Uniform Fix

Why putting more military veterans on Capitol Hill won't end Washington's rampant partisanship.

In 1992, the U.S. Army War College's in-house journal, Parameters, published a highly thought-provoking essay by then-Lt. Col. Charles Dunlop entitled, "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012." Dunlop employed the literary device of writing a letter from the perspective of an unnamed senior U.S. military officer -- who was imprisoned for opposing the fictional future coup -- explaining what had precipitated it:

Americans became exasperated with democracy. We were disillusioned with the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation's dilemmas. We were looking for someone or something that could produce workable answers. The one institution of government in which the people retained faith was the military. Buoyed by the military's obvious competence in the First Gulf War, the public increasingly turned to it for solutions to the country's problems.

Though Dunlop was warning primarily about how the military could increasingly get drawn into a political leadership role by undertaking more and more civilian tasks at home -- rather than preparing for war -- the passage should be familiar to observers of Washington's toxic environment. Today, Americans are beyond exasperated with the inability of the country's elected leaders to address -- much less solve -- pressing national problems. In a June Gallup poll, when asked in which societal institutions they had the most confidence, Americans ranked the military first, with 76 percent of respondents having a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in it. The presidency came in far lower at 36 percent. Congress was dead last at 10 percent.

Congressional members are painfully aware that they are despised by the public, and they express self-loathing on the Senate and House floor that often resembles Maoist struggle sessions of self-debasement and self-criticism for dishonoring the Founding Fathers. Not coincidentally, these congressional members also look toward the ever-popular military for inspiration to rectify all that is wrong with Washington.

However, this habit of policymakers exalting the military as exemplars of accomplishment -- in effect, asking generals and admirals to "save us from ourselves" -- should be brought to a dignified end. Moreover, electing more service members and veterans to Congress will not repair what the Boston Globe termed in its series on political partisanship the "Broken City" of Washington.

During congressional hearings with military officers, policymakers question lightly and praise mightily. There is often an appropriate acknowledgement of the officers' service, followed by an admission of failure for foisting continuing resolutions and budget sequestration onto the Pentagon. Finally, a congressional member might elevate the military above the legislative branch. For example, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) recently told the service chiefs, "You have more knowledge right now of what we need to defend the country and the resources that we have than this entire committee together." Or as Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) noted, "I really think that you gentlemen should be questioning us because we are the parties at fault here." Here, lauding the military as the embodiment of sacrifice in the service of the country is done in lieu of congressional members taking the actual steps required to broker compromises.

In searching for a solution to this dysfunction, columnist Dana Milbank recently advocated compulsory military service and sending more veterans to Congress to foster greater bipartisan cooperation: "Because so few serving in politics have worn their country's uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest." As the number of veterans on Capitol Hill has shrunk, policymakers have "lost the knowledge of how to make compromises for the good of the country." Subsequently, the solution is to elect more veterans to Congress, because somehow their mere presence will cause partisanship to disappear and compel policymakers to work together.

There is just one tiny flaw with Milbank's remedy: Congressional members who served in uniform are every bit as partisan as their civilian counterparts. Open Congress ranks how often members have voted with a majority of their party since the beginning of the 113th session of Congress. Thus far, representatives have voted with their party 93.8 percent of the time (93.3 percent of Democrats; 94.2 percent of Republicans), and senators have voted with their party 91.8 percent of the time (95 percent of Democrats; 88 percent of Republicans). There is no evidence to suggest that a steady decline in the number of congressional members who are veterans is correlated with a rise in partisanship. In fact, Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN), a former U.S. Navy reservist, has voted with his party 500 of 509 times, making him the most partisan member of Congress with a 98.2 percent rate of party-line votes.  

The data show that veterans are no more likely to act in the best interest of the country than non-veterans are. Currently, 86 of 435 representatives are veterans. In the house, 28 veteran Republicans vote with their party more frequently than the average Republican, 31 under the average, and three at the average. As for Democrats, five veteran representatives vote with their party more frequently than the average Democratic, 15 below the average, and 1 at the average. In the Senate, of the 17 veterans, four veteran Republicans vote with their party more frequently than the average Republican and four below the average, while three veteran Democrats vote with their party more frequently than the average Democratic, one below the average, and one at the average.

This inability to escape partisan chains is evident even in the rare, ceremonial congressional votes regarding uses of force. For example, in June 2011, Speaker John Boehner introduced a House resolution declaring that President Barack Obama should not deploy ground troops to Libya. Of the 413 votes cast, 87 percent of all congressional members voted along party lines. Of the 86 military veterans who voted, 86 percent sided with their party.

