Drones and the false allure of impunity

CFR’s Micah Zenko has a new piece in the Atlantic looking at what U.S. drone campaigns would look like in the wake of U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan:

Yesterday, Al Jazeerainterviewed Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasool on the prospect of U.S. drone strikes after 2014. He responded:

“Afghan soil will not be used against any country in the region. The presence of the remaining forces in Afghanistan is for training, equipping and securing Afghanistan’s security. It has been mentioned, it is going to be mentioned, that this force is not for use against any neighbors in the region.”

The Afghan government’s final decision on whether to permit U.S. drone strikes and/or special operations raids could change several times over the next twenty months. If Rasool’s statement becomes official Afghan policy, however, it will be extremely difficult for the United States to sustain drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan in the future.

This shift could have serious consequences for CIA drone operations. It is hard to envision the Pakistani government re-permitting drone strikes from its territory. Last summer, Pakistan evictedthe remaining U.S. personnel from Shamsi Airbase in the Balochistan province, where drones were based since as early as 2006. In recent months, the prime minister, foreign minister, and aparliamentary committee on national security have repeatedly condemned U.S. drone strikes as violations of Pakistani sovereignty.

Zenko then assesses alternative basing options for the U.S. drone programs directed against Pakistan, namely India and China. I largely agree with him about why these options are unrealistic, and that the implications of a loss of a neighboring state as a drone base for operations in Pakistan would have a significant impact on the campaign. Contrary to many assertions that drones allow the U.S. to strike with impunity or overcome geographic distance, drones remain dependent on basing in-theater to maintain high operational tempos.

The ability of the United States to conduct drone campaigns and other so-called standoff strikes is in fact heavily constrained by geopolitical and logistical considerations. Continue reading

It’ll Do You Damage: Proxies & Covert War

Recently, several members of the Syrian National Council threatened or began the process of resignation from the body, marking new fractures as government forces continue their bloody, brutal crackdown against Syrian rebels in Hama, Idlib, and Deraa. Notably, Idlib, located along the Turkish border, and Deraa, near the Jordanian border, would have been some of the more ideal conduits for arms and supplies into Syria, or even safe zones within the country. Unsurprisingly, the Syrian government appears to be trying to nip such a possibility in the bud by expanding their crackdown, dispelling hopes that Syria’s military might not have the strength or will to broaden its campaign of repression. The New York Times describes the consequent fracturing of the SNC:

The main Syrian exile opposition group suffered a serious fracture on Wednesday as several prominent members resigned, calling the group autocratic, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and powerless to help Syrian rebels as government forces, having flushed insurgent strongholds in the north, swept into the rebellious southern city of Dara’a.

The council, [Kamal al-Labwani] added, was in danger of causing splits in Syrian society by failing to create a single rebel military command under its control, leaving individual militias to seek their own sources of help.

On Tuesday, the Syrian National Council had taken steps to bring the Free Syrian Army under its umbrella. But Mr. Labwani, the council member who is resigning, said the exiles had few ties to the fighters inside. “The Free Syrian Army is the people who are inside Syria,” he said.

The tension and difficulty of coordinating the activities of exile groups and local militias is hardly a new one in covert warfare. As Labwani notes, the absence of a unified command structure leaves the rebel movement open to fracturing. But interestingly, Labwani simultaneously complains of  “Muslim Brotherhood members within the exile opposition of ‘monopolizing funding and military support.’” In other words, Labwani wants the ability to create a unified military command structure but opposes monopolization within the political structure. This arrangement would approximate the nature of a democratic government (not dominated by any one party or clique) with normal civil military relations (a subordinate and unified military command structure) – but unfortunately for Labwani and the SNC, such things do not come about easily. Continue reading

War and the impermanence of order

There was once a time when liberal democracy appeared to be an idea with an expiration date. To some intellectuals looking back at the past three centuries from the twenty-first, this seems impossible. From the Glorious Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union, history seems very obviously to favor the rise of liberal democratic states, along with peace, economic integration, and the general rise in respect for human rights. As a matter of crude description, this is so. But what is more useful is the question of why it has occurred.

Bernard de Jouvenel, in his On Power, discussed sovereignty and government in the context of a terrible titanomachia scouring the modern world. In 1944, he despaired:

We are ending where the savages began.  We have found again the lost arts of starving non-combatants, burning hovels, and leading away the vanquished into slavery.  Barbarian invasions would be superfluous: we are our own Huns.

