Friday, October 31, 2008

Wag the Dog on Syria

Yesterday I was a guest on "Evening Edition" on NewsTalk in Jamaica. It was great fun - there were two hosts who took radically opposite positions from each (sort of an island Hannity & Colmes.) One, much to my surprise, was not a knee-jerk anti-American. The other guest was professor of international law Richard Falk.

The subject of the discussion was the U.S. raid on Syria and its overall implications for international law. Falk argued that the raid on Syria was an effort to distract the public from the economy and re-focus on security matters which would help McCain in the homestretch of the election.

Obviously I made the serious argument that there was a real target to this raid - Abu Ghadiyah - who ran the network funneling foreign fighters from Syria. The foreign fighters, besides killing U.S. troops, are also responsible for murdering many hundreds of Iraqi civilians.

As the argument progressed it turned on issues of applying international law, and I observed that international law may not provide adequate responses to states like Syria which has its own - very long - record of violating international law.

But the initial argument, that this was a "wag the dog" scenario, is just silly. The economy is in such dire shape that it is very difficult to believe that any serious political adviser would conclude - with the U.S. involved in two major shooting wars - that a particular military engagement would suddenly and magically shift public opinion.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Palin & The Coming Ice Age?

In Slate Christopher Hitchens (another incredibly prolific writer who I envy) reports that Sarah Palin attended a church where the preacher:
says that Alaska will be "one of the refuge states in the Last Days."
Funny thing about that...

Over twenty years ago, while I was in high school, I thought I was going to be a writer (or a stand-up comedian - I am grateful YouTube did not exist then to record my "musings"). My primary themes and subjects revolved around baseball and science fiction.

I began a novel about a Senator from Alaska, who, being part Eskimo knew the tundra like Bedouins knew the desert. This Senator had determined that a global ice age was on its way. In those happy days we could still chose our apocalyptic scenario - ice age, global warming, nuclear, or alien invasion.

So my part-Eskimo Senator was going to pull Alaska out of the Union in order to use its oil wealth to develop a new society that could continue surviving the glaciers and thus save civilization. I envisioned it as a political thriller, with independent Alaska joining OPEC and forcing an oil boycott until the US set them free.

OK - so I was a really weird kid, and it is probably for the best that I did not end up trying to become a fiction writer. Still, somehow I was on to something.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Implications of the VP as a Legislative Office

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, has a thoughtful op-ed about the Vice Presidency in today’s New York Times, which is a shorter version of an article he wrote for the Northwestern University Law Review. (I can blog, I can write an op-ed, and I can write scholarly articles – but not all at once – oh, I envy him.)

His core argument is that the Vice President is in fact part of the legislative branch, and not the executive. The only Constitutional description of the Vice President’s role is to preside over the Senate and cast the tie-breaking vote when necessary – strictly legislative in function. Some folks are pretty excited about this, since it means Cheney was not out of bounds in claiming to be a “legislative officer” rather than an executive branch official (to avoid disclosing some documents), that Sarah Palin’s understanding in the VP debate of the VP's role was more accurate than Biden’s understanding, and more broadly that the chattering classes that scoffed at Cheney’s gambit are in fact wrong.

Interesting so far, but Reynolds takes this debate much farther, noting that if the VP is a legislative officer, then the President cannot grant him executive authority (due to separation of powers) and the Cheney model of an activist Vice Presidency is not permitted. Reynolds notes that it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will take on this issue – but that there are sound reasons for an inactive VP. Reynolds refers to the VP as a “spare tire” that “should be kept pristine, for when they are really needed.” When Presidents resign or are impeached, “a vice president who is enmeshed in the affairs of the president cannot offer a fresh start for the executive branch.”

These are sound arguments, and for most of the country’s history this was effectively how it worked. Vice presidents were marginal figures of little consequence. But, in an era of instant communications and truly global national security problems the Vice President needs to be “kept in the loop.”

