Friday, October 21, 2016

I went to vote and all I got was this stupid sticker.

Oh Election Day. The most important day of our executive quadrennial. I just cannot wait perform my most important civic duty on what will likely be a bone-cold November day on the second day of the American work week during work hours after standing in line for probably over an hour and make my voice heard for our supremely democratic elections where every vote matters (enough prepositional phrases there, bub?).

Lol. Oooookay.

Image result for i'm just a billThe United States government is a Federal, Presidential, Constitutional Republic. Meaning, we have a central government (federal) that is headed by a president (presidential) and governed by a constitution (constitutional), all run by elected representatives; by the public, for the public (republic).

America is great at elections. We have the best elections. Believe me. We are the land of democracy, after all. So it only makes sense that this great land uses a most democratic process to democratically elect the leader of the democratic world, and I am so glad that we do.

Image result for election memesSpeaking of elections, I want to talk about the electoral college (it even has the word "elect" in it! this could not be more perfect!). When we all (and I say all because I know we're all going to vote) tap that touchscreen or archaically poke a hole through a piece of paper (who even?), our vote is tallied up and counted along with every other American to determine who becomes the president of the United States.

I can't even sarcasm anymore.

Image result for your vote doesn't matter memeOur vote actually goes to tell our "electors" in the electoral college from our state how we want them to vote. In every state but Maine and Nebraska, the candidate who gets a plurality of votes gets those electoral votes. The candidate who gets 270 electoral votes wins.

Why does the electoral college exist? Why add this extra layer of "democracy" to the presidential election? The founding fathers were a bit afraid of democracy. It makes sense; they came from the monarchy of England. They also seemed to fear the "tyranny of the majority", where in minority opinions are trounced out by the majority class.

This isn't to say that we don't have a democratic government. So many officials are subject to a direct election. On the other hand, Article III allows for a supreme court justice to be appointed for life, and the only executive officials subject to any type of election are the president and vice president. Now that we have an election that has caused such turmoil, many more people than usual are learning about the democratic process. Some may argue that the electoral college helps to balance an innately unbalanced system where a more populated region could always help elect one party. It can also be argued that the electoral college allows for an even playing field in that candidates cannot (should not..) entirely ignore a state due to its low population. In opposition, I'd actually argue that the low population states are already essentially ignored (cue Wyoming).
Image result for election memes

I'd just like to see the popular vote at work in our nation. It seems to have made some pretty good decisions in the past (sup Gore?) and I think it would be a good idea to give Americans a little more confidence in their vote. Maybe we wouldn't have such a deplorable turn out rate when compared to other democratic nations. At least the UK voted during Brexit. I would love to live in a world where votes that do not align with a state's majority party still count in the election. Maybe one day our votes will actually matter. I definitely don't think they do right now.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

You get red tape! And you! Everyone gets red tape!

I don’t watch a lot of television, but when I do, I watch The Americans. The Emmy award winning TV series was created and produced by a former CIA officer and is about undercover Soviet spies operating clandestinely within the United States. The Americans is a must watch show and I highly recommended it to any aspiring FSS officer.

As I was finishing up the 3rd season, I witnessed an intriguing dialogue between an ambitious FBI officer and his superior that immediately caught my attention because of its relevance to class discussions.

Tangent: While I have enjoyed learning about how decisions are made within the United States bureaucracy, I have been surprised and frustrated by the seemingly incapability of individuals to affect any worthwhile change. Does this not debunk the ‘Great Man theory’ and every hagiography written on esteemed leaders? Although I understand and appreciate the need for red tape, (see particularly when it comes to uninformed, uninterested, and immature leaders (see here), I dare say the majority of American presidents have not been 1) uninformed, 2) uninterested, nor 3) immature. Instead, American Presidents have been genuinely concerned about achieving worthwhile goals. Thus, excessive red tape (which I believe is there) prevents informed, interested, and mature Presidents from implementing effective policies. Trump has been by all accounts an anomaly in American political history. Thus, I argue that excessive red tape has not been put in place to contain a Trump-like candidate, simply because nobody ever expected a trump-like candidate to ever occupy the highest political office in the U.S.  Instead, the red tape exists to be a bureaucratic tool to protect parochial interests. So isn’t it a possibility to maybe … Get rid of the red tape and not put someone like Trump in office? I suppose I am naive. 
But, back to the The Americans.

