May 10

Yesterday, I tried to link to some of the of the good articles that inspired thoughts about President Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Today, I go to some of the posts that I either disagreed with or that angered me.

Matthew Karnitschnig says the EU will cave to Trump, they always do.

I sort of agree with Karnitschnig on this even though it seems harsh and really strong on first blush. Here’s the harshest part, towards the end

“As Trump made clear with Merkel at his side last month, Europe needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Europe, both economically and in terms of security. Or as Trump might say, he has Europe over a barrel. That’s why once the cacophony of shock and horror across the Continent subsides in the coming days over Trump’s latest affront, Europe will revert to type and do what it always does when challenged by the U.S. — nothing.”

Trump understands the power the United States could potentially wield. Combined with his narcissistic disregard for other humans/nations and inability to focus on issues, Trump exerts U.S. power in ways that upsets the traditional foreign policy establishment. As a result, predictions of disaster so far haven’t been realized. Most countries end up capitulating back to the United States. Consider his track record:

- Trump announced tariffs on steel and aluminum, and every country bent over backwards to get them removed (except for China).

- Trump threatened to go to war with North Korea, now they are negotiating.

- Trump threatened to leave NAFTA, now Mexico and Canada are negotiating to save the deal.

- Trump left Paris Climate Accords, nothing bad happened to the United States.

Now Trump leaves the Iran deal, and there is a high chance the EU countries will--instead of fighting the U.S.--help Trump reimpose secondary sanctions. How does he pull it off?

Again we’re powerful. My caveat is it may only be in the short term. And devastating in the longer term.

Take leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, that I didn’t mention above. The same process was happening, that Trump announced he was leaving because it was an Obama deal, and now he wants to consider rejoining because he needs a leverage point against China on trade. Except the rest of the countries don’t want America back in, unless it is under worse terms.

I think the same thing could happen here, despite Karnitschnig’s prediction it won’t. As he himself notes in the entire article leading up to this, Europe values peace over all else, having born the brunt of two disastrous world wars. The whole continent was involved in negotiating this deal, and they don’t have a “loyal opposition” who reflexively tries to destroy their accomplishments, like in the United States. So they may finally view this as the time to ignore President Trump and stand on their own, to protect their legacy.

Or they won’t. Honestly, I don’t know what will happen.

The Trump Doctrine: destroying Obama’s legacy

Anytime a President gives a major foreign policy speech, the first thing the media wants to do is anoint it a “doctrine”. So we have a Bush doctrine, an Obama doctrine and so on. Trump seems to have eluded defining a Trump doctrine just because he changes his mind so often on so many topics. (Take Syria, we’re leaving but not going to cede it to Iran, so we’re not leaving, but we’ll be out soon.)

So how do we box Trump into his own “doctrine”? By looking for the few things where he won’t immediately change his mind. And with Trump finally leaving the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) we’ve confirmed the one true Trump doctrine: “Anything Barack Obama did I oppose”.

Ryan Bort in Rolling Stone said Trump was “torching the legacy of Barack Obama”. The BBC said he was “shredding the legacy”. Zack Beauchamp in Vox said Obama was one of the biggest losers in this whole thing, again because of his legacy.

And indeed that’s why Trump is leaving nearly every foreign policy deal agreed to or signed by President Obama: the Paris Accords. The Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Iran deal. Thawing relations with Cuba. The New START treaty. And the one deal Trump wants is with North Korea because Obama wouldn’t agree to sit down with Kim Jong-Un without preconditions. Trump doesn’t care; he’ll do it because Obama didn’t. (Syria is the same way: Trump wants out just because Obama sent some troops there.)

This isn’t a logical position or even well thought out, and America will suffer the consequences of a foreign policy not driven by ideology but by personal vendetta.

What are the electoral consequences?

Here’s an article I haven’t read yet: how will this affect the Democratic electorate?

A lot of people who voted for President Obama switched to Trump. Or they didn’t vote for Clinton because they weren’t as energized. And we know Democrats don’t traditionally show up in force for midterm elections. How will Donald Trump making it his sole mission of his Presidency to destroy Obama’s legacy change this?

Speaking for myself, this move made me more angry than almost anything else Trump has done. It would be one thing if I believed Trump held sincerely different positions than Barack Obama, like say Paul Ryan does on health care and taxes. But Trump making it his mission to simply undo good policy because of the man who put them in place ensures I’ll make it to the polls next November. Or maybe even volunteer in the meantime. How will this presidency of destruction play in the next election?

