Wednesday, December 28, 2016

who's in charge?

Franklin Roosevelt famously ran his administration with a half dozen aides to whom he gave assignments, often with overlapping authorities. The system worked for him because he knew his people, knew politics, knew Congress, knew the levers of power in the government -- and was lucky.

Donald Trump, however, lacks such knowledge and such experience in government. Yet he is creating a Wite House staff and cabinet filled with confusion and disarray. David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy raises the legitimate question of who will really be the president? He suggests it might be the chief of staff, or perhaps the co-equal counselor, while President Trump tweets and speaks, and worries about his "brand."

Rothkopf notes the built-in rivalries in the new administration:
So, we now have four major interagency councils in the White House — the NSC, the NEC, the NTC, and the HSC. We have at least five entities that now feel empowered to take the lead on U.S. international trade policy: the NEC, the NTC, the new special representative for international negotiations, USTR, and the Commerce Department (whose incoming nominee for secretary, Wilbur Ross, has asserted that he will have a leading role in this regard). You have the overlap between the NSC (which, for example, might handle a terrorist threat where it originated) and the HSC (which might handle a threat where it manifested itself). You have the historic rivalry between the State and Defense departments over national security policy leadership, exacerbated by the move to add even more clout within the White House through the creation of the international negotiator job and the return to two security-focused interagency leadership groups residing there (the NSC and HSC).
It sure looks to me like a bunch of accidents and foul ups waiting to happen.

Monday, December 19, 2016

responsibility for Aleppo

Humanitarian impulses are strong in western democracies. We are appalled by images of ruined cities, endangered children, and senseless death. Today those images come from Syria. In prior years we anguished over the pictures from Afghanistan, Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia...

Military analyst [and former British Army officer] Emile Simpson has a provocative piece today, "Stop the Hand-wringing about Aleppo."  Three years ago, I read his excellent book about modern warfare,
War from the Ground Up. Today he acknowledges the tragedy of the Syrian conflict but puts the blame on those active in the conflict, not the countries like the United States and the Europeans who stayed largely out of it. He says there were no good choices short of massive military intervention, and he doubts that that would have worked.

I am far from being against intervention in general. I just think the future of Western military intervention lies in supporting the governments of fragile states, not toppling them. In this respect, the successful French intervention in Mali in 2013 is a good template: in support of a government, rather than a regime change; against a clear military target; and with good knowledge of local politics (i.e., an ability to distinguish Tuareg rebels from al Qaeda, as opposed to bluntly grouping all as “terrorists”).
But not every situation is like Mali. And not all problems have military solutions, unless you are prepared to go all in.

Although the West is not responsible for the atrocities in Aleppo, we are morally responsible for giving false hope to the rebels since 2011, when we offered them rhetorical and, later, material support but did not have the will to back them with our own troops.
Act decisively. Or stay out.
I think he has something there.

weighty books

In that blissful period between academic terms, I accumulate a pile of books to read -- nonfiction during the daylight hours, fiction after dark. I've noticed a worrisome trend among publishers in recent years: the books are too big, too long, too heavy. Even mysteries are now exceeding 500 pages and over 1 1/2 pounds.

You can't read a book that heavy in bed. One nod off, and your chest gets crushed.

I have some reference books at have more than 900 pages and weigh more than three pounds. But they are for quick perusal, not lengthy contemplation.  Most topics deserve no more than 500 pages, but several of the recent books on my list are 600, 700, 800 pages, Too heavy to hold comfortably -- and too much extraneous detail. [Of course I love the sexy factoid, but they are by nature brief.]

How can publishers make money with such tomes? Maybe it all goes to Kindle, where weight doesn't matter. Maybe they don't make money, but the bankruptcy courts are too crowded. Whatever the reasons, I wish they would Keep It Short!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

the two Trump presidencies

The outlines are becoming clearer on the two somewhat different administrations we are likely to see under President Donald Trump. Domestic affairs will be radical Republican conservative, guided by Vice President Pence and Chief of Staff Priebus. They will try to follow the standard GOP gameplan of big tax cuts, sharply reduced domestic spending, deregulation, and severe restrictions on abortion. No real surprises here.

On national security and foreign affairs, however, the outlook is quite uncertain, not least because so many of the senior officials announced so far have nontraditional backgrounds and because the new president has suggested impulsive and contradictory policies. They share no common orthodoxy, in contrast to previous Democratic and Republican administrations. While the most obvious disagreement is over Russia, it is also unclear whether the administration will prioritize antagonism toward Iran or its enemy ISIL. Larger defense budgets may face pushback from deficit hawks and maybe even the new president as he discovers the high cost of more Pentagon programs.  I fear that the new chief executive may lurch from problem to problem, depending not on opinion polls but on what dominates each morning's TV news. That's not strategy.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

the meaning of the election

I have long argued that the only real meaning of any U.S. election is that the winner got more people to vote than the loser. [Of course, this year's presidential election requires an asterisk: more people to vote in each of the states for their electoral college votes.] In most cases, the post-election punditry is meaningless. The few special cases are those wave elections like 1994, 2006, and 2010, which didn't include presidential contests and 1952 and 1980 which did.

It's especially misleading to draw Big Conclusions from the mixed results of 2016. The loser got significantly more votes than the winner. There were few changes in Congress, all in favor of the loser's party. Voting was lower than in recent presidential years. Kevin Drum cites more arguments along with refutations.   My point is that you can't really say that there was a surge of angry white voters, just that enough of them turned out in Rust Belt states to turn them red compared with recent years. Nor can you say that the Trump administration has any special mandate. If anything the election just showed that the public was unenthusiastic about both candidates and that the highly negative campaigns led many voters to stay home.

With the votes so close in the surprising swing states [Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania] any of several factors could logically, but not determinatively, have made the difference: Russian hacking, Comey letter, numbers of candidate visits, etc. Since we can't be sure of the causes, we should be very careful about asserting consequences and "lessons."

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

war powers update

Though no president has ever acknowledged the legal validity of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, all have complied with part of it by sending reports on U.S. military operations by combat-equipped forces. There have been so many ongoing efforts in recent years that President Obama has combined them in biennial letters to Congress.

The latest says that U.S. forces are deployed for operations in the following places: Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Somalia, Yemen, Djibouti, Libya, Cuba, Niger, Cameroon, Red Sea, South Sudan, Kosovo, and against the Lord's Resistance Army.  Sixteen!

Despite what candidate Trump said about America being overly involved abroad, I'd bet that the number of places will still be over a dozen a year from now, and the total of overseas forces is likely to be even larger than now. We'll see.

the first casualty at Pearl Harbor

A couple of years ago I was in a small branch library in northern California. It was located in the former home of a retired journalist and had on the walls some of the famous front pages he had saved over the years. "Kennedy Assassinated," "Men walk on Moon," "Nixon Resigns" -- in that big black 96 point type. The I saw "Japs Bomb Pearl Harbor," and I went to read what else happened in the world on that day of infamy.

