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It sure Ain’t: Elkus on Why Congress Isn’t Good at Foreign Policy

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Adam Elkus had a nice post on the sound and fury over the open letter by 47 Republican senators to the government of Iran, asserting Congressional prerogatives regarding contractual relations with in foreign powers:

“Congress Isn’t Good At Foreign Policy.”

In the midst of the ongoing fracas over GOP congressional officials’ attempt to undermine Obama’s Iran policy initiatives, Max Fisher made the observation that maybe Congress just isn’t that good at foreign policy after all. Other analysts warned that legislators were “bullying” the US back into another Iraq war,  and others hyperbolically denounce the insistence of GOP hawks that they sign off on the war against the Islamic State. In particular, Foreign Policy‘s Micah Zenko, however, was far more puzzledthan upset about Congress’s apparent desire for an open-ended war in Iraq juxtaposed with its fury over Obama’s initiative to make peace with Tehran: 

Funny when Congress weighs-in on FP:  Start open-ended airwar, no problem. Broker non-binding nonpro agreement, outrage.Zenko, however, is by no means alone. Other critics have similarly slammed Congress, arguing that it acts as if Obama is no longer the president, and ridiculing GOP insistences that Obama must include a ground war plan in his strategy to defeat the Islamic State. To hear some critics, the opposition-dominated legislature is reckless, irresponsible, even potentially traitors against the state. There was, however, something quite fishy about this. Hadn’t the roles reversed, as we had seen this kind of fight before but in the opposite direction

The biggest problem with many of these criticisms, however, was their denigration of the legislature. The way it sounded, a disinterested observer might be forgiven for wondering if someone should be exercising, ahem, some oversight over that silly Congress before it really makes a mess of things! But it was not so long ago, however, that Zenko and many othershad a different opinion about the executive branch and its use of power vs. the legislative branch. That, namely, the latter needed to reign in the former. Oversight was the name of the game, and Congress and the Senate apparently really needed to exercise sorely lacking control, opposition, and critical questioning when it came to an President that was about to drone, Navy SEAL, and air-war America into “endless war.” [….]

Read the rest here.

My thoughts, in brief….

The clerical-security regime in Tehran was probably a distant third as a messaging target for Republicans, coming behind activist conservative primary voters and the Obama administration itself. The letter is, in other words, a stupid, meaningless, P.R. stunt to play to domestic politics and indicates Republicans are not serious about stopping or improving any potential Iran deal or forcing the administration to submit any agreement to the Senate.

Furthermore, the truth is that many Democrats in Congress are uneasy about Secretary Kerry giving away the store to Iran to secure anything he could call “a deal”, are smarting from six years of habitually high-handed treatment from the inept White House staff and the conveniently timed  indictment of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is critical of Obama policies toward Iran and Cuba. If Senate Republicans were intent on peeling away unhappy Democrats into a veto-proof majority for an Iran related bill, the letter was an unneeded jab in the eye to their Democratic Senate colleagues who might otherwise be persuaded to register their discontent.

That said, the ape-shit reaction of the Obamabot faction of the Left (which is neither the whole Left nor the entire Democratic Party) to the Republican Open Letter is illustrative of the creeping authoritarianism and increasingly illiberal nature of American politics. These people really think down deep that their guy is a kind of King and that Americans can be guilty of Lèsemajesté and that Lèse-majesté is “treason” and the politically treasonous or “mutinousshould be jailed. Essentially, a plurality of one of the major political parties really likes the idea of the US government behaving like a Hugo Chavez-style dictatorship. Really.

Lastly, my confidence in the Obama administration to negotiate responsibly with Iran is effectively zero. How can an insular group that takes little outside advice and won’t negotiate (or even talk) with their own supporters in Congress (!), much less the majority Republican opposition, get the better of foreigners that they understand even less well?

Immaturity vs. authoritarianism in service to incompetence. We are headed down a bad road.

