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.