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.
“If you want to do illegal tings, you need other people. You rob a bank, you need a driver. You deal drugs, you need a supplier. There are very few criminal fields where one guy works by himself. Even a counterfeiter needs help getting special inks. When you need other guys to do something illegal, you got to trust each other.
Trust is in short supply on the street. Obviously street people got to be careful of each other. We’re all criminals. The other problem is we got snitches. How do I know the other guy is not setting me up? How do I know he’s not going to rat me out if we get heat? Does he got balls, or does he shit his pants when we got a problem? You need to know all these things before you start working with somebody.
To take trust builds time. You need to get high with a guy, joke with him, chase women with him, get into fights with him to see how he carries himself in different situations. It can take months and months to figure out who the other guy is.
The Mafia was many things. It was paying taxes and rules and old mustache guys telling you what you couldn’t do. The Mafia was also a trust organization. If someone in the Mafia you knew pointed to a complete stranger and said, “He’s a good guy,” you could take that to the bank and rob it. You don’t need to spend months with the guy. You could immediately focus on making money together.” - Jon Roberts, the “Cocaine Cowboy,” in American Desperado
Working in an environment where trust is essential and evasive, outside the law, is not merely the realm of criminals, of course. Though the comparison might be unflattering, many varieties of clandestine operation occur under similar circumstances. They do so, of course, with political purposes that can find some moral and legal justification in the policy deliberations of a legitimate political community. At the sharp end, similar dynamics and consequences still apply.
It should be no surprise that clandestine operations and criminal organizations frequently work together. To acknowledge this is not to endorse the conspiracy theories which attribute all mob actions to some government or another’s master plan than to recognize how the international arena can make common cause between the two types of organizations.
The history of covert operations and organized crime in Florida and Cuba frequently intertwines. Many of those the CIA worked with as part of Operation 40 and Brigade 2506 went into a life of crime after the Agency funds dried up. After all, if you can smuggle cargo into a hostile country for the government, you can probably smuggle drugs into another one for a drug cartel. There is common interest, too – organized criminals which cannot cut deals with a regime or manipulate its coercive institutions are likely to resist it, and it is no surprise the “Family Jewels” release details an abortive venture into working with the Mafia to assassinate Castro.
But aside from the concrete cases of collaboration and common figures, there are interesting lessons in the abstract. The methods of building and assessing trust among those engaged in undesirable activity in a hostile state frequently displays similar logic (which, as I’ve pointed out before, often leads to cooperation or at least indirect complicity between the professions). That organized criminals frequently work with minority groups or social networks more generally that they perceive to be anti-statist is no surprised. They provide trust networks yet to be integrated into the sovereign state’s machinations, which reduces their likelihood to defect and often provides a common quasi-ideological defiance to the hostile state.
This cooperation manifests itself in a variety of ways in the criminal world. As the previously linked paper notes, in “a legal business context, relations across ethnic and language barriers are generally believed to be difficult to establish and maintain,” but “the opposite may be true in the case of illegal businesses since the respective other’s status as a foreigner often rules out the possibility of his or her cooperating with the authorities.” Ideological and political preferences can also play similar effects. Roberts, for examples, notes he had little trouble, as a Mafia exile in Florida working overwhelmingly with Hispanic drug trafficking organizations, in enlisting “rednecks” into his work or at least securing their complicity, because their distrust of and dislike for “the feds” built a sense of common cause and trust.
This adds perspective to how we view the U.S.’s use of unconventional warfare and proxy strategies. Working with minority groups and the excluded not just makes sense on a balance of power logic, but it also provides access to a trust network and set of coherent organization that exists beyond the control of the state, which greatly facilitates getting into business together – it should not be a surprise that the Kurds, Hmong, Montagnards and Sufi ASWJ feature highly in histories and reporting on U.S. proxy activities.
