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.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Congress and the navy

I ordered the book Congress Buys a Navy [U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2016] by naval historian Paul Pedisich hoping to find a story of how farsighted lawmakers overcame reluctant presidents and built a fleet for a global power role during the years it covers, 1881-1921. Instead I found a chronology of parochialism and porkbarrel politics. Hardly anyone in either the executive or legislative branch had a vision of a future navy, just requests for new ships a year at a time.

Pedisich tells how Congress repeatedly rejected proposals for navy reorganization because it valued the patronage possibilities in the service's 8 bureau system. He documents recurring fights over whether to build ships in navy shipyards or private ones. And prior to the Spanish-American war of 1898, Congress forced delays in actual ship construction by demanding that contractors meet a $300 per ton price for armor plate, far below the industry standard of $400-500.

Eventually, spurred by the 1898 war and later by a rearmament binge in 1916, Congress did build a navy "second to none." But it was accomplished without a strategic plan and only by compromises to serve member interests.

Pedisich mentions but does not seem to recognize the significance of one development that I think explains why Congress actually put serious money into naval modernization in the mid-1880s. In 1885, the House gave its naval affairs committee the power to write appropriations bills. Until then, that panel approved bills authorizing new ship programs, but they were ignored and slashed by the appropriations committee. The Senate made a similar change after 1898, and the navy committees retained appropriations power until after World War I. The power to shape actual money bills greatly improved the legislative chances of naval expansionists.

One reason Congress reverted to single appropriations committees in the early 1920s was to avoid the overspending by the many committees that could both authorize and appropriate. Lesson learned.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

best SecDef?

A writer for Tom Ricks' blog draws attention to a recent interview by former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates praising  two of his predecessors, Mel Laird [under Nixon] and Harold Brown [under Carter]. I share Gates' admiration and would add Bill Perry, Brown's deputy and later Clinton's second SecDef.

My own study of those who have held that office, SecDef: the nearly impossible job of Secretary of Defense, was published just before Gates took office in 2006. I praised Laird, Brown, and Perry as unsung heroes who performed all of their key tasks with great skill, and did not join the ranks of 1/3 of the Pentagon leaders who were fired or forced to resign. In addition to managing the department, the secretary has to maintain good relations with the President and other members of the National Security Council, with the military leadership, and with the Congress. He also functions as a war planner and an important diplomat.

Gates himself would rank first in my judgment. He maintained the confidence of two quite different presidents and kept strong congressional support, despite his own contempt for politicians, which he revealed only in his memoir. He also made many good calls -- in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in reorienting military thinking to the most urgent tasks, and in demanding accountability. He even fired people, which few of his predecessors had ever done.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

problem without a solution

Bill Bishop, who made us aware that a "Big Sort" had turned America into islands of like-minded people, has a discouraging piece in the Post detailing the enormous loss of trust in most institutions, except for the military. It has happened mainly since the 1970s [hello, Vietnam! hello, Watergate!].

While there have probably been multiple causes including individual self-absoprtion and a decline in community engagement, Bishop offers no remedies to restore trust.

I don't have any far-reaching ideas to offer either. Congress and the presidency can help their own situation by getting things done -- and that means centrist compromises. The news media are too numerous and fractured to save themselves as a group, but individual organizations can triumph through professionalism rather than partisanship. The counter example of the U.S. military offers a potential model -- of accomplishment, professionalism, nonpartisanship [mostly, so far], and built-in self-criticism mechanisms.

Trust can't be demanded; it has t be earned.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Are we better than Nazi Germany?

I hope so, but we may be tested. Timothy Snyder, distinguished historian of the Holocaust, has an article in the New York Review of Books noting that Hitler used a fire in the Reichstag  to suspend civil rights and later an attack on a German diplomat by an angry Jew to launch the kristallnacht pogrom. 

The 9/11 attacks led America to accept increased government surveillance and travel restrictions -- though I would note that Congress required the USA PATRIOT Act to be renewed every few years and did not adopt the Bush administration's open-ended authorization for wars on terrorists.

Nevertheless, Snyder's warning is valid. Even strong democracies can be turned authoritarian in the face of real or exaggerated threats.

politicization of the U.S.military

I have long warned against military personnel becoming politically identified with either political party. [See chapter 12 of my Warriors and Politicians.] Imagine how destructive it would be if the American people thought that the armed forces were a tool of a political party rather than a servant to the nation and defender of the Constitution. Imagine presidents searching for Republican or Democratic generals rather than the best warriors or strategists. Not good!

A new survey of West Point cadets and graduates warns that these military professionals are freely expressing their political views through social media, phenomena that have grown up since the last codification of rules for political activities. The existing rules limit the public display of political preferences, largely confining them to the secrecy of the ballot box and small bumper stickers.