Jouvenel was no doubt underestimating the sheer pervasiveness of violence in those primeval days. But his perspective, and point, are unsettling. To Jouvenel, and many other intellectuals of the time, the world was increasingly dominated by states with multifarious and complex bureaucratic machinery, operating under a single will, and even democracy, interlinked as it became with mass politics, served not as a force for individual liberation per se but as a force to clear away the last restrictions on the reach of the state. In a world then dominated by continental giants -Roosevelt’s America, Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Soviet Union – the most obvious trend in world history appeared not to be the advancement of human rights and individuality, but the triumph of the Hobbesian homo magnus. Continue reading

The Unsung Concert?

A while back, Dan Nexon posted a thought-provoking suggestion at the Duck of Minerva:

I wonder, though, if our unipolarity fixation obscures some important aspects of post-Cold War security order. In the early 1990s another image of world politics seemed plausible: that of a new great-power concert. After all, the United Nations was constructed with an embedded concert architecture via the United Nations Security Council, and the 1991 Gulf War suggested a reinvigoration of that latent aspect of international order.
… [F]oreign-policy pundits debate whether the US should pursue some kind of new capital-c Concert  as the fundamental component of a post-Iraq grand strategy. Sometimes the Concert in question is supposed to be composed of democratic states, and other times not.
My suggestion is different: it is that we are already living in a Concert system, albeit it one deeply inflected by American primacy. The argument that we aren’t, I submit, is based on a flawed conception of just what the Concert of Europe did. The Concert did not preclude deep disagreements among its members. The great powers of Europe often acted without consensus. They even fought wars with one another during the lifetime of the system. But they did coalesce to manage a number of crisis within Europe and on its periphery and otherwise to function as a kind of geo-strategic cartel, and lack of agreement did sometimes constrain one or more of the members of the Concert system.
This sounds a good deal like the current order–with the notable difference that we haven’t seen any great-power wars. Indeed, it sounds more like the last twenty years than we sometimes realize. We tend to focus on the “big” disagreements between, for example, Russia and the US. But beneath those disagreements remains a great deal of “managed” international order made possible by something like a great-power cartel with a focal-point in the United Nations system.

In the conventional U.S. narrative, global peace and order is some product of either interlocking institutional arrangements by institutions, norms, and economic or social forces which constrain states from beyond the realm of so-called old geopolitics, while much of the hard geopolitical constraints are the product of U.S. power. What Nexon effectively points out is that much of the sources of international agreement today are in fact the products of a degree of great power cooperation. That cooperation does not exist because of ideological agreement – as Russia and China certainly do not buy into liberal values or human rights – or a natural belief in the benefits of the liberal international order – China and Russia have stood against its supporting security components when they encroach on their own areas of interest – so much as a modus vivendi enabled by the United States’s clear predominance in the system and relatively balanced zones of great power competition where the U.S. lacks outright hegemony.

As Nexon notes, this cartel – and cartel really is the right word – of great powers, is for the most part enshrined in the United Nations Security Council. As Hayes Brown has persuasively explained, the primary point of the UNSC is to affirm the basic rules of the road when it comes to great power behavior. It is not that the UN itself is a binding force so much as the UNSC is an arena for competing geopolitical interests and ideological proclivities, and provides, as Richard K. Betts once described, a sort of out-of-court settlement to potential crises of great power relations. Continue reading

Navalism, limited war, and American strategy

Intervention and military force are legitimate tools of the state interest. While I have written many posts arguing against poorly thought-out present-day American interventions overseas, I have also consistently defended the legal precedent for many U.S. interventions, and noted that these trends are far more persistent in U.S. history than many other opponents of modern doctrines of humanitarian intervention and Responsibility to Protect are often willing to acknowledge. Recovering our understanding of limited interventions in defense of U.S. interests and adapting the U.S. policy planning and military capability to undertake them is a critical task – one which makes avoiding unnecessary, distorting, and draining interventions all the more important.

