My opposition to intervention, both pragmatically and ideologically, aren’t rooted in anything that could be called left-wing thought. Nevertheless, I found this column by John Judis assailing others on the left for opposing intervention in Syria – and U.S. intervention generally – rather odd. I agree with Judis insofar as yes, Syria is something different than say, invading Grenada, but that doesn’t get us very far:
I think this position is wrong. By identifying Obama’s impulse in Syria with Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada or Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the left rules out any possibility of a benign intervention for humanitarian or for worthy geopolitical ends. I also think this position is contrary to the traditional stance of the American and European lefts toward foreign civil wars or wars of independence. That, of course, doesn’t show the position is wrong; but it does suggest that these leftists are betraying their own, and my, historical ideals.
First off, since when does being a leftist require a belief in war on the merits humanitarian intervention or “worthy geopolitical ends?” I’m not saying these concepts are inherently antithetical to leftism. But humanitarian intervention’s early articulations did not begin as products of what we would accurately call the “left” at the time. We can make a relatively convincing case for the seeds of humanitarian intervention emerging in the 19th century, especially with regard to defending innocents (usually Christians) against a barbarous empire (usually the Ottomans), which isn’t to say that humanitarian intervention is damned by these origins, but that the expansion of perceived rights and duties towards other human beings in humanitarian intervention was, like many political ideas at the time, relatively circumscribed. In any case, at the point where these antecedents to humanitarian interventionism came from everyone from British liberals to Russian tsars, it’s hard to say this was some obviously and inherently leftist tradition.
Many of the liberals and supporters of these sorts of intervention at the time were proponents of empire, so drawing some kind of distinction between an intervention being humanitarian and imperialist, in basically the one time period where the term “liberal imperialist” had legible historical meaning, seems kind of odd. The French Revolutionary Wars, it shouldn’t need saying, were not premised on humanitarian “stop the killing” grounds (and you don’t have to be Maistre or Secher to find it odd to use the French Revolutionary left as some kind of standard-bearers for mass atrocities prevention). Support for revolution certainly used massacres in many cases to justify itself, but to conflate these with modern humanitarian intervention would be seriously misleading. Of course this whole thing is a rather odd exercise since the “left” includes a large number of divergent ideas, especially in the area of foreign policy where history inherently taints ideals with the necessities of circumstance, even after an era (I would wait longer than the French Revolution) when we could really say an American left became a political entity we could easily identify with today.
Humanitarian intervention is not the same thing as leftist support for the revolutions in France or Russia or the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Supporting revolution against reactionary elements or putting down the fascists in Spain was not premised on stopping the slaughter, or about deferring to democracy. Left justifications for support of revolution during these time periods ranged from anti-clericalism to anti-capitalism, not on considerations of humanitarianism or the verdict of masses per se. Very often this led to some regrettable decisions by some leftists on which foreign interventions, revolutions, and ideologies they supported, which you still see some of those who don’t just oppose intervention but cling to the Assad clique and its Ba’athist origin myths as the last defender of hopes for a secular, inclusive Syria against reactionary Sunni clericalism. Given the number of leftist splits on foreign policy, and how many leftists those splits left on rather unpleasant sides of issues, I’m not sure what worth there is on speaking for the “left” generally.
Regardless, on to the present dilemmas:
The Obama administration is not using a supposed threat to American interests to intervene unilaterally and impose its will on a country that is relatively at peace, nor is it intervening (as it did in Guatemala or Vietnam) to back an unpopular regime against a rebellion. American intervention in Syria most closely resembles intervention in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The U.S. is acting with other countries, and it is not trying to impose its own rule or to prop up a client regime.
These criteria might distinguish Syria from Grenada or Vietnam but they does not make it unmistakably leftist or humanitarian in nature. Multilateralism has never been some kind of established criteria for left-wing intervention, for a long time, and quite arguably still, multilateralism has meant acceding to the interests of the reigning coalition of powers or power, which usually possesses in concert or by unipolar strength, some form of hegemony over the rest of the world. For much of the 19th century, multilateral interventions were inherently imperialist based on upholding the principles of counterrevolution, either against French aggression or revolutionary upheaval. Given that the U.S. is still a hegemonic power, simply acting in concert with other countries does not disqualify an intervention from serving hegemonic interests. Simply avoiding imposing direct rule, or even supporting the interests an embattled regime, does not disqualify an intervention from being humanitarian, or save it from furthering hegemonic interests.
In theory you could have some form of Syrian intervention that did not favor hegemonic interests, but it seems rather implausible given that advocates of Syrian intervention have cited everything from the need to contain Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles to checking the influence of Iran to preventing the rise of jihadists that a self-interested intervention is pretty implausible. Additionally, it is entirely possible that the U.S. would overthrow the government of Syria, and, given that array of national interests, would choose to cultivate a type of client regime. We can quibble about the definition of a client regime, or imposition of U.S. will, and so on, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t seem like leftists are concerned about what John Judis wants for Syria, but what an administration that has put itself at odds with a great deal of the self-labeled left through its actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya is likely to do given the state of politics. Saying Syria resembles Yugoslavia may legitimately be insufficient even if you are a leftist who approved of those wars, because Syria is much closer to many American factions’ conceptions of the national interest, whether be it because of Middle Eastern regional security provision, Iranian influence, or jihadist safe havens.
But then Judis, at the end, subtly seems to reverse some prior positions:
I remain perplexed about what the United States can do to help the Syrian rebels. I am not a military expert, and I don’t know what is involved in setting up a no-fly zone. I think that whatever we do, we have to do with other countries. And I believe that we have to avoid any commitment to policing a post-Assad Syria. These are reservations that the Obama administration seems to share. But I have no doubt that we should try to do something to rid the world of the Assad regime. And I say that as a card-carrying member of the American left.
Judis seems to revert to what is actually the classic form of leftist intervention advocacy – as aimed first and foremost about national liberation against reactionary regimes. Yet the commitment to avoid policing is directly at odds with humanitarian logic. Committing, to some degree, to policing a post-conflict area is likely to prove critical to any humanitarian aims in post-Assad Syria. This leads to some uncomfortable conclusions, which O’Hanlon and Doran follow through on in their proposal here, but it’s not unfamiliar. U.S. supported peacekeeping was what happened after the Yugoslav wars, Somalia, and the Multinational Force in Lebanon. If our goal is primarily to change the regime and to divest ourselves responsibility for the humanitarian consequences of the next phase, then yes, this is much more like the longest tradition of leftist intervention advocacy. To be clear, I do not support the U.S. intervention in the Syrian Civil War for either objective, however, if the goal is humanitarian intervention, it is difficult to justify that aim without taking some degree of responsibility for the peace afterwards.