The survey was limited -- to army officers -- but still can be taken as a warning. Officers should strive for nonpartisanship if they want to avoid becoming pawns in nasty political power struggles.

Friday, February 24, 2017

refresher course

It's good now and then to revisit those golden oldies of political thinking. There are still powerful insights in Max Weber's writings on bureaucracy and John Milton and John Stuart Mill on freedom of the press.

Today's assigned readings are from British writers: George Orwell's classic, "Politics and the English Language," and Jonathan Swift's "The Art of Political Lying."

Read and reflect.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Who said that?

I read a fine short biography of a famous man recently. Some things, however, jumped out at me -- a deja vu moment.

Here are three quotations from the great man:

1.“All of you know nothing; I alone know something. I alone decide.”

2.“My course is the right one, and in it I shall continue to steer. We are destined for greatness, and I shall lead you to glorious days.”

3.“Beware the time when I shall give the orders.”

And here is advice on dealing with him from his closest friend:

4.“[He] takes everything personally. Only personal arguments make any impression on him. He likes to give advice to others but is unwilling to take it himself. He cannot stand boredom; ponderous, stiff, excessively thorough people get on his nerves and cannot get anywhere with him. [He] wants to shine and to do and decide everything himself. What he wants to do himself unfortunately often goes wrong. He loves glory, he is ambitious and jealous. To get him to accept an idea one has to pretend that the idea came from him. …He is the sort of person who becomes sullen unless he is given recognition from time to time by someone of importance. You will always accomplish whatever you wish so long as you do not omit to express your appreciation when [he] deserves it. He is grateful for it like a good, clever child...We two will always carefully observe the boundaries of flattery.”

Who said that?

The three quotations in italics are from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who [mis]ruled Germany from 1888 until 1918. The advice was given to Foreign Minister Berhard von Bulow by Wilhelm's longtime friend, Count Philipp zu Eulenburg-Hertefeld. The book, Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1859-1941: A Concise Life, by John C.G. Rohl, who earlier had written a 3-volume life of the kaiser.

Sound familiar?

Friday, February 10, 2017


Lyndon Johnson, by all accounts, was a big, egotistical, profane, domineering man. So is Donald Trump. Both men showed a keen sense of their opponents' weaknesses. Both men bullied others relentlessly. Both men were obsessed with television news about themselves.

But there are significant differences. Lyndon Johnson knew how government works and how to make it work for him. Donald Trump is clueless, careless, incurious, and thus likely to be ineffective.

One of the Senators I worked for was like LBJ in many ways: big, assertive, temperamental. Over the years I observed, however, that he didn't lose his temper, he deployed it --for impact and effect. And it often worked.  Johnson, too, deployed his anger and his affection for strategic effects, and they often worked.

Too bad -- for him -- that  DJT lacks the skills and qualities of LBJ.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson

President Trump now has a large portrait of Andrew Jackson hanging in the Oval Office, Some of his closest advisors, including Steve Bannon, have labeled him a Jacksonian, mainly on the grounds that he will be a populist and be politically disruptive.

Some historians like H.W.Brands have disputed the comparison. I think, worry actually, that Trump may practice the worst of Jackson's policies.

Remember, Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States and the economic regime it had created, sending the United States into the worst depression of its early history. Trump has sharply criticized the Federal Reserve, head of our current banking system, has expressed indifference to the idea of a default on our national debt, and seems intent on tearing down our existing structure of trade agreements.

Remember, Jackson famously defied the Supreme Court, refusing to enforce its decision in an Indian claims case. Who believes that Trump would enforce a court order against any of his key policies, such as the immigration ban?

Remember, Jackson forced the removal of Indians from their eastern lands, sending thousands, many of whom died, along the Trail of Tears. Trump's orders have already led to the removal of legal immigrants and visa holders; and he seems ready to deport thousands of nonviolent, law-abiding people lacking proper documents.

With that kind of record, Jackson falls far short of political sainthood in my view. I hope that Trump does not follow that model.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

politicizing the NSC

President Trump has signed an order -- National Security Presidential Memorandum 2 -- setting forth the procedures for the National Security Council's operations. The basic outline is the same that has been followed since 1989, the Scowcroft modelof an NSC, a Principals Committee, Deputies Committee, and Assistant Secretary level groups, here called Policy Coordination Committees.

The most notable deviations from prior practice are the inclusion of the Chief Strategist [Steve Bannon] as a standing attendee and a provision saying the Vice President may preside when the president is absent. There is a longstanding tradition that domestic political arguments are not supposed to be made in NSC meetings even if they are important considerations for the president. Inclusion of Bannon makes that tradition harder to maintain. Designation of the Vice President suggests that President Trump envisions greater than normal absence from NSC deliberations.

