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.
In President Obama’s second inauguration, one section ignited a great deal of debate and derision from those following his security policies: “We the people still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” The notion of perpetual war is now almost synonymous with the vast expanse of the global war on terrorism, and it is not likely to disappear soon. The concept has Orwellian connotations, evoking among other things 1984‘s deliberately machinated permanent world war to ensure the boot remains firmly planted on humanity’s face.
While Orwell wasn’t writing 1984 as a scholar of international relations, the three superpowers clashing in the novel recalls Randall Schweller’s writings on tripolarity and its role sparking World War II. The modes of government Orwell identifies in 1984 germinated and blossomed in that war, forged in a context of global instability and conflict that engorged the scope and scale of the state and military even in the world’s most robust democracy. What we call “perpetual war” is indeed choice, as basically all decisions about how force is used are, but structure, and the types of security institutions and capabilities structure shapes, determine no small part the boundaries of our likely choices. In the case of today’s seemingly perpetual war, the policies we follow and the strategies following from them are not merely a nefarious clique’s choices or a broader worldview or establishment’s ideological malady, but arguably over-determined by the broader context of U.S. hegemony.
Take for example, the new symbols of the targeted killing campaign – the drone, or more specifically, the MQ-1 and MQ-9. Like all weapons, they are most useful within a specific context. Neither of these aircraft fare well in contested airspace, which works out fine for targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, where there are no air defenses to speak of or the government is deliberately permitting operations. They cannot launch from carriers, so they require basing on foreign soil. They can track their targets but require help from scouts and spies to do so most effectively, and, if they are a specifically-targeted personality, help identify them in the first place.
What allows the U.S. to convince or coerce states into letting it conduct airstrikes on their soil? What gives the U.S. the ability to, with relative quiet, put spies and JSOC spotters on the ground, to secure the compliance of local forces and proxies in the ground portion of the counterterrorism efforts, and to create bases near or in some cases inside the countries where strikes occur? Beyond the drone strikes, what gives the U.S. the ability to do all the same with Special Operations Forces, cruise missiles, manned fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and naval gunfire?
There’s no simple direct answer to this question, of course, as each is the result of a complex interplay of U.S. unilateral action and careful negotiation with local allies, clients, and partners. At a wider level, though, there are conditions essential to enabling these sorts of arrangements, and especially their longevity and the difficulty of escaping the situation of persistent conflict itself. It’s also a consideration missed by arguments warning about the consequences of mimesis, as if technical proliferation and karma could present a nightmare so vivid the U.S. might stop sleepwalking through years of targeted killings.
The first thing to recognize is that at every iteration since 9/11, the U.S. approach to counterterrorism has been enormously costly. Compared to the just but mismanaged invasion of Afghanistan and the morally and strategically disastrous blunder of Iraq, sure, the new approach is cheap. But it is also one essentially no other country is capable of implementing. It is not simply a matter of discretionary military and intelligence expenditure. Former third world forces have enough trouble conducting precision airstrikes within or just beyond their own borders. Even major peer competitors would face trouble putting comparable military detachments thousands of miles outside its own borders. Often, when U.S. allies strike even with manned aircraft, they often need U.S. ISR and refueling. They may need foreign resupply when they burn through their precision-guided munitions. Their unmanned strike aircraft operate with U.S. facilities and aid.
While the basic technology for precision-guided munitions, over-the-horizon fire, and remotely-piloted vehicles is falling in price, economies of scale and logistics still apply. States will still enjoy comparative advantage in these technologies and tactics. Smaller ones, many already struggling to maintain the forces they already possess, will find it difficult to reap benefits from such tactics without the U.S. or a comparable great power’s aid. Power projection will remain prohibitively expensive for many states.
This owes in part to some relatively hard geopolitical realities. U.S. hegemony in its own backyard is undisputed. It will, barring some truly epochal shifts in American power balances, enjoy freedom of action that China, Russia, and India can only envy. U.S. rivals have crowded neighborhoods and land borders to worry about. Though the U.S. ability to simultaneously maintain dominance in every theater will wane, and gaps in technology will likely narrow, the U.S. will retain options for refocusing and redirecting power others will not.
The U.S. inhabits an international system largely of its own making. It and the USSR demolished two hegemonic competitors by 1945, and then the USSR crumbled into a great power rather than staying a truly global one. U.S. advantages in technology and power projection and the massive margin of power the U.S. enjoys remove the first and most obvious obstacle to perpetual warfare – the chance of truly, existentially catastrophic defeat. From Vietnam to Iraq, American errors have been grave in their cost in lives and money but never apocalyptic for the republic or its military capacity. While America would face a regional peer competitor in Eastern Europe or the Straits of Taiwan, even as Americans leave the poorly-named “graveyard of empires,” its own empire will be not only essentially intact but, in Western Europe and East Asia, arguably welcoming it back.