There is more to humanitarianism than deciding to smash the ancien regime. If the U.S. left seems especially uncomfortable with intervention in the latter half of the 20th century and early part of the 21st compared to the early 20th century, perhaps it is because those U.S. leftists who have railed against hegemony have found their country the increasing and then uncontested hegemon. The requirements of humanitarian intervention, especially as justified by the Responsibility to Protect, a general left-wing desire to restrain the imperial impulses available to a still preponderant U.S. hegemon, and the question of at what point you ought to just “smash the fascist!” When you put a revolutionary theory of intervention in the hands of the prime international power charged with stewardship of the international old order, and combine that with the considerations of a later-emerging and historically distinct strand of humanitarian thought, it should not be any surprise that there are numerous ideological rifts within a left that appears to encompass here everything between mainstream American liberals and the radical foreign supporters of communist, Trotskyist, and anarchist movements who fought for the Republic in Spain. Given that Judis’s own advocacy alternates between humanitarian and revolutionary imperatives, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the ideological left as a whole cannot come to consensus on Syria. Expecting a massive and fractious political tradition to come to consensus on an issue such Syria might be expecting a bit much.
The Atlantic recently put out an essay on the latest generation of Civil War history that is well worth a read. Perhaps the Civil War is too much a personal interest of mine for some of these accounts to be so shocking as the author presents them, but early on, something started to bother me quite a bit (though read the essay in full first, lest my more or less sequential comments mislead you as to its conclusion). It came after a justifiably brutal depiction of Pickett’s Charge, which was horrific in execution and hardly noble in the cause it marched for:
This and other scenes of unromantic slaughter aren’t likely to get much notice during the Gettysburg sesquicentennial, the high water mark of Civil War remembrance. Instead, we’ll hear a lot about Joshua Chamberlain’s heroism and Lincoln’s hallowing of the Union dead.
It’s hard to argue with the Gettysburg Address. But in recent years, historians have rubbed much of the luster from the Civil War and questioned its sanctification. Should we consecrate a war that killed and maimed over a million Americans? Or should we question, as many have in recent conflicts, whether this was really a war of necessity that justified its appalling costs?
If we should question it, we should do so only quickly, because the answer is most obviously yes. Iraq was a travesty in conception and unacceptable in prosecution. Afghanistan is not so nearly as much a black mark but in its unbearably and unnecessarily lethargic and sanguinary slog towards a conclusion, yet the disappointment we shall surely face when it finally does will not evoke romantic images of a good war. However, what about Iraq or Afghanistan could possibly speak to the justice of the Civil War? If an entire region of the country decides to abrogate its commitment to a more perfect union because it is no longer happy with the political winds (let alone that it does so in defense of the worst practice in American history), and commits to violence in the process, there are few wars that could be more necessary. True, it would be dismissive to diminish the unprecedented and thankfully unmatched slaughter of the Civil War, but is there any comparison to the stakes either?
The Civil War today is generally seen as a necessary and ennobling sacrifice, redeemed by the liberation of four million slaves.
In the sense of all, inherently contingent history, no, the Civil War was not “necessary” as if by some mysterious law or principle, no, it was not “necessary” any more than the existence of the United States or any complex event was necessary. But, at the human scale, was it necessary for the Union to meet Confederate force with force, in the preservation of the country? To say otherwise is simply to dismiss the concept of a necessary war entirely. This is a valid decision to make, but sadly it is not the one under discussion. As for “ennobling,” however terrible the slaughter, it is difficult to see how, however tragic the costs or flawed the consequences, that the liberation of millions and the preservation of the country left us worse than how we began.
No, as the essay notes, we did not solve the racial problems of the day. I doubt anyone expected the war and most familiar with the cost expected to. But there is no better example of making the perfect the enemy of the good than saying that war and Reconstruction deserve short shrift for failing to “deliver true racial justice.” Justice, insofar as human beings in the real world remain charged with delivering it, is and will always be imperfect. Comparing the flaws of Reconstruction with the acknowledgement of the humanity and citizenship of an entire race in America? To paraphrase Adam Smith, there is a lot of room for ruin in an abolition. Did the war “knit the nation back together?” No, but it surely did a better job than letting a great deal of it become a separate nation entirely. Does it speak well to the country that the war occurred? No, it was awful that it came to this. Was it somehow the wrong choice when the combined decisions of North and South rendered the North the choice between accepting secession and war? I find it very difficult to imply so.
Not mentioned in the essay, which later, albeit indirectly, casts doubts on aspects of Goldfield’s view of the war, are some of Goldfield’s more sobering points about the degree to which even the re-United States indulged in horrific racism, not simply against the freed blacks but against Catholics and ruthless violence against the indigenous. I find it wholly unconvincing, however, to say that these aspects would not have been present in some alternative, Civil War-free past. Consider the bizarre and disturbing Norman-Cavalier thesis popular in the South on the eve of the Civil War, that Southerners were a naturally master race over the serf-descended Northerners. Would two countries, each seeking to define their own identity in the rift of secession, have not sought forms of nationalism just as, if not more virulent, than the ones they embraced in seeking reconciliation? Surely we can dismiss the notion that blacks stood a better chance under secession, but would a North in dire need of protecting its still sparsely-occupied West be more tolerant of Indians? Would a South with a direct economic and political incentive to renew the cause of expansion into Latin America forgo such a new and politically legitimate opportunity?
The notion that other countries’ compensated manumission, and the deus ex machina of industrialization, might have felled slavery in a Union that did not fall to secession should give us hope for a better path than war and its consequences is similarly dubious. No country relied so heavily on slavery as America, and even Britain’s abolition did not come with a corresponding refusal to profit from the institution of slavery. While Britons underwent no small feat of mental gymnastics to square their anti-slavery policy with the massive economic benefits of trading and processing slave-extracted commodities, we could hardly compare the degree to which slavery in the United States was not simply an economic but a political and social fact.
While manumission was not unspeakable, its hour never seemed at hand, and the South was unwilling to wait and give it a chance. To assume industrialization would have withered away or obliterated slavery seems odd. With far shallower foundations than America’s system of forced labor, the totalitarian governments of the 20th century were able to adapt it into their industrialization or the maintenance of industrial activity, even in cases (such as Nazi German used of forced labor) when ideological requirements made it unprofitable.
Luckily (and leaving this tangent on Goldfield), the essay brings in Gary Gallagher, one of the leading figures both in dissecting the Lost Cause mythology and also of much of the rosy romanticism about the North’s war aims. Unfortunately the essay gives Gallagher’s argument on the latter very little traction. It is very true to say the United States did not enter the Civil War for the principles of abolition, let alone racial justice in any recognizable form. To note the soldiers of the North should not be to suggest that there was no value in fighting for Union. There very much was.
We do not diminish the importance of abolition to also note that the Civil War in saying that Union was essential to the cause of republican government in the United States. As Lincoln noted in his Second Inaugural, “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.” It is easy for revisionist accounts to slight the degree to which this charge matters. In a functioning democratic republic, a great deal of the populace must accept a great deal of consequences to the detriment of their interests and preferences relative to what they might have enjoyed in a successful vote or reigning coalition.
The South seceded in part because of frustration but even more in fear of what the Republicans and shifting Northern sentiments would mean for its political, economic, and social interests. To usurp not simply the decision of an election but the Constitution, not simply the decision of the day but the entire charge to form a more perfect union, is to poison the principles of republican government. To endure and accept political decisions at the counting of the ballot rather than the charge of the bayonet, and to preserve that system so the people can remain confident that deliberation and peaceful decision will remain the primary arbiter of our daily political lives, is not simply an afterthought in determining the justice of the Civil War but an essential facet.