A curious omission from the order is any mention of the proposed National Trade Council. In prior administrations, foreign economic policy was handled by staffers dual-hatted with the NSC and the National Economic Council. Under Trump, foreign economic issues are to be handled by the NSC, with the president's economic advisor chairing the Deputies Committee for such issues. The administration really needs to clarify those lines of authority.

Another omission is any mention of the Science Advisor, who under Obama was specifically empowered to be involved when science and technology issues were considered.

I regret the blurring of the line between political and national security advice and the likelihood that this will further politicize national security policymaking.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

trade war powers act

Under the Constitution, Congress has the primary power over trade. Since he 1930s, however, lawmakers have delegated much of its power to the president. Many of existing trade laws have sections that would allow President Donald Trump to do most of his proposed policies, including tariffs and import restrictions.

Conservative Senator Mike Lee of Utah wants to recapture some of that trade power with his new bill, S. 177, that would require congressional approval of many of the presidential actions under those trade laws.

I like the idea, but I think it would work better if it gave Congress power to veto those trade actions, the way current law allows a legislative veto of international arms sales.

I agree with the key purpose of the bill: if a president wants a trade war, Congress ought to be involved.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

illegitimate presidents

I have long worried about America's political polarization and hyper-partisanship. It is especially troubling that every president since 1992 has been viewed as fundamentally illegitimate by many in the political opposition -- Bill Clinton for winning with only 43% of the vote and for  later impeachable conduct; George W. Bush for taking office despite fewer votes than his main rival and only after a questionable decision by a politicized Supreme Court; and Barack Obama because so many people falsely believed -- and still believe -- that he was not born on U.S. soil. Now we have Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote by a sizable margin in an election where FBI statements and Russian hacking may have played decisive roles.

Journalism professor Andres Martinez documents this sad phenomenon in the Washington Post, but offers no remedies. Nor can I. It probably doesn't help for Cong. John Lewis [D-Ga.] to call Trump an illegitimate president, but it probably doesn't hurt either since doubts are already widespread.

What's even sadder is the distrust that has grown up among ourselves with large fractions in each party saying that the other party is dangerous to America and claiming that they wouldn't want their children to marry someone who voted differently.

I guess we need some trust-building and civility reinforcing efforts before we descend into hatred and violence.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


I come from a card-playing family. My parents preferred canasta and pinochle, and I recall many happy nights at our mountain cabin, shuffling and dealing.Once we were stranded almost 24 hours on a train blocked by an avalanche; we passed the time playing cards. In high school, some classmates taught me bridge -- a game where play counted more than luck; you could win even with low cards. Once I learned bridge, I never went back to the other games. [And I'm not skilled enough at deception to play poker.]

In bridge the players bid for a contract -- the number of tricks they'll take -- either in a suit or "no trump." Cards in the trump suit beat higher cards in other suits. In no trump contracts, the highest card of the suit led wins the trick.

That's how I think of "trump" -- a kind of wild card. As a verb, it means to prevail over even the best of others. There are other phrases, of course, like "trump up," which means to exaggerate or deceive.

I expect the headline writers to pun a lot on the word in the next few years. I'd settle for a new deal.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

foreign interference in elections

The Russian hacking in order to tilt the election in favor of Donald Trump was outrageous and effective -- but not unprecedented. Great Powers have long tried to promote their interests by such actions, though rarely against a superior power. Colonial rulers practiced divide and rule. Everybody practiced propaganda.

The United States admitted giving money to political parties and publications in Europe after World War II, and no doubt similar tactics have been used more recently. The Soviet Union supported communist movements across the globe and now the Russians show their skills with new clients in new places.

Sometimes, of course, friendly countries try to help their allies using the same tactics. That's what the British did  in the United States before and during World War II, as this helpful article reminds us. They sided with the interventionists against the isolationists -- and against Nazi Germany's own propaganda and spying efforts. The "great game" wasn't just in South Asia.

Monday, January 16, 2017

the nuclear danger

We've been very lucky: no nuclear weapons have been exploded in anger since 1945. But continued luck is not guaranteed, and many political developments make the nuclear danger more likely.

Mike Krepon has an excellent discussion of these issues in a new Foreign Affairs piece.

