Sunday, May 28, 2017

Vice Presidents and Technology Policy 1: Observations from the late Zbigniew Brzezinski

Your humble blogger has, at his day job, been writing a bit on technology policy. Not as much here, but out in the world. Naturally, I wanted to bring this together with my first love - vice presidents.

The obvious thing to write about would be actual vice presidential roles in making policy regarding technology. There are some examples, most notably Al Gore, but also Quayle (who ran a commission on the space program) and maybe some others. I could stretch and include Biden overseeing the cancer initiative. That'll be the second in the series.

But first I wanted to talk about broader lessons from the vice presidents and today is a fitting day for it, since we have just lost Carter's national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who inadvertently inspired this post. Zbig was kind enough to allow me to interview him for my dissertation, for which I am very grateful (I was nervous as hell - although there was no need, he was very nice.) It was over the phone, so I didn't get to meet him. Still...

In his very candid memoir Zbig wrote of the vice president:
Mondale's most important contribution was his political judgment. He was a vital political barometer for the president, and Carter respected his opinion on the domestic implications of foreign policy decisions....In general, Carter rarely, if ever though of foreign policy in terms of domestic politics, while Mondale rarely, if ever, thought of it otherwise....Fritz, in effect, provided a needed corrective.
Carter was our last engineer president (and his predecessor as a professional engineer turned president was Herbert Hoover.) Carter's instinct on every issue was to find the optimal solution and then worry about the politics. Mondale pushed for incorporating politics into the process from the beginning because it would ultimately result in better policy. In the Carter administration this was an uphill struggle. Mondale told his biographer, Steve Gillon,
Carter's anti-political attitudes used to drive me nuts because you couldn't get him to grapple with a political problem. He thought politics was sinful. The worst thing you could say to Carter if you wanted him to do something was that it was politically the best thing to do.
There were innumerable examples of Mondale's political acumen shaping administration policy, but one great example highlighting the differing perspective between the technocrat engineer and the politician was something called MX Racetrack. It was a plan to put missiles on trains that ran in giant circles. Defense analysts and Carter liked the plan which would make it nearly impossible for the Soviets to be sure they had destroyed all of the U.S. missiles. Mondale was appalled, they had given no serious consideration to the politics. Communities did not want to be in nuclear crosshairs and environmentalists would hate it. Reagan (not exactly a missile hating dove) ultimately killed the program.

All well and good - a tribute to Zbig and little vice presidents talk - but what does this have to do with technology policy?

I was just at the Governing Emerging Technologies Conference, in which one of the central issues discussed was how to ensure technology is developed that aligns with people's values. This is a complex multifaceted issue. (More on this elsewhere.) But, the people who build technology - primarily engineers - are not always equipped to grapple with these questions. Not to say, in anyway, that engineers are not moral. Rather, that addressing these kinds of questions requires a different analytical toolkit - how do you even determine what is in the bounds of public tolerance and acceptance? How would you query the appropriate communities? What are the central issues?

This is not just values. It is also process. There have been far too many cases of experts building IT systems that did not in practice serve the needs of the organization using them. If you do not consider people and their needs and feelings from the beginning, the product in the end will be flawed.

Just as Mondale urged Carter to build politics into the process from the beginning, as we develop new technologies we should build these questions - which span social science and philosophy - into the process from the beginning.


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.