Reynolds grants this, citing the infamous example of Truman who was unaware of the atom bomb when he took power (Truman was also unfamiliar with FDR’s diplomatic strategy for the post-war era.) But still, he calls for a VP not engaged in day-to-day governance.

Running the Numbers

Day-to-day involvement is an advantage for a VP who takes office on the death or incapacity of the President. But this same involvement is to the detriment of the nation in the case of an impeachment or resignation.

Eight presidents have died in office and there were at least four other close calls (Wilson was incapacitated, Eisenhower and Johnson were both seriously ill while in office, and Reagan was shot.) Only two Presidents have been impeached and a third resigned. So the odds would favor an engaged VP as the best course because Presidents appear substantially more likely to die than to be forced or resign from office. But, in general, people today are healthier and live longer (and Presidential security is far tighter) so the likelihood of a death in office – while always possible - is less and less likely.

At the same time (working with an admittedly tiny dataset) two of the three cases of impeachment or resignation have occurred in the last 35 years - so it can be plausibly argued that the future may hold more impeachments and resignations. In the case of Nixon’s resignation, the VP had resigned only a short time before (for unrelated reasons) thrusting an unelected President onto the scene. As difficult as this was, if Agnew’s crimes had come out a bit later, he might have become President (bad enough) and then been impeached or forced to resign in his own right. The Nixon-Agnew era was trauma enough, but actually having the Speaker of the House step into the Presidency would have been worse for the nation as a whole.

Recent history makes the spare tire metaphor for the VP’s role compelling and worth considering.

Middle Ground: Mondale vs. the Metaphor

But people are not tires and rarely do people become better at something while sitting and waiting. Is there some way of getting the best of both worlds? That is a VP engaged in the process but not overly enmeshed in it.

That depends on what being “in the loop” means. For the VP to sit over in their Senate Office and receive the daily briefings is better than nothing, but much of the policy process is informal – and the roles of specific personalities is essential. To truly be in the loop, the VP has to be in the process, dealing with the key players on a regular basis as debates take place and policies take shape. In an emergency transition the key people will still be there – it is important that the VP have a certain level of familiarity with them.

Reynolds cites Mondale approvingly, writing that he maintained a distance from public decision-making. However, Mondale was very engaged in the process – but he maintained a very light touch and was extremely discreet. Bush 41 (as Reagan’s VP) and Gore followed this model. (Gore did not jump to take on Gore-Chernomyrdin – he made sure it was the President’s idea.) While Gore’s links to Clinton may have hurt him in the 2000 elections, had Clinton resigned or been forced from office, Gore would have been accepted as President. In fairness, this may be due to the nature of Clinton’s offenses – he was not impeached over policy matters.

Unlike his activist predecessors, Cheney held no future political ambitions, consequently he was less concerned about being associated with particular policies and could operate with a heavier hand on the policy process.

Both Cheney and Mondale drew inspiration for their roles as VP from a similar source, the failed Vice Presidency of Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller, a well-known national figure, was selected by Ford to add credibility to his own accidental Presidency. As VP, Rockefeller attempted to run domestic affairs by taking control of the Domestic Policy Council – a high profile position. Instead it became a burden and Rockefeller himself became a lightning rod in the internecine White House power struggles. Mondale talked extensively to his predecessor and probably took the lesson of not being heavily associated with any given policies or taking on formal responsibilities and instead operating behind the scenes.

Cheney had been Ford’s chief of staff and ran interference on Rockefeller. He may have taken different - more operational - lessons about how to make the Vice Presidency a power base.

