Monday, April 10, 2017

Syria Strike Picture Speaks 1000 Words - Integrating National Security & Economic Decision-making

As a student of the national security and White House decision-making process, your faithful blogger has been overwhelmed by the doings of the current administration. In fact, I considered doing a post simply summarizing the different things I would like to write about - although I believe that is called a Tweetstorm. Even the discussion of the princeling son-in-law's ridiculous almost vice presidential role deserves another post - after a prominent (and generally sensible) person defended it. (If you need a response to that defense, here is an excellent one.)

But then I looked at the picture of Trump's ExCom during the Syria strikes and something (not a Tomahawk missile) struck me. Kremlinologists long relied on pictures of the Soviet leaders to derive power. This open source effort has expanded exponentially with the Internet, allowing deep insight to closed regimes like Pyongyang. It can even serve a purpose here, in our open society, and yours truly has not hesitated to dabble in it to highlight the expanded role of the vice president.


Going around the table we have on the far side of the table, facing us: Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and then the President. Sitting behind them in the corner is Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Continuing around the table is Secretary of State Tillerson, National Security Advisor McMaster, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Just behind McMaster is National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn and next to him is the Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell. Next to Powell are Michael Anton, Assistant to the President for Strategic Affairs and Senior Advisor Stephen Miller, and chief strategist Steve Bannon. The VP, SecDef, and CJCS are all there by video-conference.

The famous picture from the OBL raid contained primarily people with hard national security roles (DNI, various advisors on terrorism from the national security council, as well as the relevant national security principles.)

The stark differences are:
  1. Far greater presence of political advisors and staffers. Of course the Chief of Staff belongs in the room, but also the Deputy CoS and the Press Secretary? Bannon and his team have a corner and the Jared-of-all-trades even has a seat at the table.
  2. The absence of working-level national security staffers is striking. This may reflect the ongoing disconnect between the administration and the bureaucracy.
  3. The economics team is also there in the Treasury Secretary, the Commerce Secretary, and the chair the National Economics Council. I am not original in this observation - but I have a lot more to say about it.

The Good
Putting aside thoughts on and preferences for specific players, what can we know about the broader structure of decision-making here.

Let's start with the good. While some have criticized the inclusion of the economic team in the strike video, I'm not sure this is a bad thing. In international affairs there is often a divide between the money people and the guns people. This can lead to real discontinuities. Economic disturbances can cause security problems, while military actions can create economic problems. Yet the practitioners barely understand one another. More closely integrating these decision streams could bring better policy.

The Bad
The bad is the large number of political types in the room. Everyone in the White House is a political, it is the nature of the beast. But past presidents have tried to - at least somewhat - section off the policy/national security types from the political staffers. There are innumerable stories of presidents (and other politicians) telling policy experts, "Tell me what to do and leave the politics to me!"

Besides the costs of appearing to make national security decisions on blatant political grounds, the reality is that the national security staffers don't give very good political advice and the political advisors don't give very good national security advice. The chief of staff plays a key role in bringing these sides together. Perhaps some other political advisors and staffers might participate, but in this care there were six politicals besides the CoS.

And the Ugly
If the attendees of this meeting were part of a carefully considered plan, great. But the reality is that it appears to have been haphazard, shaped as much by who was around. This is also highlighted by the lack of national security staffers present. Without them, you may not have the necessary people with the working knowledge of the issues. The administration has not established an orderly process and is still being run by personal whim.

One can speculate as to who is up and who is down. Bannon and his crew were in the back, while new Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell was closer in. That Powell is also a protege of Gary Cohn could be a good sign for further integration of security and economic issues.

It cannot be said often enough, good process does not guarantee good policy. But lousy process makes it really hard to get anything but lousy policy. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Is Jared Kushner the de-facto VP?

Domestic task forces.
Private huddles.
High-profile international travel.
Interlocutor with foreign powers and critical domestic constituencies.

This is the portfolio of the President's son-in-law Jared Kushner. It is also the typical portfolio of... wait for it... vice presidents!!!

Vice presidents are my thing, but this pretty much sums up the kinds of things they do.

