Wednesday, August 9, 2017

when the military becomes an interest group

I have long worried about the politicization of the U.S. military. When officers openly identify with a particular party, they risk undermining their role as an instrument of whoever have legitimate power to control them. When American politicians court the armed forces and line up retired luminaries, they risk having the elected leaders seek out only Republican or Democratic officers for key posts.

That hasn't happened too much, yet, in the U.S., but it's a danger to be avoided. We now have another example where a foreign leader coopted the military to his own domestic policies -- Venezuela.

The NY Times explains how President Maduro has given military units and their leaders control over various domestic economic organizations, linking their personal interests to his own political success. He has created over 2,000 generals, using the army as a patronage bonanza. I believe the armed forces should be limited to their military roles, not used as a tool of political power.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

the next Korean war

It's time to get really concerned about a renewal of fighting on the Korean peninsula. There was only an armistice, not a peace agreement, that ended the fighting in 1953.

We have long been used to bombast from the Korean media and its leader. Now the American president is trying to match the explosive rhetoric. What makes Trump's comments more threatening is that they come at a time when U.S. public opinion is becoming increasingly hawkish. A quickie CBS poll  is "uneasy " about the Korean situation, and about Trump's ability to handle it. Some 29% favor "military action now." A more substantial survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds 40% of Americans favoring airstrikes on North Korean nuclear production facilities and 28% favor sending U.S. troops into the country to destroy its nuclear facilities. Only 11% of respondents are willing to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Although large majorities of 68-78% prefer sanctions against North Korea and China to try to end the nuclear programs, that approach has regularly failed in the past. I personally favor Bob Gates' proposal for joint US-Chinese inspection of a North Korean commitment to freeze its existing missile and warhead programs in return for US diplomatic recognition and other normalization. That's the best possible deal at the moment. But it would mean accepting a world where DPRK had a modet but real nuclear capability, a very tough stance for any US president to accept.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

war weariness in 1945

Americans like short, successful wars; they don't like long or unsuccessful conflicts. I've long viewed U.S. national security policy between the Nazi surrender on V-E Day and Japan's surrender on V-J Day as a struggle over the costs of an American invasion of the Japanese home islands and over the role of the emperor and the meaning of "unconditional surrender." I now see that there were powerful domestic factors also shaping U.S. policy in those crucial months.

As part of my summertime reading, I found Waldo Heinrichs and Marc Gallicchio's Implacable Foes. While the main focus of the book is on military planning for the defeat of Japan, it also provides surprising chapters on the domestic politics of the period. Truman's decisions on the atom bomb and Japanese surrender were made in a context where--

-- Congress was pushing for rapid demobilization and "reconversion" to a civilian economy and was skeptical of the need for large numbers of troops and military production once America had tro fight only a one-front war.

-- Soldiers and their families were pushing for rapid implementation of the Army's promised demobilization schedule, starting with individuals with the most points under a scheme that emphasized length of service and especially time in actual combat -- despite the disruptive impact on military units.

-- Many in government and in certain economic sectors demanded special treatment for soldiers with particular skills, such as coal minors and railway workers. Officials had to spend a lot of time responding to individual requests, often backed by congressional sponsors.

-- Congressmen regularly leaked details of classified hearings with Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and others to bolster their own calls for different military or economic policies.

-- The Army was faced with the nearly impossible task of organizing the movement of forces and equipment from Europe, where they were no longer needed, to the Pacific theater, often with 30-day furloughs en route.

One of the lessons for me is that American war weariness was a powerful factor in the spring and summer of 1945. Victory in Europe led many to switch prematurely to a civilian focus as if the war were already won.  This wasn't the last time we saw such sentiments.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

why we missed Trump's victory

As a fully frocked political scientist with some modest campaign experience, I watched last year's presidential contest with special attention to campaign organizations, spending, and themes and the resulting polling results. I knew that polls nowadays are failing to reach and get responses from over 90% of the people they try to contact, so I paid greater weight to aggregators.

I couldn't believe that Trump could win if he failed to run a traditional campaign of heavy media spending and strong organization, especially for getting out the vote [GOTV]. He didn't do either on a national scale, and even his swing-state efforts seemed modest -- though it was obviously enough in a few rust belt states that gave him electoral college victory.

Now I understand that I -- and we in the observer class -- missed where the Trump campaign was supercharged: on social media, often driven by bots. I don't follow or participate in social media, so I missed it, just as campaigns in earlier decades missed the new tactic surprise winners used.

There's new academic analysis of the role of the bots, as summarized here, with a link to the journal article, by Columbia Journalism Review:

Bots played a huge role in promoting the spread of misinformation and disinformation during and following the 2016 campaign season. A just-released study from a group of scholars at Indiana University in Bloomington, which analyzed 14 million Twitter messages, finds that bots were more likely than humans to be “super spreaders” of fake stories, playing a crucial, early role in making certain stories go viral. Bots spread the stories through tweets, retweets, replies, and mentions. Bots will repetitively add @realDonaldTrump to a tweet with a false claim, for instance, to propel false stories to surface more often.