To legitimize or accept unilateral secession in preventive defense of sectional interests was not simply a blow to the Union as a label on an expanse of territory, but to the principles it and few other states had then committed to. The citizen-soldiers Gallagher describes fighting for this war were not always fighting for the most noble aims, but to then underplay the nobility that existed in those aim is, beyond slighting them, a slight to core foundations of republican government. The Civil War was not simply about slavery as some extraneous aberration to a power struggle, but a challenge, rooted in the issue of slavery but aimed, in execution, not simply at future abolitionists but at the system of government they might employ in that aim. The conflict was not only about slavery, nor even the “lofty principles” of Union, it was also about interests, often venal ones. But that interests lined up behind those principles should not give us pause as to which principles were worth supporting. In no fantasy would political or military decision have been any less compromised by these standards, and there is no good war in American history I can think of in which the world worked differently.
We should indeed note the South came quite close to winning, which is precisely what we need to put the continued war effort and its mounting and horrific costs into perspective. You can still see the earthworks along the route of the Overland Campaign where Grant earned his reputation as a butcher, where men would fall dead or lie maimed in unfathomable thousands, in a conflict where single battles or campaigns towered over American casualties in years of war in our time. That the Confederacy nearly won after years of unparalleled mutual slaughter should not discredit the cause of fighting, but force us to confront war in all its tragedy, and all the more appreciate the severity of the choices that a leader like Grant would have to face (and at least more understanding of those in the Union who opposed war, or ending it on the terms it did, to save Union lives). In a society where the decision to go to war is so selective in the horror it unleashes on its people, having such a blunt view of war’s consequences is necessary, and ought be part of our consciousness long before any politician or officer succeeds Lincoln or Grant in their duties today.
We could go further and note that not only did the Civil War’s toll apparently prove militarily necessary to seal the fate of the Confederacy and preserve the American Republic as it was and would be, but it largely foreclosed on American soil the prospects for total wars like those which would ravage the old world in the 20th century. We often remark that our experience of the 20th century’s titanic conflicts was radically different from those of Europeans or Asians – it did not have to be that way.
As Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist 8, peace, prosperity, and republican government depended in no small part on a political institution which could prevent America from descending into a mass of squabbling states. The fragmentation of ancient Greece and contemporary Europe had stark lessons. Division on the continent would mean competition, competition insecurity, and insecurity the retardation of liberty and prosperity. Cleavage in the Union would divide the United States into at least two peoples, embittered by war, in search of national redefinition, and fearful and contemptuous of each others’ often exclusive interests. This at a time of French intervention in Mexico, when the forceful reintroduction not just of a balance of power system on the continent but between the continents seemed quite possible. It would be one where a continent divided and already bloodied, with one state covetous of its former territories and crippled in the legitimacy of its principles, and another founded to the advantage of the most anti-democratic interests possible, lurched towards the era of total war the Civil War arguably foreshadowed.
I am sympathetic to the case that there is no such thing as a “good war,” and readers here probably recall some of my arguments against the unnecessary romanticizing and appropriation of World War II history. Yet to question the worth of the Second World War because it did not originally intend, and could not fully resolve, the worst excesses of totalitarianism or genocide in Europe or Asia does not invalidate the causes for which the war launched. Even more than abolition, ending the Holocaust was not the primary and unifying cause for which the Allies fought, and the moral compromises the United States made in building a coalition to defeat the Nazis were even more uncomfortable than those it made in prosecuting war against the South. But as we can discuss the validity of fighting World War II while still acknowledging its decision to go to war was about far more than the Holocaust and the merits behind that decision, we can discuss the Civil War and acknowledge that before abolition validated it, the cause of Union was worth fighting for.
To recoil at suggesting such a war – or any war – could be good is understandable. War is the killing, maiming, and depriving other human beings, in the Civil War’s case, of ones we’d called countrymen. Yet regardless of whether one thinks a war can be good or not, we ought recognize the Civil War was, however imperfect, just, in both the North’s decision to accept war and in the balance of the peace war’s decision imposed. Human justice, again, is necessarily flawed and incomplete, and to shift the burden of blame on those who gave so much to advance it as much as they did, rather than those and ourselves who succeed them in their duties, is unhelpful at best. The essay I quote from closes, even after a litany of provocative claims:
From the distance of 150 years, Lincoln’s transcendent vision at Gettysburg of a “new birth of freedom” seems premature. But he himself acknowledged the limits of remembrance. Rather than simply consecrate the dead with words, he said, it is for “us the living” to rededicate ourselves to the unfinished work of the Civil War.
If we are unduly complacent because we view something as a good war, then we ought target our complacency rather than veer into a headlong revisionism that, though a necessary part of improving our historical and moral understanding, can promote a self-satisfied dismissal of the dilemmas of the past – ones far graver, in many ways, than any we face today. The essay closes on a more agreeable note than it begins, though if the centrality of Union rather than abolition to Northern war aims remains underplayed, so too often does the justice of Union as a cause. It is with an eye towards justice, and the terrible toll that just war wrought, that I’ll close with some lines of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. In Lincoln’s theodicy, however controversial an aim abolition was, and however his own position on it shifted, we can still recognize the profound suggestion that slavery, the cause which promoted the South’s choice for war, bore too upon the degree of its suffering. No matter how contingent the outcome, the moral verdict of the war is still inseparable from the monstrous institution which brought half the country to force a choice between them:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Imperfect yet still praiseworthy causes and citizens brought about that judgment in earthly form, and however inadequate their work proved, it still saved us from yet more and worse of what they endured.
Decline and power transition create curious anxieties. For many those who insist that it is a choice which we must not relinquish, leadership simply exists within the international system, waiting for some nefarious power to take up the metaphorical crown and gain, in spite of material realities to the contrary, imposing their will through a leadership the U.S. cannot actually cede to others. Now, from Fareed Zakaria, we have something of an opposite, liberal, institutionalist spin – the idea that being a superpower must come from conforming to American leadership and preferences:
China is the world’s second-largest economy and, because of its size, will one day become the largest. (On a per-capita basis, it is a middle-income country, and it might never surpass the United States in that regard.) But power is defined along many dimensions, and by most political, military, strategic and cultural measures, China is a great but not global power. For now, it lacks the intellectual ambition to set the global agenda.
Up until the last sentence, this paragraph is true. China is a great power, and it has the potential to become more powerful, but it is yet unable to translate its economic might into military dominance over its own region, let alone beyond its own region, nor does it have the political clout that the USSR ever held among much of the communist bloc. However, describing China’s inability to set “the global agenda” as a lack of “intellectual ambition” is particularly strange. The matter of China’s political and military difficulties (especially power projection), along with its need to devote a large amount of resource and attention to controlling and policing its own country is certainly a check on ambition. It certainly has intellectual implications, as all forms of material circumstance inevitably too. Yet those hard difficulties we cannot intellectualize away.
Zakaria quotes David Shambaugh (who I was lucky enough to study under as a student), who describes Chinese difficulties this way:
“China is, in essence, a very narrow-minded, self-interested, realist state, seeking only to maximize its own national interests and power. It cares little for global governance and enforcing global standards of behavior (except its much-vaunted doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of countries). Its economic policies are mercantilist and its diplomacy is passive. China is also a lonely strategic power, with no allies and experiencing distrust and strained relationships with much of the world.”
