Into the Valley of Death

September 30, 2014– Too long away from the keyboard and pandemonium breaks out. There’s items to spotlight in the surveillance scandal, the ongoing saga of the CIA, and plenty more. But I can’t do it all at once. So, for today, let’s focus on Syria and ISIS–or ISIL, or whatever you want to call it. For a long time this was a challenge lurking in the shadows, imprecise in the false light of dawn. Suddenly a lot more is becoming known, not just about the jihadi group but regarding classic issues of waging war.

President Obama’s central dilemma at the moment is pursuing a conflict against ISIL, which is carving a caliphate out of Syria and Iraq, without favoring the leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, of whom Obama has already expressed himself as needing replacement. You read it here first (“Obama’s Trainwreck,” August 8, 2014)–Obama could not carry out sustained actions in Iraq without jumping into Syria, and he couldn’t do that without helping Assad. Now we’re deep in the Deep Muddy. Mr. Obama’s solution is to recruit a coalition of allies for the ISIL action. We’ll see how that fares.

As expected, the new round of U.S. military action has revived old arguments about war powers. The White House, as presidents seem invariably to do, has invoked the president’s powers as leader of the armed forces, along with the hoary old Iraq war congressional resolution, as giving him the legal authority to proceed. This is a tenuous position and will weaken quickly the more the U.S. undertakes direct actions in Syria (not covered in any of the old authorizations). Congress may already have given away the store by passing a resolution asking the administration to train Syrian resistance fighters, which can be taken as a tacit recognition of the state of belligerence. In any case, a key waypoint will come up in mid-November. At that time, under the War Powers Act, the president will be required to report to Congress on his use of force and the issues will be squarely posed.

Not so expected, military action is either drawing in ambitious U.S. commanders or beginning to impinge on forces available. The most recent news is that the administration has ordered a 500-man contingent of the 1st Infantry Division into Iraq. This is significant for two reasons. One, previously all the troop detachments have been from Special Operations Forces or the U.S. Marines. The new move will be the first call upon the regular troop rotation. This could signify that the armed services are lining up to get slices of the pie, as they have in previous long wars. Second, soldiers of that unit have previously been earmarked for service in Africa with the U.S. Africa Command, again primarily reliant on Special Forces and Marines. This could mean that the 1st Division is now regarded as especially suited to working alongside the shadow warriors, but it might also indicate that U.S. capabilities at the margin have been exhausted–with special forces doing everything they can regular troops are now required.

Meanwhile, the first dollar figures are now in. The think tank Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington calculates the cost of U.S. operations already carried out is nearing the billion-dollar mark, that at current rates the ISIL war may soak $2.4 to 3.8 billion out of U.S. budgets, and if the effort is increased, somewhere between $4.2 and 6.8 billion, exclusive of the cost in casualties or the effects of operating tempos on equipment. Since, to date, acknowledged U.S. military actions include only 273 “airstrikes” (this word is being used ambiguously, and I infer it refers to the release of a single rocket or bomb) and 47 Navy cruise missile strikes, the reader can get an idea of just how expensive it is to mount a single attack.

All this for a jihadi group that largely ignored the U.S. until recently. Indeed, the lesson for ISIL in all this is “kill an American on TV and you’re toast.” Enemies who seek ways to get the United States to malcommit forces to secondary fronts will take notice. Hysteria bred in the U.S. by the constant propaganda on the supposed terrorist threat makes that possible. American leaders should themselves wake up to the way their options are being narrowed by the drumbeat of frightening the public. Meanwhile the gathering war is much too important to be left to some vague legal justification. There needs to be a real war powers debate.

Gamers’ Corner: Four Roads to Paris

September 13, 2014–My colleague Stephen Rawling of Against the Odds (and several other boardgaming ventures), came up with quite a nifty idea with his “Four Roads” series. A package of games, smaller than a full-dimension wargame but still substantial. In days of yore there was a formula called the “quadrigame,” or just the “quad.” In those sets the games were linked because they were all on different battles of a war, and all had the same, very simple rules. Steve’s dared to forge a fresh trail, wherein the games are linked by means of all being on the same subject, but no longer simplistic and each the vision of a different designer on that theme. The first assay in this direction was called Four Roads to Moscow and framed the German invasion of Russia in 1941. Steve’s new selection is going to be four designer’s ruminations on the German defeat of France in 1940.

