Monday, August 31, 2015

military advice on Iraq

Bing West, a former Pentagon official who has done impressive ground-truth reporting on military action, urges in the Washington Post that the United States not send forward air controllers to work with Iraqi troops. He defends military leaders who recommend against deeper military involvement.

There's a political twist to his argument -- the President Obama is reluctant to support large scale military actions, and attendant casualties and consequences, so we shouldn't start up that escalator. I would counter that the President is wisely seeing the limits to U.S. military capabilities and the public opposition to another major war in the region. But I share West's view that Republican candidates should not pretend that halfway measures can achieve success.

As he says, "Republicans should not be advocating incremental escalation reminiscent of Vietnam."

Sunday, August 30, 2015

when the GOP first nominated an outsider

The New York Times has a useful story by presidential historian Michael Beschloss reminding us of the first  time the Republican party nominated a business executive as its presidential candidate. In 1940, the GOP chose Wendell Willkie, head of an electrical utilities holding company, over established politicians like Robert Taft and Thomas Dewey. It was even more surprising that Willkie had been a registered Democrat until 1939. But he had the internationalist, northeast wing of the party behind him, denying the isolationists a choice in the election.

I think it was good for America that Willkie did not oppose FDR's destroyer-for-bases deal with Britain or the first peacetime draft.  As Beschloss notes, Willkie did stress isolationist themes late in the campaign, but FDR trumped them with his own disingenuous promise not to "send our boys into any foreign war." FDR won handily but then welcomed Willkie as a statesman.

Beschloss mentions that Willkie had a mistress but fails to note that, for part of the campaign, she campaigned at his side. But the press made nothing of the fact, just as it failed to report FDR's disability. That was then, of course. Impossible to imagine now.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

political "science"

I am a licensed/credentialed/practicing political scientist, a longstanding member of the American Political Science Association. My publications fall under the "qualitative" rather than "quantitative"  label because I have not found much use for statistical analysis in what interests me, though I recognize its value for some other inquiries. The basic problem -- besides my own lack of sophisticated quantitative methods -- is that the N is so small for the number of presidents and for the number of major foreign policy crises or decisions. My approach has been case studies, a lot of them, looking for patterns rather than "laws."

This is background for understanding my recent disappointment in a well-hyped book, Who Governs? Presidents, Public Opinion, and Manipulation by James Druckman and Lawrence Jacobs. The ever-valuable Monkey Cage blog, now on the Washington Post, called it to my attention with effusive praise.  I even bought it sight unseen -- not my usual practice.

Then I read it and was greatly disappointed. The authors develop an elegant methodology of coding presidential statements and then relating them to time-lagged opinion polls to show how presidents use and try to manipulate public opinion. They also brag, repeatedly, about using "archival records" from recent presidencies. They claim that their statistics show interesting effects -- but nowhere do they have even a single instance linking opinion to a particular presidential action and then to a subsequent poll.

Fortunately, they mention earlier works that do answer my questions and give concrete examples. Let me list these more informative works: The Provisional Pulpit by Brandon Rottinghaus, which has several case studies of both foreign and domestic policy issues and then lists the various circumstances that most often lead to successful presidential influence; The Evolution of Presidential Polling by Robert M. Eisinger; and  Polling to Govern by Diane Heith, who documents the numbers of White House officials involved in polling but acknowledges the key causation problem: "However, no pollster, staffer, or president ever publicly acknowledges any influence for public opinion on presidential decision making."

In any event, I think there is more evidence for likely influence in particular cases than the elaborate quantitative  analyses provide.  Maybe I'm a latent historian.

Friday, August 28, 2015

grudging support for the Iran nuclear deal

I'm encouraged by the report that former Defense Secretary Bob Gates has publicly supported approval of the Iran nuclear deal. He says that the agreement is flawed but that the consequences of rejection are worse.
“We must now face the reality that there are serious consequences to voting down the agreement or pulling out of it,” he said. “I think we swallow hard, acknowledge our negotiators got out-negotiated, and that we have a flawed deal, and make the best of it.”
And for those who think America could obtain tougher conditions if the agreement is killed by Congress, UN Ambassador Samantha Power has a strong response.
First, if the United States rejects this deal, we would instantly isolate ourselves from the countries that spent nearly two years working with American negotiators to hammer out its toughest provisions.
Second, well beyond the consequences vis-a-vis Iran itself, rejecting this deal would likely undermine our ability to use sanctions in other circumstances.
Finally, walking away from this deal may well make it harder for us to rally multilateral coalitions necessary to confront other grave threats—whether those threats come from a regime armed with a nuclear weapon, a deadly virus, or a group of foreign terrorist fighters.
Fred Kaplan has another fine piece defending the comprehensiveness of the Iran deal, especially compared with what the world accepted as sufficient in the bad old days of the Cold War.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

what Trumpeteers believe

America has a long history of angry nativist political movements. Each succeeding immigrant group had to fight restrictions and prejudice from groups already here. It's shocking to read of the anti-Catholic actions of settled Protestants in the mid-19th century, and of the racist laws against the Chinese and Japanese at the end of that century. I've written before of the power of the revived Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and further restrictions on immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, especially Jews. Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote the classic analysis of the "paranoid style in American politics" in 1964.