There was the official statement by President Roosevelt's press secretary, Steve Early, that "one old battleship" had capsized and "several other ships had been seriously damaged."  He also reported the destruction of "several hangars and a large number of planes."  He put the casualty toll at about 3,000 of which half were fatalities.

I knew that wasn't right. In fact, the losses were substantial. Seven of the eight battleships were put out of commission, though four were eventually returned to service. Three cruisers and three destroyers were sunk or damaged. Most army and navy aircraft were destroyed. Fortunately, of course, the American aircraft carriers were at sea at the time of the attack. U.S. casualties amount to about 2400 died and 1200 wounded.

I understand the need for military censorship in wartime and the risks to American morale at home from admitting the extent of losses. But that censorship even blocked out news dispatches from Tokyo that were fairly accurate. More truthful details were not released until 1943.

What's interesting now is that Americans, though shocked and angry about Pearl Harbor, still believed that Germany was the greatest threat to the United States. Opinion polls at the time continued to show Germany as the greater threat for a year, until November 1942, when the reports of the battles in the Pacific led to a shift in U.S. attitudes. That fear of Hitler made it much easier for Roosevelt to follow the Europe First strategy he had longed favored.

Monday, December 5, 2016

parsing the Taiwan phone call

The Trump transition people have dismissed the foreign policy blowback against the president-elect's phone conversation with Taiwan's president as a routine congratulatory call. The Washington Post, however, says today that it was "an intentionally provocative move"  following "months of quiet preparations and deliberations." The sources were unnamed, identified only as "people involved in the planning."

It's fun to try some careful analysis of this and related stories.  There are 3 possible theories for the call.

1. Trump is ignorant. He failed to know that such a call would have major foreign policy significance and consequences. He hasn't been using established State Department lines and protocols for such calls.

2. Trump is devious. He knew the call would anger China, which he intends to do over trade anyway, so this was just part of his negotiating strategy.

3. Trump has been captured by the China hawks. Key people around Trump and the transition, including Reince Priebus, have long been pro-Taiwan outliers, disagreeing with the mainstream Republican view that the United States has to engage with China, not treat it as an inevitable enemy who must be contained now.

While my first reaction, and that of others, was the ignorance theory, I now believe that the capture theory is more likely. With so few mainstream conservative foreign policy experts involved in the campaign and transition, the China hawks united in proposing a provocative action that Trump accepted because it fit his tweetstorm approach. He certainly thought he could get away with it without major consequences.

I reach this conclusion because the story does name people who seem to be bragging that they worked out this clever ploy. Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation was reportedly in Taiwan right after the election. Others were told "there was a briefing" for Trump before the call, which the Taiwanese say was agreed in advance by "both sides."

A key question for analysis is cui bono? Who benefits from this? The Trump people clearly want to shoot down the ignorance theory without acknowledging the other possibilities. But the staffers directly involved want to brag to somebody, so they tell their China hawk friends what they did. And Trump was complicit because it looked clever.

Let's see who wins the next round.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

bull in the China shop

In the early 1980s, while working for a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee [Joe Biden], we received letters on impressive stationery from officials of the governments of KwaZulu, Transkei and Ciskei. I don't remember what they said, and in those days before the Internet there were no easy ways to verify the identities of the writers. In checking around, however, I discovered that these were from the leaders of the Bantustans,  the black tribal areas created as part of South African apartheid. No other country recognized them as independent states,and we chose not to seem to acknowledge their status by replying.

Unrecognized entities troll for international recognition by such tactics. No doubt the Russian-seized Crimea would love to get a letter or call from a U.S. Senator or even the president-elect.

The United States has a similar situation with Taiwan: we deal with them through a quasi-embassy but go to great lengths not to recognize them diplomatically. Donald Trump just violated a nearly four decade practice, one even accepted by Ronald Reagan, either out of ignorance or provocative design against China.  Trump's gushing conversation with the Pakistani prime minister was another example of ignoring protocol and risking major problems with India. Embarrassing! To America!

Friday, December 2, 2016

George Marshall and the Republican presidential candidate

The only Secretary of Defense to require a legal waiver to serve because he had recently been a senior military officer [in fact, a five-star General of the Army] was George C. Marshall. At the time of his nomination, in the early weeks of the Korean War, Congress insisted that the waiver was a one-time action, not a precedent for the future. [We'll see what happens with General Mattis.]

I've dug back into the files about Marshall and came across this story that shows how he handled a very difficult political problem. In September, 1944 Marshall learned that the Republican presidential candidate, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, was planning to charge President Franklin Roosevelt with failing to prevent the Pearl Harbor attack despite warnings provided by breaking Japanese codes. Without clearing his action with Roosevelt, Marshall three times sent a trusted aide to tell Dewey that disclosure of the code-breaking would greatly harm the war effort because the Japanese were still using the same codes, and the allies were relying on them for valuable information on both the war in the Pacific and the war in Europe. He explained the problem in a carefully written letter, pleading with Dewey not to use the information publicly.

Dewey said he already knew what was in the letter and thought that FDR was behind Marshall's letter. But he wisely decided not to make the argument in his campaign, and the story came out only when documents were declassified in 1981.

The incident reconfirmed my view that Marshall -- who refused to vote because he wanted to be able to serve loyally whoever was elected -- was a very politically astute general.

you can't tell the players without a program

In the bad old days of the Lebanese civil war in the early 1980s I remember reading a report that there were 44 armed militias in that small country. Today I came across a report detailing the numerous opposition factions in Syria that doesn't even offer a bottom line number. No wonder the United Sates and its friends can't put together a united force against either Assad or ISIL, much less both.

I certainly have no wisdom to offer on dealing with this tangled mess.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

the myth of precision bombing

I have long been troubled by the expectation, especially among civilian officials, that "precision bombing" can achieve decisive military and political effects without the political and human costs of ground warfare. In the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy naively hoped to eliminate the Soviet missile threat in Cuba with a low number of airstrikes. He dropped that option when told that an operation would require dozens ifnot hundreds of airstrikes, to destroy enemy defenses as well as the key targets.

Over recent decades, senior officials kept looking for low cost airstrikes as the silver bullet in crises, but it wasn't to be. Two Air Force pilots now offer a different critique of the myth of precision bombing. In the ever-valuable War on the Rocks site, they detail the history of precision weapons improvements then note that senior officials insist on perfection, with no civilian casualties or unintended damage. They also claim that target review processes undermine military effectiveness.

These are important additional considerations in assessing the limits and benefits of precision strikes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus"

That delightful editorial from the New York Sun in 1895 made a warm and fuzzy case for belief in Santa Claus. In my own childhood home, since I was four years older than my sister, I encouraged her belief as long as possible so we could get more presents at Christmas.  Now we have a poll showing that Americans see a decline in belief in Santa Claus but still value it as a tradition and contribution to imagination.