Eli Lake and Raymond Tanter say the next step is regime change!

I just had to put a sarcastic exclamation point because this just seems like the next logical step, doesn’t it?

As I said yesterday, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of good options for the United States going forward. This doesn’t seem to have been thought through though, because honestly President Trump doesn’t have a plan B, as Dan Drezner wisely pointed out. Neither does his Secretary of State or John Bolton or John Mattis.

So to fill the gap, some conservative commentators have said that the best way to permanently disarm Iran is to remove the government. That’s why at least two articles--one by Eli Lake in Bloomberg and one by Raymond Tanter in The Hill--couch this move by arguing that the United States should support “pro-democratic elements”. Lake uses the euphemism “fight for Iranian freedom” while Tanter uses the euphemism “reform Iran”. In other words, the goal is regime change, which is what started all the problems with Iran so many decades ago.

A few other commentators have noted, in my opinion correctly, the echoes or rhyming or similarity to the situation in Iraq in the early 2000s. Peter Beinart laid out his case here. Michael Krepon laid out his case here. I find them persuasive. Having removed ourselves from the deal--and already disavowed the work of inspectors--the next step is Iran forcing inspectors to leave the country. Without inspectors, Israel, John Bolton and Saudi Arabia will claim that Iran is building a bomb, because we don’t have inspectors on the ground to prove they aren’t. Then comes calls for military intervention.

I would add Lake and Tanter are always so concerned with the undemocratic regime in Iran, whereas Saudi Arabia doesn’t have voting of any kind--and one of their princes was recently feted by all of Washington D.C.--and Israel is well, too complicated to summarize quickly. But it has undemocratic elements.

May 09

So I’ve been doing a lot of “quick thoughts” on various topics to try to get my opinions out there in a bit more timely fashion. President Trump actually leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA, as the Iran Deal was officially known) definitely fits that bill.

I couldn’t stop reading about this subject. Of course, even in our always on world, there wasn’t a ton of fresh news from the immediate fall out. But there was a lot of good analysis.

I will say before I get into it that, though we thought this might happen, it is news that it did finally happen, that President Trump did officially blow it all up. Unlike past tariff announcements that keep getting pushed back, he is implementing the sanctions within 90 days and then more sanction in 180 days. This is happening.

So on to good reads.

Kevin Drum says this makes a North Korea deal more likely.

This is the counter take to most other initial opinions that assume this Trump move makes the North Korea deal harder because it will scare Kim Jong-Un. Drum disagrees, and I see the logic. Kim is smart enough to realize that Trump ripped up the Iran deal out of hatred for Obama more than anything. It also leaves Trump desperate to look good by getting a “win” in North Korea, something Obama couldn’t do.

That desperation is key. And Drum acknowledges this at the end of his post, though I wish he was more up front about it: a deal with North Korea won’t necessarily be a “good deal” and will likely be a “bad deal”. Trump is a man who isn’t good at making deals, and now he’s negotiating the most important nuclear deal since the one he just ripped up.

Vox (Zack Beauchamp) says Israel and Saudi Arabia are winners (and he gives 5 more losers).

This is the best summary of how all parties fared. But I did disagree with one part. In his introduction Beauchamp wrote this:

“It’s a massive victory for Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have been pushing for the US to confront Iran more aggressively.”

I agree with him in that the foreign policy apparati of Israel and Saudi Arabia both wanted this. That said, even observers in Israel who weren’t in the government opposed the United States unilaterally leaving the deal and destroying its credibility in the region. I would add, for this particular call of who is a winner or loser, a lot will depend on what happens next. If Iran stays in the deal and the EU, Russia and China fight additional US sanctions, than it just further isolates the United States while not hurting Iran. If Iran leaves the deal (with Russian and Chinese support even), they will rapidly build the capability for a nuclear weapon, unless the United States/Israel goes to war to stop them.

Worse, the main animus driving Israel and Saudi Arabia is in the desire to keep Iran from ever joining the larger world.

“For [Israel and Saudi Arabia], this comes down to: The only way to keep the United States engaged in the region, and provide a security blanket for Saudis and Israelis ... is to make sure Iran is not normalized through this set of international and regional agreements,” Hussein Banai, an expert on US-Iran relations at Indiana University Bloomington, tells me.

