Monday, June 12, 2017

the delusion of decisive battles



I like books with a well-argued point of view. That makes revisionist and contrarian writers more interesting than the recyclers of the conventional wisdom. Today’s example is Boston University historian Cathal J. Nolan’s The Allure of Battle. I didn’t read all 707 pages of Nolan’s tome – hardly any book deserves that length and weight -- but I welcomed his basic message:


The book does not argue that battle-seeking was always the wrong strategy throughout the period covered, or that all the wars considered were decided solely by attrition. However, it argues that, with few exceptions, the major power wars of the past several centuries were in the end decided by grinding exhaustion more than by the operational art of even the greatest of the modern great captains.

 Nolan’s pedagogical point is that it is highly misleading to focus history on so-called decisive battles, since they rarely determined or can explain broader geopolitical developments. His policy point is even more important: too many political and military leaders have succumbed to the “allure of battle” and counted on short wars which rarely turned out that way. The actual quick success of Prussia’s wars against Austria and France misled later generations of military planners to adopt the cult of the offensive, with tragic results.

I agree with that analysis, and with Nolan’s conclusions:
  

 First, beware the vanity of nations and the hubris of leaders, civilian and military; but perhaps civilians most of all. … Second, always be deeply skeptical of short-war plans and promises of easy victory, for they shall go awry as combat commences and descends into chaos, and an intelligent and determined enemy refuses to accept the initial verdict.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

foreign policy in support of slavery

Several months ago, I praised Matthew Karp's book documenting how pro-slavery southerners, often in powerful positions in the federal government, promoted a military buildup and foreign policies to defend, support, and expand slavery in the western hemisphere.

The New York Review of Books this week has a favorable review of Karp's book, which also serves as a summary of his arguments. [There's a paywall, so use the library, subscribe, or just read the book.]

Among his points: southerners favored and achieved a strong military buildup in the 1850s in part to guard against abolitionist attacks from Britain or its emancipated slaves; while arguing states' rights on domestic policy, they favored a strong central government for foreign policy. Karp also shows a pro-slavery tilt to other American foreign policies in the two decades before the war of the rebellion began.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

how does this end?





General David Petraeus’ famous question to a journalist about the Iraq war can also be asked of the Trump presidency. There are four broad options.

1.       Normalization/January 2021. Many supporters and opponents of the president just hope he settles down, stops tweeting, makes reasonable even if dull speeches, and works with the Republican Congress to enact the Republican program of tax cuts, smaller government, and increased military spending. By the way, this change of behavior could even lead to Trump’s reelection, continuing his presidency until January 2025.

2.       Impeachment/March 2019. Democratic leaders don’t want to talk about this because they know it can’t happen until enough Republicans turn against Trump, for whatever reasons. That could happen if Trump alienates congressional Republicans by opposing some of their key initiatives or if he loses so much public support he drags down their candidates. If Democratic gains in the 2018 elections are enough to give the party control of either house of Congress, the investigative subpoenas will fly like snowflakes and multiple scandals will be broadcast around the clock. If Republicans won’t defend Trump, it won’t matter what his own defenses are.

3.       Paralyzed presidency/sometime after summer 2017. Any of several possibilities could isolate the president from all but a residual 35% or so public support – faltering economy, terrorist attack, poorly handled foreign policy crisis, disclosures of presidential lies or misbehavior. Imagine nearly simultaneous events like a sharp recession, a war in Korea, and a terrorist attack on the DC subway – and then add leaked presidential tax returns. The best case is political gridlock; the worst case is armed partisan bands fighting in our cities and normal government services disrupted.

4.       Resignation in frustration/sometime after mid-2018. Trump could decide to leave office, either declaring victory – that he had accomplished all he could, given the political and media opposition – or declaring war against his political enemies and rallying his supporters for the 2018 elections. He could still hold his head high – he had been president – and he could still blame others for his shortfalls.

The Trump presidency seems so chaotic and unstable at the moment that something has to change, and only one possible change leads to a calmer America. The others portend political and economic turmoil, with few incentives to unify for solutions.

Monday, June 5, 2017

expunging history

I have been open to reexamining our veneration of American historical figures who had significant flaws.  Over the years I have changed my own views of Woodrow Wilson, largely because of his racism but also because of his stubbornness that prevented Senate approval of a modified Versailles Treaty and League of Nations. On balance, however, I argued against erasing his name from the international affairs school at Princeton.

