Mar 27

I’d love to bill myself (Michael C) as a calm moderate. A person who looks at each issue, and makes my mind up independently about the merits of each one. Alas, I can’t honestly say that anymore. Most of my positions are clearly lined up with the Democratic party, though the best economic summary of my position comes from Luigi Zingales, “I’m pro-market, not pro-business”. (There’s a difference and many don’t understand that.)

So when I open up the Sunday opinion page--not that it actually exists anymore--and when I see articles by Max Boot, David Frum, Jennifer Rubin, and George Will agreeing with me on a strongly held opinion, well, I take notice. That opinion is this:

John Bolton is a terrible choice for National Security Advisor.

And it’s not like they are the only ones. Name a liberal commentator and they probably decried his nomination. So did the moderates. And, like I just mentioned, even some of the conservatives. When 90% of the populace--or in this case the opinion class--believes something, it is probably justified. (We’d put all the links, but you know where to find them.)

So we have some quick, unique thoughts. And since this news broke, it also made the mourning for H.R. McMaster go that much quicker. It also bumped Trump’s news that he wants to sit down with North Korea off the front page. Oh, and people are talking about Iran again along with more tariffs.

Sigh.

Quick Thought 1 - National Security Advisors Should Require Senate Confirmation

After the disaster that was General Michael Flynn’s nomination, I saw some people write this idea. At the time, when Flynn was appointed, I agreed with a recommendation that the position of National Security Advisor should have to pass the Senate. (Quick question: why is it spelled with an “o” not an “e”?) But after his brief tenure, we basically forgot about this idea. Bolton should make us reconsider.

Basically, the whole point of having the Senate approve cabinet posts is to have the Senate provide a check against unqualified or dangerous people in positions of real power. The National Security Advisor is a work around against the cabinet anyways, but has become hugely influential.

It should require Senate approval.

Quick Thought 2 - On H.R. McMaster...

The low point of McMaster’s tenure was when President Trump made him go out in front of the cameras and, essentially, read a lie. This occured in May of 2017--and was so long ago I had to look it up to get the details right--after Trump had revealed sensitive intelligence to the Russians. McMaster went out to say this didn’t happen, even though it did.

This brings us to the main question with McMaster: for a person who wrote literally wrote a book condemning the generals who led us into Vietnam, will he be remembered for restraining Trump from going to war as long as he did, or for caving to Trump’s worst impulses as often as he did? Will he get credit for keeping NATO alliances intact or for failing to change Trump’s mind on Iran? I really don’t know, but suspect he won’t be covered in glory for joining the Trump administration.

The one hope would be that he writes an amazingly trenchant book about his time and what he learned. This book wouldn’t be a gossip tell-all like Michael Wolff’s, but deep dive on his time observing Trump, including how Trump thinks and makes decisions. Yet, Trump made all his White House staff sign “non-disclosure agreements” preventing them from ever speaking or writing outside of the White House. Let’s hope Congress (in January 2019) corrects this.

Quick Thought 3 - This makes war(s) more likely.

At the start of his administration, we wrote a post on the likeliest countries Trump could go to war with. We’re probably going to update that list in the near future. Know that Iran and North Korea are now on the top of the list.

The most common defense of Bolton--if there is one--is that he can’t go to war by himself. But I think the Iran example shows how easy it would be to set it in motion. He tells Trump they should get out of the Iran deal. Trump already agrees since it would make Obama look bad. (Though it would devastate American credibility, which formerly Republicans cared quite a bit about.)

So then Trump has to decide how. This is where Bolton could have his biggest influence. Instead of the mildest withdrawal, he could recommend the strongest. Michael Wilner had a good explainer in FiveThirtyEight, but if Bolton pushed option 3 “America renounces the deal and re-imposes all sanctions”, the world would be in crisis. At this point, Iran could decide to restart its nuclear project. At which point, Bolton advocates strikes. Which descend into full blown war.

And to steal a point from Vox, leaving the Iran deal makes North Korean negotiations that much harder. Why would North Korea sit down with the US when they just reneged on a previous agreement? So Bolton could again lay out a case for war with North Korea in addition to Iran. I haven’t even gotten to Syria or Yemen or Somalia and you can see how a man who sees war as an option will see a lot of uses for it.

Quick Thought 4 - David French’s reaction has a key war-mongering paragraph on Iran

David French writes occasionally about how dangerous war would be--and he is both an Iraq veteran and staunch supporter of endless Benghazi investigations--but he also lays out the case for war repeatedly. (He was the most prominent pro-Bolton voice I read, writing in a prominent non-Murdoch controlled media outlet.) Basically, French is the type of conservative who ramps up fear of inaction so much it leads to wars like Iraq. I could write a whole post on his piece alone.