From George H.W. Bush on, each vice president has chaired various policy councils and reform initiatives. Putting the VP on the case gives an extra oomph to the inter-agency process and it works reasonably well.

Vice presidents make lots of high-profile trips on the president's behalf. This is not just funeral duty (although that can be important.)

But of course, VPs also provide critical and discreet advice to their Presidents. Often they can say things no one else can say.

It looks like that is what Jared is doing.

So what?

President's have discretion to organize their staff and assign responsibilities as they see fit. And every White House has courtiers. They play a number of necessary functions. Still, even putting aside specific questions of Kushner's own experience and capabilities, there are some problems. Some of these problems are managerial, but some are deeper.

Kushner is being given the role of czar - the Presidential appointee who can crack heads and break logjams. It is an appealing notion, but the actual record of effectiveness is mixed. For a White House staffer, the ideal czar issue is narrow and short-term - not huge and open-ended. The White House does not have the internal staff to run issues, their role is rather to push and prod the bureaucracy. Kushner's issues however are huge and open-ended.

Kushner has also been tossed a vast number of issues very quickly. It is difficult to see how anyone could work many of them effectively at the same time. Further, many of these issues (like relations with China) are considered by the interagency process. This process can be slow and cumbersome - it is also necessary to ensure critical aspects of an issue are not missed. Giving an overwhelmed White House staffer this broad portfolio is a recipe for policy freelancing and missing key factors.

In general, presidents have tried to separate the national security process and the political calculations - bringing them together in a very tight circle.  This is not a firewall, senior White House political staffers certainly have input on major national security decisions. But if politics are injected to early into the national security debate, it discredits the decision-making. The roles played in national security by political advisors have been limited. The White House chief of staff, for example, does not have time to act as an emissary abroad - liaising with congress and the media is more than enough work for anyone.

If a czar is needed for a particularly big or high-profile issue, that czar is more likely to be a cabinet official or the vice president. These figures bring greater stature to the role which can be important in pressing through change and for reassuring the public that the issue is being taken seriously. Cabinet officials are confirmed by Congress and vice presidents are elected. If it is an issue of national concern, the key official should in some greater sense be accountable.

Conceptually there is a distinction between line and staff. A senior aide for a powerful congressperson may wield more de facto power than a junior congressperson. The aide, no matter how important, is still staff and can be fired by their principle. The congressperson is answerable to voters - to the American people.

I cannot say, categorically, that any single role taken on by Kushner is unprecedented. There have been occasions where domestic political advisors addressed foreign policy issues. They have certainly taken on domestic policy issues. And of course Kushner's oft-reported role is Trump Whisperer (ie close confidant) is not only a common White House role, but also frankly a necessary and welcome one.

Taken in total, however, Kushner is taking on a broader range of White House roles than any staffer before him and at a higher profile - while also serving as a sympathetic ear. The only figure I can think of to have held a comparable role is Colonel Edward House as the surrogate to President Wilson. That was a century ago, and there was a significant difference between that case and the present.

Now, when the 45th President is signaling that an issue is of critical importance, where other Presidents have sent their vice president, this President prefers to send his son-in-law.

It does not appear to me that any of this, in anyway, is unconstitutional or illegal (although it may be organizationally unwise.) But it does seem, deeply and profoundly off.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Vice Presidents and the Intelligence Community

If you've been following me on social media, you know I am just back from New Orleans, where I presented a paper at the Southern Political Science Association conference (and of course took in some of the delights of The Big Easy.)

The paper was an expansion on my recent piece for War on the Rocks about the vice president's role in national security affairs. For WOTR I tried to provide a sort of user's guide for the in coming president about how vice presidents can be helpful. In the academic paper I tried to be a bit more well, academic.

Quick Recap
My dissertation asked the question of why the vice president went from nothing to something over the past forty years (others have asked that question as well.) My major findings (no surprise to my regular readers - again, assuming I have any) is that we keep electing outsiders with little experience in Washington to the presidency. Those outsiders encounter policy vacuums where political insider VPs can help. Congress is the big one, but others crop up.

