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.