Archive for the Middle East Conflict Category

The Rising Cost of Stupidity and Brutality

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The recent flaps concerning indiscretions by American troops in Afghanistan (urinating on Taliban corpses, burning copies of the Quran) and Syrian brutality against its own population have one very common and powerful thread: both were acts that were not intended for widespread public attention or scrutiny but have become, in the new vernacular, “viral.” They both illustrate that the impact of electronic mediation has both a liberating and a constraining impact.

The simple fact that arises from the electronic mediation of the world is that potentially there is no such thing as entirely private behavior. The ability of handheld video cameras recording and sending via satellites images of the horrors of war made their first appearance in coverage of the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict, and the images of violence they portrayed helped turn public opinion in this country against the war. What those early electronic “pioneers” could do is peanuts compared to the capacity to transform private acts (or public acts you would just as soon remain unobserved) into full-scale media events. The ability to be stupid or to behave intentionally atrociously now carries a much higher price than it used to have.

The recent uproar over Quran burning and corpse desecration dramatize this impact. People have been righteously indignant over these acts in ways that almost totally miss the point. What was done in both cases was not new or more despicable than has been done in the past; they were not. Past indiscretions in warfare, however, generally occurred when the cameras were not around, so that stupid behavior was only a non-electronic memory of those who witnessed it. Cell phones with the capability to take what are effectively motion pictures means anyone who does virtually anything anywhere has it potentially immortalized electronically; Facebook and similar outlets guarantee whatever is done is an instant global media event. Do something really stupid and the world knows about it. When one of your buddies records the event with the full knowledge of the participants (the urination episode) the stupid add to the problem by acting as willing producers and stars of the production. Afterwards, somebody (normally the government) has to apologize for the indiscretion, an action that is itself subject to criticism.

This phenomenon has spread to purposive acts of thuggery and atrocity. The Arab Spring, after all, is ingrained in global minds as much for the brutal resistance of besieged regimes recorded on shaky mobile phones as it is for anything else. Syria is just the most recent and egregrious example of brutality as a television event. Once again, the point is not that such behavior exists in any unique sense in Syria, or in Egypt and Libya before it. Governments and others (occupying powers, for instance) have been doing this for millennia. Imagine for a moment Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde sweeping across the Eurasian plain slaughtering everybody they encountered as a modern media event. The point is that such behavior was much easier to get away with when it could be denied and no contrary hard evidence like motion pictures could be broght to bear as counter evidence. That is impossible now; if you are a despot who wants to savage your population, you probably still can do so, but you cannot keep it a secret or within the realm of plausible deniability. The cost of thuggery has risen; whether (or when) that cost becomes too great to bear is a question for any potential brutalizer.

This cost extends to domestic public behavior. In the United States, the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles should have been the warning bell. The LAPD is still living down those privately recorded images of police brutality, and everytime a cop uses arguably excessive force, part of the reaction is going to be from the video accounts of those actions. The result is to change how police act and is a conscious part of contemporary police training.

The point is the same in both venues. The bar of acceptable behavior both in international crises and in domestic actions has been raised by the knowledge that just about anything that happens is likely to be subject to outside scrutiny. It does not matter if an indiscretion is committed by a 19-year-0ld soldier in the traumatic aftermath of battle or a 20-year-old college student getting drunk at a fraternity party; whatever you do may well be on global television, and even if it is not, it is still out there somewhere in cyberspace ready to come back and bite you in the posterior at some point in the future.

Institutions try to confront and surmount these problems to minimize them, but such efforts are almost inevitably incomplete. The U.S. Marines, for instance have produced an impressive guide on appropriate behavior by Marines in Afghanistan (“Afghanistan: Operational Culture for Deployed Personnel.” Quantico, VA:: Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning, 2009–available on the web) that specifically covers urination and Quaran burning. Obviously, not everyone read or internalized it. The simple fact is that in war particularly, people will do stupid or evevn venal things. In the past, most of these transgressions went unobserved or not noted; today, no stupidity goes unnoticed. 

These simple new parameters are a fact of modern warfare (or modern life more generally) that are not going to go away. They cannot be reversed, and the best that can be done is to try to understand and contain them as much as possible (damage limitation). This is a new and, I think, sadly underdeveloped area of inquiry and understanding, with implications that need to be incorporated into future planning. One particularly evident area is that of military occupations, which will be the subject of the next posting.