So it should not be surprising that Donald Trump has rallied sizable support for his angry views about immigrants, women, and many others. Perhaps the most revealing story on who these aroused potential voters are is in this piece about a Frank Luntz focus group in the Weekly Standard. As other writers have noted, Trump supporters like his attitude, his style, more than they care about particular policies. That makes him dangerous to the U.S. political system.

anatomy of defeat

The Washington Post has a sad but revealing story of how Iraqi forces lost the key city of Mosul more than a year ago. Reporter Loveday Morris obtained a copy of an Iraqi parliamentary report still kept secret.

The lede: "The top Iraqi army officer for Mosul remained on vacation last summer despite repeated warnings that Islamic State militants were planning to seize the city, and his units had less than a third of the soldiers they were supposed to have on the day of the battle."

The story confirms what I had heard from Americans with extensive contact with Iraqis after the U.S. troop withdrawal.  The best American-trained officers were replaced by men loyal to Prime Minister Maliki, training atrophied, and corruption grew.

While in theory a U.S. troop presence might have made these developments known and reversible, the fact is that the Iraqi leadership wanted the Americans out, so the Iraqis insisted on compliance with the Bush-signed withdrawal agreement.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Chinese adventurism?

China has a lot of serious problems right now: a slowing economy; a plunging stock market; an anti-corruption drive that seems to be causing some blowback in elite circles while weakening public confidence in the communist party. What can President Xi do?

In keeping with the title of this blog, I note that the head of the Council on Foreign Relations is warning that he might turn to foreign policy to distract his anxious citizenry.
"A slow-growth China would undermine the global economic recovery. It would be a less-willing partner in tackling global challenges such as climate change. Most dangerous of all, a struggling China could be tempted to turn to foreign adventurism to placate a public frustrated by slower economic growth and an absence of political freedom. Indeed, there are some signs that the authorities are doing just this in the South China Sea. Nationalism could become the primary source of legitimacy for a ruling party that can no longer point to a rapidly rising standard of living," writes CFR President Richard N. Haass in Project Syndicate.
Not a happy thought.

Iran timetable

Congress returns from its August recess on September 8 and faces a busy 9-day period in which to act on the Iran nuclear deal. Under PL114-17 Congress has until Sept. 17 to act on the Iran nuclear deal.

It can consider a joint resolution of approval, which may be offered by Republican leadership to show the limited support for the agreement. Such a measure could be filibustered in the Senate unless 60 votes are obtained to cut off debate and force a vote. I'd expect the House to schedule a vote to embarrass the administration. In the Senate, it's unlikely unless the GOP is confident of having more than 60 votes.  [It's awkward to explain a vote to end debate on approving the deal.]

Congress is very likely to consider a joint resolution of disapproval, which could also be filibustered in the Senate unless 60 votes are obtained for cloture. If the joint resolution is passed, it is subject to a presidential veto, which can be overridden only by 2/3 vote in each chamber. In the Senate, the veto override question can also be filibustered.

If no measure is passed by both houses, presidential action lifting sanctions may occur starting Sept. 18. 

If a resolution of disapproval passes but is vetoed, the law forbids any sanctions relief for another 12 days, to allow for a veto message, and then another 10 days for action on a veto override.

Any time thereafter, Congress may take up new legislation re-imposing sanctions under rules limiting debate to 10 hours in the Senate and two hours in the House. The law provides special treatment only for “qualifying legislation,” defined as a bill “reinstating statutory sanctions imposed with respect to Iran.”

It's interesting that the Republican leadership agreed to the law last May, knowing that it made things easier for the administration and harder for opponents of the expected agreement. Maybe they wanted the political issue more than the policy outcome.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

limiting cyber war

Two longtime defense analysts have come up with a persuasive doctrine for the United States to adopt regarding cyber war. David Gompert and Martin Libicki argue in Survival that America should "attain and maintain offensive superiority" for cyber operations during armed conflict, but should not seek to use cyber operations for coercion.
In general, pin prick cyber war offers doubtful benefits in return for avoiding the violation of norms the United States favours. In the case of a capable adversary, moreover, low-grade cyber attacks risk not only retaliation but escalation, presumably outweighing the benefits. As a general proposition, if the United States were to wage offensive cyber war, it should do so robustly, and for major purposes and effects. Against an adversary capable of both retaliation and tightened defence, such cyber war would be most imprudent.
They convincingly refute the notion that offensive cyber operations are a valuable alternative to the use of explosive force. I agree that cyber operations can be an important part of major armed conflict, but should ot be seized upon in some naive effort to stop short of war.

