Saturday, August 20, 2005

Guest-blogging this week: Joseph Britt

I'm on vacation with the family this week. Joseph Britt -- a.k.a., the commenter also known as Zathras -- has been tasked with the job of guest-blogging.

In a former life, Britt did policy work in the Senate as well as with a couple of state governments. He's now a freelance writer; last spring he guest-blogged at Belgravia Dispatch.


posted by Dan at 06:31 PM

So what do international relations specialists think?

After being in a news black hole for a week, I'll be getting back into blogging a bit slowly.

However, here's something for the academics in the audience: last year a group of IR profs put together a survey of what other IR profs thought about the field, current affairs, etc.

The preliminary results can be found in this paper by Susan Peterson and Michael J. Tierney, with Daniel Maliniak entitled, "Teaching and Research Practices, Views on the Discipline, and Policy Attitudes of International Relations Faculty at U.S. Colleges and Universities"

Some of the interesting topline results:

1) Teaching moves more slowly than research. Even though scholars recognize that contructivism is a much more active research program than Mrxism, the latter is taught more frequently in introductory IR classes.

[This is because the academy is all lefty, right?--ed. Well, the survey has the median IR prof between "liberal" and "slightly liberal", so there's a small grain of truth to that. However, I suspect this has more to do with academics being small "c" conservative, and therefore reluctant to change syllabi that have been entrenched for years.

2) "Eighty-seven percent of respondents—exactly the same percentage in the previous question who reported that the war in Iraq will decrease U.S. security—report that the Iraq war has hurt the war on terrorism."

3) "Despite the fact that most respondents believe that the war in Iraq has hurt US security and the war on terrorism, few (17 percent) believe that terrorists are better able to attack the United States today than before 9/11."

4) "The foreign policy consensus among international relations scholars observed in the previous questions about Iraq extends to the issue of free trade. More than three-fourths of all respondents report that free trade agreements have been a good thing for the United States, while only 7 percent report that they have been a bad thing."

Go check it out.

posted by Dan at 06:07 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Signing Off

I want to close with a question that has been percolating between my ears for a while now. People who followed politics in 30 and 40 years ago could have identified such a thing as a "Humphrey Democrat," a "Jackson Democrat," even a "McGovern Democrat." None of these men ever got elected President -- only Humphrey came close -- but all of them had substantial accomplishments in their political careers, accomplishments that could not have been theirs if positioning themselves for a run at the White House had absorbed their whole attention.

What is a Kerry Democrat? For that matter, what is a Gore Democrat, or an Edwards Democrat? Immediate family members of the gentlemen in question surely count, as must a number of their paid staff and -- technically -- Democrats who by coincidence share the last name of Kerry, Gore or Edwards. But that's about it.

There may not be any political implications flowing from this. It may just be that Presidential politics has changed; the people who get nominated for President now are those who establish a foothold through their relation to someone else, their election to a safe seat in the Senate, or their campaigning skills, and then wait around for their moment to strike. It just occurs to me when reading thought pieces about what position Democrats should take on Iraq, or health care, or taxes that parties don't adopt positions on important issues until people do. Whether ideas go anywhere depends on whether their advocates are smart and capable, not on whether their party's strategic direction is right where it should be. There is no shortage of chiefs in the Democratic Party, or Indians either. I just don't see any leaders.

That's all for me. Dan has returned from his vacation: rested, refreshed and ready to resume his rightful place as a titan of the blogosphere. My thanks to him for loaning me this fine platform, and to his readers for their attention and many thoughtful comments.

posted by Joseph Britt at 12:07 PM | Comments (9)

The Great Healer Strikes Again

What is the point of this?

Yes, I know Bill Frist -- excuse me, Dr. Bill Frist, also known as The Great Healer -- is thinking about running for President. I know that in addition to his unusual albeit dubiously relevant credential of heart transplant expertise he is anxious to add the approbation of those evangelical activists who believe that Christian evangelism is aided by teaching in public schools a theory of the origin of life that does not mention Christ or anything about faith in daily life. And I know that traditional Republican reluctance to impose ideas from Washington on local school districts is, like opposition to runaway spending and support for simplifying the tax code, somewhat out of fashion these days.

But history ought to teach us that voters at the national level do often give politicians credit for showing some personal dignity. The Senate Majority Leader is under no obligation to say anything about an issue he is not prepared to legislate about other than he thinks local school districts should be left alone to deal with it as they see fit. Groveling to interest groups, which losing Democratic Presidential candidates have raised to an art form over the last 20 years, isn't a good tactic for Republicans either. It can bring them applause, but at the end of the day it makes them look like wimps.