The efforts of some southern localities to remove statues of long-honored Confederate generals riase similar questions of balance. I certainly don't want to re-fight the war of rebellion [which is a far more accurate description of the conflict than "war between the states"]. I am glad that veterans were able to reconcile amiably at battlefields like Gettysburg a half century after that bloody battle. On the other hand, those generals were defending slavery, whatever other motives they might have held. I'm willing to let the locals decide which statues should remain where.

But I was struck this week by an article pointing out what a nasty slave owner Robert E. Lee was. His dark side was darker than I had realized, even though he was a smart general, did surrender honorably, and served well as a college president. I'm ready now to retire his statues to museums rather than towering over our cities.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

echoes of 1798

I've long been fascinated by the Federalist period, when the new government got formed and set precedents still followed today -- like the Supreme Court's refusal to give hypothetical advisory opinions. But reading a new book by Professor Carol Berkin, A Sovereign People: the crises of the 1790s and the birth of American Nationalism [Basic Books], reminded me that there were many features we see today.

The country had sharp partisan divisions, at that time between John Adams and his Federalist majority in Congress and Thomas Jefferson's Republicans. The Federalists passed laws denying citizenship to immigrants or imposing long waits for naturalization. One of the Alien Acts gave the President the power to deport aliens deemed undesirable -- a provision still on the books and at issue in the travel ban court cases. And the President denounced the angry and often false criticisms of himself and his government and sought to punish his critics. 

In that case, his partisan Congress passed the Sedition Act, which said:
That if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered, or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either House of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States; or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the Constitution of the United States; or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act; or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against the United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
Nota bene: did you notice that the law did NOT outlaw criticism of the Vice President -- opposition leader Thomas Jefferson?

In fact, as the Berkin book notes, "Only 11 of the 17 men and one woman indicted [under that act] actually went to trial, and most of the editors, released on bail, continued to publish their newspapers in the interim... They had been incarcerated but not silenced." The Sedition Act expired at the end of the Adams administration -- and should stay there.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

patriotic gore

I know that the Revolutionary War was a real war, with fierce battles and casualties among the warriors and lots of "collateral damage" to civilians and their property. One of my own ancestors, Captain Levi Ely, who led a company of Massachusetts men, was killed in the battle of Stone Arabia near Utica, New York, on October 19, 1780.

Now there is a new book, Scars of Independence,  by Holger Hoock, that apparently drips with bloody violence committed by both sides. I'm on the library's waiting list to read it, for I'm not sure I really want it permanently near my books about Washington and the Continental Congress. The Times' book review cites some passages. It wasn't just the British and their Indian allies who were brutal.
Hoock narrates the brutal “campaign of terror” Gen. John Sullivan waged in Iroquoia during the summer of 1779, a scorched-earth march involving one-third of the total Continental fighting force. George Washington himself planned the campaign, telling Sullivan to pursue “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more,” wrote the Patriots’ supreme commander, whom the Seneca nicknamed Town Destroyer. Sullivan followed Washington’s orders; his men put at least 41 Indian towns to the torch. They desecrated native graves, raped native women and mutilated native bodies for profit and for sport. One lieutenant, William Barton, sent a party of his men “to look for some dead Indians.” The soldiers returned to camp having skinned two of them from their hips down for boot legs: a pair for Barton’s commander and “the other for myself,” he wrote in his official journal.
 I guess the lesson is that war is hell and war was hell, despite the airbrushed history many of us were taught.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

it feels like 1974

I was a staffer for a Democratic Senator in 1973-74.  I followed the Watergate scandal as a sideline to my regular work on such issues as military aid to South Vietnam and the B-1 bomber program. But, truth be told, I tried to catch the 11pm radio news because it often had stories from the just-published first editions of the newspapers.

I was shocked, of course, when the president fired his top aides and tried to push the scandal away by taking foreign trips and making defensive television speeches. One of our senior staff often reacted to those speeches with the comment, "It's enough to make a buzzard puke."

Life went on for the rest of us -- softball on the Mall; after work drinks at the Monocle, jazz at the One Step Down; foreign movies at the Circle theater. But the White House suffered the drip-drip-drip of revelations, and parts of the Congress were digging and holding hearings.

The media were actively investigating, too, and competing for big headlines.  Woodward and Bernstein get most of the credit because they had a movie made of their exploits, but the Times and other publications also had banner-headline exclusives.

Eventually the evidence became too weighty and undeniable. The president was involved in an actual crime and abused his governmental powers to obstruct justice and cover things up. His partisans in Congress couldn't defend him anymore. They were ready to impeach, but sent a leadership delegation that persuaded him to resign first. The president did, and a likable, experienced former congressman took his place.

Last night, for the first time in the Trump saga, it felt like 1974. It felt as if the capital city was at a tipping point, unable to move ahead on normal governance because of the accumulating problems of the chief executive.

