- Leaks, Politics, and Power
- I Got 200 Million Problems, But Multicollinearity Ain't One
- The Mattis Book Club
- Israeli Bombs and American Qualms: Assessing Syria
- Guest Post: Syria - Remembering Reality
- Bringing Structure Back to Irregular Warfare
- Cracking Defense's Crystal Balls
- The Limits of Proxy Warfare in Syria
- Raw Power
- A Rack City on a Hill: Unsolicited Advice to Landpower and Seapower
- Beyond Disruption
- Malthus > Muburak
- Policy Puzzles
- Paramilitarism and Governance By Other Means
- Relevant to Policy?
- Redemptive Violence and the Los Angeles Manhunt
- Serval, Burden-Sharing, and Limited Intervention
- Great Raids and Great Disasters
- Old Hundred and the American Way of Wartime Law
- The Market for Covert Action
- The Once and Future CIA
- From Benghazi to Blackwater
- Guest Post: The Shape of Al Shabaab’s Post-Kismayo Attacks
- The Silence and the Drones
- A few thoughts on Chemical Warfare
The Obama Administrations aggressive anti-leak campaign has further polarized an already fractious community of national security commentators. On one side, as Joshua Foust noted, DCs national security press corps and many national security commentators see the surveillance and investigation as a threat to the very ability of the press to check a naturally over-secretive mil-intel complex. This has not resonated with many national security professionals who chafe at the idea that the press ought to be arbiter of which classified information can be leaked. There is truth in both stances, but also plenty of misdirection. The story of how leaking became an integral part of DC’s political economy is _the _story of modern American politics. Like the proverbial Great American Novel, its a story that must necessarily invoke a tapestry of both American and world-systemic social, cultural, economic, and political forces. There are no heroes and villains. Instead, a complex interplay of institutions, processes, and power struggles led to the counterproductive and self-defeating hounding of _Fox News_ reporter James Rosen. And if TL:DR is your thing, Im sorry. Theres been so much BS on this subject that it needs to be discussed at a Trombly-esque length. Washington DC is an ecosystem shaped by intense intra-elite competition. In such an environment, distinguished by compartmented and stovepiped access to knowledge concerning the machinery of government, control of information (which includes leaks) offers both political currency and psychological validation. How it got that way, and how the current dueling narratives of security and press freedom mask such grubby competition, is probably a more fascinating story than the leaks themselves. The real error inherent in Rosen’s plight is not a story of Nixon 2.0, but rather of national security policy that—as in AfPak and Yemen—suffers from a lack of attention to the larger political context, “human terrain,” and second and third-order effects. THE PURE SCIENCE OF POLITICS Politics is the process that governs the all important question of “who gets what, when, and how.” Classical social thinkers such as Machiavelli, Pareto, and C. Wright Mills have all recognized the centrality of elites to political dynamics---with alternatively praiseworthy and conspiratorial interpretations. A review of political thought, history, and political science shows that the business of politics is neither the conspiracy of fat cats populists imagine or the morality tale of _Mr. Smith Goes To Washington_. It’s just _politics_. As Truman famously said, “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” The very logic of political life creates a natural base of elites. As the political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita wrote in _The Logic of Political Survival_, there is inevitably a "winning coalition" in domestic politics that keeps the incumbent in power. However, this coalition must be provided with private goods in order to be kept pliant. Therefore, the coalition must be kept as small as possible. A small winning coalition is impossible in a democracy, which partially explains the instability of democratic governing coalitions. Furthermore, even in democracies political advantage goes to small, tightly knit networks which do not face collective action problems and are linked by superior social capital. Such networks tend to triumph even in the face of larger—but more disorganized—political opposition. Beyond the winning coalition, specific kinds of elites also matter. From a historical perspective, several kinds of elites (this is not an exclusive list) recur in American democracy. First, those figures who can understand and mobilize cohesive networks are worth their weight in gold. Abraham Lincoln was so dependent on these political figures that he gave them battlefield commissions during the Civil War. Note how Rahm Emanuel, the consummate political fixer, walked the halls of power with admirals, spies, and cabinet members. The dawn of the industrial age produced another set of elites with power over the massive industrial, scientific, financial, and corporate structure that emerged as a consequence of Americas rise to greatness. As interwar historians note, both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt envisioned an enlightened alliance of these elites with a third elite type--government technocrats--as the key to stabilizing American society that was undergoing dramatic economic, political, and cultural changes. Government technocrats arose as a consequence of the need to govern an increasingly complex society. They provided technical knowledge and ruled bureaucratic organizations governed by impersonal rules. One of the many technical arms of government created to cope with both external changes in the international system and a more complex domestic picture was the military-industrial-intelligence complex. While the US continued to develop the military and intelligence backbone capable of exerting power abroad, J. Edgar Hoovers Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) mobilized at home against both political radicals and heavily armed gangsters. Technocrats and industrial age elites, both Hoover and FDR reasoned, could together stabilize an increasingly fractious America. The disruptive nature of these domestic and international changes is often glossed over. It was a time in which American government was rocked by corruption more characteristic by "bags of money" Kabul than Andy of Mayberry, roiling class war, massive crime, and divisive sociocultural conflicts. It was no wonder that intellectuals of the time, to put it bluntly, were _pretty damn scared of the future_. While Hoovers vision of a small government that facilitated elite cooperation differed from FDRs more activist ideology, elite agreement was key to success for both presidents. The arrangement FDR helped formalize generated what was called the "consensus" era of American history, often remembered with great nostalgia as a time of economic equality, cultural agreement, and political comity. Of course, such a consensus was not good for everyone. The original title and deed to my family home in California explicitly barred Jews from moving into the neighborhood, to say nothing of African-Americans, Chicanos, and Asian-Americans. This was the high point of the era of smoke-filled rooms and popular diatribes about the "Man in the Grey Flannel Suit." However, the biggest problem inherent in a new and massive bureaucracy is that it provided an ample space for elite competition. Sure, there was the ordinary grappling of social climbers. Factional interests, as organizational theory would predict, soon came to the fore. These natural tendencies are also bolstered by the nature of American democracy’s separation of powers. Ironically, the very discord and bureaucratic buck-passing that we decry is our best insurance against developing a unified “deep state” akin to that of Turkey or the former Communist world. But bureaucratic factionalism and elite competition makes governance difficult. This problem created a particular demand for those who could impose political direction on the machinery of government. While Graham Allison over-exaggerates the power of bureaucratic "operational codes," it is significant that the _lawyer _Bobby Kennedy laid down his brothers law during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A FINGER IN THE FULCRUM What kind of person “fixes” the machine? What kind of knowledge enables mastery over it? The problem with government lies in its vast and complex expanse, tiered and access-restricted compartments, and tendency towards debilitating friction as the mighty gears spin. As the political scientist James C. Scott might say, such an arcane structure creates a problem of legibility. One must first read the machine in order to do something with it. The power of Big Data lies in the ability of tools like Hadoop to assemble, structure, and exploit large quantities of unstructured and distributed data. The ability to read, structure, understand, and exploit the rough, distributed data of government and convert it into value is the essence of political intelligence. He who can both make sense out of such information and freely access it has power over the machine. In turn, his opponents will seek, like Scott’s semi-mythical Zomians, to render themselves unreadable and amorphous through manipulation and control of information. Beneath the layer of competing bureaucratic identity lies another type of faction, the trust network. Theorized by the sociologist Charles Tilly, the trust network is a small group of individuals that resist control of more powerful authorities through various strategies of erosion, evasion, and misdirection. Trust networks exist everywhere where large-scale cooperation is difficult. Trust networks certainly have always existed within government, particularly those centered around charismatic personalities that carve out their own domains. The importance of access to information is why figures within the Bush administration created the Office of Special Plans. With the intelligence community unsympathetic to their political aims, they needed their own channel of raw information to exercise control over Iraq war policy. However, this practice is far more common than many Bush-bashers realize. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s monopoly over military-intelligence information in the run-up to World War II and his own highly questionable usage of such information dwarfs anything seen in the last ten years. Roosevelt, acting mostly in secret, waged both naval and air proxy war against the Axis and tolerated a massive British strategic influence and spying campaign directed against American citizens. The rise of a more technically complex government governed by stovepiped, access-controlled information was paralleled by the simultaneous genesis of a science of persuasion. The communication thinkers of the early 20th century, many of whom had served in World War I propaganda organizations, believed that the citizens of a mass society needed guidance and influence to make a dizzying array of decisions both serious and mundane. The science of public relations and advertising, as Edward Bernays wrote, was about giving guidance to a citizen alone in a dauntingly complex and interlinked world where even the daily experience of urban living assaulted the senses. This field gave birth to what we know today as the political communications discipline---e.g. lobbyists. Lobbyists combined a knack for moving the gears of government with the scientific knowledge of mass communication developed in the mid-20th century. They were a harbinger of greater changes to come. OUT OF EDEN For a variety of both domestic and international political, economic, cultural, and societal reasons too complex to examine in a single blog post, the postwar consensus era could not last. As George Packer argues, this left the elites who had previously agreed on the nature of things scrambling to protect their interests. Second, there was also a shift in the nature of the elites themselves. Peter Turchin, piggybacking on Chris Hayes’ book _The Twilight of the Elite_s_, _notes that a different explanation may help explain the dysfunction we see today besides the moral turpitude often alleged by establishment critics. Intensified intra-elite competition for increasingly scarce positions granting access to wealth and influence is also a consequence of an exponential increase in those seeking to become elites. As Hayes observed, a more meritocratic education system would inevitably produce more aspirants than jobs. The erosion of a consensus that mitigated towards cooperation produced greater dysfunction. Turchin, an ecologist by trade, notes that the mathematical Price Equation suggests internal competition can have a deleterious effect on group altruism and cohesion. Competing trust networks, always a part of political and social life, blossomed throughout fields of importance. The macrotrends behind the rise of intra-elite competition and the end of consensus accelerated existing lobbying, bureaucratic warfare, and partisan competition into something more characteristic of the “bad old days” prior to the midcentury consensus. However, new tools of mass influence and the exponential increase in the complexity of the governmental sphere upped the stakes. The modern political world, like Wall Street, became a complex ecosystem driven by similar dynamics of bubbles, crashes, and insider information. And just like Wall Street’s dynamics created the rise of advanced technologies and wizards (often falsely) claiming to offer scientific mastery over social process, the intense competition of political life generated political technology and political alchemists that also offered their clients the power to turn electoral lead into gold. In such an environment, both the national security and domestic political worlds face strikingly similar problems. Bueno de Mesquita’s “winning coalition” in a democracy is both large and must be pacified with private goods. This inherently makes the coalition unstable. Such logic of instability also applies to the governmental sphere. A large amount of men and women must cooperate together to make the machine run. Many require access to valuable information in order to do their jobs. But the incentive to use such information for gain is immense and can overcome even the most tight-knit social and cultural bonds. Even "quiet professionals" such as special operations soldiers and intelligence operatives blab to the press. Each leak generates more stovepiping and “plumbing,” unintentionally yet inevitably raising the market value of secret information ever higher. Why? It’s not just about bureaucratic, partisan, or even financial advantage. Hoarding, manipulating, and leaking information also offers psychological validation. _I leak, therefore I am_. Take the Wikileaks informant and military intelligence peon Bradley Manning. Unhappy with his personal life and US foreign policy, he began to hoard national security information. Though a gnat within the military-industrial complex, Manning’s information was valuable enough to _someone _to turn him into a celebrity. Now he elicits attention and sympathy from elites who would otherwise disregard a lowly soldier toiling away in the vast intelligence information database known as JWICS. MARK FELT’S CHILDREN So what does this all have to do with the misfortune of Fox News_ _reporter James Rosen? The hunt for leakers makes for a debate in which two theologies—the gospel of national security and the gospel of the muckraking press—now clash head-to-head. But holy writ alone does not grant much insight. No one would deny the importance of operational security. Yet it is still both hoarded and leaked flagrantly to grant power and advantage. Similarly, the closest thing the modern DC press has to an origin myth is the Watergate scandal. The simple version of the myth is that the press serves as a check on abuses of government power, shining a powerful light into the darkness that shrouds the machinery of state. The reality is more complex. Without a means of utilizing their hard-won information, elites within government cannot compete. Bureaucratic warfare cannot be waged without a megaphone. Such a megaphone must also be discreet. The difference between, say, the bureaucratic warrior Mark Felt (known more popularly as “Deep Throat”) and a troubled soul like Bradley Manning is truly vast. The amateurish Manning poured his soul out to a complete stranger he met on the Internet. A man of Felt’s stature, however, had to protect himself. He needed a conduit to discreetly utilize his information without risk to himself. Blocked from moving up in the hierarchy, Felt’s confidential information could only become valuable _outside_ the government. Enter the _Washington Post_. To this day, it is striking how much Felt, for all of his pivotal impact on history, was just another DC bureaucratic leaker. Operating out of a complex mixture of principle, bureaucratic maneuvering, and personal ambition, Felt effectively made the Post_ _his mouthpiece and became a world-historical figure. Felt, in some respects, was also little better than the Nixon officials he denounced. He authorized black-bag jobs against domestic radicals, and was convicted of conspiracy in 1980 when he refused (at least in court) to rat out his superiors. Was he principled or mercenary? No one will ever know. But the CIA, SVR, and Mossad operatives who recruit spies deal every day with Felt-like characters. For every Watergate, Iran-Contra, or Abu Ghraib there are likely ten to twenty (a conservative and charitable estimate) exercises in puerile partisanship and bureaucratic finger-pointing like Benghazi enabled by the political press. Indeed, some in the press have used their privileged access to elite information to become elites themselves. Journals such as _Politico _derive their very prominence by a claim to soothsay the pulse of “the town.” Despite the theology of investigative journalism, the press—like many other DC institutions—is a prominent vehicle for intra-elite competition. Inasmuch as it makes such competition possible, it contributes to the very dysfunction journalists often decry. TOWARDS MITIGATION Seen in this light, the troubling overreach inherent in the Rosen affair becomes a microcosm of the larger tragedy of American national security. The government, seeking to exercise control over a dysfunctional and fractious bureaucracy, took affirmative action. However, like the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, such a struggle inherently juxtaposed an amorphous yet ambitious strategic aim with limited ways and means. Now we have come to the point where a blunt and dangerous tool like the Espionage Act has been deployed. Like a Cold War security standoff, the use of special technical means to combat leaks will surely generate a counterintelligence arms race as journalists (some of whom have extensive experience in combat zones) deploy advanced tradecraft to get their scoops. In turn, such new tradecraft could very well provoke more advanced and counterproductive_ _government “plumbing.” The greater stovepiping that inevitably results also harms interagency cooperation and increases the market value of leaks by making such information more rare and valuable. The endpoint of such a struggle surely does not benefit either national security or freedom of the press. Yet this is where we are---if the Rosen investigation says anything--are headed. Leaking, like many other crimes, will ultimately be managed rather than eradicated. The struggle to eradicate leaks has far-reaching consequences for both the information the government seeks to protect and freedoms beyond the investigative presss undeniable self-interest. For the government prudent mitigation will be key to both the preservation of operational security and the preservation of press freedom. The government will have to be more skillful and strategic about how it protects its secrets. Difficult intelligence targets such as North Korea and al-Qaeda cannot be penetrated in an environment of rampant leaking. But in the case of Rosen, the cure may be worse than the disease. Leaks are an undeniable scourge. But acting without a plan that considers the political context does not do anyone any favors. The first step towards progress is realizing that the problem is far bigger than the _AP_ or_ Fox News_ alone, and that mythologies and holy gospels do not provide a sound basis for balancing liberty and security. However, at the moment—as with Benghazi, drones, and other contentious subjects—we can’t expect much more out of the “war of ideas” besides preaching to the choir.
When even David Brooks, Herodotus of the Bobos, is waxing lyrical about data and empiricism you know that data science has become mainstream. Drew Conway is right that the phrase is rather clumsy, but so are many other things in social science. If the mad awesome/state of the art work Conway does is the data equivalent of the mouth-watering Chinese restaurants I go to during my summer jaunts back to LA, the now _de rigueur_ pretty-looking bloggy data visualization is the bland but dependable PF Changs. Both are great, but only King Hua is going to get you that great dim sum. 1 Look past my questionable Chinese food analogy and the nature of the problem becomes apparent. Pretty pictures that answer big questions are becoming hotter than Hairless Cats That Look Like Putin. In some ways, this is a _good _thing. It means less listicles/GIFs, less argument by analogy, and more evidence. And we certainly need more of that. Ive spent the last week trying and failing to write a follow-up post to my Benghazi piece here from last December due to the sheer amount of derp on that subject, to say nothing of "Syria is Vietnam/Rwanda/Iraq/Sudatenland" analogy Mad-Libs. So whats the problem? The blogospheric blow-up over a controversial map of global racial tolerance illustrates some larger tensions inherent in the move towards data journalism. Daniel Drezner has a good summary of what went down after _The Washington Post _created a visualization of a paper on the geography of racism. The basics are that the World Values Survey (cross-national survey) data turned out to be fairly rough, the operationalization of the research question was dodgy, and there are some underlying conceptual issues with varying perceptions of race in a large-N study. A great hue and cry arose on both blogs and Twitter. Ultimately, Drezner and Jay Ulfelder are right that the harsh criticism of Max Fishers visualization is unnecessarily overwrought. Its not hard to find questionable uses of cross-national data (especially in academic literature) for a very simple reason: _cross-national data often is very messy_. As Nathan Jensen noted of an attempt to analyze Big(-ish) Data, "[d]ata quality is a serious issue. When using a cross-national dataset, I look at the individual observations to make sure nothing looks odd." This is true not just of Big Data--any large cross-national dataset will have holes. I painfully discovered just what Jensen meant this spring semester when I ran regressions on the Correlates of War (COW). Even one of the oldest and most well-used databases in international security has significant issues that have been well-documented by generations of scholars. This isnt a knock on what J. David Singer built. COW, like Kenneth Waltz, made much of what we would consider modern international relations possible. But collecting and coding systematic global data is inherently rough. Take one of the most important variables in the Interstate Wars codebook--battle deaths--and make it your dependent variable. Read a bibliographical essay on the latest Interstate Wars dataset and youll discover that the COW data collectors had to deal with some fairly Herculean problems trying to construct said variable:
Many historical accounts of war contain only vague generalizations about battles that resulted in severe (or light) casualties. Authors frequently utilize the terms deaths and casualties interchangeably, for instance, noting in two different sentences that a specific war resulted in 1,000 casualties or 1,000 deaths, though generally the term casualties refers to the combination of the number of those who died and the number of wounded. Many sources report only total death figures, combining deaths of civilians and combatants. There are also wide differences even within the death figures provided for a specific war. The death numbers from a variety of sources, each of which claims to be accurate, can vary widely, with one source reporting deaths that are two or three times as high as those reported in other sources. ....Although gathering fatality estimates was difficult in the past, especially in extra-state wars that were sometimes fought in remote areas, the process has not necessarily become easier in the present. Even though today there is an impressive array of nongovernmental agencies with resources devoted to gathering statistics on the costs of war (though many are primarily concerned with civilian deaths), governments have also displayed their ability to utilize technology as a means of concealing war fatality figures.But lets say you arent satisfied with just using the other variables in the Interstate Wars dataset to examine the dependent variable. Lets say you are a glutton for punishment and want to combine an interval-scale variable like battle-related deaths with nominal or ordinal variables you could pull from something like the POLITY Project or some development stats from the World Development Indicators. Get ready to tear your hair out dealing with the data cleaning problems in _two _(or more) large cross-national datasets, standardizing different operationalizations and measures, and otherwise getting to know every possible flaw that might bias your results. By the time those little regression asteriks finally appear on your output table, you might as well _be_ one of _FP_s famed bald ex-KGB doppelganger cats. Now, Im intentionally over-dramatizing the process2--interesting research with cross-national data gets published all the time. Research with merged datasets gets published all the time. There are ways to deal with messy data that range from "anything goes" ad hoc fixes to highly sophisticated scientific techniques. But its still hard work. So cross-national data is sketchy. But what about just highly granular data for one country, or even one region? GDELT has 200 million events at a very granular level of detail. You can take a look at _just _Syria. Cool, right? Sadly, as they say on the Internet, this is why we cant have nice things. Surprise! GDELT is messy too. Just as with my earlier comments on the COW, this isnt a knock on the GDELT. I have, after all, created my very own GDELT t-shirt ("200 Million Observations. Only One Boss") that I will gratuitously flaunt at an academic conference near you. 3 And the COW and GDELT, while messy, are also maintained by objective and well-trained professionals. Many other sources of data collected by governments, international organizations, advocacy groups, or sloppy military historians, will be an order of magnitude less reliable. So yes, there is no free lunch. All datasets come with big limitations, some vastly more so than others. Thats part of why Sean J. Taylor wrote that making your own data ought to be the ideal. And its also why former Abu M poster Erin Simpson tweeted "[s]ay it with me: model the data generating proces."4 Or take it from Jensen: "[t]here is no way to let the data speak to you. It is a confusing mess." Jensen goes on to caution that "you really need to have a plan on how to analyze it." Though writing about Big Data, Jensens advice is valid for most research in general, whether you are Clifford Geertz observing a Balinese cockfight or Ulfelder forecasting political unrest. This doesnt mean that every data visualization ought to come with a caveat list longer than this already lengthy post. Ive enjoyed reading _Bad Hessian_ precisely because of its short, snappy, and often tentative posts on subjects ranging from NFL coverage to RuPauls drag queen competition. The real fun in online data visualization lies not in the cool relationships it reveals but the experimentation and feedback that goes on at places like _Bad Hessian_. Someone (like Trey Causey, who is responsible for clogging up my Instaper and Twitter favorites beyond measure) posts a cool entry and then goes back to the drawing board after the Internet has its say. Its the social science equivalent of Kanye West or Radiohead road testing a new song on tour, vs. releasing it on iTunes and shooting the music video. But data has always been a tool for winning arguments on the Internet, as evidenced by the frequency of anguished invocations of the phrase "correlation is not causation" in comment threads. Some data-driven blogs, like the _Post_s _Wonkblog_, have become an integral part of the online policy conversation. As journalists and policy bloggers become much more fluent with nifty open-source tools like R, Pythons Pandas package, or BUGS well see far more bar charts, histograms, and heat maps start to pepper our favorite blogs. And then theyll move on to greener pastures with Hadoop and Amazon EC2, Natural Language Processing, or a link analysis tool like NetworkX. The problem with the coming wave of data-driven policy blogging is that the three paragraph max MSM blog post format doesnt really mesh all that well with the complexities of either summarizing someone elses results or presenting your own. That, and as Drezner notes, its difficult and time-consuming to dig out holes in other peoples work that might bias the results. Policy debates and journalism deadlines tend to fly by at light speed compared to the tinkering of academic-ish blogging. So expect to see more of the mistakes made by the _Post _and the overheated critique Drezner and Ulfelder rightly counter-critique in their blogs and tweets. That being said, data blogging, and particularly the potential for Big Data blogging, are a positive thing (Abu M featured a data viz contribution by Daveed Garteinstein-Ross and Chris Albon). In the focus on detailing all the obvious ways data can be go bad, critics often fail to note the equally numerous ways to BS with qualitative analysis---a tendency Causey dubs "qualsplaining." So bring (and blog!) your data, wonks of the world! You have nothing to lose but your p-values. _____________________ 1. I havent been back to LA in a year and I _still _have dreams about that dim sum. 2. I did run out in the street at 4AM to shake my fists at the moon, seized by impotent rage over the unpleasant discovery that my attempt to merge _three _datasets resulted in a very peculiar yet nonetheless fatal data error: more battle deaths than deployed soldiers! "Curse you J. David Singer! Curse youuuuuuuu," I yelled until I realized that the night watchmen were all looking at me suspiciously. After returning to my senses, I went back and stared with guilt at my copy of Singers _Nations at War._ It was surely not the illustrious political scientists fault that I had so naively thought that I could merge three datasets without _something_ going horribly wrong. 3. Mad that your girl (or panel discussant) loves my GDELT style? I love your passion, hater. 4. Also see Simpsons post here, which I plan to expand on in an article I am currently writing.
