Thursday, May 31, 2012

Do Drone Strikes Increase National Security?

Politico's Arena asked about the politics of Obama's making the ultimate decisions on the "kill list" of terrorists. My answer is here:
There are many sound reasons for President Obama to be personally involved in the decision-making process for targeting individual terrorists.

First, many of these strikes take place in countries in which the United States is not formally engaged in military activities. If the United States were involved in formal military activities tactical decisions could be left to area commanders. But since the status of U.S. operations in places like Yemen and Pakistan is, necessarily ambiguous, it seems appropriate that decision-making occurs at the very top.

Second, it is smart politically. The most vociferous critics of these programs are probably music to Obama as these critics only make him appear more centrist and reinforce his commander-in-chief credentials. Few Americans of any political strike are terribly sympathetic to the terrorists and those most opposed to US counter-terror policies are hardly likely to abandon Obama and vote for Romney.

Finally, it is probably very satisfying personally for the president to run a process where his decision is final. As Richard Neustadt famously noted, the power of the president is most often that of persuasion, rather then command. Most of the challenges the president faces involve endless policy tug-of-wars with congress, special interests, entrenched bureaucrats, and foreign governments. But on targeting terrorists, the president can be the unambiguous commander.

Politically smart, it is an open question however whether or not this aggressive campaign contributes to national security or advances American interests.
I close with a question, let me take a stab at answering it. Two aphorisms come to mind.

When you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail
The drone program is not just a technology, it is a bureaucracy of intelligence gathering and analysis, research and development, and decision-making. Bureaucracies acquire lives of their own and a bureaucracy that can offer distinct, relatively clear results is likely to grow quickly and be used often. All well and good, drones have clearly had a certain efficacy and it appears that the US decision-making process is actually based on the Israeli model.

However, all policies have costs. Drone strikes are easy to use, but they do cause civilian casualties. Apparently unrest in Yemen was triggered by the revelation of civilian casualties caused by drones. Even when these casualties are kept to a minimum, effortless strikes from the sky exacerbate the feelings of humiliation that - in great part - fuel the rage that infects the greater Middle East. This is not to say that drones should not be a tool, only that the possibility that drone strikes are doing more harm then good must be seriously considered.

There are other potential tools of US foreign policy which may do more to mitigate threats. In the case of both Yemen and Pakistan, state breakdown is a very real possibility (current in the former and highly likely within the next decade or so in the latter.) Somalia is already a failed state. But Yemen, with its location and Pakistan with its nukes represent much greater threats to international stability. Preventing terror strikes on the US is important, but these other issues could overshadow the dangers of terror strikes on the US.  Are drones reducing or increasing these dangers?

Is the high-level of American attention on drone strikes crowding out development and capacity building programs that might better serve long-term US strategic interests?  Does the regular use of drones make these programs harder to implement because they decrease the local government's likelihood of working with the United States?

Only Nixon could go to China
A President with stronger national security credentials would be better positioned to consider more complex options, rather then continue to use the simplest and seemingly low cost drone strikes. Because Obama came into office with major questions about his national security credentials, he is more inclined to pursue drone strikes to look tough. A President McCain might not have been as aggressive using drones as he pursued more complex, subtle options. No one would have accused McCain of lacking seriousness or competence on national security matters. Shades of this possibility were seen during the 2008 campaign in which Obama promised to pursue OBL into Pakistan if need be (a promise he kept.). McCain (and really almost any conceivable President) would have done the same, but McCain observed that such statements were not helpful in terms of US-Pakistan relations, which have been exceptionally rocky under Obama.

Finally, the Constitutional issue must be raised. The President has enormous discretion in the use of force and there are sound reasons for this. But at what point are limits placed on it. Or is the Presidential power to kill worldwide now effectively institutionalized?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

On the VP in Politico & Portman's Complaint

Politico keeps asking VP questions, and like a moth to a flame, I can't resist answering. Here is my answer to the question of whether or not Biden is a PR disaster
Considering the amount politicians are required to speak, it is astounding that there aren't far more verbal missteps by politicians.
True, Biden appears more prone to these gaffes then others, but this is relative. In his 2008 debate with Palin, Biden handled himself masterfully - demonstrating that he was a seasoned, experienced figure - without appearing to bully Palin.
It is a guarantee that every candidate on both tickets will make verbal miscues. Sometimes these mistakes end up shaping a public image as in the unfortunate cases of Sen. Dole in 1976 or Quayle in 1988. Because Biden has a reputation for them, in a sense he is insulated from their fallout.
Chasing Biden this way may be a distraction when the Republicans should be making their case on the issues that will decide this election.
I've written on this before, but considering how much politicians have to speak and the extent to which they are observed it is incredible that there aren't many more gaffes. For that matter, several of Biden's mis-steps in the video in the link above are pretty minor things that could happen to anyone!
Besides, VPs are almost always used in the campaign to rally the base, which often appreciates the mis-steps, remember the Republican base loved Spiro Agnew (even though Nixon couldn't stand him.)