Yes, Iran does a lot of bad things in the Middle East, often counter to Saudi Arabian and Israeli interests. But we should desperately want “normalization” of all rogue regimes. In the long run, it makes us all safer. The solution is more diplomacy, not less.

Fred Kaplan has a paragraph that presages the next big decision.

I loved “decision trees” in business school, but honestly I don’t think I’ve ever seen a business use them to make a real world decision. I mean, decision trees require thinking through a lot of options and you need a lot of data to make them accurate. Who has the time?

I don’t know if the National Security Council has decision trees for major decisions. I assume they don’t. Again, takes a lot of time. But I would love to be proven wrong.

If you were decision-treeing out the future (to turn that noun into a verb when “game planning” is probably more accurate), one big decision is whether or not Trump would leave. That’s now firmly the tree branch we are traveling down.

So let’s look to the next key move, which is how the EU, China and Russia respond to “secondary sanctions”:

"And the U.S. withdrawal from the deal means the deal is very likely dead. Reimposing sanctions on Iran would also entail reimposing “secondary sanctions” on banks and other enterprises that do business with Iran. Most foreign companies, faced with the choice of forgoing deals with Iran or ending deals with the United States, would choose the former. (Russia and China might prove exceptions, in which case Trump’s move would benefit them."

In the above paragraph, Kaplan predicts the EU ultimately backs down from fighting the US on sanctions, especially “secondary sanctions”. But he goes on to say that the EU could push back against these secondary sanctions if they still wanted the deal to work. The EU has done this for other sanctions it disagreed with, like the U.S. unilateral Cuba sanctions To me this is the key decision. If the EU aggressively fights the sanctions, than a major rift in the Atlantic will have opened up, and the deal will be saved. The result is mainly further isolation of the US, Israeli and Saudi Arabian alliance. If the EU capitulates, then Trump will likely have isolated Iran, while they will aggressively pursue a nuclear weapon, possibly with Russian help.

On their face, neither option looks good for the United States, which might be why this was such a bad decision.

May 08

A few weeks back, in our series on Trump and Tillerson wrecking the State Department in 2017, I had to write a post called, “Why is this Bad?”. Just think about the state of American politics that I had to write that post in the first place. While I was writing, I couldn’t stop thinking about an analogy I just heard on NPR’s The Indicator. I hadn’t heard it before but it’s just perfect:

“Stocks take the stairs up; the elevator down.”

This phrase could apply to the situation in Foggy Bottom right now, even with Mike Pompeo taking over as Secretary of State. In fact, it ties into a long held On Violence positions in general.

First, it summarizes the difficulty in promoting democracy and liberalization around the globe.

We at On Violence always advocate thinking in the long term. It is exceptionally hard to do in politics, especially democracies, but it is so vital. More than just long-term, a lot of what we argue for is slow, incremental change. Slow progress isn’t flashy, but it’s crucial to growth.

Democracy promotion is slow and incremental. You don’t suddenly get a ton of democracies. It takes time. And you have to not just have people vote, you need democratic institutions to help reinforce democracy, like a free press, the right to organize, independent judiciary and the rule of law. Those are the things that separate strong, liberal democracies from weak, illiberal democracies.

Building up the liberal world order was also slow and incremental. It took years to create international treaties, international institutions and free trade. It takes years to trust they are working. They help undergird the international system and have prevented interstate war.

Wars--in the case of the global order--and coups--in the case of democracies--can undo all the gains very quickly. Taking the elevator down, if you will. We need the State Department to help with these long term efforts.

Second, institutions are built slowly, but can quickly be destroyed.

You could take that analogy above and apply it to the State Department (or really any institution). You take the stairs up: hiring people, implementing systems, gaining experience, and building capabilities. You can take the elevator down with mismanagement. Or crisis.

What do I mean? Well, think about a start up. You hire a few people to get the project off the ground. Then you hire teams of people to expand past what a few can do. Eventually, after years of hiring people, you develop institutional skills and strategies and teams and staffs. You gain experience to solve problems. Eventually, you have a company with lots of employees. That takes time to build.

The State Department was built up in a similar manner over decades. Sure it can improve, like anything, but it already has a ton of capability and experience. It was already pretty darn good.