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The Iran-Israel Bottom Line

Posted in Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict with tags , , on February 12, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The news that Israel may conduct a Spring attack on Iran to cripple its nuclear weapons program is a matter of considerable public policy debate, largely because of the consequences such an attack could have not only for the Israelis and Iranians, but for everyone else as well, including Americans. As the discussions in the last two postings here have suggested, the prospects and options that surround them are problematical, to say the least. Amidst this controversy, planning apparently goes on in Israel, where it has been a priority issue for some time now.

The b0ttom line question about this whole issue area is what the Iranians will do if they achieve nuclear weapons status. The basic contention of those in Israel (by no means all Israelis) is that the Iranians will use those weapons against the Israeli state with the express intention of destroying the Jewish state. The primary public evidence they cite for this contention is the continuing string of vitriolic, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic rhetoric of the president of Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; presumably they also have clandestine intelligence reports that reinforce this contention.  Others are not so certain this evidence is compelling, either dismissing it as rhetoric that is intended for creating internal support for the regime or as “brave talk” that would dissipate should the Iranians actually get the capability.

The answer to the question is absolutely critical to the decision the Israelis ultimately make and to whether the world–and especially the United States–should endorse and support their decision and action. If the contention is true, the Israelis have a strong existential basis for their proposed action–preventing an Iranian nuclear capability is a literal matter of national life or death. In that circumstance, extraordinary action, quite apart from whether anyone else accepts it, can certainly be justified, and it is abundantly clear that those Israelis who have crafted and who support the decision believe that it is. The problem is that they cannot prove their contention.

The difficulty that surrounds the Israeli plan and that causes a lively, often rancorous debate is whether the Iranian threat to Israel is what the Israelis say it is or not. The heart of the problem is that the truth cannot be be demonstrated, since the events it seeks to avoid have not occurred. At heart, it is a matter of speculation, and it is a basic truth that nobody–not the Israelis, not the Iranians, or anybody else–does or can know that truth. The only empirical test is to allow the Iranians to get nuclear weapons and see what happens next.

This, of course, is a gamble the Israelis are unwilling to take, since the worst case prospect is the endangerment of their national existence. It is the nature of national security planning everywhere to try to glean and prepare to prevent the worst case threat to the country, and a threat to national existence is the worst possible case. That the Israelis would take this possibility seriously and try to prevent it is entirely reasonable.

The degree of sympathy and support for the Israeli decision depends critically on how likely others see the Israeli worst case and thus whether they are willing to accept the second-order consequences of an Israeli action. While Iranian rhetoric creates an argument for the plausibilityof an Iranian nuclear intention, there is, after all, contrary evidence. Nuclear proliferation is, after all, not a new phenomenon: since the United States first obtained nuclear weapons, eight others have joined, not including Israel, which does not publicly acknowledge its nuclear arsenal. All these acts of proliferation have been decried at one level or another on grounds that the new member would act irresponsibly (which generally means actually using their bombs), and to date, none have. Why is Iran an exception? Once again, from an Iaraeli viewpoint, it only takes one contrary action.

No one outside Iran wants Iran to get nuclear weapons, but there can be reasons other than destroying Israel that are driving their program. One is simple prestige and national pride: great powers have nukes, and Iran wants to be thought of as a great power. Another is to deter an attack against them. There has been a fair amount of opinion that the real motivation of the Iranians has been to avoid an American attack against them, and many argue that if Saddam Hussein had not suspended his program, the United States would never have invaded Iraq. The deterrence argument, ironically enough, has been redoubled in the face of the Israeli threat. Would Israel be talking about attacking a nuclear-armed Iran? Almost certainly not. The irony is that threatening to attack Iran may actually stimulate the clandestine program so that Iran can announce before such an attack that they now have the bomb and that Israel had better think twice. This is a most unsettling and destabilizing prospect, since it also gives the Israelis an incentive to attack before it is too late. As any student of nuclear weapons from the American-Soviet nuclear competition can attest, the idea is to reduce (preferably to zero) the incentives for nuclear actions, not to increase them.

Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel if it gets them? I don’t know, and neither to those on each side predicting the outcome. Probably the Iranians themselves do not know: they may think they have the answer, but it is within a far different context than that of actual possession. I also understand, and think everyone else should as well, why the Israelis are as obsessed as they are on the subject; unlike the rest of us, their national lives are on the line if the answer is negative. The question for those of us who are not so potentially directly under the Iranian nuclear gun is how far we are willing to go to support the actions justified by Israeli concern. Since that support has negative consequences for everyone (admittedly not as dire as those facing Israel), the answer is neither simple nor straightforward.

Israel, Iran and the United States: All Options Are Bad!

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , on February 7, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The growing confrontation between Israel and Iran over the Iranian nuclear weapons program is spinning perilously out of hand, and it has within it the seeds of the most potentially dangerous threat to international peace since the Cold War ended over 20 years ago. What we are witnessing is a verbal ran-up to a military conflict between the Middle East’s only nuclear power (Israel) and its most militant, populous state (Iran). It is a conflict that would serve no one’s interests, would only result in a worse situation–possibly catastrophically so–for all parties, and in which the extremely emotional basis of the conflict is driving all sides, including the United States, to consider essentially irresponsible acts that endanger the country’s national security interests in dangerous way. All of this is occurring in a presidential election year (probably no coincidence) in which cool analysis and action is undermined by hot electoral rhetoric aimed at grabbing votes at the possible endangerment of this country’s interests and safety. It needs to be stopped now, before it gets any worse.

Consider the situation in terms of three steps and their possible consequences. The steps are the pre-war confrontation, the Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (an event which, if it happens at all, will almost surely occur before the November election in the United States), and the Iranian response. All put the United States in an untenable, negative sum situation where, regardless of what we do, we will come out on the short end of the stick.

Start with the pre-war present. There are two salient features to consider. The first are Israeli threats that demand, in essence, that Iran stop and reverse its alleged weapons program (which, of course, the Iranians deny exists) before it proceeds any closer to a weapons outcome. The Israelis argue that if the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, they will use it against Israel, making the threat a truly existential one against them. Their assessment may be right or wrong, but there can be no doubt that the Neyanyahu government believes this scenario to be the case and from that perspective, a preemptive strike against Iran can make sense. That its consequences could be dire to Israel matters less from this perspective because Israel will suffer in either case. An attack is essentially taking an eye for an expected eye, and national existence is the stake. No Masada this time; the Israelis will go down swinging, if they go down.

This puts the United States, as the protector and guarantor of Israel, in a terrible position that the campaign rhetoric is only making worse. The Obama administration says it is “working” with Israel to defuse the crisis, which effectively means they are trying everything they can think of to try to keep the attack from occurring, at least partly because they recognize that if the Israelis launch a raid, all regional bets are off and that the worst case is a general Middle Eastern war that serves no one’s interests, and especially not the interests of the United States. GOP presidential contenders, on the other hand, are falling all over themselves and one another courting the Jewish vote in the United States by favoring unrestricted support for whatever Israel  decides to do. The most extreme view is held by Newt Gingrich, who summons the Holocaust to argue that anything less would be immoral.

The U.S. has essentially three options if an Israeli attack decision is unavoidable. None of them is especially good. They are:

 1. Full support for any attack the Israelis carry out, which can include actions of differing severity. The U.S. can participate in the raid in varying ways, such as providing air cover for the Israeli bombers heading for Iranian nuclear sites; we can provide satellite reconnaisance (which we undoubtedly already do) for the Israelis, including warnings of Iranian countermeasures; we can supply special ordnance (deep penetrating bombs) to the Israelis to penetrate underground facilities (the Israelis do not themselves have such a capability); or, at the greatest extreme, we can participate with U.S. bombers dropping bombs. The more involved we are, of course, the more we will be caught up in the wake of international reactions to the attack.

2. We can acknowledge Israeli plans, say we understand but don’t fully support their actions on any of a variety of grounds, BUT warn sternly that we will not allow a response by Iran that would endanger Israeli existence. We would still be blamed for not preventing the attacks, but the criticism would be more muted, and we would uphold our pledge to guarantee Israeli existence. Critics, however, would argue that is not enough.

3. We can tell the Israelis, very publicly, that they are on their own if they attack, although we will protect them from an existential response. This option, regardless of its merits, would be political suicide in an election year (part of why the Israelis, who realize this, will probably act before the November election).