Just as the U.S. worried about Chinese escalation in Korea and Vietnam, or entanglement in European wars through straying from neutrality, the prospect of a peer or superior power waging a massive and costly war is a strong incentive to keep small wars small or non-existent in contested or sensitive areas. For the U.S. before WWII, this was basically just its own hemisphere. Even after the halcyon 1990s, there are few places where great power rivalry prohibits direct or indirect intervention. While managing great power politics frequently recommends forgoing intervention, rival great powers lack the capability or willpower to go to war over most of the domain of American overt and covert operations. Not only that, but in many cases the U.S. maintains sufficient escalation dominance to limit foes to proxy warfare. Even then, current conditions vastly circumscribe their options. While Iran certainly wrought mayhem for the U.S. in Iraq, the efficacy of Chinese and Soviet aid to Southeast Asian communists dealt blows to U.S. forces the Quds Force could never replicate against the U.S. in Iraq.
In the case of the targeted killing campaigns, no great power and very few regional powers find al Qaeda or its affiliates to be useful or viable proxies. Despite financing from radicals and sympathizers in the Islamic world, al Qaeda’s strategy still relies on goading the U.S. into unnecessary expenditures and foolish policies. It is a strategy with malign consequences to the U.S., absolutely, but al Qaeda’s limited ability to unilaterally escalate significantly diminishes incentives for the U.S. to stay the sword.
The same U.S. dominance that limits options for direct hostile opposition also provides assistance or tacit compliance necessary for the U.S. to conduct its range of covert and overt operations. Coercion and cooperation both play roles. America’s initial ability to operate general purpose forces in Afghanistan, as well as the more sensitive missions by CIA and JSOC assets operating on both sides of the Durand Line, depends on a great deal of complicity from Pakistan. Both “with us or against us” pressure and a massive deal of sweetening from U.S. coffers and coveted arms helped the Pakistani military and intelligence reach a manageable equilibrium, albeit one that still permits Pakistan to engage in a great deal of support for anti-U.S. proxy groups.
Having the world’s strongest military and the professional and technical capacity to keep it running means U.S. arms are choice commodities and U.S.-trained units are potentially valuable assets for regimes (though, in the latter case, potential threats without coup-proofing). That same security dominance also makes U.S. supported security accommodations possible, and gives local partners the ability to shift regional balances towards their favor. Fostering U.S. reliance on your regime is a generally reliable way to ensure its complicity in your survival, particularly if you are an officer or bureaucrat with little to lose and possibly much to gain from a cosmetic changing of figureheads. The chance to buy into the U.S. security umbrella is enticing, and even if it comes at a loss of popular support, regimes will go to great lengths to conceal their cooperation enough for it to survive popular disapproval.
U.S. military superiority and willingness to spend, in this case, make the prospect of manipulation and double-dealing all the more appealing for local power-brokers. Too much resistance and the U.S. has the option of isolating a regime as a pariah, or, as the attributed saying goes, bombing it into the stone age. Better to cash in on U.S. efforts, perhaps goad them into supporting suppression of local or common threats, and start converting your demands and preferences into American national security concerns. In such models, local security forces, militias, and U.S. proxies, not to forget the civilians caught in the crossfire, bear the brunt of the blood price.
These sorts of efforts are particularly amenable to the U.S. because the very foundations of its geopolitical primacy and power projection provide it with the capabilities it needs to implement such a supporting or indirect approach. U.S. “command of the commons” requires aerial and naval dominance along with massive logistical efforts to support the rapid deployment of ground forces when necessary. Targeted killings using strike aircraft, SOF, and naval support are one possible output for such forces, as would be raiding operations and regime change. Essentially, the U.S. model of hegemony is an exercise in comparative advantage. U.S. financial-technical-industrial superiority provides capital-intensive military and intelligence capabilities, which also give the U.S. the logistical ability to outsource labor-intensive capabilities to foreign states and private actors.
Even in cases where the U.S. manages large ground deployments, U.S. counterinsurgency theory and policy terminates foreign involvement in wars with a large outsourcing of the labor-intensive task of suppressing these insurgencies to local forces, the logic of which Jonathan Caverly more thoroughly outlines in his research. To overemphasize new technologies vis-a-vis insurgents and terrorists as a driver in perpetual war, though, misses the overall systemic logic.
Without the U.S. ability to compel or compensate foreigners and private entities to take part in the labor intensive aspects of these dirty wars, the U.S. ability to wage them indefinitely falls apart. The archipelago of bases and diplomatic compounds the U.S. conducts these operations from are extremely vulnerable without host nation security. Now, as my co-blogger Adam Elkus pointed out, the U.S. is shifting resources into the private sector, but the overall logic remains the same. The U.S. military can get anywhere, but it cannot stay everywhere. The inadequacy, though, of local or private forces to complete U.S. objectives on their own, and the comparative advantage the U.S. military possesses in certain kinds of enabling and supporting operations, will continue to enmesh the U.S. in small, dirty wars where the U.S. offloads the vast majority of risk to non-U.S. government personnel.
