Saturday, June 25, 2011

NY Times reports Biden wins Iraq

The New York Times reports that the drawdown in Afghanistan shows Biden's increased influence in the White House, it also mentions that Biden is a fierce advocate for the President's priorities (as though the VP has any choice).

Biden's influence is not news, there were some stronger bits of evidence, for example the Vice President's schedule which in a typical week shows numerous high-level meetings both with the President and key officials or, perhaps most significantly, the West Wing floor plan.

I still think what is striking about the policy process around Afghanistan is the way Biden played a public "devil's advocate" role when the traditional VP role has been to exercise influence quietly.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

In Politico on Withdrawing from Afghanistan

The Politico Arena ran my response to the question: Can Obama Split the Difference on Afghanistan?:
is a classic, multi-level decision in which the president must mollify multiple constituencies. Afghanistan hawks will be frustrated with the withdrawal, which threatens their fragile gains - but if they complain too loudly they call attention to the reality that if Afghanistan is so fragile then perhaps their mission is hopeless.

The anti-war faction of the president's own party will not be happy, but are they unhappy enough to undercut Obama and risk losing control of the White House (particularly with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives)?

According to Stephen Skowronek's classic "presidential time" Obama is a president practicing the politics of pre-emption. Clinton and his triangulation tactics was the archetype of this sort of presidency. Obama, despite his many stylistic differences with his democratic predecessor is substantively similar. Splitting the difference is standard operating procedure and in general it works pretty well.

One question that must be asked is, "What of Afghanistan?"

By serving as the rock on which the Soviet Union foundered the Afghanis did a favor for all of mankind. For all of the monstrousness of al-Qaeda and its radical Islamic ilk, they are nothing compared to the evil of the Soviet Union. But the Afghanis didn't ask for this place in history and have suffered terribly for it. Are they owed something for this?
Expanding on my remarks, I don't know what the right policy for Afghanistan should be. The cost of this war is draining, and it is not clear how our large presence in Afghanistan is helping Pakistan which is a potential nightmare on an unimaginable scale. Could we scale down to a smaller presence which allows a reasonably well-behaved government and Kabul while also allowing us to smack-down concentrations of terrorists? Perhaps.

I cannot surrender the moral question of, "What about the Afghanis?"

Yes, it is a tough place to nation build, but starting with a tough, isolated location, the tender ministrations of the Soviets for over a decade and then the Taliban - little wonder. A social worker friend observed that families of is clients are often frustrated when he can't resolve problems with a few weeks of therapy. "But," he tries to explain, "it took years to develop the problem."

Also, take a look at Arena newcomer, but old hand at international affairs, Ilan Berman's analysis, which argues that a withdrawal will devastate what remains of US credibility with both allies and adversaries.

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Location:In Politico on withdrawing from Afghanistan

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gore: Another Edition of VP vs ex-VP

Answering the Politico Arenaquestion Does Al Gore have a legitimate gripe with Obama? I wrote:
Al Gore is completely right and completely wrong at the same time. He is right that environmental issues have taken a back seat in the Obama administration. With multiple shooting wars, an economy in a continuing state of free-fall, and a hostile House little wonder that Obama is not devoting his time to the issue.

Ironically, Gore was an extremely influential VP in his day. His personal relationship with President Clinton was critical, but so was Gore's knowing which battles to fight. In the Clinton administration economic issues were front and center, everything else was secondary. As VP Gore did not push environmental issues when the president wasn't interested. As an elder statesman Gore is not constrained by political realities.

VP influence has relied on making sure there was limited public space between the views of our government's two principles. The VP has no bureaucratic power base of his own and Presidents don't need freelancers in the White House. But as an ex-VP, the only influence comes from reaching out to the public. One thing that is fascinating as that anyone cares what an ex-VP says. Throttlebottom would be amazed.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Serious Lessons in the Weiner-Gate Farce: Recent Politico Posts

I've posted a bit in Politico's Arena lately, both in response to a question about Weiner-Gate and a congressional stunt to hold law-maker pay until they raise the debt ceiling. These are not serious issues, but both are linked to more complex and deeper problems (and not just Mr. Weiner's.)

Aaron Mannes on 'Weinergate' a cautionary tale?
Rep. Weiner can claim that his account was hacked (because it is the truth) and this incident will just be a blip. But there are two cautionary tales here. First, as my colleague at the University of Maryland, Professor Jen Golbeck, has written:

"Incidents like this aren't what worry me. The bigger concern is when lawmakers, or other users, don't use proper judgment and intentionally post content that ends up being offensive, a security risk, or politically risky. Because it's social rather than technological, learning what to share and how is a tougher challenge than the security needed to keep out hackers."

At the same, this highlights a cybersecurity issue. Getting access to other people's accounts (email, Twitter, Facebook etc.) is all too easy. Often times, it requires no technical expertise -- access is acquired strictly via the sloppiness of the user.

We don't know exactly what happened that Rep. Weiner's account was compromised. But in a talk at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, Gen. Michael Hayden (former director of both the CIA and the NSA) argued that better cybersecurity practices by individuals would make the internet a cleaner environment.

As a comparison (my words, not his), people who live in bad neighborhoods don't leave their doors unlocked and the internet is a pretty bad neighborhood.
Since the story first broke, Weiner's managed to plunge in deeper by giving evasive answers, lending credence to Prof. Golbeck's point that people need to think very carefully about their behavior online. At the same time, however cyber-security just got more serious as well as the Pentagon just announced that some forms of cyber-attacks could be understood as acts of war. Considering the bottomless capacity for human beings to do stupid stuff - this raises the possibility of all kinds of accidental engagements and challenges. Just a thought.

I also responded to the question: Plus lawmaker pay issue a 'stunt'?
All talk of reducing congressional compensation is political grandstanding. As the great Samuel Huntington noted in his "American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony," Americans distrust complex bureaucracies but a modern society require them in order to function. Congress itself has become such a bureaucracy. The problem is not that members of Congress are out of touch with reality (they are, but in a sense so it everyone - reality is greater then any one person's grasp.) The problem is that the issues they face are extremely difficult.

The United States must get its fiscal house in order. Having so much uncertainty surround the international reserve currency is contributing heavily to the anemic global recovery and rising prices. But political stunts, while they may resonate with the public, do little contribute to the hard work of reforming our massive entitlement programs.
Here again, there is silliness and there is the very serious issue that America's fiscal difficulties are breeding international insecurity - which in turn contributes to our fiscal difficulties, which contributes to international insecurity.