In history, of course, France virtually collapsed when the Nazis invaded that May. That makes a game on the subject a dicey matter. If you go “simulation” then the French have to collapse and there is little competition in the game. If you go for play balance you need some device to accord the opponents a reasonable chance without sacrificing the simulation quality. All in all it’s a challenging proposition.

Designer James F. Dunnigan long ago postulated one answer–a scenario-based approach. In Dunnigan’s France 1940 (published by Avalon Hill in 1972), players each selected a force mix that had a weighted value, in effect handicapping various alternate possibilities against the historical. Many  subsequent gamers have adopted similar approaches.

For this game I wanted to ensure the French (read Allied) side has a chance but without biasing the game. I also wanted to make it enough of a simulation that action on the board retains some of the flavor of the history. And I wanted to accomplish those things without artificialities. The scenario-based approach is fine, but what it does is tie the players to a moment in time, with backstories (the force mixes) that were completely made up. It is not at all clear that in the real Europe of the 1930s a nation’s procurement of the particular force mix represented by one of those scenarios would have been uncontested. The politics and diplomacy of the arms race could have gone so many different ways.

So, for my “Road to Paris” I decided to bring the players to the table in 1934. The Maginot Line is funded and construction largely complete. The massive buildups of armor and air forces are in the future, the big expansion of the German Army has yet to happen. What this game seeks to do is to bring the players to a combat contest (the blitzkrieg of 1940) based on an evolution of the game–active play that can take many directions.

To make this happen I have created a “scripted game.” Here we create a new narrative of the 1930s that will be different every time you play. Gamers who like Beyond Waterloo will be familiar with the idea of Diplomatic Status. This game takes the crisis level of Diplomatic Status and makes it the baseline for such game events as mobilizing forces or moving troops on the board. At the same time, the players are not the only actors in Europe and there are events outside their direct interactions which affect them (for example the Spanish Civil War). So the system introduces a “Chronology” device which influences war budgets and diplomatic status. Event Cards impact the players for every year-turn, and those play out very differently in successive games. There are two other kinds of “events”–command and intelligence–and both award the players capabilities they will exercise once it comes to combat.

This game contributes a mechanism for accommodating the impact of spies and espionage in an unusually detailed and straightforward manner.

The combat system accommodates air forces and mobile forces, has armies whose strengths reflect what the players were able to obtain with the military budgets the game allowed them through active play. Thus they arrive at war with military establishments conditioned by game events. I think that a more satisfactory arrangement than simply working off a scenario base.

There are some new wrinkles in the combat system but, for now, I’ll leave those for the future. Look forward to this piece of Four Roads to Paris.


Again the Imperial Presidency?

September 9, 2014–In the bad old days of the late Vietnam war there was huge public concern about the runaway presidency– “Imperial Presidency.” The Johnson administration stood on the flimsy Gulf of Tonkin resolution as legal authority for a war. When it was repealed the Nixon administration claimed the war was legal because Congress had voted money for it, and ultimately asserted it waged war for the purpose of recovering American prisoners. As the hoary arguments became more and more arcane–with assertions the SEATO Treaty was somehow a binding pledge to fight, and the Geneva agreements, which the United States itself had violated, gave reason for war with Hanoi. Considerable public policy action followed in the United States Congress–which successively banned the use of budget money for parts of the war, the use of American troops outside of South Vietnam, finally banning war itself, or at least whatever parts of resort to force may be considered constrained by the War Powers Resolution. President Gerald Ford vetoed that bill. It was passed by a two-thirds majority of Congress and became law over his objection.

Those events of the 1970s can be viewed as the high water mark of Congress in its efforts to compel executive branch accountability. In the 80s, when then-congressmen Dick Cheney complained of the emasculated presidency, Ronald Reagan’s minions could, with virtual impunity, conduct a multi-front covert operation right out of the White House.  In the 1990s, in conjunction with the Balkan civil war, Republican lawmakers accused President Bill Clinton of something very similar.