Instead I want to focus on the fun game On Violence loves to play. Take a description of Iran, and replace it with Saudi Arabia! Here it is, explaining why Iran/Saudi Arabia is so dangerous:

Saudi Arabia continues to export jihad, work to kill Shiites, and ally with America to engineer a bloodbath in Yemen.”

Yikes! Saudi Arabia sounds terrible.

Quick Thought 5 - The hypocrisy of the sit down with North Korea

This point will be simple: if Obama had said we should sit down with North Korea--given that we got something in return for that--the conservative right on Fox News would have been outraged. Given that Trump said it, they support it. (Indeed, most liberal commentators pointed out that he should have gotten something for the sitdown, but aren’t opposed to sitting down with North Korea on its face.)

I get it, hypocrisy is par for the course in Washington. But can’t we at least try to pretend not to switch our positions when only a single variable--party in power--changes?

Quick Thoughts 6 - Tariffs are bad

And we’re out of time! More on this in the future.

Mar 14

(On Violence is back! At least for a little bit. We’re starting up for two reasons: 1. We didn’t want to miss our first “most thought-provoking” event and 2. We started a new podcast for those interested in podcasts, science fiction/fantasy, military history and humor: Spec Media. Please go check it out and share the news.)

So why is Rex Tillerson’s gutting/destruction of the State Department such a bad thing?

Wait, am I really having to explain why gutting the State Department is bad?

Yes, that is our life in President Trump’s America. In our previous post, I explained that Tillerson and Trump merely accelerated an ongoing public policy trend of moving from “foreign policy” to “national security”. (One of our first posts was on this!) And I explained why it happened. (And yes, we do now need to refer to him as “former Secretary of State” after Tillerson leaves his post at the end of the month.)

But why is it bad? Maybe the Republicans are right that we don’t need any diplomats? No, they are so wrong on that point. Let me count the ways.

Point 1: Gutting the State Department promotes the decline of liberalism (in foreign policy).

In the last two years, the democratic world order has been under threat by...the democratic world order. Basically, in democracies, citizens are voting in “illiberal” leaders or withdrawing from international institutions. America--by electing Trump via the electoral college--has had a terrible time stemming this tide. Now, free-market liberalism has generated some of its own problems--mainly wealth inequality, which inspires economic resentment, and immigration, which has spurned racial resentment. But liberalism in foreign policy has been one of the largest drivers of human welfare in history. And it’s under threat, as many “2016 End of Year” articles discussed. (This is “liberalism” in foreign policy, like how the Economist uses it in their magazine.)

So let me offer a quick defense of liberalism. Here’s my argument: We had some huge drivers of human progress and welfare. Basically, agriculture provided a huge leap. So did clean drinking water. So did antibiotics. Those three things saved more lives than almost anything else you can think of. Industrialization provided another huge boost. These inventions have allowed humanity to not just survive but thrive and multiply.

Of course, with those increased populations, the world went to war twice in 1914 and 1939. Those two wars were two of the more destructive wars of all time. And it would have kept happening but for the invention of nuclear weapons. Those raised the cost of war exponentially, and we looked primed to use them (and extinguish the human race). Fortunately, driven by American leadership, we created the liberal global order. The liberal world order helped not only promote peace, but also democratization and prosperity.

(Yep, I summarized all of human history in about two paragraphs.)

That’s the defense of liberalism. How does the State Department of the United States fit in? Well it promotes free trade, democracy and international institutions. Those are three of the building blocks of liberalism. Without a strong State Department, we can’t promote liberalism nearly as well.   

Point 2: The military can’t promote liberalism.

Let’s be honest, the military can’t help with most of this liberal agenda. (Though some conservatives will definitely try to tell us it can.) For the best explanation why not, here’s Stephen Walt, capturing my thinking exactly.

At the risk of stating the obvious, we do know what doesn’t work [at creating democracies], and we have a pretty good idea why. What doesn’t work is military intervention (aka “foreign-imposed regime change”). The idea that the United States could march in, depose the despot-in-chief and his henchmen, write a new constitution, hold a few elections, and produce a stable democracy — presto! — was always delusional, but an awful lot of smart people bought this idea despite the abundant evidence against it.