The dialogue I am referring to occurs after one of the main characters, FBI agent Stan Beeman, confesses to his superior about running an unauthorized mission to secure the release of his Soviet lover. Beeman’s superior informs him that he will be relieved of his duty. However, someone higher up in the bureaucratic cesspool intervenes and privately encourages Beeman to carry on.

The dialogue is as follows and occurs in this episode.
“I’m sure you understand that the people who run our government agencies are just bureaucrats.  The president understands that’s how government works. It’s all red tape. There’s not going to be an investigation into what you did.  The only thing that matters is the work that you are going to be doing.  If you have trouble with the bureaucrats here – You come to me.  I won’t let them stand in your way.”

Well, there you go. You just ignore the red tape. And I really like Reagan.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

When Rational Choice Theory Doesn't Fit

The Cold War is no doubt still fresh in the minds of senior political leaders and policy makers in both the US and Russia. It is the most relevant and critical history from which each country can predict how the other will act in their interactions today. As tensions between the US and Russia heighten, specifically in regards to each party’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, it is crucial for these US senior officials and policy makers to decide how they are going to view the Russian Federation. Should they view it as a rational actor that has certain weighted preferences and who can recognize the difference between which policies to pursue? Or should they view the Russian Federation organizationally, in which case policies would be tailored to the different organizations/agencies/departments within the Russian government? Or perhaps our government officials should view Russian government from a bureaucratic decision making model. Whichever they choose will have a hefty influence on the character of future US-Russian interactions and may even be the difference between having a friend or a foe in Russia.

Key American foreign policy strategist Andrew Marshall
During the Cold War, Andrew Marshall was a key figure in developing new analytical methods in dealing with the Soviet Union and had a large impact on the US ability to predict or explain actions taken by the Soviet Union. As discussed in his biography, The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy, written by Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts, instead of viewing the Soviet Union as a single, unitary actor, as prescribed by the rational choice theory, Marshall and his fellow analysts suggested that the Soviet Union be viewed through its separate organizations and agencies. Marshall and friends inferred that each of the separate entities within the Soviet government was its own rational actor with its own set of preferences and that they could differ from actor to actor. Therefore, there would be organizational infighting that could result in a policy or action that would significantly differ from a decision that would result from a rational choice decision making model. With that in mind, policy makers decided to take a different approach to the Soviet Union problem.

Today, interactions between US and Russia are seemingly more and more reminiscent of the Cold War period. Bilateral talks between the two nations over their involvement in Syria have come to an end and Russia has withdrawn from an agreement with the US to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium. This withdrawal follows a failed cease fire in the Syrian war-torn city of Aleppo that was initially agreed upon by both the US and Russia, but ended after the American-led accidental bombing of Syrian troops and the Russian and Syrian bombing of a humanitarian group on its way to Aleppo. How can we explain Russia’s decision to withdraw from the arms control agreement based on a rational choice or organizational decision-making model?

It is certain that Russia has a growing mistrust with the American government and that their withdrawal from the arms control agreement was solely a political action, not a military one.
Therefore, Secretary of State John Kerry requested to continue talks with Russia’s foreign minister when President Obama was ready to call it quits. Although the talks with Russia have since ceased due to Russia’s failure to commit to its own promises encompassed in the ceasefire negotiated with the US, Secretary Kerry’s decision to initially hold on ending talks was a decision that assumed Russia to be a rational, unitary actor. The most logical prediction of Russia’s actions would been that it would have followed the guidelines set forth by the ceasefire in order to provide humanitarian aid in Syria. However, it is perhaps the inability of the Russian government to decide between policy options due to the conflicts of preferences between different agencies or departments that has caused them to be unfaithful in agreements with other international actors such as the US. Although I cannot be certain this is the case because I do not have the proper intelligence on the issue, I can suggest that the organizational decision making model could be an effective framework for US policy makers to view the decisions of their Russian counterparts. Whichever the framework for analyzing Russia’s actions, it needs to be correct or we could be looking at a Cold War-esque relationship once again.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Will the Red Tape Protect Us, Papa?

The Last Warrior  is an excellent biography of Andrew Marshall, a pioneer in the American defense intellectual community. Marshall worked for years in the revolving door between think tanks and US defense agencies, and is one of the most influential figures in US defense strategy (at least until I get hired by the NSC). In Chapter 3 of this biography, the authors detail Marshall's struggle against the management at RAND to improve qualitative analytical standards.