After his performance in the Schiavo affair, The Great Healer is beginning to look like a recidivist groveler who should not be allowed any nearer the Oval Office than the public tour.

posted by Joseph Britt at 11:45 AM | Comments (4)

Friday, August 19, 2005

Red On Red

Assume, as most but not all people do, that the American commitment in Iraq cannot and should not be sustained indefinitely whatever happens. What should the American military be doing there in the meantime?

I'd like to think that if I were lugging a rifle and a pack around Baghdad in the middle of the night my mission would be something a little more specific than "staying the course," "showing resolve," and "spreading freedom." Marking time until the Iraqis "stand up" seems somehow inadequate as well. What should our military's objective be in its operations in Iraq right now?

There is nothing original or even very clever in my idea that priority No. 1 should be to increase tensions between Iraqi Sunni Arabs and non-Iraqi jihadis. We know these tensions exist. We see evidence of them popping up occasionally in the mainstream media and in the Iraqi section of the blogosphere. To some extent they supply the answer to a question I asked last spring:

"...what is the likely impact of (apparently) widely divergent objectives on the part of different groups of insurgents on the future of the insurgency?"

Sunni Arab Iraqis may be fighting to avenge perceived humiliation, to restore Sunni political domination of Iraq or because they have nothing else to do, but they aren't fighting to become subjects of Saudi clerics and Jordanian professional terrorists -- and the foreign jihadis in turn are not fighting and dying just to uphold the honor of local tribal leaders or to restore a secular Baathist regime. They have had a common enemy, but no common goals.

Does this situation present some opportunities for us? Well, it ought to. But the difficulties are very considerable. Intelligence assets needed to identify exploitable areas of tension are evidently limited. This has to be partly because the enemy is aware of potential tensions between Iraqi and other fighters and is taking steps to keep them under control, and the uncertain political situation may be another reason. Probably the biggest, actually, is the thing that has plagued American intelligence since March 2003: the language barrier. In any event the desirability of encouraging "red-on-red" hostility is much clearer than are the things we need to do this.

In fairness to the many journalists, bloggers and others now arguing fiercely about levels of commitment, withdrawal timetables and so forth, these are much easier to grasp than are the tactical issues. It is easy enough to sit here on the East Coast and advise attempting to disengage from insurgents in areas where these are known to be entirely Iraqi while seeking out non-Iraqi fighters to attack; identifying likely gathering points on the insurgent "rat line" across the Syrian border and striking them from the air; or leaning on the Iraqi government to make sure that the non-Iraqi jihadis they capture never make it home. Whether any of these things is practicable I do not know. It is, again, easy to advise an offensive posture -- sitting around or patrolling up and down the same roads waiting to be attacked is neither good for morale nor likely to lead to a won war. Implementing this advice is easier said than done.

The other question I asked last spring was:

" what point does the enthusiasm of some Sunnis for massacring Shiites become a factor in our relations with Iran?"

I'm inclined to think now that this train left the station long before I posed this question. Iraqi Shiite leaders who did not fear assassination or massacres of their followers were much less likely to submit to Iranian influence than the ones we have now. Zarqawi and his followers have their own reasons for murdering Shiites Muslims in large numbers; Sunni Arab Baathists do too, and while these reasons may not be the same they do seem to have been compatible to this point (what appears to be the rather short moral distance between the most dedicated Baathist and the most zealous Wahhabi is probably a large obstacle to any plan to divide the two). Shiites seeking protection from terrorism will not rely on the American military; they know the mullahs in Tehran will want to fight their enemies, and know the Iranians will be there long after the Americans are gone.

There is a limit to how much we can do to limit Iranian influence in Iraq under these conditions. Actually, we may have been lucky -- if that idiot Muqtada Sadr hadn't thrown away many hundreds of his best men in frontal confrontations with American main force units last year we might already have a full scale Shiite/Sunni war in Iraq. In any event we share some interest with secular Shiite leaders and some Shiite clerics in avoiding a situation where a future Iraqi government becomes dependent for its survival on Iranian support, giving us, perhaps, another potential partner in an effort to separate our Iraqi enemies from our Islamist ones.

posted by Joseph Britt at 06:21 PM | Comments (2)

A Realist By Any Other Name

My former host Greg Djerejian introduces a New York Times Op-Ed by the managing editor of Foreign Affairs briskly, thus:

"Gideon Rose cuts through a lot of chaff today in the New York Times..."