In other words, it’s partially for want of a reliable set of “mustache guys” that the U.S. refrains from arming a variety of covert groups today. The kind of experiential trust-building Roberts describes is a kind the CIA frequently now is unwilling or unable to execute in hostile environments makes throwing weight into a proxy war unfeasible, unless there is an alternative mechanism to circumvent the trust-building process. Given the past proclivities and recurring record of the Gulf states vigorously involved in arming Syria’s rebels today, why the U.S. might not want them filling that role is clear.
Unfortunately, for scarcity of personnel capable of operating at a scale large enough to do massive proxy wars in-house, the U.S. turns to “mustache guys” such as Zia ul Haq and the ISI. In Syria, many of the available “mustache guys” seem a lot more like (pardon the phrase) “beard guys” who use ideological kinship and a trust network inherently beyond the control of Damascene authority. Thus, the U.S. is stuck trying to shore up the creation of an alternative hierarchy to fulfill this role – a local unified command structure for rebel forces.
Of course, you can have similar organizations that exist in power when working with a target regime. The important quality seems to be, of course, that the trust network isn’t sublimated into an overall system of control that gives leverage or influence to the people you’re attempting to thwart. This is not simply a concern for clandestine operations, however. In terms of nation-building operation, the conflicting interplay between the ideal trust networks for a foreign patron and the indigenous ruler or rentier regime encumbers democratization and liberal mechanisms of government. Sustained foreign interventions frequently raise, empower, or prop up regimes prone to double-dealing and manipulation abroad and predatory behavior at home.
Jay Ulfelder, in a recent post on Libya, makes an interesting point on this note. While I still do not believe intervention in Libya was the best U.S policy option available, he does a good job of explaining how and why Libya’s new government developed the way it did:
Now, instead of swinging away at a foreign-funded piñata, Libya’s regional factions have to choose between swinging at each other or working out ways to get along. Because none of those regional factions enjoys a significant coercive advantage over its rivals, there are strong incentives to refrain from the former, and that seems to be helping push the latter along. As James Madison argued in Federalist No. 10, it’s impossible to remove the causes of factionalism, so the best we can do is to try to control its effects. The crazy-quilt character of post-Gaddafi politics may be hindering the emergence of a powerful central government, but it also naturally protects against one alternative that Madison saw as a graver threat than faction, namely, a tyranny of the majority. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but my hunch is that the state produced by this halting process will ultimately prove more durable than any construct we would have gotten from another foreign-funded, “high modernist” state-building binge. If Afghanistan and Iraq are any guide, that’s actually not a very high bar to clear.
The problem is, of course, that while this insulates the U.S. from the costs of propping up the new regime, it also reduces its leverage over its interests and thus the regime’s incentive and ability to crack down on networks with which the U.S. is most concerned about. Libya does not have a tyranny of the majority, but it is so far from one it has limited capability for, and indeed, created some political impediments against, violent extremist groups. Not that “state-building,” “nation-building,” or now, in its more politically-palatable formation, “capacity building” and “partnership” are without their own problems. Far from it, they recent experience suggests they are almost always worse. But because the U.S. simply can’t replace every unsavory regime it needs to work with, many of which are more durable than Gaddafi’s highly personalized tyranny, we are stuck in search of “mustache guys” who can furnish us with partners without the bloody and costly ordeal of going it alone or earning our partners through trial by fire.
Successful criminal enterprises understand that trust has limits. Indeed, studies have found criminal enterprises will continue not merely in the face of lack of trust but active mistrust, but they also frequently must break trust bonds and sacrifice expendable relationships in order to continue their existence. While the mythos and perception of honor is important, trust has many bases besides reputation and maintaining any kind of outlaw enterprise militates against inflexibility – something Roberts himself recognizes in his examination of how the Mafia operated and his own work with the Medellin Cartel occurred. The ability to create partially expendable networks and remain resilient in the face of absent trust or mistrust is a frequent feature of well-functioning organized criminality. Whether governments should and how they would replicate the desirable features of these organizations may be an important question as conceptions of foreign policy turn increasingly to the indirect or collaborative approaches.