Similarly, the introduction of The National Security Enterprise: Institutions, Cultures, and Politics highlights complaints about "the parochial nature of organizations and systems that make up the [national security] system." The intro also highlights worries that organizational gridlock between the different NatSec agencies hinders the Executive from controlling the system.

Now, of course, the readings also highlight organizational cultures, decision making models according to the giant that is Graham Allison, and challenges to the NatSec system. But if you, imaginary reader, will allow me, I'd like to hone in here on institutional inefficiency for a while. Especially as it pertains to a potential Trump presidency and nuclear capabilities. Forgive me.

Now, it's no secret that the intel community and defense experts are up in arms over Trump. Trump's disparaging remarks towards the intelligence community and his obvious ignorance of US nuclear strategy are prime examples of this.
It's also no secret that the procedures for the launch of the US's nuclear weapons are designed with expediency in mind. So here comes my point; in the event of a leader that is (a) uninformed, (b) immature, (c) uninterested in expert advice, or (d) unaware of global ramifications of nuclear detonations, might a massive snail-paced and inefficient bureaucracy be just what the doctor ordered?

I know, it's a stretch. And I get your reservations, OK? I do. (No one gets your reservations like I do. You have the best reservations.) When the commander of your nuclear arsenal is level headed, well advised, and methodical, you want that launch process to be smooth and effortless like a slip-n-slide. And I agree.

But you might not want that same process to be as easy and quick if your commander has made public statements indicating that they'd be more inclined to use nukes than other presidents, that they don't understand why the US can't use nukes casually, or that they don't even know how nukes are launched. If your commander demonstrated this level of incompetence regarding such a dangerous weapon, you might wish that there were some reforms in place to make it just a little bit more difficult to launch.

But who knows, right? Maybe Trump's all talk. Maybe he won't get elected and this problem that has been debated by experts for decades will just go away and we won't have to worry about it. I'm sure it'll be fine.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Trump on Russia: Rational vs. Organizational Decisions

How would a Trump presidency play out in the real world? Using different decision-making models leads us to different predictions about the future. Two such decision-making models are the rational choice model and the organizational model. The rational choice model assumes that a state is a unitary actor, has ranked preferences, and can choose the best policy option for the situation at hand. The organizational model recognizes that a state's policy on a given subject is the combination of various institutions’ own policies regarding the subject. These internal agencies represent many different sides of an issue and each has its own set of preferences and end goals.

Assuming the Trump administration aligned with rational choice theory, meaning President Trump’s foreign policy was decided by a rational, unitary actor, we could predict the foreign policy toward Russia to be a reset in relations to wipe the slate clean and start over. The precedent for resetting relations with Russia was established by George H. W. Bush and upheld by all three U.S. presidents since then. Given Trump’s favorable rhetoric toward Putin, there is no reason to conclude he wouldn’t attempt to renew favorable relations with Russia after Obama’s tenure ends on less than favorable terms with Putin.

How would a positive relationship between Trump and Putin affect the situation in Syria? If we place faith in Trump’s self-proclaimed ability to negotiate with Putin, we would expect Russia to stop supporting the Assad regime in Syria and instead assist us in our efforts to support the Syrian rebels, or at least to stop working against us and the Syrian rebels. This, of course, assumes that Trump is a rational actor and that his claims hold weight.

On the other hand, the organizational model’s view of a Trump administration’s policy toward Russia takes into account the various institutions that contribute to ultimately forming foreign policy. These organizational actors include but are not limited to presidential national security advisors, the Department of State (DOS), and the Department of Defense (DOD), each with its own view of the Russia/Syria situation and policy objectives. The national security advisors offer expertise on how to handle situations. The DOS aims to settle disputes through negotiating ceasefires and peace talks. The DOD aims to meet external conflicts with offensive force to prevent the need for defensive force at home. The combination of these policy objectives will likely lead to hesitation to rely on Russian assistance, and continue to focus on supporting the Syrian rebels in their struggle against the Assad regime. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Threats vs Capabilities Based Defense Planning

                The foremost struggle of grand strategy is the balancing act between focus and flexibility. A doctrine without consistency is useless, as it has no prescriptive value. (The president would not be amused if his national security advisors told him to just wing it and hope for the best!) However, an overly narrow-minded approach to national security may lead to a warped view of events as policy makers attempt to force every given situation into the same overly narrow framework. Ultimately, grand strategy at its best is a set of guidelines which give policymakers a consistent set of metrics and goals while leaving some room for tactical flexibility. In terms of defense policy, this leads to the question of whether a capabilities or threats based approach to military preparedness is preferable.  