Honestly, the critics were right about Iraq: you can’t build democracy facing the barrel of a gun. The US military tried in both Iraq and Afghanistan and it didn’t work. To be clear, I could imagine a military that could promote democracy, but the mentality of the US military, focused on security, won’t allow it. (UN Peacekeepers are a different story.) During the Cold War, in fact, the CIA and DoD proved that they were actually more skilled at overthrowing democracies and establishing dictatorships, than creating democracies. That’s the opposite of liberalism. (And it haunts us to this day.)

Point 3: Creating democracies takes a long time.

Creating democracies, it turns out, is really hard. And it’s not like the State Department can snap its fingers and democracies pop up around the globe. But that’s because the State Department’s job is much harder and much longer term. It helps set the conditions for democracies and free trade and international institutions. It helps create international norms and sign international treaties and provide international aid. All these actions--which are slow and take time--help promote democracy and this in turn helps promote peace. Again Stephen Walt, who I quoted in the previous section, explains why:

The first [way to spread democracy] is diplomacy. When there is a genuine, significant, and committed indigenous movement in favor of democracy — as was the case in Eastern Europe during the “velvet revolutions” or in Myanmar today — powerful outsiders can use subtler forms of influence to encourage gradual transitions. The United States has done this successfully on a number of occasions (e.g., South Korea, the Philippines, etc.) by being both persistent and patient and using nonmilitary tools such as economic sanctions. In these cases, the pro-democracy movement had been building for many years and enjoyed broad social support by the time it gained power. Relying on diplomacy may not be as exciting as the “shock and awe” of a military invasion, but it’s a lot less expensive and a lot more likely to succeed.

Point 4: Immediately, it empowers autocrats.

In the short term, other countries will replace America’s leadership that used to be provided by the State Department. They could harm free trade or promote autocracy (Russia? China?). This could make a world that is less liberal overall, while America is hurt on trade deals. As Bloomberg recently wrote, this is a unilateral disarmament, even if Trump doesn’t realize that.

That’s bad no matter what side of the aisle you are on.

Mar 12

(On Violence is back! At least for a little bit. We’re starting up for two reasons: 1. We didn’t want to miss our first “most thought-provoking” event and 2. We started a new podcast for those interested in podcasts, science fiction/fantasy, military history and humor: Spec Media. Please go check it out and share the news.)

Before I explain the longer term trends that have hurt the State Department, I want to show how false equivalency works.

If you asked Michael C a year ago, “Hey, what did you not like about the Obama administration’s foreign policy?” I’d have a surprisingly robust list of things to tell you. I’d mention the continuation of drone strikes (just a terrible idea), and I’d throw in how Obama promised to end over-classification but barely did anything about it. (Or made it worse.) I’d also mention that the Arab Spring provided an opportunity to reset our Middle East relations, but that never happened.

Here’s the thing: except for maybe that last point, if a Republican had been in power, I would have had the exact same complaints. And more! So last year, when reflecting on Obama’s run as President, I could criticize him, but really he was still miles better than what George W. Bush provided and what President Donald Trump is currently providing.

I bring this up, because I’m about to “blame” Obama for continuing a trend in American foreign policy, and I want to be clear that Republicans would have been just as bad. If not worse.

As much as we’re laying the blame for the problems in the State Department at Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s hands, some of it transcends their individual incompetence. Since the end of the Cold War, America’s foreign policy establishment has turned into America’s national security establishment. The emphasis on security instead of policy means that one leg of the “three Ds”--defense, diplomacy, development--is way bigger than the other two. We fund the Defense Department at a ratio roughly 14 times greater than State Department. Fifteen times more if you add in what we believe goes to intelligence spending.

(Another way to say it is our intelligence services have as large a budget as our diplomatic corps.)

That massive gap didn’t happen overnight. And, in fairness, you probably don’t need a State Department as large as the Defense Department because it requires less manpower, equipment and technology by nature (or should). But still the massive emphasis on defense versus diplomacy has meant that the national security folks have overwhelming power compared to the diplomacy folks.

This started under Reagan, as the defense budget ballooned faster than state could keep up. It accelerated under Bush after 9/11 (State Department can’t kill terrorists), continued through Obama--he consolidated foreign policy in the White House under his National Security Adviser--and now Donald Trump is hyper-charging the influence of defense over diplomacy. After all, Trump loves his generals and seems to hate Rex Tillerson.

Trump’s most recent budget only furthered this trend. The key difference that he and Tillerson brought to the process was “institutional neglect”, which has basically crushed the staffing and human capital of the State Department. And not just the diplomatic wing of the State Department. Trump/Tillerson’s institutional neglect extend to the “development” wing of the State Department too.