There is a strong case to be made that Chinese policy is counterproductive for several Chinese interests. If a country cannot usurp the global order, it may very well be the case that acquiescing to certain aspects of it will improve its diplomatic standing, decrease military tensions, and increase opportunities for economic growth. That is a worthwhile case to argue. It is also not one rising powers are particularly willing to heed, especially when a hegemonic power tells you what your own best interest is. (“What do you mean, we decided? My best interest?”)
Zakaria insists, though, that if China wants to be a superpower, and wants to be treated like a superpower, it needs to start doing more to defer to the interests of other powers:
The United States should seek good and deep relations with China. They would mean a more stable, prosperous and peaceful world. Further integrating China into an open global system would help maintain that system and the open world economy that rests on it. But this can happen only if China recognizes and respects that system and operates from the perspective of a global power and not that of a “narrow-minded” state seeking only to maximize its interests.
One could say that establishing security in an international system led by a hegemonic superpower requires playing by the rules and through the institutions that superpower has erected. It is much harder, however, to convincingly argue that this is where superpower status emerges from. In a ten-year old assessment of China’s supposed superpower status, Lyman Miller defines what a superpower is (the definition holds up well, even if the assessment needs updating):
a “superpower” is a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global hegemon.
The reasons that China cannot project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world are manifold. China’s blue-water naval capability has yet to achieve total dominance over its neighbors, let alone develop the robust capability to deploy expeditionary military forces in major conflicts on other continents. China must still spend more money on internal security, monitoring its population and cracking down on Tibet and Xinjiang, than it does on external military activity. China’s ascendant status in a crowded neighborhood of competing powers elicits anxiety, while American alliances reinforce a status quo many second-tier powers find satisfying or at least tolerable. We could go further. The point is, though, is that acting like a superpower as Zakaria describes it does not remedy these problems, indeed, by legitimizing an international security and political architecture that privileges the United States, it exacerbates them to a certain extent.
Being a superpower is not defined by acting in accordance with the preferences of others, it is about possessing the capability to impose your preferences on them. We may not find this way of thinking particularly life-affirming but that’s how the sausage is made. Perhaps we should examine past power transitions, and see whether rising superpowers rose through recognition and respect of global governance and the preference of foreign powers, or by selective engagement dictated by narrow-minded national interest?
The Soviet Union was never as deeply integrated into the global economy or institutions as it China is today. It engaged with international institutions selectively, only joining the League of Nations in 1934 (more out of narrow-minded self-interest with regard to Eurasian power politics) and flaunting it by invading Finland five years later (again, out of narrow-minded self-interest), resulting in an expulsion that did jack squat to help the Finns, let alone check its political ascent. After German invasion, the USSR’s pursuit of global power was hardly contradictory with its national interest. The USSR’s idea of recognizing and respecting the international system was the outright conquest of significant swathes of territories it first gained invading Eastern Europe alongside the Nazis, and installing horrific vassal governments with only the most marginal pretenses of the democratic principles of its two major allies.
Sure, the USSR joined the United Nations, but it had a privileged position in this organization, one not bequeathed as a reward for the enlightened nature of its self-interest or intellectual ambition, but for coming out on the winning side of a war. The USSR’s military did more to defeat Hitler than any single country, and it did so after Stalin cooperated with Hitler in opposition to the Western capitalist powers. You could have made a great many critiques of the mockery Stalin put the international system through at the end of World War II, where Soviet troops belied the lofty pretensions of a new democratic orders. What you could not have effectively said was that this somehow obviated Soviet superpower status or the need to accord them one in matters of diplomatic and military consideration. Superpower status was not something the rest of the world could grant or rescind from the USSR, it, in any practical sense, simply was, and that factual standing came with the empirical proof of military might, ideological clout, and, at the time, economic capacity. The Soviet Union could have preferences as narrow or cosmopolitan as it preferred, but it had them because of the power it acquired through ruthless, calculating manipulation and usurpation of the old international order, and the exploitation of its own advantages.
The United States, too, hardly followed Zakaria’s described path to superpower status. Its pushed its own norms in the Western hemisphere, launched imperial wars in Asia and Latin America, and participated only reluctantly in the Great War. Its participation in global governance often followed lofty ideals, but practical engagement was selective, fitful, and frequently self-interested. Its ascent to superpower status did not come from vigorous engagement with and deference to global governance. It became militarily powerful enough that it could impose, in the aftermath of an even greater war, the norms, institutions, and standards of global governance it preferred. Even institutions as innocuous as Bretton-Woods were arguably part of an attempt to seriously displace Britain as a power, as an institutional arbiter, and as a normative leader within international affairs, a project which began decades before and would continue at least through the Suez Crisis.
When Zakaria and others are talking about participating in global governance and the need to abandon its narrow-minded interests, they are talking about a system a superpower created, not one that creates superpowers. There are many good things about the American-built liberal international order. Certainly it is clever enough in design to give other countries incentives to participate beyond the coercive variety. But countries that integrate deeply and follow its rules simply don’t become superpowers in any reasonable sense of the term. The international system that Zakaria wants China to accede to requires more acquiescence to American security preferences as integration deepens. There is a chance this could result in a more prosperous, safe, China. But if China becomes a superpower by being even less subversive of international governance and norms in the face of a predominant power, it will be the first superpower to do so. It would be a mistake for the U.S. to treat China like a superpower because it is not one. While it is something of a noble lie to tell countries that they can attain such a status by acting in a way that benefits our interests, and arguably cosmopolitan interests by preventing the subversion or collapse of a liberal international system, it’s still, well, not true.
While I strongly doubt Xi is reading the op-eds in advance to his summit, if he wants China to be a global power on par with the U.S., this advice obviously isn’t particularly helpful. It would be even more of a mistake for a country seeking to become a superpower to assume an anti-revisionist world order is the path to achieving such a goal. There are a lot of good reasons not to seek superpower status, especially if the material and political foundations for it are weak. But promising superpower status through compliance to hegemonic interests is historically unheard of and diplomatically, a risky proposition to sell. That is a road to dangerously divergent expectations, and from there, the breakdown of international systems.
I found the opening (by the interviewer, not the author) to this interview with the author of a new and promising looking book on the history of napalm curious:
Napalm is one of those American inventions that you wish weren’t, sort of like Agent Orange, killer drones, or nuclear weapons. Sure, their invention might have had to happen eventually, but why should the U.S. have to shoulder credit – culpability? — for being the first to develop ever-better and more lethal weapons? Was that something the Founding Fathers ever envisioned?
I am not about to stand up for Agent Orange, and my readers are likely sick of anything I have to say about drones, but could we contemplate for a second why, exactly, it would have been in any way better for another country to have developed nuclear weapons first?
Consider that, without the influx and recruitment of European and especially German physicists to the United States, the next in line for successful nuclear development was probably Nazi Germany. Even if America’s decision not to develop the bomb had no impact on the failure of the German program, next in line after would likely have been the USSR. In what fashion would this have been a morally superior outcome? Even leaving aside the likelihood that the U.S. would have launched an invasion of Japan killing thousands upon thousands of Americans and probably millions of Japanese, and indeed possibly involving chemical weapons use by one or both sides, would blaming the Soviets – let alone the Nazis, if that had come to pass instead – for inventing the atomic bomb have done anything to morally improve the world? A Soviet first in developing or use of nuclear weapons would simply have given us the same arms race consequences only with an early advantage to a totalitarian empire, while their lack of development at all would likely simply have meant a longer war in Asia and a stronger Soviet Union overall. I do not see what anyone would find so reassuring about such scenarios.
