Sunday, March 1, 2020

This Blog

Thanks to University of London Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller's kind post about this blog at Opinio Juris (which is a big deal in international law circles), I am getting far more traffic than I had anticipated.  I thought that it might be useful to explain what this blog is all about. This is not my first blog. For years I wrote on faith issues at my "Guy in the Pew" blog,  and was also the "weekend corespondent at the Episcopal Cafe's "The Lead" news blog.  I also had an Office blog when I was the Air Force General Counsel (which sadly folded after I left that office).  While in private practice, however, I did not feel I had time to go back to blogging.  After finding myself doing several long posts on Facebook that were very well received, I thought I should give this blogging thing another try.

My intended audience for this blog is not for other national security practitioners.  There are plenty of existing blogs and websites that already do a good job of reaching that audience.  Instead, this blog will be written for the same audience as my Facebook posts:  people like my friends and family who have never had a national  security job, but are curious about what is happening in the world.  I certainly hope that true experts like Kevin Jon Heller come join the conversation (and correct my inevitable errors), but my blog will be successful if I help explain the often surreal world of national security and foreign policy to the curious folks like my Facebook friends.

I do allow comments, so please join the conversation.

(And by the way, that is me in the back seat of the F-15E you see above--one of the coolest experiences as Air Force General Counsel)

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Was the Vietnam War Winnable?

A few months back Mark Moyar, the director of the Center for Military and Diplomatic History, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, arguing that the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies could have won the war.  He actually makes a strong case.  The best response, however is from Robert Farley.  While agreeing with much of Moyar's analysis, Farley makes a fundamental point:  while the war might indeed have been winnable, the benefits of continuing the fight were not worth the cost:
In 1972, American political leadership made the overdue decision that any benefit of further contribution to Vietnam was outweighed by costs in material, in national dissensus and in international reputation. This leadership came to the conclusion that maintaining the U.S. commitment to Europe, North Asia and the Middle East was vastly more important to the struggle against the Soviet Union than continued fighting in Southeast Asia

Continuing the war would have incurred other costs. Hanoi’s conquest of South Vietnam was violent and brutal, killing thousands and forcing many others to flee as refugees. But continuing the fight against the North surely would also have been brutal, especially if it had involved direct coercive measures against Hanoi. Efforts to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail would have led to heavier fighting in Cambodia and Laos.

Finally, it’s worth putting the broader strategic context on the table. The Sino-Soviet split demonstrated conclusively that the “socialist bloc” was nothing of the kind; communist states could disagree with one another in violent ways. Ho Chi Minh and his successors may have been, as Moyar points out, “doctrinaire Communists,” but Vietnam itself invaded another communist state in 1977, and went to war with one of its erstwhile patrons in 1979. The U.S. “loss” of Southeast Asia had no noticeable effect on the broader strategic balance between Moscow and Washington, a conclusion to which the Europeans had come at some point in the late 1960s.
Read it all here.  What do you think?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Letting Weapons Make The Decision to Kill

We are living in an age of machine autonomy.  We have autonomous cars on our highways already, and there are some who believe that driverless cars will be the rule, and not the exception, within the decade.  As machine learning grows in sophistication, many are asking some fundamental questions about autonomous weapons:  Should they be allowed?  Should they be developed?  Should we support an international treaty to ban them?

These are all great questions, but by and large, the discussions about them ignore some subtle, but important distinctions.  For example, should our answer be different if the weapon at issue is purely defensive?  Our Aegis (ship-based) and  Patriot (land-based)  anti-missile defense systems must react quite quickly to missiles fired against US targets, and therefore have a fully autonomous mode.  In most cases, this would mean only that a machine killed another machine (and saved human lives in doing so), but they could also kill incoming enemy fighter planes as well.  Acceptable?  What about "smart missiles" that are programmed to only hit a particular type of enemy ship--are we uncomfortable when they are sent into the battlefield to make the actual kill decisions?  The next generation of ship-to-ship missiles will likely have this capacity.

Marine JAG officer Lt. Col. Alan Schuller has an outstanding post at Just Security that takes all of these issues to a new level.  He looks at the issue of autonomous weapon systems through the prism of international law, but drill downs on a real fundamental point--at what point are machines really making kill decisions:
But consider the hypothetical case of an unmanned submarine that was granted the authority to attack hostile warships after spending days, weeks, or even months without human interaction.  Suppose the submarine was programmed to independently learn how to more accurately identify potential targets.  The link between human decision-making and lethal kinetic action gives us pause because it is attenuated.