Let's pause right there. On the theory that every aspiring statesman requires the aid of a Bernard Woolley, let me point out that if you cut through a lot of chaff all you get is a lot of chopped up chaff. Chaff is the husk of wheat and other grains; to mill the grain the chaff must be separated from the grain. In metaphor, chaff is often opposed to wheat to suggest the distinction between unworthy people or ideas and those of quality. It is true that after grain has been threshed out, chaff may then be chopped up and used as bedding, feed for farm animals, or ground cover for erosion control, but these uses are too obscure to be metaphor material in a discussion of foreign policy.


Gideon Rose takes the kind of academic approach to recent American foreign policy that makes me cringe when I hear it applied to any public policy subject. This approach is based on the contention between schools of thought -- in this case between foreign policy "realists" (good) and "idealists" (bad) -- in other words between things that can be analyzed in an academic context with minimum reference to the people involved. Understand the school of thought a given group of officials subscribes to and you have a good idea whether the administration they serve is on the right or the wrong track.

What does this approach miss? Think of it this way: you would never say Steve DeBerg was a quarterback in the Joe Montana tradition because like Montana he played for the 49ers and ran the West Coast offense. Why not? Simply because Montana was a far more talented player; he saw the field more completely and executed his plays better. Similarly it would be highly misleading to describe Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, as an Achesonian without noting his old boss's superior skill, intellect, and force of personality. Consider, in light of this, Rose:

"George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft then offered an updated and nonpathological version of the Nixon-Kissinger approach and presided over the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, and the reversal of the occupation of Kuwait. Their reward? To be hounded from office after one term and derided as cold-blooded amoralists. They, too, were succeeded by a left-wing idealist (Bill Clinton) and then a right-wing one (George W. Bush), who once again loudly dedicated themselves to moralism in foreign policy and had more than their share of failures."

There are a number of things wrong with this picture, but let's observe just one of them. Henry Kissinger when in office hired a large number of people competent to staff him but not to replace him as an architect of American foreign policy: Alexander Haig, Robert McFarlane, Tony Lake, Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush himself. All of these people made their limitations abundantly clear when they attained high office themselves; none of them, with the possible exception of McFarlane, really grasped them, attributing the difficulties they encountered to factors beyond their control.

Looking specifically at the first Bush administration, let's remember that in foreign policy as in most other things offense is a lot harder than defense; attempting to change an unsatisfactory status quo is far more difficult than passively awaiting events. The Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, begun under the enormous burden of the war in Vietnam, was nonetheless on offense more often than not. The first Bush administration essentially left the Reagan administration's foreign policy on autopilot. When a problem like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan or the Iran-Iraq war seemed to go away, the Bush administration invariable followed the path of least resistance, disengaging from the first and pursuing normal relations with an Iraqi government that should never have been treated as anything other than a disposable ally of convenience. When Yugoslavia began to implode Bush neither warned breakaway republics that they could expect no American recognition or help, nor did he mobilize allied governments against Serbia in an effort to let the country dissolve without bloodshed.

To be fair, Bush was aided by a Secretary of State with a genuine talent for diplomacy. And in some respects, events were kind to his administration. Bush's instinct for passivity and reaction and his tendency to allow American foreign policy follow lines suggested by persuasive allies led to successful policy toward the reunification of Germany; it at least did no harm as newly independent states emerged in Eastern Europe. But having called for a New World Order Bush had few ideas as to what it should look like. And his wretched judgment and loss of nerve at the end of the Gulf War led to a human catastrophe in Iraq and a permanent, profitless commitment to contain a regime Bush had just sent half a million men halfway around the world to fight. His admirers were celebrating that fiasco as a triumph of foreign policy long before his son's administration proved it is possible to screw up in other ways; Rose appears to be still doing it.

Politically, Bush was done in by the way his passivity and zeal for repose was perceived in domestic affairs, not by foreign policy. The fact remains that in both areas his administration was what might have been expected from a lifelong ticket-puncher accustomed to being a spokesman and occasionally an implementer of policies designed by other men. If we are to draw correct lessons from it they will not concern foreign policy doctrine.

The same thing applies to his son's administration. The Bush Doctrine is a piece of paper that academics can study. This doesn't mean it explains the war in Iraq. For that, we must look at a President largely ignorant of foreign policy when he took office, badly rattled by 9/11, and determined to do something dramatic about in response. Everything after that has been improvisation.

