Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Projection Administration

A running theme here and one of the key Trump Rules has been projection. Today's exemplars are:

Why so much projection?  It is quite simply really.  Folks like Trump and Pompeo are thoroughly awful people, AND they think they are normal.  That is, they think everyone else is just like them.  Trump knows he is corrupt, but does not think that is problematic because everyone else is corrupt.  Not being corrupt is foolish, in his mind, since everyone is profiting from their privileged positions. 

Of all the Trump tendencies, this is among the most consistent.  He explains everyone else's behavior from his own personal logic.  His own personal logic is one of corruption, deception, hate, and he assumes everyone else is similar.  This is one reason why there is the whole "there is always a tweet" thing, where some accusation he made--Obama is lazy, Hillary is corrupt, etc--turns out to be something he does.  His basic take on politics is blasting people for doing things that he would do if given the chance, and thanks to the Russians, Comey, Jill Stein, and others, he has had that chance for the past three years. 

The projection also explains his stance on trade agreements and alliances--that all cooperation is a ripoff unless one can get an exploitative deal.  Why?  Because he is trying to rip off the other person, the other side must be doing the same.  The idea that Canada is exploiting the US, for example, can only come from a fevered projecting mind.

Some might argue that this is deliberate deflection, a strategy to avoid responsibility.  The projection, however, is so consistent that it is basic to who Trump is.  If it were just a strategy, he could not do it all of the time because he simply does not have that kind of attention span or focus.

I can't help but think of the eight year old saying "I am rubber, you're glue, etc, etc."  Trump's responses require no insight, no thought, no information, no work, just accusations that everyone else is just like him.  Because he surrounds himself with similar types, his perceptions are reinforced.  The Pompeos, the Barrs, the Kushners of the world make it seem like everyone in the world is just like Trump: corrupt, lacking in integrity, profit-seeking, etc. 

The damning aspects for the United States are:
a) there seem to be plenty of people who gravitate to Trump and serve in his administration who feel the same way
b) it has worked well enough with 40-45% of the American people with, of course, the aid of Fox and the rest of the radical right media.

Just remember the next time Trump blasts someone, it is mostly ascribing to someone else his own personality and tendencies.  It is all projection, all of the time.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Principal-Agent Theory and the Trump Administration: No Principals, Heaps of Agency

This tweet got me thinking, and since I am at an airport, I have plenty of time to ponder:

A caveat before I begin: I desperately avoided P-A theory in grad school as it was all the rage among the Americanists in my grad program (McCubbins saw himself as, well, either the Emperor or Darth something and I didn't disagree).  Alas, I succumbed when working with David Auerswald on the NATO and Afghanistan book because it was entirely about delegation.  Since then, well, I see P-A everywhere, including the movies.  Plus I assign it in my civ-mil class as a better way to think of civilian control of the military (thanks to Debbi Avant and Peter Feaver).

Once again, the core idea is that whenever a principal (a boss) hires an agent, the agent knows more about what the agent is doing than the principal does.  This information asymmetry means that the agent can do more or less than what the principal desires (tis called shirking either way).  One manages the P-A problem by selection agents carefully, granting more or less discretion depending on trust and risk, overseeing through a variety of strategies (police patrols, fire alarms, community policing), and incentives/sanctions.

How does this apply to the Trump Administration?  Well, of course, the first assumption is that the principal wants to control the agent. Not really sure this is the case here since Trump likes chaos among his advisers and playing them off against each other in the dumbest possible imitation of FDR.   The problem here for any agent of Trump is that one cannot tell what Trump is going to do since he has no principles---yep,  a principle-less principal. One core aspect of being an uncertainty engine is that Trump has no coherent, consistent preferences or values except ego gratification, greed, misogyny, and white supremacy.  His short-attention span, his refusal to read or to do any of the real work of a Presidency means that the agents are both confused and confusing.  While this gives Trump some plausible deniability ("I am too stupid or ignorant to know what I am doing and what my agents are doing"), it does mean control is problematic.