By the way, I have been persuaded by recent research that Clement Moore did not write the famous "Visit from St. Nicholas" poem, as discussed here.  But, of course, I could be wrong.

the end of secrecy and certainty

In the fall of 1992 I observed my first demonstration of a computer search, before the invention of early search engines like Mosaic and AltaVista, when a geeky Air Force general showed us how to find weather sites and foreign library catalogs. I remarked to a colleague, "This is the end of secrecy and certainty."  I meant that protecting secrets would be next to impossible and that verification of information time-consuming and difficult. I think the subsequent history of the Internet and World Wide Web has proven me right.

The recent tsunami of "fake news" and commentary about it brought back my memory of 1992. I used to think that fake news was satirical, like Onion headlines. Now I see that it is often deliberate misinformation. I've missed out on a  lot of it because I get most of my news from print publications, which still have professional standards and value accuracy. What I'm missing, however, is what millions and millions see and believe.

I have no solutions to offer beyond reader skepticism and demands for proof.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Trump's secret plan to ... do what?

Donald Trump made clear during this presidential campaign that he doesn't like to telegraph his foreign policies. He even disparages military leaders who indicate hard-to-deny plans to capture enemy territory.

Right now, much of the American national security establishment is in a holding pattern, waiting to see even in what direction the new president will go. Will Trump escalate military operations in Afghanistan or withdraw from that troubled country? Which of the numerous groups fighting in Iraq and Syria will be support or oppose? Will Turkey be a new ally -- or adversary? And what about the Kurds? Will he partner with Russia -- and Iran and Assad?

At least when Richard Nixon, in his 1968 campaign, said he had a "secret plan" to win the war, everybody knew he would stay and fight in Vietnam. With Trump, we have no idea. And plans built on surprise usually lack careful thinking and planning.

Russian covert actions

As we learned only years later,  the CIA was very active in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s around the globe. It overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala and tried to do it in Cuba and elsewhere. It secretly aided non-communist political parties in Italy and France and numerous intellectual organizations and publications.

At the same time, of course, the Soviet Union was engaged in its own dirty tricks and interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

That was then. Nowadays U.S. help to struggling democratic governments is more transparent. But Russia seems determined to play the old cold war games with increasing vigor. I'm not going to look up all the links, but the international press has been full of stories reporting Russian support to numerous right-wing political parties in Europe as part of its efforts to weaken NATO and divide the EU so it will not continue sanctions against Russia over Crimea. Russia even tried, but failed, to organize a coup in Montenegro. Pro-Russian officials are gaining power in Hungary, Austria and the Baltics. And who knows where Russia-sponsored hacking is disrupting elections besides the United States or spreading fake news with insidious impacts?

I hope we're fighting back secretly. In any event, we should be more open about recognizing this renewed threat.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

anticipating a Trump administration

Some lessons learned from the past are signposts pointing to how the Trump administration will function. It's time, for example, to re-read Max Weber's analyses of government and politics. The German sociologist identified, for example, the "charismatic" style of leadership which the new president seems likely to use. [The link is to wikipedia, but even better is the real thing, as in Weber's essay on "Politics as a Vocation."] Weber saw special dangers in politicians driven by vanity.

A much different look back to the future can be found in a 1987 book assessing how well the Reagan administration did in capturing and revolutionizing the federal government. Robert Rector and Michael Sanera edited Steering the Elephant: How Washington Works [Universe Books]. While the various authors tell some stories of conservative victories over liberal-oriented bureaucracies, many also report failures and suggest ways to avoid them in future conservative revolutions.

One of the better chapters is available on line: Fred Smith's "Learning the Washington Game: Political Strategy and Tactics."   Smith describes the conservative's "tendency to pre-compromise;" a tendency to "dawdle" or do "excessive pre-planning." He warns especially against agency capture of the political appointees, who "go native." He suggests an approach of educational outreach and coalition development to minimize those flaws.  While aimed at conservatives, I think his points are relevant to any political appointee.

If the Trump people do look at the Reagan administration experience, I hope they also include Robert Retor's chapter explaining how different the public sector is from the private. He notes, for example, that while the marketplace is the ultimate manager in the private sector, "the political appointee, Congress, the bureaucracy and interest groups compete over the role of ultimate manager" in the public sector. He says "The information system used in private sector management, based on profit-and-loss statements, does not exist in government." And he admits that governments have many competing goals, not the simple profit-maximization of businesses.

Another lesson from the Reagan book is that "personnel are policy." That means that new people are likely to continue in the same trajectories as they have until now. What we see is what we'll get.

when to go to war

Eliot Cohen does a valuable public service in the Wall Street Journal by debunking the so-called Weinberger Doctrine's "tests" for deciding on going to war.
Weinberger’s vision of warfare has never held up well to scrutiny, and it would be a mistake for President Trump, or any other commander in chief, to follow it.
I'm glad someone of Cohen's conservative thinking and strategic expertise says this, because for many years Weinberger's views, slightly adapted by Colin Powell, have been widely accepted in U.S. military circles.

It's useful to remember that President Reagan never endorsed Weinberger's approach. His Secretary of State, George Shultz, called it "a codification of the Vietnam syndrome" that would not allow America to fight terrorists.

Cohen lists a much better alternative set of considerations. I hope Trump heeds them.

Friday, November 11, 2016

the end of American global leadership

It's ironic that Republicans, whose most common criticism of President Obama's foreign policy was his lack of "leadership," is now stuck with a president who doesn't know or care how to maintain the "leadership of the Free World." Donald Trump may not be a full-fledged isolationist, but he is undeniably a unilateralist. He's happy to let other nations and their leaders praise him and offer their cooperation, but all his instincts and pronouncements suggest that he will go it alone.

America won its global leadership role after 1945 with a diversity of wise actions: massive foreign aid; the United Nations and international financial institutions that were fair to others but gave America special powers; alliances in Europe and Asia that contained communism and limited most of the conflicts that did break out; and a special caution about nuclear weapons that led to arms control and reduction agreements as well as an international effort to limit nuclear proliferation.

All of those American-led building blocks of global order are now in jeopardy. Candidate rump was openly skeptical of the alliances and many of the international organizations and even indifferent to nuclear proliferation. He doesn't want to try to buy influence or support with aid programs; on the contrary, he expects one-time allies to pay more to maintain U.S. support.

Leadership requires followers; followers must be willing to accept the plans of the leaders. A unilateralist America that fails to listen to its potential followers will forfeit that role. And the world will be a mre dangerous place.

Maybe Trump won't be as bad as many now fear. But his comments and behaviors have raised profound uncertainties over the direction of American foreign policy. Europe is facing its own extremist, populist right wing surge. Putin is winning. The pivot to Asia is over. TPP is dead and the regional powers are looking to cut their own deals with Beijing. The new global leader on climate change policies is China! Now if ever is the time for U.S. leadership.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

it can happen here

It just did. American voters gave the enormous powers of the presidency to a dangerously inexperienced and unfit man. He will likely be supported, rather than restrained, by a Republican-controlled Congress. Some commentators see this as "an Andrew Jackson moment," a watershed event when nativist populism triumphed over a self-satisfied elite. Does that mean we are now on a path toward economic collapse, as happened as a result of Jackson's crazy economic policies, and the forced removal of unwanted people along a trail of tears? At least Jackson had successfully commanded men in battle and had served in both the House and Senate. He was no neophyte to governance.