Options 1 and 2 are the only really domestically viable options, but both of them tie the U.S. to the Israeli attack, and that has consequences. Rationalizations notwithstanding, an Israeli strike would be an act of military aggression–an act of aggressive war–that is illegal under international law and the UN Charter, which Israel signed, making the action illegal under Israeli law as well. Calling it “preemptive” does not aid legality, because acts of preemption are only justifiable under IL when a hostile act that they prevent is imminent (e.g.an enemy’s army massing on your border); the Israeli attack does not rise to that level. Thus, the United States indirectly supports violating international law by supporting the Israelis. The U.S, has, of course, done so in the past–the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance–but the world will at least rhetorically line up against an aggression. Moreover, the Russians and Chinese will undoubtedly co-sponsor at Security Council condemnation of the aggression, and the U.S. will be left with the unpleasant choices of supporting Israel in the face of overwhelming global disapproval or, as it did in 1956 at the time of the Suez War, of condemning the action of a close ally. Once again, electoral politics may require thumbing our noses at the world. Moreover, if the Israelis do attack, they will not be able to take out the Iranian program entirely, instead only setting it back, while Israeli attacks will take its toll in civilian casualties (collateral damage) that will only add to condemnation of the attacks. Anyone who can see some good in this for United States interests beyond some votes in the presidential election, is seeing something this observer does not.

As if that was not enough, an Israeli attack will trigger some very violent form of Iranian counterattack with equally or even more dangeous potential consequences for the U.S. and the region. Those possibilities, none of which are desirable from a U.S. viewpoint, will be the subject of the next column. All the options are bad!

The Arab Spring: Libya and Syria

Posted in Egypt, International Terrorism, Libya, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , , , on September 18, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Libya and Syria have become the poster children for the varied impacts that the so-called Arab Spring have had on the Islamic Middle East. They are not the most important countries to have undergone changes (Egypt, the outcome of whose upheaval remains a work in progress, can claim that distinction), but they do represent the most polar outcomes that the popular uprisings have produced to date. In Libya, the rebels–with the generous and probably critical assistance of Western militaries–have succeeded in dislodging long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi, whose whereabouts remain a mystery of the Carmen San Diego variety at this point. In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad remains in power in the face of worldwide condemnation but little effective action, and seems likely to remain so for the foreseaable future.

The countries and their situations are a study in similarities and contrasts. Both are, of course, majority Sunni countries (as are most Muslim states), both have a diverse population that is tied together by common religion, both have long-standing traditions since achieving statehood of authoritarian rule in which the military has played a prominent role, and both have ties (admittedly of different varieties) to international terrorism. On the face of it, Syria is in many ways the more important country by virtue of size (71,500 square miles of territory to Libya’s 43,000 square miles), population (22 million to 6.5 million) and strategic location: Syria has long borders with Iraq and Turkey and less lengthy borders with Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, whereas Libya borders six North African countries, the only one of which that has strategic significance being Egypt.

There is, of course, one very significant difference between the two which explains the highly differential way the international community has reacted to demands for political change in the two countries. That difference, of course, is that Libya has a large amount of very desirable petroleum, and Syria does not. The contrast is enormous. Using CIA World Factbook figures, Libya exports approximately 1.5 million barrels a day (15th largest in the world), while Syria exports 155,000 barrels a day, about one-tenth of the Libyan figure and 56th in the world. Known Libyan reserves stand at 47 billion barrels, comparecto 2.5 billion for the Syrians. Moreover, Libyan oil is relatively cheap to extract and is particularly “sweet” (low-sulfur content), a particularly important factor for Europeans who have geared their refineries to processing sweet crude and can only deal with other oil with considerably more difficulty and expense.

Oil production has driven the economies of the two countries in opposite directions. Libyan GDP per capita, for instance, is about $14,800 (84th in the world), and while it is distributed in an unequitable manner of which the Tea Party would be proud and Ayn Rand disciples envious, it is considerably higher than in Syria, with a per capita GDP of $4,800, 151st the in the world. Prior to the revolution, Libya was a classic “petrolist” state (to borrow Thomas L. Friedman’s term), where huge oil revenues (95 percent of export earnings, 80 percent of government revenues) were used to buy off the population and blunt its democratic urges. Petrolist success took a hit with the success of the revolution in Libya.