Not all complaints about the limited vision of self-identified "realists" are wrong, nor is it evident that the current administration's "idealism" is the wellspring of its policies as opposed to an ex post facto justification for them. Effective foreign policy requires an understanding of what you want to do, a strategy for getting it done, and the ability both to distinguish the battles that can be won from those that cannot and to distinguish the situations where America can impose its will from those in which we must respond to events. It is not an accident that the period of greatest American success in foreign policy have come when the people running it -- Marshall, Acheson, Nixon, Kissinger -- have had these things and something else that is mostly lacking today, an understanding that a foreign policy made with one eye on campaign politics is bound to run into trouble regardless of what doctrine it proclaims. The people, not their doctrines, make the policy.

posted by Joseph Britt at 01:02 PM | Comments (8)

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The things we think and do not say

Somewhere in the field of American foreign policy there is room for a paper with the title of that document with which Tom Cruise's character Jerry MacGuire began a major career transition. The subject of the paper would be human rights catastrophes in what used to be known as the Third World, particularly the genocide in Darfur.

What do we think but do not say? Well, for starters, we think that Arabs do not care very much about human rights. To be more precise, and more accurate, Arabs feel deep and genuine outrage when an Arab male is treated with something less than respect by a non-Arab and especially by a Jew; Arabs mistreated by other Arabs are of less concern. Non-Arabs being shot, blown-up, gang-raped or starved by Arabs are no problem at all, whether they are Muslim or not and perhaps especially if they are black Africans.

Many cultural attitudes, including this one, have deep historic roots; these are not my primary concern here. What matters instead is that keeping silent about large things carries a heavy price.

The New Republic ran a useful primer on the Darfur situation on its web site a short while ago, by Smith College Professor Eric Reeves; his assessment of where things stand now in Sudan -- this also contains material on the north-south civil war that has gone on there since the early 1980s -- is well worth reading as well.

Reeves is an expert on this subject; I am not. Yet even Reeves fails to note what to the casual observer appears fairly central to this grim story -- namely, that the protracted war against a civilian population of Darfur is considered an outrage, a horror, and an affront to humanity by the United States, by European peoples and governments, and by several African states, but by no Arab government and hardly any Arab media. Arabs are not represented among relief workers or peacekeepers in Darfur, all of whom come from countries much farther away than Egypt or Saudi Arabia; Arab contributions to humanitarian relief funds, according to a UN report, have been negligible. Terrorism has, rather late in the day, become a major issue of Arab Muslim theologians and intellectuals; not so genocide carried out by Arab Muslims against a mostly Muslim population over more than two years.

Let us note the most obvious consequence of this before saying anything else -- it makes action to stop genocide exponentially more difficult for the United States and other countries who would like to when the Arab government in Khartoum feels no pressure from other Arab governments or Arab media. This is true intellectually and morally; it is also true physically, since humanitarian relief and peacekeeping in Darfur cannot stage through nearby Egypt or Libya and must instead be maintained across the whole breadth of the Sahara Desert, like a dumbbell held at arm's length.

Now, it is very likely that the great majority of people in the Arab countries do not support genocide in Darfur. Many of them may not even know where it is. It is not something that the media available in Arab countries has covered extensively. And silence by Arab governments and media has not been challenged by Western governments and media.

I don't mean to pick on The New York Times here; there are worse offenders. But it does seem oddly symbolic that of the two Times columnists who write most frequently about the Arab world one -- Nick Kristof -- has published many pieces about genocide in Darfur without ever writing one about Arab indifference to it or what that might mean, while the other --Tom Friedman -- writes "whither the Arabs" commentary regularly without mentioning Darfur at all.

With respect to governments, it is tempting to suggest that this would be a good subject on which to unleash one of John Bolton's famous tirades on the United Nations. There is no reason, though, that other governments must be silent unless the United States speaks. Distasteful and occasionally repellent though the task can be, the United States often has to do business with the more barbarous governments of the world -- it was central to brokering the fragile settlement of Sudan's north-south civil war, for example. It should not be too much to expect Canada, say, or Germany to do something useful for a change and challenge Arab indifference to genocide in the UN or some other international forum.

Are we talking fundamentally about an Arab issue here? Looked at globally, we are not. Other human rights disasters are taking place as I write this -- the destruction of Zimbabwe, the decades-long nightmare of North Korea -- and the conduct of South Africa and China, respectively, toward these situations is inexplicable without mention of the indifference of these governments to human rights and human suffering. A humane, stable world order is unlikely to establish itself if only North American, European and a few other governments are willing to build it. And that is the case right now.

Arab indifference to Arab genocide does not, of course, excuse inadequate efforts by Western countries to aid its victims. Nor does South Africa's weak and cowardly support of Zimbabwe's kleptocrats or Beijing's embrace of its comrade in Pyongyang mean the West has no responsibilities in these situations. But surely one of those responsibilities is to lay aside our reflexive political correctness and say something about the things we know to be true.

posted by Joseph Britt at 06:02 PM | Comments (25)

Some Forgotten History

This is a little out of step with the news cycle, but bear with me. I wanted to talk a little bit about the Soviet legacy in the Arab world.

