Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Other Countries as Ends-in-Themselves

Here in Babylon on the Potomac, most foreign policy discussions begin and end with the United States: How can we extend our control of the world?  Who is challenging us?  What problems might, say, a rising China, pose to American primacy?  We are, as Madeleine Albright asserted, the “indispensable nation.”  One popular scholar recently advanced the theory that the U.S. government is, and should be, the world’s government.  There’s a real refusal to recognize that we are, as a simple matter of fact, isolated by the blessings of geography and power.  We’re just not a 19th century continental European power, no matter how much we threat-inflate and conceive of ourselves as the only source of order in a disorderly world.

You’d think we’d be inclined to recognize the luxury that our isolation affords us, but you’d be wrong.  Consequently, in discussions about the rise of China, for example, U.S. analysts generally pose the question as a simple U.S. vs. China confrontation: How quickly can they challenge us?  Where should our “red lines” be?  Which allies will support us?  If our strategists were smart, they’d be thinking more creatively about offloading responsibility to countries that live more closely to China, and waiting to see how things progress.  While the ChiCom menace tends to get represented as ten feet tall in these discussions, the Chinese have a host of significant problems, including the internal unrest that has been on display recently, among others.

china-india-exerciseHigh on the list of “other problems” is China’s relationship with countries like India.  Much more so than the United States, countries like India and Japan have a lot to lose, potentially, from China’s rise.  Liberal international relations thinkers are right to point out the positive-sumness of economic relations between potential adversaries.  Economic ties between China and Taiwan, China and the U.S., China and Japan, are also positive forces that can help to moderate security competition.  That said, security itself is zero-sum.  Either you control your sea lines of communication or else another country does.  If another country does, bad things can happen to you, as, for example, Japan remembers all too well.

All of which is a long-winded way of introducing this excellent article by James Lamont and Amy Kazmin in the Financial Times.  Lamont and Kazmin highlight the growing unease in New Delhi about China.  Unease tends to crop up when a big powerful neighbor does things like claim whole provinces of your country as its own territory, as China does with the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh.  (For more on this subject, see my talk on Capitol Hill from May 2008: video here.)

In fairness, the Bush administration did some smart things on this front, like trying to improve ties with India.  For years, U.S.-India relations had been tainted by a cold war mindset where we resented their association with the Non-aligned Movement.  (I think the India nuclear deal has a lot of downsides, but the intentions underpinning it were smart ones.)  Similarly, the Bush administration signed a joint agreement with Japan stating that a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan dispute is a “common strategic objective.”

But the important part will be beyond getting other countries to accept our goodies (the India nuclear deal) or sign a statement of interest (the joint Japan-US statement on Taiwan).  Those countries would rather, ceteris paribus, stand tall against China from over the shoulder of the United States.  The only way that we will get to a point where the countries with the most to lose pay the most for a hedge against China is for the United States to credibly commit to do less.  And on that front, there is a lot more work to be done.

Even as America’s Troops Leave Iraq, the Waste Goes On

The U.S. government has been providing so-called foreign aid for decades, but the waste never stops.  So it is in Iraq.

Reports Stars & Stripes:

Provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq are scrambling to submit a large number of multimillion-dollar aid project proposals by July 15, something critics suggest will result in a rash of big construction projects they were never intended to run.

Further, they say, big-budget projects are being put forward too quickly, are too ambitious given the scheduled 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and are crowding out simpler schemes.

“Our goal is not necessarily to help [Iraqis] with building projects,” said Rick Gohde, an engineer with the Diwaniyah provincial reconstruction team, known as PRT. “We are supposed to be beyond that. We are supposed to be training them to sustain themselves as we are getting ready to leave.”

Capt. Doug Weaver, 28, a civil affairs soldier who acts as a liaison between the military and the Diwaniyah PRT, said Monday that close to $600 million of military aid funding was made available to the PRTs last month countrywide through the Commanders Emergency Relief Program, or CERP. The funds, made available by Congress, are only available through September 30 and the deadline for project proposals exceeding $1 million is next Wednesday, officials said.

Weaver, who studied industrial engineering before he deployed, identified numerous big projects in Diwaniyah vying for CERP funds, including new electrical substations ($1 million to $1.5 million), city sewers ($750,000 to $1.25 million), an agricultural school dormitory ($1.2 million), women’s centers to provide job training for divorcees and widows ($2 million), vocational schools ($500,000 each) and upgrades to Iraqi government communications networks.

Iraqi contractors will bid for the construction work, which is expected to employ more than 1,000 local laborers in Diwaniyah alone.

But Gohde said the PRTs are not supposed to be involved in the sort of “bricks and mortar” construction that most of the big budget projects involve.

In southern Afghanistan, construction projects supported by foreign aid, such as schools and medical clinics, stand as empty shells because Taliban militants have frightened students and patients away.

“There’s been some of that in this country,” Gohde said. “I’ve heard of schools being built with no furniture or teachers. There are projects that are constructed with the best of intentions that are not utilized in the original intent or utilized at all,” he said.

Oh, well.  It’s only money, as they say.   And with Uncle Sam running a roughly $2 trillion deficit this year, what’s a few wasted millions (or even hundreds of millions) among friends?  I’m sure next time the government will get it right!