I’ll try to make this a bit shorter than my usual fare on the subject, but let me be clear about something. As much as I and many others inadvertently use the term, there is no such thing as drone war. There is no nuclear war, no air war, no naval war. There isn’t really even irregular war. There’s just war.
There is, of course, drone warfare, just as there is nuclear warfare, aerial warfare, and naval warfare. This is verging on pedantry, but the use of language does matter. The changing conduct and character of war should not be confused with its nature, as Colin Gray strives to remind us in so many of his writings. When we believe that some aspect of warfare changes the nature of war – whether we do so to despair its ethical descent or praise its technological marvels, or to try to objectively discern some new and irreversible reality – we lose sight of a logic that by and large endures in its political and conceptual character.
Hence the title (with some, but not too much, apology to Baudrillard). There is no drone war, there is only the employment of drones in the various wars we fight under the misleading and conceptually noxious “War on Terror.” Why does this matter?
To imbue a weapons system with the political properties of the policy employing it is fallacious, and to assume its mere presence institutes new political realities relies on a denial of facts and context. This remains the case with drones. The character of wars waged with drones is different – the warfare is different – but the nature of these wars do not change, and very often this argument obscures the wider military operations occurring.
Long before the first drone strikes occurred in Somalia, America was very much at war there. Before their availability in that theater, the U.S. had deployed CIA and SOF assets to the region. It supported Ethiopia’s armies and it helped bankroll and coordinate proxy groups, whether they were Somali TFG units, militias, or private contractors. It bombarded select Somali targets with everything from naval guns to AC-130 gunships to conventional strike aircraft. It deployed JSOC teams to capture or kill Somalis. That at some point the U.S. acquired a new platform to conduct these strikes is not particularly relevant to the character of that war and even less to its nature.
We sometimes assume drones inaugurate some new type of invincibility or some transcendental transformation of war as an enterprise of risk and mutual violence. We are incorrect to do so. The war in Somalia is certainly not risk free for the people who the U.S. employs or contracts to target these drones. It is not risk free for the militias, mercenaries, or military partners which follow up on the ground. Nor is it risk free for those who support the drones. Just ask Abu Talha al-Sudani, one of the key figures behind the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, who sent operatives to case Camp Lemonier and launch a commando raid – one which looks, in retrospect, very much like the one that crippled Marine aviation at Camp Bastion recently – that might have killed a great many U.S. personnel on a base then and now critical to American operations in the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden.
The existence of risk is an inherent product of an enemy whose will to fight we have not yet overcome. The degree of that inherent risk – whether it is negligible or great – is a product of relative military capabilities and war’s multifarious external contexts. Looked at through this lens, it’s not drones that reduce U.S. political and material risk, it’s the basic facts of the conflict. In the right context, most any kind of military technology can significantly mitigate risks. A 19th century ironclad fleet could shell the coast of a troublesome principality with basic impunity. When Dewey said, “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” at Manila Bay, according to most history and much legend he lost only one man – due to heatstroke! – while inflicting grievous casualties on his out-ranged and out-gunned Spanish foes. That some historians have suggested Dewey may have concealed a dozen casualties by fudging them in with desertions, which were in any case were a far greater problem than casualties since the Navy was still in the habit of employing foreign sailors expendable by the political standards of the day is even more telling. Yes, there are always risks and almost always casualties even in the most unfair fights, but just as U.S. policymakers wrote off Asian sailors, they write off the victims of death squads which hunt down the chippers, spotters, and informants in Pakistan or the contractors training Puntland’s anti-piracy forces. And no, not even the American spooks are untouchable, the fallen at Camp Chapman are testament to that.
This is hardly unique to drones or today’s covert wars. The CIA’s secret air fleet in Indochina lost men, too, and the Hmong suffered mightily for their aid to the U.S. in the Laotian civil war. The fall of Lima Site 85, by virtue or demerit of policy, resonated little with the American public but deeply marks the intelligence community and those branches of the military engaging in clandestine action. The wars we wage in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are not drone wars any more than our war in Laos was an air war simply because Operation Barrel Roll’s bombers elicit more attention than the much more vulnerable prop-driven spotting aircraft or Vang Pao’s men on the ground.