So who is to blame long term for this? Well, we can blame Republicans. Republicans--especially the deficit hawks when they aren’t in power--loathe foreign aid (development). The electorate has also been taught--especially the Republican side--that foreign aid is terrible and ineffective. Other right wing elements disparage treaties as international conspiracies to steal American freedom.

Foreign aid isn’t terrible. International treaties are great things. And diplomacy works

But Republicans love their military and security forces. They pride military strength over everything else, while ironically also supporting an expanded surveillance state. (Yes, you read that right, the small government/libertarian party loves a large police state.) The electorate backs them up on this--no one wants to be “anti-troop”--so the Democrats can’t stand in the way of increased military spending.

President Obama was unable to stop this trend and actually increased it. He further entrenched national security thinking at the expense of the State Department, even though he had two great Secretaries of State. That’s a huge disappointment to me. (I also think he hurt the State Department by consolidating foreign policy/national security planning in the White House. That’s an article for another time, though.

But we can’t blame him. We can blame Republicans.

Mar 07

(On Violence is back! At least for a little bit. We’re starting up for two reasons: 1. We didn’t want to miss a “most thought-provoking” event and 2. We started a new podcast for those interested in podcasts, science fiction/fantasy, military history and humor: Spec Media. Please go check it out and share the news.)

On Monday, we dropped an “On V Most Thought-Provoking Event” intro post into the world. Many of you probably wondered where we’ve been. Well, to answer that, take a look at what we wrote before the 2016 elections:

“Somewhere, a long time ago, we decided we weren’t ever going to do a “Sorry we haven’t posted in awhile” post, because, well, it’s trite. (Someone even made an entire blog aggregating blog posts where people did that.) But the good news is we’re working on a huge new project, dropping later this year. (Keep your fingers crossed pre-Christmas for the holiday drive and travelling.)”

Then we stopped writing again. Since we stopped posting last year, we’ve regularly gotten comments--on Facebook, email and some old-fashioned “in person”--asking, “Where did the blog go and when is it coming back?”

So let’s provide some answers.

Answer 1: We have a HUGE new project, so go check it out!

We’ve spent a ton of the last year and a half, maybe longer (yeah really that long) working on-and-off on our new podcast, Spec Media. Subscribe on iTunes here or go to the website or follow us on Twitter (in addition to On Violence). The podcast is the cryptically described “huge new project” from italics above.

What is the podcast about? Well, we’re spoofing other podcasts. Think of your favorite podcast, but taking place in alternate universes and timelines. On Violence fans would love our first episode (going up this week) that has Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History set in a different universe. You’ll love it, especially since we know that a lot of you are science-fiction nerds/fanboys.

So that’s taken up a ton of our time, we’re very proud of it and hope you enjoy it.

Answer 2: We can’t stop thinking about domestic politics, not foreign affairs.

In the age of Trump, can anyone really be bothered by foreign policy when domestic politics/policy is an ongoing train crash from which we can’t avert our eyes? In just the last week alone, the President has had more scandals than Obama’s entire presidency. Seriously, we’ve had a debate about arming teachers, the embarrassing NRA meeting and quick backtracking, suggested tariffs on steel and aluminum, Jared Kushner found himself in three different scandals, and multiple key aides and advisors quit the administration. We’ve probably missed two or three other embarrassments, since they keep adding up day by day.

(Imagine how Republicans would have reacted if Obama let campaign donors influence his foreign policy?)

While we have a ton of thoughts on all that, it’s really domestic policy. That’s not this blog’s focus. Also, America’s two wars have (kind of?) wound down, so there is just less interest in foreign policy, both from our readers and from us. We’re going to try to get around this lack of enthusiasm while still hitting the core topics of this blog.

(Side note: Eric C regularly threatens to write a 10,000 word domestic politics post after we finish season 1 of Spec Media.)

Answer 3: That said, we’ve got some thoughts on foreign policy.

President Trump hasn’t just been bad at domestic policy; he’s also been bad internationally. And we’re not saying this because John Oliver just covered it on his show. (We’ve been following this for a while.)

We’ll get into this in a later post, but lots of conservative commentators said Obama “hurt America’s standing in the world”. Well, what is Donald Trump doing? If Obama hurt it, Trump is devastating it. He risks starting disastrous wars. Possibly nuclear wars. That’s partially why we restarted posting with this “most thought provoking event’ series. (The other is again to tell ours readers about the new podcast!)

What would be the worst case?

In some ways, you shouldn’t root for us to start updating the blog regularly again. If there is one thing that could draw us back in, it would be a war.