By cutting the budget 30% and firing a thousand people--especially senior people with lots of experience--President Trump and former Secretary of State Tillerson could overnight eviscerate the organization. Cause it from being great at its job to being terrible. It would be like an elevator plunging down the shaft, but President Trump cut the cable.

Don’t try to argue it is about efficiencies or improving the organization. Sure, lots of organizations have lots of fat. But they also have a lot of lean muscle. The key is wisely cutting the one while boosting the other. When he was devastating the State Department, Tillerson wasn’t doing that. He’s trying to just cut the fat, but he was slashing at a lot of meat. In fact, when companies do mass layoffs, there is good evidence that actually the best people leave first. I’ve made this argument about the military and entrepreneurship: the people who want the job security of 20 years of work and a retirement stay; the people who embrace entrepreneurial change may leave. This makes a less risk averse organization and a less entrepreneurial one.

The State Department will have that, plus the fact that the people with the best prospects will be the most likely to leave. If the State Department becomes a lousy place to work, and you could be fired anyways, why not leave if you have the best prospects? The people who will stay are those with the worst prospects.

So you have an organization shredding tens of thousands of “knowledge-years”--the accumulated knowledge of years of work. And that will make it better?

It won’t. And it will take decades to rebuild.

May 01

1. The FBI needs to return to white collar crime

Imagine it is 2004. Instead of the all out focus on terrorism, the FBI got a tip that a lot of mortgage applications were fraudulent, especially from companies like Countrywide. (I don’t know that they did but come on how could they not?) So the FBI starts to investigate and puts a lot of agents on it. They find that a lot of the mortgages were indeed fraudulent, and being packaged into larger bonds, collateralized debt obligations. So they start to prosecute a host of people committing mortgage fraud.

Instead of the financial crisis, maybe the housing market doesn’t overheat and there is just a recession.

Now, that all could be crazy talk. But if the FBI investigated white collar crime--one of their ostensible reasons for existing--maybe we could combat wealth inequality, prevent bank fraud and even stop the next great recession. I mean, that’s really why Teddy Roosevelt started the Bureau of Investigators in the first place and why the FBI’s early years focused on white collar crime.

It’s better than the alternative...

2. The FBI is still the most effective branch of Al Qaeda

A huge number of FBI agents spend the majority of their time hunting down “lone wolf” terrorists in America who have no intention of conducting attacks, but are pushed into it by FBI agents. I’ve called this “Al Qaeda - FBIin the past, and I could update the name to “ISIS - FBI branch” now.

If I were king of the FBI, here would be my rule, “If a suspect doesn’t have connections to Al Qaeda or ISIS or other foreign fighters, we don’t investigate.” You could still have an intervention with community leaders and family if you find someone spreading hate online. But that isn’t a crime and encouraging that person to commit a crime isn’t stopping terrorism, it’s entrapping someone who is innocent. You wonder how the founders of the Constitution would have felt about that given the ostensible desire for “originalism” by conservative legal judges and lawyers.

Besides being unconstitutional, prosecuting people with no connection to Al Qaeda or who wouldn’t have committed violence otherwise is just ineffective. It prosecutes people who are the least able, not the most.

3. Do FBI agents watch Fox News?

This last point is just a question for anyone in the audience. We already established the FBI is pretty conservative. And we know most conservatives have started watching Fox News to get a lot of their news. This leads to the natural question, do FBI agents watch a lot of Fox News?

If so, yikes. You could see why the FBI agents in New York were so haunted by Hillary. I saw this in my last duty assignment in the Army where Fox News replaced CNN in our operations room. And that was seven years ago. And I hated it then. (Why does the TV need to be on if it is covering US domestic politics? What’s the point?)

FBI agents are like any professionals: they need accurate news of the world. Fox News won’t get them that.

Apr 26

(The following post is from 2029 in a world where kaiju threaten the globe. However, the debates about kaiju’s and jaegers contains some similar themes to the old debates about counter-insurgency the United States had in the 2010s, which may be when we first wrote it and recently uncovered it.

The following post contains massive spoilers for the film Pacific Rim. We haven't seen Pacific Rim 2 yet.

And again, it's supposed to be from 2029.)