There is a certain hubris in thinking we can limit war by limiting its most infamous weapons systems. The taboo and treaties against chemical weapons perhaps saved men (but not the Chinese at Wuhan, nor the Allied and innocents downwind of the SS John Harvey at Bari) from one of the Great War’s particular horrors, but they did nothing appreciable to check the kind of war the Great War was, or the hypersanguinary consequences of its sequel but a generation later.
The Predators and Reapers could have never existed, and very likely the U.S. would still be seeking ways to carry out its war against al Qaeda and its affiliates under the auspices of the AUMF in all of today’s same theaters. More might die from rifles, Tomahawks, Bofors guns or Strike Eagles’ JDAMs than remotely-launched Griffins, and the tempo of strikes would abate. But the same fundamental problems – the opaque decisions to kill, the esoteric legal justifications for doing so, the obtuse objectives these further – would all remain. Were it not for the exaggerated and almost myopic focus on “killer robots,” the U.S. public would likely pay far less attention to the victims, excesses, and contradictions. But blaming drones qua drones for these problems. or fearing their proliferation at home, makes little more sense than blaming helicopters for Vietnam, or fearing airmobile assaults when DC MPD’s MD-500s buzz over my neighborhood.
That concern that proliferation of a weapons system equates to proliferation of the outcomes associated with them, without regard to context, is equally misleading. Nobody in America should fear the expansion of the Chinese UAV fleet because, like the U.S. UAV fleet, it is merely going to expand their ability to do what similar aircraft were already doing. Any country with modern air defenses can make mincemeat of drone-only sorties, and for that reason China, which unlike Yemen and Pakistan would not consent to wanton U.S. bombing of its countryside, need not fear drones. For an enormous number of geographical, political, and military reasons, the U.S. ought fear the “drone war” coming home even less. Drones do not grant a country the ability to conduct the kind of wars we conduct against AQAM. The political leverage to build bases and clear airspaces, and the military and intelligence capabilities to mitigate an asymmetric countermeasure operation do. If another country gains that ability to conduct them against a smaller country, even, it is not because they lacked the ability to put weapons on planes, but because of the full tapestry of national power and military capabilities gave them such an ability.
It was not asymmetry in basic technical ability that made the U.S. submarine blockade of Japan so much more effective than the Axis’s attempts to do the same against America’s shores, but the total scope of the assets in the field and context of their use. It was not because of precedent or moral equivalence, or lack thereof that the Axis could bomb Britain or lose the ability to do so, but because of the cumulative effect of military capabilities and the judgments guiding them. What might expand the battlefield of a “drone war” is much the same. America’s enemies do not refrain from attacking bases in CONUS or targeting dissidents in the U.S. (not that they have not before), they wait for an opportunity and practical reason to do so, and that has very little to do with drones in particular and even less the nature of the war itself.
Fearing that the mere use of a weapons system determines the way in which our enemies will use it without regard to this context is not prophetic wisdom. It is quasi-Spenglerian hyperventilation that attributes the decision to use force to childlike mimesis rather than its fundamentally political purposes. Iran and Russia do not wait on drones to conduct extrajudicial targeted killings, and indeed drones would be of much less use to them in their own political contexts. Focusing on drones and the nature of targeted killings as some sort of inherent link ignores those contexts and ultimately does a disservice to understanding of wars past, present, and future, and by doing so, does little help – and possibly a great deal of harm – to understanding how to move forward.
Expect further thoughts on drone proliferation more specifically coming later, in a different venue.
Jason Fritz makes some strong points about light-footprint intervention, and its unimpressive contributions to to American foreign policy:
The purpose of this short post is not to lobby for boots on the ground in Libya, but on the contrary to caution those out there who think that we can simply help these rebel groups with air power. For example: here. If our actions in Libya did create a gratitude account with the Libyan people, great. But that does not translate to those warlords that wield power through their militias as often their fight will be with other militias as they strive for greater influence. Without boots on the ground, we are unlikely to be able to stop these violent struggles for power if we can’t be there to broker the peace and help move it along.