In the case of incendiary weapons and firebombing generally, rather than napalm specifically, we should note the U.S. pioneered neither their development nor their use, but instead perfected . Credit for modern flamethrowers and firebombing more likely goes to Imperial Germany, who employed the former on the battlefields and the latter from zeppelins over Britain’s coasts in WWI. Before 1942, cities the Axis firebombed included Chongqing, Warsaw, London, and Coventry. The Allies went on to use firebombing anyway, and demonstrated superior capability with it thanks to their more capable bomber wings. What the world would have gained from napalm not being introduced when firebombing (including thermite bombs) and flamethrowers were in use is unclear.*
As an aside, the argument that “the founders did not envision this” is usually misguided in matters of military technology’s 21st century applications because firstly, the founders had strong disagreements over matters of war and peace and frequently contradicted themselves, and secondly, because one can find evidence from the founding period to justify virtually anything one pleases. That the U.S. wished somehow to abstain from the development of military power seems rather bizarre. In 1815 the U.S. launched the Demologos, the first steam warship, but the production faltered for want of money and practicality after the war’s end (though armed river steamers did exist). Eli Whitney made a good deal of money off selling the concept of interchangeable parts for firearms (although between lifting French concepts and the frequent failure of his wares, he is also a founding-era pioneer of wasting taxpayer money through the military procurement process), which helped form the basis of the influential armory system. Elisha Collier invented a revolving flintlock (though he patented it first in Britain, partly because the UK would not accept patents granted first in the U.S. and further because the UK was willing to spend vaster sums on new arms). Though sometimes the moral inclinations of certain politicians scuttled new technologies (such as when John Quincy Adams derailed the Navy’s procurement of sea mines), the record of the founding period through the antebellum era is far more one of under-investment in the military than American moral abstention from developing military technologies.
Regardless, the point here ought to be that worrying about being the “first mover” is less important than being a responsible user, and that, given changing moral guidelines, even being a responsible first user is not necessarily going to provide the dividends one might expect as a matter of enlightened self-interest. Firebombing, as a subset of area bombing, became controversial in its own time primarily because of questions such as when it was militarily justify to bomb a city period, with the view that area bombing and firebombing being flat-out immoral being a less popular or prominent viewpoint. One section of an exchange with the author is illuminating:
Discuss the morality of napalm. Why do lead bullets seem to be viewed as “good weapons,” while napalm – and others, like chemical and biological weapons – seem to be viewed as “bad weapons”? Is there a logic to these groupings? If so, what is it?
I’m not sure I accept the premise of your question quite as you phrase it.
Napalm is legal to use against combatants under international law, for example, while chemical and biological weapons in general are not. It is also illegal to use bullets, to take your example, in certain ways: for example, to execute babies.
To fully understand my view about what happened to napalm, and discussions about its morality, naturally, you need to read my book. I will note, however, that Fieser asserted that he envisioned that napalm would be used against things, not “babies and Buddhists,” as he phrased it.
To the extent napalm became controversial, the worst damage it did was becoming symbolic of a war that was already extremely polarizing, and would have been so whether it was napalm or some other payload in some of the bombs being dropped. The extensive use of area bombing and firebombing in World War II attracts less controversy because the wars themselves are far less controversial. Notably, the very agonizing over the consequences of the atomic era keeps much of the controversy over the final atomic acts of the war alive.
For better or for worse, the extension of American ingenuity to warfare is a historical fact. But whether it is good or bad for society has much more to do with the consequences and context of the weapons than the weapons themselves. To wish that we had not developed a weapon that finds wide international acceptance is to engage in a sort of Pandora’s Box or Promethean myth about technology, whereby forgoing first use, through some vaguely articulated quasi-karmic mechanism, forestalls or even prevents the nastiness we associate the weapon with.
In a way, focusing on weapons systems provides a sort of win-win for activists and powerful states. The U.S. reduces its use of gelled-fuel explosives (rather than napalm per se) to select circumstances, in keeping with practical changes to military doctrine that were already occurring – but continues to employ a wide variety of other weapons systems with its overall military superiority and privileged international position intact, while activists get to claim a victory because extensive napalm use remains at the fringes of media attention by states without the same capability to employ it as the U.S. and its allies and clients possessed. Of course, focusing on a specific weapons system is a much easier for activists in terms of propaganda and more practical in terms of mobilization to work with than is, say, the concept of American military superiority writ large. The platform is certainly the most visible element of the combination of social and technical elements that support and provide political meaning to a weapons system. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a weapon as an object of study or a starting point for analysis, but to make a moral or policy judgment requires looking at more than just the weapons system and realistically thinking about cause and consequence. Napalm was an evolution in a series of technologies and tactics developed elsewhere by others, it was part of an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary change. The process, however, by which one weapon became the focus of so much public attention and so prominent in generations of thinking about war, is fascinating and important, and one worth examining as we think about how other increasingly publicized weapons systems grab headlines in present and future wars.
* As far as firebombing goes, even a country with total disregard for international norms and humanitarian practices would find that the changing construction of modern cities, and the need for massive fleets of freely operating aircraft, renders area incendiary bombings increasingly difficult. Much as with chemical weapons, a great deal of the relative lack of use needs to factor in practical considerations.
Dan Drezner has an interesting post asking why we do not see more revisionist behavior from Russia and China:
To be sure, China and Russia have , on occasion, engaged in some revisionist efforts to change the status quo. See: Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia; China’s border disputes with the rest of the Pacific Rim. What’s striking, however, is that neither Moscow nor Beijing seems terribly interested in collecting client states. Hell, for all the rhetoric involving closer Sino-Russian cooperation, it seems as though the actual bilateral relationship amounts to little more than empty rhetoric and cooperation at the U.N. Security Council….
Spitballing now, I think there are three possible explanations.
1) Pure buckpassing. Why should Moscow or Beijing spend their hard-earned cash on marginally useful client states? Let the West exhaust itself with these aid packages.
2) Internal balancing. Realists like to think that external balancing (forming alliances) and internal balancing (augmenting national capabilities) are substitutable strategies. Maybe China and Russia prefer to focus on national capabilities rather than coalition-building.
3) Outside their own neighborhood, neither Russia nor China is really revisionist. As great powers, Moscow and Beijing will do what they gotta do in their near abroads. Globally, however, they have neither the ambition nor the interest in altering the current system of “good enough” global governance. After all, the current rules of the global game have benefited both of them pretty well over the past decade or so.
You can guess which of these explanations I gravitate towards, but I’m hardly convinced.
Drezner’s third argument is likely correct, but I think the explanations are cumulative rather than exclusive. The United States has not had to seriously contemplate issues of territorial integrity since World War II, if not earlier. While our security from conventional threats does lead us to underrate the importance of qualitatively different but still staggering violence in say, Mexico and Central America, it gives us an important framework for talking about revisionism.