Returning to Reynolds’ analysis, the VP is an odd position – a prominent nationally elected office with almost no real power, but a very real and essential role. Simply warehousing the VP may not be an option, but in playing a policy role Vice Presidents should hold fast to the motto:
Discretion is the better part of power.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Al-Qaeda & Ostriches: Axis of the Asinine

My musings on ostriches and WMD attracted an interesting comment. After observing that both North Korea and Iran were seeking WMD and were I posted this picture and writing
Here is a picture of Osama bin Laden aide-de-camp Wadih el-Hage riding an ostrich during an al-Qaeda foray into flightless bird wrangling.
I received this comment.
This is one of the most ludicrous, asinine thing I've read about him yet. It wasn't "during an al-Qaeda foray into flightless bird wrangling." It was a family outing. We each rode an ostrich, one at a time, while the owners (also pictured) held onto them, much like one holds the reigns on a horse, though with ostriches, there are no reigns to be held, only feathers. This place is an ostrich farm. Please don't speak about things of which you have (very) limited knowledge. Also, in the future, please draw a solid line between perceived facts and your own opinions.
I try to respond to comments on my blog, usually with a comment of my own. But this deserves a bit more time.

First point: this is one of the "most ludicrous, asinine thing[s]" the commenter has read about Wadih el-Hage? Really? I'm sure if you poke around the blogosphere, this is pretty low-rent stuff. And if not, bloggers have not been doing their job!

Second point: that being said, the post is a bit ludicrous, and arguably asinine. It is clearly intended as a HUMOR piece (granted it may not be terribly funny). It was not meant to be taken seriously. Al-Qaeda and its ilk, continue to demonstrate a very serious humor deficit. This may be at the core of the "clash of civilizations." One side can't seem to take a joke... ever.

Third point: the comment also claims to have been present at the ostrich ride and that I am completely wrong about it and takes me to task for speaking "about things of which you [that is me] have (very) limited knowledge." Sure, ok. I was not there, I would never claim to be. However, I did not make any of this up whole cloth. The picture above was submitted as evidence by the defense in Wadih el-Hage's trial. The defense was arguing that el-Hage was a businessman who was looking to deal in various commodities, including apparently ostrich eggs (which I guess is different from ostrich wrangling - so I did engage in hyperbole - see point two above). The transcript from the trial is posted here.

Fourth point: perhaps this was in fact a family outing, which the defense attorneys later tried to portray as a business deal. I could not possibly know that. However, I would caution, the prosecuting attorney in the trial was Patrick Fitzgerald. If there is one thing I learned from Scooter Libby's trial it is not to fart around with evidentiary matters when Patrick Fitzgerald is the prosecutor.

Fifth point: The comment is a smokescreen or red herring. There is some inherent connection between ostrich farming and WMD. I am getting too close to the truth and the Axis of Ostriches is trying to sidetrack me. They are using subtle tactics of misdirection learned from studying Sun-Tzu.

Axis of Ostriches Redux: Iran's Failure

My last blog entry examined whether or not there was some connection between ostrich raising and seeking WMD. It was inspired by this story, about Iranian efforts to construct a 1500meter long ostrich meat sandwich in order to promote Iran's ostrich farming industry. I wrote about how both North Korea and al-Qaeda have tried to get into the ostrich business, and mused about whether this could be a reliable indicator of intentions to acquire WMD.

Iran's effort to construct a BIG big bird grinder was ultimately unsuccessful. People ate it before the sandwich was measured by Guinness officials. The implications of this are staggering. Clearly Tehran is beset with mass hunger (I mean these people were rushing to ostrich meat for heaven's sake) indicating that the regime is not providing essential services and could be unstable - although attempting to construct giant ostrich meat sandwiches is evidence of instability in its own right.

The failure to complete a giant, promised project is yet another blow to the regime's shaky credibility.

This is also evidence that sanctions are working. If there were Subways in Iran (there are none), you bet they would have gotten that sandwich done right, and at a good value (and with more toppings.

The frightening thought is that constructing a nuclear weapon may be easier than breaking the world's record for largest ostrich sandwich.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Axis of Ostriches? Avians of Evil?