Recently, Rep. Steve Stivers, an Ohio National Guard member, noted, "It's Congress that has the ultimate authority to decide whether to declare war. So having someone who understands what that means, and what that means in a human price for all these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, is a good thing." Stivers is undoubtedly correct, but setting aside that Congress has not declared war for 72 years, the military expertise that veterans bring to Congress clearly cannot overcome the bounds of party loyalty.

Thus, service members and veterans in both houses are as much a part of the problem as they are of the solution. In the current congressional climate, if they were not so strictly partisan, they would lose the support of their party's leadership and likely not receive the funding necessary to be re-elected. Congressional voting has become increasingly polarized over the past 30 years, and demographic trends, continually gerrymandered districts, and permissive campaign financing indicate this will not change. More veterans will not overcome the deepening partisan divide in the United States and, by extension, on Capitol Hill.

Furthermore, glorifying the example of the military as an inspiration for reformed congressional behavior overlooks the many recent shortcomings demonstrated by those in uniform. In the past year alone, senior officers have been disciplined or relieved of command for use of profanity and racially insensitive comments, alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct, gambling problems, misuse of government funds for personal reasons, misuse of government personnel for personal reasons, failure to take adequate force-protection measures, and demonstration of poor leadership while commanding nuclear forces -- not to mention whatever fallout emerges from the sprawling Navy contractor scandal. We have been repeatedly reminded that military leaders can be every bit as human as elected politicians.

Most officers recognize the potential for a leadership and character crisis in their ranks as the military begins to reset after a dozen years of war. Though the character and competence of the vast majority of captains, colonels, and general officers is beyond reproach, further tarnishing the profession of arms could lead to losing the respect of civilian leaders and the public trust. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who often expresses concerns about this issue, has warned, "How we win is becoming as important as the fact that we win." 

The uniform is not a magical cloak, nor an adequate substitute for the underlying and institutionalized drivers of partisanship. The military cannot save Congress or Washington from its collective march toward policy paralysis. "Last year was a legislative wasteland," the Washington Post observed this week, with Congress working the fewest hours and passing the fewest pieces of legislation in modern history. As the 113th Congress starts its second session, policymakers, whether they are veterans or civilians, must take personal inventory for their own failures and recognize that only they have the agency and responsibility to change things.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Undercover from Overhead in North Korea

Why satellite images -- not smuggled videos -- reveal the real dangers lurking inside Kim Jong Un’s nuclear hermit kingdom.

And here we are again: inside the mysterious North Korea, the hermit kingdom that is not so hermit after all.

On Jan. 14, PBS's Frontline featured the "Secret State of North Korea," a documentary that used undercover footage to "shine light on the hidden world of the North Korean people." And it did just that -- taking viewers on the streets to meet the country's poorest and most forgotten.

Though the street images can give us a glimpse of everyday life in North Korea, the satellite images -- orbiting 250,000 feet over Pyongyang's secret installations, where weapons of mass destruction are developed -- tell us a great deal more about what Pyongyang has up its sleeve.

From research and development facilities to nuclear and missile test sites to plutonium production and uranium enrichment facilities, North Korea's WMD programs demonstrate a five-decade-long, multibillion-dollar commitment comparable to the Manhattan Project. While some pundits argue that the North's program is a bluff designed to squeeze assistance out of the international community, even the most accomplished con artist would find it impossible to fake such a large-scale effort. Moreover, the North may not want to hide everything: Its emerging program has a security mission -- as well as a political one -- to signal to the outside world that it is a force to be reckoned with.

But while the general public was been consumed by news of Dennis Rodman's latest games, Pyongyang was working. 2013 was a productive year for North Korea in its push to modernize the country's nuclear weapons complex. Here's a look at what commercial satellites captured at four of its key WMD installations -- and what this might mean for the year ahead.

Yongbyon Nuclear Facility

Located some 50 miles north of Pyongyang, Yongbyon is North Korea's oldest nuclear installation, which American spy satellites have closely watched since the early 1960s. Two years ago, the North launched a major modernization program that, in 2013, began to yield results, catapulting forward its nuclear weapons program.

Probably one of the most notable surprises this past year was that North Korea resuscitated an old 5 megawatt plutonium production reactor, which had been shuttered in 2007 as part of a negotiated agreement at the multilateral six-party talks (which brought together the United States, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and North Korea). This is a key development, as the plutonium produced from this very reactor was not only used in the North's past nuclear tests but also to build its small nuclear arsenal, an estimated eight to 12 bombs. Now that it is operating again, experts believe it can produce one bombs' worth of fissile material every year.