Soviet foreign policy in the 1945-1985 period will not be remembered for its contributions to humanity. Actually it poisoned nearly everything it touched. Its triumphs led to devastating wars and grim, durable dictatorships; its failures drained Soviet resources and exposed Soviet limitations. Committed to upsetting the status quo without the will or power to determine what would replace it, determined to initiate confrontations without the desire to end them, the Soviet Union left a residue of tyranny, misery and a really astonishing quantity of personal weaponry around the world.

I was prompted to think of the Soviet legacy in the Arab countries by President Bush's oft-made and widely praised repudiation of 60 years of American policy that allegedly had pursued order at the expense of freedom in the Middle East. You don't need a Ph. D. in Arab history to understand that freedom was not the alternative on offer during most of that time -- secular, sometimes viciously anti-religious Soviet-backed regimes were.

Egypt's Nasser eagerly sought Soviet arms and economic assistance beginning in the 1950s; later Syria's Assad, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi did the same. Part of Yemen actually had a Communist government for a time, and some of the Palestinian factions within the PLO were openly Marxist as well. The internal security practices of all these regimes bore marked similarities to those of the Soviet Union at various points in its history, and of course the great majority of the weaponry the Israelis confronted in 1973 and later, Iran faced when Iraq attacked in 1980 and we saw during the Gulf War was of Soviet provenance.

The history behind this, beginning with Khruschev's effort to "leapfrog containment" during the 1950s and '60s is familiar to students of the Cold War. Conversely the specifics of, for example, KGB influence on the Syrian government's means of controlling information or the former Iraqi regime's efforts to assassinate dissidents abroad must await archival and other research that I'm not sure anyone has done yet.

Here's the point, though: The Soviets were not subtle about the way they exercised influence. They carried with them an ideology proven to be highly useful as a means of asserting state control; offered unqualified diplomatic backing for whatever the most radical Arab governments wanted; and distributed some economic aid as well as vast quantities of weapons. Experts in crushing freedom and inciting conflict, they passed their expertise along to willing clients for decades. They left footprints, big ones; yet to listen to the President, administration neoconservatives and frankly every media commentator I've heard talk about the Middle East one would think the Soviets had never been there.

Why does this matter? One reason might be the fact that Arab nationalism is so often being defined right now as requiring hostility to the United States. Partly this is due, of course, to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; another part has to do with Islamist ideology. But an important part -- the one the Bush administration has bought into -- involves the idea that the lack of freedom in the Arab world is America's fault.

This is no more than just barely arguable with respect to America's closest Arab allies, countries like Jordan and Morocco. Even in Saudi Arabia the United States was not so much complicit in suppressing democracy as unwilling to invent a democratic movement where one did not exist. And with respect to the Arab countries that have been most disruptive in recent years -- Syria, Libya, Iraq perhaps most of all -- the Bush administration's premise is not only wrong but absurd.

People who question whether attempting to democratize the Arab world is the answer to terrorism -- I am one of them -- often base their skepticism on the negligible Arab democratic tradition. But Arab political tradition did not evolve in a vacuum, and the Soviet influence on it was as powerful as any since World War II. Liberalization or even democratic reforms might have been a little easier in Iraq and many other Arab countries if it had been presented less as America's gift to Arabs and more as an opportunity for Arabs to repudiate the toxic Soviet legacy.

At a minimum it is tactically unfortunate for the United States to
have forgotten and allowed everyone else to forget that legacy. It cannot be wise to force every Arab seeking liberalization, democracy and greater respect for human rights to defend these as American-inspired departures from Arab tradition (though to some extent they are exactly that) and a dramatic, therefore suspicious reversal of American policy, rather than as corrections to the unfortunate influence exercised by Soviet Communists in earlier times and reflective of values America has always championed even where we could not impose them.

America should have but did not reap much credit in the Muslim world for its essential contribution to defeating the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, and this is but another aspect of that
problem. Major change, even when it is beneficial, is often disruptive and painful. No agent of change is well-advised to take the whole blame for it on himself if it can be avoided. If blame can be shared with a party no longer around to defend itself or make trouble, so much the better.

posted by Joseph Britt at 05:26 PM | Comments (19)

The Meaning of "Sensible"

Austin Bay desribes his idea of a sensible approach to the possible threat of Iranian or North Korean nuclear missiles threatening the United States:

"What happens if Iran goes nuclear and puts a warhead on a missile? What can Japan, South Korea, and the US do if North Korea deploys nuclear-armed intermediate range missiles, or ICBMs? Sure– pray for success in political negotiations, and retain “offensive options” — slang for attacking the rogues’ nuclear sites. But a defensive capability is also very useful. We’re not talking Reagan-era Star Wars with hundreds of Soviet missiles arcing over the Pole. An Iranian or North Korea “missile pulse” would probably consist of six to twelve missiles (at the most). A “thin shield” anti-missile defensive system could handle this type of “limited” attack.