Despite the fantastic news out of Hong Kong that the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps closed the inter-dimensional rift between the Kaiju homeworld and Earth--seemingly winning the war with the Kaiju in a single mission--some national security experts are already asking, “What’s next?” Notably, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Tag Romney bemoaned the state of the U.S. Navy in fighting conventional sea wars. I expect this chorus of anti-Jaeger-ism to become louder than ever.

We can’t afford to go back down this path again.

After the first Kaiju attack on San Francisco, the world’s governments didn’t prepare for the Kaiju threat. Only after the destruction of more cities and the deaths of tens of thousands more civilians did Earth’s militaries unite to fight the giant underwater, alien invaders.

(The failure of world governments to tackle this supremely obvious national security threat is only more amazing considering the massive U.S. reaction to 9/11, which didn’t involve monsters rampaging across multiple cities.)

Fortunately, the invention of Jaegers turned the tide. Younger military officers raised on video games and manga, created a new form of warfare based on giant robots and adopted the nomme de guerre of “Jaeger-meisters”, after the alcoholic beverage. Writing in mobile blogs, on the Big War Journal and the Google Brain Sphere, Jaeger-meisters advocated building gigantic Mecha to fight the Kaiju, believing that only size beats size, as opposed to conventional weapons like planes, helicopters, tanks and so forth.

Newly-built Jaegers quickly proved their efficacy. Destroying countless Kaiju in dramatic fashion, we started winning.

Apparently nothing beats giant alien monsters like giant robots.

Yet some influential national security thinkers disagreed. Led by Colonel Gene Gentle (a current fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) and John East (a former Marine Corps officer), these theorists have been dubbed “Kaiju-naughts” for their skepticism of giant robots. While they don’t dismiss the Kaiju threat, they dislike Jaegers.

Colonel Gentle, for example, wrote a fictional history of America that warned of an over-emphasis on Jeagers on an economics blog:

“In 2070 historians analyzing the reasons for the disastrous defeat of the United States Army at the hands of the Chinese and Russian militaries in 2032 over the fate of Mongolia seem to have reached a consensus that it was due to nearly 15 years of deployments to the Pacific to fight monsters in giant robot Jaegers that had so depleted the Army’s material, moral, and organizational capacities that it simply lost the ability to fight against a sophisticated enemy.”

The New York Times described John East’s opinion on Jaegers as:

“In Mr. East’s view, Jaeger strategy in the Pacific is a simple, video game theology that is turning the United States military into drones and undermining its “core competency” — state-on-state war.”

Think tanks from the Brookings Institute to the American Enterprise Institute have raised similar alarms. The Brookings Institute--which has been warning about the spectre of war with China since at least 2010--believes that spending the last ten years training for, preparing for, and even fighting with Kaijus has left our military depleted. Jaegers would, of course, be useless in a conventional war; a handful of cruise missiles would tear the them apart.

They want to prepare for a possible war with China, Russia or North Korea, as if one of those countries would try to fight a state-on-state war in the midst of the Kaiju invasion. Kaiju-naughts warn that “China is rebuilding its navy!” as if the U.S. and China wouldn’t collapse their economies by starting a needless war with one another.

This is silly.

The world hasn’t seen a state-on-state war since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (and hasn’t seen a war between nuclear powers since the Korean war). Yet Kaiju-naughts want America to prepare for this rare form of war, ignoring all the lessons of the last dozen years. Jaeger-meisters--like myself--don’t want the U.S. to make the same mistake of the past. Sure, we closed the portal once, but will it stay closed?

(Most likely it will stay closed for about ten years. Then what else could happen?)

I can’t help but point out the obvious parallels to counter-insurgency warfare in American history. After Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the U.S. strove to forget the lessons of irregular warfare. This was especially glaring after Vietnam and the outbreak of an insurgency in Iraq. Kaiju-naughts want us to make the same mistake when it comes to Kaijus.

Let’s not forget the lessons of the Kaiju-Jaeger wars.

(Lt. Colonel Michael C. is an intelligence officer serving in the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps. He definitely considers himself a Jaeger-meister. He produces the podcast Spec Media, a parody podcast that spoofs popular podcasts by re-imagining them in science fiction worlds. If you like this blog, you’ll like that podcast. His blog On Violence is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.)

Apr 24

James Comey released a book. Did you hear? Oh, you did. Great, so we don’t need to wade into the debate about his service in government, how he stood up to Trump and, most importantly for the coverage, how he should or should not be celebrated.

