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.