To do that, however, means increasing the range of inteceptors. According to Aerospace Daily and Defense Report, the [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or] THAAD anti-missile program managers intend to explore increasing the missile’s range. THAAD is still very much in the developmental stage – it has a flight test scheduled for this fall."

My definition of "sensible" is probably a little different. It includes, among other things, some idea of how likely the potential threat is to become an actual threat (conceivable, eventually, in the case of North Korea; extremely unlikely in the case of Iran). It includes a requirement that the technology in question show some promise of actually doing what we want it to do -- promise shown outside a computer simulation. It includes some reckoning of how much more money the United States is going to have to borrow from the Communist Chinese central bank to pay for this project, and of the likelihood that this money will follow all the rest of the funds spent so far on missile defense in the last twenty years down the rathole.

In short: Do we need to do it? Are we able to do it? Can we afford to do it? In my book you don't have a "sensible" government program -- especially a multi-billion dollar program -- if the answer to each of these questions is "probably not."

posted by Joseph Britt at 10:51 AM | Comments (4)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Congratulations.... Glenn Reynolds on his wife's graduation. My dad was required to take a similar course of study, though he was admitted to it for somewhat different reasons, and completed it successfully several years ago. Graduation in this case is a pretty significant milestone, and is I'm sure a big relief to Glenn and his family.

posted by Joseph Britt at 04:45 PM

A Thin Reed

I understand John Roberts is not an easy target. But isn't this reaching just a bit?

Every now and then -- I have no idea why -- one of my own jokes bombs. I limit the damage by never putting too much effort into them. Bruce Reed, for whose new blog at Slate I have high hopes, clearly takes a different approach; researching Roberts' prep school record is way more work than I would have done just to get a laugh. And if he was serious....well, I doubt that.

In any event since Reed was writing for Slate and not working for NARAL, the NAACP or one of the other organizations Zell Miller calls "the groups," there is no danger that his musings on what the 17-year-old Roberts' opposition to co-ed education portended for the Supreme Court will show up in slightly altered form in one of Pat Leahy's or Ted Kennedy's statements to the Judiciary Committee next month. I don't think.

posted by Joseph Britt at 11:57 AM | Comments (7)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A Strong Presidency?

How strong a President is George W. Bush?

It's a complicated question. Generally I subscribe to the 20-Year Rule for evaluating Presidents, reasoning that about that much time has to pass before all the consequences of any one administration become clear. But it's never too early to think about this.

In one sense, obviously, Bush is a stronger President than any of his recent Republican predecessors, because he can work with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. He and his associates have near-total control of the Republican electioneering apparatus for all national and some state races; while very unpopular with Democrats, Bush has only some occasional critics among Republicans. He has no determined opposition. Finally he has, evidently at the instigation of Vice President Cheney, consistently sought to limit the amount of information made available to the press, ostensibly to restore some of the Presidential authority over access to internal governmental deliberations that drained away as a result of the Iran-Contra investigation and the scandals of the Clinton administration.

But all these things suggest a rather negative kind of strength -- a mastery of means but not necessarily of ends. Consider the veto, used by every President since Garfield to block enactment of legislation the President opposed. Bush has never used the veto even once. By contrast Bill Clinton vetoed 37 bills in eight years, Ronald Reagan 78 in eight years, Bush's father 44 in four years (the Chirstian Science Monitor has a handy reference chart and some context). One could argue that this merely signifies that Bush has such mastery over political Washington that Congress only passes the legislation he wants. To me it looks more like he has a talent for surrender.

Past Republican Presidents faced off against Congressional advocates of more spending. Bush doesn't. It doesn't matter what kind of spending, or how large the deficit is. If Congress can agree on a highway bill, a farm bill, or any appropriations measure, Bush will sign it. Some of the traditional Republican rhetoric on behalf of small government and fiscal responsibility remains in Bush's public statements, but he doesn't mean any of it.