Libya has succeeded in throwing off its shackles for the moment, and Syria has not. The outcome in Libya is far from ordained, and could vary from a total democracy to the rise of a new dictator: prudence suggests somewhere in between, whatever that may mean. The al-Assads cling to power, and despite universal pleas for them to cease their repression and to step down, Bashar al-Assad shows no indication he will do either. Nobody wants to talk about his success in holding power, but it is not unlikely, at least in the short run.

The key element in Libyan success and Syrian failure is outside pressure. Put simply, it is highly unlikely that the Libyan rebels would have succeeded without the covering air power of NATO to suppress government forces (attacking them directly, preventing their forays against rebel units in the field intent on their destruction). These rebels, it must be remembered, were a pretty woebegone, rag-tag coalition when they began, and the early prognosis for them was not good until NATO airpower shifted the balance of power. There has, to put it mildly, been nothing like that in support of Syrian dissidents who are, as best one can piece together from media reports, been treated much more harshly than the Libyan government treated its citizenry. Why the difference?

The answers, of course, are pretty obvious. The first and overwhelmingly most important is that Libya has something the outside world wants (oil), and Syria does not. This makes Syria, despite its geography and demographics, much less important to the world–and specifically to the countries that can militarily interfere–than Libya. The fact that Libya is a short and undefended flight across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya and that effective assistance did not include putting boots on the ground (sand?) and thus creating the possibility of many casualties, added to the ease of making the decision to help Libya but not Syria. Any actions against Syria are likely to have to come from neighbors, who show neither the interest nor capability to tangle with the regime in Damascus. Human rights violations alone are simply not enough.

The other element has been that the coercive capacity of the Syrian government has proven more capable and resilient than that of Libya. On the face of it, the Libyans has the wherewithal to expunge the rebels but could not. Part of the reason was geographic (target cities were fairly far away), and traversing the terrain meant crossing open territory and being left vulnerable to NATO air power. Partly, however, the Libyans seemed less capable (ruthless, blood thirsty)than Syrian forces). For the time being, Syrian brutality has succeeded; it may not in the longer run, but for the moment, the Syrians have held the line.

None of this suggests how the revolutions in either country or the region will come out. There are simply too many variables, someforeseeable and others not, that could influence the ultimate outcomes. Roughly nine months after the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia and spread through the region, however, the experiences in Libya and Syria do suggest the range of possible outcomes.

U.S. Humanitarian Activism: Libya and Syria

Posted in Middle East and US Election, Middle East Conflict, Obama foreign policy, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The remaining hot spots from the Arab Spring are in Libya and Syria. In both cases, popular uprisings erupted against tyrannical governments inspired at least patrially by the Arab Spring events that began in Tunisia and moved quickly to Egypt and elsewhere. Distinguishing characteristics of these two cases, however, have been the continuing brutality of the regime against its dissidents and the dogged organized resistance to the regime’s actions by those seeking change. This level of resistance and the need for continued bloody suppression distinguishes Libya and Syria from places like Bahrain and Yemen, where dissidence was fairly quickly suppressed and things returned to fairly quickly to whatever passes for normalcy.

Libya and Syria are different from one another and from the others. Their duration sets them aside from other Arab Spring events. Libya has produced a full-scale revolutionary movement that, with the considerable assistance of NATO air forces, may be closing in on the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime; the effort in Syria has been less organized and militarized, but worldwide publicity has resulted in a steady drum beat of international demands for the resignation of Syrian president Bashir al-Assad that are increasingly difficult for him to resist.

The level of violence, even savagery, of government oppression of resisters in both countries has raised both to the level of international humanitarian disasters or crises–situations where there is widespread atrocity against or abuse of a country’s citizens by its government. One response to such a situation is humanitarian activism, which I define as intervention (including military force as its most dramatic manifestation) in humanitarian crises by other countries to end the conditions defining the disaster. The United States has a long, if uneven, record of action or inaction in such situations; in both Libya and Syria, however, the United States has adopted a fairly passive form of opposition to the disasters, preferring to defer leadership to others. Why?

