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.