Maybe things will play out as they did in 1974, but the impetus has to come from demoralized Republicans. They  hold the balance of power.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

face time

Presidents have a penchant for thinking that personal relations with foreign leaders can override structural conflicts or basic policy differences. Starting in World War II, American leaders have yearned for summit meetings, both to practice their charm and win praise in the media. Subordinates work overtime to prepare successful meetings, often with fully scripted outcomes.

In my class this spring I asked students to prepare an intelligence assessment on the Untied States and its leadership as if for President Putin or President Xi. The students recognized from media reports that foreign leaders should appeal to Trump's vanity with personal praise and minor agreements that he could boast about.

Foreign leaders made the same assessment -- notably Japanese Prime Minister Abe and Chinese President Xi. They and others realized that they needed actual face time with Trump to get his attention and win his support for their views.And as the Atlantic's David Graham writes today,  Trump is a pushover.
The pattern has become clear: A foreign official comes to President Trump. They speak. The official leaves with what he or she wants, and Trump emerges chastened, having reversed a major policy, or both.
Clemenceau was right that war was too important to be left up to the generals. International relations are too important to be left up to the whims of leaders.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

reconsidering Tillerson

I was surprised to read the New York Times report that Sec. Tillerson's speech to State Department people was concluded with "thunderous applause." Here was the guy with no governmental experience in foreign policy, who told his subordinates that our foreign policy had "gotten out of balance," that the department still had "not yet transitioned" from the Cold War era, who meekly accepted a 30% budget cut and substantial personnel reductions, yet his remarks provoked such a warm response.

So I read the transcript. And I saw remarks by a reasonable man, offering a tour d'horizon of global issues, articulating policies that sounded normal, not radical, more mainstream than I expected. I also saw that he praised his subordinates for their hard work.
So for those of you that have participated in these early efforts, thank you. I feel quite good about the one – the pieces that have been completed and are in execution, I feel good about those. I can tell you the White House feels good about it. The National Security Council really values the work that we provide in the interagency process. And I would share with you I hear that from them all the time, that the stuff that comes over from the State Department, we’ve done our homework. It’s a complete piece of work, it’s useful, we can use it, and that’s not always the case from all of the other agencies. So thank you for the efforts you’re putting into that in that regard.
 On the other hand, Tillerson persisted in the strange argument that policies and institutions were still stuck in the Cold War. He minimized the impact of the budget cuts, the personnel reductions, and the wrenching prospects of massive reorganization. At least half a dozen times he used the phrase "deliver on mission" as the goal of the Department and the metric for all his changes.

I don't know what that means in practice. At one level, State's mission is to promote U.S. interests. [Tillerson said we sometimes have to subordinate our values to pursue our interests] Ans those interests are broadly peace and prosperity, first at home and secondly abroad. But do you measure "peace" as the absence of war, or a reduction in violence, or stability, or social harmony, or what? And how do you figure that x+30% or x-30% in people or budgets gives a measurable change in "peace" or prosperity?

I'm more comfortable with Tillerson's leadership now than before, but still dubious that he has a smart approach to improving State and diplomacy.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

evaluating the Trump presidency

The Trump administration wants to portray its first hundred days in office as unprecedentedly successful. Journalists prefer lists of hits and misses, or maybe balls and strikes. The best that Never Trump people can acknowledge is like Mark Twain's backhanded comment on composer Richard Wagner: his "music is better than it sounds."

Of course, things could have been a lot worse. There is a reasonable, professional national security team in place, at least at the top. The President has not concluded any earthshaking deals, but neither has he got us into another war. Yet, in both cases.

We analysts, like journalists, often seem to prefer presidential changes in policy over competent management of the status quo. I think that's wrong. Presidents, like doctors, should be judged on whether, first, they did no harm. Then later on what they accomplished that was different.

Trump will earn a ranking as a pretty good president if, one, two,or three years from now, we can say that he kept things from getting worse -- with China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere.

But he will deserve our everlasting condemnation if even one nuclear weapon is exploded in anger against any country by any adversary. That's a historic red line all world leaders should worry about every day. The fear makes it hard for me to sleep at night; it should be hard for them, too.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

gatekeepers matter

Now, in addition to all the books chronicling recent presidents and their national security advisers, we have a valuable book looking at recent presidencies by telling the stories of their chiefs of staff. Journalist and documentary filmmaker Chris Whipple has written The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define every Presidency.