As such, when some commentators speculate about future AWS equipped with sophisticated AI, they ascribe decisions to machines.  But even advanced machines do not decide anything in the human sense.  The hypothetical submarine above, for example, was granted a significant degree of autonomy in its authority and capability to attack targets.  Even if the system selects and engages targets without human intervention, however, it has not made a decision.  Humans programmed it to achieve a certain goal and provided it some latitude in accomplishing that goal.  Rather than focusing on human interactions with autonomous weapons, commentators’ inquiries should center on whether we can reasonably predict the effects of an AWS.
 He argues that allowing autonomous weapons on the battlefield whose decisions we do not guide in such a way that they are predictable is an abrogation of the responsibilities of military commanders under international law.  But he also argues, that as long as the weapons are guided by humans and that the weapon will, with some certainty, operate under the decisions made by humans, we should not be concerned if the human actions are temporally removed from the final kill decision:
Let’s explore why a blanket requirement of human input that is temporally proximate to lethal kinetic action is unnecessary from an IHL standpoint.  An anti-tank land mine may remain in place for an extended period without activating.  Yet, such systems are not indiscriminate per se.  Indeed, if future land mines were equipped with learning capacity that somehow increased their ability to positively identify valid military objectives, this could potentially enhance the lawfulness of the system.  As such, the analysis of the legality of an AWS will turn in large part on whether its possible to reasonably predict the target or class of targets the system will attack.  The determination will depend on the specific authorities and capabilities granted to the AWS.  If the lethal consequences of an AWS’ actions are unpredictable, the decision to kill may have been unlawfully delegated to a machine.

Moreover, future military commanders may need to address threats that are too numerous and erratic for humans to respond.  For example, China is allegedly developing unmanned systems that could operate in swarms to rapidly overwhelm a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group.  In order to address such threats, future forces will likely need scalable options to fight at “machine speed.”  If a commander is forced to rely on affirmative human input in order to use force against each individual threat, the battle may be over before it has begun.
Read it all here.  You can read some of my earlier posts on autonomous weapon systems herehere and here.

Friday, August 4, 2017

How to Handle a National Security Crisis


Loren DeJonge Schulman, who spent much time in the Situation Room while on the NSC staff, has a wonderful and often funny piece at Defense One that gives advice to the current NSC staff about what they need to do in a crisis.  Aside from quite practical advice (get some sleep,  eat more than M&Ms, and the classic "no fighting in the war room"), Loren offers some true insights.  Here is a sampling:

Think, patiently. The most chaotic, unplanned NSC meetings can feel like a good midwestern family trying to decide on a restaurant for dinner: “What do you want to do? I dunno, what do you want to do?” National-security demi-god Phil Zelikow laments the decline of sophisticated policy development with the kind of nostalgia usually associated with first loves, wistfully recalling a time when “Arguments and choices were carefully noted and clearly communicated to those who needed to know. Relevant factual assumptions—about foreigners or our own side—were rigorously tracked.” Without such preparation, and the effort to get it on paper, meetings—even urgent meetings—are totally pointless. But quality staffwork does not spring fully formed from the heads of the folks in charge. Analysis takes time, and thoughtful analysis takes more time, requiring a trust in experts echelons below the bigwigs at the table—and all of this is a good thing. Critics have rightfully noted that there can be too much of a good thing; extensive “problem admiration” in the Obama administration launched a thousand frustrated op-eds and Cabinet tell-alls. But Zelikow reminds that policy options are generally matters of life and death and deserve slow and deliberate attention
Especially in the war room. Prayers for patience are most needed when turning toward the Pentagon. Seeking military options from the Department of Defense is a delicate dance involving a sea of acronyms, a continuous escalation ladder of “your boss will need to call my boss,” and a civil-military philosophical battle that sounds like a chicken-and-egg debate conducted solely in acronyms. Even with an abundance of former and current senior military officials in senior national-security roles, marriage counseling advice is needed to at least smooth the relationship between White House and DOD officials. Open communication, being straight about needs and limitations, and giving one another time (as military planning takes about three months more than the two hours you are anticipating) are key to minimizing mutual feelings of mutiny. As is giving CENTCOM a heads up when you’re considering a strike on Syria.
You really need to read the entire article.  It is a fun read, and the essay is quite insightful.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

On the Realities of Drone Warfare


One of my frustrations has been the grossly distorted dialogue on the use of drones, or remotely piloted aircraft.  Much of the public discussion is grossly misleading.  I even wrote a chapter in a book making the point that remotely piloted aircraft are just a different platform for military action and that the ethical and legal issues are really no different than that of piloted aircraft.