Ive always admired USMC general General James Mattis. I first encountered him when I read his scathing takedown of Effects-Based Operations (EBO) in 2008, and soon became familiar with his operational record in Iraq and endlessly entertaining quotables. Most of all, Ive always admired Mattis deep interest in his own profession, as evidenced by the countless news stories about his personal library of military history books. Thus, I wasnt surprised to find that one of Mattis emails about his military professional reading is now making waves. Why would a reading list go viral in the national security blogosphere (besides Mattis being awesome)? Mattis addressed this message to a colleague who asked for advice about reading for officers that found themselves "too busy to read." Mattis response was swift, and worth quoting at length because----well, its _GENERAL MATTIS_. Would you ever _not _blockquote Chuck Norris or Mr. T? I deeply, deeply pity the fool that paraphrases General Mattis.
The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men. Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead. With TF 58, I had w/ me Slim’s book, books about the Russian and British experiences in AFG, and a couple others. Going into Iraq, “The Siege” (about the Brits’ defeat at Al Kut in WW I) was req’d reading for field grade officers. I also had Slim’s book; reviewed T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”; a good book about the life of Gertrude Bell (the Brit archaeologist who virtually founded the modern Iraq state in the aftermath of WW I and the fall of the Ottoman empire); and “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. I also went deeply into Liddell Hart’s book on Sherman, and Fuller’s book on Alexander the Great got a lot of my attention (although I never imagined that my HQ would end up only 500 meters from where he lay in state in Babylon). Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun. For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say… “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us. We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. “Winging it” and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our professionIts a wonderful email, and any soldier serving under a commander wise enough to write such magisterial words of wisdom and generous enough to take the time and effort to express them is truly blessed. Mattis wonderfully encapsulates the value of military history: getting a feel of the experiences of those who came before, and thinking about the commonalities inherent across the temporal and typological spectrum of warfare. Such deep study prepares the mind for action, unleashing creativity and drive that otherwise may not have been enabled by technical training and socialization. Mattis own famously eclectic reading is also in full force here, with books on everything from T.E. Lawrence to the storied campaigns of Alexander. Mattis also rightly argues that lethal mistakes that might have been otherwise made can be prevented by learning from the misfortunes of others. Lastly, a finely honed BS radar can help stave off the episodic military fads and buzzword bingo games that proliferate every few years in the Pentagon, doctrinal shops, and think-tankdom. These are all important things that Mattis has masterfully illustrated. If thats all there was to it, Id end the entry here. _"MORAL OF THE STORY? READ MILITARY HISTORY AND TRAIN HARD SO YOU CAN REACH MATTIS LEVEL OF AWESOMENESS._" But theres a lot more to it than that. The argument that follows should not in any way be construed as a criticism of Mattis himself, who has gone well above and beyond the intellectual chops of many tenured _university professors_. However, it is a word of caution to those who may be reading his email and thinking about their own way to approach war. What works for Mattis may not work for you, much in the same way that your tears---unlike those of Chuck Norris--cannot cure cancer. First, lets start with some of the books themselves. I know that Mattis has impeccable taste in books from the biographical articles Ive read about him. But there are some real clunkers mentioned in the email. Theres a very big gulf between what Lawrence _said _he did in _Seven Pillars _and what historians later concluded. Likewise, J.F.C Fuller and Basil Liddell-Hart were known for their own substantial distortions of history. In particular, Basil Liddell-Hart tortured the military historical facts until the facts, just like a waterboarded CIA detainee, gave up. In the eyes of Liddell-Hart, every single significant victory in military history was a result of the indirect approach. Every major defeat resulted from the lack of indirectness. Every significant Great Captain of history was great because he commanded as Liddell-Hart would have. And this goes without mentioning the SLA Marshall-like academic fraud Liddell-Hart is accused of having indulged in. Finally, the less we can say about the reliability of a Thomas Friedman book ("From Beirut to Jerusalem"), the better. This is by no means a knock on Mattis. I am not making an argument that reading Liddell-Hart made Mattis a poorer commander. Mattis knows what combat is like, how to synchronize forces, and has what Clausewitz dubbed the _coup dœi--_a natural feel for what creates military advantage. Mattis doesnt need Liddell-Hart to kick ass and take names. He likely pruned the most useful ideas and disregarded the rest when it didnt fit his experience. Mattis reading is part of a larger process that produced an general _understanding _of the nature of the military profession. Mattis own experience would surely cast doubt on Liddell-Harts fantasies of indirection, deception, and dislocation as a generally reliable defeat mechanism. And if not that, then its statistically unlikely that someone with as gigantic a personal military history library as Mattis would be fooled by Liddell-Hartisms. But while gaining an _understanding_ of the nature of war is useful, there are a lot of things it _wont _do. This becomes most apparent in the section of the email where Mattis makes specific claims. Mattis repeatedly states that nothing is new under the sun, makes comparisons across big temporal zones (Alexander the Great in Persian Iraq vs. 2004 iraq), and advances specific analytical arguments about military theories. He does so on the basis of a sweeping generalization that 5,000 years of warfare tells us in aggregate that war has not changed. While this makes for a rousing line, it is also a fairly problematic statement. How do we really _know_ that the _nature _of war has not changed in 5,000 years? We should recognize that this is an isolated quote, and strive to not take out of context what was a heartfelt letter to a colleague in need of guidance. But the argument itself---as the cumulative product of a process of self-education in the nature of warfare, does merit some critical analysis. It is part of a humanistic conception of war that stresses the unity of military experience across the ages, and puts the fighting mans will first. What Mattis dashed off in an email has been repeated by others in journal articles, blog posts, essays, and books. The military historian Brian McAllister Linn, in his seminal study of the Armys cultures, dubbed it the "heroic" style of war. Linn constrasts this humanistic style this with technocratic Managers, defensive Guardians, and other military tribes with differing values and approaches. So what do we know about 5,000 years of constant violence? Often times the answer is that _it depends_. As my Fuller and Liddell-Hart examples illustrate, the quality of historical accounts is extremely uneven. Military history as a _modern _discipline only started with Hans Delbruck, a civilian who did some basic math and discovered that many of the most prominent chroniclers of pre-modern warfare were flat-out wrong about ancient historys greatest battles and campaigns. Anthropologists still argue today about the nature of violence in the evolutionary state of nature and whether it can be mapped to violence in settled states. Second, it may be true that war is war in the Clausewitzian sense. But while it is technically true that Alexanders Iraqi opponents and Sadrist mobs are both humans seeking to use force to impose their will, this in and of itself is not very useful. There are fairly prominent shifts in the character of politics, the international system, techology, wealth, and societ that matter too. Consulting history alone makes it difficult to make general arguments about the current or future state of warfare without devolving into dueling anecdotes. Take for example, the perennial argument between landpower, seapower, and airpower partisans, all based on non-falsfiable and poorly operationalized theories that _generally_ have not been systematically tested or formalized for logical consistency. Lastly, without having solid parameters and standards of comparison, debate over future war trends just degenerates into pop-futurism no more rigorous than Silicon Valleys dreams of Singularity. Once you go beyond the historical particular and begin making general claims, arguments, projections, and comparisons, you enter into a different world that is fraught with potential pitfalls. The biggest problem with reading military history _alone_ is the problem of induction. A drastically oversimplified explanation of induction: the number of times a given event repeats does not guarantee that it will _always _repeat. Disruptive shifts that create a new reality are an empirically observed regularity in military history. Lack of any explicit method to formalize and systemize history, make relevant comparisons or properly evaluate generalizable and commonly held notions about war produces false analogies like the continued trotting out of Munich and Vietnam during every foreign policy crisis. And as Joshua Foust has often blogged, it creates a situation in which security analysts rely on Churchillian 19th century British sagas as a guide to understand modern Afghanistan. Thinking about how we can evaluate and judge generalizable theories and trends is what prevents us from having to develop substantial, granular expertise on a new security subject every time it is considered. Given the multiplicity of threats inherent in modern American national security, the ability to think deductively in a rigorous fashion is extremely important. It is impossible to make any context-independent decisions about war otherwise. We all hold implicit ideas about how the world works that guide our behavior and choices, so why not bring them into the open? This is _not_ an argument that the only way to think about war is a statistical model tested against a giant dataset. Even the best war data is messy and statistical modeling can be, under some circumstances, just as pseudoscientific as (if not more than) bad historical analogy. There are many others ways to think about getting at the _general _and making comparisons, from sociology to abstract formal models and ideal-types. Rigorous and structured reading of strategic history like Colin S. Grays corpus can also help. But unless you _are _Mattis or the rare non-Mattis mortal that can naturally conceptually order that crazy mixture of forces known as _war_, you probably should take Mattis reading philosophy as a _starting point_ rather than an terminus. Yes, read deeply in history. But also think about how to formalize, model, test, and evaluate specific ideas that move beyond the temporal, spatial, and political particulars seen in those books. Be suspicious of sweeping claims that do not control for relevant variables. Understand the problems with historical analogies. As the likely apocryphal quote goes, "In God we trust; all others must bring data._"_ I will stress again, the reincarnation of Chesty Puller and Albert Einstein that is General James Mattis can do all of these things effortlessly in his own mind. But 99% of the rest of us cant. Gen Mattis brain was designed by the same people who formulated the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF)---a rapidly deployable combined arms unit that packs immense combat power. But the rest of us need more explicit signposts to direct the analysis we write and the decisions we make, particularly when they require comparison, the evaluation of theory, and prediction into the future.
The recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria, through which the Israeli Air Force appears to target weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah, provoked an important debate among those concerned about a U.S. military intervention in Syria. Given the prominence of concerns about the requirements of establishing air superiority over Syria not simply from civilians such as myself, but from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should the IAF’s successful raids prompt us to recant some of our skepticism? CFR’s Steven Cook recently wondered why there was such contrast between a reluctant U.S. military and a daring Israeli one, asking: Why does it seem that Israel’s air force can penetrate Syria’s alleged superior air defense network at will and with impunity, but whenever the idea of using American and allied air forces to help the rebellion comes up, the Syrians are 10 feet tall? Undoubtedly some commentary and analysis has exaggerated the Syrian air defenses. While dense and certainly more modern and comprehensive than Libya’s relatively dilapidated Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), they are hardly insurmountable. However, simply because something is operationally feasible does not make it strategically wise. Strategy is not simply the sum of tactical possibilities. What matters, when assessing Syria’s military is what kind of costs and obstacles it poses for the objectives we want to undertake. Can our tactical and operational capabilities deliver us strategic results in proportion with the risks and costs? Before I begin, I would like to note that Cook is absolutely correct that there’s no reason to exclude him from the conversation simply because he does not have military experience or a background in strategic studies or related technical knowledge. However, I do think civilians such as myself writing about the feasibility of military operations do have some obligation to engage thoroughly with discussions about capabilities. If we’re interested in answering why the Israelis conduct raids with impunity but the U.S. is worried about imposing an NFZ, we need to thoroughly examine the numerous military considerations and not simply questions about political willpower. Cook believes arguments such as mine and MIT PhD candidate Brian Haggerty’s boil down to five contentions, the first four of which he finds unconvincing “in whole or in part.” 1) Israel’s brief incursions are different from the sustained campaign the United States—and presumably allies—would have to undertake to establish a no-fly zone (NFZ) in Syria. 2) Israel’s missions have been on the “periphery” of Syria and have never had to contend with the dense network of air defenses in and around major population centers. 3) The Assad regime has placed air defenses within population centers, putting both Syrian civilians and American aviators at risk during any air campaign. 4) Intervention in Syria would be costly and detract from the U.S. military’s ability to conduct operations in other areas. 5) Syria is complicated and military intervention may not help the situation; in fact, it might make the situation for Syrians a good deal worse. Cook’s objection to the first is that just because the U.S.’s imposition of an NFZ would be more complex and comprehensive than Israeli raids in 2003 on Islamic Jihad, 2007 on the Deir ez-Zor nuclear facility, and the three airstrikes since the beginning of the Syrian civil war (as well as he 2003 and 2006 overflights of Assad palaces), “does not mean the United States should not or cannot prevent Assad’s forces from flying.” That is true, but examining how different these operations would be is necessary to understand why Israeli strikes should not change the calculus of an NFZ. First, let’s address the nature of the recent Israeli strikes. Several sources report that the attack targeting Syrian surface-to-surface missiles, possibly destined for Hezbollah, came from munitions launched over Lebanese airspace. The January attack on a shipment of SA-17 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) came from aircraft traveling over Lebanese airspace, although they may have briefly penetrated Syria. The most recent attack, supposedly conducted with “rockets,” likely used a similar model of avoiding or only briefly penetrating Syrian airspace, particularly if the IAF used an air-to-surface missile such as the Popeye (although “lofting” guided bombs could achieve similar results). The point here is that the IAF is engaging ground targets with stand-off weaponry. Because they have extremely limited target sets located near the fringes of Syrian airspace, Israel can target them without the need to destroy Syrian air defenses, let alone achieve persistent air superiority. This relates to Cook’s refutation of the second generic talking point about Israeli air strikes, that they were at the “periphery.” As Cook rightly points out, Latakia is not at the periphery of Syrian air defense capability. Israeli over-flights of Assad’s summer residence, however, were conducted at extremely low altitude and supersonic speeds, and because Latakia is on the coast, Israel could conduct most of the operation from international airspace with the brief exception of over-flying the palace itself, significantly reducing the window of practical and political vulnerability to Syrian air defenses. As for the Israeli airstrike in Deir ez-Zor, like all these other raids, its goal was to minimize windows of vulnerability through an extremely limited target set, minimal sorties at high speed and low altitude, in addition to the relatively novel and extensive use of electronic warfare and computer network attacks to temporarily blind or misdirect Syrian radar in the area. The problem is, none of these techniques apply to the essential conduct of a NFZ – patrols to establish and maintain control of Syrian airspace You cannot create a persistent NFZ through repetitive raiding in the Israeli style, because these raids rely on minimizing time over Syrian airspace and avoiding air-to-air combat. NFZs, to be effective, must do precisely the opposite. You want your aircraft to spend as much time as practically possible over the airspace you are patrolling in order to deny enemy aircraft windows of opportunity to operate. This renders your aircraft vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire, which is why destroying hostile IADS, commonly referred to as suppression of enemy air defense (or SEAD) is such a vital prerequisite to NFZs (and would involve, as in many other cases, massive amounts of standoff fire and more direct attacks by specialized SEAD strike aircraft). Rather than comparing Israel skirting around the task of SEAD, or using temporary SEAD techniques such as EW and computer network operations, to a Syrian NFZ, it would be better to examine Israel’s Operation Mole Cricket 19. During the 1982 Lebanon War, Israeli air operations faced Syrian forward deployment of SAM sites in the Bekaa Valley and along the Syrian border. In order to establish air superiority (in this case to facilitate air support to Israeli ground forces), Israel launched an ambitious operation, involving roughly one hundred aircraft, extensive use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and remotely-piloted aircraft to engage seventeen out of the nineteen SAM targets and hundreds of Syrian aircraft. While the raid was a brilliant demonstration of effective SEAD and air-to-air combat, it also highlights precisely why even an extremely successful SEAD operation is an onerous undertaking compared to the raid operations that seek to avoid it entirely. According to estimates, SEAD operations destroyed 52 of 70 air defense targets in Bosnia and 33 of 35 air defense targets in Operations Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq. As in Mole Cricket 19, achieving air superiority over a conflict zone requires comprehensive SEAD, and even then, these operations often fail to break the will of enemy air defenses. Within months of Mole Cricket 19, Syrian batteries targeted and fired upon U.S. reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, provoking an airstrike that saw two U.S. planes downed. Even more directly, Iraq continued throughout years of U.S. NFZs over northern and southern Iraq to provoke or attempt to engage U.S. aircraft, and even rebuilt damaged sites. In the Kosovo War, U.S. SEAD efforts met continual challenge from Serbian forces despite overwhelming U.S. military superiority. Avoiding the problem of destroying Syrian air defenses by trying to use shoot-and-scoot raids with the assistance of electronic warfare is utterly impractical for enforcing a comprehensive NFZ. Electronic warfare aircraft are not easy to come by and could not maintain the sortie generation ratio necessary to protect combat air patrols over Syria indefinitely, so short of a massive SEAD operation, a U.S. NFZ is simply not going to happen. Even dilapidated air defense systems must be thoroughly reduced in order for the U.S. to maintain effective air coverage to deny Syrian airspace. Now, Cook argues that because the U.S. has the operational capability to impose an NFZ on Syria, the only relevant issue is whether or not a NFZ would improve the situation or not. It seems clear, however, that the scale of costs should influence what degree of prospective improvement justifies action. The U.S., as the strongest military power on earth, has the capability to undertake military operations of enormous scale. The question that a strategist must ask is whether or not the U.S. can realize such an operation in a way that improves the situation in Syria, but whether that improvement, and its advancement of American policy goals, is _commensurate with the costs of the operation itself_. In this sense, it actually matters an immense deal that Israeli airstrikes require only a handful of jets, but a SEAD effort in Syria would require perhaps around six times as many aircraft as did NATO operations in Libya. It matters quite a lot that few of the tricks the Israelis used to conduct their raids will allow us to avoid the major task of what will likely be a long and onerous campaign. Here, Cook’s dismissal of the fourth contention, that a Syrian NFZ could seriously distract from other fronts, rings especially hollow: “the last time I checked, the U.S. armed forces were designed to fight on multiple fronts.” Yes, and it is wise to limit to that multiplier, especially when the wear of a decade of war and fiscal constraints on deployments, operations, and maintenance come into consideration. The U.S. is still at war in Afghanistan. The U.S. has security considerations in the Persian Gulf vastly more central to its interests than what is occurring in Syria. America has security guarantees of far greater gravity and value to South Korea and Japan. As Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Mark Welsh, remarked, deploying, say, the F-22 to Syria could detract from “a concern in the Pacific somewhere, there aren’t many airplanes. In this business, quantity does have a quality all its own.” (An infamous RAND briefing on the dynamics of U.S. air combat in the Pacific reached a very similar conclusion.) Much the same could be said about electronic warfare aircraft such as the B-2, EA-18G Growler, ISR aircraft, along standoff precision-guided munitions, which take part in everything from deterrence missions in Korea to intercepting and disrupting insurgent communications in Afghanistan. The cost a NFZ imposes on the U.S. increases as it drags on and imposes further constraints on redeployments and lag-times for combat readiness in other theaters. That the U.S. capability to impose an NFZ in Syria would require hundreds of aircraft and thousands of precision guided munitions that its air defense capabilities, then, deserves much more emphasis than the fact that the Israelis were able to execute a completely different and more limited mission set without such a commitment. While Syria’s air defenses could not indefinitely hold off the USAF, USN, or IAF in a pitched battle, that they can still challenge the air forces such as Turkey’s, and that its smaller allies lack the ability to scale up their deployments from their performance in Libya will mean the U.S. will face poor prospects for mitigating or spreading the costs of its operations with its allies. Do any of these considerations make an NFZ impossible? No, but these operational considerations complicate the answer enough that simply saying we have the capability to impose a NFZ on Syria is woefully insufficient for analyzing an intervention’s practicality and prospects. I personally agree with Cook about the third concern in the abstract – civilian casualties from U.S. strikes are an inevitable outcome of imposing an NFZ in virtually any situation, and must be weighed against the danger of Assad’s air force. That said, it does matter that U.S. forces would be in danger of inflicting larger numbers of civilian casualties if a Syrian NFZ expanded to a bombing campaign against regime ground forces as the campaign in Libya did almost immediately (Cook does not make this argument in his post, but some proponents who want “safe zones,” such as John McCain, have objectives that imply striking ground forces and not simply aircraft). Given that Assad’s forces are greatly more numerous than Gaddafi’s and engaging in overwhelmingly urban combat, and in an environment where tactical intelligence for targeting purposes will not likely be as forthcoming. Ultimately, Cook argues that the only salient objection is whether “military intervention might not attenuate the civil war or might make things worse and, I would add, the American people do not want to become involved in another Middle Eastern imbroglio.” Yet failing to weight the cost of exercising a capability makes assessing the actual risks and benefits of a campaign impossible. For example, interventions that provide minor or discrete but not decisive advancement to our objectives in a conflict can often be very sensible if they require a limited amount of force at low risk, but far more questionable when limited gains come at massive expense even when the risk is low. If anything, the Israeli strikes provide a useful insight into everything a NFZ will not or cannot be. The Israeli strikes aim at specific, identifiable direct threats to vital Israeli interests and use the smallest force and lowest risk possible to eliminate those threats. The Israelis may not be able to solve the problem of potential arms transfers to Hezbollah writ large, but standoff strikes against discrete targets do not tie down Israeli forces enough to make it a distracting quagmire. A NFZ, on the other hand, massive amounts of aircraft and munitions in both standoff and air superiority roles to even deliver the basic goal of grounding the Syrian air force. A Syrian NFZ presents an even larger operation than the Libyan air campaign, and one that is likely to be even less effective, especially if it is a pure NFZ that refrains from the additional aircraft, munitions, and ground/intelligence efforts that would be necessary to support a campaign to target the Syrian army. Syria’s mix of ground forces and paramilitary groups appear far more combat effective than their Libyan regime equivalents, and, even without air cover, would not be operating at crippling loss without their air force (Syrian aircraft appear far more competent at terror bombing than tight close-air support). Whereas Israel can pick and choose which targets to engage and which raids to forgo, a NFZ is an open-ended commitment that requires a major aerial (and likely naval) presence until the Syrian government capitulates. Even if the U.S. is operationally capable of imposing such an outcome, it is entirely fair to argue the requirements of such an operation would make such a minor improvement in the Syrian situation insufficient to grant that capability a strategic logic. The operational requirements of a NFZ are great and yet they only seem to ameliorate U.S. concerns about Assad-rebel fighting, but provide only nebulous and indirect ways of addressing other key concerns in the region. Syria’s military may be puny on its own, but launching a massive operation for the sake of stripping away one instrument in a civil war while the U.S. is limited in its fiscal means and faced with far more direct challenges (if ones less immediately violent) to its interests elsewhere merits scrutiny of the means required. Large aerial operations against third world militaries were attractive and appealing in the 1990s when the U.S. enjoyed greater flexibility and little fatigue or fiscal trouble in its armed forces, policymakers must now make harder choices. The fifth objection that Cook recognizes as legitimate – concerns about the efficacy or potential harmfulness of intervention – is not independent of the other four. The requirements of dismantling rather than evading Syrian air defenses and the opportunity costs of expending those resources absolutely weigh upon whether an intervention’s effect on a conflict makes for good strategy and policy. Through parsing why the Israeli strikes are so different from U.S. operations, the disproportionate ratio of requirements to outcomes, the dubious clarity of objectives, murky parameters for action all become even more obvious in contrast.
