Thursday, January 28, 2016

failure of the Arab spring

When the "winds of change" swept across colonial Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, Europeans and Americans welcomed the rise of self-government. The new nations even donned the trappings of democracy, though for many it turned out to be one man, one vote, one time. Instead of Jeffersons, they got Mugabes.

Throughout the post-colonial era, the older and richer countries have insisted that the newer and poorer ones have elections, and at least pretend that they are free and fair. The United States demanded them of Afghanistan and Iraq soon after conquest because that's what's supposed to happen. The elections in both countries have been deeply flawed ever since.

Then came the Arab spring. Millions of protesters and dictators toppled. Hooray! Then what? A military coup in Egypt; civil wars in Syria and Libya; some progress in Tunisia. Amanda Taub of Vox has a good article with "the unsexy truth about the Arab spring."

Talking about Egypt, she notes:
...the real problem was never the degree to which individual protesters did or did not understand grassroots political organizing. That democratic transition isn't merely the absence of a dictator. Rather, it is the presence of democratic rule.
 And democratic rule requires something a lot more important, if less obviously visible, than having a good-guy democrat at the top of the government. It requires the institutions of democracy: political parties capable of winning elections, politicians capable of governing, a bureaucracy capable of implementing that governance, and civil society groups able to provide support and stability to those institutions.
U.S. leaders, and the American public, have long had a democracy fetish: they think it's the miracle cure for corruption and authoritarianism but insist only on sham elections. We need to revise our expectations and change our emphases.

Monday, January 25, 2016

mountain or molehill? you decide

Politico has a story, written in breathless prose, suggesting that Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld concealed a 2002 report on Iraqi WMD programs he himself called "big" from his National Security Council colleagues. The article notes that the report, declassified in 2011 and circulated by Rumsfeld as part of his memoir, expresses considerable uncertainty about some aspects of the Iraqi WMD programs. The implication is that if other senior officials knew of these judgments, they might not have supported or defended the invasion of Iraq.

Look over the actual document and see if this is some kind of smoking gun.

I don't think so for many reasons. The report, prepared by the intelligence director of the Joint Staff, reflects the broader intelligence community consensus that Saddam Hussein wanted to have nuclear, chemical and biological programs, so we were very suspicious. The report stresses that the Iraqis had the knowledge to conduct such programs, but in most cases the U.S. could not locate actual sites.

It needn't have been shared because it truly said nothing new. The expressions of uncertainty would not have convinced senior officials of the unwisdom of their planned invasion because the fears of an Iraqi nuclear weapon were just too great. [Vice President Cheney espoused the  "one percent doctrine" -- that we should act even if there was only a one percent chance that Saddam would acquire nukes.]

On the contrary, the report justified Rumsfeld's own distinctions about "known knowns" and "unknown unknowns."  It acknowledged, "We don't know with any precision how much we don't know." That was hardly an argument for inaction to Rumsfeld.

The findings were also consistent with Cheney's personal interrogations of intelligence community personnel. I'm told that he kept asking questions like,Can you prove that they don't have such a program or facility? The analysts had to answer that they couldn't -- and that was enough in the view of many to justify action.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

when is hard too hard?

Jim Steinberg, who served as deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state, has said that senior officials can rarely say a problem is too hard. They have to make choices despite uncertainties. The press and public often expect presidents to do something when tragedies are occurring abroad.

That also seems to be the philosophy behind a blue ribbon conservative think tank report by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War. They call, like just about every other commentator, for an American "grand strategy" to deal with ISIL.

Sounds good, But they also note these problems:
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and Europe agree only that ISIS and al Qaeda are threats against whom action must be taken. They disagree on the importance of those threats relative to other national security interests and objectives. They disagree on the means by which to address those threats. Their desired endstates in Syria and Iraq diverge profoundly and are, in
fact, mutually-incompatible with one another and with ours. They even have opposing visions of the relationship of external states to the region.

Situations in which all major states agree on goals and means are extraordinarily rare. This fact makes a hard problem harder, but it does not make finding a solution impossible. It does mean that Americans and Europeans must be prepared to immerse themselves in the complex local, regional, and international dynamics of Syria and Iraq and stop seeking arms-length answers through precision strikes or premature and ill-prepared negotiations. It also means that we must gird ourselves for a long involvement with these problems. That is not to prejudge whether American or allied military forces will be required or, if so, in what numbers and for how long.
Well, they seem to rule out the recommendations by most of the presidential candidates. But their own preferred courses of action won't be disclosed until a later report.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

let's hear it for the 20th amendment

Tomorrow marks the 79th anniversary of the first inauguration of a President on January 20. Until 1937, presidential terms began on March 4, leaving a long 4-month gap between election day and the oath of office. The need to shorten that interval was recognized by Congress during the Great Depression. Lawmakers approved the amendment on March 2, 1932 and it was ratified by enough states to take effect on January 23, 1933.