One way to handle the P-A problem is to pick highly qualified, like-minded agents who are loyal.   Hmmm, it seems that Trump's circle of trust is very narrow and not based on quality. Picking folks like Dershowitz and Guiliani suggests that tis far more about fealty than anything else.  While these guys seem quite loyal, Trump's abuse of them and their inherent tendencies suggests that they will turn on him just as quickly as Trump turns on them.  See all of the folks exiting the administration, with Scaramucci being a, um, model.  I keep referring the bottom of the barrel being thoroughly scraped, and the folks Trump/Giuliani used to get Ukraine to throw dirt at Biden exemplify this quite well.  The stream of text messages screams this scene from the Wire (NSFW):

To be fair to Trump, he didn't just hire bunglers.  He also hired the worst possible people, some of whom are way too competent in doing bad stuff. Bill Barr comes to mind.  Stephen Miller as well.  So, among the barrel of awful, there are some who are really good at doing harm, at engaging in arson.

Ok, the agent selection of this administration is, um, problematic but perhaps works for Trump.  What about discretion?  Does Trump grant wide discretion or does he give specific orders with narrowly defined "arcs of fire"?  Um, damned if I know.. but I would guess that Trump does not give well-defined instructions.

Oversight?  Definitely fire alarm.  That is, he relies on pitting his staff against each other and on watching the competitive leaking on Fox.  These are not the most reliable fire alarms as each agent competes to be the favored one at the expense of others.  Not all competition is healthy or productive.  So, stories get planted to make the other agents look bad, and Trump does not possess the information or the energy or the critical mind to assess the competing claims.  Again, the idea of oversight is to get information to overcome the asymmetry problem, and that requires inquisitiveness and critical thinking.  Ooops.

Incentives? Ah, here's the primary way that Trump controls his agents.  As long as one is in the administration, one has carte blanche to earn money at the expense of the taxpayer.  Corruption is not a bug in this administration but a feature.  As long as you serve Trump loyally (or Trump perceives as such), you can extract rents in a variety of ways.  This administration will go down as the most corrupt ever because Trump, the projection machine that he is, thinks that the only real motivation that gets people to do stuff is personal monetary interest.  Machiavelli might have warned that Trump is merely renting support and loyalty rather than buying it, but since Trump has a short attention span, I don't think he cares about that distinction. 

The problem with this tool is that Trump does not have a sophisticated system of controlling the graft--it is really access or no access, in or out.  Which means it is not very good for controlling the agents.  

Together, all this means that the people in the Trump administration are mostly out of control.  This does not mean that Trump is not responsible for what they do.  It means he is very responsible for creating this climate.  He owns all of it, even as he denies responsibility for anything that is reality-based. 

If we survive, the next couple of generations of political scientists are going to puzzle through the debris to determine the dynamics that shaped US domestic and foreign policy in the Age of Trump.  I think a common starting point for these folks will have to be realizing that there is not only no strategy (which requires information and some effort to understand the adversary's preferenes), but there is also little control.  The agents are amok as their boss ruthlessly avoids having information about what they are doing and is quick to throw them under the bus.  So, the key is to get as much cash as possible, commit as much arson as one can before one gets tossed.  And then write a book to make more money and see if one can find a fellowship at Harvard.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Hard Pass: NATO in the Mideast

Trump had a short line in his speech about Iran about more NATO in the Mideast and has even fancied a new name for NATO: NATOME as in NATO in the mideast.

Nope, it ain't gonna happen (which I have said before).  I am currently in Berlin, doing my last bit of fieldwork for the Dave/Phil/Steve project on comparative civil-military relations--what role do legislatures have?  I had an instructive conversation yesterday that made me feel better about my core beliefs on this.  So, first, let me explain my core beliefs and then what I learned yesterday.

NATO operates by consensus, and I think it is damn near impossible to reach consensus on NATO doing much more in the Mideast.  Currently, NATO is running a training mission in Iraq (as discussed by Stefanie von Hlatky in both ep 15 and earlier episode of Battle Rhythm as she visited there for her research).