_Uditinder Thakur is a foreign affairs analyst, focused primarily on issues related to the broader Middle-East and South Asia. A graduate of American University’s School of International Service, he holds a degree in International Studies with concentrations in U.S. foreign policy, International Conflict Resolution, and Islamic Studies. He can be found on twitter @UditThakur__ As President Obama analyzes the ongoing crisis in Syria, compounding threat variables and all, his assessment should be tempered by a now unquestionable and unfortunate reality. The state of Syria, the Arab world’s “beating heart,” has slipped into critical condition and is not likely to recover anytime in the foreseeable future. All signs show that the destruction of the nation is in its final stages, as a once peaceful struggle has now descended into conflict marred by sectarian strife and aspects of proxy warfare. A sense of cohesive Syrian national identity has largely broken down only to be replaced by loyalties to one’s religious group, ethnicity and/or family. Additionally, instances of coercion and excessive uses of force by both competing parties in the conflict further complicate the situation on the ground. With such a complex mixture of interests and loyalties, establishing uniform measurements of moral action is understandably problematic. Whatever happens next we can be sure of the following: The chaos in Syria is sure to get far worse before it gets any better. Yet, despite the several sobering complexities on the ground, there are still those that call out for the United States to do_ something_. This plea seems to be at the heart of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent piece in the Washington Post; “Obama should remember Rwanda as he weighs action in Syria.” The title itself hearkens back to a moment of shameful tragedy, one worthy of remembrance in its own right whenever policymakers approach issues of conflict today. However, aside from invoking a shared emotional narrative, Slaughter’s Rwanda-Syria comparison and the deeper underpinnings of her piece have a number of factors that prove to be flawed. First, the basic framework of comparing the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 with the ongoing Syrian Civil War is highly problematic. Rwanda’s genocide emerged from a conscious agenda to wipe out an entire ethnic group. Syria, on the other hand, morphed quickly from a situation of peaceful protest to one of all out civil war. Qualitatively the circumstances and contexts in either case are hardly comparable. It is also worth noting that genocide in Rwanda was a one-sided affair perpetrated by massive mobs of Hutus wielding machetes, while Syria exists as a complex civil war involving heavily armed rebel groups and even more heavily armed regime forces. These differences I’m sure are not lost on Professor Slaughter, and yet she seems to prioritize evoking the emotional similarities of the two cases, with our feelings of helplessness and shame taking precedence over any sort of strategic discussion. This emphasis on abstract characterizations of conflict continues, as Slaughter addresses the issue of the Assad regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons. Instead of addressing the actual significance of chemical weapons, knowing how limited U.S. options in Syria are, Slaughter simply accepts them as a game-changer and describes a situation in which one increasingly feels as though the U.S. has no choice but to act. Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer and current professor at Georgetown University, has warned against this type of false dichotomy between chemical weapons use and the need for an escalated U.S. response as he notes the following: _So once again—as was the case ten years ago—a factual question with a presumed yes-or-no answer about a regimes use or possession of a certain category of weapons gets treated as if the answer dictates a certain policy course, even though it doesnt._ Following up on Pillar’s criticism of the game-changing nature of chemical weapons is important. At present, the President’s logic on chemical weapons dissects the issue into two dimensions, one based on a concern for international legal and moral norms while the other focuses on the strategic threats posed by the proliferation of such weapons. President Obama clarified his approach during his most recent news conference, in which he defended his chemical weapons red-line by stating: _[…]__ we have established international law and international norms that say when you use these kinds of weapons you have the potential of killing massive numbers of people in the most inhumane way possible, and the proliferation risks are so significant that we dont want that genie out of the bottle. So when I said that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn’t unique to -- that wasn’t a position unique to the United States and it shouldn’t have been a surprise._ Due to the fact that the violence in Syria already constitutes a violation of several international norms, particularly regarding the targeting of civilians, the President understands that any arguments for increased U.S. involvement will have to be based primarily on an approach that emphasizes the threats posed by chemical weapons proliferation. He gave evidence that this approach will most likely be the one he favors as he went on to say: _[…]__ if I can establish in a way that not only the United States but also the international community feel confident is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, then that is a game-changer because what that portends is potentially even more devastating attacks on civilians, and it raises the strong possibility that those chemical weapons can fall into the wrong hands and get disseminated in ways that would threaten U.S. security or the security of our allies._ While such an approach by the President would show a slight bias towards pragmatism, his persistent caution shows some signs of the fact that he is weighing the realities of the situation. Arguing that chemical weapons pose a _hypothetical_ threat to U.S. national security is not enough to justify increased U.S. action. Instead, the President now faces the task of weighing the potential threats. He must now determine whether the threats emanating from possible proliferation of chemical weapons outweigh the threats posed by the fact that increased U.S. action could actually exacerbate violence within the region. Within the context of this debate, over which threats poses the _greatest _threat, Slaughter’s analogy to Rwanda takes on an all too familiar rhetoric. Professor Slaughter’s argument assures us that while anti-Americanism in the region currently exists as “a cancer,” the lack of a strong US response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons puts us at risk of cementing such sentiments throughout the Muslim world. Herein lays a greater problem with Slaughter’s characterization of action versus inaction in Syria. In Slaughter’s formula, action exists as a solution framed in the language of moralism as opposed to morality. The President and readers are asked to believe that somehow the perceived injustices of fifty plus years of U.S. foreign policy failures within the Middle-East have culminated up until this point, and that our actions in this particular conflict hold the key to shifting our entire image in the region. Such wishful thinking avoids the fundamental conflicts between stated U.S. strategic interests in the region and the aspirations of the people of the Middle-East and North Africa. Anti-Americanism is the result of a set of structural deficiencies in U.S. foreign policy, all of which stem from unfortunately irreconcilable differences between U.S. interests in “stability” in a region characterized by increasing popular demands for greater sovereignty. Until one is willing to come to terms with that fact, and place morality and espoused values clearly above all other strategic interests, the people of the region will have no major shift in their views towards U.S. policy. The lesson in all of this however, is not that we should eschew action or inaction in Syria. More importantly is the question of how our actions in this conflict must be framed. Discussing Syria from the perspectives of moralism or American exceptionalism will not simplify the cold-hard realities of the present situation. As it stands today, whether the US imposes a no-fly zone, provides lethal aid to the rebels, or does nothing at all, it is virtually guaranteed that at least hundreds if not thousands more will die. That is the nature of a conflict in which central themes of revenge and justice have emerged in reaction to accounts of atrocities on both sides. It is precisely this complex nature of conflict that should have been among the most important lessons learned from our experiences in Iraq. Andrew Sullivan expressed this lesson in his 2008 piece titled “_What I Got Wrong About Iraq_,” where he made the following admonition: _I recall very clearly one night before the war began. I made myself write down the reasons for and against the war and realized that if there were question marks on both sides, the deciding factor for me in the end was that I could never be ashamed of removing someone as evil as Saddam from power. I became enamored of my own morality and this single moral act. And he was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and that unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasnt really engaged in anything much but self-righteousness. I saw wars unknowable consequences far too glibly._ Here rests a final critique of the ideology behind Slaughter’s problematic plea for us to “remember Rwanda.” Her comparison calls us to remember only our immediate and emotional responses to conflict, while altogether avoiding the fact that there is no outcome in Syria that does not end with at least thousands more causalities. The prevalence of this moralist rhetoric in referring to conflicts is rampant, and while I may be referring specifically to Professor Slaughter’s piece I am by no mean’s singling her out as a unique offender. The practice of confusing strategy with ideology, or prioritizing the latter at the cost of the former, has been referred to as a growing problem in U.S. foreign policy by a number of leading international relations theorists. The importance of this theme cannot be over-emphasized, especially in the case of Syria, and we must be careful to guard against its potentially disastrous effects. It is supremely important for us to approach the Syrian conflict differently than we have approached challenges in the past. The usual language of moralism and poli-speak will not cut it. Regardless of what actions we end up taking in response to a prolonged conflict, policy makers and citizens alike will have to understand the profound ramifications such actions will have considering the realities of American power. Over-estimating our capabilities and imagining post-Assad Syria as a more peaceful environment runs contrary to reality, and as such has no connection to self-professed notions of morality. However this conflict ends we can rest assured that it will force us to understand just how limited our ability to dictate the outcome of events in places like Syria has become. Therefore, it goes without saying, the question the President must answer is not the one that Dr. Slaughter poses in regards to chemical weapons. The question has been, and remains: _Does the U.S. have the capacity to end the violence, in any meaningful way, within the immediate future?_ The answer, at present, remains a resounding no.
Structural approaches to international relations have gone somewhat out of fashion in recent years. Burdened with their associations with Cold War geopolitics and “billiard ball” realism, structural questions seem peripheral to the major issues of our day, in a world where transnational criminal actors, insurgents, and state collapse appear to prevent the dominant security challenges. Even as questions of relative U.S. decline enter the security the debate, it is easy to focus analysis on great power balances and underplay questions of civil war and other challenges, as if they too were peripheral to structural models. Back in fall 2010, the eponymous blogfather highlighted a Kalyvas and Balcells article making an argument that a major structural change – the end of the Cold War – altered the local dynamics of civil war-prone countries, altering the availability of “technologies of rebellion” (irregular war, conventional war, and symmetric non-state conflict). Guerrilla war, without foreign patrons and the associated mobilizing social networks they inaugurated, dimmed in feasibility, while feeble states that enjoyed the benefits of Cold War competition crumbled into relatively symmetric but unconventional conflict between armed groups (the “new wars” that theories of conflict focusing on 1990s sub-Saharan Africa might be familiar with), or else became more susceptible to conventional civil war. Consequently, there might be danger of over-extrapolating future conflicts from Iraq and Afghanistan’s decreasingly typical regular wars. Abu M raised some important questions: Yeah, this is all fine and good, but speaking in plain English, if the United States were to intervene in a conflict, might that external intervention change the conflict in unpredictable ways? Maybe it boosts the capacity of one party, and maybe a rival party (say, Iran) jumps in and boosts the capacity of another party. Maybe, before we know it, the conflict has morphed into a robust insurgency in which one actor is employing irregular means. And maybe policy-makers _should__ _internalize the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan lest they lead the U.S. military into another, ahem, quagmire. Here, though, is where examining the combination of big-picture geopolitics and local conflict dynamics becomes all the more important. At a structural level, Iraq and Afghanistan were both importantly prone to the kind of irregular escalation pointed out above. Iranian unconventional warfare in Iraq and Pakistani unconventional warfare in Afghanistan obviously enjoy more political interest and logistical feasibility than a conflict in, say, North Africa, where those state sponsors would be at a relative disadvantage. A significant question is, then, how does relative U.S. decline alter the prospects for new powers to enhance and appropriate the Cold War tactics of the bipolar era? There are several possibilities. For example, large U.S. commitments such as Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to make irregular warfare with foreign patronage relatively more attractive to insurgents and third party intervening states alike. On the other hand, if the result of downscaling Iraq and Afghanistan-like endeavors is an increase in security force assistance, foreign internal defense, or burden-sharing that propels foreign ground forces further to the forefront in securing U.S. interests, does this preserve or even increase foreign interests in backing insurgency? Another important factor to consider is how useful the aforementioned “technologies of rebellion” are to rising states. While Iran and Pakistan spent years developing the kind of transnational networks to facilitate robust support of insurgency, it is unclear at what distance they can project this power, and to what extent powers with the brute resources and expanse of interest that might justify adopting such strategies, such as China, can develop unconventional warfare capabilities and tap into the transnational networks in a way comparable to Iran in Pakistan in their own neighborhoods, or the Soviet Union at a global scale. Given many emerging economies’ interests in securing economic gains rather than inflicting combat attrition, backing friendly state forces (or outbidding rivals for them), along cutting deals with warlords might be a better use of resources. Insurgency was extremely useful to the revisionist USSR in the context of bipolar superpower competition as revolutionary ideology spread and empires crumbled. To a cadre of rising states facing a waning U.S., the operating environment is vastly dissimilar, and despite their strength, few have the kinds of transnational ties or logistical and military capabilities to engage in a similar insurgency-centric mode of unconventional warfare. While many countries maintain robust unconventional warfare capabilities, their ability to export this model is far more regionally-limited than the USSR’s. The U.S. is actually far better poised to engage in classic unconventional warfare operations, but because of the current nature of its interests and normative commitments to building state authority, it will need to focus on building the capabilities of state and parastatal actors instead. Why do these relatively abstract, structural questions matter beyond academia? Force planning based off of historical analysis has its limits. Beyond the clichés about preparing for the last war, or failing to learn its lessons, attempting to get a sense of how the international structure alters the prevalence of these “technologies of rebellion” – which are not simply reactions to U.S. strength or changes in technology in the conventional sense – helps us think more realistically about the types of threats we are likely to face. Further, examining these methods as “technologies” dependent on a structural, social, and institutional context better explains when and where they are likely to be effective. As I have argued before, to say the state is in decline or that non-state actors are in decline misses the real change that Kalyvas and Balcells point out here – that insurgency, which benefitted disproportionately form the social and structural environment of the Cold War, is not necessarily the kind of threat that future “irregular” conflicts will pose. Overdrawing lessons about combating non-state actors from Iraq and Afghanistan – and in turn, from counterinsurgency lessons that drew heavily from our understanding of Cold War era insurgencies, will not provide effective guidance for understanding a civil wars in collapsing states or areas without serious state authority. Structural thinking, despite its association in security studies with great power war obsession, provides a useful tool for thinking about defense policy and assessing future security threats even in an age when likely conflicts will not be directly with great powers. Even in a world where great power conflict remains rare, the fact remains that the capabilities and distribution of great powers matters has always mattered immensely in shaping other conflicts. In a world where the vast majority of wars are still fought with Cold War surplus, and interventions rely on power projection platforms built up in the expectation of World War III or massive conventional conflict, and where international norms and legitimacy are still largely the product of a concert of powerful states, the big issues still matter. Treating state and non-state actors as part of a security system rather than symbolic of divergent worldviews is a necessary first step in shaping a policy for an era where geopolitical complexity rises as our own resources diminish.
Its the Sequestration Game of Thrones, and a careful observer of DC defense politics will glimpse much tumult as the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force all battle for supremacy through both official channels and favored proxies in the defense punditosphere. I dont mean to trivialize this or cast aspersions, however. It is deadly serious business and it rests on serious and credible differences about the path of future American national security. One primary transmission channel for these arguments is analysis of the present and future defense challenges facing the US. Some future vision of the operational environment, and the larger geopolitical environment from which operational context is derived, must be called upon to support a view of organizational change. Sometimes this isnt as much a prediction of the future as much as a recognition of continuity, as can be found in Joseph Collins recent _Small Wars Journal _piece on the enduring value of landpower. Often times we see thinking on defense challenges enshrined either implicitly or explicitly under a given _theory_ of _military change_. Despite overly broad warnings of anti-intellectualism, the defense landscape has been very friendly to theory over the last 20 years. Weve seen a lot of theoretical writing about war and change, from network-centric warfare to all of the post-9/11 inspired takes on COIN, insurgency, and complex warfare. Much of these theories take the following structure: (1) declare that some change in the nature or character of war has occurred (2) detail some characteristics of the quality they observe, (3) explain the causal mechanisms of how it occurred/why it occurred and (4) lay out recommendations as to how the joint force can adapt and/or change. Bullet 4 here is really the most important because the ultimate consumer of the product is not necessarily an academic audience but an policy elite with the power to set programs and budgets. There is, however, a conflict between a _sound_ theory and a useful one for practitioners in the military-industrial complex. War, like any large-scale social issue, is very messy and often characterized by causal complexity. There are many variables at play that produce military transformation and change. Many of them will be beyond the control of policymakers. For example, take the ill-fated notion of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The most sound academic takes on the issue pictured such seismic military changes as the outcome of an complex interaction between political forms, modes of economic production, culture, and external geopolitics. The most popular versions of the RMA, however, tended to focus squarely on technology, doctrine, and military organization. Things like the nature of the international system was mostly beyond the control of Pentagon bureaucrats. Technology, doctrine, and organization are at least _theoretically_ manipulatable by the military.1 So to be blunt, the problem is that an truly solid theory of warfare would be likely very much of little use to practitioners. I could imagine such a conversation between a theoretician and a defense practitioner as going like this: "You have a decent probability of winning/changing your military/etc if _x_, _y_, and _z_ are in place. What _you _can do does matter, but can be canceled out by these larger factors." Id be pretty pod if I was on the receiving end of a Debbie Downer lecture like that. And it also suggests why incentives to give a false picture of the policymakers agency and ability to achieve desirable endstates are pretty high. We all like to imagine ourselves as historys actors, but history has room for only a few truly disruptive actors like Napoleon. And military historians have continuously debated how much of Napoleons sucesses had to do with his unique persona and how much had to do with the political-military system he inherited from both _ancient regime_ military innovators and revolutionary figures like Carnot. Of course, its likely some combination of both, but thats also a pretty unsatisfying answer. Theres also the not-so insignificant matter that many would-be military conceptualizers do not give enough thought to basic problems of evidence and method. The first is fairly daunting. Take, for example, thinking about naval change. The question of the carriers supposed irrelevance has been ongoing since the early 70s. But consider that a major fleet battle has not occurred since World War II, and there have been barely any ship-to-shore engagements that would constitute a meaningful test of "anti-access" weapons. if we were to look at the carriers continued use as a geopolitical power projection tool alone, we might conclude that talk of the carriers twilight is hot air. Of course, then we get into looking at omitted variables that might explain why we would have good reason to question the carriers prominence, such as the nature of the international system. We have not, for various reasons, yet seen either a true diffusion of truly dangerous anti-ship weapons that would hobble the USN from demolishing most regional militaries. The militaries capable of actually causing the USN serious difficulty have not engaged it. So if we were looking to build a theory of naval change that involves a case analysis of the state of the carrier today we would have to think very hard about all of those issues, and _then some_. Finally, we get to the actual _mechanism_ of change. The popular way we are predisposed to think about change in general is polluted by a heavily dumbed-down version of the economic "creative destruction." Something big appears on the horizon, almost totally exogenous to _anyone or anything_ it might effect. The change makes everything prior to it irrelevant, and has a uniform effect on all kinds of prexisting diverse social and political trends. The message is clear: you either get with the times, or you get rolled. This is why we often see books and articles often titled with "the end of ____." The end of marriage, the end of men, the end of power, etc. Its the "video killed the radio star" approach to defense. The problem with such ways of thinking immediately pop up. If, say, a future of nonstate irregular warfare is the inevitable result of the theories weve collectively imbibed, then we have a tough time explaining why more traditional threats like Iran and North Korea occupy so much attention. In the case of the Kim Family Regime, it turns out that (to play the Napoleon card again, as the Corsican was a artillerist by trade) a bunch of well-placed big guns (conventional and nuclear) can really make the difference between just being a _Team America: World Police_ comedy device and having the world obsess over you. Diversity and complexity are empirically observed characteristics of both social and "natural" systems. Second, the change often bears the _collective influence_ of all of the entities it effects. Those influences, from global considerations to national and subnational factors, bear sustained consideration. Fears of drone proliferation leading to suboptimal outcomes ignore the powerful role that national-level and systemic-level characteristics bring to bear on technology. Not all states or armed groups can, for various reasons, acquire the technology or the powerful logistical-organizational-political backbone that supports the US drone campaign. Nor do they share the same goals as the US and their future politico-military behavior cannot be simply reduced to the "US targeted killing on steroids" stereotype of "China and Russia are gonna catch some bodies when they get TEH DRONES" (of course, theyve also had said drones for a while). Note that both China and Russia face far more dangerous threats to their own national security from Islamic militants than the US does. But the response of both states to the threat has differed immensely in nature and scope from the US. Some of this has to do with internal considerations unique to both actors. But regional and systemic factors matter too. China and Russia, for example, free-ride on US stabilization efforts in Central Asia while making their own arrangements with local actors (many of whom share a similar threat understanding) to deal with specific terrorism and extremism issues. Second, it is worth noting that the most severe efforts both states have engaged in against what they view as threats to internal stability have been in either states historically a part of the parent country (Chechnya, for Russia), or actually within their territory (Xinjiang, for China). Is it possible that either could, with the tacit cooperation of other states, go on a robotic hunting expedition for jihadists unfriendly to your average Ivan or chafing at the presence of the Chinese militarys G.I. _Zhou _in Xinjiang? Certainly. But this would be a _glaring outlier_ in what is otherwise a fairly consistent approach to handling internal security issues. All of this comes back down from the 30,000 feet level to this realization: good theory about military change often goes against what we might see as "common sense" and may in some circumstances be largely useless to actually gaining operational advantage. One of the most sobering readings I recently did was Dima Adamskys _The Culture of Military Innovation. _Adamsky argued quite convincingly that the Soviets came to a useful conception of what they would have to do to adapt to the possibilities of technological shifts in conventional warfare. Of course, the political, economic, and technological side of that shift wasnt there whatseover in an already terminally decaying late Cold War USSR. I doubt that knowing that warfare reliant on advanced conventional command and control was on the rise helped the Soviets much if they already knew that a technological and economic behemoth like the US would be _far better _at building and fielding such systems. Dont get me wrong. I like military theory. I also like thinking about the future. A good deal of my writing on this blog involves both. But ideas have consequences, and this makes thinking about "under the hood" factors like the stuff Ive reviewed tonight all the more important. _________________ 1 _In practice, service competition and other grubby day-to-day realities actually prevented the pan-service RMA ideal from being implemented. _
With the drumbeat for directly joining Syria’s civil war growing, it probably should not surprise us that the U.S. governments quiet efforts to aid the Syrian rebels are now coming to light. Alongside insistent denials that the U.S. was directly arming the rebels, news now emerges the CIA has not simply been vetting the recipient groups (to the limited extent that is really possible) but also coordinating the distribution and sourcing. More interestingly is further confirmation the U.S. is training a small group of Syrian fighters in Jordan, who are in turn operating near Damascus in southern Syria: The training has been conducted for several months now in an unspecified location, concentrating largely on Sunnis and tribal Bedouins who formerly served as members of the Syrian army, officials told The Associated Press. The forces arent members of the leading rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, which Washington and others fear may be increasingly coming under the sway of extremist militia groups, including some linked to al-Qaida, they said. The operation is being run by U.S. intelligence and is ongoing, officials said, but those in Washington stressed that the U.S. is providing only nonlethal aid at this point. Others such as Britain and France are involved, they said, though its unclear whether any Western governments are providing materiel or other direct military support after two years of civil war that according to the United Nations already has killed more than 70,000 people. The first issue to highlight here is the essential mechanics of proxy warfare. What is the objective of indirect support? Arming the rebellion generally (which clearly expands beyond this proxy group) and engaging in political coordination through the Syrian National Coalition often appear as solutions for simultaneously increasing rebel combat power, Western leverage, and decreasing Islamist and jihadist influence. Yet promoting unity and increasing combat efficacy implies giving powerful but internationally maligned groups some sort of seat at the table, and indeed U.S. attempts to exclude them often broaden a front more in _opposition_ to U.S. preferences. To simultaneously make a proxy loyal and powerful, then, is a significant challenge. The U.S. spent years convincing the anti-Somoza factions disaffected with the Sandinista regime to effectively cooperate with the overthrown Somoza loyalists in Nicaragua. Even then. the U.S. enjoyed large advantages because it was the overwhelming logistical supplier to the Contras, who were particularly dependent on its aid. Even then, Contra success came at devastating human cost to the Nicaraguan population. Paul Staniland provides a social-institutional explanation for why a large influx of resources can fragment or break down insurgent fronts. Without strong, horizontally integrated social bases to provide unifying institutions, new resources can reopen or exacerbate prior divisions over logistics, leadership, and influence. U.S. objectives to marginalize undesirable elements of the Syrian rebellion exacerbate fragmentation and division by seeking to exclude unfavorable factions. It is not surprising Syrian infighting is occurring, as there have been signs of it brewing for months. More confusing would be trying to marginalize large swathes of rebel forces while simultaneously stepping up arms provisions, and expecting unity, rather than heightened infighting, to be the result. “Marginalization” of dedicated insurgents in an ongoing civil war involves violence. While “peeling the onion” of jihadist sympathizers and cobelligerents away is important, it is a means to the end of more effectively targeting and dismantling hardcore Islamists and jihadist groups. Without that, the policy provides an anvil but no hammer. Trying to shorten the Syrian civil war is a noble intention, but doing so while pushing out jihadists invites and likely even requires prolonging its second phase. Scaling up our efforts will not solve the practical or moral dilemmas with proxy warfare. Fostering a smaller Syrian group, then, that can fight on the U.S.’s behalf, may seem appealing. There’s a catch. Ensuring proxy loyalty to patrons relies on factors that impede many of America’s present Syrian preferences. Patrons often draw loyal proxies from populations disaffected or vulnerable to prevailing political conditions, which made the Lao and Montagnards particularly effective and loyal sources of “secret armies” and irregular partners for the U.S. during operations in Indochina. Southern Syrian secularists, former regime soldiers, and Bedouins may prove more receptive to U.S. interests, but they are also an unlikely nucleus for a post-Assad government likely to be dominated by groups associated with the civil war’s northern front. Their capability for building the kind of broad, horizontally integrated network to achieve influence over the rebellion and post-war Syria will be limited. Yet placing such a group outside the Free Syrian Army’s aegis points to a tougher truth about proxy warfare, which is that the same characteristics which limit the group’s ability to effect desired humanitarian and political outcomes in Syria make it easier to handle. Small groups take fewer resources. Groups unable to operate in the north or from across the Turkish border are less likely to fall under Turkish or Islamist sway. A proxy that coordinates poorly with local political-military authorities is less likely to default on U.S. preferences than a larger, locally predominant entity such as the FSA, which, by the nature of its social-institutional foundations, will be inclined to answer to local interests first. While patron states can shove social-institutional development in the right direction, creating a broad, unified front from without can take years. Many of the conditions that enable it – the ability to exclude other regional suppliers, relatively low reliance on local power bases, and compatible ideology – may be impossible to produce within Syria. For many powers willing to engage in proxy warfare, a second-best outcome is a local proxy just strong enough to carry out a more limited set of tasks. The U.S. may not be able to rely on the FSA to secure or create a buffer against hostile groups along the Jordanian border, or assist the U.S. in monitoring or targeting jihadists or Iranian/Hezbollah proxies of interest. A smaller force coupled with a logistical effort could perhaps execute those tasks, but it could not deliver a unified Syrian opposition or widely deny hostile groups a safe-haven in Syria. The administration’s current strategy in southern Syria appears sized for a more modest U.S. role. As many demand the U.S. step up its support though, it’s worth remembering the returns to scaling up resourcing or objectives for Syrian proxy forces could have minimal or even negative returns at the margin. Above all, proxy war will not effectively be simultaneously be an instrument of humanitarianism an effective tool for carving out U.S. influence in Syria – in such scenarios, we not only can’t always get what we wish for, we often enough don’t even get what we pay for.