The winning candidate actually sounded presidential in his victory speech. He spoke of bringing people together; he asked his opponents for guidance and help to bring national unity. The American people have a long record of accepting the outcomes of divisive campaigns, provided that the winners lived up to their healing promises.

I fear that, in foreign policy terms, America will never be as great again. Many of our closest partners are themselves threatened with extremism; our alliances are unraveling even without a skeptical president. The winner promises a trade war, which he can conduct without any actions by Congress, and is likely to spur the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I have never felt more worried about the future of my country.

Friday, October 21, 2016

we have seen the future

Many members of the U.S. national security community -- officials and former officials, academics, think tank experts -- rallied in opposition to Donald Trump as a possible president. They viewed him as dangerously unqualified. His campaign, of course, has confirmed many of their fears.

They worried about a president who didn't know or understand much about foreign policy, who disrespected the "generals" and others with expertise, who acted without thinking, who encouraged violence, who cared little for the security framework of alliances America has carefully tended for almost 3/4 of a century.

I think we're already seeing how much damage a similar kind of president can do -- in the Philippines, where a demagogic politician won the popular vote and now is shredding the U.S. alliance while inflicting illegal violence of many of his own people. I don't understand why President Duterte is doing what he is doing, thought the Wall Street Journal has interesting biographical background on him. But he sure seems to be practicing Trumpism in ways that should chill us all.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

nuclear builddown

In the long ago days of the cold war, people joked that "even one nuclear weapon could ruin your day." That's still true.  And the likelihood of the deliberate use of such weapons, especially in places like India and Pakistan, is dangerously high. Despite their great power rivalry, the United States and the Soviet Union developed numerous ways to reduce the chances of accidental war or a hyper-reactive escalation to a deliberate one -- the hot line, incidents at sea agreements, Permissive Action Links. The rivals also concluded a series of arms control agreements that worked, despite shared mistrust.

Yesterday the government declassified the bottom line stockpile data -- how many nuclear weapons the United States had at the end of each year for the past half century. Look at the numbers.The peak was in 1967: 31,255. At the end of the G.H.W. Bush administration, following the breakup of the USSR, the number dropped sharply, to 13,708. They continued to fall, reaching a low point last year of 4,571. That's still too many for deterrence, so we need to continue working to bring the numbers down -- and to keep others from adding significantly to their own arsenals. I don't have much faith that we could safely do away with all nuclear weapons, but it helps to keep working for limits and reductions.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

powerful antiwar book by a civilian warrior

Another book to recommend: Kael Weston's The Mirror Test, a memoir and reflection on his seven solid years in Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly in deadly Fallujah and in Taliban-infested provinces of Afghanistan. Weston served as a State Department official, a civilian in the war zone fighting for U.S. goals and interests with a diplomat's weapons -- meetings and memos. He views the Iraq war as unnecessary and Afghanistan as a badly managed one. His greatest anger, however, is at the stupidities he saw in war: missions conducted to satisfy Washington's symbolic goals; the Americans who disrespect their local partners;  the arrogant Special Forces troops indifferent to civilian casualties; the members of Congress who care more about pictures with constituents than understanding the war. Weston risked his life almost daily as he went, unarmed, to meet with local people and try to win their support for American activities. He records and honors the names and stories of many he worked with -- American, Iraqi, and Afghan -- who died in the combat. He puts human faces on the casualty lists and asks us to recalculate the costs and benefits of these wars.

Friday, September 9, 2016

air strikes in six countries this week

I occasionally like to remind readers here how many wars the United States is currently involved in. In June, the figure was 16.  That's how many countries the President told the Congress that America had troops deployed equipped for combat even if that was  not their primary mission.

While Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 in order to prevent another Vietnam, I think the general concern then was to be sure Congress was notified and involved regarding major military operations, especially those with ground troops. In recent decades, Congress and the American public have been much less concerned about air operations and raids by Special Operations Forces.

But the Washington Post reminds us that U.S. forces are busy, with air strikes conducted in recent days in six separate countries. I'm not complaining, just taking note.

Monday, September 5, 2016

another missing AUMF

I used to pride myself on the list of congressional authorizations of military force [AUMF] that I included in Congress at War. What was and remains significant is that lawmakers have voted military action many more times than the five conflicts in which they specifically declared war.

Then, reading by chance a history of the Madison administration, I discovered that Congress had authorized -- in secret in 1811 -- a war in Florida. So my list was incomplete.

And now, reading a book on U.S. foreign policy before the Civil War, I saw reference to a congressional action in 1839 authorizing the President to "resist any attempt" by Britain to enforce jurisdiction over disputed parts of Maine, to call forth the militia, to accept up to 50,000 volunteers. It even appropriated $10 million to carry out the act. [U.S. Statutes III, chap. LXXXIX, March 3, 1839.] As things turned out, of course, there was no war. I guess that's why this law never made the lists I mentioned earlier, or the extensive list in a paper by the National Security Network.

The lesson for me: there's always more to learn from history.

the "deep state" of the Slave Power

Analysts of Turkey's political system have pointed to a "deep state," subterranean networks especially among military and civilian officials that worked to suppress threats to the secular order. In recent years, President Erdogan argues that Gulenists, once his ally, are now threatening his rule.

These notions of a state within a state or secret organizations of revolutionaries is a recurring theme even in America, notably in the late 1940s fears of communists in government. Now, without using that term, a young scholar is arguing that southerners in the decades before the Civil War dominated the U.S. government and promoted foreign and military policies to defend slavery.

Matthew Karp notes that southerners frequently held positions as secretaries of state, war, and navy and a large majority of envoys sent overseas. He then details various episodes in which these officials promoted policies clearly intended to protect or promote slavery. Adherence to the Monroe Doctrine not only protected U.S. economic relations with the nations of the western hemisphere but also prevented foreigners from interfering with slavery where it existed and persisted.  There was a special alliance of interests, Karp argues, with Brazil and Spanish-ruled Cuba, neither of which abolished slavery until the mid-1880s.

I don't know how other historians will view Karp's analysis, but I find it exciting and provocative to use a foreign policy lens to examine the Slave Power's efforts to defend their peculiar institution.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

What if the civil war did not take place?

In a final burst of summer reading -- for fun -- I just finished Ben H. Winters' Underground Airlines, a thriller in which a former slave, now serving as a U.S. Marshal, is sent to capture an escaped slave. The intriguing premise of the novel, however, is that the time is the present, and the civil war never took place. Instead, Congress in early 1861 passed a series of Constitutional amendments allowing slavery in a limited area of the country and forbidding any subsequent amendments abolishing slavery. Winters describes a country where slavery was confined to a "hard four" southern states, with trade and travel strictly controlled, and with much of the rest of the world boycotting goods linked to the slave states.