But the executive power of the 80s and the 90s pales next to the assertions of the present era. The worst aspect of the events following 9/11 has been the arrogation of power in the White House, and the extension of that power, in the name of a false “national security,” to every facet of public life, all the while lambasting those who object as somehow unpatriotic.

A prime example of the new arrogance of power is–wait for it!– the NSA dragnet eavesdropping program. (You knew we wouldn’t go too far without bringing that up!) A few days ago the Obama administration declassified and released portions of Justice Department opinions that were compiled in 2004 to certify the legality and constitutionality of the NSA spying on all Americans. Stripped of legal mumbo-jumbo, the rationale in those Justice Department memos reveals the Imperial Presidency back in full force. The memos were then used to convince the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the NSA’s private star chamber, to sanction the dragnet. In a handsome display of circular self-justification, the NSA has forever since maintained that FISC’s “independent” opinion amounted to a real judicial review, that FISC and (an ill-informed) Congress were all on-board with the spying, and that the surveillance was fully accountable to all branches of government.

Let’s look at the actual arguments. The Office of Legal Counsel, the Justice branch which does this work, in my opinion has made a good case for why it should be cut back heavily. Time after time in the Bush and Obama administrations, under different chiefs and assorted attorneys-general, this unit has produced legal “analyses” that are little more than rationalizations for things OLC lawyers know government agencies want to do. This was the same unit that produced the notorious Justice Department “torture memos” and, in this case, the eavesdropping opinions take much the same line.

From the standpoint of the Constitution and the law, the problem was that there was a law, on the books for years, that prohibited the very thing which President George W. Bush ordered in October 2001. To square that circle the lawyers went to the Constitution to cite the president’s power as commander-in-chief. They combined that with the 9/11 resolution Congress had passed to assert that Congress had “explicitly” authorized what the NSA was doing. Of course, Congress had done no such thing–and only a handful of people, all of them prohibited from saying anything to anyone else–knew what the NSA was up to. The congressional resolution talked about using “armed force” against Al Qaeda. NSA spying was not a “force” except in the sense that it represents a Pentagon appendage, and eavesdropping on Americans is not Al Qaeda. The lawyers rely upon stretching logic to assert that any act (not an “instrumental” act, but in fact a “desirable” one) required to make use of force is subsumed in the approval of force, even if it is otherwise against the law. Similar sorts of logic were used to disregard the several laws which make torture a crime.

The OLC lawyers put the Constitution above the law, arguing that FISA restrictions that might obstruct a president from carrying out his functions as commander-in-chief are “impermissible.” That logic leads to a different problem, however, in that the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of exactly the type of the NSA dragnet. Justice lawyers performed a “balancing test” which compared the theoretical value of intelligence gained from eavesdropping (considerable for a real target, but almost worthless in terms of the actual product of the NSA STELLAR WIND program–which they left out of the equation) against the individual’s privacy protection (as weakened by a “well recognized . . . variety of governmental interests–including routine law enforcement and foreign-intelligence gathering.”) to find the latter without merit. This is a complete straw-man argument. Moreover, the Justice lawyers ignored the fact that the FISA law already provided a mechanism (the request for a warrant) to specifically test the competing interests. That was the balancing test the NSA wanted to get rid of.

The Bush administration was very happy with what the lawyers told them they could get away with. They even went to Congress under false pretenses to seek further widening of their surveillance powers. Mr. Obama did not rock the boat. It took the revelations of the Snowden affair to even raise the issue. The absence of a self-correcting mechanism is a plain indicator of a system out of control. End this.

Gamers’ Corner: Set Europe Ablaze

September 2, 2014–Just a quick note! Some of you will know that Against the Odds magazine has selected my Western European  (WW2) Resistance game Set Europe Ablaze as their “annual” issue game for this year. The game is a two-player simulation of the partisan war against German occupation from 1941 to 1944. Anyway, while ATO completes its playtesting and starts to put the game itself into production, I’ve taken time to craft the historical articles that will accompany the publication. (Thus I’ve been only fleetingly on this website of late.) That work is now done.

ATO doesn’t have space for everything I did. Accordingly I lopped off the Bibliography I had prepared for the game and articles. In the next few days I am going to post that biblio as a product on this website. FYI.