Why is consensus highly unlikely?  Let me count the ways:
  1. Trump didn't warn the NATO troops in Iraq that their risk levels were about to go way up due to the drone strike on Suleimani.  He essentially placed these folks at much greater risk without any warning.  They are likely to be most displeased, and Justin Trudeau's statements have heaps of this displeasure in between the lines.
  2. The Europeans come to this pre-miffed--already upset at how Trump has handled Iran.  They find the JCPOA to be far more attractive than the alternatives, so they see tensions with Iran mostly the fault of Trump.  That Trump has repeatedly threatened European countries and companies with sanctions if they don't go along may not be something that gets much play in the US but gets much play, anger, resentment in Europe.
  3. Each member of the alliance has its own domestic politics to consider.   This is especially true for most of Europe where any deployment requires a vote in parliament--only the US and Canadians (maybe Turkey?) seem to be immune from this.   To get any vote through will require the most enthusiastic party to expend tremendous political capital to try to get other coalition partners (most European countries are run by coalition governments) and perhaps others (in some places, the governing coalition tries to get the main opposition parties on board so that there is national backing [and all are implicated, making these things lesser campaign issues]).  Given that Trump is toxic, and voting for such a mission would make a party look like it is standing with Trump, I just don't see it happening.
Maybe that was all in my head, a product of my Trump Derangement Syndrome and confirmation bias.  And then I talked with a Bundestag staffer yesterday.  The topic, of course, was mostly the research project, with me asking questions about how the Defence Committee operates in Germany.  But we got distracted by the on-going discussions about Iran--that many politicians could not talk to me this week because they are busy with extraordinary sessions dedicated to the Iran issue.

It was very clear from that conversation that my basic assumptions and assertions are on target here--that it would be very, very difficult to get Germany to agree to support a NATO decision to extend its efforts in the Mideast.  While Germany has opted out of other NATO operations (Libya), this time not only would other countries also opt out, but I am pretty sure they would fight against NATO deciding to do anything in the first place (more like 2003 than 2011).  Don't expect a consensus on NATO doing more.


Friday, January 10, 2020

Thinking Comparatively About the Iranian Shootdown

Who is to blame for the Iranian shooting down of the Ukrainian plane with many Canadians on board?  Obviously, Iran is.  But folks have been wondering if Trump is to blame.  I said that he owns some of this, not a lot, but some.  How so?

Well, first, if the reports turn out to be true, and the video is pretty damning for the Iranians, then this tragedy will join a post World War list:
  • MH17 over eastern Ukraine, July 17th, 2014
  • Siberia 1812 over Ukraine, Oct 4th, 2001, entirely eclipsed by the post 9/11 stuff
  • Iran Air 655 over Strait of Hormuz, July 3rd,1988
  • KAL 007 over Soviet territory, Sept 1, 1983
  • Itavia 870, over Italy, July 27, 1980, unknown missile.
  • Air Rhodesian flights shot down by rebels, Sept 3, 1978, Feb 12, 1979
  • Libyan Arab Airline 114, Feb 21, 1973 over Sinai
  • El Al, over Bulgaria, July 27, 1955
  • Cathay Pacific Vr-HEU around Honk Kong, July 23, 1954
With two exceptions, the Itavia mystery and Siberia 1812, all of these took place in an environment of severe international tensions. Some seem more deliberate than others (Air Rhodesian flights, for instance).   But the common thread is of this stuff happening in quasi-wartime.  Not wartime, but not peacetime.  The KAL flight was at the peak of the renewed Cold War, the Vincennes shot down Iran Air 655 in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war where it was seeking to protect tankers that had been targeted, Libyan Arab Airlines was shot down in one of the hotter stages of Arab-Israel tensions, etc.

If this was an accidental shootdown by anti-aircraft missiles, how could this happen?  Most likely nervous, poorly trained personnel in a time of high alert.  Why the high alert?  Because Iran had just fired upon US/Iraqi bases and was worried about a response.  What were they responding to?  The drone strike on Suleimani.  Why did that happen?  Trump was responding to attacks on Americans in Iraq.  Why was that happening?  Lots of reasons but partly Iran amping things up.  Why?  Trump's supposed strategy of maximal pressure to get Iran to negotiate over .... damn near everything.