Next Question
My dissertation left me with the question of what exactly is this insider knowledge that the outsider presidents lack and the VPs can provide? Look, presidents have access to lots of advisors, what is so special about the VP?

To answer that question I looked across the five insider presidents serving outsider presidents to see if any areas regular popped up across administrations. I didn't exclude Quayle, but didn't expect to find much. Not his fault, he was VP to the wrong president. The key was to look for specificity. To say VPs help balance politics and policy is a bit general. To say that they help the president understand sentiment in congress and whether or not a particular bill can be passed is closer.

Findings: Consistent VP-IC Engagement
The most interesting finding was that each of the five VPs played a substantial role interacting with the intelligence community.

Mondale: Oversaw administration efforts to reform the intelligence community including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and drafting a CIA charter.

Bush: Former DCI, helped develop intelligence options for countering terrorism as chair of the Task Force on Countering Terrorism.

Gore: Pressed the IC to incorporate public health and environmental issues in their analysis. Along with his VPNSA Leon Fuerth, advised the president about intelligence operations including outing Iranian agents after the Khobar Towers bombing and carrying out covert renditions. Fuerth and Gore looked into the intelligence about an alleged assassination plot against former President Bush. Fuerth oversaw sanctions on Bosnia.

Cheney: Architect of the intelligence response to 9/11.

Biden: Brokered a dispute between DNI and DCI over who would appoint station chiefs.

This short list is about what is publicly known. It was happily augmented by another WOTR article that discusses the VP's role shaping the all-important President's Daily Brief.

There may be a great deal more as documents are declassified, oral histories compiled, and memoirs written. The point here is that VP's tend to wind up engaging with the IC. With my academic hat on, I want to investigate this further to understand what this can tell us about the president's needs and the role of the IC. 

But the pundit in me is also intrigued. The President has famously feuded with the intelligence community, but now is trying to mend fences. But this might require more than a public appearance. Understanding and working with complex bureaucracies can be challenging, even without a political backdrop of distrust. However the President will need the CIA to carry out many of his policy goals. Further, the world is a complex place and the president may actually find he needs the CIA to help make sense of it, particularly as unexpected crises emerge.

My past research suggests that Pence could play a central role in mending that rift and helping the intelligence community meet the president's needs, while interpreting the intelligence community for the president. As more than a few wags have observed, this administration will test a number of political science theories. This one is another.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

In WOTR on the next VP

The awesome War on the Rocks recently ran my analysis of the likely national security roles of the next vice president. In the process, I summarize my dissertation and include some nice juicy quotes from my interviews. Here's the first part, but read the whole thing here!

VICE PRESIDENTS AND FOREIGN POLICY: 

A FORWARD-LOOKING REVIEW OF THE RECORD



 
OCTOBER 31, 2016
Despite the vice presidency’s status as “the most insignificant office” for most of American history, since the late 1970s, vice presidents have emerged as important and unique advisors and surrogates to the president — particularly on national security affairs. Besides the president, only the vice president and the White House chief of staff can bring politics and national security together, as Clinton administration national security advisor Tony Lake explained to me.
In his classic essay, “Two-Level Games,” Robert Putnam illustrates how politics and national security interact. According to Putnam, when leaders engage in international negotiations, they are playing on two boards simultaneously. On one board, the leader is playing with domestic constituencies, while on the other the players are the other countries, each of whom has their own domestic board to play. A good move on one board may be disastrous on the other board. Putnam writes, “The political complexities for the players in this two-level game are staggering.”
Vice presidents can be uniquely helpful in these two-level games. As Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s second national security advisor, explained to me in an interview:
VPs have run for office; they are political animals. The President hears from policy people and political people and has to make decisions to balance both. The one person who has the combination of policy experience and political experience is the vice president.
Over the past four decades, vice presidents have played increasingly critical roles helping presidents understand the other players and execute moves in the two-level game.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mike Pence & the Cheney Model

Trump running-mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, stated that his model for the vice presidency is the Cheney model. There are many possible ways to interpret this statement.