Death to Power Point!

put-them-to-sleepThat’s not quite the point of T. X. Hammes’ article in the current Armed Forces Journal, but it’s pretty close.  My familiarity with Power Point has been much more on the academic than DOD side, but my understanding is that academics are nothing when compared to Pentagon planners when it comes to egregious abuse of Power Point.  Here’s Hammes:

Before PowerPoint, staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper. Of course, the staff involved in the discussion would also have read the paper and had time to prepare to discuss the issues. In contrast, today, a decision-maker sits through a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by five minutes of discussion and then is expected to make a decision. Compounding the problem, often his staff will have received only a five-minute briefing from the action officer on the way to the presentation and thus will not be well-prepared to discuss the issues. This entire process clearly has a toxic effect on staff work and decision-making.

The art of slide-ology

Let’s start by examining the impact on staff work. Rather than the intellectually demanding work of condensing a complex issue to two pages of clear text, the staff instead works to create 20 to 60 slides. Time is wasted on deciding which pictures to put on the slides, how to build complex illustrations, and what bullets should be included. I have even heard conversations about what font to use and what colors. Most damaging is the reduction of complex issues to bullet points. Obviously, bullets are not the same as complete sentences, which require developing coherent thoughts. Instead of forcing officers to learn the art of summarizing complex issues into coherent arguments, staff work now places a premium on slide building. Slide-ology has become an art in itself, while thinking is often relegated to producing bullets.

Hammes makes a number of excellent points, including his mention of my pet peeve, the presenter who places full paragraphs on slides (preceded, of course, by a bullet, which makes it more Power Point-y), and then proceeds to read the paragraphs to his audience and calls this a “briefing.”  Of course, humans can read faster than they can speak.  One wonders whether there could be any real value in a brief provided by someone who does not understand this. 

Hammes closes by mentioning that one excuse for using Power Point in this way is that

senior leaders don’t have time to be pre-briefed on all the decisions they make. If that is the case, they are involved in too many decisions. When the default position is that you are too busy to prepare properly to make a decision, it means you are making bad decisions.

Sage wisdom.  Some of us might argue that there are many indications that folks in the Pentagon are “involved in too many decisions,” but the entropic debasement of thought there, enabled by Power Point, is as good a sign as any.

More Bad News for the F-22

This won’t make the “Buy the Planes that the Pentagon Doesn’t Want” Caucus happy. (There’s a similar “caucus” in the Senate, too; and 12 governors.)

The Washington Post reports that the F-22 requires

more than 30 hours of maintenance for every hour in the skies, pushing its hourly cost of flying to more than $44,000, a far higher figure than for the warplane it replaces.

How might this bad news be twisted into a good news story by the F-22’s advocates in industry and on Capitol Hill? Look for the same line of reasoning that has been used up to this point. If we’re building the F-22 in order to give jobs to workers who might otherwise have to seek out other opportunities, then maybe the plane’s high operating costs can be justified on the grounds that it employs more maintenance workers?

J.M. Keynes must be smiling down on us.

UK Home Secretary Abandons National ID

The UK has been operating in parallel to the United States on the national ID question, and rumors about the collapse of the UK national ID have been circulating for a couple of years.

Now comes word that Home Secretary Alan Johnson will scrap the national ID card system, making it voluntary. When volunteers fail to materialize, it is easy to anticipate that it will disappear entirely.

This is another thing U.S. Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano might want to note as she struggles with with national ID issue here.

A Defense for Iranian Reformers

Although the regime in Tehran finally succeeded in suppressing demonstrations protesting the fraudulant elections, other voices are being raised in Iran in defense of democracy.  Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Some members of Iran’s powerful clerical class are stepping up their antigovernment protests over Iran’s election in defiance of the country’s supreme leader, bringing potential aid to opposition figures as the regime is increasingly labeling them foreign-sponsored traitors.

An influential group of religious scholars seen as politically neutral during the presidential election called the country’s highest election arbiter, the Guardian Council, biased, and said the June 12 election was “invalid.” Earlier, it had endorsed the official result that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated Mir Houssein Mousavi and other challengers by a wide margin.

The group, with no government role, has little practical ability to change the election outcome. But its new posture may carry moral weight with Iranians after security forces have quashed street protests and jailed hundreds of opposition supporters.

It highlights a growing unease among Iran’s scholarly ruling class about the direction of the country, and questions the theological underpinning of the Islamic Republic: that the supreme leader and the institutions under him are infallible.

“I’m not sure of the Persian equivalent of ‘crossing the Rubicon,’ but we are seeing it now. The future of the Islamic Republic, which has in recent years become a fig leaf for keeping a small clique of people in power, is now in question,” said Michael Axworthy, director of Exeter University’s Center for Persian and Iranian Studies in the U.K.

The U.S. isn’t going to be able to bring liberty to the Iranian people.  Only they will be able to throw the repressive political establishment overboard.   But this break within the Islamic establishment, with respected religious leaders denouncing repression, is a critical step forward. 

The Iranian people deserve better.  For nearly six decades they have suffered, first under the Shah, and second under the Islamic theocracy.  They deserve to be free.