Gompert and Libicki also argue that the apparent Chinese hacking of U.S. personnel records does not reach the level of cyber war.
To illustrate, the alleged Chinese hacking of US government personnel records, evidently in search of files on people who have held sensitive national-security jobs, was massive, sophisticated and possibly consequential; but it could not be, and was not, considered an act of war. This does not preclude some sort of US reprisal, perhaps a comparably bold robbery. (Presumably, the United States would not want China to know of such retaliation, lest it be foiled.) What is precluded in this case, by our way of thinking, is a US response so destructive or disruptive that it would cross the threshold from cyber espionage to cyber war – thus war. Admittedly, the line between intensely harmful theft and cyber war is woolier in reality than in theory. But the points stand that not all hacking is cyber war; that when it comes to espionage, states will be states; and that retaliation should be broadly in kind.
They don't say, but I believe, that the United States military establishment is spending disproportionately on cyber offense to the neglect of  desperately needed cyber defenses.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

war with China

No question marks or exclamation points here. Just a sober assessment of how such a conflict might proceed.  I have long been worried that American military planners don't seem aware that China is a nuclear power, and nuclear powers have to be very, very, very careful about avoiding stepping on the ladder that leads to nuclear war.

A young scholar, John Speed Meyers, has an excellent piece reminding us of those dangers and drawing on some earlier history in U.S.-Chinese relations. He cites President Eisenhower's reluctance to use nuclear weapons in the 1954-55 Taiwan straits crisis, despite his general belief in the utility of such weapons.

Sixty years later, however, China has the bomb, and intervening history has confirmed that American presidents are extremely wary of crossing the nuclear threshold. Accordingly, our war planners need to assume the no first American use of nuclear weapons as a hard and fast condition.

Meyers suggests some alternatives, though I worry that any military engagement has enormous risks.

public opinion and the Iran nuclear deal

Who knows? An article in Politico says  it depends on how the question is worded. That's probably true. Most people don't follow the details of foreign policy, so they react viscerally to questions. I suspect that most Americans would like to believe that an agreement limiting Iran's nuclear potential is good, but they have several decades of distrust of Iran as a counterweight.

The same was true of nuclear arms talks with the Soviet Union, but they worked out pretty well, as I note here. 

In fact, public opinion will be an argument in the forthcoming congressional debate, but not really a reason deciding votes. Opponents have the luxury of saying whatever they want because they do not expect to prevail and thus be held accountable for the dangerous consequences of rejection of the deal.

Supporters are hesitating because they want to hedge against damaging revelations or surprises in the likely final vote. I'm sure many Democrats would like to be able to vote no to reassure pro-Israeli constituents if their vote didn't make a difference in the outcome. We'll see.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Confessions of General Dempsey

It’s an interesting cultural difference that the British armed forces do after-action studies, just as the U.S. military does, but use a different terminology. We call our studies “Lessons Learned;” they call theirs “Lessons Identified.”

General Martin Dempsey, retiring chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, gave a revealing interview just published in the Joint Force Quarterly. In it, he makes profound, and in some ways surprising, comments about civil-military relations and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His comments strike me as genuinely learned lessons that he has been applying in recent years.

He calls “valid criticism” the argument that in both nations the United States tried too hard to make their militaries like our own.

Can we actually build and develop indigenous forces to take control of their own country? Here is where I find myself today on this question. If we take ownership in every sense of the word, which we did in the early days both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then try to begin to build an indigenous force in an institutional design to control it—that is to say not only tactical-level fighters but also the logistics architecture, intelligence architecture, school systems, and the ministries—that’s far more difficult than making the indigenous force own it from the beginning with our enabling it.
So you might ask, what would you do differently. First of all, I would have absolutely not disbanded the Iraqi army, and I would have absolutely not de-Ba’athified. We lost all of the bureaucrats who knew how to run the country. And I would have, in a transactional and conditional way, made it clear how we would help the Iraqis regain control of their own country, put it back on its feet. But there would have been no doubt from the start that it would be their responsibility and not ours.

