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National parties mediate the differences between their regional bases. The Democrats, for example, must negotiate between the interests of their constituencies in the northeast, the upper midwest, and the west coast. What an autoworker in Detroit sees as a critical political issue from a taxi driver in New York City, and both would likely disagree with a barista in San Francisco, or a farmer in North Dakota. The result is often a mishmash of both policies and politicians: Byron Dorgan, Democratic Senator of North Dakota, holds substantially different views than Barbara Boxer, Democratic Senator of California. This is a good thing in electoral terms, as it enables political parties to contest and win national elections. Regional parties, by contrast, are usually much more consistent (though not entirely) in their ideology, policies, and politicians. This gives them a stranglehold on their particular region. But it becomes a reinforcing cycle: the politicians that emerge from a regional party are the ones that are successful in that region. Politicians who do not adhere to the ideological template are marginalized or forcibly evicted from the party. And with each success and each eviction, the party regionalizes itself further and begins the cycle all over again. This is a bad thing for political parties, as it makes it difficult for them to contest national elections and weakens them everywhere but their particular region. This syndrome is currently at play in Pennsylvania, where Republican Senator Arlen Spector is in danger from his own party. Specter's relative moderation no longer seems to fit within the increasingly conservative and increasingly Southern GOP, and so he will be challenged in the Republican primary by Pat Toomey, who's social conservatism fits much more closely with the current template. If Toomey wins, and it seems likely that he will, it is extremely difficult to see him winning against any reasonable Democratic candidate in a state that went for Barack Obama in 2008 by over 10 percentage points. Even if Specter wins, it will be by moving to the right, something that will weaken him in the general election. The likely flip of the second Senate seat in Pennsylvania to the Democrats will continue the regionalization of the Republicans, which will in turn make it more unlikely that Specter-like figures can survive in the party. The big tent is a useful electoral tool, diversity helps win elections. If the Republicans' tent continues to shrink, there will be less and less room for actual voters.

April 16, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Politics


GOP Senators effectively scuttled the initial automakers bailout bill. That was an electoral disaster waiting to happen for the Republicans in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. That should have been clear to GOP leaders back in February, it should be even clearer to them today, when a Michigan dealership starting using that vote to sell cars by going after Southern GOP Senators:

A Michigan car dealership is using Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and southern Republicans as boogeymen in a new ad campaign. Les Stanford Chevrolet Cadillac in Dearborn, owned by brothers Paul and Gary Sanford, has released commercials showing Shelby, a fierce opponent of bailouts for U.S. automakers, warning of the industry's inevitable decline.

April 15, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Politics


As a followup to this post. The Republican Party continues to hold its base in the South and not much else. From a recent poll:

Republican Party: Northeast: 8% favorable, 82% unfavorable Midwest: 22% favorable, 68% unfavorable West: 20% favorable, 70% unfavorable South: 43% favorable, 47% unfavorable
Hat-tip to Steve Benen

April 07, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Politics


[A follow-up to this post] In counterinsurgencies, military effort can create the conditions for ending the war, but it (usually) can't end the war by itself. That depends on the political accommodation of enough of the constituencies supporting the insurgents to undercut their military effort. Without that, the insurgency is likely to start again. In the Philippines in 1899-1902, the US was careful to recruit insurgents and their supporters to the American side through a variety of methods. A number of local warlords 'surrendered' to American forces and then were immediately appointed governors of their areas. At a lower level, insurgent soldiers who surrendered were given amnesty and sent back to their homes. The result was that the Filipino insurgency was defeated not only militarily, but had the oxygen of support sucked away from them. In Iraq, the political tensions have largely been between the Shi'ite majority, which dominates the Iraqi government, and the Sunni minority, which had held power in Hussein's government. The Anbar Awakening was a reconciliation between American forces and the Sunni militias which had been fighting against them. The U.S. recruited the militias over to our side, with generous payments to leaders and militia members alike. The Sunnis, for their part, saw this as an opportunity to have influence in the larger polity. The Awakening, and the effectiveness of renewed counterinsurgency efforts in Baghdad essentially brought the insurgency down to a manageable level in 2007-2008. But the thorn on the rose was always how the Shi'ite government would handle incorporating the Sunni militias and the people they represent into the larger government. Without an effective and good faith effort on the part of Maliki's government to integrate the militias into the Iraqi military and give the Sunnis some form of reasonable political voice, there was no reason that the violence in Iraq could not spiral again. That's why this is not a good sign:

But the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government never really liked the idea. Indeed, the first deals were cut by U.S. officials behind the back of the Iraqi government. So Maliki's guys are:
  • Arresting some leaders of the 'Sons of Iraq' (the American term for Awakening forces)
  • Attacking others
  • Bringing only 5,000 of the ex-insurgents into the Iraqi security forces
  • And stiffing others on pay, with some complaining they haven't been paid in weeks or even months
I think Maliki's gambit is to crack down on the Sunnis while American forces are still available in sufficient numbers to back him up. This is a turning into a test of strength, Sunni vs. Shiite.
Counterinsurgency operations succeed when they can co-opt the nationalism of the country in which the insurgency is being fought. But they have to co-opt the entirety (or as as near as makes no difference) of that nationalism, not just the attractive parts. In Iraq, that means Sunni as well as Shi'ite nationalism needs to be brought in out of the cold. Having said this, it's not clear that the Americans can do anything useful any more. Long-term, the Sunnis and Shi'ites have to figure out a way to live with each other. Any kind of realistic solution has to come from them. Unfortunately, a 'realistic' solution might include an all-out civil war which ends with one side or the other emerging on top. Winning the counterinsurgency doesn't stop Iraq's ethnic, cultural, or political divisions, it only creates the opportunity to resolve them.

March 31, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Democracy


At the end of a reasonable analysis of the situation in Afghanistan, Robert Kaplan asks the wrong question. It's not a big surprise, as the question he does ask fits nicely into the post-Vietnam perception of American military action. It is, nonetheless, wrong:

To that end, significant numbers of American officers and civilian contractors will be embedded in Afghan government ministries for years to come, helping to run things. But does the home front have the stomach for it?
Ignoring the prejudicial phrasing used ('stomach for it'), the question that Kaplan should have asked was not 'does the home front' but 'should the home front.' Deciding that a multi-year military effort in a failed state far from home is not worth the cost in blood and lives is not an unreasonable one.

March 30, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Democracy


When you have to call in third party air strikes on your own territory, that's a leading indicator:

All predator drone strikes have to be approved by the Pakistanis--and Zardari has approved four times as many in the past nine months as his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, approved in the year before that.
From here.

March 27, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Democracy


One of the many issues of counterinsurgency campaigns is that it's never entirely clear when the war is over. There's rarely a surrender, as such, or a ceremony that can be anointed as The Moment. There's no V-E Day, V-J Day, or anything similar. The point of insurgencies is to delay or deny that moment, the goal of counterinsurgencies is less to win a grand decisive battle or campaign than to convince large number of insurgents to give up the effort or, better yet, come over to your side (cf. Anbar Awakening). The result is that knowing when the war is over, when one side has won a military victory, is frequently deeply difficult. When Teddy Roosevelt declared victory in the Philippines on July 4, 1902, it had more to do with domestic politics than military realities. Ironically, winning can lead to a withdrawal ('bringing the soldiers home'), but withdrawal is also what nations waging counterinsurgencies often do when they're losing. The potential for confusion is obvious. Nor does winning mean that the violence has ended. In fact, the violence can go on for decades after the moment the war has 'ended.' In fact, there is a continuum of time when a combatant like the United States might declare the war to have ended and bring the troops home. That could be when the war is going badly and the U.S. feels it no longer worth waging (as happened in Vietnam), it could be when the war has reached some form of stalemate that the U.S. does not feel can be broken (Malaysia, for the British), or it could be when the situation has reached a comparatively stable point that looks like as much of a victory as is possible (Greece in the late 1940s). Having said that, this is pretty much as close as one gets to military victory in a counterinsurgency: Iraq, 2009. American fatalities have dropped massively since the start of the surge and remained low:

Nor is this because U.S. forces are isolating themselves in fortified operating bases. Rather, they are more spread out and vulnerable at this point than they were during the height of the recession, parceled out in penny packets among the population. And the Iraqi population is feeling secure:
Eighty-four percent of Iraqis now rate security in their own area positively, nearly double its August 2007 level. Seventy-eight percent say their protection from crime is good, more than double its low. Three-quarters say they can go where they want safely

March 17, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Militarism


[Following on from yesterday's analysis.] Given this past history, President Obama's most important responsibility is to enforce realism. Simple sounding in theory, but difficult in practice and notably absent for the last several decades. The two most critical parts of enforcing realism is

  • Budget discipline
  • Building for Real Wars
First, budget discipline. Perhaps the most pernicious practice of the Bush Administration was the splitting of the defense budget from the budgets for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Defense budget &,
supplemental budgets, 2001-2008
The latter were paid for with 'supplemental budgets' which were passed by Congress separately. The effect was to enforce spending discipline on neither effort. Billions of dollars have been lost in Iraq, while the defense budget has continued to spiral as the military continues to buy larger and more expensive weapons. President Obama seems well on his way to dealing with this one, having announced not only the unification of defense budget and war budgets, but also putting a cap of $537 billion on non-war related defense spending for the next year. As a method for bringing the defense budget under the control, this is a good start. Second, the Pentagon needs to plan for real wars. This sounds like an obvious idea, but practice has been to plan for potential wars rather than actual ones: wars that the United States might wage, rather than ones they were actually waging. In the Cold War, when the genuine potential existed for a large-scale ground war in Western Europe existed, this practice was marginally defensible, though even then it left the U.S. badly prepared for Vietnam, among other conflicts. But now, when a conventional conflict against China or Russia is all but impossible, and the United States is involved in two counterinsurgencies, the practice is actively dangerous.
F-22 Raptor
The primary goal of the services must be to wage the wars they are actually involved in, not the ones that they believe possible. Doing the former leads to the purchase of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles for the conflict in Iraq and the rewriting of the Army's Field Manual finally to address counterinsurgency. The latter leads to billions being spent on the F-22, and the use of billion dollar warships to chase pirates off Somalia. The wars that the United States has been involved in in the past few decades have all been asymmetric--against much smaller foes--and a mix of conventional and insurgent campaigns. The defense budget has to focus on preparing for those, not for imaginary conflicts with China. Does that put the U.S. at risk if a massive conventional war comes along? Surely. But no more so than preparing for the large-scale conventional war put us at risk of getting bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this time, America simply does not have the resources to prepare for every contingency no matter how remote. That leaves us only one option: waging the wars we are actually fighting.

February 27, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Militarism


There is always theater in the writing of a defense budget. That is true no more so than this year, when a string of unusual events has made the American military process even more complicated than usual. In 2009-2010, the defense budget is...