Dan Drezner, in light of Moises Naim eloping with a book title he came up with last year (NB: Undead Power is still available if he wants to change his narrative tack, and this one’s on the house), recapitulates his own and highlights Naim’s argument that power as we understand it in international affairs is fading into the background. Even Drezner’s most provocative case was that simply compellence power was on the wane, while Naim makes a much grander argument:
Power is shifting -- from large, stable armies to loose bands of insurgents, from corporate leviathans to nimble start-ups, and from presidential palaces to public squares. But power is also changing, becoming harder to use and easier to lose. As a result, argues award-winning columnist and former _Foreign Policy_ editor Moisés Naím, all leaders have less power than their predecessors, and the potential for upheaval is unprecedented. In _The End of Power_, Naím illuminates the struggle between once-dominant megaplayers and the new micropowers challenging them in every field of human endeavor. The antiestablishment drive of micropowers can topple tyrants, dislodge monopolies, and open remarkable new opportunities, but it can also lead to chaos and paralysis. Drawing on provocative, original research and a lifetime of experience in global affairs, Naím explains how the end of power is reconfiguring our world.My suspicion, actually, is that Naim here is wrong about the existence of a serious redistribution of _relative power_ (_absolute power _and _capabilities_ are another matter), from “big” to “small” concentrations, particularly where organs of state power are concerned, and especially at a macro-historical scale of analysis. Naim’s arguments about the decline in the prevalence of traditional forms of power draw from a broader intellectual trend. Given the audience of this blog, addressing the supposed military shift in power and combat strength is worthwhile. Here, in fact, I think we find that describing a systemic shift from power from states and their armies to insurgents and their looser structures is misleading. Remember that the most recent great powers to fall to revolutionary insurgents of any kind were Russia to its Revolution and China to its Civil War. Already we have quite a strong indication that the most important actors in the traditionalist school of power are relatively resilient to existential risks from insurgent groups. Furthermore, to simply describe the fall of many afflicted regimes as simply insurgency overpowering traditional armies is highly misleading. Insurgencies still strongly benefit from foreign great power military intervention and support. In the cases of Russia and China, the effects of World Wars I and II played a major role in undermining state capacity or undermining governing coalitions. The insurgents of the Cold War era frequently benefited from state patronage. The process of combating state resources frequently drives insurgent groups to behave more like states and outcompete them, in anticipation of creating a new one or capturing that of their foe. This makes it in part a case selection problem. Highly successful insurgencies quickly take on the function or role of a state and outgrow their insurgent stage. The Taliban did a relatively good job at suppressing insurgency when they were the nominal government, and their renewed ability to mobilize combat power makes them formidable insurgents, too. It is also important to differentiate examples of a non-state actor violently usurping the coercive power of the state from constituent elements of a state’s governing coalition of elites and institutions turning on the regime. Here, both Naim’s insistence that “micropowers” are toppling regimes and Drezner’s speculation that compelling force can no longer cost-effectively kill its way to control needs strong qualification. In Egypt, the military stood aside in a gambit to preserve its political power, while the Muslim Brotherhood, though powerful, is expanding its power by co-opting state institutions. To say that states, as a general proposition, are losing power to non-state actors is misleading when states are diverse assemblages of political actors and institutions. Compellence worked quite well for Bahrain and Saudi Arabia against their Shia minorities, while it is starting to wane for the Assad regime against rebels representing its excluded majority, but the regime’s killing strategy is not failing simply because killing to control cannot work, but because the rebels are returning the favor in kind, and would greatly like more support or direct action from foreign states to speed along this process. There have always been high costs to violently compelling your population into submission - just ask the regimes which survived 1848 or Abraham Lincoln. In any case, without considering the components of compelling power - the political coalitions and the demographic, geographic, and logistical factors which shape their ability to exert power, as well as the broader international system which engages in the conflict - I question the utility of arguing one kind of group or one kind of power is declining in power in a more abstract, sweeping sense. One could pose the problem this way - there are many more states in the international arena today than there were during past periods. Many of them formed under vastly different conditions than the ostensibly traditional “Weberian” or “Westphalian” varieties. Many “failed” or “fragile” states were never that strong to begin with, and arguably state-instituted border fixity encourages weak states and potent insurgencies. and were at risk to predatory state behavior as well as insurgency, which reinforce each other when states foment insurgencies and coups to wage proxy war. So, we could say there are more states predisposed to vulnerability to insurgent groups (they are also, as Libya shows, even more vulnerable to traditional power) than before. We could also say that insurgent groups and non-state actors possess more capabilities, in absolute terms, than their predecessors did. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front obviously possesses more firepower than did the Moros fighting the U.S. in the 1900s, and the Chechen secessionist fighters and suicide bombers possess more firepower than 19th century Caucasian tribes and anarchist bombthrowers. So do modern armies have options for projecting power against insurgent groups they never did before. Better than framing power as “ending” and states as declining would be to frame the problem as an issue of policy relevance. Historically, the states are more prevalent before, and the U.S. and European militaries has relative power projection capabilities that the imperial powers of the 15th-17th centuries would envy (as Jeremy Black pointed out, non-Western armies frequently rebuffed would-be conquerors during this period). However, the _salience_ of insurgent groups and other violent non-state actors is obviously greater than in recent history, especially the salience of distant groups. State-versus-state violence is declining not because states are less militarily capable, but because the aggregation of those capabilities and the political context reduces the incentives and likelihood for state-versus-state war. France and Germany could do far more damage to each other than Shabaab or MUJAO could do to either of them, but this concern is far less salient than insurgent groups. The important thing to recognize, however, is that today’s focus on violent non-state actors is not the product of a systemic change in the way power is wielded, but because of mutable and discretionary choices about policy. Compellence and killing power too, are doing just fine, it’s simply a matter of case selection and baseline standards. The U.S. could adopt a policy and subsequent military strategies to move away from fighting VNSAs, but because the U.S. is more concerned about al Qaeda as a security threat than it is about China. China could still wreak far more havoc to American interests than al Qaeda could. Nevertheless, because of VNSAs expanded capabilities and our expanded scope of policy concerns, which increasingly includes areas more vulnerable to VNSA action, these groups have a higher degree of salience in policy calculations even tho Military preparedness is the product, in large part, of choices about force structures and strategies. Our military’s frustration with fighting insurgents in Iraq does not imply insurgencies are now more potentially dangerous than China, anymore than it implies cyberwarfare sabotage is a greater potential danger than nuclear weapons. They are simply more _likely_ issues as a product of the systemic environment. Recognizing what is the more likely risk, and thus the higher priority, for our preferred policies is a more useful way of thinking about power and its wielders rather than drawing sweeping inferences from narrowly selected cases.
One of the most thoroughly annoying things about American strategic debate is its thoroughly theological character. Landpower advocates will whip out their T.H. Fehrenbach quotes, ignoring the fact that Americans found the idea of putting their young men in Korean mud to be a distinctly undesirable notion. Seapower advocates will wax nostalgic about Mahan and the Great White Fleet, ignoring that even J.C. Wylie rendered tribute to the man on the scene with the gun. Of course, sacred texts and liturgies also closely intertwine with distinctly Earthly problems. Because the taxpayer must render unto Caesars what is Caesars, the strategic theologian strives to convince the flock that the needs of the nation are similar to those of the divinity. Of course, Americans, while famous for bible-thumping, are also fairly pragmatic people. And when it comes to money, few can beat American pragmatism. Which is why any strategic debate about geographical models of power has to return to political economy. My Twitter and RSS feeds lit up with debates over James Laceys latest on the necessity of landpower. The resulting discussion, while eloquent, ignored the central issue: Americans dont care about Mahan and save nostalgic imagery of infantrymen struggling through crater-strewn landscapes for the History Channel. Americans care about _stacking that damn paper_.1 Take China, for example. Does Chinese military power pose a big threat to American strategy? Sure. But Americans arent upset about the Peoples Liberation Army. No Presidential candidate in 2012 ran on a platform that promised to reduce the very real risk that the PLA will missile Kadena Air Force Base into a smoking crater. But Americans are eager for a _currency war_. They see Beijing as an obstacle to that that most sancrosanct of national goals, _waking up to get ones cake up_. Whether your favored _explanans_ is the Anglosphere or the collected works of Young Jeezy, its hard to avoid the impression that Americans are an aggressive, mercantilist bunch that are singularly devoted to the paper chase. Those who get in the way of building a Rack City on a Hill have never quite faired well. The French may have helped us gain our independence, but war drums were beaten the moment that French commerce raiding began to negatively impact our commerce. We may have shared a common culture with the British, but impressment of sailors (and our desire to get Canadian land) caused us to pick a fight with a superpower. This brings new meaning to the saying that being broke can make you delirious. And our historical relationship with Latin America is the geopolitical equivalent of Paulies loan and repayment rubric. So what does this mean for strategy? The problem with the landpower vs. seapower debates have always been that they are conducted from the standpoint of landpower and seapower as strategic theory. This is never going to go anywhere, because both landpower and seapower theory derive from _Europe_. The great theorists of _continental_ landpower were never American, because the threat of land invasion by large armies of Germans, Frenchmen, and Russians tends to have an awfully stimulating effect on the military theorists imagination. Alfred Thayer Mahan may have been an American, certainly, but his work was primarily on _British_ sea power. Likewise, many of the counterinsurgency theorists that were fused to American landpower by 21st advocates are Europeans involved in colonial wars. If American empire exists, we can at least agree that actual colonies were never part of the game. The fact is that American power has been traditionally oriented around the political goals of preserving American freedom. But not just political freedom, in the cliche often raised that Americans fear large land armies. Freedom to make _money_. Weve built our political-military institutions around the necessity of limiting the societal political-economic disruptions that war entails. Using median voter theory, John Caverly notes that the electorate is much more likely to support a technology-heavy, labor-light military force. Hence the prominence attached to naval power projection in American history and coastal fortifications is unsurprising. Ships are expensive, but are primrily capital rather than labor investments. Coastal forts allowed the US to defend the coastline from European invasion without a large and costly mobilization framework. Of course, someone has to pay the butchers bill. In this, landpower advocates are certainly correct. But politians have always strove to put _someone else_s kid in the mud. Russia was the preminent continental warfighter of World War II. American mobilization in World War II was more of a domestic industrial mobilization than a military one. The vast majority of draftees, too, ran the capital-intensive process of making the war machine function. _A hardy few_ fought hard in land, sea, and air. Waging war in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Pakistan would be impossible without a preponderence of locals to do the fighting, dying, and intelligence collection. Drone critics, of course, would rather blame robots instead of a far more morally dubious practice of risk-shifting. We do not replace pilots with drones. We are replacing land forces with Pakistani conscripts and vulnerable tribesmen that plant tracking devices for drones to target. And if we fight _with _production power and machines, we have a long and sordid history of targeting the enemys productive power and machines as well. It is commonplace for critics of American strategy to say the American way of war is brute force, and that we should really be thinking like Sun Tzu or fighting "political and social" wars. Well, Americans are one of the few strategic cultures that are just as faithful adherents to the maxims of the old Chinese master as the Chinese themeselves. We attack the enemys strategy. Americans have destroyed their opponents food supplies, sent merchant shipping to the bottom of the ocean, accepted incredible losses to destroy industrial supplies, and divide enemy territory into a set of fortified population concentrations criscrossed by security stations and firebases with interlocoking fields of preregistered fire points. You cant get more "political and social war" then burning an enemys food supplies, destroying his industrial infrastructure, and other material bedrocks of his society. And when the enemy develops an industrial economy that channels millions of peasants into a large land army, we resort to nuclear threats and powerful conventional weapons designed to devastate formations deep beyond the forward edge of the battle area. Its worth noting that the political winds, shifting towards ideas of "burden-sharing," are in many ways reverting to the mean. They are also phrased in _economic_ terms. The Asians and European need to pick up their defense spending, we are told, because they are free-riding off American largesse. This is the national security equivalent of Reagans diatribes about welfare queens, cadillacs, and food stamps. This is admittedly a fairly monocausal explanation. It leaves out the powerful influence of ideology on American strategy and war-making decisions. But it is a powerful reminder of one of the driving forces beyond American strategy. Garrison states are for Europeans. Not for the land of the freedom fries. As long as landpower advocates cast their worth in the imagery of themselves as the powerful arm of decision, destroying enemy land armies or pacifying unruly foreign populations, they are going to lose the budget battle. The average American is far from the cultural origins of continental landpower as they are from French ideas about economics. The seapower advocate might hope that seapowers historic role in projecting American power abroad and guaranteeing commerce abroad will appear to the American public. But in an environment of rare and unprecendeted external stability, Americans are unlikely to commit to a robust ship-building regime if it requires slashing the big state entitlements that structurally undergird the postwar political model. The slow erosion of that model is all the more reason for the public to cling to it. Granted, its hard for Americans to care too much about defense in general with the current state of external stability. But landpower advocates are likely to get a better hearing if they stop harkening back to an imagined past in which the American, not the Soviet, man on the scene with the gun destroyed the Third Reich. Not only would doing so give GI Ivan his due, but it would help landpower theory productively advance. I continue to believe that Antulio Echevarrias minimalist idea of "extending the reach of policy" is the best card landpower can play. American policy will require robust land forces, but landpower theory needs to move beyond its industrial era obsession with large armies, total war, and unlimited political objectives. Meanwhile, seapower theories that cast their worth in terms of _non-combat_ tasks like aid, relief, soft power, and international cooperation are unlikely to gain traction in a harsh budget environment. In a time in which foreign aid is going to be slashed by senators who view aid as welfare, the idea of maintaining a navy for the purpose of stregthening stability through relief and soft powers is not going to fly. Seapower advocates need to make their case directly to the economic side. You cannot keep Iran from messing up the oil flows in the Gulf without powerful naval and air forces to turn the Iranian military into a rubbish heap. Of course, we may see a shift in the strategic situation that changes this political calulus. Massive retrenchment (although what is going on today is certainly _not _massive retrenchment) is sure to have disruptive shifts in the international system, although what kind are anyones guess. But until we cross that bridge, we are in the realm where both landpower and seapower advocates will have to deal with the reality of an American way of war shaped by the desire to maintain a domestic liberal political economy. _______ 1 My blog readership, if judged by the Twitter response, likes rap refences. Im going to go with it. Plus, the subject of liberal political economy goes to the foundation of raps subject matter.
America’s war in Iraq came at a strange moment in technological history. The 21st century saw mass proliferation of affordable cellular telephony, altering not simply the way people kept in touch, but did business and waged war. For the U.S. military, cell phones posed a potentially dangerous problem. In addition to enabling a new generation of remotely-controlled IEDs, they helped insurgents coordinate larger and more complex groups, extending mobile C3 to any group with a tower in range and minutes bought. Yet, as Jacob Shapiro and Nils Weidman argue in a fascinating study, booming cellphone use cut against insurgencies. Rather than enabling more IED attacks, they made it easier for civilians to inform on insurgents. Cellphones could even fill gaps in counterinsurgent communication networks while exposing insurgent communications to U.S. superiority in electronic warfare. Looking at a systemic level rather than narrowly at one actor’s applications of a technology, mobile telephony’s expansion more likely helped than hindered counterinsurgents. The dynamic between new technology, conflict, and social systems frequently lends itself to oversimplification. Cell phones neither made nor broke U.S. operations in Iraq, and although the Taliban appears to recognize their threat, they do not determine the course of the war there either. Despite the rapidly proliferating quantity and falling price of many new technologies, technical military dominance remains and incredibly expensive affair. While it is not incredibly difficult to probe the DoD’s cybersecurity or even penetrate its networks, launching computer network attacks sophisticated enough to significantly degrade the U.S.’s overwhelming strength requires not just a built-up IT infrastructure for computer network attack, but a wide spectrum of electronic warfare capabilities and enough conventional punch to exploit the gap. Even in these scenarios, states such as China, Russia, the U.S. and Israel continue to enjoy massive advantages over non-state groups and poor or weak states when it comes to information warfare. The costs in human and technological capital significantly mitigates the disruptive effects of the technology. Similarly, with remotely-operated and robotic weapons, rudimentary capabilities vastly proliferated but constraints remain on their ability to substitute for or supplement inadequate conventional capability. Basic, cost-intensive issues of physics and logistics, such as size, payload, and the availability of military-grade air-launched munitions limit the lethality of “personal” aerial drones, while even state actors without adequate C4ISR infrastructure or the conventional means to enable drone operations will find it difficult to radically change their means. It should be unsurprising that until the mid-20th century, a major narrative in Western thought was not technology getting the barbarians closer to crashing the gate, but fueling the rise of an ever vaster and more terrible Leviathan. Increasing technical complexity and costs to waging war indeed promoted the ascent of the modern state. As the trend continued, bureaucracies and state power grew even in the most liberal states, while the Soviet Union and fascist Europe pointed towards state power, economic advancement, and military-technical strength going hand in hand. Even before totalitarianism, fin de siècle Britons such as Halford Mackinder, Leo Amery, and H.G. Wells saw new technology militating towards stronger and larger states. This was a trend the experience of the World Wars and Cold War only seemed to reinforce, until the fall of the USSR and heightened concern with disruptive technologies, anarchic failed states, and the power of individuals. Despite the obvious oversights of those who took the writings of Orwell and Burnham a bit too far to heart, it’s important to remember that many of the technologies thought to be rolling back state power came about through state action and operate most powerfully with the state’s resources behind them. The glut of small arms and light weapons in conflict zones are frequently legacy of state-backed mass production and proxy war supplies, or states toppled with the aid of conventional power. Keil Lieber ably demonstrated the errors of confounding technical systems with undue political attributes in his dissection of offense-defense balance in IR theory. For issues of state-building and insurgency, a similar look at how disruptive technologies require enabling and support from a wider variety of social and political factors makes it much easier to explain why some technology erodes the power of one state while vastly bolstering another. At a broader, systemic level, though, asking whether this or that technology bolsters or erodes state authority is likely asking the wrong question. To note the increasing sophistication of non-state groups is not to imply the erosion of the state or even an adverserial relationship between state authority and other forms. Instead, given that assemblages of state power remain the dominant territorial and political forms (even if they deviate from our expectations), investigating the parasitic, commensalist, and symbiotic relationships between them will likely be the best way both to assess the political impacts of proliferating technology and the emergent shape of world order.