As much as military analysts bemoan the general public’s lack of understanding of the effort and violence of a no-fly zone, the longer peace is much harder to accomplish without large numbers of troops on the ground to provide stability after the regime falls. If we are not willing to put troops on the ground before or after our service as a rebel-force air force, then we should seriously contemplate refraining from intervening in the first place. Or at a minimum, not be surprised when our actions do not provide the stability for which we had hoped. That is where I have issue with the RAND paper: it discusses the light-footprint as a problem in developing long-term stability, but it does not discuss the real nature of our initial intervention and how we have not yet succeeded in using it to accomplish long-term foreign policy objectives.
Much of the debate within the policymaking elite about intervention is fundamentally procedural. Certainly, there is no large ideological bloc of advocates of neutrality or non-interventionism, as there was before the 1950s. Nor does the somewhat younger Cold War realist faction seem to hold particular influence over policy today. The most vibrant debates seem to remain about when and how to intervene. While much ink spilled during the run-up to the U.S. joining Libya’s war over at what point a humanitarian crisis demanded a military response, much of the debate over Syria (often seemingly oblivious to a public with little appetite for intervention) grapples with whether the U.S. ought be seeking a purely indirect strategy of arms provision, establishment of no-fly zones, and so on.
Two long and costly wars, an unenthusiastic public, and an uncertain fiscal climate all militate against impulsive intervention, but the question now lends more stress to how large a footprint it will entail and what countries will participate. While these procedural differences matter enormously for mitigating the risks and costs of new wars, overemphasizing their importance fails to grasp at the vital question of the policy basis for initiating them in the first place, as well as the larger strategic issue of connecting those policy ends to the ways and means available.
Even more confusingly, the constraints pushing interventionist policymakers towards light footprint approaches are leading to a misleading repackaging of rationales and rhetoric. While there was some buzz about control giving way to credible influence, this provides false reassurance. Influence sounds collaborative and relatively low-intensity, while control sounds domineering and difficult.
As J.C. Wylie pointed out, though, power control plays an essential role that underpins influence. The problem Fritz identifies with light footprint interventions is that they seek a long-term outcome (at the minimum. U.S. influence) without a reliable mechanism for establishing lasting control over Libya’s key political-military actors. Ultimately, influence and control are not fully separable. The sinister meme in American foreign policy and national security debate is that when something is reduced, we can achieve the same ends when it is “smart” – “smart power,” “smart defense,” etc. The United States struggled to achieve its long-term objectives in Iraq with 150,000 troops and an direct role in Iraqi reconstruction. It should be no surprise that America’s past bombing campaign against a disappeared regime grants the U.S. very little power control in Libya, nor should it shock anyone that American influence over a patchwork of Libyan armed factions is not achieving desired ends.
As Fritz notes, there are fundamental problems in the planning process that will dog U.S. attempts to achieve long-term objectives in interventions to replace hostile regimes with pro-U.S. security partners that will persist regardless of the type of military force sent in to accomplish the initial objectives of regime change. Basic problems in these interventions still remain, such as a credible political component to the overall strategy, effective human intelligence, and a set of well-defined and prioritized limited objectives commensurate with the size of the force that allow us to adequately assess the conditions of victory, among many other issues. Unfortunately, the conditions that so often push the U.S. towards light footprint interventions, such as a desire for a rapid or prophylactic response, or to seize a perceived opportunity to advance U.S. interests within a limited time-frame, militate against rectifying any of those problems. The obfuscating seduction of military action - the fury and immediacy of its decision – and its malign consequences for policy planning are well and alive even in the latest reincarnation of a lither, smarter form of military action. To quote from Fritz’s post again:
If we are not willing to put troops on the ground before or after our service as a rebel-force air force, then we should seriously contemplate refraining from intervening in the first place. Or at a minimum, not be surprised when our actions do not provide the stability for which we had hoped.