Portman's ComplaintAs long as we are talking Veep, the Washington Post has a big article on VP potential of Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. Based on resume, Portman is a great fit for Romney as governing partner. He has been a White House staffer, congressman, US Trade Representative, OMB chief, and now Senator. Romney will need someone who knows DC and Portman fits the bill. The article made him sound even better, noting that Portman played the opponent when Cheney and Bush prepped for their debates. He did a good job, studying hard and helping the candidates anticipate the other guy's tactics. Presidents don't necessarily need another strategist or policy advisor, they need someone who has a strong sense of exactly what they are dealing with and can help them deal with it. As mentioned above, a minor mistake can become media fodder for weeks and a real distraction. Another politician can help see things that a staffer or policy wonk might not.
The problem with Portman is that he is considered boring. This gets into how we grossly caricature our politicians (as discussed above). Politicians must be charming and likable to be effective at all. The ones who are described as boring might still be the most impressive people most of us would ever meet. Remember, the worst hitter in the major leagues was a star of his high school team and would lead a typical company softball team to victory after victory.

Cross-posted from Veepcritique

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Debating Propriety of Yelling "Oh" during the Star-Spangled Banner

Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise recently criticized the Baltimore custom of shouting "OH" during the National Anthem at ballgames:
Orioles fans are not alone in their desecration of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” of course. Many of their tainted gene pool have migrated to Verizon Center for Capitals games. Some of these louts actually yell “OH!” and “RED!” at different intervals — twice ruining the anthem. Their spawn can be found in Houston, too, where a small group called “The Red Rowdies” holler “ROCK-ETS RED GLARE!” during Rockets NBA games. And they wonder why Tracy McGrady never won a playoff series.

Here’s wishing famine and pestilence comes to all their tailgates.

Allow me one serious, high-horse moment: Look, you’re not unpatriotic if you yell “OH!” It doesn’t make you an awful American. But by claiming the lyrics, if only for a moment, you fundamentally undermine the idea that the song was written to unite instead of divide. A national anthem is a national anthem, not a convenient vehicle for one’s immense pride in his or her team.
As a Baltimore native, I took umbrage with this dismissal of a tradition rooted in history and The Washington Post, to its eternal credit published my response:
Mike Wise argued that the tradition of Orioles fans shouting “Oh” during the national anthem at ball games taints a moment of patriotic unity with parochial fandom. Further, he lamented that the fans of other teams have begun to adopt similar practices. On the second point, Mr. Wise’s argument has much merit. But it is entirely appropriate for Baltimore fans to adapt “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

An also-ran among the great cities of the eastern seaboard, Baltimore (my place of birth) is a modest, homely and provincial city. But, in September 1814, with Washington smoldering and the United States itself in peril, Baltimore fought off the British and upheld the nation’s honor, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The national anthem should be a source of unity, and the rest of the nation should also join in saluting this Baltimore custom in deference to the service of that otherwise humble city.
It is worth adding that it really was the city of Baltimore that repelled the British. Fort McHenry was built by the citizens of Baltimore. James McHenry, for whom the fort is named, was a former Secretary of War who spearheaded the fundraising drive. When they learned the British were coming, citizens of Baltimore built makeshift fortifications to defend their city and the soldiers manning Fort McHenry were, for the most part, local militia.

I’ve written about Fort McHenry, which has a long and fascinating history post-War of 1812 before, it is an especially nice place to spend Memorial Day and even better with kids.

I hope my enthusiasm rubs off, I am kind of a dork about visiting forts – I even love to visit the ruins of forts, which abound in the DC area.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Question in Israel: What to do with a Super-Majority?

With the merger of Likud and Kadima, Israel now has the largest governing majority in the nation’s history. Naturally, because this is Israel, the discussion quickly focuses on questions of war and peace – so let’s dispense with them immediately.