As is easily apparent from even a brief overview of American military interventions, the United States engaged frequently in limited, expeditionary actions to protect the lives of American citizens and U.S. interests abroad. While many of these interventions were undoubtedly imperial in nature, in many cases they were far more limited in scope and intent than the supposedly post-imperial actions the United States and other Western powers pursue today. Here, though, it is important to distinguish actions where the U.S. was directly concerned with gaining territory from the protection of U.S. interests.

As outlined in Federalist No. 8, Alexander Hamilton explained something of a core rationale in American geopolitics. The preservation of an open, liberal society was necessitated by the exclusion of potential military rivals from an American sphere of interest. American union was necessary both to prevent each state or grouping of states, without a sovereign federal authority, from sacrificing their liberty in the compelling interest of achieving safety from each others potential military threat. Hamilton saw the development of a maritime-centric U.S. military, under the auspices of a federal government, as a critical task for U.S. national security. For, without it, the U.S. would find itself in a dangerous neighborhood, and more likely in need of a strong army: Continue reading

War endures… The way it was, and the way it will be.

My boss and co-author Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recently wrote a post at Gunpowder and Lead responding to the question of whether major armed conflict had come to an end. In his explanation, he notes that not only is major armed conflict still a possibility, but that the United States should be skeptical that it can pick and choose what sort of military engagements it will become involved in:

The unpredictability of armed conflict is one reason that, when it comes to current debates about counter-insurgency, I’m skeptical of the idea that the singular lesson of our recent experience is that we should never again put ourselves in a position where we are fighting against an insurgency. Surely, the position that we should be extremely hesitant to do so is reasonable, worthy of discussion; so too is the position that our current military posture is not worth its costs. But, at the end of the day, is never getting involved in another counter-insurgency situation our choice alone? Or not getting involved in another large-scale armed conflict?

This point is unfortunately lost in a lot of commentary on war and warfare. Even wars against state opponents can involve irregular actors. For example, in a potential strike against Iran to disarm its nuclear program, Israel or the United States could find themselves embroiled in retaliatory attacks by Iranian proxies in the Gulf and Lebanon. While such an attack would be a voluntary act on America or Israel’s part, it demonstrates the point. Such expansion of the battlefield is nothing new, and while the Iranian case is voluntary, states have long records of attempting to foment insurgencies and irregular threats against each other during wars. More importantly, though, dealing with irregular threats does not inevitably involve nation-building, state-building, or the exact replication of the population-centric COIN which serves as the boogeyman of the “irregular war, never again” crowd – although such changes would be significant departures from our current strategic and foreign policy assumptions.

This brings me to another one of my pet peeves – the so-called “old wars” and “new wars” paradigm that we are stuck with in the strategic studies literature. Old war, as defined by state-versus-state or “industrial” warfare, is actually a very new phenomenon. The total war arguably evolves between the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War and comes into full fruition during World War I. In other words, in historical terms, so-called industrial war is very new, and the modern state for state-versus-state warfare not much older. Irregular or “new war” on the other hand, is ancient, as wars against insurgent groups for the purpose of state-building and consolidating authority were present at the formation of states themselves. The insurgent, the private military contractor, the autonomous religious organization, the ethnopluralist and loosely networked polity and ungoverned space, the transnational corporation – these are old ideas. Their reassertion in global politics is less a return to the medieval than a return to reality. Continue reading

Gulf in expectations

With America’s military withdrawal from Iraq and Ben Rhodes’s recent explanation of a plan to draw down US forces in the Gulf to a 1990 level, in combination with the revolts against the autocratic regimes the United States has thrown in its lot with, a major rethinking of America’s security posture in the Middle East seems to be in the making.

Toby Jones, whose previous article in the Atlantic I wrote about here, has another piece arguing that the US needs to militarily withdraw from the entire Persian Gulf, and asserts that this will both give the United States more leverage, stabilize the region, and reduce threats to the United States. Jones argues that the Gulf is less important than it previously has been to energy security:

The world today is awash in oil and natural gas. Protecting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to global markets is far less necessary than it once was. Over the past generation, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the other oil producers in the region have grown accustomed to bloated national budgets and expensive state-run, cradle-to-grave welfare services, which means that there is greater pressure on them to sell oil than to horde it.