Russia and China both have significant internal and frontier security concerns that shape their security posture in profound ways. Looking at their attempts to preserve or achieve status as global powers is interesting, but is probably a misleading metric of revisionism. Their core interests still lie with maintaining internal stability, preventing separatism, and achieving a degree of local superiority or at least comfort that protects them from what they see as the spoiling intentions of the U.S. and its allies. I think all three logics that Drezner mention hold to some extent, and so behavior that is revisionist locally but cooperative globally is over-determined.
With regard to buckpassing, focusing on internal and local security gives a strong incentive to pass off the duties of managing client duties in situations that do not significantly impact these core security concerns. The tradeoff between power projection, in a military, economic, or political sense, and maintaining local power is stark, especially at the military end. While increasing local security does give these powers more flexibility about exerting their weight on the world stage, it makes little sense to challenge U.S. and broader Western interests in the most costly way with the least direct payoff to their most vital interests. Providing top cover for clients at the UN or thumbing noses at Western anger with their arms sales is not a particularly costly endeavor, particularly compared to the lengths to which the U.S. and its allies will go to back their client regimes. Where real investment is required, the damage to their interests is more than offset by the opportunity cost of trying to sideline the West on peripheral issues.
As for internal balancing, it is important to note that internal balancing has more useful dividends. As the U.S. ought to know at this point, building up clients does not create fungible power. They can provide a bulwark for your interests in that region, perhaps, but if a crisis erupts in another, or on your own soil, a far-flung client is unlikely to be of much use and indeed may become a liability if the patron is unwilling to recognize the fallacious logic of sunk costs. Building up one’s own military capability, however, removes the principal-agent problem inherent in client-based foreign policies. Internal balancing is far more useful for ensuring domestic and local security.
China spends vast sums on internal security and much of its recent military development remains oriented towards ensuring the integrity of its de facto territory and projecting power over its strongly contested claims to the South China Sea and Taiwan. Relying on alliances, particularly when China’s most powerful neighbors are wary or potentially hostile to its rise, is a poor choice for these internal and near-abroad concerns. Most great powers must achieve local dominance or at least security before taking a run at truly global power.
Additionally, the dynamics of continental power balances reduce the number of potential allies these countries can make through coalition-building. The U.S., by virtue of being far away and capable of providing security guarantees, has an advantage in building alliances and thwarting the diplomatic outreaches of its rivals. There are, at times, self-imposed constraints to this process, such as when the U.S. engages in what countries consider to be an aggressive or revisionist foreign policy itself, or when it purposefully or inadvertently draws coalition-building on ideological lines, but so far the U.S. has not fundamentally compromised its advantage, despite some costly missteps.
So, the third explanation is arguably buttressed by the first two. However, that should not make us take Russia or China’s potential for revisionism less seriously. The current system of “good enough” global governance relies on the effective distribution of security in Russia and China’s neighborhoods. While Europe is likely to remain relatively secure, Asia and South Asia are different cases. Revisionism in the Caucasus does not mean a lot for the hegemonic and great power foundations of the current order, sure. On the other hand, a conflict in the South China Sea, over Taiwan, or regional escalations in a reignited Korean war would have grave implications for the international system. In a crowded and increasingly significant corner of the globe, local revisionism can have serious consequences. Much of the structure of the world for the past few centuries stems from consequences of “local” revisionism on the part of European powers and their neighbors attempt to check them. Like focusing on Bourbon colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, or German imperial adventures in Africa and Asia in the late 19th and early 20th, focusing on relatively unimpressive power projection gambits would give a misleading picture about the actual danger of French and German revisionism during those time periods.
This becomes increasingly salient as the U.S. likely continues to offload security duties onto Russia and China’s neighbors. Letting more power and capability shift into the hands of local states escalates the security dilemma and potentially increases the chance that local revisionism sparks off a larger conflict. Where a hegemon can judge its engagement in local conflicts with regard to global interest, and force clients and allies to back down from escalatory ladders, an international security regime that transfers more of these duties onto local states increases the potential that local revisionism translates into regional instability, and the occurrence of that local revisionism in an economically and militarily-central part of the world increases the likelihood a conflict there has systemic effects. While we should probably worry less about Russia and China aping or forgoing a globally hegemonic posture, we should be careful not to be to complacent about the “merely” local ambitions of great powers in an increasingly central part of the international system.
What are the plausible futures for the U.S. defense posture? Regardless of how the budget shakes down, change seems afoot. But adequately grappling with its consequences requires more clarity about how the broader international system is shifting, and the utility of power within that system generally. As I’ve said elsewhere, not only is power not over, but it’s not shifting, necessarily, in the ways many expect. Nevertheless, while I would hesitate to claim that state power writ large is in noticeable decline, insofar as coercive ability goes, it’s hardly disputable that the U.S. is in a position of relative decline, as are the western world’s military powers generally. As in cases of weak states suffering from insurgency, however, generalizing a claim about the international system from the specific case of relative U.S. decline is often greatly misleading.
Take, for example, Panetta’s claim that sequestration would render the U.S. a “second-rate” military power. Regardless of the effects of sequestration, we can disprove this claim rather easily by asking, second to who? Even under the worst scenarios, the U.S. would retain unparalleled military capability by any reasonable measure of power projection and sophistication.
The problem is that focusing on aggregate military strength, even if it does remain first in the world, fundamentally misses the point. As Laswell reminds us, political power is the ability to produce the effects we desire over others, to determine “who gets what, where, how, and when.” When we talk about relative power in the international systemic sense, we’re referring to which powers are capable of producing the greatest intended effects on the international system.
Even in relative terms, our decline is not nearly as precipitous as it may seem. What is probably more troubling is that our expectations for intended effects so frequently put themselves at odds with our actual capabilities. This is compounded when we take any measure of cost-efficiency into account.
Fears that the U.S. is going to become second rate, or that some other power is going to be able to replicate its global posture, are clearly unfounded. Simultaneously, though, the opportunity cost of global power is increasing, and this reduces the yields of primacy. The plausibility of simultaneously managing relative decline, redoubling U.S. hegemony in East Asia, managing Iran and the civil wars of the Arab Spring, and continuing to prosecute wars against al Qaeda and its affiliated movements from Mali to Pakistan is fading (indeed, even the task of providing strategic intelligence on all these subjects is daunting).
More significant than the possibility of one power out-matching the U.S. either in aggregate military capability or global military presence, which is respectively unlikely and near impossible for the plausible future, is a future in which rising powers and disseminating military capability raise the potential costs of U.S. power projection in multiple theaters simultaneously. As the relative power of states and military capability of non-state actors increases on multiple continents, the opportunity cost of an intervention in any one region increases.
With relative power redistributing and the U.S.’s fiscal fundamentals groaning, a posture and outlook demanding simultaneous military engagement across the globe is unsustainable. Continuing U.S. military predominance vis-a-vis any specific enemy in any specific theater becomes increasingly detrimental to maintaining predominance in other theaters. The smaller your military, and especially the more strained the assets most necessary for power projection become, the more implausible a defense posture which involves multiple simultaneous conflicts becomes.
