Thursday, June 30, 2016

dark money undermines democracy

There's a lot wrong with the way American democracy functions these days, but the biggest problem is money. Limits on spending, some in place for a century, have been thrown out by the Supreme Court. Much of the increased spending is what's called "dark money" because the sources are not transparent. There's good background in an article in The Atlantic. It cites a Brennan Institute study that finds a surge in semi-secret outside spending since the Citizens United case in 2011.

What's especially worrisome to me is how special interests can target state and local races with huge and unexpected -- and often highly misleading -- negative ads. The article gives some examples of out-of-state groups hiding behind "good government" names swamping incumbents.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

we've seen this before, almost

There are dark pages in American history in addition to the stories about slavery and the mistreatment of those called Indians by the invading settlers.

-- We've seen a repressive federal government deny basic civil liberties to dissenters -- in 1798 with the Alien and Sedition Acts and in 1919-20 during the Red Scare.

-- We've seen the rise of political movements based on the hatred of people who were different -- the Know Nothings in the 1850s, the Ku Klux Klan both during Reconstruction and in the 1920s, and the anti-immigration activists who got laws barring Chinese and Japanese immigration as well as the 1924 law aimed at Jews, Italians, and others from southern and eastern Europe.

-- We've seen powerful movements promoting an isolationist foreign policy -- notably the America First groups in the 1930s.

-- We've seen successful political demagogues, though mostly contained to localized power -- racist Senators like "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman and Theodore Bilbo, more recently Huey Long and  George Wallace.

But never before have we had this perfect storm of a skilled demagogue capturing a major political party with proposals of ethnic and religious repression, rejection of basic rule of law principles, and a crazy passive-aggressive foreign policy that threatens everybody and promises to punish America's allies.

Never before.

Should defense strategy documents be classified?

As Shawn Brimley and Loren DeJonge Shulman explain,  Congress is rewriting the rules for the development of defense strategy documents. The House wants to see more of the internal guidance directives and the Senate wants the Pentagon to do an annual strategy report, but keep it classified when sent to the Hill.

The authors prefer the Senate approach and make an interesting case for keeping it classified:

Between both of us, we have participated in all the most recent Pentagon strategy reviews, and are rather pleased by the strong prospect of reform in how the Pentagon conducts strategic reviews. As discussed in our first column, one of the major drawbacks with the QDR process has been the tendency for the Pentagon to develop it as an unclassified expression of the national defense strategy — this is, we believe, the root of its perceived failure as a core driver of actual Pentagon strategy. While most of the meetings, analysis, and war-gaming that undergirds any QDR are classified, the time and attention taken to produce a public document targeted to the American people, allies, partners, and even potential adversaries, virtually ensures that the QDR as a document is unable to be employed inside the Pentagon as a key lever for the secretary of defense. Moreover, while other classified strategy documents are developed (annual program guidance, biannual contingency planning guidance, etc.) that draw from the classified analysis used to produce QDRs, the unclassified nature of the final document virtually ensures that a tremendous amount of manpower and senior-leader bandwidth was employed in waging semantic battles to translate classified analysis to unclassified rhetoric, and then often to translate the final unclassified report back into useful classified guidance. We don’t think this was the most useful way for senior Pentagon leaders or their expert staff to spend their time, nor was it apparently all that useful for the secretary of defense (we’ve asked around).
I can certainly appreciate the time wasted in semantic battles because people knew the words would be made public. But given the propensity for leaks, I'm not sure that this is a durable solution. But it's worth a try.

Monday, June 13, 2016

How many wars are we fighting today?

The unclassified answer appears to be 16 -- the same as six months ago, but troop levels have changed in several conflicts. The Obama administration has been following the practice of submitting to Congress reports based on the requirements of the War Powers Resolution every six months.The latest report, released today, identifies 16 military operations where American combat-equipped forces are deployed: "against al-Qaida, the Taliban, and Associated Forces" with no particular locations or numbers given; in Afghanistan, where the number of U.S. troops has dropped to 9,300, compared with 10,500 six months ago; Iraq [where the number has increased from 3,550 to 4,087 now] and Syria [where the number has jumped from 50 to 300]; Turkey [no numbers given in the unclassified version]; Somalia; Yemen; Djibouti; Libya; Cuba; Niger [where the number has climbed to 420 from 310]; against the Lord's Resistance Army; Egypt; Jordan [where the number climbed from 2,000 to 2,200]; and in Kosovo [where the number dropped from 700 to 660].

So Congress has been informed. It's up to lawmakers, who have the Constitutional power to authorize or forbid major military operations, to act on this information, either by authorizing them with or without conditions or by limiting them.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

eschewing technology

I do my research and writing on an out-of-fashion PC. But I like it and it works well for me. I have a tablet for keeping up with email and the internet while traveling. And I have a cellphone that I turn on only when I need to make a call, or expect one, such as coordinating a rendezvous.

I don't have a smartphone. I don't want to pay a monthly fee for something I think I'd hardly ever use.

But then, last month, we went to Japan. In a lovely rental in Kyoto, the owner provided an iPhone for our use, with English apps and an Australian-accented voice. Having a portable GPS was very helpful! I began to soften my opposition to a smartphone, started thinking of the times when one could prove useful.

And then I turned on the iPhone's flashlight feature. By mistake. And no matter what buttons I pushed, or what I swiped and punched, I couldn't turn it off. [Remember, I'd never used one before.] So what did I do? Turned on my tablet and Googled "how to turn off iPhone light." That worked. Problem solved.

But until I have time for a week-long [or longer?] course, probably taught by a pre-teen, on how to use a smartphone, I think I'll pass.

Friday, June 3, 2016

limiting the NSC staff

I finally got around to reading the debate when the House of Representatives approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization bill limiting the size of the NSC staff to 100 people. [It's summer time, travel time, grandparent time.] The debate was brief; you can read it on pages  H2677-79 of the Congressional Record for May 17.

Chairman Thornberry [R-TX] of the House Armed Services Committee drafted a particularly clever amendment, in my opinion. It does not forbid the president from having more than 100 staffers, but would require Senate confirmation of the national security adviser if that number were breached. The logic is that the staff is necessarily operational when above 100, but can remain solely advisory below that figure.

I'm torn. I strongly believe that the national security adviser should hold a Senate-confirmed position -- and should accordingly have some real authority to manage the interagency policy process for the president. I like forcing a presidential choice on the matter, as this amendment does. On the other hand, 100 is too arbitrary a number, and I can imagine shenanigans to stay under the cap. I also prefer front door approaches to the confirmation issue, rather than this side-door maneuver.

On balance, I'm glad the measure is in the House bill and I hope the Senate comes up with something similar -- and the White House compromises.