That counterfactual history sent me into my basement, searching for civil war books. Therein I learned that a proslavery compromise almost happened. Of course it didn't, and historians depict the last-minute efforts as futile. But I know that votes are votes, and even unintended legislation can have huge consequences.

So consider, on January 16, 1861, five proposed  amendments to the Constitution were defeated in the Senate by a narrow 25-23 vote. The measures, authored by Kentucky Senator John Crittenden,would have prohibited slavery only north of latitude 36, 30 minutes and allowed it in perpetuity elsewhere.

Even more surprising was a proposed 13th amendment to the Constitution that actually passed both House and Senate by 2/3 margins and was sent to the states for ratification. This measure, called the Corwin Amendment after its Ohio sponsor, would have prohibited any future amendment limiting slavery where is currently was legal. The actual text:
No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.
Only 3 states ever ratified it, and by then the civil war was raging. But what if...

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

confessing confusion

I don't understand what's happening in Syria, and I'm worried that American civilian and military officials don't either. The United States is supporting anti-ISIL forces in Syria that are now fighting each other. Well-sourced reporters at the Wall Street Journal say that the Turkish offensive "blindsided" U.S. officials and that the White House was slow to make decisions on the matter. Meanwhile, captured documents suggest that ISIL is crumbling.

 I suspect that America and some of its partners have a notional partition of Syria and Iraq for war-fighting purposes and they are trying to keep everybody in their assigned areas. But the Turks are a wild card. And in any event each faction has separate and often clashing goals. Instead of one team, one fight, it's many teams, many fights.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Are stronger parties the remedy for political gridlock?

America has a republic, not a democracy. By design. A democracy lets the people rule directly. In a republic there are intermediate officials who in fact mediate among the contending factions. For much of U.S. history, that mediation was done by the major political parties. In a provocative article in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argues that the decline of political parties is a major cause of America's hyperpartisanship and political gridlock, and that these problems can be at least partly remedied by re-strengthening parties and "middlemen."

Two decades ago, Rauch wrote a book, Demosclerosis, arguing that there were so many organized interest groups that they cancelled each other out and produced political gridlock. Now he adds the disempowering of parties to the mix, along with public anger at seeing the ineffective mess in Washington. I think there are several other causes of political dysfunction -- court decisions, gerrymandering, a part-time, reelection-focused Congress -- but Rauch is right about the weakness of political parties and their inability to reward responsible behavior.

The voters are a problem, too, because they prefer one-sided policy victories rather than compromises. But it would help to bring back earmarks in spending bills and the "regular order" in lawmaking.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner

Can anyone defend Obama's foreign policy while acknowledging some missteps? I've just finished reading an excellent book that is strategically defensive but even more valuable as an explanation of the big themes and big picture that has shaped the president's policies. Derek Chollet, who worked at senior levels in the Clinton State Department, the Obama National Security Council, and the Pentagon, has written The Long Game, arguing that Obama has tried and often succeeded to fashion policies that sought long range accomplishments rather than short-term benefits. [Full disclosure: I've known Chollet for nearly two decades and consider him an exemplary public servant.]

Others may find his book a codification of the Obama Doctrine and a defense against critics. I see its primary value as an explanation, from an insider, of the difficult choices faced by the administration as it dealt with Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Russia and other security challenges. Chollet acknowledges many criticisms of those policies, notes those where he agrees, but also explains why the president made different choices. It's easy for outsiders to suggest alternatives since they don't have to live with the consequences, pr the practicalities of implementation.

The trouble with explanation, however, is that is often sounds overly defensive. As the French saying [variously attributed and actually used by Tolstoy] goes, Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner. To understand all is to forgive all. If you really understand the difficult circumstances and competing choices faced by policymakers, you are more likely to forgive them rather than attributing stupidity or malice.

Mark Twain made a similar point when he said,"Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

Friday, August 5, 2016

war with China

That's the provocative title -- lacking even a question mark -- of a new report by Rand. I have great respect for David Gompert, the lead author, and find his recommendations very valuable. Among them:
  • U.S. and Chinese political leaders alike should have military options other than immediate strikes to destroy opposing forces.
  • U.S. leaders should have the means to confer with Chinese leaders and contain a conflict before it gets out of hand.
  • The United States should guard against automaticity in implementing immediate attacks on Chinese A2AD and have plans and means to prevent hostilities from becoming severe. Establishing "fail safe" arrangements will guarantee definitive, informed political approval for military operations.
  • The United States should reduce the effect of Chinese A2AD by investing in more-survivable force platforms (e.g., submarines) and in counter-A2AD (e.g., theater missiles).
  • The United States should conduct contingency planning with key allies, especially Japan.
  • The United States should ensure that the Chinese are specifically aware of the potential for catastrophic results even if a war is not lost militarily.
  • The United States should improve its ability to sustain intense military operations.
  • U.S. leaders should develop options to deny China access to war-critical commodities and technologies in the event of war.
On the other hand, I fear that all too many analyses of military options, including Rand's, fail to account for the unprecedented nature of a war directly between two nuclear powers. Throughout the cold war, it was always by proxies. I'm dubious that political leaders can avoid escalation if the conventional battle is being lost, or that civilians can fully control the military if commanders see advantages in going nuclear. Too many risks.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

historical detective story

I have long studied the Constitution and the convention in Philadelphia that developed it. There are important lessons about the U.S. government and political processes in the stories of 1787. I've just finished Mary Sarah Bilder's fascinating and revealing study of those events, based on an investigation of the papers James Madison wrote during and after the convention.

Bilder conducted a close reading of the various manuscripts and studied even the various watermarks on the pages. The watermarks, for example, when compared to those on other Madison letters, allowed her to date the pages with great accuracy.

What she discovered and was able to deduce or infer forces us to revise some of the conventional thinking about Madison and the Constitution.

-- Madison's contemporaneous Notes ended on July 18, 1787. His pages n the last month of the Convention were written several months later.
-- New pages documenting several of his early speeches were substituted much later, probably in 1796.
-- Madison was in the forefront of southerners working to insure that the Constitution protected slavery, but he later revised or added notes to soften his position.
-- He refused repeated requests by Thomas Jefferson to publish his Notes because he knew that they would not confirm interpretations Jefferson and he had both adopted by 1797. They were published only after his death in 1836.

None of this diminishes Madison's central and valuable role in framing the Constitution and helping to win ratification. But it shows that people can change their minds and in so doing may also want to change their memories.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Constitutionality of light-footprint warfare

Two legal scholars, Jack Goldsmith and Matthew Waxman, argue that President Obama's use of special operations forces, drones, and cyber attacks amount to an expansion of executive war powers beyond the current control of Congress.  They make a convincing case that congressional acquiescence -- by non-action -- in this light-footprint warfare has created alarming precedents for future administrations to evade congressional controls.