Last week in Tehran, cooks assembled the largest ostrich meat sandwich in history. BBC reports
About 1,500 cooks used 1,000kg (2,200lbs) of ostrich meat to make the 1,500m (4,920ft) long sandwich.

The organisers hope those world-beating dimensions will be enough to earn a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest ostrich sandwich ever.
The intent was to promote Iran's ostrich farming industry, here's the video

Fair enough, but North Korea - under the explicit instructions of film auteur Kim Jong-il - has also taken a crack at husbanding the big-money bird.

Here is a picture of Osama bin Laden aide-de-camp Wadih el-Hage riding an ostrich during an al-Qaeda foray into flightless bird wrangling.

So what is the attraction of these massive non-avian avians to the axis of evil. I don't recall Dr. No having a phalanx of these beasts nor can I think of a WMD application for them (although, observed closely they do look like some bizarre mutatated rooster). Another evil character, George Costanza on Seinfeld was very proud of having eaten an ostrich burger. So have I - it's pretty good (red meat though, not white), I'd eat it again, but I keep kosher now and ostriches are specifically ruled out in Leviticus. So perhaps an obsession with propagating ostrich meat reflects anti-Semitism. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews who publicly acted Catholic but privately remained Jewish were known as marranos. Marrano means pig in Spanish. This was because, to prove their conversion, these hidden Jews would eat pork, forbidden under Jewish law, in public.

Since Muslim law also forbids the consumption of pork, perhaps ostrich is an alternative prohibited meat to force on future conversos. Presumably these hidden Jews would be known as ostrichos or perhaps struthios (for their genus.)

(Remember the pork industry's slogan a few years ago, "Pork, the other white meat." I always thought promoting it based on health was the wrong way to go - no one is intrigued by healthy food. A catchier slogan would have been "Pork, the forbidden meat." Make pork eating seem subversive, something the man doesn't want you to know about - now that's marketing!)

The obvious metaphor between ostriches sticking their heads in sand, and dictators having their heads in the sand suggests itself. But, ostriches apparently don't actually do this - they eat sand and pebbles to aid their digestion. The truth is, ignoring danger isn't much of a survival strategy and ostriches, which can run nearly 45 mph and kick like Jean Claude Van Damme, have some pretty good options in the face of danger. Dictators too, don't survive with their heads in the sand. They build enormous intelligence agencies and quash - immediately - any threats to their authority.

As I write this I am at a meeting (for my day job) about different efforts to model terrorist organization behavior. Some models focus on causality, others on correlation. The reasons for weird dictator-types to get into ostrich farming may not be evident. But state-sponsored ostrich ranching seems like a solid datapoint for correlation with WMD-seeking behavior.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Agnew: The Rise & Fall of the Greek Veep

Thirty-five years ago a seminal event in the history of the Vice Presidency occurred. Spiro Agnew pleaded no contest to one count of income tax evasion and resigned from his office. In the speech (see the YouTube audio below) he refers to this resignation as insignificant in the context of America's peace and prosperity. But in fact Agnew's rise and fall had a profound impact on the course of the Vice Presidency.

While Agnew was a political cipher in the Nixon Administration and glad-handed by staffers to keep him away from anything important - his limitations and malfeasance set the stage for new trends in national politics.

The resignations in short order of both a Vice President (Agnew) and a President (Nixon)led to the "outsider" candidacy of Jimmy Carter. Since then, almost every Presidential election has featured an "outsider" candidate and anti-Washington "insider" rhetoric has become a stock feature of the American political scene. It took an outsider President to seriously consider an empowered Vice President - and that too has become an important (although still relatively new) feature of American politics.

It is possible that this would have occurred without Agnew's resignation - Nixon's resignation alone would have been sufficient to shock the political system (although considering how close the 1976 election was - Carter won 50.1% vs. Ford's 48% of the popular vote) Agnew's actions may in fact have been an important factor.