“Trust in Govt” DoubleQuote from John Robb

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — I’d like to define “thinkers” as those who make us think, John Robb being a prime example ]
.

**

Assuming that in this case correlation just might be evidence of causation, what remedy would you suggest?

I imagine a wide swathe of people will think reducing the size of the bureaucracy could well increase confidence in government — but my own hunch, perhaps counterintuitive, would be to increase confidence in government & watch it cleanse itself of those in various offices who serve no helpful purpose.

Of course, there may be feedback loops involved, so I don’t consider this a sure-fire remedy. I’m foolish, I was being just a tad optimistic. And besides, correlation doesn’t prove causation, though it may alert us to its possibility.

**

John juxtaposes two images there, though, in a thought-provocative way, as is his wont. From a DoubleQuotes point of view — and this is a fine example of what I call “DoubleQuotes in the wild” — the juxtaposition neatly demonstrates the potential benefits of reading DQs both from left to right and from right to left, or more generally, of checking analogies for possible meanings both ways, despite the fact that they often have their own directionality, real or implied.

**

What I mean to imply when I say “my own hunch, perhaps counterintuitive, would be to increase confidence in government” is that we need to increase the actual trustworthiness of government, the degree of alignment between words and deeds, the sincerity of its practitioners, the degree to which that Gettysburg phrase, “of the people, by the people, for the people” is reflected in actual practice.

That must work primarily at the level of the human individual elected to govern: honesty, decency, and humility rather than self-serving, surely, are the primary values called for — a little dignity would be appreciated, too.

Lind on “the Navy’s Intellectual Seppuku”

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

William Lind had a very important piece regarding an extraordinarily ill-considered move by the Navy brass:

The Navy Commits Intellectual Seppuku 

The December, 2013 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains an article, “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity” by Lt. Alexander P. Smith, that should receive wide attention but probably won’t. It warns of a policy change in Navy officer recruiting that adds up to intellectual suicide. Lt. Smith writes, “Starting next year, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with minimal studies in the humanities … As a result of the new policy, a high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2 (engineering, hard sciences, and math), since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming officers will come from this restricted pool.”

….The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites. Engineering, math, and other sciences depend on analysis of hard data. Before you make a decision, you are careful to gather all the facts, however long that may take. The facts are then carefully analyzed, again without much regard for the time required. Multiple actors check and re-check each others’ work. Lowest-common-denominator, committee-consensus decisions are usually the safest course. Anything that is not hard data is rejected. Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.

Making military decisions in time of war could not be more different. Intuition, educated guessing, hunches, and the like are major players. Hard facts are few; most information is incomplete and ambiguous, and part of it is always wrong, but the decision-maker cannot know how much or which parts. Creativity is more important than analysis. So is synthesis: putting parts together in new ways. Committee-consensus, lowest-common-denominator decisions are usually the worst options. Time is precious, and a less-than-optimal decision now often produces better results than a better decision later. Decisions made by one or two people are often preferable to those with many participants. There is good reason why Clausewitz warned against councils of war.

Read the whole thing here.

Rarely have I seen Lind more on target than in this piece.

Taking a rank-deferential, strongly hierarchical organization and by design making it more of a closed system intellectually and expecting good things to happen should disqualify that person from ever being an engineer because they are clearly too dumb to understand what resilience and feedback are. Or second and third order effects.

STEM, by the way, is not the problem. No one should argue for an all-historian or philosopher Navy either. STEM is great. Engineers can bring a specific and powerful kind of problem solving framework to the table. The Navy needs a lot of smart engineers.

It is just that no smart engineer would propose to do this because the negative downstream effects of an all-engineer institutional culture for an armed service are self-evident.

Pavers of Roads with Good Intentions: R2P Debate Rising Part II.