Politics & Peace
First, is the argument that Israel is united in order to prepare for the international blowback from an attack on Iran. Yes & no – there are important questions about the efficacy of an Israeli strike on Iran. It would require the Israeli Air Force to operate at the extreme range of operational effectiveness and many of the key targets are buried deep in the ground. Further, Iran has developed a significant technology base so that there are limits to how far back the program can be set. An American strike would probably be more effective, but even that would have no guarantees. What’s more, the Israelis (and probably several other players) are having some success in a covert campaign against the Iranian program. The Stuxnet virus was one example, along with the misfortunes that keep befalling Iranian nuclear specialists. Presumably, whatever actions are making the news represent only a fraction of the total operations. In a cost/benefit analysis it is unclear that a strike would be that much more effective then the current path.

Further, a strike would put an end to any chance of negotiations, which cannot be ruled out as potentially effective. International sanctions are taking a hard toll on the Iranian regime and there are some signs that the leadership would consider an agreement. But a strike would reinforce the hardliners, and possibly lead to a lifting of international sanctions.

An Israeli strike may not be useful, but the threat of an Israeli strike is extremely useful. Many international actors (China say), while ambivalent about the Iranian nuclear program do not want to see further instability in the Middle East (which leads to higher energy prices.) Thus, the threat of an Israeli strike provides an enormous incentive to the international community keep the pressure on Iran and a broad coalition reinforces that impression.

The second question is whether or not this coalition government will lead to some forward motion in the peace process. Probably not: outsiders always over-estimate the extent and power of the Israeli peace camp. While everyone in Israel wants peace, the population that is willing to meet Palestinian requirements is quite small. The Laborites who sought peace back in the 1990s were not misty-eyed doves, they were Zionist shtarkers who saw peace in very hard strategic terms of relieving the IDF of police duties (a strategic hassle) and improving Israel’s international standing. Since that stratagem did not succeed the general Israeli attitude appears to be the construction of wall and a divorce from the Palestinians. Doing this in the context of a settlement is preferred – but not essential.

Reducing Political Fragmentation
About a year ago, I gave a presentation on Israeli politics. Rather then focus on personalities which are fun, I talked about institutions – because quite often that is what shapes the outcomes. The presentation slides can be seen here. Israel has a proportional representation system, which favors larger numbers of parties. However, the entire country is a single district. The slides explain the math, but with each vote effectively voting for 120 seats there are enormous opportunities for lots of small parties. A very narrow constituency can get representation in the Knesset and be courted in order to build a coalition. Party leaders, unhappy with the party’s direction can split off and found their own party. Both of these circumstances have occurred innumerable times in Israel’s short history.

Overall, a stable number of political parties are crucial for a functioning democracy. While a rigid party structure can squelch, too flexible a party structure can make effective governance impossible. Israel is getting close. A recent book on Israeli counter-terror strategy cited a senior Israeli national security official who noted, “the prime minister must strike a deal with the minister of defense every morning.”

Technically, the mechanism for reform is simple. Currently a party needs on 1.5% of the vote to sit in the Knesset. Raising that, even to 5% would vastly reduce the number of political parties and change the incentives for political entrepreneurs. A higher threshold would be even better – but may not be practical.

Israel just turned 64! As it happens, I am currently studying Martin Van Buren and the Age of Jackson (for my PhD on the vice presidency.) the United States celebrated its sixty-fourth year in 1840 when Van Buren was President. He believed that the United States suffered in the 1820s when personal and regional faction dominated, and devoted his efforts to establishing a stable party system in which the parties represented clear principles. He was, on the whole, quite successful.

What of the Israeli-Arabs?
One of the “advantages” of Israel’s system is that it ensures minorities a voice. Most of the coverage of this has focused on how Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jews) have manipulated the system so that the males of the community are not required to serve in the military and can spend their days studying. But other small groups have also manipulated the system.

One group that has not been terribly successful at playing this game is Israel’s substantial Arab minority. They have representatives in the Knesset, but these representatives often espouse extremist positions on national security and identity issues that make them poor candidates for coalition partnerships. One caveat, by some measures the progress of Israel’s Arab community by most socio-economic indicators is extraordinary – nonetheless, although they have equal rights under Israeli law, they do suffer discrimination.

There may not be as many Israeli-Arab representatives in the Knesset when the threshold is raised – but they may find the government serves them better. In effect, with a low threshold an Israeli-Arab voter can vote for a radical party that will have a minimal number of seats in the Knesset. With a higher threshold, this tiny party will not be seated. The voter won’t want to throw their vote away, but if the mainstream parties can make a compelling case – promising improved services then that may become the pragmatic choice. In effect, the Arab communities could become the beneficiary of this system.