The amendment also changed the annual meeting date for Congress from the first Monday in December to January 3. That had an even greater effect on U.S. politics than the presidential date because the second session of each Congress convened after elections in which many could have been defeated and the balance of power in each house could have changed. It also meant that House members were running for reelection when they had served only half their term.

That timetable made accountability difficult and freed members from many incentives to pay attention to their voters during the second year of their term. It also freed presidents from close scrutiny until near the end of their first year in office. The 20th amendment improved both responsiveness and accountability.

"audacious" executive?

The Obama administration is promising an "audacious" burst of executive policymaking in its final year in office. Republicans are already denouncing such efforts in principle while Democrats, angry at opposition and gridlock in Congress, are welcoming it.

If the President oversteps, such as by closing the detainee operation at Guantanamo, where Congress has enacted tough prohibitions, there could be successful legal challenges. But if his rule-making follows the path laid out by the Administrative Procedures Act, he can probably succeed. The APA, first enacted in 1946 in reaction to FDR's imperial presidency, provides numerous safeguards against unhinged executive power -- standards, timetables, public notice, and so forth.

So relax; wait and see.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Iran sanctions explained

Thanks to the Congressional Research Service, we have a pretty good [82-page] explanation of what U.S. sanctions on Iran are now being lifted, and what aren't.  Here's the summary:
The relief will allow Iran to freely export crude oil and to access a net amount of nearly $60 billion in foreign exchange reserves. On October 18 (“Adoption Day” of the JCPOA), the Administration issued provisional waivers of relevant sanctions laws, to take effect on Implementation Day. The JCPOA requires the President to, eight years from the JCPOA’s taking effect, request that Congress terminate the stipulated sanctions that are imposed by statute.Most sanctions that apply to U.S. companies remain in place, as will those secondary sanctions (sanctions on foreign firms) that have been imposed because of Iran’s support for terrorism, for human rights abuses, and to curb Iran’s missile and advanced conventional weapons programs. Under the JCPOA and U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 of July 20, 2015, U.N. sanctions will terminate as of Implementation Day. Under Resolution 2231, U.N. sanctions on Iran’s development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and its importation or exportation of arms will remain in place for limited periods of time.
Meanwhile, the Administration was apparently ready to impose new sanctions based on Iranian missile tests, but pulled back the announcement, presumably not to cause problems on the nuclear and prisoner issues. I expect that they will follow shortly.

diplomacy works

Diplomacy requires hard work, but it can work. It can serve the interests of all the parties involved, even if none gets all they want.  The Iran nuclear deal met that standard, and now some of the international sanctions imposed on Iran are being lifted. As we learn from this New Yorker piece, the Obama administration ran a second, separate track regarding Americans imprisoned in Iran. This involved Iranian intelligence officials, not the foreign ministry. And it worked. But one of the reasons it worked was that U.S. news organizations voluntarily withheld disclosing the negotiations, as this story reveals.

Negotiations often require secrecy pending their completion. Remember, even the Framers closed the windows and imposed secrecy on the delegates to what became the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787.  An agreement should be judged on its totality, not along the way as concessions may be offered or declined.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

eyewitness to history

George Elsey died over the weekend at the age of 97. I remembered seeing his name in documents I saw on President Truman's foreign policy, but I didn't realize how much of U.S history he observed first hand. I managed to find a copy of his 2005 memoir, An Unplanned Life, and read it with great interest.

In the fall of 1940 he volunteered for the U.S. Navy, preferring that to being drafted for the Army. He was commissioned and assigned to naval intelligence -- and given a plum assignment in FDR's Map Room, the wartime predecessor to what is now the communications hub called the Situation Room. He learned that all messages to Churchill and other world leaders were sent by navy code and all incoming messages were decoded by the army. "The president doesn't want any place in Washington except the Map Room to have a complete file of these messages," he was told. That's how FDR ran things.

In a common Washington pattern, Elsey proved his value through hard work and was rewarded by promotion and work for a mentor. Elsey was asked by Truman to stay on after the war and he became a key subordinate to Counsel Clark Clifford. He wrote statements and speeches -- in the case of Truman's March 1947 speech to Congress, he says he turned the flat State Department draft into the stirring declaration of the Truman Doctrine: "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside forces."

He regrets that Truman did not seek congressional support for the Korean war. The President told him,"It was none of Congress' business. If Congress wanted to do it on its own initiative,that would have been all right with me, but I just did what was in my power, and there was no need for any congressional resolution."