Since James Comey is so closely associated with the FBI, instead it seems like a good time to reflect on the venerable institution that is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Does On V have some thoughts? Oh yeah. Some are old ideas updated, and some are new. (And we’ll have some come out tomorrow.)

1. You can’t forget the FBI has a horrific history, at worst, and checkered history, at best.

One of James Comey’s key arguments is that he cares first and foremost about respecting the institution of the FBI and its independence. I agree with him: in the age of Trump, protecting the rule of law is paramount, and independent institutions like the FBI help to do that. We need the FBI to investigate corruption of all kinds.

Of course, independent institutions need careful oversight and constant improvement to ensure they still do their jobs equitably and constitutionally. We can’t have law enforcement trying to influence politics or trample the Constitution.

The FBI has a checkered history in this regard.

For example, in the 1960s, the FBI spent a lot of time harassing, investigating and prosecuting civil rights leaders, up to and including trying to get Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself. That happened. They also have a history of investigating anti-war groups. Since its founding and up to the death of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI also collected blackmail on politicians.

These trends haven’t entirely gone away. In response to 9/11, in addition to infiltrating mosques, the FBI started investigating anti-war groups, including Greenpeace. That happened. The FBI Director at the time? Robert Mueller. As a naturally conservative group, during times of national emergency the FBI tends to key in on perceived threats to America by liberal groups. They did this during the Cold War and continue to this day. There are even some articles who note that in the current day the FBI seems unwilling or unable to break up white supremacist plots until after the fact, and rarely entraps white supremacists, but continues to do so for suspected Muslim terrorists.

So we need to protect the independence of the FBI. But we also need strong oversight of an institution with the power to destroy politicians. That’s a delicate balance.

2. Lying to the federal prosecutors is a terrible law.

The Mueller investigation has further revealed the FBI and federal prosecutors reliance on one law--lying to federal investigators--to get a number of their prosecutions, especially of high profile suspects. I really would love to know exactly how many times it is used either as the sole charge or threatened to get cooperation out of suspects.

Frankly, the bar for being convicted of lying to the FBI is way too low. Honest mistakes can be interpreted as lying to an FBI agent, and have been. The best example of this I’ve ever heard was from this episode of This American Life. A simple conversation with one or two misremembered facts? Well now you are threatened with a federal felon and going federal prison. Meanwhile, the FBI can lie to suspects and face no repercussions, which just lacks basic fairness.

So how do we solve this problem? Well, we remove the statute. Basically, raise the bar to, “The FBI must prove motive to deceive the FBI and intent to deceive.” Basically, the same bar as perjury, which is really, really high. This way the FBI can still prosecute mobsters who lie to cover up a crime, but not petty criminals who say something wrong. Especially if they aren’t under oath. Alternatively, just remove the law (saying it is unconstitutional and infringes on first amendment rights) and keep obstruction of justice on the books or make the crime simply a misdemeanor with minimal prison sentences.

3. Lying by law enforcement needs to be severely curtailed.

At the same time, I would severely curtail the ability of all police officers and FBI agents to lie to suspects and the public. There are lots of examples, but the most egregious is lying to cover up a crime. Here would be a fun law:

“If a domestic law enforcement officer offers a false statement on a police form or document, it is punishable by five years in prison.”

What would this law do? Well, the next time a police shooting happens, the police officers will have to give a statement. On the top of the form where they fill out their statement, that law above will be printed. The officers witnessing the shooting now need to write their statements. (Ideally, independently from all other officers.)

At this point, they don’t know if a camera will later turn up revealing exactly what happened. If it does, the FBI and Department of Justice can easily come in and charge all the police officers with lying on an official form, if, for example, they claimed a suspect was running towards them when he was running away. They will suffer the same fate as those who they prosecute for lying to the FBI. (FBI agents? They’d face the same punishment and fate if they lied on official forms.)

I'm a huge supporter of civil rights, which is why it distresses me how frequently police officers have been caught lying on official forms. Only after video footage revealing the lies emerges do we understand the scope of the problem. This is really what the shootings of unarmed black men has revealed: that police officers will routinely lie at the most important times. That's why we need additional measure to ensure honesty by those who serve.