I was therefore pleased to see an excellent description of the reasons for the public disconnect by U.S. Air Force Major Joe Chapa at the War on the Rocks blog.  Chapa's main point is that those who write about drones really don't know what they are talking about, and that those who have actual experience with drones don't speak out.  The article is rich with examples of how incorrect information about drones has perpetuated as a result.  He gives many examples, but I especially appreciated that he addressed one of my pet peeves:
For instance, in her 2013 book, Drone Warfare, Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin claims:
In 2003, the Defense Department developed a new computer program… The dead show up as blob-like images resembling squashed insects, which is why the program was called “Bugsplat.” Bugsplat also became the “in-house” slang referring to drone deaths.
.  .  .
Only a few authors have gotten it right. Bugsplat was software that depicted the expected blast and fragmentation pattern of the various air-to-surface weapons in the U.S. inventory. But it wasn’t that “the dead” were depicted as squished bugs. People were not depicted at all. The software was developed to show how urban terrain would impact the blast and fragmentation pattern of a given weapon on a given target. The “splat” was about patterns, not people. To take one simple example, dropping a 500-lb, GPS-guided GBU-38 onto an open field would generate a significantly different blast and fragmentation pattern than dropping a GBU-38 onto a house with some windows and an open door. This software can incorporate diverse structural elements and produces a graphic image of the pattern in which some rays would protrude further from the center (e.g., where an open door stood) than others (e.g., where the windows were) and others would be even more stifled (e.g., by the concrete walls with no windows). The resulting image looks like a bug splat on a windshield. Benjamin’s interpretation is believable but not accurate. And each time her description is reflected and propagated in the literature, the accuracy and legitimacy of the ethics debate suffers another blow and the divide between military practitioners and the interested citizens for whom they fight gets a little wider.
.  .  .
A sociologist, anthropologist, or social psychologists might, even with this better understanding of the software’s purpose, contend that the insensitive name belies animosity toward the enemy, suggesting that one wants to crush one’s enemies like bugs. Whether, or the degree to which, military members (and their civilian counterparts) view enemy fighters and the foreign citizens among whom they hide in this way is a discussion worth having, but not under the dim light of an incorrect etymology. There are two facts that are almost never cited alongside the “bugsplat” references. First, the purpose of the software has always been to better understand the precise effects of the weapons in order to reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties. Second, this “Bugsplat” software was renamed “Fast Assessment Strike Tool-Collateral Damage (FAST-CD)” more than a dozen years ago (2003). Filtering one’s view of how military personnel approach war through the outdated naming conventions of software engineers sidesteps the important questions that ought to be the subject of serious investigation. And yet, the misconception persists and has become endemic in the public mind.
Read the entire article here.


Monday, June 19, 2017

A Centrist Blowout in France: What is Next?

The electoral phase of the French Centrist Resolution is now over, and the victory is pronounced.  A party that did not even exist a year ago has not only taken the Presidency, but has also taken at least 355 of the 577 seats in the French Assembly.  About half of the new majority are total newcomers to politics.  The other half are former members of the two traditional parties--Socialists and Republicans.

So what comes next for President Macron and his large Assembly majority?  The first clear priority will be labor reform.  France has a traditionally inflexible labor law in which large labor unions negotiate wages and conditions for an entire sector of the the economy.  This means that a brand new start up is stuck with the deal negotiated with its dominant competitors.  This is in contrast to the German and Scandinavian (and US model) where labor negotiations are done on a company-by-company model.  Macron want to move to the German and Scandinavian model.  He is already in negotiations with the major French labor unions, and the large majority will give him leverage to move in this direction--particularly since some French unions favor this new model.  Nonetheless, expect a season of strikes on this issue.  Macron's success in the elections, however, will help him weather the inevitable strikes and street demonstrations.

Other reforms include an attention to the French budget (some cuts and tax cuts are likely in the works), while some enhancements to some social services.

Longer on the horizon, Macron wants to reform the EU itself.  This will include proposals that have met with significant German resistance in the past--such as a common budget and a common Finance Minister--and will require success on the domestic front first.

Probably the most interesting question is whether we could ever see such a political revolution in the United States.  I think not.  There are numerous features in the French political systems that helped pushed this result: a Parliamentary system that has long had more than two parties, and the use of a runoff system that allowed Macron to turn 40% support in the voting public into 60% share of the Assembly.  Finally, this result would never have happened with the extraordinary (and surprising) political talent of  Emmanuel Macron himself.