US Soldiers in Vietnam 
                A threats based approach, as recommended in NSC-68, offers military planners means to adapt a more coherent approach to hardware acquisition and doctrine. As a result, more specialized individuals and weapons systems may be used to achieve a high degree of excellence in a given field. However, this specialization can lead to increased difficulties when the military is forced to operate outside its comfort zone. For example, the American and Soviet militaries were by far the most powerful and sophisticated militaries on the planet during the Cold War. However, because equipment and doctrine were primarily based around a high-intensity conventional war in Central Europe with the opposing superpower, they were ill-prepared for the radically different types of conflict awaiting them in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively. A capabilities based approach, as recommended by the Defense Guidance 1992 briefing draft, offers more flexibility but at greater cost. Furthermore, by increasing the perceived feasibility of force, it makes the use of force more likely. It is much easier to blunder into an unnecessary war when tax increases and a commitment to a massive long-term military buildup are not needed. This is arguably why the US government has been able to keep the nation in a more or less constant state of war after the fall of the Soviet Union without large scale public unrest.

                Although any US defense policy will take elements from both approaches, overall a threats-based approach is preferable. The United States is blessed with weak neighbors and a strong economy, and therefore will have time to respond to any developing threats. While a surprise attack is possible, the likelihood of an invasion of the US mainland is virtually nil, allowing the United States time to prepare a devastating counterstrike. This is not to say that the United States should not retain its rapid response and global strike capabilities, as the ability to tip the scales on a regional conflict is necessary for the United States to play its traditional role as an off-shore balancer. However, an eternal massive commitment to police the entire world is unsustainable and ultimately  counterproductive to the defense of key US interests. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Practice What You Preach

It is a common sentiment that ideas have consequences. Good ideas have good consequences and bad ideas have bad consequences.  When Marx penned in the Communist Manifesto that a spectre [was] haunting Europe — the spectre of communism, he hardly envisaged that the revolutionary ideas posited would become a rationale, or justification, for the slaughter of millions. Alas, in the hands of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, Marx’s ideas became a scary ghost indeed. So, who should we blame? Is Marx responsible for the dead, or should we blame the so-called Communist practitioners, who manipulated then propagandized Marx’s ideas to serve their own purposes. This dilemma illuminates yet another commonly shared sentiment — It is difficult to put theory into practice, and when doing so, it often occurs that the practitioners negate the very theory they hypothesize.

During the Cold War, there was a battle of ideas for the hearts and minds of humankind between the Communist creed of collectivism and liberal idea of self-determination. It was a world struggle between the tyrannical Soviet system and the capitalist West. It was self-evident that that the philosophies of the former were dangerous; Less obvious was that to combat this evil system, many thought it necessary for the liberal West to compromise the very liberal idea it cherished. To put it another way, the liberal theory ingrained in the United States identity required American leaders to practice policies contrary to its nation’s founding theories. I call it the "liberty dilemma."  

George Kennan attempted to ameliorate this unfortunate conundrum. In “The Long Telegram,” Kennan wrote that the “greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.” Kennan attempted to outline a policy guide that did not violate the philosophical outlook of the United States. Kennan believed that the nation who does anything in the name of power is but a nation who is complicit in tyranny. Kennan feared that the United States would become the very monster it was attempting to destroy.

I was struck by this when reading NSC-68. For it was George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” that influenced the policies advocated for in NSC-68. But Kennan hated NSC-68 and never intended it to be militarized to such an extent that it was. What Kennan preached was not practiced. Instead, his theory of “containment” turned out to be the rationale for the arms-race. And some would argue that American liberties were compromised because of this buildup. The point is this — It is hard to put theory into practice.  And when ideas are tools in the hands of dangerous or self-serving men, the policies they practice all too often violate the original idea. I am not saying that NSC-68 was an evil manipulation of Kennan’s philosophy; I am saying that ideas have consequences.