The Trump Administration wants Iran to stop doing everything that bothers the US, which is why the JCPOA (Iran nuke deal) was not sufficient--it didn't stop Iranian support of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups and so forth.  It is not clear why Iran would assent to a deal that would constrain it greatly, especially when it is not clear the US would take yes for an answer.  Regime change has long been at the heart of US ambitions towards Iran.  Anyhow, the point here is that Trump has increased the pressure on Iran, leading to a variety of incidents (nearly striking Iran last summer in response to their downing a drone, for instance).

This short history points to the joint responsibility of Iran and US for creating tensions in the region.  Combine that with the reality that all it takes is for one of many missile batteries to do something hasty/stupid, which is more likely when things are tense, we can see that the US under Trump has some responsibility for what happened.  The timing says as much as the pattern of shooting down of civilian airlines in the past.

The striking thing about yesterday's news to me was that the Prime Minister of Canada did not rule out American responsibility.  That says a lot about the state of US-Canadian relations.  Thanks, Obama ... Trump.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

NATO in Iraq: More, Same, Or Less

Trump included a semi-throw away line about NATO doing more in Iraq or Mideast.  While Justin Ling argued this is something that should be done, here's why it, like fetch, ain't happening:
  1. NATO countries cannot operate without the US on the ground or in the air. The US has unique capabilities (comms), abundant capabilities (medevac helos), strong capabilities (quick reaction forces to defend/rescue allies in harm's way), and so on.  
  2. Why would any NATO member want to put their troops in harm's way after Trump endangered the existing NATO troops by launching a strike against an Iranian official without notifying said NATO countries?
  3. The NATO mission is one of training--the risk of green on blue (trainees attack trainers) is much greater now than it was two weeks ago.
  4. NATO members have domestic politics, mostly governed by coalitions, and with hard requirements to have deployment votes for stuff like this, unlike US or Canada. 
  5. The domestic politics is tougher because Trump is toxic in most countries.  Which leaders are willing to buck domestic opposition to stand next to Trump? Hungary? Sure, Orban wouldn't mind, but Hungary is also one of the crappiest allies in terms of showing up and doing heavy military lifting (the New Zealand forces in Afghanistan patrolled the Hungarian sector next door precisely because they didn't trust the Hungarians to do it themselves).   France?  Nope. Germany?  Nope. UK? Probs not.   There is a price to be paid for all of Trump's antagonizing of European countries.
  6. If Justin Trudeau allows folks to think that maybe the shooting down of the plane in Iran might just be partly due to Trump's behavior, you can be pretty sure that few allies will trust Trump on anything.
So, no, NATO reinforcement in Iraq to replace the Americans.  

Whose Lives Matter in an International Conflict or Crisis

The US-Iran crisis reminds us that, well, not all lives matter the same:
Should we be surprised at how irrelevant the casualties suffered by the Iraqis might be?  No.  Appalled? Always.  This led me to think about how various kinds of people and their suffering varies in the eyes of the media, in the calculations of governments, and in public opinion.  To be sure, there is variation across outlets and countries, but the patterns below seem to be fairly robust.

First, one's own soldiers/sailors/aviators matter much, much more than anyone else.  At least, that is what I have gleaned from both US and Canadian media.  Incidents involving one's own troops get covered, discussed, etc, usually pretty extensively.

Second, one's allies matter a smidge.  Their efforts, their suffering get a bit of coverage, some mention in the overall totals, but far less.  The exception may be that other countries may cover when Americans get hit for the simple reason that if the Americans get hit hard, two things may happen--they may escalate or they may leave.  In either case, their reactions affect both the vulnerability of one's own troops and the viability of the mission.

Third, the locals--Afghans, Iraqis, Vietnamese--their suffering hardly matters.  The idea that the Iranian response was no biggie since it didn't hit Americans even if it hit Iraqis (it didn't turn out that way, I think, but that is what folks seemed to say at first) typifies this attitude.  I am not saying the allied troops do not care about minimizing civilian casualties (although the allies vary in how concerned they are about collateral damage), but that in the media coverage, we tend not to be given the numbers, and in the calculations of leadership about whether to deploy or to engage in a specific operation, these numbers matter far less, if at all.