A low-cost failure to achieve our objectives is still a failure, and in a context of limited resources, seeking the cheapest way to execute a half-baked idea is a dubious form of prudence.
In the past, presidents faced two major obstacles when trying to use force abroad. The first was technological. The available options—troops, naval vessels, or air power—posed significant risks to American military personnel, cost a lot of money, proved effective only under limited conditions, or all of the above. Dead and maimed soldiers, hostages, the massive expense of a large-scale military operation, and backlash from civilian casualties can destroy a presidency, as Vietnam and Iraq showed.
The second obstacle was constitutional. The Constitution includes a clause that gives Congress the power to declare war. Presidents have been able to evade this clause for small wars—those involving only naval or air power, or a small number of troops for a limited period of time. They have mostly felt compelled to seek congressional authorization for large wars, no doubt in part so that they could spread the blame if something went awry.
But drones have changed the calculus. Because they are cheap and do not risk the lives of American soldiers, these weapons remove the technological obstacle to the use of force. And because drone strikes resemble limited air attacks, they seem to fall into the de facto “small wars” exception to the Constitution’s declare-war requirement. Unlike large wars, drone actions do not provoke congressional attention or even much political debate.
Posner’s “technological obstacle” to the use of force makes, as I have argued before, no sense. Name one hostile country where the U.S. is using drones to target al Qaeda. You cannot, because they do not exist, and actually never have. Even Pakistan, the country most rhetorically hostile to drone strikes, does not try to shoot down U.S. drones. Neither does Yemen, nor Somalia (nor can it even try). In fact, what we see in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are cases where there is no technological impediment. The U.S. can and has inserted proxies, CIA operatives, and SOF into Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia at varying points in time. In the case of Somalia, JSOC was doing capture operations with the support of conventional naval vessels and aircraft from the sea or Camp Lemmonier for years before armed drones showed up.
Drones do not in fact change the calculus to initiate use of force, and as Posner seems to implicitly acknowledge, basically all limited wars that do not involve a large ground footprint bypass the “technological” constraint on war. But Posner arbitrarily draws a distinction between the use of drones (always alongside clandestine, SOF, or proxy personnel, and very often alongside manned conventional ISR, strike aircraft, and naval vessels) and other kinds of small wars, including “limited air attacks,” which drone strikes do not merely resemble but constitute, for unknown reasons.
Yet Posner insists on making hyperbolic statements such as these:
Yet it is a mistake to think that drone warfare will resemble the small wars of the past—the air assault on Libya in 2011, which lasted seven months; or the air assault on Serbia in 1999, which lasted three months; or even the military invasion of Panama in 1989-1990, which lasted one month. Drones can be, and increasingly are, deployed continuously, outside the theater of war, anywhere that a threat takes shape. They are not subject to the rhythm of mobilization and demobilization that occurs in a regular war. They’re used not only as part of a larger arsenal flung against a nation-state but also on their own as police sentinels, which pick off individuals and organizations thought likely to commit terrorist attacks in the future.
Where to begin here? Posner acts as if it is some novel feature of drones that allowed them to be deployed outside “the theater of war,” when in reality the U.S. military and intelligence community deploys drones virtually everywhere else they deploy drones. This really isn’t difficult to ascertain unless one is wedded to taking the term “drone wars” entirely literally. The U.S. deploys military and intelligence assets outside what the public considers a conventional theater of war all the time, and it does this nigh constantly. JSOC collected targeting data and coordinated sorties from Yemen itself, as it did during the first drone strike and as it has done since. JSOC troops and conventional aircraft were scouring Somalia for years before its first drone strike. In Pakistan, the role of other U.S. assets has been the most limited, but CIA operatives, proxies, but it still did include a clandestine deployment of SOF to assist in ISR collection and training.