It seems to me that to understand when the United States does and does not become personally invested in these kinds of situations requires looking at three variables. The first is American mood at the time. Is the United States feeling especially optimistic about its internal situation and place in the world, in which case it is likely to become internally activist, seeking to spread its own message and gospel to others? Or is the United States feeling insecure and recessive, turning inward and evincing a sense of isolation from world events that is part of the U.S. historical DNA?

Second is the nature of the international environment in which any proposed action might occur. Partly, this assessment reflects Americans’ self-assessment and confidence in themselves, their ability to shape the world, and their confidence in their world role. At the same time, this assessment includes the competing demands on American national security resources elsewhere in the world: can the United States afford to divert scarce resources (especially military) to humanitarian missions that can or might be needed elsewhere?

The third variable is geopolitics, and it also has at least two facets. One is the American relationship with the country in which the disaster is occurring. There were, for instance, no shortage of what now are called humanitarian crises in countries with which the United States was allied dring the Cold War (Central Africa and Central America offer fine examples) where the Unied States did not condemn the harsh treatment of populations by “friendly” rulers; given the dangers of Cold War escalation, however, all we did with similar events in the communist world (e.g. Cambodia) was condemn them. Context may be everything. At the same time, the attitude and willingness of friends and allies is also a geopolitical factor: the United States almost certainly would not have dispatched and kept force in the Balkans in the 1990s and beyond were it not for the insistence of NATO allies.

Different periods of recent history can be gauged in these terms. During the Cold War, there was basically no such thing as humanitarian activism, because geopolitical, Cold War considerations precluded it. The term entered the lexicon after the Cold War ended, and there was a spate of such activism by the United States in the 1990s, when all the variables aligned favorably: the American mood was confident and expansive, the rest of the environment was fairly placid and undemanding, and there were few geopolitical inhibitions to preclude identifying and stomping on the bad guys who abused and denied the rights of their citizens.

And then there is now. The United States has not acted decisively in either the Libyan and Syrian cases. In Libya, we play a very limited supporting role (that has had opposition anyway), and beyond leading the verbal condemnation of Assad, have done very little in Syria. Admittedly, these are two countries where the U.S. has few interests and even fewer levers of influence it can apply, but it has clearly not been an instance of any kind of humanitarian activism by any measure.

The three variable help explain this. Two of them are negative. In the current economic climate, the United States is not feeling good and positive about itself, and were the Obama administration to propose any more than what it is doing, it would be accused of taking its “eye off the ball” of our real priorities, of trying to divert attention away from its internal problems, or both (most likely both). At the same time, the United States is still heavily invested in military adventures elsewhere in the region that strain resources; the American people would hardly embrace a new Middle Eastern military adventure. The only positive variable is international support for activism. Europe, after all, is devoting resources to Libya (which it arguably cannot afford), and even other Middle Eastern countries have condemned the Syrians. In a sense, this willingness of others to take the lead relieves the United States of any pressure it might otherwise feel to get out front on either crisis.

Libya and Syria may or may not represent the long-term future of American humanitarian activism, but they are likely to be models for the next few years, until American prosperity and self-confidence reappears and we are looking at the world differently than we are today. If one is against such interventions anyway, then “let the bad times roll,” since they are keeping us from doing what we have no business doing anyway, as Ron Paul would argue. If the United States is the shining city on the hill (Reagan’s typification) and should be ready and willing to help transform the world, wait for a better day.

The “Three Amigos” Doctrine on Libya

Posted in Egypt, Libya, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , on May 1, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Just when you thought the 2008 election was over, the “three amigos” from the losing side of the campaign–Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) have reappeared, this time astride the issue of assistance to the Libyan resistance. McCain, who got most of the publicity in 2008 as the GOP standard bearer, was out front this time as well, trooping through the streets of Banghazi, the informal capital of the rebellion,to the cheers and waving U.S. flags by the grateful population.

The message that the three friends and allies articulated was straightforward: the United States should do more to help the anti-Gadhafi forces overthrow the government and establish a new, anti-Gadhafi regime. All three stopped short of, and even renounced, the insertion of American ground forces into the fray, but they also clearly indicated that they believed the United States should assert itself decisively in the cause to overthrow the Gadhafi regime after 42 years in power.

Is this good advice? Do the three senators really have a valid point, and is it the kind of expression of US foreign policy that could guide future actions? Neither question is easy to answer, but one when tries, the wisdom of the suggestion becomes less and less obvious.