The initial take is that it is ham-handed, since there are not tons of Cheney fans around (although the Cheney haters weren't going to be voting Trump anyway). But maybe, it is a secret message that really Pence would be running things.

That is also unlikely. Probably Pence is simply saying he would be an active and engaged vice president, like Cheney. Of course for a Vice President Pence to exercise any influence, Trump would have to listen to him. It is not clear if Trump listens to anyone.

For all of its political freight, the Cheney model is overstated. Cheney was a difference in degree not kind from his predecessor. He had a larger national security staff than Gore, but at the expense of his domestic policy and political staff. Cheney sat in on lots of meetings that VPs had not previously sat in on. But no specific case where he pushed a policy the president did not care for has emerged.

Perhaps that is the most significant point. Cheney did the president's bidding. He aired his thoughts, but there are innumerable instances of President Bush rejecting Cheney's preferred position.

Finally, Cheney was also, by all accounts, incredibly deferential to the president.

Decades earlier Cheney had been chief of staff to President Ford. In an odd way, Cheney was a sort of super-chief of staff to President Bush. Involved in everything, enforcing the president's will, sharing political and policy intelligence.

In that sense, because Trump will bring  a depth of inexperience unknown in the modern presidency, the Cheney model might be dead on for a VP Pence. He will need to get involved in everything, as the President will bobble the ball on issue after issue.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Robertson Davies... on Trump?

So I haven't written about Trump much. I swore off and am glad I did. It is bad for the soul. I am not exaggerating when I write that. When I turn to Robertson Davies (my favorite novelist!) it is for matters of the heart and the soul. He writes, as do most novelists I guess, about feeling. He does so unashamedly and unabashedly. You'll see what I mean.

So Trump is sounding off on foreign policy. There is really no point in discussing his comments. He promises to destroy ISIS with a secret plan. There are no secret plans. Destroying ISIS is a matter of resources and commitments. We could apply more resources, but the President has chosen not to. He has sound reasons for this although there are also arguments for applying greater resources. It is not an easy or obvious call. The American people are not screaming for a huge commitment of forces to the Middle East (been there, done that.) Destroying ISIS quickly would require aligning with various forces in the Middle East that um... do not have our best interests at heart. There is no secret plan. PERIOD!

It is pointless to mull Trump's policy pronouncements. Doing so elides the simple reality that, as Daniel Drezner so aptly puts it, "the Republican party willingly chose an ignorant bigot as its nominee."

Robertson Davies, as my regular readers (both of them - HI MOM, it's called a blog, not a computer circular...) surely
know, was a Canadian novelist and essayist. I have no idea if he knew of Trump. He died in 1995 and while alive was an inveterate newspaper reader, so perhaps he did. But he knew what Trump was about.

Davies was interested in money and the very wealthy. He did not hate them. He saw the ability to make money as a particular talent that did not necessarily imply the possession of other forms of intelligence. (His own father was born poor but became wealthy, possessing that talent.) Davies was interested in what people with great wealth did with it - he saw it as an expression of the soul.

Davies greatest work, The Deptford Trilogy, centered around the extraordinarily wealthy self-made Boy Staunton. Each book is the story of someone who's life was shaped by their contact with Staunton. I don't want to say too much. A fundamental theme of Davies is that each thing contains its opposite. Wealthy, worldly and handsome Staunton was at his core hollow and thus never fulfilled by his worldly success. This was his destruction.

 I am not the only one to have seen that - Garrison Keiller's brutal column says the same, imagining Trump's inner voice saying: when this is over, I will have nothing that I want.

Boy Staunton was prefigured by Rex Mottram, a wealthy, status-seeking Canadian, in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Mottram's estranged wife describes him thus:
He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed: something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was whole.
(Here again, I am not original, the much wiser George Weigel notes that Trump is Mottram come to life.)

But here is something, creepier and darker perhaps. Trump was famously an acolyte of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale. Davies reviewed Peale's classic, The Power of Positive Thinking and found it repulsive. He describes Peale as debauching the English language, but more than style Davies was horrified by Peale's message of prayer as a technique, an instrumental tool to worldly success.