That’s terrible, but true. Last year, we wrote a post called “Where Will Trump Go to War?” and put Iran number one, with Syria or Iraq second and third, with Yemen and Somalia next, with North Korea at fourth. (That’s why making predictions is so tough.)

But it’s really crazy we’re even making this list and discussing it seriously. The likelihood that we go to war with Iran is still fairly high, and North Korea would now be firmly second. As we wrote in the Small Wars Journal, a war with Iran could be catastrophic for the United States. War with North Korea would be even worse, with potentially millions dead.

So if a war broke out in one of those two countries--or some other country we barely even discuss nowadays--that would inspire a fresh round of posts from us. We would be blogging regularly and immediately join the opposition.

Which is a way of saying, let’s hope we don’t start posting too regularly. That means that thousands (or millions) will have died.

Mar 05

(On Violence is back! At least for a little bit. We’re starting up for two reasons: 1. We didn’t want to miss our first “most thought-provoking” event and 2. We started a new podcast for those interested in podcasts, science fiction/fantasy, military history and humor: Spec Media. Please go check it out and share the news.)   

“Don’t chase the news.”

That’s one of the core themes of the writing enterprise/blog of On Violence. And it’s probably that theme which explains why we aren't writing On Violence full-time. It turns out people really like their news to instantaneously react to the moment. And since people like responding to this news, politicians respond in turn, so they obsess about what the media is obsessing about.

Where does this lead us? Well, not necessarily to the greatest places.

The most important news stories are rarely the ones getting the largest headlines. I’m writing this post the Tuesday after the government shutdown. (So you can really see how long it takes us to put up these pieces.) The news over the weekend was all about the government shutdown and then it getting averted. As some Twitter-zens pointed out in the moment, the “Woman’s March” was arguably a more important story, showing underlying motivation and mobilization that we could see in the 2018 midterms, but it was drowned out in the news.

But I would argue that the news the next Monday morning--that Donald Trump accepted a recommendation by a bipartisan trade commission to install tariffs on solar panels--was an even larger story. The slow burn ramifications of that deal--from decreasing the use of solar energy in America to potentially starting a trade war with China to the long term damage to America’s global leadership on free trade--outweigh the immediate news of any shutdown.

When it comes to year-end recaps, On Violence tries to take the long-term view that we wish the news took everyday. Even most news outlets, when reflecting on the past year, still usually focus on the stories that dominated the news (Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Harvey, Harvey Weinstein, Trump, Trump, Trump), but don’t put them in the context of what is the most important.

We wish more news outlets focused on the long-term.

Though to be fair, we don’t even take our own advice. Our year-end series reflecting on the previous year isn’t even for “the most important” event. Instead, we save our words for the year-end “Most Thought-Provoking Event of the Year”. This is loosely defined as the event that “inspired the most ideas”. Sometimes that aligns with the most important event (say the Arab Spring) and sometimes it doesn’t (Wikileaks).

This year they align. The Most Thought-Provoking Event is the most important event in US foreign policy, though most people don’t realize it’s happening. And since they don’t realize that, it will rarely appear on the nightly news:

The Gutting of The State Department by Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson.

If you’re a liberal who reads the daily liberal sites, you’ve seen these wonderful articles. On The NY Times. On Vox. On Slate. Mother Jones. Vox again. And it continues to this month. Here’s the best one paragraph summary from another liberal bastion, The New Yorker:

“In only ten months, Tillerson, the former C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, has presided over the near-dismantling of America’s diplomatic corps, chasing out hundreds of State Department employees and scaling back the country’s engagement with the world. Most alarming has been the departure of dozens of the foreign service’s most senior officials—men and women who had spent their careers living and working abroad, who speak several languages, and who are experts in their fields...he came into the job proposing to cut the State Department’s budget by a third, with plans to eliminate more than a thousand jobs and dramatically scale back the already measly sums America spends on refugees, democracy promotion, women’s rights, and the prevention of H.I.V. At the same time, the Trump Administration was proposing to dramatically increase spending on defense—by fifty-eight billion dollars, an amount that is larger than the State Department’s entire budget."

This New York Times quote captures the sentiment too:

“'If you took the entire three-star and four-star corps of the military and said, ‘Leave!’ Congress would go crazy,' one of the recently departed said."

Finally, this Bloomberg graphic shows just how little Trump has done to staff this very important department.

So let’s have some posts on it. This is a very important topic, that aligns with multiple On Violence themes, and happened to inspire a number of posts. It’s a really fascinating idea that a modern US President can try to destroy the ability for his country to conduct diplomacy, and doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Let’s dig in.