Stepping back from the specific instruments and tactics, we can note some of the most persistent aspects of U.S. hegemony will continue to make “perpetual war” likely. Partnership and burden-sharing will not cure the perpetual war issue, as the U.S. will continue to enjoy a comparative and absolute advantage in a wide range of military and intelligence operations, whether measured against private proxies or NATO allies. While perhaps legally and ethically desirable, moving towards a capture and law enforcement-centric counterterrorism policy would still involve, at the very least, extensive U.S. support for local clients and partners to access safe havens and denied terrain, and quite possibly direct U.S. military intervention and raids. Somalia, for example, saw perhaps the widest range of strategies and tools in its counterterrorism campaign, ranging from reliance on foreign armies, local proxies to hunt down high-value targets, and eventually direct U.S. involvement in kill or capture operations, with a wide range of U.S. supporting and enabling operations occurring throughout the conflict.
Examinations of changes in technology, U.S. law, and domestic politics are important, but must not be taken out of this larger structural and systemic context. Where the U.S. has had the geopolitical freedom of action and logistical capability to project requisite military strength, it has engaged in regime change operations, manhunts, punitive raids, and a variety of other actions against weaker polities and non-state actors in the past. As Charles Tilly and Otto Hintze before him would argue, the external conditions shaping statecraft and warmaking play a significant role in the evolution of a wide variety of domestic institutions, technical capability, and force structure. Though policy remedies must be domestically political in nature, we can still recognize that the context of U.S. power has changed far more vastly than the actual U.S. government itself, and that the inherent prudential constraints on state action which limited U.S. warmaking in the past no longer exist. American war powers came into existence at a time where any war could easily result in a genuine existential threat. We can see the reflection of that in the Constitutional texts and debates, but we cannot inherit the mental context they were born of.
Check out Josh Rogin here and analysis pushing back against the claims from the leaked diplomatic cable from Noah Shachtman at Danger Room. The White House is now pushing back against the leak (due to inconsistency of conclusions with other information), which explicitly challenged the known views and policy of the wider US government.
If it is BZ/Agent 15, as at least some in the US government and their preferred sources apparently claim, then I cannot imagine a better illustration of the folly of having a blanket red line on Syrian chemical weapons use. BZ is an incapacitating agent. It is a chemical weapon under the CWC but in terms of its function, it shares the same class as riot agents (also CWC-banned in combat) such as C-Series gases, e.g. tear gas. These agents are nasty, but to call BZ a Weapon of Mass Destruction is absurd. BZ’s lethality is ancillary, its primary purpose is to incapacitate and function as a hallucinogen. This is not to say it isn’t awful, but is it a groundbreaking escalation in lethality? Does it somehow signal an intent to wipe out cities?
Nothing about the account suggests so. BZ, in terms of tactical employment, would look more like the Moscow Theater Siege than Halabja. It does not have wide effect. It is not lethal and there are much more efficacious ways of dispensing more death and misery over a wider area. Incapacitating agents function to supplement, for the most part, conventional modes of killing. If Syria is using incapacitating agents, this looks much more like the (currently CWC-banned) practice of using C-series gases to support conventional operations, something much more widely practiced with these less controversial substances in the Great War and Vietnam.
Going to war over an incapacitating agent would be beyond rash – but what if, as the medical and scientific information suggests, it wasn’t an incapacitating agent?
The symptoms reported in the open source seem relatively consistent with tabun (nerve agent effects, including constricted pupils, but with an odor and lower lethal dose uncharacteristic of sarin). Many reports prior to the civil war mention Syrian tabun manufacturing, none that I’m aware of mention BZ or Agent 15 (usually paired with Iraq).
Nerve gases are unquestionably more dangerous than incapacitating agents. Were Syria to use them widely, and especially if Syria were to use its more lethal ones such as sarin and VX, this would be lethal. The question is, was this incident evidence of planned escalation as the government source implies?
The basis is unclear. We do not know at what level this attack was authorized, or what protocols must be followed before Syrian gas release. Given that the reports mention relatively chemical limited shelling from Syrian ground troops, any junior officer with access to the weapons could conduct such an attack for tactical benefit. A larger campaign plan involving combined arms to dispense CW and conduct supplementing attacks, such as those the Iraqis used against Iranian ground forces and Halabja, would presumably indicate senior officer and by extension regime policy-level CW use. That’s not what happened, though, and this is all complicated by a lack of information about how and at what rung of command Syria distributes CW to ground troops. We have reports that Syria previously requested sarin use in Homs, but we know not how it might be employed.