The situation is not unlike that in the American south, where gerrymandered districts have ensured a substantial number of African-American congress people but may have contributed to increasing political divisions.

The State Grows Up
It is important that the super-majority move forward on this crucial issue. Israel is growing fast, in population and economically. This will present a number of benefits and challenges. A government that can adequately face these issues is sorely needed.

In particular, Israel is on the verge of becoming an energy power. There are many potential benefits to this. Cheap energy is good for the economy overall, and can make desalinization a realistic option, which would in turn relieve a major stress point for Israeli domestic affairs as well as for Israeli-Palestinian relations. Israeli could become an energy exporter. This is both a potential source of revenue as well as an opportunity to cement strategic alliances. However, governments suffering from political fragmentation have a great deal of difficulty implementing major, complex policies (and economic policies are almost always complex.)

Finally, the IDF has long been Israel’s primary source of large-scale organizational experience. But a developed natural gas industry also requires extensive planning and logistics. I am second to none in my admiration of the IDF, but a cadre of managers and executives from an alternate sector would serve Israel well and offer new perspectives on the nation’s major issues.

It should be emphasized, that there is no golden future free of challenges. No system will allow any country to neatly come to ideal solutions. Life is a challenge and full of trade-offs. But Israel would benefit from a coherent political system and it may be coming. This, like the Age of Jackson in the United States, could prove to be a crucial moment for Israeli democracy.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Veep Critique: In Politico on Romney's Possible Running Mates

Veep Critique: In Politico on Romney's Possible Running Mates: The Politico Arena today asked: Who should Romney tap for understudy? Although I had many other things to do today, I couldn't resist resp...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Counting the Omer/Measuring Freedom

Most devoted Jews have particular aspects of Jewish practice - rituals, holidays, customs etc. - that particularly resonate with them. Many love the tradition of cleaning the house before Pesach as a symbol of renewal and change. Others are dedicated to sitting the Sukkah, as a reminder of the impermanence of all that people have built - as Koheleth tells us "All is vanity."

For me it is the Omer, the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. Pesach, which celebrates the exodus from Egypt, symbolizes freedom. Shavuot remembers the giving of the Torah, the great Revelation of Sinai. Freedom comes with choices. The Torah is the guidebook to life, how to best use freedom. The challenge of balancing freedom and responsibility is a - if not the - great challenge to human societies and politics and thus an area of fascination to me.

The period of the Omer connects these two concepts by counting. Starting the second night of Pesach, one counts:

Tonight is the first night of the Omer... Tonight is the second night of the Omer... And so forth up until 49 and then it is Shavuot.

So the Jewish people connect freedom and responsibility by counting. The Greeks say man is a speaking animal, but logos - the word for speech - also means thinking. Adam named the animals, Noah counted them. Speech and counting go hand in hand. Humans would be severely constrained if they had one ability, but not the other.

Just as words have power (my own Bar Mitzvah portion the story of Balaam and his talking donkey is one example in Jewish lore as well as the deep Jewish abhorrence of and temptation to gossip) so do numbers. Seven is viewed as significant and the Omer is counted to 49 - seven sevens.Omer is counted to 49 - seven sevens. Shavuot means Feast of Weeks.

Omer, the period of counting means "measure." Measure can be more then strictly numerical, it can refer to proportion, what to what. These concepts are essential to commerce, science, and rule of law. Consider the difficulty of voting without counting.

A final, unrelated observation, Omer refers to a measure of grain. Pesach celebrates spring and Shavuot is the first fruits. It is also an agricultural festival. Modern statistics was developed in great part hand in hand with agricultural research. Advancements in statistics helped spark the relative bounty of food in today's world, as well as contributing to enormous improvements in public health and many other fields.

Today, as I write this, it is Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, a minor festival. In other interpretations the Omer is also a period of mourning and the 33rd day is a break (or an end depending on which Rabbi is consulted - two Jews, three opinions, count 'em). Mourning too must be kept in proportion, thus we count and we get a break.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

US and the Future of Afghanistan

Politico's Arena asked about Obama's plans to draw down from Afghanistan while signing a long-term security agreement with that country's government. I answered here:
Obama did not create the situation in Afghanistan. One can hold his predecessor responsible for some of the present situation but even that is unfair. Afghanistan is shaped by deep historical forces and an impossible geography. The United States is choosing to conserve its resources but it is unclear if any level of commitment could leave Afghanistan much better off.