I share many but not all of their concerns. I believe that Congress has failed to assert its proper role in major military operations by enacting some kind of measure of support, opposition, or limitation on recent conflicts. But I also believe that the basic motivation behind the War Powers Resolution was to prevent unauthorized big wars and not to put lawmakers in the role of micromanagers of all combat deployments. That goal has been met, for all post-1973 military operations have either been authorized or kept limited in size or duration.

Goldsmith and Waxman propose a half-way measure:
...a more realistic approach—and one better suited to light-footprint
warfare—could be for Congress to establish a system where it approves the
overall strategic direction of U.S. counterterrorism operations at regular multiyear
intervals. It could remain involved in the interim with something akin to
the model of approval and oversight it currently uses with respect to administrative
agencies and covert operations. Congress could delegate authority to use force
against terrorists that meet certain criteria, such as possessing organizational coherence
and posing a particular type or degree of imminent threat to the United
States. In return, the president could be required to report publicly and to Congress
about each new entity against which it is invoking this delegated power, where,
and on what factual basis.
I agree with that, and have long proposed the covert action process for drone and cyber operations. But even their proposal calls for some kind of congressional guidance on counter-terrorism. I hope lawmakers recognize their duty to do something in this rgard.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

responding to cyber attacks

President Obama has signed a formal Presidential Policy Directive, PPD-41, on Cyber Incident Coordination. Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post says that it is probably not relevant to the DNC hacking and publication by Wikileaks but is designed mainly for "significant cyber incidents," defined as
 likely to result in demonstrable harm to the national security interests, foreign relations, or economy of the United States or to the public confidence, civil liberties, or public health and safety of the American people.
In those cases, the directive sets up a hierarchy of entities, from a permanent Cyber Response Group under the National Security Council to an incident-specific Cyber Unified Coordination Group. This seems like a reasonable bureaucratic approach.

The directive also names federal lead agencies for particular response efforts. "Threat response activities" are under the Department of Justice to conduct law enforcement and nati0onal security Asset response activities" such as technical assistance, information sharing, and mitigation are assigned to the Department of Homeland Security. Intelligence activities fall under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

What strikes me as significant is the non-mention of the Department of Defense. It has its own cyber responsibilities, but it's notable that the administration is carving out a separate civilian structure for threats to civilian entities.

Monday, July 25, 2016

deja vu in Iraq

There's a huge difference between winning a battle and winning a war, especially since warfare has political objectives. Nobody denies that, but few military and diplomatic officials understand how to turn military success into strategic victory. America failed in 2003 in Iraq when inadequate planning and major mistakes like peremptorily disbanding the Iraqi army and government led to the insurgency. America failed again when the Maliki government crushed its opponents and politicized the armed forces. And now, McClatchy reporter Hannah Allam argues, there is no guarantee, no plan in the works, that would lead from a military victory over ISIL with the recapture of Mosul, to a stable Iraq.  That really should be the highest priority of the political-military planners, and I know it's a wicked hard task. Outside powers have leverage now, before the big battle, so it should be used.

explaining American anti-imperialism

A major summer reading discovery this year was Jeffrey Meiser's Power and Restraint: The Rise of the United States, 1898-1941. I highly recommend it. Meiser surveys 34 cases when  U.S. officials considered political-military interventions abroad and shows how many times domestic structural restraints -- especially congressional opposition or public opinion -- limited or prevented expansionist policies.

Most of the cases involve Latin America,where my own background knowledge was sketchy at best. Meiser's basic narrative is that, after an outburst of territorial expansion int he wake of the war with Spain in 1898, the United States was more restrained in subsequent years of Republican presidencies. Although Woodrow Wilson did intervene several times in Mexico and elsewhere, Meiser argues that he acted with significant restraint both because of his own anti-imperialist ideology and because of public opposition.

In the aftermath of World War I, even formerly expansionist Republicans acted with restraint. And Franklin Roosevelt enshrined the noninterventionist Good Neighbor policy as the basis for regional actions.

I have long believed that Congress can have a major shaping force over foreign policy,for both good and bad, so I'm glad Meiser provided additional evidence of how this power operated in the early 20th century.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

the virtues of "regular order"

Two cheers for Congress! Despite its many failures to overcome gridlock on numerous bipartisan issues -- Zika funding, sentencing reform, gun purchases by terrorist sympathizers -- segments of the legislative branch are doing valuable work. The armed services committees have shepherded their defense authorization bills through their chambers and are now starting to reconcile differences so that there will be a defense bill for the 54th year in a row.  As part of that process, the House Armed Services Committee today has a hearing  with former Pentagon officials on defense reform.

In another welcome sign, that committee is pairing with a House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee for a hearing on South China Sea issues. All too often, congressional panels jealousy guard their turf. Yet here is an issue with both military and foreign policy factors, and both are getting reviewed. 

And while House appropriators can't pass their bills because of minor flaps over issues like Confederate flags, the Senate Appropriations Committee has now reported every one of the annual appropriations bills. This still may not prevent a last-minute omnibus before adjournment in October, but it is good news.

When Congress follows the regular order, and puts enacting legislation above forcing the opposition to cast embarrassing votes, the country is better off.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Goodbye to all that

I was saddened, but not fully surprised, by the British vote to "Leave" the European Union. It marks a political and historical watershed. It's all downhill from now on. That's why I used the title of Robert Graves' memoir, which looked back on the lost days before 1914 and the terrible ones just after.

The Brexit vote is only the most dramatic and immediately consequential development in Europe. Other ominous signs include: growing extreme right sentiment in several countries, with Austria set to revote on its president; continuing migrant problems; unresolved economic settlements with Greece and others. Any one of these problems could erupt or be superseded by power shifts in upcoming elections in France and Germany.

The best metaphor for this, I think, is unraveling. [CFR President Richard Haass used it two years ago as a general term for global trends, but it's even more applicable to Europe now.] For several decades Europe has been growing tighter together, economically, politically, culturally. Each of those layers, however, is now rending. Nationalism is poking holes through the fabric of cooperation. Each tear makes it harder to hold the rest together.

I would hate to see a Europe without Britain, or Britain without a key place inside Europe. This may sound like nostalgia, which it partly is, but it's based on the strategic reality of strength in unity.

better off British?

Dylan Matthews, a clever and provocative writer at Vox,  has a holiday weekend piece arguing that the American revolution was a mistake. He offers 3 reasons: slavery would have ended earlier; the natives would have been better treated; and we would have a parliamentary government, which he says is more decisive and less prone to dictatorship than presidential systems.

He's probably right on his first two reasons, but I'd note that many parliamentary systems have failed pretty badly: several of France's Republics; prewar Japan; Italy on several occasions; and, of course, Germany on two disastrous occasions.