Thomas Friedman is often the target of intense criticism for overly simplistic takes on international relations, the Middle East, business, and society. But he also should be commended when he does right, and this weekend he used his NYT column to direct his readers to a fascinating report on the interface of climate, food prices, and political instability in the Middle East. In short, weather events, food prices, and local-regional political dynamics all intersect with each other to unhinge previously solid dictatorships. Even skilled autocrats long skilled at playing the Middle Eastern game of divide-and-rule, pan-Arab nationalism, and suppression can be unhinged by interaction effects larger than any one country. The report dovetails with longstanding work by Jack Goldstone, Peter Turchin, and others on demographic-structural causes of political disorder. How do these process act on situatons like the Arab Revolt? Anne-Marie Slaughter, in using the metaphor of "stressor," is exactly on target:
Crime-show devotees will be familiar with the idea of a “stressor”—a sudden change in circumstances or environment that interacts with a complicated psychological profile in a way that leads a previously quiescent person to become violent. The stressor is by no means the only cause of the crimes that ensue, but it is an important factor in a complex set of variables that ultimately lead to disaster.To recognize deeper forces is to take nothing away from the brave men and women who struggled to overthrow Middle Eastern dictators. It also doesnt suggest that the politics, culture, sociology of the Middle East are just the deterministic products of macroprocesses.1 But one problem with traditional explanations of political unrest is that they do not explain how a solid (yet steadily eroding) authoritarian structure suddenly dissolves. We can see the drip-drip-drip of steadily growing entropy. Yet Hosni Mubaraks Egypt, though dysfunctional, was no Zimbabwe. And guess who is still in power? Likewise, what Friedman dubbed "Hama rules" worked for the elder Assad. Assad Jr. cant seem to hold it together. One way is to look at social and political divisions and try to predict who can win a mobilization race. Many political analysts looking at Arab states ought to have bitten Jay-Z and said "we dont believe you, you need more people," instead of believing that secular-liberal movements with thin bases of support were going to come out on top. That this was going to happen, to continue the Jay-Z metaphor, was as believable as Mobb Deeps street credibility after Hova put Prodigy on the Summer Jam screen. The other method is to look at political contagion. When enough people individually decide to disobey El Jefe, the macrosocial pattern that results collapses the regime. But _why _they decide is still contested. Another way is to look at larger patterns created by the interaction of the human and natural worlds. There is a certain determinism, as John Sheldon observed, in rejecting geopolitics and other natural influences on politics out of a fear of....determinism. its a determinsm of the kind that rejects the causal influence of the very structures that human civilization both grew with and substantially changed. The intelligence community recognizes the importance of the possible political impact of larger natural-social processes: thats precisely why they shell out the dough for Global Trends. I cant really improve on Tuchins explanation of why the "determinism" accusation falls flat:
W]hen students of dynamical systems (or, more colourfully, ‘chaoticians’ such as Jeff Goldblum’s character in the film _Jurassic Park_) talk about ‘cycles’, we do not mean rigid, mechanical, clock-like movements. Cycles in the real world are chaotic, because complex systems such as human societies have many parts that are constantly moving and influencing each other.The ability to appreciate and integrate the moving parts and how they enable Malthus to trump Mubarak is an important (and underreported) element of 21st century security policy analysis. Note that Im probably preaching to the choir here--the website I am blogging on also hosts a center that tackles these issues. _________ 1. A side note: though I defended political science from what I viewed as unfair attacks, I do agree that political science could use some improvement. Political science has a problem with complex causality. As Kindred Winekoff pointed out, political science (particularly international relations) falls short in recognizing that social outcomes are not interdependent of each other. This is perhaps why those inclined towards war studies and military history often find American political science frustrating. Barry Watts (full disclosure: former professor at Georgetown) skewered Robert Papes _Bombing to Win _because it lacked the proper instruments to measure the full strategic effect generated by strategic bombing. Though its an unscientific intuition, I suspect that the policy-inclined often are frustrated with how reductionist political science can be in looking at the messy, complex real world theyve observed in their own _practice_. This explains the popularity of pop-sci "butterflies and hurricanes" bastardizations of complexity science among policy circles. People are looking for a language, vocabulary, and knowledge base that resonates with their own experiences. This isnt to say reductionist models arent useful---reduction is inevitable. But how much does matter for the problem youre trying to explain and how you intend to use the explanation you generate.
What is the relationship between videogames and violence? _Popular Science, _reviewing a new psychology report, noted the obvious: its inderminate. There are two camps of researchers, neither of which can collect enough conclusive evidence to provide strong confirmation for their hypotheses. Its also unsurprising. Human behavior is complex and messy, and questions of measurement, causation, and inference are difficult to sort out. In a bid for greater "policy relevance," researchers recklessly extrapolated beyond their data or failed to note conflicts and limitations. The media only reported on sensational research. And not all of the research was produced under a sufficiently objective rubric. But this problem is by no means unique to video games. This months _International Organization _published two studies on the benefits (or lack theorof) of nuclear superiority with diametrically opposite conclusions. As Daniel Nexon argues, this poses an analytical problem for the policymaker. Here we have two articles that were judged to be of sufficient quality to be published in a top-flight journal, with completely different conclusions. Nuclear coercion, like the sources of violence, is a fundamentally messy and multicausal subject. Even if we can come to a general agreement as to which _confluence_ of factors is important, as Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman did for the use of airpower in Kosovo, we still face a fundamental problem of how to make policy tradeoffs. And this, of course, still presumes that we agree about the proper weighting of the factors. Whether airpower, the threat of ground forces, or any of the other defeat mechanisms Byman and Waxman specify should be regarded as necessary or sufficient conditions is a question that is unlikely to be resolved without a substantial degree of deep historical investigation. Kosovo happened close to fourteen years ago, and authors still argue about the causes of World War I. And Im not going to even bring up the Surge because it will likely be impossible to have an intelligent conversation about it for a very long time. Likewise, Joshua Foust has often written sharp pieces about the data problems that hold back robust study of targeted killings in Pakistan. So were back to the beginning: videogames. Public policy is always mostly normative choice, but indecisive science tends to highlight policys subjective foundations. So in regards to videogames and violence, the following questions come to mind. What level of (un)certainty are policymakers willing to accept in making decisions to infringe on the freedom and choice of others? What level of potential harm do policymakers believe would justify such a decision? Should the infringement be cautious or maximal? Finally, would the government respond by heavily restricting the product known to contribute to the behavior, act primarily on other environmental variables that interact to produce the undesired behavior, or both? These are all choices that can be informed by science but not dictated by it. And in this situation the degree to which the choice can even be "informed" is fairly contentious. As this blog more or less explicitly and implicitly suggests, the same issues involved in the videogame dispute are also true of national security policy and their interaction with political science. Thats why national security professionals tend to like Clausewitz so much. _On War_ provides a general outline of the general thing called _War_. As with any work of _gestalt_ theory that does not try to directly predict certain outcomes but describes a system as a whole, _On War _tends to be last longer than science that advances through conjectures and refutations. We should be looking to foreground what criteria we use when thinking about the messy problem rather than necessarily believing that research can _always_ tip the scales one way or another. Of course you dont need a lifetime of political experience to know that not much "foregrounding" goes on in domestic politics. Hence the overlap between the audience willing to take this post seriously and those it would most help is bound to be fairly low.
It is a staple of much of postmodern political theory to posit the state as an “assemblage.” That is, the state itself is not static, it is an equilibrium between contending factions, bureaucracies, and stakeholding organizations. In the ideal-type scenario, they achieve a way of dividing labor and consolidating power in such a way that the ability to wage political violence is consolidated in responsibility and unified in the interests it serves. Of course, life is not always that easy. As Corey Robin provocatively pointed out, our theories of national security are Hobbesian, but our states rarely live up to the best aspects of his theories. Assemblages do not always capture a truly “national” interest and fall sway to faction, whether bureaucratic, regional, ideological or social in cleavage: To cite just one example: it is a well known fact that African Americans have suffered as much from the American state’s unwillingness to protect them from basic threats to their lives and liberties as they have from the willingness of white Americans to threaten those lives and liberties. Throughout much of US history, as legal scholar Randall Kennedy has shown, the state has deemed the threat to the physical safety of African Americans to be an unremarkable danger and the protection of African Americans an unworthy focus of its attentions. … At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers an public emergency, worthy of federal military protection. Indeed, the ability of the U.S. to retain control over the South always butted against a broad front of resistance that ranged from political opposition through rapidly “redeemed” formal institutions in Virginia to the highly paramilitarized environs of Louisiana. To the North and border states, the most essential and broadly accepted objective of the war was preserving the Union. Abolition was, among other things, an instrument towards that end. A broader program of equality was unnecessary or even abhorrent to those who merely sought to destroy the slaveholding South because it imperiled the country’s integrity. In a previous post, I noted how Reconstruction-era tolerance of anti-black violence shared some characteristics with Libya’s relatively _laissez faire_ approach towards militias that were desecrating Sufi shrines, Western graveyards, and harassing, attacking, and then killing diplomats. The messy process of state-building could make room, or at least time, for this, but not for trying to bring to heel well-armed and organized militias with strong ideological objections to Libya’s nominal civil authorities. Libya’s new government limped along, not much a Mogadishu on the Mediterranean, nor one, even in moments of triumph, effective in Hobbesian terms. While Libyan militias and militants intervene in political processes, they do not, for the most part, appear to seek regime change, but rather to augment their political clout within the bounds of the new system through violence and intimidation. Similarly, in American Reconstruction, paramilitary groups neither themselves seized governments (although similar paramilitary groups did throw a coup in Wilmington, NC in 1898) nor created a real counter-state, but provided a specific political class with the means to win control of existing institutions - state and local governments - _without_ attempting to recapitulate the goals or overall method of the original rebellion. While many Redeemer militias acted as the conservative wing of the Democratic party, these ought be considered distinct from the groups which were insurgents from the start of the war. Bushwhacker militias, such as the James-Younger Gang, went from participants in the civil wars within the civil war in the border states and West to criminal organizations which used attitudinal affinities to bolster their strength. Notably, in the case of the James-Younger Gang, another non-state entity, the Pinkertons, joined in a manhunt operation. Silas Woodson, the Democratic Missouri governor, secured pay to contract detectives, and tried (but failed) to fund a militia to assist in the hunt. As Robin pointed out, government responses varied with reference to the political interests. Federal, state, local, and private forces would continue to intervene in issues of outlawry and labor strife, but conceded, in ugly compromise, rights for blacks and patronage networks (the position of Postmaster General, for example) to their oppressors. If we take up Tilly’s model of state-building as organized crime, we note most criminal organizations cannot kill off every single competitor. Legitimate actors and trust networks integrate into the criminal enterprise, and even with rivals, cutting deals is often more appealing than cutting throats. In state-building, too, cooperating with illegal, extralegal, and paramilitary groups lends advantages to fruitless or premature pursuit of total primacy. For many political communities, non-state groups provide instruments of governance by other means. As the Reconstruction example shows, paramilitarism, though obviously antithetical to democratic values, is complementary to democratic systems. In Colombia’s bloody internal conflict, paramilitaries became significant players in the Colombian democratic system, bolstering the candidacies of friendly politicians with funds and coercive influence. As Giustozzi notes in his excellent book, _The Art of Coercion_, irregular groups often provide highly beneficial roles, particularly when options for bureaucratization and institutionalization of a professional army are limited. Indeed, in some cases a weak bureaucratized, centralized army may be insufficient or an inferior alternative for local and regional elites who prefer decentralized security provision accountable to their interests and persistent at a local level. Of course, tolerance of and cooperation with these forces allowed counterinsurgents to engage in assassination, massacres, and enrich local elites. Yet the point remains that irregular groups, within limits, provide a force multiplier to state prerogatives. Ceding autonomy and some authority to paramilitary groups such as the AUC And Los PEPES empowers extralegal or illegal entities the state prefers to negotiate and collaborate with to destroy ones it considers more threatening. In Brazil, too, the rolling back traditional drug trafficking organizations relied not simply on special tactics units and community policing, but tacit or explicit sanctioning of paramilitary units occupying and extracting rents from neighborhoods. Indeed, the very political pressures that encouraged the Brazilian government to crack down on drug trafficking organizations with state force created power vacuums for militia groups to expand their reach within cities such as Rio de Janeiro. In all of the aforementioned cases, paramilitary groups have exploited cleavages in the interests of political assemblages, providing a tool to advance interests of actors participating within the state without breaking the state itself – and, indeed, feeding off the cooperation of state institutions. Indeed, if, as Javier Osorio notes in his excellently titled dissertation, “Hobbes on Drugs,” weaker criminal actors have incentives to step up violence against groups targeted by security services, emergent non-state actors have strong structural incentives to muscle in on the state’s foes, providing an unscrupulous government an opportunity to cut a deal. Particularly as the U.S. and other countries turn towards SFA and FID to offset its diminishing will and capacity to take the lead in counterinsurgency operations overseas, and as states such as Syria the dynamics of paramilitarism ought register highly in importance for policymakers and academics alike. Although paramilitary groups are of most interest in instances of state failure and civil war, to dismiss them as mere warlordism ignores how paramilitarism may grow in prevalence even during periods of democratization and state consolidation. Similarly, without recognizing when and how elites will seek to decentralize the state’s use of force, attempts to build partner state capacity or engage in security-sector reform will likely fall flat. Finally, examining paramilitarism shines a light on the state as more than a mere set of institutions and bureaucracies, but as an assembly of actors with political interests that do not always overlap, nor see bureaucratization and institutionalization as the most natural or efficient manner of bolstering state capacity or instituting control. Not only do paramilitaries illuminate an ugly side of state behavior, but they also help reveal why successful states and elite coalitions, though they may be failed Hobbesians, remain so persistent despite their flaws.
Are we in a 1914 scenario in East Asia? How often do guerrillas succeed? Did counterterrorism law erode national sovereignty? These are just a few of the important questions that political science has some bearing on. Yet barely a couple months goes by without an op-ed decrying political sciences alleged lack of relevance to the outside world. Political scientists are frequently told their research is too arcane, mathematical, and self-involved to be of possible value to anyone in Washington dealing with real-world policy problems. Theres a grain of truth here. As international political economy whiz Kindred Winecoff observes, political scientists need to make a better “elevator pitch." But heres the problem: at the end of the day, there is a difference between what Max Weber dubbed science as a vocation and the subjective _policy lessons_ we can take from our study. Part of that gap is reflected in the difficulties that people with purely policy interests inevitably encounter in PhD programs. From my own (minor) experience so far, it is grueling, necessitates the assimilation of difficult methodologies, and involves having to think about intellectual questions that many people would regard as hopelessly arcane. Even a good PhD program that directly tackles policy questions will likely demand the student grapple with questions of esoteric theory and method. And not all research that tackles highly abstract questions is policy-irrelevant. Highly technical analysis of game theory and economics generated useful policy applications form the World War II convoy system to nuclear strategy and wargaming. All of these advances began from the desire to grapple with difficult questions to produce knowledge, something many critics of political science research do not acknowledge. Take Greg Ferenstein, who penned an article supporting Eric Cantors call to defund the NSF. His gripe is familiar. Political science is obscuratist, hyper-mathematical, and disconnected from the policy world. Political scientists dont do enough to make their research accessible to policymakers. Ferenstein wants a political science that his mother-in-law can understand, and he thinks starving academia of resources will motivate hungry researchers to do better. So is modern political science irrelevant to policy needs? Contra Ferenstein, policymakers have thrown substantial $$ at the kind of research he regards as navel-gazing arcana. The RAND Corporation got a lot of mileage using what Ferenstein derides as "clever mathematical models" during the Cold War. Im not sure that Jay Ulfelder, who worked for the intelligence community-funded Political Instability Task Force, would agree that his quantitative forecasting methodologies must pass a mother-in-law test to be valuable. And when New York Universitys game theory guru Bruce Bueno De Mesquita speaks, the CIA listens. Drew Conway, a man that could easily teach a _computer programming _course just as well as poli-sci 101, gives invited talks at West Point on analyzing terrorist networks. I dont think Ulfelder, Mesquita, or Conway have sleepless nights pondering the relevance of their research to the govermment! Ferenstein also laments the decline of grand theory that policy-makers could comprehend and the rise of empirical research. Perhaps the most ironic thing about Ferensteins citation of this trend as a _bad _thing is that the rise of empirical research actually does away with the worst tendencies of the "old" international relations. In the old days, people proclaimed their allegiance to warring theoretical tribes. Now the enterprising researcher will take whatever can get them from point A to B. That, and political scientists are actually interested in whether or not their theories are empirically correct! It is difficult to see why this is bad for policy and endless theological debates over theories first advanced in the middle of the 20th century is good. Of course method isn’t everything. The aforementioned Ulfelder is conversant in both important theories of the state and rigorous methods. My friend Aaron Frank has built rigorous computer simulations based on deep thought about the philosophy of science and human cognition. Dare I say that Frank, before generating his quantitative simulations, has to deal with policy-unfriendly concepts like "ontology" and "epistemology?" But Ulfelder and Frank aren’t hung up about whether their theories confirm realism, liberalism, or constructivism. And they are not afraid to use the best methods available to pursue their research, no matter how challenging they may be. On the more qualitative side, someone like Ryan Evans uses field work to come to fine-ingrained analysis of civil wars. Ryans work, though leaning towards qualitative political sociology, is equally as demanding as the most rigorous quant work. But Ryan also is informed by useful theory. Ferensteins "mother-in-law" test for policy relevance is also ridiculous. Economists looking to be policy-relevant don’t lose sleep over whether their mother-in-law gets their theories. Whether Timothy Geithner can pick it up matters. Much of what military historian (full disclosure: my military history instructor in Fall 2010) David Johnson writes about the future of land warfare is too esoteric for a mother-in-law without grounding in military history. But Johnson now heads a group that will likely decide the future of the Army. Thats some policy relevance most academics can only dream of. And Ulfelders mother-in-law would have to be down with Bayesian stats to get most of his work. Does the IC care? I cant speak for Ferenstein, but I cant help but ask: when critics claim that political science research is too esoteric, mathematical, and self-involved, are they are really unhappy that it has become more _rigorous and empirical_? There was once a time when a policy thinker could converse about the social sciences without making an effort to grapple with the methodological tools and theories that underpin those disciplines. That era is over and won’t be coming back anytime soon. The policy-academic bridge certainly does need fixing. But this requires effort and understanding from both partners. First, the blunt truth is that all of the policy-relevant research in the world won’t persuade a policymaker to deviate from something they ideologically believe in. And why should research alone dictate fundamentally _political _decisions? Politicians are not engineers or technocrats. Who believes political science research alone should decide the question of abortion? For supporters and detractors alike, it’s a question that touches on the most basic questions of human life and women’s autonomy. Finally, op-eds like the piece Ferenstein penned offer no constructive advice for better academia-policy harmony. Political scientists already invest considerable effort and intellectual energy trying to “bridge the gap.” It’s time for the policy world to reciprocate. Yes, state of the art political science methods and theories take time and effort to learn. But couldnt a policymaker hire a political science grad to boil down research of interest to a few bullet points? There’s an army of Hill staffers _already _at work helping their bosses get smart on policy areas that Senator John or Jane Doe have to vote on. There really are many easy, commonsense solutions to the problem if one seriously thinks about it. The academia-policy divide isn’t unbridgeable. Both sides just have to respect each other’s needs and culture. Policy enthusiasts should acknowledge and respect the inevitably arcane rigor needed to make good political science research instead of bashing it for not being immediately comprehensible to one’s mother-in-law. Academics must understand that policy makers have unique needs, don’t have tenure to insulate them from the consequences of getting an issue wrong, and make choices about fundamentally normative questions that science cannot conclusively answer. More people get this than alarmist op-eds may lead us to believe. After all, love of Middle East studies and political violence research spurred a American University of Beirut and Kings College London grad (who is now at the Pentagon in an one-year International Affairs Fellowship) to found this very blog. From late high school to the beginning of my PhD program, reading Andrew Exums blogging of relevant political science research motivated me to view policy and academia as complementary. And surely Im not the only one. Maybe the "policy relevant" crowd can take a hint too.
