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.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

rumors of war

I worked in the Senate during the debates leading to enactment of the War Powers Act in 1973. One Senator I worked for supported the measure as a way to prevent future Vietnams. Another I later worked for opposed it because it allowed presidents to engage in war without prior congressional approval for up to 90 days.

I believe the law is constitutionally legal and politically wise. I also believe that it has worked to prevent prolonged and unpopular wars, for none of the conflicts not specifically authorized by Congress has lasted more than 3-4 months,with one possible exception. The exception is the conflict in Syria, which the Obama administration says doesn't need a new law, though they have proposed one.  Congress seems too divided to support the current war or to vote to limit it, but the public isn't screaming for withdrawal.

Congress in 1973 and every now and then since has become suspicious of presidents escalating small conflicts into big wars. Lawmakers voted numerical limits on military advisors in Central America in the 1980s and in Colombia in recent years. But they are willing to tolerate U.S. combat advisory roles in several countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, especially when the threat is linked to jihadists. That's one reason there won't be loud antiwar speeches or demonstrations after the revelations in the Washington Post today about the little wars special operations forces are now engaged in. Nor about the added troops and missions the NYTimes says are likely headed to Iraq and Syria.

Why no outrage? Why no suspicion that the president is getting America mired in another secret war? I guess the American people are more willing to fight the terrorist threat, and probably also more trusting of Obama because of his demonstrated reluctance to use force in a large-scale way. Whatever the reason, it's noteworthy that the dogs of peace aren't barking.

Friday, April 15, 2016

He said, Xi said

Like many Americans, I believed that trade liberalization would lead to political liberalization in China, and for many years the signs were encouraging. Under President Xi, however, all signs now point toward centralization and repression. The Great Firewall puts Donald Trump's proposed Mexican wall to shame in both size and effectiveness. The cult of the leader is looking a lot like what happened under Mao and Stalin and other autocrats. The sad details are well explained in a major article in the Economist.

Meanwhile, America and its allies are cooperating more on military planning and defense, just as China is becoming more provocative. I hope we have well-considered plans for de-escalation and confidence building along with our flexible deterrence options.

Military innovation

John Hamre, a former Deputy Secretary of Defense and now head of a leading think tank, has an important suggestion for Pentagon reform.

He wants to reverse the 1986 decision making the head of defense acquisition the # 3 job in DOD and bring back to that senior slot what used to be called the DDR&E [the director of defense research and engineering].
Sadly, though we didn’t intend it, the DDR&E was greatly diminished by the Packard Commission recommendations that were adopted in the Defense Authorization Act of 1986. We didn’t appreciate it at the time, but we effectively decapitated DOD’s innovation ecosystem by elevating the mechanics of defense procurement over the imperative of defense innovation. In essence, we made gunsmithing superior to marksmanship. The DDR&E was focused on marksmanship—hitting a strategic target to make America’s military successful against the Soviet Union. The under secretary for acquisition was dedicated to gunsmithing—perfecting the mechanism for buying kit over the process of developing strategic capabilities designed to transform power on the battlefield.
As someone who worked R&D issues on the Senate Armed Services Committee in the golden 1970s, I agree. I hadn't realized that the contract management mindset of the acquisition executive had taken over from the innovative excellence of DARPA and DDR&Es like Johnny Foster Harold Brown, and Bill Perry. But their creativity and tough management gave us stealth and precision weapons and much more.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Happy Birthday, NATO

April 4 marks the anniversary of the signing of the treaty creating NATO in 1949.  Its purpose, pungently expressed by its first Secretary-General, Lord Ironside,, was "to keep the Americans in [Europe], the Russians out, and the Germans down."  Well, 2 out of 3 ain't bad.

I think NATO's record over the past 67 years is actually much better than that. It has provided both the reality and the psychological comfort of security. It has rescued some of the former Soviet satellites from intimidation and domination by Moscow. It has performed well in some difficult military operations.

It is far from "obsolete," as the uninformed Donald Trump claims. Thanks to Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post for demolishing much of Trump's criticisms.  On the other hand -- there always is another hand, isn't there? -- NATO could do much better, and member countries need to do more in their own and the common defense.  I'm pleased, for example, by the European Reassurance Initiative, both its measures to improve the balance of power in eastern Europe and its restraints to reduce Russian reactions.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

news you can lose

I'm missing out of what's happening in the presidential campaigns, I guess, because I rely on the traditional coverage in the mainstream media, in particular on carefully reported articles by seasoned journalists. WhatI want to know is not just what they say, but how they function as leaders of people and managers of complex organizations. I like the horse race stories every now and then, but what I value most is information that will allow me to assess how a candidate will perform in office.

Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post has a revealing article for the Nieman Reports questioning the way reporters are covering the campaign and suggesting some alternative sources of information for better coverage. She says that candidates now can evade and avoid the traditional venues and practices by using social media. She talks about sites I've never seen because I don't have a smartphone. But that's where most people are getting their information about the campaigns and candidates, as superficial as it is.

It's useful to consider her critique of current coverage, but I wish we could rely on traditional gatekeepers and fact-checkers and professional standards. On the Internet, everything is equal -- truth and falsehood, reality and deception, consequential and trivial.