What do you think?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A History Lesson: The Post World War II Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy

Professor Francis Gavin of SAIS-John Hopkins University, has a wonderful essay about the transformation of U.S. foreign policy after World War II.  His main theme is that the transformation occurred because of the need to defend Europe against the Soviet Union, while preventing the re-emergence of an aggressive Germany:
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States faced a variety of interlocking challenges.  First, it needed to help Western Europe recover, but to do so, it had to allow the traditional engine of Europe growth — Germany, or in this case, West Germany — to flourish. This was a hard pill for the rest of Europe, including the Soviet Union, to swallow, so soon after the horrors of World War II. European integration was one part of the answer, first through the Marshall plan and then support for the European Coal and Steel Community. This did not, however, take care of the security angle.

.  .  .
The real transformation, however, was seen in alliances and military arrangements, especially in Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949, but there was little actual military planning or coordinated strategy. Nor had the thorny question of how to both include West Germany and its impressive military assets in this alliance without provoking World War III been figured out. For many, perhaps most in Europe — and not just the Soviets — a remilitarized Germany was perhaps the greatest threat to European peace and security. Yet Western Europe could not be defended without exploiting West German economic, and yes, military capabilities.

.  .  .
This was only possible with active American engagement — a commitment that went against every long-held tradition the United States had followed for a year and a half. Hammered out in political agreements in Paris in 1954 and military arrangements in NATO through the document MC-48, the United States committed to a large forward military presence in West Germany to back a pre-emptive nuclear strategy where decisions about war and peace for a whole alliance would have to be made quickly by a super-empowered president.
Read it all here.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Did James Comey's "Leaking" of His Memos Violate the Law?


One of my more thoughtful Facebook friends (who is far more conservative than me) asked some very interesting questions about the leak of former FBI Director James Comey's memos to the New York Times.  In particular, he asked an interesting question:  Are the memos federal records?  Since others have gone even further to argue that the leak was a federal crime, I thought that it might be useful to discuss the issue here.

A key place to start is with guidance from the agency that is responsible for the laws governing federal records--the National Archives.  They have a very interesting discussion of the issue here.  As it discusses, writings about even work-related issues (such as diaries, memos etc.) that are intended for private use are not federal records:
Work-related materials, such as diaries, journals, notes, personal calendars, and appointment schedules, that are not prepared, received, or used in the process of transacting agency business. Although these materials contain work-related information, they are personal papers if they are claimed as such and serve only the individual's own purpose (e.g., as reminders and personal observations about work-related and other topics). This category is the most difficult to distinguish from agency records because of its work-related content.
It is not uncommon for senior officials to record their work-related activities (either for use in a future book or simply to help them personally recall what was said during a meeting the previous weeks). It is also not uncommon for employees worried about a personnel action to do memos recording their meetings with their managers.. These are generally not federal records.

 As the NARA document, discusses, however, these personal papers can be found to be federal records in certain circumstances. For example, if an official gave an employee a copy of a diary entry, and asked them to follow-up on the action items discussed in the diary, at least that part of the diary could become part of the public record. The NARA document does a good job laying out some of the factors. Some of the critical factors include purpose, distribution and use::
Purpose. Was the document created to facilitate agency business? If so, then it may be an agency record, depending on its distribution and use by other agency employees. Or was it created solely for the employee's personal convenience? If so, it is unlikely to be an agency record.
Distribution. Was the document distributed to other employees for an official purpose? If so, it may be an agency record.
Use. Did this employee or others actually use the document to conduct agency business? Materials brought into the agency for reference use do not become agency records merely because they relate to official matters or influence the employee's work. However, if the employee relies on such materials to conduct agency business or if other employees use them for agency purposes, then the materials are more likely to be agency records.
I think we need to get more information before coming to a conclusion, but I suspect that the classic CYA nature of the memos put them in the personal papers category. Here the purpose is quite consistent with that of a subordinate concerned about a meeting with his boss.  Moreover, while Comey may have distributed the memo to others in the FBI, it does not appear that they were used for FBI business.

The more interesting issue, is what are the consequences if they are federal records. Generally, the focus of federal records law is on the maintenance of records and their disclosure to the public (FOIA). There is no general prohibition against disclosure. There may be FBI policies that were violated, but as a former employee, they are of no consequence to Comey.

There is a potentially relevant criminal statute that has gotten some attention on conservative blogs (18 U.S.C 641), but it has proved to be a wholly inadequate tool for the prosecution of leakers. Indeed, the U.S. Attorney Manual pretty much dismisses the statute as useless against leakers (stating that the statue "Fails to protect the Government's interest" in protecting records) . The main problem is that a felony conviction requires that the intrinsic value of the purloined record (the cost of the paper and toner) be over $1000.  This is hardly ever the case, and certainly not the case here. Other problems include that the document seems to requires stealing of the actual "record" and under the federal records law, copies are not records--only the official original.