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

As I mentioned previously, I needed to make a more substantive reply to Victor Allen’s claims for R2P.  I am very tardy in doing so, for which I apologize to Mr. Allen but better late than not at all. While addressing some of Victor’s specific points, I want to be very clear that in my view:

1. R2P’s status in international law, despite grandiose claims by advocates, is weakly grounded, highly controversial and conflicts with accepted norms of state sovereignty

2.  The concept of R2P is a covert revival of the pre-WWI sovereign right to  wage aggressive war, albeit (usually) under some kind of collective imprimatur

3,  If regarded as a serious legal moral principle entailing an obligation to act, R2P is inherently anti-strategic, injurious to national interest and anti-democratic in nature

I will tackle point #1 today and points # 2 and #3 in successive posts.

In Victor’s original piece he argued that R2P is part and parcel of a (theoretical) “new sovereignty”:

That R2P does not violate sovereignty stems from the evolution of sovereignty from its Westphalian form in the mid 17th century to the “sovereignty as responsibility” concept advanced by Deng, et al. Modern sovereignty can no longer be held to give states carte blanche in their internal affairs regardless of the level of suffering going on within their borders. This does not diminish state agency for internal affairs, but rather holds them responsible and accountable for their action and inaction regarding the welfare of their populations. 

“Sovereignty as responsibility”  is a theory put forth by a Sudanese diplomat and minor UN bureaucrat and an American academic that proclaimed:

The authors assert that sovereignty can no longer be seen as a protection against interference, but as a charge of responsibility where the state is accountable to both domestic and external constituencies.

The “…and external constituencies” clause is an Orwellian negation of the traditional meaning of sovereignty where the state has sole de jure authority over such matters as their internal affairs, including the political character of their regime,  with very narrow exceptions mandated by treaty or customary international law ( ex. diplomatic immunity of heads of state).  The latter, is based on consent and derives from the history of the diplomatic norms adhered to, interpreted and practiced by sovereigns and such rulings of IGO to whose authority sovereigns have voluntarily submitted themselves through a binding covenant ( ex. World Court via the UN charter).

Of course, being sovereign, states differ on how such rulings are to be interpreted or even whether they will accept jurisdiction of bodies  like the World Court, the ICC or special international  tribunals of justice in specific cases. Furthermore, in signing covenants, states often, quite legally, make reservations or exceptions to specific treaty clauses as part of their agreement to adhere to the rest of the treaty and consider it legally binding.  The United States in fact, does this regularly as do most other states having major interests at stake in negotiating an international agreement. Unless you have a granular knowledge of what country “x” formally agreed to accept as a signatory, or are willing to do your homework in this regard, you do not actually know what the law really is in many diplomatic disputes – especially when the conflict is complex and multilateral.  Broad and bombastic assertions by activists in the media that novel restrictions or obligations on states that they support are “international law” or that some act they condemn is “illegal” are almost invariably factually incorrect, at least to some degree ( barring obvious and clear violations of jus cogens, such as mass atrocities).

Beyond international law based on formal covenants, custom and legal precedents generally accepted by sovereigns, other sources of authority in international law would include resolutions of the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, regional bodies like the OAS or EU, some institutions like the ICRC and even the opinions of scholars learned in international law. Unlike positive law within a state, international law in its various manifestations lacks a legitimate, overarching, coercive authority that could function as a global sovereign and impartial enforcer of consistently interpreted law and justice. Sovereign states are thus not subject to international law in the same relationship that their citizens are subject to sovereign authority; sovereign states are, at least legally, a community of equals able to draw upon and interpret overlapping and at times competing sources of legal authority in making claims – including precedents they intentionally created themselves!  This makes a quick redress of violations of international law difficult when the UN Security Council is empowered to make use of military force only in cases of ” international peace and security” (i.e. aggression) and the UN Charter also assures sovereigns of their “right to self defense”.