North Korea also doubled the size of the complex's new uranium enrichment plant, first revealed in 2010, though that probably is not yet fully operational. And if that weren't enough development for the year, Pyongyang went the extra mile and finished the exterior of an experimental light-water reactor -- intended to produce power for the energy-starved country -- and constructed a building the size of a football field that may produce fuel for that small reactor.

Things to watch in 2014: Expect to see Pyongyang restart a large reprocessing plant -- also disabled in 2007 -- that can separate plutonium from the spent fuel rods in the operating reactor. The reactor is operating, but separating the plutonium from waste materials in its fuel rods will require using this facility. It's also worth keeping an eye on the uranium enrichment plant, which could become operational this year. Pyongyang will finish installing equipment inside the new light-water reactor and get ready for trial runs leading to its eventual operation.

Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site

Located in a deserted mountainous region, Punggye-ri has been the site of three nuclear tests, most recently in February 2013. After the blast, North Korea spent most of 2013 preparing the area for future detonations. While there are no signs that North Korea plans to test again soon, commercial satellites have spotted a new tunnel entrance and a growing pile of dirt and rock nearby, which means that workers have been excavating the site. When completed, the North will have a total of three tunnels ready and waiting for future detonations.

Things to watch in 2014: Though the 2013 events cannot provide strong insight into whether the North plans to test a nuclear weapon again in 2014, it is clear that it can conduct a test quickly if the order should come from Pyongyang. Furthermore, because the number of tunnels is growing, North Korea can keep testing into the foreseeable future.

Sohae Rocket Test Facility

The site of Pyongyang's 2012 rocket launches, Sohae is five times larger than the North's older Tonghae test facility. Six new construction projects began in 2013, the most serious of which is intended to modify the pad used for previous tests of the Unha space-launch vehicle. When modification is finished, the new gantry will be able to fire an even bigger rocket -- reportedly 25 percent longer with a larger booster that can lift satellites into higher orbits. The new rocket's technology can also be used to develop missiles carrying warheads that will be able to fly intercontinental distances. If that isn't scary enough, the North appears to be constructing flat-launch pads for testing new mobile missiles still under development -- this includes the KN-08, a mobile intercontinental-range ballistic missile spotted in military parades in Pyongyang in 2012 and again in 2013, and pegged by the Pentagon as a potential threat to parts of the United States once it is deployed.

Throughout 2013, the North also conducted tests of large rocket engines, which is essential in its quest to develop bigger and better rockets. 

Things to watch in 2014: Aside from more tests of large rocket engines, construction of the modified launch pad should be complete by early spring, allowing the North to conduct full-scale launches of either its older Unha rocket or a new larger space-launch vehicle. Mobile missile tests could take place at any time after summer assuming the flat launch pads are completed by then.

Tonghae Rocket Test Facility

Operating since the mid-1980s, North Korea's oldest testing facility fell into disuse after a rocket launch in 2009 (most likely because the newer Sohae facility had been completed). However, a major construction program (first started in 2011 and then halted in late 2012) resumed in the fall of 2013 -- possibly because Pyongyang could be planning an active rocket development and space-launch program that requires another facility. In just eight weeks the North Koreans completed a new launch-control center and resumed construction of a rocket-assembly building. Work has yet to resume on a new pad that will also be suitable for launching larger rockets. Satellite pictures show nearby buildings under construction that will house fuel tanks three to four times larger than those needed to support launches of the Unha.

Things to watch for in 2014: Pyongyang may make significant progress in completing construction of new facilities at Tonghae -- the new launch pad, a rocket-assembly building, and fuel-tank buildings -- enabling it to use the newly modernized site for support firing large rockets in the future.

* * *

The 250,000-feet vantage point unveils a hidden world just as disturbing, if not more so, than the one illuminated by the Frontline documentary. These images not only provide a glimpse of a dangerous future, but also demonstrate that "strategic patience" -- the Obama administration's policy toward North Korea -- is a failure.

If 2013 is any guide, 2014 will see similar advances as Pyongyang moves ahead with the building blocks needed to produce more nuclear weapons and the improved missiles needed to deliver them. Whether the Obama administration will finally realize that patience is not a virtue -- and that it is high time for a serious policy review about North Korea's intentions -- remains to be seen. But the odds are that 2014 will just mean more of the same in Washington. And even a satellite can tell you that's a bad idea.