In short, I doubt that the Comey memos qualify as federal records.  As such, they really cannot be said to have been leaked at all.  Any even if they do qualify as federal records, an argument that Comey violated federal law in providing the contents (indirectly) to the New York Times is dubious at best.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

President Trump Uses Twitter to Throw a Vital Ally Under the Bus


In my last post, I lamented that some important developments were getting lost because of our tendency to discuss the latest bright shiny object brought into the room by President Trump.  My last post was on the French elections.  I next planned to discuss the actions taken by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt and other Middle East governments against Qatar.  Little did I know that the next bright shiny object that Trump would tweet into the room would be Qatar.

By way of background, earlier this week, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and UAE (together with some others) all announced that they were ending diplomatic relations with Qatar, and they blocked all  land and air access to Qatar.  Given that Qatar's only land border is with Saudi Arabia, and it imports almost all of its food, this is a big deal.   The reasons of the move are complicated.  Qatar has been an irritant to the other Gulf monarchies because of its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its hosting of Al Jazerra.  The U.S. also has had its own issues with Qatar, but it is an important ally in the region.  Perhaps most critically, it hosts Al Udeid Air Force Base, which is probably the most important U.S. Air Force base in the region.

Truth be told, none of the Middle East monarchies are perfect allies.  Saudi Arabia adopts a very hardline conservative form of Islam that they have actively (and sadly effectively) promoted in many countries. All of these countries have serious human rights issues. .Yet, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are vital to the U.S.  interests in the region.  The only reason the U.S. is able to project power in the region at all is because of our numerous bases in these countries.

Given this background, an Administration looking out for U.S. interests would be taking steps to mediate the dispute, and taking steps to find a solution to the problems that have brought us to where we are today.  Indeed, I strongly suspect that this is exactly what Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson have been trying to do over the past few days.  Our interests are assuredly not advanced by picking sides in a despite between important allies over largely regional issues. Throwing an ally under the bus for any reason rarely works out for the U.S.

Sadly, that is not what President Trump decided to do.  In a series of tweets this morning, President Trump has taken sides in this dispute and has not merely supported the actions against Qatar, but has even taken credit for them. I would be shocked if Trump's senior national security advisers were consulted by the President.  Indeed, I suspect that they are horrified.



In my experience, Qatar is rather sensitive (one would say prickly) about Al Udeid Air Force Base.  I would not be surprised to see significant problems for the United States because of this morning's tweets.

UPDATE:  Some other reactions













The Centrist Revolution Now Occurring in France


With President Trump providing all of us a bright shiny object to focus on each day, some pretty profound developments in the world are not getting the attention they deserve.  Probably the biggest story here is fact that French President Macron's centrist party is about to take the largest majority in the French Assembly since the days of Charles DeGaulle.  To get a sense of the magnitude of what is occurring in France, imagine the shock if Tim Geithner had formed a brand new party that not only elected him to the Presidency, but elected massive super-majorities in the House and Senate.  That is pretty much what is occurring in France  today.

Here is some background.  Politicians in France have been talking about major reform of France's rigid labor laws for years.  In the past 12 years, France has seen both parties of the Right and Left fail to achieve any meaningful reform.  The result has been rising unemployment (particularly among younger workers).  Part of the problem in both cases is that because both parties largely ignored these reform ideas in their campaigns (fearing that they were unpopular), neither party had a mandate for change.

Macron is different.  He has centered his movement on two main objectives: reform of France's labor laws, and a reform of how the European Union operates.  When he announced his candidacy for President under a brand new party, conventional wisdom was that he would be lucky to get out of single digits.  Of course, he won the Presidency in a landslide. Once he won the Presidency, the conventional wisdom was that Macron would not be able to achieve his goals because his new party could not possibly get a majority in the French Assembly.

Polling now show Macron's party, La République En Marche, achieving a huge majority in Sunday's elections.  In the most recent Reuters poll, Macron's party (shown in yellow in the graphic below) is winning 395 to 425 seats in the 577 person Assembly.  This would be the largest Parlimentary majority for any party since Charles DeGaulle's victory in 1968.


So what does this mean?  It means that Macron has the majority he needs (and an electoral mandate) to make the changes to campaigned on.  What explains this stunning result?  In my view this is a combination of a surprising degree of political talent in this newcomers, and a French people ready for change.