He applies that lesson to the fight in Iraq today against ISIL:

So let’s fast-forward to Iraq today. Some people are saying, “Why aren’t you doing more, and sooner?” Our support needs to remain as support and not ownership. Furthermore, support needs to be conditional. If the Iraqi government does not meet its commitments to create a more inclusive political environment and to address some of the grievances of the Sunni and Kurd populations, then nothing we do will last. It will be painting over rust. We have eight lines of effort, two of which are military, and generally the military lines of effort leap out in front—and I do mean leap. That is who we are, right? If it is worth doing, it is worth overdoing. The military lines of effort will always be achieved. And that can be detrimental to the other lines of effort. I don’t know if that answers your question, but it is why I believe now that the use of the military instrument of power in issues of nonstate actors and failed states needs to be far more conditional and transactional than anything we do with state actors.

He believes that friction among policymakers is inevitable and acceptable.

I think the system is actually designed to create that friction in decisionmaking. …First, I would advise future leaders that friction and disagreement in decisionmaking is not a negative. Frankly, you should embrace friction. What I found was, and I can’t put a percentage on it, but in general the person at the table with the most persuasive argument tends to prevail in those environments. …
In the military culture, as you know, we spend decades learning how to do campaign planning, and we start with a well-stated and clear objective. Then we build a campaign to achieve that objective, with intermediate objectives and milestones along the way. Then we come up with three courses of action: high risk, medium risk, and low risk. We pick the middle-risk option and execute. If you are an elected official, the likelihood of your conceiving a well-crafted and well-defined objective at the beginning is almost zero. Rather, as an elected official, your first instinct is to seek to understand what options you have.
So militarily I know I’ve got it, I have a nuclear option, but let’s just park that for a moment. What other options do I have in this magnificent toolbox called the U.S. military? What tools do I have that I can apply pressure with, that I can manage escalation with, and that I can integrate with the other instruments of national power? Elected officials are hardwired to ask for options first and then reverse-engineer objectives. And the military is hard-wired to do exactly the opposite.
Now what do we do about that situation? Nothing frankly. But that is the environment that we live and work in. I learned that pretty early on.
…my advice to my successors is get to know how our government functions. Don’t come to Washington thinking you’re going to get Washington to conform to your beliefs because that is generally never going to happen. You have to have a moral compass, but you have to understand the way people in this city make decisions. Also, you must understand that most big decisions are made in conjunction with budget cycles, not in conjunction with current events. If you want to change something in our system of government, you change it in the budget. Can you do things in between budgets cycles? Of course you can; we built in a certain amount of flux, but big changes are made in budget cycles, and that includes big changes in campaigns.

Wise comments and lessons learned, in my opinion.

cyber retaliation

There's a fight brewing in the Obama Administration over what retaliatory actions to take in response to the hacking that stole personal information about current and former U.S. government employees from the Office of Personnel Management. According to David Sanger  of the New York Times, the administration is determined to do something, but hasn't decided what.

It's stupid to send a message like that, warning the Chinese and making America look weak unless it achieves a major and braggable outcome.

Our highest priority should be to improve our computer defenses, not play offensive games we might lose. And the blame goes far beyond OPM. As Ben Wittes pointed out, the FBI, National Security Agency, and Department of Homeland Security all have legal authority and responsibility to protect government computers -- so they failed as well as OPM.

I have long been worried about the macho mentality that favors cyber offense over defense. We spend several times as much on developing offensive capabilities as defensive ones. That leads us down the slippery slope toward unrestrained cyber warfare when we should be working to find international norms.

If in fact Chinese officials pulled off the OPM hack, they get gold stars for espionage, and it's far from clear that any retaliation would really deter future efforts.

Colorado Day

August 1st marks the admission of Colorado to the Union in 1876 as the Centennial State. It's a state holiday there, and an occasion for me to praise my native state.

My ancestors moved to Denver in the 1890s, seeking the dry, sunny climate and the economic opportunities of a growing region. I'm happy that a 4th and 5th generation, my daughter and twin grandsons, now live there now.

Colorado has a beautiful setting, with towering mountains, crystal clear streams, cool nights even after warm days, and mostly clean air. I learned recently, however, that the claim of "300 days of sunshine" a year is a longstanding exaggeration. [There are only about 250 days with more than an hour of sunshine, and only 115 that are fully sunny.] Its residents are among the healthiest in the country, and they keep that way with skiing, hiking, and numerous bike trails.

I am proud of the fact that Colorado was the third state to give women the right to vote -- in 1892. But as proof that good things can happen for not so good reasons, I learned only a few years ago that female suffrage was enacted to reduce the voting power of unmarried miners.

I was not proud of the fact that Colorado elected a governor who welcomed support of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, but have since learned that the Klan was part of a coalition of reform groups that considered the incumbents corrupt.

In recent decades, Colorado has had clean and competitive politics. I hope it stays that way.