A conflict in this difficult country was never going to have a neat ending. The best-case scenario is probably a reasonably competent government in Kabul that has sufficient resources to keep other parts of the country more or less in line and prevent outbreaks of major violence. Ideally, it could introduce a certain element of modernism to the areas under its direct writ and slowly expand those areas. For the United States, the ability to maintain leverage on the situation without breaking the bank (or the army) is critical. That may, roughly, be what can be achieved in the new agreement.

The U.S. has established a long-term relationship with Afghanistan and will hopefully be able to use its influence to foster very prudent and realistic development goals while keeping particularly vicious bad actors in check. This will take a great deal of skill on the part of American diplomats and policy-makers but one benefit of the decade of engagement is that the United States has developed at least a modest reserve of expertise on the country.

The president noted that destroying the Taliban outright may not have been possible. But at least limiting their power - particularly if it can be done at a low-cost - is well worth doing. Finally, re-shaping our relationship with Afghanistan will allow the United States to change its relationship with its neighbor, the national time-bomb Pakistan.
Following up, I need to emphasize that this will be a very ugly resolution. Looking over thees bleak assessments of Afghanistan's future the United States needs to be extremely prudent in its Afghanistan policies, accepting the complex local environments and prioritizing which Afghan capabilities to attempt to develop. This is putting a wonk talk spin on some ugly realities. The US is going to hold its nose when Afghan officials cut deals with the Taliban and aspects of Islamic law that we find abhorrent are instituted in parts of Afghanistan. First and foremost the United States will need to collect intelligence and be able to prevent particularly malicious actors from getting too strong. A combination of power balancing, bribery, and very judiciously applied force will be needed. Hopefully the United States can at least protect its key national security interests, mitigate the human rights violations, and with luck foster Afghan technocrats and liberals who can slowly extend modernity. In all of this we must be exceedingly modest.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Al-Qaeda a year after OBL's demise

On the anniversary of OBL demise, Politico asked “Will bin Laden mean brownie points for Obama?” I weighed on the stupid DC parlor game of whether or not Obama had “spiked the football” writing:
It was Voltaire who once observed that "medicine is the art of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease." Politics may be a similar art, events occur and politicians tell a story around them. It is difficult to imagine any president not giving the order to take out Osama bin Laden, given the opportunity. The big question would be the president's tolerance for risk. Obama risked it and gets the credit.

A hypothetical president Romney probably would have given the order as well. The intelligence community really gets the credit for developing the capability to track down individuals - no small task. In theory, a president could - as Romney seemed to be implying - do a cost-benefit analysis and argue that the resources used to track down bin Laden were diverted from something more pressing. But no politician would realistically have made a decision not to target OBL.
Meanwhile, Andrej Matisak (a journalist in Slovakia) asked my thoughts on OBL’s demise and al-Qaeda’s ability to function. I replied:
Most terrorism experts are not talking about mega-plots but rather self-motivated individuals adopting al-Qaeda’s cause carrying out smaller-scale attacks. This is a strong indicator that the organization is less capable – in great part because of the extensive scrutiny on its activities by intelligence agencies worldwide. While every unnecessary death is a tragedy – lone wolf attacks such as the atrocity in Toulouse, France are not a threat to national security like a mass attack such as 9/11 or 3/11 in Spain.

That being said, the turmoil across the Middle East is creating power vacuums and opportunities for al-Qaeda. Many countries undergoing the Arab Spring are seeing an Islamist resurgence. In countries where the turmoil is violent (such as Yemen, Libya, or Syria) there is a tremendous opportunity for al-Qaeda to establish itself. Further, antidotes to the great challenges facing the greater Middle East are in short supply. It is unlikely the situation will get better in the short term and continuing mass discontent could lead to greater numbers adopting al-Qaeda’s radical ideology.
On this one, I am great company with Jarret Brachman and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.

As more documents from OBL’s safehouse are released we will learn more about al-Qaeda’s internal operation. So far, what has been released seems to be an increasingly marginalized and incoherent organization. Terrorists are not supermen. A clandestine organization of a few hundred, deprived of state-sponsorship, is not going to be able to survive when a superpower turns its enormous capabilities against it. But al-Qaeda is but one symptom of the social/political pathologies afflicting the greater Middle East. Even if they were eradicated, a range of other radical organizations (some of which dwarf al-Qaeda such as Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba) remain. The Iranian nuclear project has the potential to spark a regional arms race. If there are multiple nuclear powers in that contentious region an accident becomes highly probable. Finally the demographic and environmental trends (that’s fancy talk for growing population and decreasing water supplies) creates a series of time-bomb nations.

While the great eye has focused heavily on al-Qaeda – and decimated it – other dangers continue to grow.