However, Agnew's resignation led to Ford's appointment and ultimately taking office not having won a national election to anything. The rapid turnover in the nation's highest offices, as Marie Natoli wrote in her American Prince, American Pauper: The Contemporary Vice Presidency in Perspective, changed views of the Vice Presidency, focusing on "the job which the Vice-President is really all about: the Presidency."

Bonus video: Agnew castigating effete snobs

Friday, October 3, 2008

VP Debate Review

It is all too easy to fall into the Pundit trap, and attempt to provide instant canned insights. With a hot Vice Presidential race (that includes a hot VP), the temptation is overwhelming. But the point of this blog (and my dissertation) is deeper than that – it is using the Vice President as a window into the national security process and trying to figure out how the Vice President can both be helpful to the President and better prepared for the Presidency if need be.

So I’ll try to push things that way, but some punditry is unavoidable.

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy. Reading all of the pundits before the debate, I realized, I had nothing new to say about it. Biden needed to not bully Palin and not gaffe. Palin needed to not gaffe and needed to stand there and take her lumps and not look to miserable doing it. There was a substantial chance that one or the other would not be up to it – but they both managed. Biden definitely won (was really quite masterful on the whole), but not by a knockout. Palin was good enough (having set expectations very low, not drooling was probably sufficient.) It is possible that radio listeners thought she lost by a huge margin, since her statements were not terribly clear or coherent. But combined with a nice smile and some winks, she was appealing enough on screen. In my preview of the Obama-McCain debate I described McCain’s lack of polish as a speaker, his apparent lack of artifice, as the most clever artifice of all. Perhaps the same will apply to Palin’s debate performance.

(It is possible that she is studying Tina Fey and imitating herself. On that note, my wife burst into laughter about ten minutes into the debate when she realized that the inevitable SNL sketch will feature Keenan Thompson as Gwen Ifill.)

Defining their Roles

There were a few times when the debate turned to the role of the Vice President. Ifill asked a specific question about the Administration’s claim that the Vice Presidency resides in both the executive and legislative branches. Biden rejected this as ridiculous. He explained that the VP’s role in the Senate is very limited and that the Administration had been out of bounds in its efforts to expand the VP’s role in the legislative branch. Palin (probably less familiar with the issue) said that she was hoping the Constitution would provide some flexibility in terms of shaping the Vice President’s role.

Interesting, in that light, that Biden said he would be the administration’s pointman on legislative affairs. The Senate is extremely jealous of its prerogatives and (starting with John Adams) has pushed back against Vice Presidents who tried to ride herd on the Senate. No less formidable a figure than Lyndon Baines Johnson (a true master of the Senate) was pushed from power when he became Vice President. Nelson Rockefeller, a formidable figure – but without Senate experience – tried act as lobbyist-in-chief and quickly became persona non grata in the cloakrooms where the real deals are done.

Vice Presidents who presided with a light hand did much better, and some Vice Presidents (such as Mondale) did some very careful lobbying. However, Vice Presidential lobbying can create questions about the Vice President’s impartiality as a Presiding officer. Therefore, the executive branch lobbying operations are kept separate from the Vice President, who serves rather as a point of contact between the two branches might be a better term for this role. Biden is an experienced Senator and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to this role.

Palin should be extremely careful in how she handles the Senate. If she displays the brash confidence for which she has become known, the Senate will quickly put her in her place. The last governors to preside over the Senate were Rockefeller and Agnew – both had troubles in that role.

Palin also said she looked forward to leading on the administration’s energy policy. It is certainly possible that she will have real authority in this role, but more than likely (particularly since she has no real DC powerbase or experience) this will be a throwback to the commissioner role that Vice Presidents played in the 1960s. These commissions were generally “feel-good” initiatives intended to make it appear something was being done but had little actual power.

As I’ve written before, an ongoing challenge for a McCain administration will be giving her substantial work that both makes use of her talents and prepares her for power – should that become necessary.