What about the fight against terrorism, Bush's signature issue? I use that expression advisedly; as an issue, it has been by far his greatest political advantage since 9/11. But the actual fight has been mostly left up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, not only the strategy and tactics for meeting terrorists in battle but for most of Bush's administration the foreign policy as well. Driving some of that foreign policy within the administration has been Vice President Cheney, whose role and influence is vastly greater than any modern Vice President and arguably much greater than any in our whole history. Past Presidents have been reluctant to give any substantive responsibility to the one subordinate that cannot fire. It is fair to wonder if Cheney has had such a large role because Bush is wiser than all his predecessors, or because he has no choice. Rumsfeld's dominance of the central issue facing Bush's administration should inspire the same question.

Lastly, consider this year's Social Security campaign. You don't need to be a master accountant to figure out that private social security accounts, the creation of which was sold in 1999 and 2000 as an innovative way to spend the federal government's surplus, were going to be a much tougher sell now that the surplus is a distant memory. What was the point of the campaign, then? You could argue it was a campaign of conviction, but that seems to me an argument from faith.

The obvious visual evidence this spring indicated that for Bush the campaign was its own reward. Bored with the routine of the White House, disengaged from both the legislative process and the day-to-day management of the fight against terrorism, Bush sought a reason to do what he loved doing -- giving stump speeches to, exchanging banter with and absorbing adulation from adoring, pre-screened audiences. That his Social Security proposal wasn't going anywhere was almost beside the point.

I'll discuss later the reasons I don't think Bush is particularly unusual among politicians at the highest levels today. For now, though, let's just say that he is a very talented candidate, who has put a lot of thought and work into becoming a very successful candidate. In an era when the business of campaigning for office appears to swamp most aspects of government, this orientation has taken him to the top of American politics.

But being a strong candidate and being a strong President have never been the same thing. Right from the beginning Bush has been a tiger with respect to measures most American supported, or at least those that appealed to Republican activists and contributors. Presidents don't get to take only the popular side of public issues, though, or only push measures their strongest supporters endorse. They can't expect success either from making bold proclamations and leaving all the work of making them good to others, or from extending the campaign months or years beyond the last election. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan -- none of the strongest modern American Presidents, and only a few of the others, would have found any of this worthy of discussion. They would, I suspect, have recognized weakness in the White House when they saw it. We are seeing it now.

posted by Joseph Britt at 12:19 PM | Comments (13)

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Darkness Before Sunset

This piece by the fine Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Katherine Skiba was one I really didn't want to read.

As Dan mentioned in introducing me, I did some work in the Senate years ago. William Proxmire was the senior colleague of my boss, Republican Bob Kasten (R-WI). Prox was an revered figure in Wisconsin politics at that time, known for never soliciting campaign contributions and for running to and from the office every day. He was also a very good colleague to have, in the sense that he didn't have much interest in claiming credit for appropriations and grants coming into the state or even in attending to constituent mail.

These things he mostly left to Kasten's office, which as our boss approached his reelection campaign we found very convenient. It was also a little unusual, of course, but Prox was unusual in many ways. He had his causes over the years, some of them very good ones -- we largely have him to thank for the fact that the United States never wasted billions on a supersonic transport program -- that he pursued with the aid of a talented but small staff. I figured at the time that Prox felt so secure politically that he didn't need to worry about reelection and liked doing his annual press release announcing how much of his clerk hire allowance he was returning to the Treasury. It occurred to me later that with his forceful but somewhat distant personality and, perhaps, the early stages of his illness he might just have found a small staff made up of familiar faces easier to deal with.

Prox was reliably liberal on a lot of issues, but having fought battles early in his political career against Joe McCarthy never felt he had to prove his loyalty to liberal causes, or to the Democratic Party either. I wonder what he would have thought of today's interest group-driven Senators campaigning and fundraising throughout their six-year terms like so many Congressmen. His would be a good voice to hear about politics today.

We won't hear it, sadly. Like Ronald Reagan, Proxmire suffers the curse of a strong constitution, able to withstand any injury or illness except the one he has. It's a terrible thing to contemplate.

posted by Joseph Britt at 11:02 PM | Comments (4)

The Late Great Embed Program

I'm not sure I believe the figure given toward the end of this New York Times article and attributed to Associated Press managing editor Mike Silverman, of three dozen embedded journalists remaining with American forces in Iraq compared to 700 when the war began.

Three dozen, or a little more than one journalist for every 4,000 American troops in Iraq, is, well, not very many. If good things are happening in Iraq, it's a good bet that the small number of journalists there would contribute to their being unreported on by the American media, as Austin Bay suggests . Would bad things be underreported as well? Probably. It's not a question of bias or even the attraction to journalists of what Bay calls "police blotter reporting." It's a question of resources.