Get God on your side and success is yours. God is not the rewarder of virtue, but the Genie in the Bottle, who comes when you utter the magic formula. We must deny this is religion in any high sense.
Perhaps we may deny that it is religion at all. Mystics have often warned against powers which may be set at work by means of prayer and which are not related to God, but rather to the Devil. To speak of the Devil in our time is to invite mockery; he is not in fashion. Therefore let us say that there are powers which may be called to one's aid which are not the powers of the highest good, and that these powers can be cajoled or bullied into giving us our own way. 
Those regular readers of mine know I've been thinking a bit about magic. While in Ireland I heard tell of St. Patrick's duel with a Dark Druid. I have had a great desire to understand these things in modern terms - make them greater by making them real. I could easily imagine Trump as a sort of Dark Druid, with his words summoning forces he does not fully understand, building an all-encompassing self concealing a tiny soul.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Campaign Pageantry: Offspring on the Campaign Trail

So I should be writing a serious analysis - particularly since we now have vice presidential candidates.

Putting aside my feelings about the candidates themselves, let me be completely and utterly bi-partisan here. I have no interest in what their children say. Unless the children have some significant achievement in their own right, there is little reason for them to be addressing the convention or the nation. It is however an interesting illustration of the concept of semi-institutionalization.

First - I do not mean to criticize Chelsea Clinton, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. etc. I am sure they are all perfectly nice, charming people. But their primary qualification is their parentage. Most of their professional achievements involve having gone into their parents' business. Good work if you can get it. They are all young and may have substantial achievements ahead of them. Consider George W. and Jeb Bush - there is little doubt that they were helped immensely by have a president for a father (and a Senator for a grandfather by the way.) Nonetheless, THEY won big elections. That is an accomplishment of some note - no matter what kind of help you get.

Nonetheless, nominees keep trotting out their children to give humanizing testimonials. Pundits and partisans cite these articulate children as evidence that the candidate is a good parent and thus a good person and fit to be president.

I am deeply suspicious as to whether any of that is true. Giving a good speech is not magic, it is a skill that can be learned. That the children speak well of their parents is hardly remarkable. Would they really stand up before the world and say, "My father/mother is a crappy human being who never paid any attention to me! Do not vote for them!"

A Long Job Interview
The Presidential campaign is basically a very (very, very) long job interview. Most jobs are a combination of explicit and tacit skills (hard and soft skills if you prefer.) Explicit skills usually have credentials. A dentist for example has a degree and passes exams. In the case of tacit skills you hope that they are either intuitive (like getting along with people) or will be learned on-the-job.

When you are hiring someone you are naturally evaluating their skills, but you are also making sure they aren't crazy. I don't mean to mock mental illness here - that is a serious issue. But we all know people who just kind of radiate negative energy. If you bring such a person into your workplace you open the door to expanded gossip, backbiting and distraction.

That is why the last question of a job interview is always, "Is there anything you would like to tell us about yourself?"

It is one last check to see if there is anything fundamentally off about the person.

That is what the campaign trail is about - we are trying to figure out if there is something off about the person. That determination can be based on very superficial and subjective criteria. But we have to consider them. (Because sometimes a superficial oddity does indicate something deeper.)

So the candidates trot out their children, who dutifully tell cute stories indicating that the candidate is a regular person who does normal and very nice things - all in an effort to show us that they are ok and we won't regret seeing them on TV for the next four to eight years.

Semi-Institutionalization
A semi-institution is something that is not required but has become expected. The president does not have to meet the VP every week or give them an office in the West Wing. But it would look pretty bad if they did not provide these perqs.

Same now with speeches by the candidate's children. It is expected. It seems unlikely that people will vote for a president because their child gave a good speech. But, if a nominee's offspring did not give at least a competent speech - or gave no speech at all - we would wonder what was wrong. Were they a bad parent, had they messed up their child somehow? Maybe they shouldn't be president after all.

Nixon once said, "Your vice presidential pick can only hurt you." When you are president, that goes for a lot of things.