Apr 11

So how does the news media forget about the crisis in Syria? Simply have the FBI execute search warrants on the President’s lawyer. That should do it. And it has. (We also forgot about Scott Pruitt and didn’t realize that another person left the White House. Tom Bossert anyone?)

But President Trump has tweeted that missiles are on the way. So let’s get some thoughts out there before he follows through. (Thoughts 1 and 2 here...)

Quick Thought 3: Guh, credibility

If the rationale for using military force in the Middle East could be summarized in one word, it would be “credibility”. If a U.S. President doesn’t use force, he will look hesitant. Therefore, he lacks “credibility” to engage in wars, so bad actors will do more bad things. This is primarily a bug of Democratic presidencies, who are often called weak by their political opponents, but Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have already pseudo-threatened Trump that we will lose credibility if he doesn’t back up his tweets. Seriously, diplomacy happens via Twitter now.

But “credibility” is vague and amorphous. The evidence that “credibility” exists in foreign affairs or even influences policy is slim. From a scientific point of view. Dan Drezner has called it the “credibility fairy” and political scientists have written papers showing “credibility” doesn’t actually influence events. Zack Beauchamp at Vox has a whole take down of credibility related to Syria here. He basically shows that you can find all sorts of examples where the U.S. being a credible military threat didn’t deter anything. As President Obama pointed out, the best argument, of course, is that President George W. Bush invaded two countries, and that still failed to deter Russia from invading Georgia.

We have an article on this coming up, but the problem with credibility is an issue of fairness. Obama said one thing wrong (a red line in Syria) and everyone called it the biggest blunder of his Presidency (for example, the Washington Post this week and the New Yorker in its end of Presidency wrap up). Trump says something more detrimental to U.S. credibility nearly every week, and tears up international agreements, a far greater breach of trust, and the response is a shoulder shrug.

And yet, since it’s Trump, credibility is only mentioned when bombs are involved.

Quick Thought 4: The news reaction cycle is driving this.

True or false: After Trump bombed an airfield in Syria after the last chemical attack, the Syrians quickly rebuilt it.

True or false: The cruise missile strikes cost $100 million dollars.

True or false: This isn’t the first chemical weapon attack since Trump bombed that airfield.

True or false: Even though Trump bombed an airfield, it failed to deter Assad from future chemical weapons attacks. (See above.)

True or false: Doing something “stronger” will NOT deter future chemical attacks.

So I don’t know the answer to the last question, but I know the answers to the first four: all true. Most people don’t realize how miniscule the last U.S. “response” was, don’t realize that chemical weapons have still been used, and don’t connect how weak the deterrence message is. If Trump used violence last time and it didn’t deter Assad, will more violence?

So the answer to the last question is probably “True”.

Quick Thought 5: We need to figure out what we really care about in human rights.

The weirdest part is the focus overwhelmingly on the type of weapons used in Syria. From a moral and ethical standpoint, I just don’t get it.

If we want to avoid dead children, an admirable goal, then I would get it. But then we would look at U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and be appalled. Or we would just be appalled by the war in Syria every week. Or we would look at foreign aid and development spending, to prevent dead children in developing nations. But to only focus on dead children when chemical weapons are involved? It just seems to miss the point.

Yes, we need to hold the line to prevent the spread of chemical weapons. Bombing a country that is currently using them probably won’t help. The best way to do that isn’t to focus on one dictator, but to strengthen international institutions that can stop their spread, something Trump and Bolton--and many conservatives like them--are uniquely unqualified to do. Bolton in particular has said arms control agreements are worthless (when they aren’t) and also doesn’t like them because they restrict the United States (which is true, but besides the point).

Apr 09

I almost titled this post on the suspected/alleged chemical attack in Syria the “On The Media Quick Reactions Edition”. Both of my thoughts today will deal more with narratives in the media than the politics or policies involved. And in some cases, they drive each other.

Take my first point: I will keep calling this a suspected attack. News coming out of Syria is very, very unreliable. It isn’t for lack of trying by great journalists on the ground, but because it is an active and chaotic warzone. It will not shock me if our narrative on the event changes in six weeks, but by then it will be on page 12 of the newspaper (if you get one) or not covered at all on the front page of major websites. And if the narrative does change, it will be too late to change the political conversation in turn.

How else has the narrative affected policy?

Quick Thought 1: Only two options? Come on!