Elsey also recounts Truman's anger at double-dealing and disloyalty by Louis Johnson, his close friend and second Secretary of Defense, and how Truman demanded Johnson sign a letter of resignation while in a White House meeting.

Lots of interesting insights in this book by an unsung but important public servant.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Borgen topples House of Cards

After at least six months at the top of my Netflix list, I finally received the first season of Borgen, the Danish series about politics in its government "castle" [borgen]. It's so much better than either the British or American programs, House of Cards.

The American version is just incredible, particularly because the competitions for presidential and congressional leadership are separate and different. The British version is more believable because intra-party fights do occur in British politics. But Borgen has the advantage of being set in a multi-party parliament, where there is constant jockeying for power, and the prime minister is not necessarily chosen for government leadership qualities.

Try it... if you can wait for the discs.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

China's economic penetration of Africa

The conventional wisdom has been that China is on the march in Africa,using its aid and investment to win friends and secure commodities for its home markets. Two students of Chinese activity paint a different picture in the Washington Post's Monkey Cage. Winslow Robertson and Lina Benabdallah say that President Xi's recent pledge of $60 billion in Chinese contributions is less significant than it sounds.  The authors note:
It depends on how one defines aid – essentially most Chinese money in Africa is in the form of loans – but there is no real correlation between aid and other resources. OECD-defined Chinese aid into Africa is a little over $2 billion a year, while U.S. aid is around $8 billion.
They also point out:
China recently announced that its cumulative Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Africa from 2000 to 2014 is $30 billion. As of 2012, China has been investing a little more than $2 billion annually into Africa.

That may be a lot — but it’s less than the U.S.’s annual investments in Africa.
I don't doubt Chinese intentions, but their actions may be less significant or effective than  we thought.

view from Beijing

The story goes that the newly arrived American ambassador went to the national day celebrations where the maximum leader was to speak. Not knowing the local language, he told his translator, "You don't need to tell me anything until he says 'but' or 'however,' then give me every word."

A good rule. I thought of it as I read the piece by the chair of the foreign affairs committee of  China's National Peoples Congress in the Financial Times.
The western-centred world order dominated by the US has made great contributions to human progress and economic growth. But those contributions lie in the past. Now that same order is like an adult in children’s clothes.It is failing to adjust.
Fu Ying goes on to criticize the US-dominated system and suggesting that China is growing in importance but is "not ready to propose a new design."

I'm not sure that China is ready for long pants itself. The economy is slowing; its currency is falling; the stock market is plunging -- today trading was halted after 28 minutes because of rapid decline.

And the one international problem that's in China's lap, North Korea, has just tested a nuclear device after assuring China that it wouldn't.  The view from Beijing isn't just saturated with smog; it's also clouded with uncertainty over how China can play a great power role. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

constitutional contradictions

At the National Archives, the signed copy of the Constitution is displayed in a darkened room, carefully protected from light or damage. Quiet crowds pass by the treasured document, a kind of holy relic. It's on parchment but could be carved in stone. It's hard to realize that it is riddled with ambiguities and inconsistencies, the outcome of vigorous disputes and artful compromises.

Cambridge historian Gary Gerstle has a provocative new book, Liberty and Coercion, that offers an explanation for how the Framers combined limited government with the powers of a strong state. His thesis is that they expected the member states to be strong, even intrusive. The federal government was designed to be weak and the bill of rights limited its powers, while refusing to impose similar limits on the states.

Gerstle shows the recurring tensions between liberty and coercion as the government dealt with various issues over the decades. He argues that federal power grew as its leaders used various strategies to get around the Constitution's strictures: exempting some areas from controls [such as war and immigration], use of surrogacy [such as using the post office to police censorship], and privatization of public activities [such as roads and railways].

I think it's better to think of the Constitution as providing a mechanism to resolve an inherent tension rather than saying it settled the question once and for all in 1787.

information war

Karen DeYoung reports that President Obama has ordered an increase in messaging about administration policy against ISIL in order to build support among a skeptical American public. My first reaction was that this was another effort to defend the policy by repetition rather than by logic and evidence. It also looks like blaming the public for "not getting it" rather than the policymakers for not making it coherent and effective.

On the other hand, this political season allows critics to fulminate without offering specific alternatives of their own. For that reason alone, the administration needed to step up its information war. I think the President failed to rally public opinion by his oval office speech because he gave too much emphasis to what he wasn't doing [getting involved in another big land war in the Middle East] compared to what he was doing [vigorous targeting of ISIL leadership and as much support as the Iraqi government was willing to accept].

DeYoung reports that the administration is also coordinating its efforts much better, so that military reporters learn about financial and diplomatic efforts and vice versa. This is a multi-pronged fight, Officials hope, and I agree, that reporters have an obligation to challenge candidates on what they would do and not let them escape with vague phrases.