The debate over the “two wars” and “win, hold, win” concepts are illuminating in this respect. If your defense posture requires you to fight two major conflicts simultaneously in two parts of the globe, then the “hold” conflict, and indeed, the ability to manage multiple simultaneous conflicts generally, is going to require an exceptionally robust power projection component, which will require exactly the kind of airlift, sealift, and standoff fire capabilities most in demand even by our limited footprint wars. This is hardly a novel concept - it is easily apparent by the late 1990s - but the fact that even “light footprint” operations such as Libya, the initial toppling of the Taliban, and, retrospectively, Bosnia and Kosovo, still required significant amounts of air and sea power should give us pause that simply downsizing our involvement in wars adequately mitigates the opportunity cost issue.
The easy solution to the rising difficulty of simultaneous power projection is to engage in burden-sharing. Yet the compromises this entails need clarifying. Firstly, the potential negative effects of the security dilemma problems of burden-sharing are significantly understated. As Kindred Winecoff points out, cashing out on U.S. defense expenditures through burden-sharing not only entails a logical non-U.S. military increase, but an increase that is far more likely to result in destabilizing security dilemmas.
The marginal returns of building up to engage in security competition with the U.S. are relatively low. Beyond engaging in what is necessary for an adequate deterrent against U.S. forces, trying to build a large offensive capability is a much more risky gambit, since making U.S. intervention costly enough to keep Washington out and actually overpowering Washington’s forces in theater to establish regional dominance are two entirely different military propositions. You are likely better off investing in a nuclear deterrent or a variety of asymmetric capabilities that aren’t likely to be of much use for offensive power projection in and of themselves.
These calculations change when the U.S. delegates more security to local partners. For Chinese planners, deterring or defeating, say, fully-rearmed Japanese or fully-modernized Indian military forces is still a daunting task, but it is still easier than the same for the U.S. More importantly, at the margin, spending on modernization or expansion of military capability has greater returns for states vis-a-vis their neighbors than against the U.S. So, shifting security burdens to local states not only exacerbates the arms race dynamics of the security dilemma, it also creates dyads where the outcome of a conflict is much less assured.
Indeed, it is far more logical for regional powers to engage in their own military buildups or external balancing through new alliances against other regional powers than to do so against the United States. As Levy and Thompson pointed out, offshore powers are less threatening than regional continental powers, and thus more likely to produce stable security environments, decreasing the salience of local security dilemmas. Encouraging military buildups and heightened security competition between regional powers across the Eurasian rim is highly likely to rekindle some of the conditions for increased conflict. Today’s current distribution of great powers is relatively lightly armed, and there is very little significant balancing behavior against a distant U.S. A situation where,South and East Asia engage have increased incentives for security competition will produce more military power and balancing behavior with a higher geographic density.
Not only that, but it expands the range of plausible options for raising the blood and treasure costs of entering a regional war for the U.S. If a regional power can achieve early dominance over U.S. local partners, this seriously complicates the U.S.’s already heavy reliance on forward-staging and easy access to local basing – one diminishing resources for expensive power projection systems will further complicate. As Robert Farley pointed out, the ABDA powers’ disastrous showing in Java Sea provides a necessary warning for future concepts of burden-sharing.
In addition to the possibility that burden-sharing produces more intense security competition and, as Winecoff points out, higher potential global aggregate military expenditure, it may also be more likely to produce dynamics that increase the U.S.’s price of forcing entry or maintaining presence in a major war theater. The peacetime expenditures for military forces would be lower for the U.S., but on the off chance a war does occur, it is likely to be more difficult and of a higher intensity initially.
Even if burden-sharing is a far less rosy prospect than we might prefer, the best alternative is hardly the current unsustainable hegemonic posture. The exhortations for American leadership and primacy that involve leaving as many troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as possible for as long as necessary, taking a larger share of combat operations in wars such as those in Libya or now Mali, embarking on new wars in Syria, and refusing to liquidate or redeploy untenable commitments all serve to actively erode fundamental components of what actually works about the U.S. defense posture.
Firstly, the opportunity costs of ramping up military forces for Iraq and Afghanistan-style operations is actually quite high. Occupation and large-scale counterinsurgency forces lack fungibility and have low marginal returns for U.S. power. Beyond the obvious question of whether long-term occupations of such countries best serves U.S. interests given the costs, even redeploying them is an expensive and lengthy process. Not only that, but given reduced fiscal resources, it is much easier to stand up ground forces for such operations than to do the same for conventional naval or air assets when they are needed in a pinch. Additionally, as Jonathan Caverly’s research suggests, large land forces of comparable or at least acceptable quality are much easier for local or partner states to furnish than the kind of capital-intensive power projection and standoff fire assets naval and air forces provide (of course, I don’t want to emphasize a simplistic landpower/seapower binary here – amphibious forces and land forces capable of making or exploiting forced entry into a theater are also a fundamental component of power projection).
Secondly, insistence on taking a larger role in conflicts where our allies are actually willing to pick up slack needlessly raises the opportunity cost of interventions. While I was outright opposed to Libya, at least the significant participation of European forces mitigated its costs. If a conflict is discretionary both for our allies and ourselves, devoting disproportionate resources to it actually distracts from core U.S. interests to the primary benefit of partners. The costs this potentially imposes to power projection elsewhere is highly likely to outweigh any minor pyschological benefits from demonstrating our capability in a peripheral area.
Thirdly, undertaking new wars in the context of ongoing conflict becomes increasingly costly to core interests as the number of ongoing conflicts increase and the new conflicts become more discretionary. Many proposed interventions have unpredictable and quite possibly unfavorable effects not simply for their costs, but for their likely systemic effects. As alluded to earlier, “light footprint” approaches only mitigate, but do not solve, this opportunity cost issue, an issue I will explore more fully at Abu Muqawama. Particularly at a time when our ability to recapitalize the force or redouble our efforts in the event of unintended consequences, even supporters of a global U.S. military posture ought make skepticism the rule.
A final lesson for the future U.S. defense posture, regardless of what form it takes, ought be to rediscover the virtues of prioritization. To talk about defense in an age of limited resources is well and good, to craft a meaningful policy response requires sobriety not simply about the degree of force we put into a war or a military commitment, but where they are worth having and what for. The “Pivot to Asia” provides a useful microcosm of this issue. First a slew of new conflicts and security concerns in Africa and the Middle East questioned its geographic reality, then budgetary constraints questioned its fiscal sustainability. Though the U.S. will obviously maintain interests in simultaneous theaters, it must start to think which areas present the most concern, in which areas might redeployment or liquidation present a viable option, and if there are possibilities for leveraging presence in one region for systemic effect. Nevertheless, hazy commitments to universal principles and global engagement no longer seem sustainable. Selectivity and restraint are not simply attitudes, but must have real geopolitical expression, if debates about burden-sharing, offshore balancing, and light-footprint approaches are to move from platitudes drawn from selective historical cases to viable policy planning concepts.
With an influx of Saudi-purchased arms and ideas floating for non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels, irate supporters of directly arming the Syrian rebels are demanding more. America sitting back and refusing to go all-in with the Syrian revolution, while letting regional powers do the heavy lifting and pursue their own agendas, rankles those who believe American “leadership” on Syria is the necessary ingredient to ensuring its future as an American ally. America’s apathy in refusing to arm Syrian rebels will, supposedly, translate into atrophy of its power. Already a mythology of the lost opportunity to reshape the politics of the Middle East is emerging. The very minimum necessary effort to reverse this precipitous and voluntary decline, is for the U.S. to begin sending weapons in Syria.