It’s unsound to extrapolate Syrian wide scale nerve gas use from employment of BZ, and more credible to do so if this was, at least, a nerve gas itself. Even then, given the enormous complexity of doing anything meaningful to intercept, let alone secure, Syrian CW and CW’s grossly inflated role in decision-making policy, clamoring for immediate action and abandoning what has at least once in the past worked (vague deterrent threats not triggered by limited CW use).
All we’ve really learned is that some people in the US government think some Syrians are right about a limited use of CW in Homs, although nobody appears to agree on what was used, and how and why Syrian forces might have come to use it. Red lines aside and cries of “credibility!” aside, new decisions recommend a temperament closer to Spotty Lincoln’s rather than Leeroy Jenkins’s.
With veterans and survivors of World War II rapidly fading from positions of national prominence, the effects of its historical memory with it are undergoing retreat and redefinition. Because the material facts and relations of that post-war system re-configuring themselves, it is unsurprising we should see that the former Axis powers, their roles long constrained and restrained by war’s legacy for conditions foreign and domestic, rethinking their place in the international system.
In Japan, the victory of Shinzo Abe and fears of rising nationalism, alongside escalating tensions over maritime rights and territorial sovereignty in the East and South China Seas, portends darkly. While Japan’s pacifism held much greater political sway than Germany’s, so too has its nationalism never been so repressed or deprived of legitimacy. Of course, in Europe, German re-armament was not simply an American gambit to offload security, but part of a broader European project to pacify and unite the continent. While the U.S. mulled reintegrating Japan fully into the Asian security architecture, the revulsion this aroused in its other Asian allies had no counterbalancing vision of continental unity. Indeed, in a continent where World War II caught nationalism as its rise was beginning and in a great many areas accelerated its political consequences, such a vision was not just impolitic but ideologically at odds with the prevailing forces in the region (and it is likely cliche at this point to note how different the EU’s approach to sovereignty and national identity is from ASEAN’s).
Despite potential common concerns about China and North Korea, that South Korea reacts so negatively to Japanese nationalism and increasing military operation is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, it’s notable that South Korea, one of the most rapidly transforming countries on earth, might be so concerned about a country whose economy has gone from a disappointment to disaster metaphorical and literal, so unable to keep pace with regional developments its expanding coast guard consists of retirees manning vessels taken out of mothballs.
Germany, on the other hand, remains on the economic ascent, or at least it is faring vastly better than the rest of its region. But nationalism in Germany has always been a much more controversial and taboo issue domestically. While U.S. rhetoric in Asia still speaks of an increasing U.S. role, demanding that Europe pull more of its military weight is now a bipartisan talking point in U.S. defense and even mainstream political circles. It can be so vocally because there is little danger of dangerous security competition between Western and Central European states. Germany may be exerting itself more militarily, but to what degree Germany’s change in attitude can compensate for strained U.S. forces remains unclear. If the only military context it is politically acceptable and strategically feasible for Germany to operate in is as an auxiliary force to allies with greater expeditionary capabilities, how useful is this model for securing Germany’s national interests, and how much welcome ought the proselytizers of burden sharing in the United States ought to afford it? Germany has of course played a strong role in Afghanistan, but its appetite even for the revived fad of “light footprint” intervention remains questionable. When Germany abstained from voting in favor of UNSCR 1973, it became a matter of extreme controversy when Germans on NATO staffs in Italy simply continued doing their jobs in the context of military operations in Libya. Germany consistently attempts to put the breaks on intervention in Syria.
None of this is a criticism of Germany. It is of course pursuing its own best interests by opposing further collective military intervention in the Mediterranean, but NATO itself and most of the countries in it would similarly benefit from avoiding joining Syria’s civil war. Nevertheless, both German intransigence in the face of regional pressure to step up and Japanese efforts to expand their military role in the face of continued wariness from would-be allies demonstrates some unfortunate realities about efforts to turn two regional powers with ugly pasts into legitimate military players. Of course, this is changing, and we should expect to see it change further as China’s relative power increases.
The much more fundamental issue with transferring more security duties to the Axis powers is that the sources of their historical strength came from taking advantage of the policies the U.S. and other allies crafted to keep them docile. The old Yoshida Doctrine helped give Japan its miraculous economic recovery and channel impulses for national improvement into pacific ends. For all the hand-wringing about Japanese nationalism, at a time when Japan should be focusing on its economy should we really be surprised that nationalist justifications will need to play a stronger role for military expansion?
As for Germany, with any local threats receding, is it surprising that a collective security system that encourages wasteful expenditures and adventures will fail to capture the hearts and minds of the broader German population? Part of the paradox of offloading security to the former Axis powers is that promoting their economic growth and assuaging neighborly fears required creating precisely the kind of stable security environment which would discourage them from taking the kinds of security roles the U.S. now wants them to in the first place.