Renegade former Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Christopher Dorner believes himself wronged by his superiors. In his manifesto, he repeatedly emphasizes that he embodies the honor and discipline of the paramilitary institutions he served and "died long ago" as a result of the betrayals he allegedly suffered. His solution: kill as many police officers and their relatives as possible. He threatens to eliminate police officers and everyone they hold dear, boasting of his military aptitude: "[t]he Violence (sic) of action will be HIGH. I am the reason TAC alert was established. I will bring unconventional and asymmetrical warfare to those in LAPD uniform whether on or off duty.” Dorner claims he will only stop killing when the police returns to him the validation he once possessed as an police officer. Dorner is currently the subject of a massive manhunt conducted by California law enforcement with assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The UAV-phobic corners of the Internet buzz with thinly sourced rumors that the 21st centurys most fearsome and dangerous weapon, the (unarmed surveillance) drone, may be unleashed. Potential sightings of the fugitive prompt evacuations. Dorner still remains at large, wanted for the ambush murder of a police officer, a basketball teacher, and her fiance. The slain teachers former police officer father claims Dorner personally called to inform him that "he should have done a better job protecting his daughter." If true, this would resonate with Dorners chilling threat to wipe out his enemies families:
Suppressing the truth will leave to deadly consequences for you and your family. There will be an element of surprise where you work, live, eat, and sleep. I will utilize ISR at your home, workplace, and all locations in between. I will utilize OSINT to discover your residences, spouses workplaces, and children’s schools. IMINT to coordinate and plan attacks on your fixed locations. Its amazing whats on NIPR. HUMINT will be utilized to collect personal schedules of targets. I never had the opportunity to have a family of my own, I’m terminating yours. Quan, Anderson, Evans, and BOR members Look your wives/husbands and surviving children directly in the face and tell them the truth as to why your children are dead.If Dorners actions were not so horribly real, they would be the stuff of bad direct-to-video action cinema. The honorable soldier/law enforcement officer pushed by corruption, turpitude, and injustice to wage a one-man war against authority? Check. Ditto to the cliche of the "rogue" operative that turns his deadly skills against the government_. _Hyperbolic promises of an orgy of bloodletting that spares neither "combatant" nor family member? Been there, done that. The spectacle of hundreds of men, machines, and animals on the trail of one man using his survival skills to elude them is also perennial. We could name dozens of films that fit this archetype, but the most recent that comes to mind is Antoine Fuquas _Shooter. _In _Shooter, _Mark Wahlberg is framed for a crime he didnt commit and uses his Marine Corps training to rack up a body count that includes both humble henchman and high-ranking politician. When watching _Shooter_, the viewer does not think of the real-life parallel: the DC snipers. Of course, all of the people Wahlberg guns down are part of The Conspiracy. No basketball teachers and their loved ones, just the private military operators that Hollywood loathes enough to use as a stand-in for the Communist Chinese in the 2004 remake of _The Manchurian Candidate_. The setup is identical in both films---the honorable fighting man wronged by a cabal buried deep within the bowels of respectable society. In _Shooter_, Mark Wahlberg has no choice but to fight The Conspiracy with the very weapons he once wielded in the service of the state. Of course, Hollywood rarely shows the deliberate killing of noncombatants or even sympathetic combatants by the lone hero. The only exception to this general rule is _The Matrix_, in which men and women in black leather gun down waves of hapless security guards unaware of their manipulation by the machines. Yet perhaps _The Matrix _(a work of science fiction!) is a more realistic portrayal of the indiscriminate nature of redemptive violence (and its intellectual justification) than _Shooter_. Dorner undoubtedly believes that everyone he kills is part of the general web of injustice. There is no typological difference between fellow law enforcement officer, political authority figure, or family relative in his mind. All can be targeted with a grim sense of calculation and premeditation. All must and will pay for the sins of the system. The idea of redemptive, even _purifying _violence has a long pedigree in Western life. At the end of his long journey, Homers Ulysses returns to find his home defiled and reacts by concocting a situation in which he can slaughter those responsible. Shakespeares Titus first kills his own sexually assaulted daughter and then tricks his nemesis Tamora into literally consuming her own children. And as Samuel Goldman notes, the major revolutionary terrorists and insurgents of the Cold War all stressed the purifying nature of violence as a means to self-actualization. The vulgar American derivation of this already ignoble narrative tradition can be found in the explosion of revenge-driven antiheroes, particularly those that seek to punish a _system _that they hold collectively responsible for their individual plight. There are both pro and anti-authority versions of this parable--Clint Eastwoods _Dirty Harry _as the penultimate example of conservative reaction expressed through purifying violence and Alan Moores _V for Vendetta _as a more explicitly anarchistic perspective. These tales all command wide audiences and fanbases. This should not be construed as a claim that there is a causal relationship between cultural tropes and Dorners violence. Rather, we can deploy those tropes as a vehicle for understanding the violent aesthetics inherent in Dorners perception of himself and how they really are not of his own making. Dorner is an actor on an already well-trodden stage, acting out a script he likely believes that he alone has authored. He may be violent and dangerous, but he is also little more than a copy of a copy. He plays to the well-established tropes of social banditry that his supporters also unconsciously draw from while cheering his massacres. The repetoire is tired and well-worn, however genuine or unique he may believe himself to be. Dorner sees himself as a man who played by the rules and was nonetheless driven to violence, instead of an indiscriminate murderer whose writings drip with bigotry and violent contempt towards his fellow officers and their families. Assuming Dorner _did_ call Randy Quan to insult him over Quans supposed failure to prevent his daughters murder, it would complete the cognitive dissonance between the social bandit/conspiracy anti-hero Dorner (and his local followers) believes himself to be and the real man who would deliberately kill an unarmed schoolteacher in order to hurt her father. Whether or not Dorner dies in a hail of bullets or escapes the California law enforcement community and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, he may very well live on in some quarters of society with the same mixture of reverence and fascination that fellow murderer Jesse James continues to evoke. The only question is how many more people Dorner will kill in his murderous quest for self-realization before he exits the stage.
Thus far, the intervention in Mali seems, at least initially, a banner standard for the practice, insofar as Washington is concerned. A coalition of African and European forces, with France taking the lead in the air and with crack troops on the ground, is sending AQIM and fellow travelers and cobelligerents such as Ansar Dine and MUJAO packing from the cities of Gao and Timbuktu*. The U.S. role appears for now limited to the provision of airlift, refueling, and ISR, a far less costly task than firing barrages of Tomahawk missiles and airstrikes to dismantle its air defenses and the rest of the regime with it. The debate about the role toppling Gaddafi played in Mali’s current crisis still rages. Algeria’s government, which appears a great deal more sympathetic to the latter position, forced a bloody end to a retaliatory hostage-taking and siege in its own territory, killing foreign citizens along with the terrorists who seized the gas field. As for America’s limited role in the operation, Philip Carter rightly pointed out that even extremely limited role in the U.S. intervention comes at a price, and one perhaps too high. If the war in Mali is – for now – the best Washington can hope for in an intervention, then the flaws it presents are worth paying attention to, for they’ll arguably be the hardest to eliminate. At the largest level, and perhaps applicable to the widest number of future crises, is the issue Carter highlights – the broken system of burden sharing. I disagree with Anne Applebaum when she posits this intervention as proof of a new European superpower. For one, let’s not give “Europe,” or even the majority of countries in it, so much credit. France is leading Operation Serval, neither the EU nor NATO are in control. That other countries are providing ancillary support is well and good, but French troops are the only Europeans openly committing to combat operations. Not only that, but France and an assortment of other countries conducting a limited war in Europe’s historical backyard does not a superpower make. Operation Épervier, France’s long-running intervention in Chad, along with many other French operations, long demonstrated Paris’s ability to conduct military operations across northern and western Africa. Nobody ought to question that when French troops arrive in theater, they are extremely competent, and the record of French troops after Algeria and Indochina affirms this. However, that European states lack the willpower or capability to muster sufficient airlift and refueling assets for a small-scale operation in Mali, just as many ran low on munitions in Libya, is a warning sign for future planners, and an obvious red flags for any hasty claims to superpower status (not even de Gaulle was so grandiose). If one of our most militarily capable allies cannot confidently act unilaterally in its own historical sphere of influence, or requires significant subsidization to do so, the U.S. ought question the incentives it is perpetuating for the supposed major stakeholders in its emergent security policies. Without allied capability to independently project power, burden-sharing could mean the U.S. getting locked into wars primarily of interest to its allies, while its allies will have less to offer in return during U.S.-led war efforts, which frequently require much longer logistical tails. The next war European states want American assistance in may come at a time when U.S. forces are more overdrawn and the conflict in question is more difficult, while the next theater of war America may ask European aid in may be even harder to operate in without the U.S. paying for an increasing share of the power projection. Beyond issues of power-projection, the interaction of issues of counterterrorism, regime change, and rebellion in Libya and Mali still demand attention. Even assuming forgoing intervention in Libya would have led to the exact same outcome in Mali, resources are finite. Those engaged in toppling Gaddafi and now dealing with the aftermath of Libya might have been better spent in contingencies to limit the spillover of a longer-running civil war or surviving Gaddafi regime. Particularly since the Algerian gas field siege demonstrates that even the most successful interventions face the potential for expansion, escalation, or blowback, saving energy and assets for dealing with the vicissitudes of fog, friction, and fate is particularly prudent, especially when the next crisis presents a more direct threat. Now, France is outlining plans to halt, or at the very least suspend, its offensive into central Mali, and let other forces take on the brunt of the ground fighting. As limited warfare in practice, France’s model initially has much to recommend it. Jason Fritz, when assessing the merit of airpower in support of unconventional warfare, suggested a rebel force unworthy of ground support might also be unworthy of air support. In Mali, France identified a threat urgent enough to merit a ground deployment and interests constrained enough to sketch a plan for that deployment to be responsible. Ultimately, France’s ability to contemplate restrained interests relies on the political context of its intervention. It fights at the request of the local government rather than to unseat it. It fights broadly on the side of tradition against Islamist groups perceived to be foreign in origin, intolerable in behavior and alien in ideology. It fights more to restore a status quo rather than revolutionize a region. Of course, it is far too early to tell if Mali’s war will end up being so amenable to French and broader international interests as it is now. Trying to understand the local context that will ultimately decide so, however, is more a job for analysts such as Andrew Lebovich, Alex Thurston, Hannah Armstrong, along with journalists such as Peter Tinti and Joe Penney, who have regional experience or, in the case of the last three, are in Mali now. Ultimately, while it is useful to consider at the macro-level where Mali fits into understanding of how interventions succeed and fail, the more vital questions about Mali itself can’t be answered at this level of analysis. Hopefully, though, a better conception of what interests are worth fighting for and how best for the U.S. to advance them will, even if it cannot prevent such a tumult from reoccurring elsewhere, clarify if and how the use of force can ameliorate its consequences. * I also wanted to highlight an amazing story about the preservationists and other residents of Timbuktu, who saved the majority of the city’s collections of historic manuscripts – documents important not simply to locals but to the world’s posterity – from destruction at the hands of retreating Islamist militants. Although initial reporting suggested arson destroyed most of the records, it appears preservationists had left enough in museums to prevent militants from catching on, and sequestered the rest in safe houses. Despite the recent retreat, the location of historical materials remains guarded, in case those who tried to destroy them have a chance to return.
One of the most useful aspects of _Zero Dark Thirty_ is its dogged focus on the mundane and numerous things that underpin great raids. There are the countless hours of intelligence collection and analysis, some of which is highly dangerous. The deliberations and interagency decisions about an event that not only risks the lives of brave men but also requires a high degree of enabling technologies and logistics. Perfect certainty is unavailable, and the identification of the Abbottabad hideout is a product of inductive reasoning of a highly impressionistic nature. A sophisticated helicopter malfunctions. Of course, the film underplays all of the things that _could _have gone wrong. My former Georgetown classmate Phillip Padilla, a USSOCOM alumni, wrote a very chilling piece for _Slate _with Daniel Byman about how Neptune Spear could have easily gone FUBAR. As Padilla observes, the intel could have been wrong, al-Qaeda could have prepared defensive traps and positions that might have inflicted a heavy toll on the attackers, the helicopter could have crash-landed in an location far more inconvenient than the compound (such as in the middle of urban Abbottabad itself), and a diplomatically perilous and tactically risky shootout with the Pakistani military could have occurred. For every Neptune Spear, there are _many_ Dieppes or Mogadishus. In the world of hostage rescue, the kind of confused mess seen in Algerias gory retaking of its natural gas complex is more common than smooth operations like Entebbe or the GSG-9s expert performance at Lufthansa Flight 181. Roger Spulak of the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) emphasizes that Special Operations Forces (SOF) are selected and organized in a manner that deals directly with three prominent sources of friction on the battlefield: constraints imposed by physical and cognitive limits, informational uncertainty, and the highly unpredictable nature of combat between two thinking adversaries. Elite warriors are better able to overcome basic human constraints, flexibility provides a means of customizing capabilities to deal with informational problems in ways conventional forces cannot, and creativity provides game-changing methods for dealing with complex problems. The latter is dramatically demonstrated by William McRavens concept of "relative advantage," which can create a state of tactical paralysis in even a well-prepared opponent that knows an attack is coming. The problem is that the higher the importance of the mission, the greater the level of fog, friction, and overall interactive complexity inherent in the operational problem. A war cannot be won by great raids alone. Even new technology has not changed the high costs to consistently replicating decisive raids. An operation like Stuxnet was dependent on contextual organizational, technological, and human factors that are unlikely to be replicated in the exact same way for the target set struck. Getting that mixture right is very difficult. It seems apparent from open-source accounts that bad intel and good enemy counterintelligence ruined the recent French hostage rescue attempt in Somalia. The right organizational framework eluded the doomed rescuers in the 1980 Tehran hostage rescue attempt. Enemy adaptation, restrictive rules of engagement, poor strategic guidance, and the problem of operating in a multinational coalition were all factors in the Battle of Mogadisu. Sometimes special operations are also fairly irrelevant to the long-term outcome. The Spetsnaz operation in 1979 that ushered in the Soviet Unions invasion of Afghanistan decapitated the government in a marvelous display of operational acumen. But like a stone that makes the water ripple but nonetheless still sinks, its influence on the ultimate outcome is at best highly indirect. Perhaps Neptune Spear will be more significant for its domestic political effects than its ultimate impact on al-Qaeda. Certainly killing bin Laden removed a prominent enemy leader from the war effort and delivered troves of valuable intel on how his organization worked. But the destruction of the Afghan safe haven and the constant attrition by local Afghan cross-border forces (the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams) and American airpower likely had a more important impact. Neptune Spear did, however, give the President more political breathing room to draw down the Afghan war. In terms of the ultimate aim of war, this is highly useful and underrated. Stuxnet also may have reassured regional allies and given more time for the US to create the sanctions regime that would devastate Iran far more than any computer worm. Some special operations missions have distinct strategic payoffs that often make them often worth the risk, and hence the need for customized, tailorable forces that can do the job. The structural requirements of _enabling _those forces, however, are often grossly undervalued. The "tip of the spear" is only one small element of a large and multifarious machine, and when that machine breaks down (as it is wont to do) there is hell to pay. Special operations forces are highly skilled and lightly armed infantrymen, supported by special operations aviation, search and rescue, close air support platforms, and other enabling capabilities. A small group of lightly armed infantrymen, as seen at the battle of Arnhem, does not count for much in the face of superior numbers and even the most rudimentary of combined arms. And as my friend Rei Tang often reminds me, the famed SOF efforts during the Surge were highly dependent on a unique form of interagency fusion. All of these factors should give us pause when thinking of replacing targeted killing programs with capture regimes. The level of planning and risk involved, to say nothing of the potential blowback in terms of violations of sovereignty and civilian casualities, is of an order of magnitude higher. Between 1,500 to 3,000 Somalis were killed or wounded in the Battle of Mogadishu, all for the capture of one man w_ho wasnt even there to begin with_. If there is one truth to criticisms of targeted killing, it is that they are more sustainable. The air war over Pakistan has gone on long because the complexity and friction inherent in the missions are lower. But one of the prominent reasons why is that the potential moral harm inherent in some situations potentially posed by a coercive capture regime dwarf those of airpower-based killing. The large and complex apparatus needed to make a snatch-and-grab work in a complex environment cannot be underplayed, and the human consequences for civilians when that machine breaks down can be very ugly. How would we regard Neptune Spear if scores of Pakistan civilians were harmed in a madcap attempt by special operators to shoot their way out of a failed mission? Reducing targeted killings is certainly desirable, but the degree to which captures can meaningfully replace TKs is highly context-dependent. Ultimately, when the policy requires an terrorist be removed from the scene, some means will be used. When a snatch-and-grab promises Mogadishu-like results, an aircraft may be employed. When it is possible to rendition a terrorist, it will likely be preferable to do so. As noted in my previous posts, the demand is unlikely to go away, which has implications for the supply. Finally, there is no way to reliably know whether another Mogadishu will occur. Had AQ or the ISI been better at counterintelligence and deception operations they could have foiled Neptune Spear in the same way the Somalis did to the French hostage rescuers. Indeed, when one thinks of the great coups de main of antiquity, good CI and MILDEC could have turned the Trojan Horse or the fall of Jericho into bloody disasters. Had the inhabitants of Jericho "turned" Rahab they could have fooled the Israelites as handily as the Double Cross System foiled the Germans, and the Trojans might have been a bit more skeptical of "Greeks bearing gifts" had they patrolled more vigorously. What is the future of special operations great raids? Technology will create different tactical possibilities, certainly. Advances in cyberweapons, directed energy weapons, sensor meshes, 3-D printing for logistics, and robotics will create a much more diverse and powerful set of enabling capabilities to augment the power of raiding forces. Of course, they will also introduce their own set of complications, vulernabilities, and enemy adaptations. What _wont _change is the enduring value of SOF as a "strategic asset"--defined not necessarily as a tool that necessarily has intrinsically "strategic" qualities but one that delivers a certain kind of effect with a unique and rare meaning for strategy. That meaning must be appreciated, lest SOF is squandered in missions that do not play to its unique strengths or seen as a panacea.
Thanks to a coincidence of film release debates, _Lincoln_ and _Django Unchained_ have prompted no small outpouring of commentary on the relationship between law, race, and violence private and public both. Lest anyone fear I’m about to hijack this blog for pop culture commentary, I bring these films up because the problem of slavery, and its role in the military contest for the fate of the Union, played an integral role in the development of modern laws of war. There can be no doubt that emancipation in America required horrific carnage, and for precisely this reason the U.S. went to great lengths to find a framework to restrain it without compromising its obligation to prosecute and win an eminently just war. John Fabian Witt’s _Lincoln’s Code_ provides a compelling account of the evolution of the laws of war in America, not simply within the Civil War but from the Revolution through the occupation of the Philippines. Central to its story though, as the title implies, is the critical role of General Orders No. 100 not simply within the context of American history and warfare, but international humanitarian law worldwide. Franz Lieber, who wrote “Old Hundred,” was perhaps the exact opposite of the prevailing stereotype of an international lawyer as one might expect. He was a Prussian and a soldier, who’d been shot through the neck at Namur and yet still felt drawn towards the “indelible horrors” of war, which provided the “rich dew” of historical progress. It was precisely because of this inherent moral component to war that Lieber saw fit to revise and crystallize the ethics of warfare for an age of mass combat – a desire almost certainly enhanced by Lieber’s several sons who fought on both sides of the Civil War. Lieber, interestingly, was likely America’s first Clausewitzian of any major influence. He’d been familiar with his fellow Prussian’s work perhaps before most Germans. In Lieber’s _Manual of Political Ethics_, Lieber explains war’s object is to “compel him to peace at my will.” With the aims of a war providing justification to these means, conceptions of military law underwent a radical shift from Enlightenment standards morally indifferent to the aims of combatants. Lieber, as Clausewitz implied, saw these 18th century standards as customary artifacts from a bygone era, but rather than dismissing laws of war as a concept, he sought to recast them in order to simultaneously advance the Union’s war aims while ensuring war’s hardness retained some justice. The elevation of justice, however, was not identical with humanitarianism. No. 100 forbade torture, poison, assassinations, cruelty towards prisoners and any other sort of violence beyond military necessity. It also permitted the execution of illegal combatants, reprisal killings for hostile violations, and the expropriation or destruction of hostile property under a wide range of circumstances. In the context of emancipation, the codification of new laws of war mattered a great deal. Jefferson and other founders sympathetic slavery endeavored to redefine the laws of war, as they did a great many other things, to prevent the use of emancipation as a weapon against the United States. For most of young America’s history, it gravely feared British or other foreign incitement of slave revolts, and consequently ensured the Enlightenment humanitarian law protected slaves like any other civilian property. Even among critics of slavery, the classically-educated hoped America would avoid the servile wars past empires faced. Lincoln, even as he became convinced of the military and moral necessity of emancipation by the bayonet, still hoped to avoid such insurrections while protecting the legitimacy of uniformed black combatants in the Union ranks. Hence the strong penalties on fighting outside a military hierarchy – it would deter not simply Confederate partisans but avoid extending sanction to rebelling slaves (it’s also notable that many former pacifists vocally embraced using slave revolts against the South). The modern iteration of the laws of war, then, grew in part out of a desire to undo a codified injustice at odds with the new contemporary political reality. What had, in the past, appeared as a humanitarian protection, was extended in order to provide safety for a gross injustice that permitted brutal killings of what should have been legitimate combatants. The Lieber Code provided recourse but it defined them within the limits of the law. There is no practice so odious as American slavery now receiving protection under the cloak of humanitarianism. But a great deal of behavior morally repugnant in the 19th century – the use of perfidy to protect partisans and guerrillas and assassination – now exists as a new, frightening reality for proponents of international humanitarian law’s value. In the Civil War, defining the laws of war was synonymous with enhancing the ability of the combatants to prosecute just war aims, even as it hardened the prohibitions on unjustifiable acts. Indeed, one of the great lessons of the Lieber Code is that a country can use the laws of war in a Clausewitzian fashion to better relate violence to policy and enhance the prosecution of the war effort. Indeed, not only can they do so with military success, but in a manner that actually accepts and even elevates a country’s international legitimacy, as the Lieber Code did when the country which razed Atlanta found its orders codified in international humanitarian law. While there is much more to it than this quasi-review offers, _Lincoln’s Code_ is effective not simply as history but as a sobering reminder for strategic theorists to take seriously the laws of war, and to reflect on the opportunities today for reshaping them in a manner conducive to victory in a just war.