While this is not a eureka moment in the battle against fake news, it is compelling evidence that so-called “bot armies” are a cornerstone of the misinformation strategy. The study’s findings also suggest a path forward for the fight against fake news. If bots are able to take advantage of an ecosystem that rewards their sheer force of numbers, then disabling overactive bots would be a way to slow the spread of such claims. Researchers, including those at Indiana, are developing more reliable ways to detect whether a particular account is a bot or not. The study I described above relies on a tool called a Bot-o-meter, which scores Twitter accounts based on how likely they are to belong to a human.

This story also comes after the recent controversy in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in which bot armies promoted smear campaigns against Qatar and Al Jazeera. As David Carroll pointed out: “[Bot armies are a] global problem deployed as info ops against media outlets.” BahrainWatch.org provides a fascinating list of propaganda bot networks and hashtags involved.
Now we know where else to look for campaign information, but not what to do about it.

the marginalization of the State Department

Further evidence today on how Secretary of State Tillerson is succeeding in weakening,marginalizing, and ultimately destroying the State Department. See this article by Roger Cohen.

Tillerson is refusing the nominate people to key positions, including many major ambassadorships and 20 of 22 assistant secretary posts. He is outsourcing a planned reorganization of the department,which seems driven by org chart elegance and money savings rather than roles and missions. He has acquiesced in savage budget cuts and failed to take even simple steps to boost the morale of career professionals.

Here's an example:
In the Saudi-Qatar eruption last month, the extent of dysfunction was clear. Saudi Arabia, with clear support from Trump, orchestrated a blockade of Qatar, where the United States has its largest regional air base, accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism. Never mind that such accusations coming from the Saudis are pretty rich. That was on June 5. Four days later, Tillerson appealed for reconciliation. The blockade was “impairing U.S. and other international business activities.” Barely an hour later, Trump called Qatar a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

Throughout this time, Tillerson never contacted Smith, who was then still the Qatar ambassador, she told me. By contrast, she spoke four times to Defense Secretary James Mattis during the first week of the embargo; that communication line, at least, was open. Finally, this month, Tillerson spent a few days in the region trying to broker a deal between Doha and Riyadh, to no avail.
So far, at least, Congress is resisting the deepest budget cuts, but unless Tillerson changes course, lawmakers will be funding a hollowed-out, aimless diplomatic instrument.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

who won the Iraq war?

It looks like Iran. A lengthy article in the New York Times shows how Iran has become dominant in Iraq. That's the legacy of our ill-considered war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The Times notes that Iran not only decides who has power in the Iraqi government but also is using its position to provide military support to pro-Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon.

It is not surprising that a Shiite-majority Iraq would have cordial relations with Shiite Iran, but Tehran's dominance makes it much harder to build a unified country where Sunnis and Kurds feel welcome and safe.

America's defeat has many causes, but the most valuable lesson we can learn is, Be Careful about going to war.


Monday, July 10, 2017

leadership abandoned

It's really discouraging to return to the news after a family vacation and see the further crumbling of America's position in the world -- in just a few weeks. Personally and professionally, I believe that U.S. leadership in world affairs in a good thing for us and for most others. The international institutions and norms we created after 1945 have been force multipliers for our security, our values,  and global prosperity.

That doesn't mean we have to lead everything, be policeman trying to solve every conflict, or insist on subservience to our policies. But we should still try to lead, to persuade, to shape a better future.

When an American president doesn't even try to lead other nations, doesn't listen to reasonable alternative points of view, embraces inconsistency as a virtue, he puts the rest of us at risk. That clearly was the result of the G20 summit. The other economic powers are lining up against us; they are working around our confused president. What has been and could still be a forum for international cooperation showed instead how much the U.S. has abandoned its former leadership role. America First has become America Alone.  Sad. Very sad.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Aux armes, citoyens!

No. Non. It worked in France -- and led to the Terror, Bonapartism, two empires, and so far five Republics. Maybe somebody will tell the American president a bit of this history when he goes to Paris for Bastille Day.  [It is interesting that the French military take no oath -- in contrast to Americans in uniform who take an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the German military who swear to defend the law and liberty of the people.]

That Constitution provides several ways to replace the president -- legally and nonviolently. I wish that one of those paths would be pursued.

I'm one of the growing number of Americans who believe that Donald Trump should leave the presidency. But I never believed he was qualified to be president. My anger, disgust, disappointment, outrage, and so forth matter to me, but they don't count for getting rid of Trump.

As I explained when setting forth the options for ending the Trump presidency, the people who count are the ones who supported Trump. Many of them have to turn away from him for whatever reasons change their hearts and minds.

So I sit here and wait and watch. No point in protest rallies -- they only stir defensive reactions among Trump supporters. Let the media do their job -- exposing the lies, the incompetence, the outrageous behaviors, the failed policies. The facts should make a difference.

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.