At one level, the MGL (McCain-Graham-Lieberman) advocacy is nothing more than the update of the Nixon Doctrine, which was basically an explanation of how and why the United States would treat communist attempts to break out of the containment line in the wake of the American withdrawal from Vietnam. In essence, it said the United States supported countries resisting communism and would come to their aid with things like material support and training, but that the insertion of American forces was off the table unless overwhelming American interests were involved (e.g. an action in Western Europe). We would, in other words, send money and equipment and even train indigenous personnel how to use it, but no American blood. The MGL formulation is similar, if one substitutes anti-dictatorial for anti-communist in the equation and adds the US Air Force (at least remotely controlled drones) to the list of tools the US might send to help the rebels. But is this such a good idea?

There is, of course, no shortage of anti-democratic thug regimes in the world, some of whom the United States has traditionally nurtured and supported and, in some instances, continues to help prop up (which may be part of the problem the MGL “solution” seeks to address). How does the United States choose among those it will help and those it will not? The existence of vital American interests that are damaged by the anti-democrats winning/retaining power would be such a criterion, but unequivocally vital US interests are hardly ever involved in these situations. Are they in Libya, whose major contribution to the world is sweet il necessary for Europe but not the US? Is it the openly friendly, pro-democratic (and hence praiseworthy) nature of the insurgents? Who exactly are the Libyan rebels? What do they want? Do they really like us? Nobody, including the MGL team, seems to hasve ready answers to these questions.

What seems more likely, and is certainly hinted at in interviews by the MGL team, is that these actions are necessary to relieve and reverse the inhumane actions of the Libyan government toward its people, a fate that has been made abundantly clear by official and samizdat reportage on the government’s use of force to crush the rebellion. The evidence is pretty clear that the Libyan government is using brutal force to crush its opponents, and seems ready to exact retribution against those who rose against it. Is this a good reason for the United States to involve itself in a decisive way that will obviate that result? Maybe, but….

The rejoinder is almost too simple and obvious to state. Civil uprisings, and especially those that seek to overthrow an existing government and throw out its leaders, are never looked upon or treated benignly by those attacked. Counter-insurgencies seek to crush insurgencies, just as insurgents seek to crush governments. These affairs always have and always will be very emotional, furtive, and thus violent. When one side is overwhelmingly more powerful than the other (e.g. the Syrian government and the protesters), the violence may be swift and one-sided. When the government is internally rotten and about ready to fall anyway (e.g. Egypt), neither side may need to resort to violence, making things neater.

But Libya is not like either of those examples. While the lethal balance clearly resides with the firepower-superior government (a balance MGL’s suggested actions are intended to alter in favor of the insrugents), there is considerable support for the rebels, and neither side has been able to overwhelm the other (although it is not clear how well the rebels would have fared had NATO not intervened from the air). In this case, the rebels have attacked government strongholds and the government has retaliated. Some otherwise innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire and the government has retaliated against civilians it believes has supported its enemies.

The point is that there is nothing terribly unusual here. Regrettable perhaps, but not unusual. Civil wars, unless they are resolved very quickly one way or the other, are typically very bloody affairs with very high stakes for all involved. The Gadhafi government has without doubt violated the human rights of his population and engaged in crimes against humanity for which he should be held accountable. The problem is that such violations are by no means unusual in civil wars–they are, if anything, the norm and not the exception. If there is evidence that the Libyan government has acted in ways that are particularly and outrageously hideous (making Libya and exception), that evidence is not clear. To repeat, violent, atrocious action by one or both sides is not unusual in civil war.

If this is true, the MGL advocacy of tipping the balance in Libya away from the government amounts to a new policy criterion for the use of American military force–let’s call it the “Three Amigos Doctrine” (TAD). The core of that doctrine is that the United States disapproves of any civil war that breaks out anywhere in the world and should be prepared to come to the decisive aid of whoever is losing. How many TAD-ites are there among us?

“Fragile and Reversible Progress” in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , on April 17, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Speaking of the situation in southern Afghanistan at what is the traditional beginning of the military campaigning season (it is warm enough and the winter snow has melted), this was the assessment put forward by General David Petraeus about what he considers to be more favorable circumstances as the United States and its Afghan and NATO allies prepare for yet another year’s battle with the Taliban. We are making “progress,” but it is “fragile and reversible.”