Here is another way of understanding some of the common themes that Dan Trombly and I have written about during our brief time blogging on _Abu Muquwama_: For the purpose of argument, imagine American governance as a kind of market. A political process produces policy, and formulated policy has implications for the nature of the services required to implement it. Certainly there is nothing intrinsically valid about the preferences generated by a political process. The process itself is the product of a neverending struggle for influence between many kinds of governmental and extra-governmental actors. But provided that preferences hold constant and those who provide what policymaker preferences entail are rewarded with substantial material, psychological, or status benefits.....the need will likely be provided. National security is a lucrative area where benefits can quickly and massively accrue to actors that fit policymaker needs. While undeniably true in the United States, it is _even more true_ elsewhere in the world. The most lavishly rewarded American general is a pauper when measured against the mil/intel supremos that underpin Middle Eastern autocracies. What type of actor fulfills the stated need, and its organizational makeup, while obviously important, is also_ variable_. Many writers on the subject of private security have an ideological belief, as Machiavelli did, that mercenary armies are inferior to national ones. But any objective reading of history suggests that the truth of such a prejudice is highly dependent on context. Contracting out national defense was essential to the early modern military revolution in Europe. Second, institutions and those who seek to influence them may have their own deeply ingrained mythos about what kind of roles the institution should play. But confusing what an organization or would-be external reformer would like to believe about its proper role for what policymakers have regularly called on it to do is not useful. In the civilian economy, art graduates believe that their skills are useful, and they could very well be right. But the market disagrees. When it comes to national security policy, Platonic conceptions of role-sets crucial to long-held institutional culture matter only as much as they can be justified to those who hold the purse strings. Left to its own devices, the Air Force is unlikely to emphasize close air support (CAS) missions. The Marine Corps’ MAGTF structure is evaluated on the basis of whether it serves the perceived needs of the National Command Authority, not whether the essence of Marine-ness can only be aesthetically satisfied by the MAGTF. Certainly there are good reasons for the Air Force to not emphasize CAS and for the Marines to keep a MAGTF structure. But those reasons do not derive from the idea that such capabilities (or the lack theorof) are crucial to the Marine or Air Force identity. Even if they did, it would be immaterial to what a policy process holds the organizations _should _do. Much analysis on covert action and PMCs, like establishment conceptions of the drug war, focuses almost entirely on the _supply_ side of the equation. The demand side reveals a set of uncomfortable truths. One of them is that reformers ideas that the core function of an intelligence agency should be to supply intelligence does not reflect the preferences of a substantial range of policymakers throughout history. Like Machiavelli’s opinions about mercenary armies, the idea that the ideal function of an intelligence service is to collect intelligence is an _political opinion_ rather than an empirically derived historical regularity. Most intelligence agencies do far more than collect intelligence, and the CIA is no exception to the rule. But where does the demand come from? For better or worse, American policymakers have a consistent need to control the political composition of foreign societies, eliminate sub-state movements, and coerce in situations of short of general war. One can view it from an idealistic lens of spreading the democratic peace and/or combating violent extremism. Critics of American foreign policy take a different tack: imperialism. How such activities are ideologically justified or condemned is secondary to the empirical fact that they are consistent enough to reflect a recurring policymaker preference for institutions and entrepreneurs capable of providing them. The United States has a governmental system that enables covert action, wars of choice, and discrete military interventions. Whether you believe that internationalism abroad and the coercive force it entails is right or wrong, it is a perennial aspect of American policy. Even in so-called “isolationist” epochs policymakers have consistently demonstrated a preference for flexible institutions that can deliver coercive intervention on a dime. Given the presence of such preferences and the allocatable material and symbolic capital potentially available to those who satisfy them it is highly likely that such demands will be met. Supply-side, as opposed to demand-side analysis, has the pernicious effect of quibbling about the visible outward manifestation of a preference while rendering the process that produced it invisible. In the American governmental system, the executive has wide latitude over foreign policy and national security. And when a partisan consensus exists over an issue, as it currently does over American offensive counterterrorism and covert action efforts, demand-side will likely have more of a long-term impact on the nature of institutions than supply-side tinkering. Supply-side tinkering to curb demand-based preferences can also sometimes have severe unintended consequences. As Dan has noted, the historical purpose of the draft was not to _prevent _war but to enable it by giving states a readily available pool of military manpower. Certainly the presence of draftees in Vietnam made for greater social divisions and antiwar activism. But Vietnam-era national security policies were themselves the unintended consequence of efforts to avoid a Korea-style continental deployment through light "advise and assist" missions. When decisionmakers (and the public), motivated by sunk costs, decided to commit general purpose forces they were not deterred by the draft. Without the draft, large-scale involvement in Vietnam simply would not have been possible to begin with. Politics, not technical setup, explains the Vietnam War. Institutions can obviously resist and even shape policymaker demand themselves. But this resistance, like the militarys Clinton-era resistance to gays in the military, largely works because other political actors preferences make the cost of implementing an given policy undesirably high. The Clinton admistration could have devoted substantial political capital, but chose Dont Ask Dont Tell instead of clashing with institutional and likely bipartisan political resistance. When policymakers are cohesive in their demands, institutions find it difficult to resist. Civilian policymakers thwarted military reformers seeking a European-style general staff. It might have done a great deal to actually improve the organizational efficiency of defense planning. But policymakers were simply unwilling to surrender control to such a baldly Germanic defense planning apparatus. Likewise, politicization of intelligence can occur when administrations are determined to see what they want to see. They can set up their own policy shops when the main organization is resistant, like the Bush administration did with the Office of Special Plans during the runup to the Iraq war. Of course, there is a strong benefit to a “politicized” natural security system that is worth its cost. The practice of political appointees with short terms prevents the rise of a “deep state” seen in other countries. The President does not have to worry about a rogue Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) or Secretary of Defense with substantial autonomy to make far-reaching decisions with potentially catastrophic consequences. The Japanese Imperial Army, on the other hand, dragged civilian policymakers into World War II and the Pakistani state today suffers from an inability to reign in the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency. But life is full of tradeoffs, and in this case the dominant consequence has to do with _the shaping power of executive demand_. A DCI cant resist the Presidents demands for covert action, but he also cant exercise an ISI-like hold on covert wars without cabinet oversight. Somewhere in between is the sweet spot--the right mix of institutional latitude and oversight by the executive branch and the legislature. This is the holy grail of intelligence design and it remains an ideal. But from an institutional design perspective, it makes sense to build capabilities and organization around _what the policy customer will likely demand, _not what the outside critic believes they _should _demand. In _The Wire_, Stringer Bell rebukes his cronies running a front business for not understanding basic microeconomics:
You’re not gonna bring that corner b***t up in here, you hear me? You know, what we got here? We got is an elastic product. You know what that means? That means, when people can go elsewhere and get their printing and copying done, they gonna do it. You acting like we got an inelastic product and we don’t.Now, the United States government is obviously highly different in form, function, and rationale from a Baltimore drug crew. But national power roles and functions are also more elastic than many would believe. In my Benghazi post, I noted that when foreign governments fail to protect American diplomats, the USG turns to men with black polos with billable hours. Domestically, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force all jockey for a piece of Air-Sea Battle even if the objective characteristics of the mission set suggest a dominant role for seapower. Policymaker perception and the pot of available resources matter more in practice than whether a given mission set properly belongs to a certain institution. With the knowledge of a _market_ for covert action, intelligence reformers looking to improve the CIA should not confuse what _they_ want_ _the CIA to be (an intelligence-gathering organization with a circumscribed paramilitary action function) with what policymakers currently want (offensive counterterrorism and covert action). David Petraeus didn’t further militarize the CIA because he had a burning desire to make the Agency run like his HQ in Afghanistan. He did so because important policy entrepreneurs in the White House—like countless administrations before them---saw a need for a highly lethal kinetic fusion of intel and military operators. If that need goes away, the Agency will find it harder to justify its wide-ranging unmanned air fleet. But history suggests that even if preferences shift, they will likely re-emerge in a different form. The dominant question should be: how do we—with knowledge of recurring trends of paramilitary and covert action—minimize the negative externalities from these activities? Among other constructive suggestions, Micah Zenko has sensibly suggested paring back signature strikes, as the best tools of violence in low-intensity wars are selective in nature. John Brennan himself, as Joshua Foust has noted on Twitter, has sought to create a better institutional framework for CIA paramilitary action. In the absence of a sudden and drastic shift in what seem to be recurring patterns of policymaker demand (which is not _inherently_ impossible), customer-informed institutional design is likely the best way to deal with the substantial institutional challenges that the countrterror war poses for the CIA and the intelligence community.
Intelligence reform is once again in the air, and this time the bogeyman is the "militarization" of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As Mark Safranski notes, there is something deeply bizarre about the idea that an organization created from the bones of a paramilitary covert action force (the Office of Strategic Services) and frequently involved in joint military ventures with special operations forces (like the Vietnam-era Phoenix Project) should be blamed for engaging in large-scale collaborative military ventures. The frequency with which observers call for the Agency to reject militarization and pursue the supposedly more pure activities of intelligence collection and analysis suggest a lack of historical knowledge of the CIAs paramilitary past. The CIA was built to perform both covert action and intelligence collection. Aside from a brief period in the 1990s, the Agency has engaged in both. Creating and managing paramilitary armies, running off-the-books air forces and engaging in political action and influence campaigns has been the Agencys bread and butter from Southeast Asia to Latin America and plenty of places in between. The military and other elements of the interagency has been a natural partner for the CIA, particularly in waging sustained and violent campaigns against sub-state actors. This is not to deny the importance of Sherman Kent and the Agencys strategic intelligence mission. But focusing on Kent alone makes us forget that for every Kent there was also a James Jesus Angleton or a Kermit Roosvelt. And for every Angleton and Roosevelt there was also a MACV-SOG operator or a deniable pilot bombing a Third World battlefield in the Cold War. It was precisely the _lack of good paramilitary options_ during the 1990s that spawned policymaker demand for unmanned aerial vehicle strikes and greater interagency fusion between the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Note too that for better or worse, the Agency and its military counterparts have also returned to form in Central Asia and Africa with local paramilitary proxy forces and secret (non-UAV) air forces in geopolitical hot spots. Merely laying out the continuum of military/intelligence fusion in past and present eras of covert activity isnt enough. What is needed is a framework for understanding why the Agency and the military remain so intricately tied together, and why paramilitary missions are likely to continue in some form no matter what is said about the benefits of rejecting targeting and returning to intelligence collection. This framework is absent from 90% of conversations about military and intelligence fusion, and the debate needs better perspective. Lets start with the purpose of national power. There are many sides of power, defined at a minimum as the ability to shape the ability of actors to determine their circumstances and fate. Some aspects of power are inherently compulsory in nature, meaning they hinge on the capability to force someone (an individual) or something (an social entity) to do what you want. Others have to do with institutional heft or producing a ideology capable of mobilization. However, the intermediary step between the capability, structure, or discourse in question and the resulting outcome is often some form of _control_. In counterinsurgency campaigns, it is difficult to build states without the ability to prevent the enemy from interfering. Creating such control requires violence when the violent objector to the policy objective remains on the field. More broadly, states have developed elaborate means of creating control over domestic and international social environments. As Erin Simpson reminds us, even architecture can help bolster state control over a restive polity through design that facilitates tactical advantage and movement by local security forces. One means of control is _information_. Counterinsurgency theorists have often emphasized the importance of cartography, demographic information, relational data, and superior means of information processing because greater understanding an operational environment lowers the costs of control. The anarchist social scientist James C. Scott alleged (with a fair degree of infamy) that certain hill tribes in Asia resisted developing written languages in order to avoid incorporation into centralized polities. Counterintelligence and deception operations deny and misdirect adversaries in search of information. The phrase "information is power" is banal but there is some use for it. Intelligence analysis takes information and data and transforms it into actionable products for policymakers. Unsurprisingly, intelligence has always been tied to control, domestically or internationally. Strategic indicators and warning (I&W) helps deny control to a foreign enemy by providing advance warning of attack. The role of domestic intelligence in maintaining domestic political control is obvious. Intelligence does not _guarantee _control but it is certanly part of the requirements for generating control in a social environment. Control can also be gained through organized social action, which can directly deny, disarm, destroy, or otherwise thwart an objector to state policy. Organized violence is a form of social action, but so can be a political mobilization, construction of an alternative institution, or calculated erosion of a target social structure or entity. Many covert operations use combinations of violence, hidden influence, erosion, and mobilization to achieve control. Theres a long CIA history of militarizing ethno-religious groups that are on the bottom of a given countrys power structure or arming insurgents and providing them with military support. So what does all of this have to do with intelligence? Plenty. Policymakers did not develop intelligence agencies to do "intelligence," a term that only represents a fraction of what many intelligence organizations across the world do. Lets not confuse a given _institutional design_, which can shift radically over time, with _core purpose_. Policymakers have always wanted intelligence agencies, intelligence entrepreneurs, or specialized ad hoc groupings to improve their ability to _generate control_ in the following ways: collection of information, manipulation, and direct coercive action, often in concert with other agencies. Special operations historian Simon Anglim lays out how covert operations fit in:
There are grey areas in which states clash short of open warfare when use of subversion, sabotage and fighting by local proxies may be a preferred strategic option to overt commitment of regular forces; moreover, given that much non-violent covert activity aims at undermining the target state’s military preparedness and will to fight, and steering its strategic decision-making processes, there are important strategic dimensions here, also. A covert operation, therefore, is a single mission aimed at creating a particular situation in another country with concealed means and intent. Non-violent covert operations create disaffection among the target state’s population, weakening its will to affect the world around it, or steer surreptitiously its decision-making via placing agents in key positions. Violent covert operations include sabotage, assassination, and paramilitary support of armed insurgency against the opposing power.Many covert activities happen during wartime and in the context of larger military campaigns. During the Pancho Villa expedition Pershing attempted to use secret agents to poison Pancho Villa outright. The infamous Force Research Unit (FRU) used agents of intelligence to further British strategy in the struggle against the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The CIA carried out extensive covert operations of a paramilitary nature in the Korean War and did so in cooperation with special operations soldiers as part of MACV-SOG in the Vietnam war. And there was the OSS in WWII, the proliferation of specialized British military intelligence and special operations groups, and the operation of private air forces before US entry into the war. Policymakers want a variety of means to realize control. When regular military means are too blunt a tool and diplomacy too soft, they will clamor for what they (rightly or wrongly) consider to be a subtle knife. In _Ghost Wars_, Steve Coll noted that every time the Pentagon could not give the President actionable options for raids in pre-9/11 Afghanistan without rendering the plans politically useless. In the eleven years since 9/11, successive Presidents have clearly rejected such a calculus and demanded that the CIA and the Pentagon work together to produce covert options for pursuing enemies of the state. In particular, the line between the CIA has always been fairly porous. As SOF scholar Nick Prime often noted on Twitter, military and CIA often combine to realize common missions, exchange personnel, and closely collaborate. Finally, like any good bureaucratic actor the CIA jockeys to serve a pressing need. The most pressing need today, as perceived by policymakers, is the _war effort_. Militarization goes beyond just _adapting_ to the demands of policymakers, as a former classmate pointed out to me. If the President did not want a military-focused CIA, would he have appointed a former general to head it? And David Petraeus, unlike fellow General Michael Hayden, was _not _dual-hatted. If the CIA decides to go "back to intelligence," policymakers will rightly conclude that the Agency is only doing _half _of its job. It seems paradoxical to bemoan the militarization of intelligence when the likely outcome of muzzling the CIAs paramilitary organs will be greater Pentagon conduct of covert affairs. As Robert Caruso once explained, it is not clear that this structure will result in greater transparency. DoD has many more ways than the Agency to frustrate such inquiries. A CIA weak on paramilitary-focused covert action _will _guarantee a more militarized intelligence structure than the Intelligence Community we have today. Yet there is some merit to criticism of the CIAs post-9/11 focus. The emphasis on the targeting cycle has come at the expense of strategic intelligence. If intelligence agencies cannot deliver deliver credible assessments of intelligence useful to the formation of strategy, they are also doing half their jobs. The strategic effect derived from post-9/11 covert action has also been mixed. Data problems make it hard to assess the impact of the air war in Pakistan, and in Yemen the covert campaign has been arguably counterproductive. There are reasonable concerns about the long-term impact of the CIA losing its significant institutional advantages in complex counterintelligence, non-targeting covert operations, and intelligence collection. But blaming paramilitary covert operations alone ignores the fact that covert operations in war serve _strategy_. And when policy and strategy have an overly military character, it is not surprising that myopia will set in as intelligence efforts are shifted to fit operational demands. Covert operations in Vietnam and its neighbors were supposed to support an overarching war effort that in and of itself was horribly flawed. In Yemen the United States is the counterinsurgency force for the Yemeni government, and the failures of targeted killings must be considered within the context of Washingtons poor conduct of the overall campaign. The focus on the targeting cycle owes itself to _policymaker demand_. Listening to some critiques of CIA/JSOC operations for militarization of intelligence, one would never realize that the nation has been _at war for eleven years_. If the CIA did _not _radically shift to support operational military demands it would have likely endured the same tongue-lashing Robert Gates gave the Air Force for not supporting the COIN mission. Nearly every element of the United States government was told to support the wars, and the CIA was no exception to the general rule. During times of war or situations in which the chance of war is high, policymakers tend to want the military and the CIA to cooperate to advance their strategic aims or otherwise help realize policy. if you want a less militarized IC, you ought to demand a policies less reliant on violent and/or coercive means. And in particular, policies that demand an expansive political-military effort across a large portion of Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Finally, critics engrossed in the ethical quandries of direct action should not ignore the _significant moral compromises_ inherent in day-to-day intelligence collection (particularly human intelligence operations). There is a reason why Americans have always been traditionally uncomfortable with intelligence agencies, and we have never quite given up the basic sentiment that "gentlemen dont read other gentlemens mail." Intelligence collection has often threatened civil liberties, and convincing vulnerable informants to betray their country, group, or tribe is fraught with ethical perils. Today, the ethical challenge of human intelligence operations are often forgotten. But they were an omnipresent problem during the Cold War, and one recognized in even fictional literature on intelligence like John LeCarres novels. So what to be done? First, any process of intelligence reform has to incorporate what policymakers fundamentally desire out of organizations like the CIA. In an ever more open-ended struggle against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, this will be covert action in cooperation with the military. The difficult challenge lies in resolving the Title 10/50 conflict and developing greater transparency while still preserving institutional relationships and tactics, techniques, and procedures built up during the post-9/11 wars. The CIA will also have to balance such demands with core intelligence collection and assessment. The frustrating part about this is that the CIAs ability to pursue better intelligence collection and analysis is inherently constrained by policymaker demand. Another Afghanistan and we will be likely to see much more attention and resources focused on targeting. The fictional CIA honcho in _Zero Dark Thirty _yells "give me targets!" because he likely has someone above the Agency also breathing down his neck. Most importantly, the United States must also understand that covert operations are also governed by policy and strategy as well. As Micah Zenkos research shows, "discrete military operations" are effective in the context of an overarching strategy. And it goes without saying that covert operations cannot rescue a bad policy. Unfortunately, much of the history of covert operations in America is often precisely that--failed attempts to rescue bad policies with spooks and door-kickers. Covert operations have their limits and it would behoove us to spend more time trying to understand their inherent constraints. But setting up a false binary between a paramilitary and intelligence CIA wont help us do that.
Academi (formerly Blackwater) and other military contractors received an early Christmas present on the 20th: a windfall in future profits from diplomatic security:
[B]oth the influential independent commission on the September attacks in Benghazi and a Senate hearing on Thursday pointed to flooding the State Department’s security corps with money. And one of the key post-Benghazi decisions the next secretary of state will make is whether to continue spending that cash on hired guards or to bolster the ranks of State Department employees that protect diplomats themselves. The Benghazi commission, run by former Amb. Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, recommended spending an additional $2.2 billion over the next decade on “construction of new facilities in high risk, high threat areas.” It also urged using emergency war funding to finance “respond[ing] to emerging security threats and vulnerabilities and operational requirements” in dangerous postings. Ironically, even while the commission blasted the Bureau of Diplomatic Security for inadequately protecting the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, its recommendations will line the bureau’s coffers.There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth on my Twitter and Facebook streams. Articles were posted and resposted warning that diplomacy is inherently dangerous, a fortress mentality would only prevent diplomats from doing their jobs, and that the new contracts would lead to a return to the low points of Iraq War military contracting. Certainly, returning to the era of "Big Boy Rules" (if that is what this means, which is by no means self-evident) would be a net loss for American national power. But just like my blogmate Dans UAV-loathing nemeses, the cottage industry of contractor-haters tends to ignore the real problem at hand while focusing their ire on a handy external object. However, frantically attacking a goateed, black polod voodoo doll will not make policymakers stop using private military contractors--the fault lies in larger questions of statecraft. Diplomacy is indeed inherently a dangerous business. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and other environments of transitional authority, State Department employees have risked their lives alongside general-purpose forces, special operations forces, and CIA agents and tactical operators. But there is a crucial difference between a diplomat and a soldier, a difference that has been unintentionally obfuscated by ten years of "civilian surge"-ing. As Steven Metz noted, only DoD has the redundancy and capacity to deploy, equip, feed, and protect large numbers of Kevlar-clad men in places where many residents with guns _arent_ Americans trying to get out. Diplomatic risk is unavoidable, but without something akin to the British imperial civil service there is a limit to the level of risk an under-resourced organization like State can bear. It is easy to criticize the State Departments tendency towards bunkering in Iraq only if one forgets that the United Nations, which lacked proper security, was attacked with significant loss of life. Sérgio Vieira de Mello is evidence of the unfortunate fact that credible influence has costs. Many non-governmental organizations are now agonizing over whether or not to use private military contractors themselves. Much of the world is in the middle of political transitions, many states have not established full control, and local political factions dont always see foreigners with good intentions as a boon. In fact, stability and the rule of law can actually _upset _the informal arrangements that undergird many political systems. In Haiti, cracking down on gangs robbed established politicians of their enforcer cadres. But this does not answer the question of why diplomacy is a dangerous business for Americans. Whether or not you damn or praise America with the ideologically charged term "empire," the growth of a network of contractual relationships is the most tangible legacy of our centuries-long climb to global preeminence. Great powers contract out security, logistics, and economic commitments to trusted agents. But those agents must struggle to legitimate said commitments to domestic audiences. Libyas largely pro-American populace did not produce or sanction the Benghazi attack. But there were still men with guns who did, and the government will not act against them. The principal-agent problem arises when trusted agents in places like Libya are unwilling or unable to fulfill their contracts. Diverting resources to benefit a distant power, stepping on local interests, and risking being damned as the pawn of foreigners is costly. Withdrawing from contracts is not. The patron needs the client, and failures to complete the contract are often unpunished. This is why Pakistan can funnel money, arms, and even operational direction to those who kill Americans and Afghans with impunity. To make matters worse, the nature of strategic geography often dictates that clients are sought in some of the worlds most unstable locales. Every administration since Carter has the same Persian Gulf security policy, and that policy involves cozying up to repressive states. The logistics tail of the Afghan war proved beneficial for many a Central Asian autocrat. Unfortunately, contractual relationships have a nasty way of enmeshing the US in local political disputes, because our support makes us an actor in other states domestic politics. Americans--diplomats, soldiers, or otherwise--are thus targets to any faction with a grievance or a desire to position themselves in the political arena. Counting on the locals to respect a little thing called the Vienna Convention is a fools errand, and the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis should have signaled loud and clear that norms of diplomatic conduct are just scraps of paper to armed "students," terrorists, and militiamen. Increased security, private or governmental, is a ready solution when trusted agents cannot or will not protect Americans from those who seek to do them harm. The Libyan government cannot properly protect the American consulate, does not exert effort to capture those responsible, and does not even provide security for American law enforcement to investigate the attack. So if the host nation cannot do the job, why blame the State Department for turning to those who can? Blackwater, for all of its lethal flaws, never lost a principal. Note too, as Dan and Jason Fritz have, that Benghazi is also a symbol of how light-footprint interventions magnify the consequences of the principal-agent problem. The US was willing to overthrow Gaddafi but preferred exerting influence rather than control over the turbulent post-conflict environment. The fact that the Benghazi consulates security was contracted to an unreliable militia is a potent symbol of how trying to avoid the costs inherent in the exercise of power can sometimes lead to disaster. This is not to argue that a large American occupation force was the answer. But as Fritz observes, the reluctance to pay the cost afterwards to advance American political goals should have been a deciding factor in the intervention itself. The real problem with PMC diplo-security is that it only accentuates the fundamental problem--unreliable client governments _offloading costs onto the United States_. By waging air war on Pakistans proxies instead of holding Islamabad to account for its misdeeds, we become the focus of the Pakistani publics rage. Meanwhile, Islamabad keeps on providing the material support that keeps terrorists and insurgents in the field after our platforms return to base. Similarly, responding to Benghazis by bulking up on security entails assuming responsibility for what _the Libyan government_ should be doing. For better or worse, superpower status means that we will have to deal with the tough reality of trying to maintain a set of hierarchal relationships for the foreseeable future. We will struggle to manage complex security, logistical, and economic relationships in unstable places with often unreliable partners. And we will create new relationships through interventions that entail lengthy post-conflict assistance. Raging at the Blackwaters of the world is unproductive, and the consequences of Benghazi should highlight precisely why. PMCs are market-oriented institutions and no demand that is worth paying large sums to satisfy will go unmet. Benghazis partisan nastiness will fade as we enter 2013. But its consequences for American diplomacy are enormous. Fortress security may prevent future Benghazis, but at a high cost that we bear alone. We would do better by trying, through a mixture of various forms of national power, to incentivize the governments we rely on to actually fulfill their most basic of responsibilities: protecting the men and women we send into harms way to advance our interests.
_Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author or volume editor of eleven books and monographs, including _Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror_. Chris Albon earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Davis._ In late September, African Union (AU) forces surrounded the port city of Kismayo on Somalia’s southern coast. The AU troops stood on the threshold of capturing the city from the al Qaeda-affiliated militant group al Shabaab, which began the year as the dominant military power in southern Somalia. On October 2, when AU troops entered Kismayo and claimed control of the city after a long standoff, Shabaab had lost its final stronghold. It is worth noting, though, that the AU troops were hit by a bomb blast as they entered, which was Shabaab’s way of saying that it was still a force to be reckoned with. As the group’s spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab said, “This is only an introduction to the forthcoming explosions.” As one of us noted at the time, in _Foreign Policy_, with the loss of Kismayo Shabaab was returning to somewhat familiar territory:
Al-Shabab will try to repeat a maneuver that already proved successful once before in Somalia. Back in 2006, an Islamist coalition called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), of which al-Shabab is an offshoot, controlled most of the key strategic points in southern Somalia and had encircled the U.N.-recognized Transitional Federal Government in the south-central city of Baidoa. The ICU governed according to its strict interpretation of Islamic law. It executed people for watching soccer matches and imposed a number of other draconian restrictions (though wasn’t as harsh as al-Shabab would later become). As the year neared its end, many observers expected the ICU to undertake an offensive to wipe out the transitional government’s final sanctuary. Instead, however, Ethiopia launched an invasion of Somalia that not only received the approval of the United States, but critical military support as well. Ethiopian troops entered the capital, Mogadishu, on Dec. 28, 2006, and quickly reversed virtually all the ICU’s strategic gains throughout the country before the end of January 2007. The ICU promised an insurgency, and one soon gripped Somalia. Al-Shabab split from the ICU during this period and eventually was able to become the dominant force in the country’s south. By early 2011, the situation looked much like it did prior to the Ethiopian invasion. Just as a few Ethiopian troops protected the transitional government in Baidoa in 2006, all that stood between the Somali government and certain death at al-Shabab’s hands in 2011 was the protection of an African Union force composed of Ugandan and Burundian troops.Although Shabaab has now lost Kismayo, it is hoping for a repeat of what occurred from 2007 through 2011: that the country’s transitional government requires a foreign force to prop it up, which serves as an irritant and gives rise to a powerful insurgency. Whether they are able to do so, of course, remains to be seen. Since African Union forces surrounded Kismayo, we have kept a database detailing every publicly-reported attack known or suspected of being carried out by the group and its sympathizers. This database runs from September 30, 2012, through December 5, 2012, covering a total of 68 attacks. In this article, we map the early part of Shabaab’s attempted post-Kismayo insurgency by providing a visualization of this data. Overall, by our count 144 people have been killed in these attacks and 300 wounded. See Figure One for casualties caused by these attacks. Further breaking down these figures, 125 were killed in Somalia and 19 in Kenya; 227 were wounded in Somalia, and 73 in Kenya. Our figures almost certainly _underestimate _the overall numbers of killed and wounded in Shabaab-related attacks (though perhaps not in Kenya, as we will explain subsequently), since we measure only attacks that were reported in the press. Not only do some attacks in Somalia go unreported, but also in many cases the press reporting did not include numbers of killed or wounded, and thus we could not add concrete numbers to our database. The reason that the reporting on Kenya may not be an underestimation is because the responsibility of Shabaab or its sympathizers for attacks around Nairobi is often suspected but not known for a fact. Our database employs four different categories of attack perpetrators: known Shabaab, suspected Shabaab, known sympathizers, and suspected sympathizers. Of the thirteen attacks in Kenya, four were carried out by suspected al Shabaab, while nine were carried out by suspected sympathizers. For example, on September 30, AFP reported on a grenade attack at a Nairobi church that killed a child and wounded nine other people. The article noted that the blast, which triggered reprisal attacks against Somalis, “came a day after Islamist Shebab fighters abandoned their last bastion in neighbouring Somalia in the face of an assault by Kenyan and other troops.” AFP reported the statement of Wilfred Mbithi, head of police operations in Nairobi, that witnesses “saw two men of Somali origin running towards the back of the church where the explosion occurred.” The article further notes:
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the church attack, the latest in a string of grenade attacks, shootings and bomb blasts that have rocked Kenya since it sent troops into southern Somalia in October 2011 to crush bases of Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab fighters. On Saturday, the Shebab retreated from their last stronghold in Somalia, leaving the southern port city of Kismayo that has been a vital economic lifeline for the Islamists. Shebab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage had warned that the militia would remain a threat.All of this means that the article is strongly implying that Shabaab sympathizers are the likely perpetrators of the attack; but without a claim of responsibility, that cannot be known for sure. Figure One makes clear that there is no discernible trend in terms of casualties caused by Shabaab attacks: they cannot be shown to be either increasing or decreasing over time. We also measured attacks by target in Figure Two. The overwhelming majority of attacks were against military targets. These include attacks against AU, Kenyan, and Somali forces. Civilians were the second most popular target, followed by government and police. There were also two attacks on churches, both of which occurred in Kenya (in Nairobi and Garissa), and both of which employed grenades. We measured attacks by type in Figure Three. The three most popular attack types by Shabaab and its sympathizers were IED attacks, ambushes, and shootings. Shabaab has also prominently employed grenade attacks, assassinations, and massed attacks. Only one suicide attack was found in this sample, a double suicide bombing at a Mogadishu restaurant in early November. However, there were also unconfirmed reports that pro-government forces captured a would-be female suicide bomber in late October as she was on her way to carry out an attack at “a busy location in Kismayo.” We will continue to monitor the shape of Shabaab’s post-Kismayo fight against Somalia’s government, and may publish an update at some future point.
The controversy of the American targeted-killing program, and especially the resurgence of covert paramilitary and military action, has inspired a great deal of concern about the accountability and oversight of America’s supposed new ways of war. Does the lack of risk they offer encourage the Congress, media, and public to stay silent? One of the most prominent scholars of military robotics, P.W. Singer, recently put out an article that reiterated an argument he makes about the decline in the accountability of American wars, as exemplified in the drone program:
In democracies, there have always been deep bonds between the public and its wars. Citizens have historically participated in decisions to take military action, through their elected representatives, helping to ensure broad support for wars and a willingness to share the costs, both human and economic, of enduring them. In the U.S., our Constitution explicitly divided the president’s role as commander-in-chief in war from Congress’s role in declaring war. Yet, these links and this division of labour are now under siege as a result of a technology that our founding fathers never could have imagined. We don’t have a draft anymore. Less than 0.5 per cent of Americans over 18 serve in the active-duty military. We do not declare war anymore. The last time Congress actually did so was in 1942 – against Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. We don’t buy war bonds or pay war taxes anymore. During the Second World War, 85 million Americans purchased war bonds that brought the government $185 billion. In the last decade, we bought none and instead gave the richest five per cent of Americans a tax break. And now we possess a technology that removes the last political barriers to war. The strongest appeal of unmanned systems is that we don’t have to send someone’s son or daughter into harm’s way. But when politicians can avoid the political consequences of the condolence letter – and the impact that military casualties have on voters and on the news media – they no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way. For the first 200 years of American democracy, engaging in combat and bearing risk – both personal and political – went hand in hand. In the age of drones, that is no longer the case.This narrative exemplifies a civil mythology under final assault from the robotic barbarians at the gates. Unfortunately, history itself tells a far messier story. For one thing, the notion that there are always deep bonds between the public and the war-fighting effort is false. I have tackled the question of the draft previously on this blog, but the rest of the arguments merit further scrutiny. For one, the Constitution’s demands on Congressional oversight in war have never been so clear, nor so linear in their erosion. The U.S. fought several wars without a formal declaration – and even without direct Congressional authorization – before it ever formally declared war in 1812. In some cases, such as the Quasi-War and the Barbary Wars, these were authorized by Congressional statutes short of a formal declaration. In 1801, Congress passed the Naval Peace Establishment Act, and Jefferson cited Congress’s funding of the military capacity as sufficient authorization for its use against hostile powers. A State Department directive told the U.S. Navy that if the Barbary states declared war on the U.S., then the Navy was to “protect our commerce & chastise their insolence – by sinking, burning, or destroying their ships & Vessels wherever you shall find them.” Of course, Jefferson was hesitant to expand this further than defense and limited retaliation, but even he did not believe a formal declaration, nor, obviously, any kind of conscription, was necessary for waging offensive war. What he received was a series of Congressional statutes expanding the fleet and specifically authorizing expanded military action against the Barbary states. The Indian wars were justified on much the same logic. At no point did the U.S. formally declare war against the Indians. By the period of the Seminole Wars it was well-established that Congress recognizing hostilities and appropriating resources to the combat established constitutional recognition of a conflict. Insofar as Congress receives statutory notification and continues to defray the costs of conflict, it legitimizes war as constitutional. The differences between a Congressional authorization for using force and a formal declaration are statutorily meaningful, but both are legitimate with respect to the Constitution. The deep civic bonds have actually generally been quite shallow. State militias were called up in local wars for military geographical reasons, but the burning of the capital in 1814 failed to merit a draft. The AUMF, NDAA, and War Powers Resolution all constitute a system of Congressional compliance to Presidential military initiative, in which war is retroactively legitimized through _post hoc_ defrayment. The U.S. Navy, with its peacetime establishment and broad writ to conduct “small wars” and punitive expeditions (as well as a Marine Corps with similar advantages), did far more to undermine the political barriers to U.S. wars than drones have or likely will. Expeditionary warfare by forces inherently limited in their political costs of extraction is as old as the republic itself. The very concept of covert action helped too, and the idea of a secret air force predates the CIA itself. Roosevelt’s Flying Tigers, approved before U.S. entry into WWII using government money laundered through a contractor and lend-lease, sought to secretly put dozens of aircraft into China to fight Japan. Manned aircraft, along with a PMC, and an extralegal or illegal authorization by a frustrated executive began what was planned to be a covert war. December 7, 1941, not deep civic responsibility, saved it from being remembered as such. Later, the CIA was flying secret air forces for Cubans and Congolese. WWII era aircraft flew secret wars, but covert action itself was the real mechanism for reducing political costs. That it now happens to employ robots rather than deniable pilots, foreign mercenaries, or nameless spooks allows changes in quantity more than essential quality. Yet many insist that drones, by removing the threat of casualties, undermine oversight and accountability because politicians can avoid legislative backlash and media scrutiny. Even recent history does not bear this out. For example, at least 17 Americans died in Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, including some in militant attacks and not simply accidents or other causes. Operation Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa has its casualties too. The media noted their deaths but there was no backlash. Bemoaning the lack of media coverage of Afghanistan – _Afghanistan!_ – is a cliché of war commentary that will be decade old before the drawdown. Relative to the number of U.S. personnel committed, I would wager the targeted killing campaign is far better covered than Afghanistan today, and it is certainly out of proportion in terms of the casualties that the personnel supporting the war suffer. Indeed, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan themselves do not suggest that the link between perpetual war and lack of risk is so straightforward. What, exactly, has Congressional oversight there saved us from? For all the bemoaning of the “drone wars,” they have broad public approval, incredibly little Congressional criticism – by the cost-defrayment standard, continual support – and can we really say their consequences are so much more deleterious to the body politic and the public trust than the disaster that was the choice to invade Iraq? To ignore, escalate, and bungle in Afghanistan? We can’t blame the drones for the U.S. war in Yemen, where US SOF and clandestine agents watched from the ground when 2002’s lethal drone strike came down, or where cruise missiles and most likely F-15Es take part in the bombardment. We can’t blame the drones for the U.S. war in Somalia, where naval guns, AC-130s and helicopters, along with JSOC, operated for years before the Predators and Reapers let loose missiles there. In any case, neither of these states really have the air defense capability, or the intention, to challenge U.S. airpower. Are we really to believe the risk of a plane crash is why policymakers switched to drone strikes? As for Pakistan, the model of accountability that Singer holds up, the bin Laden raid, involved a lot of deliberation and careful consideration, to be sure – but it was done entirely in secret. That we even know of its deliberations so intimately is because, for basically everyone involved, it’s a good story. That we use drones there and not conventional aircraft is not because of American casualty aversion, but because it is what the Pakistani government appears to accept – and these strikes frequently cease or slacken when Pakistani and U.S. relations come too close to the brink. Political costs retain veto power, but in covert action, they are quiet and indirect. The fault lies not in our drones, but in ourselves. The reason our wars – secret or no – are so poorly managed are because of the policy process itself and the goals it seeks, alongside the incredible capability of the U.S. military and federal government which lets them sustain the weight and persevere through so many missteps and failures. The draft does not stop failing wars, overt or covert, as we learned from Vietnam and the “secret wars” surrounding it. That the condolence letter of a pilot crashing his aircraft in Yemen might be the difference between peace and war seems proper, but what would make its power so much greater than those for the advisors and the spotters, or the vastly larger number of letters for the fallen of Afghanistan, which was sickeningly, but unsurprisingly, absent from the general election? The political silences that enable these processes are older than we care to admit. It is not just that we cannot turn back time, but that there is no extended length of time much better to turn back to. Before drones were, these kinds of wars were there, waiting for them.
Since the beginning of Syria’s roughly 20-month-long civil war, the question of whether or when the regime would turn to chemical warfare to ensure its survival has loomed large for Syrians and the wider world alike. Damascus maintains, by most estimates, prodigious stocks of blister agents and even advanced nerve agents that could inflict horrific results on civilians and soldiers alike. The recent military gains by rebels in the neighborhoods of Damascus and their increasingly potent air defense capabilities all speak to plausible motive. U.S. officials report preliminary steps towards readying, and exhortations to begin employing, chemical weapons as well. We know relatively little about the regime’s mindset, or its military’s logistical or ethical readiness to follow out such horrific orders. Nevertheless, it is wrong to suggest Syria is the first regime to face an endgame with chemical weapons in its arsenal. If Assad’s regime’s death spiral involves poison gas, it would in fact be the first incident of its kind. One of the first – if not the first – regimes to collapse with chemical weapons was Tsarist Russia. Even in its death throes, it did not deploy them, although Tukachevsky inflicted chemical warfare against the Tambov Rebellion before the end of the Russian Civil War. The Russian Revolution and Civil War demonstrated a recurrent pattern, although one with a very small sample size. Embattled regimes, on their last legs, do not deploy their chemical arms. Germany, despite highly advanced CW capabilities, used them during the Holocaust but not on the battlefield, even as vastly superior Soviet forces were crushing the Third Reich. Nor did Japan, a country which used gas and biological weapons frequently against the Chinese early in the war, and whose soldiers frequently displayed suicidal levels of loyalty and commitment, employ gas against the Americans. Rather than a last resort, CW is most frequently used when the side employing it appears to control the escalation ladder (though with such a small sample size, the exact causality here is murky). Iraq used CW from the very beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, and it could do so with relative confidence. It had the Soviet Union as its patron and there was no chance the U.S. would decisively crush the bulwark against Iranian power. Saddam also used CW to massacre weaker opponents and civilians, as the Anfal campaign horrifically demonstrated. So why do dictators appear to forgo chemical warfare in their most desperate hours, particularly when they are willing to use them in less immediately dangerous circumstances? A major explanation is the increased danger of escalation or reciprocity. The Allies, too, had major chemical weapons stocks in WWII, and were prepared to use them if the Axis deployed them. Japan was well aware of this:
In 1944 Ultra revealed that the Japanese doubted their ability to retaliate against United States use of gas. Every precaution must be taken not to give the enemy cause for a pretext to use gas, the commanders were warned. So fearful were the Japanese leaders that they planned to ignore isolated tactical use of gas in the home islands by the US forces because they feared escalation.Unsurprisingly, the Japanese used chemical weapons against Chinese forces with limited capability to retaliate in kind, but forwent their use even as the U.S. was crushing them. Although the U.S. also forwent an invasion that would likely employ them, it unleashed a much more deadly and efficacious weapon on two of Japan’s major cities instead – the atomic bomb. Similar considerations likely guided German reluctance to employ CW against the allies – for a losing side the prospect of increased escalation is generally a poor idea. Of course, even if the FSA captured chemical weapons depots, it would have limited ability to escalate. Assuming Assad _was_ inclined to use chemical weapons, that possibility is strongly balanced by the U.S. “red lines” against chemical warfare use. While they are vague, explicitly committing to any specific series of punishments could be politically complicating enough with regard to domestic concerns and international commitments as to undermine the credibility of the threat. Given that basically all U.S. military options for dealing with CW are immensely problematic, locking the U.S. into any specific course of action would be highly problematic. Deterrent threats from third party actors do sometimes work in these cases. When Iraq appeared to be employing CW against Shia in the south of Iraq, James Baker used a similar script. While military options were considered, they were never officially stated. Of course, despite the ultimatum, the lack of chemical weapons use, and the imposition of a No-Fly Zone, Saddam still ably suppressed the Shia and held onto power for more than a decade. Another limiting factor on chemical weapons, separate from the issue of escalation and 3rd party intervention, is that they simply are not very effective outside of certain battlefield circumstances. Effective Iraqi CW against Iran involved massed fires and combined arms against identifiable hostile formations, command, and logistical elements. Fighting a guerrilla opponent grants few of these advantages. Chemical weapons in and of themselves did not cause anything but a small minority of deaths or casualties, but they did pose effective in constraining Iranian options for massing their forces. Against Halabja, gas killed thousands, but it was in the context of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi forces in a combined arms operation against insurgents almost a magnitude smaller in size – and it still failed to destroy insurgent activity in that corner of Kurdistan. Iraq was never able to fully destroy the Peshmerga, and indeed relied on leveraging Kurdish infighting as part of its counterinsurgency in the north. Much as the Japanese and Germans lacked much of the equipment and mass to use CW effectively in the closing years of WWII, a massive CW campaign, if it does occur in Syria, would likely be too little, too late to significantly check the FSA, but would almost certainly arouse increased regional attention. While chemical weapons are horrific in effect, their lack of clear military efficacy against an opponent willing to absorb the casualties and capable of adapting their tactics does a significant part of explaining their relatively infrequent use. Against a casualty-averse opponent, such as a potential foreign intervening actor, they may be of great use, particularly if that foreign intervening state lacks the capability to escalate in response to CW use. Against a determined popular insurgency, CW use is not particularly efficacious outside specific tactical situations (such as clearing confined areas). That lack of efficacy has compounding effects. Not only does it make states less likely to employ CW, those ordered to employ CW who still fear losing are more likely to defect (particularly when combined with the issue of escalation), or else suffer at the hands of the victors. Of course, assuming Assad does decide to break with this small pattern and use CW in his regime’s death spiral, should the U.S. intervene? Dominic Tierney has pointed out that deciding to go to war on the basis of a regime murdering civilians in one way rather than another seems morally insignificant, particularly when the lack of efficacy of chemical weapons relative to conventional ones is apparent (indeed, I dislike the term WMD for skewing attention away from much more historically lethal conventional arms, lumping in CW with nuclear weapons generally). Syrian chemical weapons use, particularly at a stage where its air force is increasingly threatened by MANPADS and AA guns and its ability to maintain large formations is withering thanks to Syrian rebel IED use and raiding, is unlikely to be highly effective, and given the lack of battlefield experience with them, it is questionable if Syria’s troops would even be effectively versed in their operations. As in basically all other major conflicts with CW, conventional arms would remain responsible for the vast majority of the death and misery inflicted on the country. I do not necessarily agree with Tierney’s argument there are strategic reasons to oppose Syrian WMD use in this case. Firstly, Assad’s use of chemical weapons is not likely to trigger chemical weapons use elsewhere, since the factors I mention constraining, such as fear of escalation and limited efficacy would hold regardless. Indeed, the overplaying of the effect of CW probably adds as much to their symbolic and psychological value to foreign regimes as does their actual record in the field. Secondly, far more likely than Syrian CW use seriously affecting proliferation or use elsewhere, an intervention to destroy Syrian CW would be a massive military campaign, and one that actually secured the CW on the ground (particularly after guards presumably desert depots after bombing) would be a significant _ground_ campaign. I have argued elsewhere that a WMD-focused mission would be immensely difficult and expensive, and not only that, but even limited airstrikes would pose severe problems due to the intelligence considerations of finding weapons and the collateral damage considerations of actually hitting them. Especially if our concern is preventing terrorists or other groups from acquiring CW, limited deterrent airstrikes simply will not do. Somebody will need to provide a comprehensive ground presence, and even then the insertion of specialized personnel to destroy or transport out CW would be incredibly vulnerable without protection. If Benghazi was bad, one can only imagine what would happen to Western personnel traipsing about a Syria where Jahbat al-Nusra is active. Not only that, but given the complexity of accounting for CW, the length of time it takes to destroy them (the U.S. still isn’t done), and the difficulty of using CW in an effective terrorist attack*, one would be wise to consider the costs of such an operation. Hopefully, as in past instances of civil war, revolution, or regime downfall, Assad will forgo using CW against his own population. Given Turkey’s emphasis on missile defense from NATO, the use of CW against 3rd party states with lower casualty tolerance may be Syria’s aim. Generally, CW’s effects, its likelihood of use, and the necessity of going to war to stop it seem frequently overstated. While this may be an exception to that general pattern, we should recognize it is far from a clear one as we consider policy options. *This is a controversial point, but Aum Shinrikyo’s attack, while awful, was not so horrific as to suggest CW terror is worth a war to prevent a similar attack. The Tokyo Sarin attack killed 13 and injured over 1,000. The London bombings in 2005 killed 52 and injured 700 with vastly less complex resource requirements. Aum Shinrikyo had a large amount of technical expertise to the point they could produce their own factory and atropine antidotes. A group which has CW simply through the fortune of stolen artillery shells is highly unlikely to be able to employ CW to effects so dramatic it warrants a preventive war. Much more dangerous, I suspect, will be the new generations of jihadists trained in small-unit tactics and IED-building. A CW attack would be dangerous but given its similar damage profile to a conventional attack with a similar (or smaller) amount of personnel and lower technical complexity, preventing them from proliferating alone is probably not worthy of a massive conventional land operation to secure CW.