  • Being made by a Democratic President and Democratic Congress for the first time since 1994,
  • Being made in a time of catastrophic economic global meltdown,
  • Being made as the United States is moving out of one war (Iraq) and moving more deeply into another war (Afghanistan),
  • Being made as some of the services are beginning to shift away from a Cold War mentality,
  • Being made as the military struggles to rebuild and enlarge itself after seven years of uninterrupted war,
  • Being made as all the services are struggle with procurement difficulties in their next generation weapons systems
  • Being made as the wide-open spigot of funding that started in the post 9/11 era is finally being twisted shut.
The Obama administration's first defense budget is a critical one, both to begin the process for dealing with the factors above, and to set a tone of rationality for the coming years of the administration. Before we turn to that budget, let's peer back at recent defense budgeting history, to get a sense of context. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 ushered in an era of essentially unfettered defense spending, aimed at winning the Cold War. Defense budgets shot up and remained up for most of the 1980s, reaching nearly 6% of GDP ($840 billion in 2008 dollars). The end of the Cold War substantially reduced those budgets and the size of the military. What did not change, however, was the essentially unfettered ability of the military to decide its own strategy and purchasing decisions. With the exception of a small period from 1991-1994, the Pentagon essentially on military strategy ('The Powell Doctrine,' for example) and procurement (continued emphasis on Cold War weapons). President Clinton's difficulties in handling the military essentially led him to abdicate any hard choices about future strategy. There was another brief break from this trend in 2001 as the incoming Bush Administration pushed a self-consciously 'transformational' agenda. Donald Rumsfeld tried to break the services from their Cold War mindset, most notably with the cancellation of the Crusader artillery system. All of that stopped with 9/11 and (despite the legendary dislike of Rumsfeld by the military) the military was allowed by American policy makers essentially to run its budgeting ship, with ever increasing funding.
Tomorrow: What Obama needs to do

February 26, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Militarism


The GOP made a big show of not cooperating with President Obama's passage of the stimulus bill last week. No Republican member of the House voted for the bill and only three GOP Senators did so. There are three major political implications of the way the bill was passed:

  • Legislative power in the government rests largely in the hands of three of the remaining Northeastern GOP Senators: Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Once Al Franken is seated as Senator from Minnesota (and it seems more than likely that he will be), any one of those GOP Senators can be the decisive vote to invoke cloture and prevent a Republican filibuster of Democratic legislation. The Democratic majority in the House is so large as to make it functionally irrelevant, unless there is a major Blue Dog revolt. Thus any critical legislative action from the White House is likely to be tailored to those Senators.

  • The calculations of the Republican leadership are those of politicians in a tight spot. After getting soundly thumped in two straight elections and still saddled with the horrendous legacy of the Bush-Cheney Administration (much to Democratic delight, Vice-President Cheney has refused to go quietly into the night). Voting for the bill, they likely figured, gained them nothing. Any success would be credited to President Obama and the Democrats. Voting against the bill set them up as the voice of opposition in case of failure, and offered them a (however hypocritical) way of reasserting their status as the fiscally conservative party. That much of this required the most stringent short and long-term political amnesia--amnesia bad enough actually to provoke the normally-compliant media into noticing--was simply a burden to bear. The criticism that they thus put party interests above national ones is misplaced, as the GOP leadership knew that there was no way they could prevent the bill's passage in the House and none of the three GOP Senators who voted for it in the Senate have been punished by their caucus. Essentially, the Republicans were playing political theater and they knew it.

  • The regionalization of the Republicans continues. Voting against the auto bailout bill in the last days of the Bush Administration should effectively destroy the GOP brand even further in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. The effective conversion of northeastern GOP Senators into conservative Democrats means that the GOP presence in the northeast is even more reduced, and it is likely that some if not all Senators will lose their next election. Certainly, Arlen Specter is probably doomed in his 2010 campaign in Pennsylvania, if he's not picked off by a primary challenge. The GOP has become a party of the South and the Great Plains, able to contest states in the West and Midwest, but losing more than they win. The Democrats have now won the popular vote in 4 out of the last 5 Presidential elections, and the GOP's regionalization means that it will be unlikely to produce a nationally-viable candidate in 2012. Certainly neither Sarah Palin nor Bobby Jindal seem to have country-wide credibility.
What emerges from these three implications are a set of questions. How well will the Specter, Snowe, and Collins work with the Obama administration going forward? Will the GOP's gamble on being the Party of 'No' work? Can the GOP avoid becoming a regional party without the ability effectively to contest national elections?

February 21, 2009 - Posted by David Silbey in Democracy

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