The independent United States also made positive contributions to world history: leading the way in democratic governance and an expanded suffrage; building an economic powerhouse; using its strength against tyranny and to create a liberal world order. What Matthews doesn't speculate on, but which would tip the balance for or against his argument, is how the trans-Mississippi west would have developed. A French empire? A Spanish one? A restive border region where native and European forces came to blows?

It's fun to ponder alternative histories. But Matthews has a weak case for labeling independence a mistake.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

dark money undermines democracy

There's a lot wrong with the way American democracy functions these days, but the biggest problem is money. Limits on spending, some in place for a century, have been thrown out by the Supreme Court. Much of the increased spending is what's called "dark money" because the sources are not transparent. There's good background in an article in The Atlantic. It cites a Brennan Institute study that finds a surge in semi-secret outside spending since the Citizens United case in 2011.

What's especially worrisome to me is how special interests can target state and local races with huge and unexpected -- and often highly misleading -- negative ads. The article gives some examples of out-of-state groups hiding behind "good government" names swamping incumbents.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

we've seen this before, almost

There are dark pages in American history in addition to the stories about slavery and the mistreatment of those called Indians by the invading settlers.

-- We've seen a repressive federal government deny basic civil liberties to dissenters -- in 1798 with the Alien and Sedition Acts and in 1919-20 during the Red Scare.

-- We've seen the rise of political movements based on the hatred of people who were different -- the Know Nothings in the 1850s, the Ku Klux Klan both during Reconstruction and in the 1920s, and the anti-immigration activists who got laws barring Chinese and Japanese immigration as well as the 1924 law aimed at Jews, Italians, and others from southern and eastern Europe.

-- We've seen powerful movements promoting an isolationist foreign policy -- notably the America First groups in the 1930s.

-- We've seen successful political demagogues, though mostly contained to localized power -- racist Senators like "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman and Theodore Bilbo, more recently Huey Long and  George Wallace.

But never before have we had this perfect storm of a skilled demagogue capturing a major political party with proposals of ethnic and religious repression, rejection of basic rule of law principles, and a crazy passive-aggressive foreign policy that threatens everybody and promises to punish America's allies.

Never before.

Should defense strategy documents be classified?

As Shawn Brimley and Loren DeJonge Shulman explain,  Congress is rewriting the rules for the development of defense strategy documents. The House wants to see more of the internal guidance directives and the Senate wants the Pentagon to do an annual strategy report, but keep it classified when sent to the Hill.

The authors prefer the Senate approach and make an interesting case for keeping it classified:

Between both of us, we have participated in all the most recent Pentagon strategy reviews, and are rather pleased by the strong prospect of reform in how the Pentagon conducts strategic reviews. As discussed in our first column, one of the major drawbacks with the QDR process has been the tendency for the Pentagon to develop it as an unclassified expression of the national defense strategy — this is, we believe, the root of its perceived failure as a core driver of actual Pentagon strategy. While most of the meetings, analysis, and war-gaming that undergirds any QDR are classified, the time and attention taken to produce a public document targeted to the American people, allies, partners, and even potential adversaries, virtually ensures that the QDR as a document is unable to be employed inside the Pentagon as a key lever for the secretary of defense. Moreover, while other classified strategy documents are developed (annual program guidance, biannual contingency planning guidance, etc.) that draw from the classified analysis used to produce QDRs, the unclassified nature of the final document virtually ensures that a tremendous amount of manpower and senior-leader bandwidth was employed in waging semantic battles to translate classified analysis to unclassified rhetoric, and then often to translate the final unclassified report back into useful classified guidance. We don’t think this was the most useful way for senior Pentagon leaders or their expert staff to spend their time, nor was it apparently all that useful for the secretary of defense (we’ve asked around).
I can certainly appreciate the time wasted in semantic battles because people knew the words would be made public. But given the propensity for leaks, I'm not sure that this is a durable solution. But it's worth a try.

Monday, June 13, 2016

How many wars are we fighting today?

The unclassified answer appears to be 16 -- the same as six months ago, but troop levels have changed in several conflicts. The Obama administration has been following the practice of submitting to Congress reports based on the requirements of the War Powers Resolution every six months.The latest report, released today, identifies 16 military operations where American combat-equipped forces are deployed: "against al-Qaida, the Taliban, and Associated Forces" with no particular locations or numbers given; in Afghanistan, where the number of U.S. troops has dropped to 9,300, compared with 10,500 six months ago; Iraq [where the number has increased from 3,550 to 4,087 now] and Syria [where the number has jumped from 50 to 300]; Turkey [no numbers given in the unclassified version]; Somalia; Yemen; Djibouti; Libya; Cuba; Niger [where the number has climbed to 420 from 310]; against the Lord's Resistance Army; Egypt; Jordan [where the number climbed from 2,000 to 2,200]; and in Kosovo [where the number dropped from 700 to 660].

So Congress has been informed. It's up to lawmakers, who have the Constitutional power to authorize or forbid major military operations, to act on this information, either by authorizing them with or without conditions or by limiting them.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

eschewing technology

I do my research and writing on an out-of-fashion PC. But I like it and it works well for me. I have a tablet for keeping up with email and the internet while traveling. And I have a cellphone that I turn on only when I need to make a call, or expect one, such as coordinating a rendezvous.

I don't have a smartphone. I don't want to pay a monthly fee for something I think I'd hardly ever use.

But then, last month, we went to Japan. In a lovely rental in Kyoto, the owner provided an iPhone for our use, with English apps and an Australian-accented voice. Having a portable GPS was very helpful! I began to soften my opposition to a smartphone, started thinking of the times when one could prove useful.

And then I turned on the iPhone's flashlight feature. By mistake. And no matter what buttons I pushed, or what I swiped and punched, I couldn't turn it off. [Remember, I'd never used one before.] So what did I do? Turned on my tablet and Googled "how to turn off iPhone light." That worked. Problem solved.

But until I have time for a week-long [or longer?] course, probably taught by a pre-teen, on how to use a smartphone, I think I'll pass.

Friday, June 3, 2016

limiting the NSC staff

I finally got around to reading the debate when the House of Representatives approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization bill limiting the size of the NSC staff to 100 people. [It's summer time, travel time, grandparent time.] The debate was brief; you can read it on pages  H2677-79 of the Congressional Record for May 17.

Chairman Thornberry [R-TX] of the House Armed Services Committee drafted a particularly clever amendment, in my opinion. It does not forbid the president from having more than 100 staffers, but would require Senate confirmation of the national security adviser if that number were breached. The logic is that the staff is necessarily operational when above 100, but can remain solely advisory below that figure.

I'm torn. I strongly believe that the national security adviser should hold a Senate-confirmed position -- and should accordingly have some real authority to manage the interagency policy process for the president. I like forcing a presidential choice on the matter, as this amendment does. On the other hand, 100 is too arbitrary a number, and I can imagine shenanigans to stay under the cap. I also prefer front door approaches to the confirmation issue, rather than this side-door maneuver.

