy analysts. and especially political leaders, have a tendency to see other nations as always reacting to their own statements and actions. In fact, as my historical research has shown, other nations usually make foreign policy decisions for internal political reasons that may or may not take other countries into account.

So before we jump onto the bandwagon saying Putin intervened in Syria's civil war to upstage the United States and defeat America's policy there, let's consider the intervention from Putin's perspective. I'm sure he acted for multiple reasons, but it could be less in accordance with a grand strategy and more out of desperation.

Syria is Russia's only foreign military base, its only remaining foothold in the Middle East. Assad is in serious trouble, controlling only about 20% of his territory and under increasing military pressure. That's a powerful incentive to intervene. It also gives Russia a seat at any negotiations -- and shifts attention from Ukraine, where the conflict has stabilized and Russia even seems to be scaling back its support to the separatists.

Several commentators in recent days have begun to discuss the problems for Russia of military action in Syria. A New York Times story  today notes the long odds of Russian success there.
Yet to restore Mr. Assad to full control of Syria or, for that matter, to stitch Syria back together without putting troops on the ground, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will have to accomplish what no other outside power has dared attempt.
In a piece for Foreign Affairs, David Gordon  sees Putin as trying to make the best of a bad situation:
For Putin, Russia’s current situation is defined by both economic weakness and geopolitical opportunity, and he wants to use the latter to mitigate the former. Economic weakness is driven by the sharp fall in energy prices and reinforced by the sanctions imposed by both the United States and Europe in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The geopolitical opportunity lies in the failure of U.S. policy to stop ISIS’ momentum or to resolve the battle in Syria and the consequent refugee crisis in Europe. Putin is opportunistically seeking to advance Russian influence in the Middle East while at the same time portraying the Kremlin to the world, and especially to Europe, as a key part of the solution to the problems.
Prof. Dan Drezner takes a similarly less alarmist view.
Given Putin’s track record in eastern Ukraine, I’m supremely skeptical of Russia’s ability to impose order in Syria, no matter how much help Iran provides.
No, the primary foreign policy objection with Putin’s actions in Syria is about optics, because it makes Russia look proactive and the United States look reactive.  That’s not a good look for the United States, and it drives foreign policy watchers crazy.
The optics on Syria look disastrous. But frustration at the status quo is not a good enough reason to pursue a riskier, more interventionist policy. There has to be persuasive evidence that this administration could successfully execute such a policy. And I see zero evidence for that.
It's helpful to re-frame what's going on in Syria before we jump to conclusions.