The common denominator here is secrecy. It is secrecy and the additional legal powers granted through working under it that allow the U.S. to use military and paramilitary capabilities outside of what the public would call a conventional theater of war. Drones are not uniquely prone to clandestine operations, there are clandestine manned air fleets (and have been for decades), and there are drones that conduct traditional close-air support missions.
As for Posner’s claim that drones are “not subject to the rhythm of mobilization and demobilization,” what on earth is actually being said here? Drones absolutely are subject to rhythms of mobilization and demobilization. They require, like conventional strike aircraft, large forward bases with large numbers of supporting personnel – of the blood-and-bones variety – in order to maintain their operations. So, drones are indeed subject to mobilization and demobilization, because the personnel that support them are. As in the case of all other military operations, if you do a competent job of planning, you can work around deployment cycles to maintain an indefinite tempo of operations. This is not a capability unique to drones, the drone war is not older than Afghanistan, after all.
Posner, at least, is correct in noting that the drone wars cannot simply be resolved by appealing to the Constitution:
It is tempting to think that the president’s power to kill foreigners on a whim represents a failure of our constitutional system, which sought to ensnare the executive in a web of institutions that prevent the excessive accumulation of power in one man. But the constitutional goal was to protect Americans, not foreigners. Our Constitution has evolved to give the president the discretionary power to use force abroad because strong electoral incentives compel him to use it to advance national security, while Congress and the courts are parochial and cumbersome institutions that lack the capacity to react quickly to changing events.
Although Posner accepts that the AUMF furnishes blanket Congressional authorization for most drone strikes, he seems to imply as if this was some strange evolution of an originally limited intent (emphasis mine):
President Obama has acquired legal authority for drone warfare from the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the statute that Congress enacted at the request of the Bush administration just after the Sept. 11 attacks and was effectively a declaration of war against al-Qaida. Back then, one might have thought that the AUMF would authorize military operations in Afghanistan for just as long as necessary to defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban. But al-Qaida has spread into multiple countries, and independent groups have affiliated themselves with al-Qaida in order to obtain credibility and assistance. The AUMF will deliver war-making authority to presidents for decades to come.
If someone thought the AUMF was only going to authorize military operations in Afghanistan, they clearly did not read the text of the AUMF, or pay attention to U.S. deployments as early as October 2002. The AUMF intentionally contained no geographically constraining language because policymakers recognized al Qaeda and its affiliates presented a transnational threat. It is not as if there was some secret executive order or little-known signing statement intimating this lack of spatial specificity, it was plain to see in the legislation itself.
In October of 2002 the United States began military operations for OEF-Horn of Africa and OEF-Philippines. This predated the large-scale use of armed drones or any significant movements by al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. The Global War on Terrorism was conceived and executed from its inception as, well, a global war. Drones did not change the nature of these smaller wars outside of big theaters such as Afghanistan, just their character. Drones were late arrivals to Somalia and, after the initial 2002 strike, not dominating strike sorties until around 2010 or so in Yemen.
Ultimately Posner could have written a much stronger column simply expanding his argument on the dynamics of the Constitution and the separation of powers, which ultimately matter far more for explaining this story than any single piece of technology might. The uncomfortable reality is that these small wars are an endemic feature of the U.S. government and its structure, and that policymakers will respond to incentives and exploit opportunities with whatever tools are commensurate with the military task at hand. Indeed, his closing paragraph explains the problem more accurately:
The Constitution has thus become a sleek and lethal machine for projecting violence abroad in order to protect Americans without risking democratic values at home. No downside exists unless you live in a foreign country in Southwest Asia or North Africa, where people deemed terrorists and those living among them will start dying in ever greater numbers as the drone program swells into a worldwide system of policing… Unless American voters discover a humanitarian impulse to respect the lives of foreigners that has hitherto been lacking and call their president off, America could become a predatory state—without even realizing it.
But again, it isn’t drones that enable this. It is the mechanisms of U.S. government, the legal authorities granted to covert programs, and the small wars model that an immensely powerful U.S. military can bring to bear on a global scale. While drones are the most visible part of these programs, they tell far less of the story than many assume.