I hate “dilemmas”. I always have. Writing early on about Marcus Luttrell, I described his book, Lone Survivor, as a 300 page ethical dilemma. This was a trend I had noticed when writing about “rules of engagement”. My counterparts in the ROE debates often relied on dilemmas to show the problems with rules of engagement. (Look at this NPR article for how this affects mainstream outlets as well.)   

The real world is hardly ever just black and white. But we really want it that way. Quoting myself from the Luttrell article above:

I'm not surprised Luttrell only saw two options, human nature loves duality: prosecution or defense, Republicans or Democrats, pro-life or pro-choice, pro-guns or gun control, war hawk or dove, for or against with no middle ground. Marcus Luttrell describes his situation in dualist terms: kill or be killed. Military ethical dilemmas often fall into this trap: the ticking time bomb, children throwing rocks, or civilians acting as spotters are ethical dilemmas that are invariably presented with only two solutions.

The media enables Trump’s thinking in Syria (and limits our options) by implying Trump faces a dilemma in Syria. Josh Barro on this week’s “Left, Right and Center” summarized the issue by saying--I’m paraphrasing--that Trump wants to withdraw from what he sees as an endless war (Trump’s right) though it would risk allowing ISIS to return (Barro’s right on this). Since both options are bad, in Syria, we only have two bad options, or a dilemma.

It’s not a dilemma though. Even in the military sphere, we have more than two options. We could increase the number of troops or decrease the number of troops. We could launch some, none or tons of missiles and bombs. We could invade. That’s a range of options.

But that’s not the point. It isn’t about the military alone. What if Donald Trump proposed an escalation. But not a military escalation... a diplomatic escalation! Yes, in this scenario he would call not just a meeting of the Security Council, but an immediate summit of interested stakeholders and discuss bringing in UN peacekeepers to Syria and/or other options for Syria. Yes, Russia would oppose this, but the talks could still happen. Basically, Trump has the option, in addition to Barro’s two military options above, to try to solve the problem diplomatically. I haven’t really seen the diplomatic options explored by the executive branch or by the media when discussing the situation in Syria as wholeheartedly as they need to be.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s say Trump really wanted to get all the regional stakeholders like Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Iran and Iraq to the bargaining table. What if he offered an additional $50 billion over the next five years in refugee aid and resettlement funds, with the goal to have the EU and China each match the donation? Most of the international problems in Syria stem from the refugees, and America has done too little to ease this humanitarian crisis. Trying to solve the Syria problem with development aid is another tool (a fourth option!) that isn't mentioned by the media when Syria comes up. As a result, the politicians don’t mention it either.

Basically, I proposed two new tools that not a single news article or pundit has mentioned. I bet the smart people in government could brainstorm dozens more. Instead they focus on the bombs or troops, or lack thereof. We can be more creative than this. (Of course, you may say Congress would never fund my two new options. Good point! See next section.)

Quick Thought 2: Syria is Mitch McConnell’s fault

Imagine you opened up the Daily 202 from the Washington Post, the way I did this morning, and instead of seeing the discussion center only around President Trump, it’s first headline said, “Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan’s mistakes in Syria are still hurting the United States.”

Would that change how House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Marjority Leader Mitch McConnell act? I mean, if every newspaper in the country blamed them for Syria, would they try to do something?

I have to think so, but that isn’t the world we live in. Instead, we live in a world where the current President and maybe his predecessor share 100% responsibility for everything that does or fails to happen in the world. President Obama, when confronted with Syrian use of chemical weapons, rightly knew that any action he took would be criticized by Congressional Republicans. That’s all they ever did no matter what he did.

So President Obama said enough. As a Constitutional scholar, he knows that Congress actually controls the ability to declare war, so he asked for Congressional approval. He didn’t want Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to be able to sit back and criticize whatever he did if they didn’t have the decency to take a stand themselves. (They criticized him for Libya endlessly, and never voted on that either.)

Ryan and McConnell (and I blame McConnell more) almost never worked with President Obama on virtually anything. McConnell viewed giving President Obama a win as more detrimental than any given policy issue. Even on issues where they agreed, McConnell viewed winning elections as more important than making the world a better place.

So they never took a vote on Syria.

So when someone writes that this is Obama’s fault for his redline, just know that Ryan and McConnell had the opportunity to work with Obama to craft an authorization for war (with funding tied it) and refused to do it. They own the blame for this failure.