Wednesday, November 30, 2016

the myth of precision bombing

I have long been troubled by the expectation, especially among civilian officials, that "precision bombing" can achieve decisive military and political effects without the political and human costs of ground warfare. In the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy naively hoped to eliminate the Soviet missile threat in Cuba with a low number of airstrikes. He dropped that option when told that an operation would require dozens ifnot hundreds of airstrikes, to destroy enemy defenses as well as the key targets.

Over recent decades, senior officials kept looking for low cost airstrikes as the silver bullet in crises, but it wasn't to be. Two Air Force pilots now offer a different critique of the myth of precision bombing. In the ever-valuable War on the Rocks site, they detail the history of precision weapons improvements then note that senior officials insist on perfection, with no civilian casualties or unintended damage. They also claim that target review processes undermine military effectiveness.

These are important additional considerations in assessing the limits and benefits of precision strikes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus"

That delightful editorial from the New York Sun in 1895 made a warm and fuzzy case for belief in Santa Claus. In my own childhood home, since I was four years older than my sister, I encouraged her belief as long as possible so we could get more presents at Christmas.  Now we have a poll showing that Americans see a decline in belief in Santa Claus but still value it as a tradition and contribution to imagination.

By the way, I have been persuaded by recent research that Clement Moore did not write the famous "Visit from St. Nicholas" poem, as discussed here.  But, of course, I could be wrong.

the end of secrecy and certainty

In the fall of 1992 I observed my first demonstration of a computer search, before the invention of early search engines like Mosaic and AltaVista, when a geeky Air Force general showed us how to find weather sites and foreign library catalogs. I remarked to a colleague, "This is the end of secrecy and certainty."  I meant that protecting secrets would be next to impossible and that verification of information time-consuming and difficult. I think the subsequent history of the Internet and World Wide Web has proven me right.

The recent tsunami of "fake news" and commentary about it brought back my memory of 1992. I used to think that fake news was satirical, like Onion headlines. Now I see that it is often deliberate misinformation. I've missed out on a  lot of it because I get most of my news from print publications, which still have professional standards and value accuracy. What I'm missing, however, is what millions and millions see and believe.

I have no solutions to offer beyond reader skepticism and demands for proof.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Trump's secret plan to ... do what?

Donald Trump made clear during this presidential campaign that he doesn't like to telegraph his foreign policies. He even disparages military leaders who indicate hard-to-deny plans to capture enemy territory.

Right now, much of the American national security establishment is in a holding pattern, waiting to see even in what direction the new president will go. Will Trump escalate military operations in Afghanistan or withdraw from that troubled country? Which of the numerous groups fighting in Iraq and Syria will be support or oppose? Will Turkey be a new ally -- or adversary? And what about the Kurds? Will he partner with Russia -- and Iran and Assad?

At least when Richard Nixon, in his 1968 campaign, said he had a "secret plan" to win the war, everybody knew he would stay and fight in Vietnam. With Trump, we have no idea. And plans built on surprise usually lack careful thinking and planning.

Russian covert actions

As we learned only years later,  the CIA was very active in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s around the globe. It overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala and tried to do it in Cuba and elsewhere. It secretly aided non-communist political parties in Italy and France and numerous intellectual organizations and publications.

At the same time, of course, the Soviet Union was engaged in its own dirty tricks and interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

That was then. Nowadays U.S. help to struggling democratic governments is more transparent. But Russia seems determined to play the old cold war games with increasing vigor. I'm not going to look up all the links, but the international press has been full of stories reporting Russian support to numerous right-wing political parties in Europe as part of its efforts to weaken NATO and divide the EU so it will not continue sanctions against Russia over Crimea. Russia even tried, but failed, to organize a coup in Montenegro. Pro-Russian officials are gaining power in Hungary, Austria and the Baltics. And who knows where Russia-sponsored hacking is disrupting elections besides the United States or spreading fake news with insidious impacts?

I hope we're fighting back secretly. In any event, we should be more open about recognizing this renewed threat.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

anticipating a Trump administration

Some lessons learned from the past are signposts pointing to how the Trump administration will function. It's time, for example, to re-read Max Weber's analyses of government and politics. The German sociologist identified, for example, the "charismatic" style of leadership which the new president seems likely to use. [The link is to wikipedia, but even better is the real thing, as in Weber's essay on "Politics as a Vocation."] Weber saw special dangers in politicians driven by vanity.

A much different look back to the future can be found in a 1987 book assessing how well the Reagan administration did in capturing and revolutionizing the federal government. Robert Rector and Michael Sanera edited Steering the Elephant: How Washington Works [Universe Books]. While the various authors tell some stories of conservative victories over liberal-oriented bureaucracies, many also report failures and suggest ways to avoid them in future conservative revolutions.