To fail to do so as other countries arm Syrian rebels sometimes strikes commentators and analysts as an even more egregious sign of decay (even as it revives a dubious notion that American decisiveness can make up for the geopolitical difficulty of competing for dominant influence in a country – whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria – with its most powerful neighbors). Walter Russell Mead, in his essay argues along with many others that staying out of the Syrian arms market will simply lead to an extremist takeover:
It is still the Saudis deciding who gets the weapons and the dough, and presumably the Saudis who have the influence over the rebels themselves. Those who have long memories when it comes to unpleasant truths will remember what happened in Afghanistan when the United States let Pakistan and the Saudis decide which groups got support in the fight against the Soviet Union.
That Mead thinks American provision of weapons would be somehow easier than in Afghanistan is highly questionable. The U.S. had no choice but to let Pakistan’s ISI pick winners, it needed the ISI, and indeed, a massive expansion of the ISI and support of the Pakistani praetorian state, simply to move armaments into Afghanistan.
Who, exactly, is going to distribute weapons in Syria? The notion that Americans sitting in, say, Gaziantep or Al Mafraq really have the last say about where weapons ultimately end up in Syria is absurd, whether they are arriving on the American tab or not. It will be Arab and Turkish personnel doing the bulk of the heavy lifting inside Syria, or else Syrian arms trafficking networks. All of these actors have differing priorities both from each other and the United States. The notion that U.S. cash will somehow provide sufficient leverage to micromanage this process is dubious, since it is not as if the Gulf states are particularly in need of our money (though they are always happy for us to foot more of the bill).
Ensuring that proxies stay in line is not a question of leadership, it is a question of control and leverage. There are two broad options for ensuring this. One would be to send, on an ambitious scale, Special Forces and paramilitary officers specializing in unconventional warfare to actually supervise and monitor not simply weapons shipments, but the groups receiving them inside Syria. This was more or less the approach the U.S. used in Laos during the Indochinese wars. There, U.S. proxies received their arms from U.S. aircraft, with U.S. Special Forces and CIA officers working closely alongside armed groups in country.
Another possible model, in Nicaragua, would be for a smaller number of U.S. personnel to operate in bordering safe-havens, and let the proxy groups strike across the border. This must overcome numerous pitfalls. Keeping supervision effective from across the border fosters dependency and reduces the ability of these groups to win territory and legitimacy for logistical and political reasons. This was not much of a problem with the Contras, but then again the Contras never made gains outside rural Nicaragua and never seriously contested cities. In Syria’s case, the need to actually govern territory and establish local legitimacy forces the U.S. then to rely on intermediaries to fill the logistical gap, as the ISI did in Afghanistan, or to risk America’s favorite insurgents failing to effectively establish influence and control vis-a-vis other insurgent groups.
Obviously, America was nowhere near as hands-on in Afghanistan, as Mead points out – but the most effective manner of establishing proxy forces requires a large commitment of precious few assets. CIA paramilitary and SF capabilities are badly needed in a variety of theaters, particularly as Security Force Assistance and Foreign Internal Defense are now critical and increasingly overstretched components of our counter-terrorism strategy.
Besides, proponents of arming our way into the hearts of Syrian rebels both inflate attitudinal benefits and conflate them with behavioral changes. For one, just because a weapon is American-bought will count for little to fighters who receive them from Arab or Turkish hands. Nor should we assume receiving U.S. aid will sour them to advances from the Saudis and others. After all, the more sellers there are, the more the buyer can bid up the price of their affection and loyalty. In Angola’s war of independence and subsequent civil war, UNITA and the FNLA took support from China even after or in the midst of U.S. advances, and neither side spurned Chinese advances even though China also supported MPLA forces at various times (indeed, it did so to try and win over the MPLA from the USSR – a move which failed).
Even if the U.S. somehow outright wins the favor of Syrian rebel groups, a rebel group which calibrates its behavior to U.S. preferences rather than the political realities of controlling Syria is going to have trouble surviving in the post-war climate. This is especially crucial when confronting the possibility of countering extremist movements in Syria. Despite many assertions that we must arm Syrian rebels for victory, beating Assad hardly solves their problem. Given the cohesion and capabilities of various jihadist groups in Syria, they are not simply going to melt away. In all likelihood, their current backers will want to keep support flowing in order to ensure they have a proxy or ally free from U.S. influence when the dust settles. Considering the backlash the U.S. faced simply for designating Jahbat al Nusra a terrorist group, trying to actually cut off it and similar groups’ supplies, if even practically feasible, would jeopardize U.S. influence and widen splits within the Syrian revolutionary coalition.
Even assuming rebels found the U.S. proscription of extremist fighters tolerable, what would the U.S. need to do to precipitate a crackdown on them by its erstwhile Syrian allies? In Libya, the government let extremist organizations with anti-Western tendencies tear apart shrines, Western graveyards, and attack diplomats almost without consequence, despite NATO’s direct intervention to help topple Gaddafi. In Syria, where extremist groups are even better organized and armed relative to their secular and mainstream Islamist counterpart, escalating conflict with jihadists and opening a second stage to the Syrian civil war is even more dangerous. Western support for secularists and amenable Islamists will not cow jihadists into disarming. As Jihadica points out, posters on Shumukh al Islam are already asserting that what happens after the fall of the regime is of even greater concern than the war against the regime itself.
Let’s be clear of what the U.S. would need the secularists and Islamists to undertake to stamp out the jihadists in Syria. Not simply unite, not simply win, but maintain the motive and capability to fight and kill their one-time partners once they have finished with the regime. This is not a mere competition for influence, it will be war.
In Libya, even after Benghazi, U.S. pressure, and additional support on counter-terrorism, the group many blame for the attack, Ansar al Sharia, openly operates in Benghazi and the central government cedes them a role in militias’ security provision there, even as assassins and kidnappers target Libyan security forces there. In Iraq, despite a small Sunni population and a relatively capable and competent Iraqi government, flush with years of U.S. training, equipment, and cash (and not to mention a concerted, years-long U.S. effort to eradicate the group), AQI still claims responsibility for raising hell across Iraq. The audacity of even significantly checking extremist groups in Syria merely with U.S. supplies and the goodwill of whatever support we win deserves much, much further scrutiny from policymakers and practical justification from advocates of arming Syrians for victory.
Arming the rebels to win the war more quickly is a relatively straightforward case to make, but to address the second and third-order concerns relies on outlining logistical mechanisms, force structures, and direction of post-war rebel military activities that are far less appetizing and far less likely to achieve their intended ends. It is easy to wax grandiose about the need for American leadership and spit venom at its lethargy, but outlining how the U.S. would actually take the lead on the ground in Syria and convince its supposed new friends to launch a new war against their cobelligerents is a much more difficult propostion. Despite the desire to demonstrate “leadership” and take action, the results of entropy can easily thwart these high-minded attempts to counteract geopolitical atrophy. Simply advocating that we arm the rebels is something, but without an explanation of how we would arm them, how we would maintain our influence, how we would check proliferation and misdirection, and how we would translate that into the military defeat of jihadist organizations, we should not accept at face value that this something is better than nothing.