It is true that oil sources outside the Gulf are growing in importance, and I agree that more US resources should be directed towards ensuring their development and reliability. However, the concern here is not about the Persian Gulf states “hoarding” oil, but using military force or the threat of it to drive up prices, deter Western interference with their internal affairs, or, in the extreme case, seize fields to monopolize supply. The desire is less about buying or selling than controlling and manipulating. Though exploration and global recession have mediated some of the problems of high oil prices, the likely future increase in oil demand from growing countries may change this happy state of affairs. Continue reading

Onshore warfare and offshore balancing

The use and abuse of terms such as “offshore balancing” in the ongoing conversation about the next American grand strategy is a frequent topic of discussion here. While this can easily become an exercise in military and diplomatic history pedantry, examining what exactly offshore balancing entails should be a necessary prerequisite of adopting such an approach to international politics.

One of the consistent errors of offshore balancing discussion has been the tendency to believe that it necessarily demands there be no military engagement with the world beyond dealing with great powers, and that this military engagement must necessarily not include the use of ground forces, especially outside the core areas of engagement. In the current American context, the combinations of military draw downs in Iraq and eventually Afghanistan, along with the lack of US occupation in the Horn of Africa and Libya, among other locales, and the rise of AirSea Battle as a new concept for future military efforts all give the impression of a US military that will rarely act onshore. At the same time, the so-called “pivot to Asia” and the increasing prominence of offshore balancing in grand strategic discussions all give the impression that the cumulative effect of these operational, strategic, and grand strategic changes will be a US force that rarely, if ever, gets involved in land warfare, and rarely, if ever, gets involved in warfare outside of Asia. Continue reading

Unpacking isolationism and offshore balancing

The debate over naval policy planning and strategies for managing the commons continues into yet more rounds, with excellent entries from Jon Rue at Gunpowder and Lead and Raymond Pritchett at Information Dissemination. This is not a full response to either post, but does touch on one of those IR history topics I think is worth exploring: the dreaded label of isolationism. Some controversy erupted over Bryan McGrath describing the “Security of the Commons” approach as an isolationist one, to which Jon Rue retorted that offshore balancing was a realist strategy, not a neo-isolationist one. Pritchett, in turn, countered that the dichotomy between realism and neo-isolationism was a false choice.

This is one of those cases where I think everybody is getting something right. For example, Pritchett is absolutely correct that there is indeed a false dichotomy between isolationism and realism. While realism is certainly a policy planning perspective and a method of arriving at foreign policy decisions, isolationism is more a policy outcome, like hegemony, that can be arrived at through a variety of different theoretical and policy-making traditions. Consider that among the isolationists, there was in fact a wide variety of perspectives at play, and not just across domestic political divisions but across foreign policy orientations.

Isolationism, in the sense of abstaining from “foreign” (and it really does matter what we define here as foreign, but more on that later) military commitments except in self-defense, is an international posture, a set of policy outcomes, arrived at through the policy planning perspective at hand. First, to dispel the notion that isolationism is inherently realist, we should look at the wide diversity of political thinkers who embraced isolationism in the United States alone. It’s taken as a given that the United States was pursuing an isolationist policy during the 1920s and 1930s, but this posture was hardly the product of cutthroat realism. Consider also the Nye Committee, which concluded that American entry into World War I had been driven by desires to profit off of war and to ensure that Britain could make good on the billions in loans it received from the United States. Liberal and idealist revulsion at war and the notion of gaining from it, rather than purely rational policy decision-making, were important components of isolationism. A moral component also pervades isolationism. In some interpretations, American exceptionalism meant the cultivation of virtuous society in the United States relied on avoiding the pathologies of war and realpolitik in the Old World. They feared the consequences of war for American democracy, and were willing to put democratic principles above power political interests (though supposed realists, many isolationists spoke of power politics with the kind of scorn more common to liberal internationalists and neoconservative critics of realism today). Continue reading

Everybody wants to rule the waves

The discussion of the “security of the commons” approach, as Lalwani and Shifrinson articulated it, has turned into a genuine debate, with Bryan McGrath of Information Dissemination jumping into the fray. For what it’s worth, I offered my own thoughts on the mental traps which a concern with “the commons” writ large often stumbles into. On a related subject, anyone with an interest in the debate about maritime strategy ought read Walter MacDougall’s piece in FPRI (and not just because I have a soft spot for anything delving into obscure geopolitical theory).

Continue reading