Fourth, private contractors count for more and less than the locals.  Less in that concern about collateral damage does arise, whereas I have yet to see politicians even utter any concern about the costs paid by private contractors in these wars.  The big exception, of course, is that when one or two or four get very visibly killed.  Then that can trigger a bigtime response--Fallujah in 2004, recent events in Iran.  Private contractors fall into the Stalin logic: one death is a tragedy, thousands are a statistic (see here for a discussion of the origins of what I am paraphrasing). 

Of course, this gets to a key dimension--how visible are the deaths of the troops?  Are the bodies dragged through streets or hung versus just left where they died?  Emotive reactions matter here greatly. 

Which gets to the other key dynamic: killed in action versus wounded.  Most media folks know the total number of their country's troops killed in theatre or a ballpark number.  Same for politicians.  But wounded?  Even if we forget for a second of those suffering non-visible wounds (brain trauma due to concusion, PTSD), the visibly wounded are still largely invisible.  One of the key hidden dynamics of recent wars has been the dramatic improvement in medical care.  This has changed the ratios of wounded and killed.  And it is partly a product of policy--that in Afghanistan, a case I know best, troops were not allowed to operate more than an hour from a major allied medical facility.  Why? Because chances of surviving are greatly enhanced by being treated within the golden hour.  What happens when there are not enough helicopters available to guarantee a less than hour flight back to base?  Either no operations or operations within an hour's drive, which means the mission is covering far less territory.

The point here is that we tend to be quite callous in our coverage and our conversations because not all lives and not all suffering seems to matter.  It is important to remember that there are other folks in harm's way besides one's own troops.  That the use of force can implicate not only one's own troops but others as well, and one might want to care a bit about this.  And no, this is not a subtweet of Trump's inability to remember that he put both allies and locals in harm's way when he decides to whack an Iranian officer in Iraq.  But that too.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Nothing at NATO is Automatic Except More Meetings

Lots of speculation about responses to the Trump/Iraq/Iran situation, so let me just clarify a few basics about NATO.
  1. There is nothing automatic about Article V.  Yes, it has meant that an attack on one is seen as an attack on all BUT it requires a decision at NATO HQ among the permanent representatives from the members.  That decision is not a vote but one by consensus.  And getting consensus might just be really hard for reasons I elaborate below.
  2. If Article V is involved by NATO, no member will be obligated to do anything specific as "each country will respond as they deem necessary." Yes, there is an opt out clause in Article V because the US insisted long ago AND it is hard to get consensus if countries have to surrender all decision-making after that. 
  3. Oh, and NATO is a defensive alliance.  So, at least a few countries would not be so thrilled to join an adventure the Americans started.
That gets us to the problem of consensus.  Few non-American leaders have been enthusiastic about the strike last week.  Justin Trudeau keeps meeting with leaders of international organization calling for de-escalation in ways that are essentially subtweets aimed at Trump, and he is hardly along.  The Europeans have been upset since Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA and after he has threatened European countries and businesses if they refused to sanction Iran.  The whole Iranian issue is a toxic one in US-European relations.  So, getting consensus would be much harder than in other circumstances.

Moreover, rather than investing in good will with American assurances of support in case Europeans need it, Trump has been threatening the allies about mythical back payments and reaching a standard now that was semi-agreed to for 2024--2% of GDP spent on defense.  So, that also does not create a lot of support for what would be seen as a replay of 2003.

Which gets to the heart of the matter: NATO members have their own domestic politics.  To support the US in this effort would require not just looking at the polls, but, if things got serious, votes in parliaments because nearly all European countries require votes to deploy troops.  And with mostly coalition governments, those votes are hardly guaranteed.  Given that Trump is unpopular in most European countries, it would be very, very hard to get NATO members to agree to expend serious money and risk the lives of their troops especially for an administration that is not seen as particularly competent.