Whipple notes that presidents with weak chiefs of staff had problems, especially chaos and conflict. Strong chiefs managed the flow of information, saving the president from minutiae, and better assured completion of decided policies. He starts his book with Bob Haldeman of the Nixon Administration, arguing without trying to prove that the spokes of the wheel approaches by Kennedy and Johnson didn't work well. I don't agree with that, but I am persuaded that Nixon had a good system [for flawed policies] and Jimmy Carter, who was his own chief, failed in part because of that arrangement.

The book makes it easier to assess the Trump system, with a nominal chief but several others vying for primus inter pares. If history is a reliable guide, things don't look good for the Trump White House.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

degrading diplomacy

I'm concerned about what's been happening to the State Department -- marginalization on several foreign policy issues, still unstaffed at senior levels, threatened with huge budget cuts and questionable reorganization. The Trump people are damaging what should be our strong arm of diplomacy.

Sad to report, similar developments are undermining Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office [FCO], as described in the Economist:
The department has lost a succession of turf wars that have left it a hollow shell. Downing Street has annexed the most high-profile pieces of foreign policy—Mr Blair exercised almost total control over his ill-starred Iraq policy and the wider “war on terrorism”. The Treasury has ground its next-door neighbour by a twin process of starving it of funds and stealing some of its plum jobs. Britain’s previous ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, was a Treasury man who had never worked for the Foreign Office. The Department for International Development (DfID), which was created only in 1997, has grown into a monster that overshadows its aristocratic stepbrother. DfID is rolling in money because a legally mandated formula allocates it 0.7% of national income; meanwhile the Foreign Office must downsize or sell off its embassies.
Government institutions can atrophy from neglect. Talented people will go elsewhere to make a difference. Great powers need robust diplomatic instruments. I hope Britain and America reverse course.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

back to nature

My black car is green; my green eyes are red; the stringy catkins are dropping from the oak trees. It's allergy season. At the same time, the tulips are still vibrant; the neighbor's dogwood is in full glory; and a lilac bush I frequently pass reminds me of childhood springtimes. Can the peonies be far behind? Best of all, another robin has nested in our yard and is protecting three beautiful blue eggs.

I'm not a very good gardener. Thank goodness my wife is. Among my failed attempts are putting a rhododendron in hot sunshine and roses in partial shade. Her green thumb has turned mere twigs into budding plants. Our yard is welcoming to everything but mosquitoes, unfortunately including squirrels.

A few years ago, after a nasty reaction to a common sunscreen, I endured the full allergic test and found that I was mostly immune, except for spring pollens and grasses. So the eyedrops have moved from the cabinet to the dresser and I'm ready for reaction.

To fellow-sufferers, my sympathy. To the rest of you, enjoy what you don't have, and what we all have.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

the real turning point in the Great War

On this 100th anniversary of American entry into World War I, I want to draw attention to a more significant series of events two years earlier, changes in the conduct of war that have been tragically consequential ever since.

As Diana Preston documented in her book, A Higher Form of Killing,
Between April 22 and May 30, 1915, Western civilization was shocked. World War I was already appalling in its brutality, but it had until then been fought on the battlefield and by rules long agreed by convention. Suddenly those rules were abandoned when Germany forever altered the way war would be fought. On April 22, at Ypres, German canisters spewed poison gas at French and Canadian soldiers in their trenches; on May 7, the German submarine, U-20, without warning, torpedoed the passenger liner Lusitania, killing 1,198 civilians; and on May 31, a German zeppelin began the first aerial bombardment of London and its inhabitants. Each of these actions violated rules of war carefully agreed to at the Hague Conventions of 1898 and 1907 and were deliberately breached by Germany in an attempt to spread terror and force the Allies to surrender. While that failed, the psychological damage caused by these attacks far outweighed the casualties. The era of weapons of mass destruction had dawned.
While the German began these tactics, their opponents quickly retaliated in kind. All deserve blame.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

America enters the Great War

Next Thursday, April 6, will mark the centennial of U.S. entry into what is now called World War I, a conflict that might have been avoided by better diplomacy and less rigid war plans. But given the circumstances of April, 1917, should the United States have gone to war?

I've been reading a somewhat revisionist book on American policy before and during the war by G. C. Meyer that finds plenty to blame Woodrow Wilson for, and shows some sympathy for the opponents of the declaration of war. I'm still undecided. The Germans were not as bad as British propaganda depicted them.  U.S. policy was willing to let Germans starve but not the British or French. Tsarist Russia was hardly fighting for democracy.

I agree with Meyer and others, however, that once into the war, Wilson behaved badly, with overpowering censorship and suppression of civil liberties. And he failed to get anything good out of the Versailles Treaty because of his self-centered rigidity when dealing with the Senate. So bad marks there.

Bot on the bigger question, unsure.