He notes:

The current nuclear landscape is foreboding. All of the existing foundations of the global nuclear order have been weakened. Some arms-control and reduction treaties have been altogether jettisoned, while other constraints are eroding.
When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January, he will face a global nuclear order that is increasingly unstable. North Korea, deteriorating U.S.–Russian relations, and the triangular competition among India, Pakistan, and China are all cause for concern. Add in Beijing’s growing ambitions to control resources and sea-lanes around its periphery and Trump’s repeated promises to rip up the Iran nuclear agreement, and the future of global nuclear arms control looks even more uncertain. 
The incoming president has, of course, made contradictory comments on nuclear issues, so he could move in reassuring directions. Let's hope he does.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

cyber hype

"Cyber-" is a big buzzword these days, but I fear it's more sparks than light. I'm concerned that we -- government, media, citizens -- are overreacting to recent hacking and unwisely responding to limited but real threats. And in the process we are risking losing civilian control of this problem.

I don't believe in the "digital Pearl Harbor" scare. I don't believe truly disruptive digital attacks will occur unless they are part of a big power conflict -- in which hard power capabilities can also work to deter or deny.
Meanwhile, I'm concerned that we are overspending on offensive cyber and underspending on defense, resilience, and recovery, perhaps by a 4:1 ratio.

This seems to reflect a macho mentality that prefers offense over effective defense.

I'm also concerned with the militarization of cyber efforts. In fact, what prompted this tirade today is a new Atlantic Council report that has a kinds of suggestions for DOD to work with civil authorities on a broad range of cyber efforts. I'm not against cooperation, but the thrust is we[DOD] know best and we're here to help you [do what we tell you].

Under current law and presidential directives, Homeland Security is responsible for domestic cyber defense and DOD for military and offensive efforts. We should be strengthening DHS, not outsourcing its work to DOD.

I'm also concerned about the NSA/Cyber Command relationship. They probably should be separate, if only as a check and balance inside government.

Monday, January 2, 2017

imagining a Twitter presidency

I've been trying to imagine how President Trump will spend his day, and it looks like nothing we have seen before. Typically, presidents start the day with an intelligence briefing and have some interaction with senior national security officials. Typically, the White House press secretary [or whatever they call the most frequent spokesperson] meets the White House press corps at least once, releasing official statements and responding to questions about the day's news. Typically, the president has at least one newsworthy event to highlight the message of the day or to have pictures of a friendly meeting. Typically, the president has numerous meetings where officials suggest things the administration could do, and the president makes choices. Typically, the president holds a formal news conference every few weeks to satisfy the press corps and demonstrate his mastery of policy issues.

In a Trump presidency, however, it looks as if the president will tolerate only occasional intelligence briefings, relying on his staff to tell him of important developments. There is no need for daily press briefings because the president himself will tweet comments on whatever captures his attention from the morning news shows. He may not even have any formal press conferences, compared to all recent presidents, because his tweets will dominate the news and because they allow him to avoid answering complex or embarrassing questions. Nor is he likely to have many formal speeches -- in contrast to stream of consciousness talks at rallies of the faithful -- because they require details and focus and constrain his normal flamboyance.

President Trump will look active and engaged through his tweets and occasional pictures of him signing bills or speaking on the phone to company presidents or foreign leaders. In fact, this would be a reactive presidency rather than a productive one. It would deal with policy issues superficially rather than substantively. No doubt somewhere in the government meetings will be held and choices made, but it looks as if the president will not drive those decisions himself. That's just not his style.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Hamilton and the lesser evil

Time for a history lesson. In 1800 the top two electoral vote winners tied, forcing the House of Representatives to choose the new President. The candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were from the same party --the Democratic-Republican -- and it was intended that Jefferson would be president. In the original Constitution, electors voted for two people, and the winner of the most votes became the chief executive. In the actual voting, however, all Jefferson electors also voted for Burr.

As Dana Millbank tells the story today, one of Jefferson's key supporters was his fierce ideological opponent for many years, Alexander Hamilton. The two men had radically different views of how America should be governed and had expressed sharply disparaging views of each other.

Comparing the two candidates, Hamilton thought Jefferson would be more restrained, would end up preserving more of what the Federalists had created under Washington and Adams. He lobbied many members of Congress in support of his longtime adversary, arguing that he was the lesser evil than Burr.

Some Federalists thought the non-ideological Burr would be more malleable. But, Hamilton countered, a man without theory cannot be “a systematic or able statesman.” Burr is “more cunning than wise . . . inferior in real ability to Jefferson,” Hamilton wrote. “Great Ambition unchecked by principle . . . is an unruly Tyrant.”

The former Treasury secretary warned that Burr’s trafficking in “the floating passions of the multitude” would lead him to “endeavour to disorganize both parties & to form out of them a third composed of men fitted by their characters to be conspirators.”
Jefferson finally won on the 36th ballot.