One last thing: with the strike on Suleimani without notifying anyone, Trump has endangered NATO troops on the ground in Iraq.  That is something that will weigh heavily in much decision-making in the capitals of NATO members.

Update: One more thing: threatening to commit war crimes (hitting cultural sites) is a great way to ensure that the Europeans do not join in.  Most of these countries are very sensitive to these kinds of issues, and will not want to be present where war crimes are being committed.  So, Trump is making it much harder for any European leader, if they wanted to, to try to join any US-led effort.

There will be meetings, because that is what NATO does.  But don't expect any policy statements anytime soon.  The members are all waiting to see how things develop.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Deterrence 101: Not Applicable to Big Brothers

Lots of talk about "re-establishing deterrence" with Iran right now.  One can argue about whether it was good or bad to hit Suleimani, but this ain't about deterrence.  The shorthand is: deterrence is about threats, not about the actual use of force.  The longhand is the Big Brother problem.

Let me explain (I am not a deterrence theorist, but I play one on TV):
The basics of deterrence are: if you do x, I will harm you and harm you in ways that are greater than the benefits of you doing x AND (here what is often ignored) I will harm you in ways that are worse than either the current status quo or where you think the status quo is shifting.  The US, for instance, sanctioned Japan in response to its aggression (cutting off oil sales, if I remember correctly) so that the situation was worsening for Japan.  This undercut deterrence because the "doing x" seemed to be more attractive, not less, compared to the shifting status quo.

Much of the focus of deterrence is on the credibility of the threat--will you do the costly thing to create harm for the target (which often creates harm for the deterring country)--but there is the other side of the question--what I call the Big Brother problem.*

For deterrence to work, one has to threaten harm if the target does something you don't want AND one has to assure the target that they will not be harmed if they do something you want.  You have to be able credibly to accept yes as an answer.  Can this administration do that, especially from the Iranian standpoint?  Iran agreed to the nuclear deal which limited its nuclear aspirations (we can argue all day about whether it was good enough, whether it complied fully), and then the Trump Administration said it was not good enough and dropped out of it, threatening maximum pressure. 

For the Iranians, it seems like the US could not take "yes, we agree" as an answer.  For the Trumpers, they can say that they cared more about other behavior, and, yes, other behavior--supporting Hezbollah, doing all other kinds of awful stuff--was problematic.  But in a bargaining situation, when you say, nope, we are not going to take yes for an answer, it changes the dynamic quite a bit.  And, yes, to engage in bargaining, you have to think not just about what you are thinking but what the other side is thinking and preferring.  The whole idea of "strategic" is about getting inside the head of the other dog adversary.

Coming back to the shorthand, to use violence is an admission that deterrence is not working.  It is still coercive diplomacy, but a harder, less successful form: compellence.  Compellence is mostly about using force to get others to change their behavior (see these handy lecture notes from Branislav L. Slantchev).  The Kosovo bombing campaign is a successful example, and there is a lot of regret about that one.  That is much harder for all kinds of reasons:
  • It tends to require the other side to make a visible change in policy, losing face, whereas deterrence simply requires the other side to keep not doing something.
  • It is not just about losing face--the other side had a reason to be doing what they were doing, so altering their preference structure or changing the costs they face is harder than maintaining the status quo.
  • I forget the rest....
While Thomas Schelling was not always right, his classic works about coercive diplomacy remind us that threats vary in how easy/complicated they are (compellence is hard), and that restraint and empathy are required.  Given that this administration is utterly devoid of empathy, is not known for restraint, is also devoid of credibility, and is not very coherent or competent, it is hard to imagine how they can make a compellent strategy work.  This is one of the places where the uncertainty engine comes home to roost--that lying about much stuff and flip flopping a lot has consequences for persuading the Iranians not to escalate. 

So, yes, I am reminded of 2003 in that these are the wrong people seemingly planning the wrong war at the wrong time (the time thing is about how all of this undercutting the ISIS fight).  Any pleasant callbacks or analogies that I am forgetting?

*  No, my big brother didn't abuse me.  Just thinking about a well known kind of dynamic.