On balance, I'm glad the measure is in the House bill and I hope the Senate comes up with something similar -- and the White House compromises.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

rebalancing the Constitution

There are many suggestions to reform America's politics and government. Most are so radical they can never be adopted, especially when they require an amendment to the Constitution. I wouldn't mind a few such amendments myself, such as one to allow Congress to regulate campaign spending.  But they are not likely ever to happen.

Political scientists William Howell and Terry Moe would like to have something closer to a parliamentary system, but their chief recommendation in their new book, Relic: How our Constitution undermines effective government, is to give the president "fast track" powers over bills and nominations. They want the chief executive to be able to propose measures that have to be acted on by Congress, without amendments, within a certain time period. Lawmakers could still vote against such proposals; they just couldn't stall or add their own poison pills.

Their basic complaint is that Congress is too parochial. That's true, but baked into the Constitution by the Framers. I'm worried that the proposal would tip the balance too far in favor of executive power, but I welcome the accountability that comes with demanding votes and not just speeches. So I'd vote for it, given the chance, but I'd want to amend it to limit how often presidents can use  it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

the bloated [?] NSC staff

For several months, numerous former officials and authors of think tank reports have been complaining about the Obama NSC staff, using terms like "bloated" and addicted to "micromanagement." The House Armed Services Committee may even try to legislate a cap on the staff size -- though early reports suggested that the number would be even lower than its own committee staff.

In rebuttal, former Obama official Derek Chollet cites similar complaints from previous administrations and offer his own balanced assessment of the issue.
West Wing officials tend to approach the bureaucracy in one of two ways: believing it is doing too much and going beyond what the president has decided, or that it is doing too little and not fulfilling what the president wants done. (During my time at the White House, I found myself toggling back and forth.) The answer to both is more oversight, which can often evolve into bureaucratic overreach. In my experience, even when the White House tried to focus more on the strategic issues and leave tactical implementation to the Pentagon or State Department, decisions would slowly gravitate back to the Situation Room. Given that the president would be the one held accountable by the public, press, and Congress, the incentives usually were for the White House to take more control, not less.
I don't think Congress should try to force a numerical ceiling; it would only lead to a numbers game even worse than now. I do believe the staff should be smaller and more strategic -- and the National Security Adviser should have a Senate-confirmed appointment, with legal power to effectively manage the interagency process. 

frenemies and co-dependants

I've long believed that the most difficult foreign policy problem is how to deal with friends behaving badly. Shared interests may drive you together, but self-destructive behaviors can drive you apart. Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky examine this problem in detail on Vox.
The truth is that our allies behave the way they do because we let them. We provide billions of dollars in military and other aid to countries in order to protect and advance US interests, yet we fail to use this leverage to induce the recipients of this aid to behave in a way that actually advances US interests.

That's because the US has become so focused on maintaining its relationships with its allies above all else that it's forgotten what the relationships were for in the first place: securing US interests.

In part, this is a holdover from the days of the Cold War, when what mattered was who was on "our side" and who was on the "their side" in the great ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. In other words, it was the alliance relationship itself that mattered more than anything. What our friends did on their own time in their own countries and regions didn't really matter, as long as they stayed our friends.
But that's not the world we live in today. In today's complex world, where most nations pursue cooperative and conflicting policies across different issues, the US should focus less on making our allies happy and more on making them actually behave like allies.
Easier said than done, but worth trying.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

nation-building illusions

Steve Walt has a sobering critique of America's -- and the West's -- many failures at post-conflict nation-building.
Using military force to spread democracy fails for several obvious reasons. First, successful liberal orders depend on a lot more than a written constitution or elections: They usually require an effective legal system, a broad commitment to pluralism, a decent level of income and education, and widespread confidence that political groups which lose out in a particular election have a decent chance of doing better in the future and thus an incentive to keep working within the system. Because a lot of social elements need to line up properly for this arrangement to work and endure, creating reasonably effective democracies took centuries in the West, and it was often a highly contentious — even violent — process. To believe the U.S. military could export democracy quickly and cheaply required a degree of hubris that is still breathtaking to recall.

Second, using force to spread democracy almost always triggers violent resistance. Nationalism and other forms of local identity remain powerful features of today’s world, and most people dislike following orders from well-armed foreign occupiers. Moreover, groups that have lost power, wealth, or status in the course of a democratic transition (such as Sunnis in post-Saddam Iraq) will inevitably be tempted to take up arms in opposition, and neighboring states whose interests are adversely affected by a transition may try to stop or reverse it. Such developments are the last thing a struggling democracy needs, of course, because violence tends to empower leaders who are good at it, instead of those who are skilled at building effective institutions, striking deals across factional lines, promoting tolerance, and building more robust and productive economies.
It's especially important to keep these difficulties in mind when reading the supposed military solutions to the fight against ISIL like this from retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
Defeating ISIS and its ilk will require not only engaging them directly through force of arms and overwhelming information operations, but also taking decisive steps to cut off the support they receive from both state and non-state actors. Unfortunately, many of these supporters of ISIS and other Islamic extremists groups come from nations that are nominal U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Persian Gulf kingdoms and Pakistan. Convincing them that such extremists groups are ultimately a threat to their own stability will be difficult, and require great diplomatic dexterity and sophistication. We must resist the entrenched bureaucratic mindset, however, that would look the other way at this double-dealing and clandestine support for ISIS and its allies.
Sure. Piece of cake.

Friday, April 22, 2016

patience and containment in Iraq and Syria

That's the recommendation from Stephen Biddle and Jabob Shapiro. They base their conclusions on the historical record of civil conflicts: they usually end only after the warring parties are exhausted and often when they lose external support. They also argue that there is no easy way to protect U.S. interests.
In the absence of a mutual willingness to end the war and accept some new model of representative governance, even great progress against ISIS does not realize U.S. interests in the conflict—which are to end the terrorism threat, the humanitarian crisis, and the danger to regional stability, not merely to occupy the city of Raqqa. A mutual willingness to end the war on the part of most or all of today’s warring factions, however, seems a long way off.
In this context, real U.S. leverage to bring about a real end to the war—and actual realization of American interests in that war—is distinctly limited. None of the proposals popular in today’s Washington debate offer any meaningful prospect of achieving this. According to U.S. military doctrine, to defeat even an insurgency (much less a proto-state like ISIS) and stabilize a threatened population requires something like 20 counterinsurgents for every thousand civilians. That means 50,000-100,000 well-trained troops would be needed to hold the area now under Islamic State control (depending on how much of the population has fled), much less the rest of Syria. No one is now proposing a realistic plan to accomplish anything close to this—whether such a force comprises American troops, Iraqis, Kurds, Saudis, Turks, or anyone else. In the absence of this, bombing raids or offensives from Iraqi or Kurdish allies can accelerate the rate at which ISIS burns through its capital and perhaps hasten the day when the Islamic State is replaced by the next militant group in the queue—but limited efforts of this kind cannot end the war.
Sober analysis from serious scholars.