“New Sovereignty”, in the title of Victor’s first piece, is a concept propagated by the late Harvard theorist and State Department official Abram Chayes and his wife, scholar Antonia Handler Chayes, that repudiates much of traditional sovereignty in order to aggressively re-define it as “ the capacity to participate in international institutions of all types“.  In other words, sovereignty in their view would mean a state’s membership in good standing in  a mutually interdependent ” international community” and not control over national territory free from external interference by other sovereigns. Under “New Sovereignty”, such external interference is assumed as “normal” and is a point of constant, cooperative, negotiation toward consensus on emerging and evolving legal norms. As such, if accepted, “New Sovereignty” would be a massive transfer of political power and legal authority from legitimate national governments to a transnational and international class of legal technocrats and bureaucrats, who would assume by default a managerial role over the substance of international affairs. In many ways this erosion of traditional state sovereignty would be analogous to the transfer of real power from the hands of crowned sovereigns in the early modern period to their embryonic state bureaucracies that in time rendered most monarchs mere ceremonial figureheads.

In my view, while  Chayes had many laudable goals in mind,  “New Sovereignty” would be unworkable in practice and inherently is extremely reactionary in its anti-democratic repudiation of popular sovereignty as the basis for a state’s legitimacy. Citizens of states are effectively reduced to the position of wards under the protection of the international community as national leaders become responsive primarily to “external constituencies” in control of the eternal process of negotiation of international norms. While the problem is somewhat moot for repressive regimes whose citizens enjoy few freedoms anyway, in liberal states the “democratic deficit” produced by such a scheme runs contrary to the very foundations of their political legitimacy and independence.

In this context, we have the claim put forth for the legal basis of R2P by Victor:

 ….Indeed, the UN Security Council, having enshrined R2P in UNSCR 1674, did not subsequently authorize action under the R2P banner in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Burma, with the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General stating in his report that

[i]t would be a misapplication of responsibility to protect principles to apply them at this point to the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar…the Outcome Document of the 2005 [World] Summit limited their application to four crimes and violations: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

and in his second post:

Here Safranski and I agree on the proper role of theorists, but it wasn’t theorists that adopted R2P as a norm; it was the UN Security Council, as set forth in UNSCR 1674 in 2005, which was later utilized in the Libya intervention authorization (UNSCR 1973). Currently there are no higher authorities on interventions, peacemaking, and peacekeeping than the Security Council, which is surely not composed of academic theorists, but rather high-level diplomats that make moves, and yes, establish law, only on the explicit authorization of their countries. That the Security Council adopted the principles of R2P speaks more to the usefulness and applicability of the concepts than to any academic theorizing thereof.

First, while we should acknowledge that the UNSC resolutions that R2P advocates crow about are not nothing, their importance should not be exaggerated either. They are a precedent, but a very limited one that does not abrogate everything that has come before.

Since the inception of the UN the Security Council has passed over 2200 resolutions, which would put those devoted to R2P at a whopping .0009 %.  Moreover, of the UNSC resolutions passed, many merely take note of an event, express concern or urge restraint; other, more forcefully worded resolutions, dealing with conflict were dead letters from the moment of adoption, being ignored by warring parties exercising their sovereign rights of self-defense. The number of UNSC resolutions that led to effective action of any kind, much less decisive humanitarian military intervention envisioned by more muscular interpretations of R2P, have been few with a mixed track record of success.  Resolutions 1674 and 1973 by the Security Council exist within the much larger context of international law precedents going back centuries, most of which directly contradict the operative assumptions of “New Sovereignty”.

Furthermore, much of the text of Resolution 1674 itself is devoted to caveats reiterating traditional sovereign prerogatives and that protection for civilians occur under established conventions for the law of armed conflict before gingerly endorsing R2P provisions from the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document  of the World Health Organization. The legality of these qualifications and reservations are taken seriously by the member states of the Security Council because without them, 1674 would have never passed, nor 1973 after it ( likely to be the last of its kind for a long while in light of Russian and Chinese vetoes on Syria resolutions, which after Libya are certain to continue).  At best, in international law R2P has managed to secure only a toehold and its definition and application lack agreement (and even acceptance) among the world’s great powers.

R2P is not a secure legal scaffold on which to construct a foreign policy or decide on matters of peace and war.

Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!


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