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.