I'm not an expert on the embed program, and remember that a lot of embedded reporters early in the war were in theater but not in Iraq. Two years ago, though, the large number of embedded reporters made available much good coverage of the combat zone that is mostly absent now. The Times's article rightly notes that this is only one aspect of the decline in reporting from Iraq. And I don't really know if the present low level is mostly a product of the military having become more reluctant to host embeds (for reasons suggested in a Wall Street Journal article from 2003 -- thanks to Phil Taylor for that) or media organizations being less willing to send them. Comment from knowledgable readers is invited.

Incidentally, one of the papers that still has journalists embedded with units in Iraq is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose reporters with the 48th Brigade Combat Team have maintained a blog since the 48th deployed four months ago. The 48th is a National Guard unit attached to the 1st Armored Division and drawing most of its soldiers from Georgia; it is stationed at bases in the Baghdad area. The blog entry for August 12 -- and especially the comments -- provide a glimpse of deployed life, both for the troops and for their families.

posted by Joseph Britt at 09:37 PM | Comments (12)

Sunday, August 14, 2005

TEFRA and Iraq

I expect to make two or three observations about Iraq this week, as it is deservedly the leading item in the news. The Washington Post goes anonymizing in Sunday's edition, citing several administration sources who decline to be named in a front page story about lowered American expectations of what is possible in Iraq.

TEFRA, for the whippersnappers in our audience today, is the acronym for the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, a package of what were then euphemistically called "revenue enhancements" aimed at mitigating the effect on the federal deficit of the previous year's large tax cut package. It was obviously a package of tax increases, that were not called tax increases mostly because President Reagan would not accept anything labelled "Tax Increase." This fact did not prevent Reagan administration officials and Republican allies in the Senate from writing most of the package themselves.

This trip down memory lane was inspired by the discordant note in the Post story about Iraq, helpfully supplied by President Bush himself in his radio message Saturday:

"The establishment of a democratic constitution is a critical step on the path to Iraqi self-reliance. Iraqis are taking control of their country, building a free nation that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself. And we're helping Iraqis succeed. We're hunting down the terrorists and training the security forces of a free Iraq so Iraqis can defend their own country. Our approach can be summed up this way: As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down. And when that mission of defeating the terrorists in Iraq is complete, our troops will come home to a proud and grateful nation....

The terrorists cannot defeat us on the battlefield. The only way they can win is if we lose our nerve. That will not happen on my watch. Withdrawing our troops from Iraq prematurely would betray the Iraqi people, and would cause others to question America's commitment to spreading freedom and winning the war on terror. So we will honor the fallen by completing the mission for which they gave their lives, and by doing so we will ensure that freedom and peace prevail."

This and the rest of the radio address is boilerplate, repeating language Bush has used many times in the past. It is also at considerable variance from the tone set by the Post's sources. For example:

"What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground," said a senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion. "We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we're in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning."


"We set out to establish a democracy, but we're slowly realizing we will have some form of Islamic republic," said another U.S. official familiar with policymaking from the beginning, who like some others interviewed would speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity. "That process is being repeated all over."

and again

"We've said we won't leave a day before it's necessary. But necessary is the key word -- necessary for them or for us? When we finally depart, it will probably be for us," a U.S. official said.

What is going on here? The best case scenario is probably the TEFRA scenario: Bush, like Reagan determined to maintain control of the presentation of policy, is allowing subordinates to gradually alter the substance of policy. Other possibilities are less hopeful. Administration officials may be speaking anonymously out of desperation, using a traditional Washington tactic to get a message through to a President reluctant to heed it; they could also be getting encouraging signals from a White House that nevertheless has not decided to do what they recommend, the reasoning here being that Bush still believes in staying the course but knows he cannot afford to lose too many more people from his thin national security team.

I don't know; I only hope. At this point the TEFRA scenario looks pretty good to me. I will confess a bias -- I never considered the creation of a stable, liberal democracy in Iraq, let alone one that would serve as a beacon for the rest of the Arab world, to be an attainable objective. Foreign policy, as Henry Kissinger said, should not be confused with social work, and the rehabilitation of a culture backward to begin with and deeply traumatized by decades of Baathist rule is social work on a massive scale, requiring far more time and resources than we can prudently commit to one mid-sized Arab country.

The commitment having been made, however unwisely, the United States has an obligation to try to make it good. We have other obligations too, though, that we cannot afford to subordinate indefinitely to this one. In addition, without the pressure of knowing that American forces will not be there indefinitely Iraqi political factions are less likely to proceed in a timely manner to agree on a constitution and a political arrangement to govern the country. At some point we have to find out if the Iraqis can establish a stable government, or not. It's at least a little bit encouraging that some administration officials are aware that point is fast approaching.

posted by Joseph Britt at 06:15 PM | Comments (14)