Wait a second! Haven’t we heard these identical words (or at least very close approximations of them) before in both Iraq and Afghanistan? Is this phrase not simply a part of the counterinsurgency (COIN) manual written under Patraeus’ difection for the Army and Marines that has been discussed in this space before? It certainly has a familiar ring about it. Why?

There are several candidate reasons. The most prominent involve the nature of countering indigenous insurgencies in foreign countries (foreign at least to those conducting the counterinsurgencies). In this situations, “progress” is an elusive term. Does it mean military progress? If so, what are the measures of that progress? Attrition of the enemy? Victory in encounters with the opposition? More territory gained and secured? These are traditional ways military progress is measured, and they do not quite fit insurgent circumstances. We generally do not know how effectively we are “attriting” (killing off) the enemy, or we cannot measure accurately his ability to replenish whatever losses he endures (remember Vietnam and the infamous body count that “proved” in 1968 that the North Vietnamese/VC had been so depleted they couldn’t possibly field the size forces they did at Tet?). Victories on the battlefield are also an imprecise measure, as demonstrated by the famous exchange after Vietnam by an American officer and a North Vietnamese where the American said, “We never lost a single battle,” to which his counterpart replies “That is absolutely true and irrelevant.” Similarly, control of territory is a notoriously limited metric, both since insurgents do not consider territory held their objective and because holding gained territory is the Achilles heel of COIN strategy (because of having too few troops to keep liberated areas secure). 

Maybe “progress” means political progress, winning the battle for political loyalty (LBJ’s “hearts and minds of men”), which is the ultimate measure of success in insurgency. But how do measure that? Typically (including in the current case) we ask people in the areas we have liberated if they are glad we’re there. Standing at the wrong end of an American rifle barrel, those we ask almost always reply that they sure do like us better than they did the Taliban. What a surprise and wonderful measure of loyalty and conversion that is.

All this suggests that “progress” is a slippery term, and it is unkind (but not unfair) to say we really do not know, in any meaningful operational way, what it means in this or similar circumstances. We do know, however, that it is, at any point in time, “fragile and reversible.” The translation for this term is pretty straightforward: whatever “progress” we experience is ephemeral and subject to rapid, radical change, but with a rejoinder. The rejoinder is that we have worked damned hard to make this progress, and if policy (defined in terms of support levels) for what we have done flags, the result could well be that the fragile progress may be reversed. Is there any reason to wonder about the motivation of such a warning when faced with a presidential determination to review policy in a few months, with scaling back the resources that have allowed “progress” to occur as a major element?

One could be more sanguine about this pronouncement by Petraeus if one had not heard it so many times before. When was the last time anyone heard the U.S. or allied military command pronounce progress as solid and irreversible? It is always “fragile and reversible,” and one must ask why.

The answers lie in the nature of the enterprise. Outside intervention in civil wars in the modern world has turned out to be fool’s work: it never succeeds in the manner those contemplating it anticipate before they jump in. NEVER! I have discussed these dynamics in a number of books (“Distant Thunder” and “Uncivil Wars,” both published in the 1990s are the most complete statements, but the arguments also appear in the various editions of “National Security for a New Era”). Basically, the problem is that intervention, no matter how well intentioned by whoever (i.e. the U.S.) does it will never be viewed in the same benevolent manner by whoever is the recipient of the action. Intervention changes civil wars, adding to the firepower of the government on whose behalf one intervenes, but it also alienates the target population unless the action is swift, decisive, and followed by a rapid withdrawal before the natives can get sick of us. These conditions never hold in modern internal warfare, meaning intervention will always be resented and opposed. Progress, such as it may appear, will always be “fragile and reversible,” because it is the intervener’s progress, not the progress of the (reluctant) host government. It does not matter how “bad” the Taliban are (which is bad) or how “good” the government may be (which they are not), intervention will always make the insurgents look better.

It really is as simple as that. The United States has been in Afghanistan for a decade, and the best we can come up with are statements of “fragile and revsersible” progress which is, effectively, no progress at all. The president has said he expects to be in Afghanistan with significant force at least until 2014, and apologists for the war think it will be much longer than that. Why? The best we can hope for is more “fragile and reversible” progress. It’s really as simple as that.