One of the better chapters is available on line: Fred Smith's "Learning the Washington Game: Political Strategy and Tactics."   Smith describes the conservative's "tendency to pre-compromise;" a tendency to "dawdle" or do "excessive pre-planning." He warns especially against agency capture of the political appointees, who "go native." He suggests an approach of educational outreach and coalition development to minimize those flaws.  While aimed at conservatives, I think his points are relevant to any political appointee.

If the Trump people do look at the Reagan administration experience, I hope they also include Robert Retor's chapter explaining how different the public sector is from the private. He notes, for example, that while the marketplace is the ultimate manager in the private sector, "the political appointee, Congress, the bureaucracy and interest groups compete over the role of ultimate manager" in the public sector. He says "The information system used in private sector management, based on profit-and-loss statements, does not exist in government." And he admits that governments have many competing goals, not the simple profit-maximization of businesses.

Another lesson from the Reagan book is that "personnel are policy." That means that new people are likely to continue in the same trajectories as they have until now. What we see is what we'll get.

when to go to war

Eliot Cohen does a valuable public service in the Wall Street Journal by debunking the so-called Weinberger Doctrine's "tests" for deciding on going to war.
Weinberger’s vision of warfare has never held up well to scrutiny, and it would be a mistake for President Trump, or any other commander in chief, to follow it.
I'm glad someone of Cohen's conservative thinking and strategic expertise says this, because for many years Weinberger's views, slightly adapted by Colin Powell, have been widely accepted in U.S. military circles.

It's useful to remember that President Reagan never endorsed Weinberger's approach. His Secretary of State, George Shultz, called it "a codification of the Vietnam syndrome" that would not allow America to fight terrorists.

Cohen lists a much better alternative set of considerations. I hope Trump heeds them.

Friday, November 11, 2016

the end of American global leadership

It's ironic that Republicans, whose most common criticism of President Obama's foreign policy was his lack of "leadership," is now stuck with a president who doesn't know or care how to maintain the "leadership of the Free World." Donald Trump may not be a full-fledged isolationist, but he is undeniably a unilateralist. He's happy to let other nations and their leaders praise him and offer their cooperation, but all his instincts and pronouncements suggest that he will go it alone.

America won its global leadership role after 1945 with a diversity of wise actions: massive foreign aid; the United Nations and international financial institutions that were fair to others but gave America special powers; alliances in Europe and Asia that contained communism and limited most of the conflicts that did break out; and a special caution about nuclear weapons that led to arms control and reduction agreements as well as an international effort to limit nuclear proliferation.

All of those American-led building blocks of global order are now in jeopardy. Candidate rump was openly skeptical of the alliances and many of the international organizations and even indifferent to nuclear proliferation. He doesn't want to try to buy influence or support with aid programs; on the contrary, he expects one-time allies to pay more to maintain U.S. support.

Leadership requires followers; followers must be willing to accept the plans of the leaders. A unilateralist America that fails to listen to its potential followers will forfeit that role. And the world will be a mre dangerous place.

Maybe Trump won't be as bad as many now fear. But his comments and behaviors have raised profound uncertainties over the direction of American foreign policy. Europe is facing its own extremist, populist right wing surge. Putin is winning. The pivot to Asia is over. TPP is dead and the regional powers are looking to cut their own deals with Beijing. The new global leader on climate change policies is China! Now if ever is the time for U.S. leadership.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

it can happen here

It just did. American voters gave the enormous powers of the presidency to a dangerously inexperienced and unfit man. He will likely be supported, rather than restrained, by a Republican-controlled Congress. Some commentators see this as "an Andrew Jackson moment," a watershed event when nativist populism triumphed over a self-satisfied elite. Does that mean we are now on a path toward economic collapse, as happened as a result of Jackson's crazy economic policies, and the forced removal of unwanted people along a trail of tears? At least Jackson had successfully commanded men in battle and had served in both the House and Senate. He was no neophyte to governance.

The winning candidate actually sounded presidential in his victory speech. He spoke of bringing people together; he asked his opponents for guidance and help to bring national unity. The American people have a long record of accepting the outcomes of divisive campaigns, provided that the winners lived up to their healing promises.

I fear that, in foreign policy terms, America will never be as great again. Many of our closest partners are themselves threatened with extremism; our alliances are unraveling even without a skeptical president. The winner promises a trade war, which he can conduct without any actions by Congress, and is likely to spur the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I have never felt more worried about the future of my country.