“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.
Pankaj Mishra resurrects, in popular form, the strange argument that the rise of China is of no concern to Asia, let alone America, because Asia and China got along so great during the Ming and Qing periods:
Still, similarly narrow-minded is the Western view in which China, bullying its neighbors and forcing them to seek U.S. assistance, is far from becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.
In some extreme versions of Western Sinophobia, China is always plotting, while talking up its “peaceful rise,” to take over the world — a conspiracy insidiously advanced, if we are to believe the U.S. Congress, by such global Chinese companies- cum-Trojan-horses as Huawei.
Mishra is starting here with a strawman. Does anyone in Congress cite Huawei as evidence of a Chinese plot to take over the world, or as a concern about U.S. security that China could exploit in the event of a conflict of the U.S.? These are the not the same thing. But that’s a minor point.
Such scenarios omit the fact that, unlike Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the U.S., among other erstwhile “rising” powers, China has virtually no record of military interventions in far-off countries.
Indeed, the history of China’s relationship with its neighboring states during its long centuries as the supreme power in East Asia furnishes some remarkable facts: the relative lack, for instance, of violent conflict between major states such as China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
China fought plenty of wars with the nomadic communities on its western and northern borders. But while the map of Europe was continuously and often brutally altered during the last millennium, the boundaries of China’s neighbors — Korea, Japan and Vietnam — remained largely stable for nearly seven centuries. China’s successful intervention on Korea’s side against a Japanese invasion in the late 16th century, for example, did not lead to a Chinese military presence abroad.
In other words, except for all the wars on its conflict-ridden borders, China fought very few wars. The selectivity here is highly amusing. China’s borders with its neighbors, which according to Mishra include Korea, Vietnam and, Japan, omitting the vast majority of historical Chinese neighbors. I am not sure what map of China, modern or historical, Mishra would like us to look like, but I am quite sure the countries here account for an extremely tiny percentage of China’s actual land borders, then or now.
In military historical reality, China’s territory in the Asian interior was frequently seized and re-captured through military conquest, frequently because China itself was prone to periods of internal collapse or disarray. Indeed, Qing China originated from a brew of restive Manchu vassals and peasant revolts. The already enormous territory of Ming China and the difficulty of Chinese governments in consolidating and furnishing military forces from this territory was a huge constraint on overseas adventurism or wars against China’s southern or eastern peripheries.
Even Mishra’s depiction of China’s treatment of Joseon Korea is quite misleading. It is true that the Ming Chinese force helped expel Japanese invaders in the late 16th century. Joseon Korea, though, also contributed forces to fighting the Manchus, as tribute for the protection that China offered from Hideyoshi. In this period of warring Chinese dynasties, the Qing, who would later rule China, not once but twice invaded Korea, subjecting it to plunder and diplomatic humiliations the Koreans considered all the more unacceptable because many saw themselves as more rightful inheritors of the Ming legacy than the apparently barbaric Manchu.
As Reihan Salam notes, what we are being set up for here is an incredibly misleading view of Chinese history:
What I find odd about Mishra’s thesis is that the borders of China have been contested for much of this period, much of which precedes the rise of the post-Renaissance national state, and if we think of Tibet or the Muslim-majority regions of western China as culturally distinct regions, it seems fairly clear that China has indeed gone through expansionist phases. To be sure, Mishra seems to believe that nomadic communities don’t count, which certainly helps his argument along.
Indeed, by dismissing all conflict on China’s borders as simply disputes with “nomadic communities,” Mishra is not simply engaging in egregious selection bias on the question of Chinese militarized disputes with neighbors, but also engaging in the same sort of historical and political de-legitimizing behavior that colonialists uses to justify conquests of supposedly inferior political entities. Beyond the question of whether we should simply dismiss massive land expansion because it was against polities with informal borders (would Mishra accept an explanation of the U.S.’s benign, non-aggressive foreign policy in the 19th century on the basis of ignoring U.S. conquests of “nomadic communities” on its western frontiers?), China did not simply wage wars of conquest against nomads.
In the Qing dynasty, beyond campaigns against the nomadic Dzungar Khanate, Uighur Khanate, Kyrgyz and Badakshan, and the Jinchuan hill tribes, China also incorporated more territory from Tibet into its own directly ruled provinces, suppressed Ming loyalists in Taiwan, China launched several campaigns against entities which, while China may have viewed them as barbaric, were certainly not “nomadic communities.” During the Ten Great Campaigns (during which many of the aforementioned actions occurred) China launched a retaliatory series of wars against Gurkha-ruled Nepal for raiding and plundering Tibet. When the Vietnamese Tay Son brothers overthrew the nominally vassal regime in Vietnam, the Chinese intervened to restore their favored regime, eventually settling for compelling the new Tay Son ruler into tributary status.
Perhaps most importantly, the Qianlong Emperor’s Ten Great Campaigns included several attempts to invade and subjugate Burma, with tribes and militias loyal to China failing to secure the Qing’s objectives in the borderlands. When Burma launched an invasion of Siam, China decided to invade Burma, resulting in attrition and disaster in the first two attempts, a deep offensive which gave way to defeat in the third, and finally, an all-out finale far less successful than its predecessor.
The point of recounting all of this is not just to belabor how much what we know as China today was formed by conquest during the Ming and Qing periods, but what factors actually constrained Chinese military expansion against the countries Mishra discusses.
China’s rate of intervention has far more to do with constraints on its ability and advantages of hegemony rather than constraints on desire. For example, against weaker states, China frequently chose to employ militias and proxies, such as the Shan militias in Burma, rather than directly intervene. Why? Because to deploy regular forces such as the Green Standard Army, even against small hill tribes and nomads, was incredibly costly. The legacy of the Ten Great Campaigns was an enormous financial drain and the repeated humiliation or frustration of a Chinese force even in expeditionary actions against territories China already nominally controlled, such as Taiwan and Sichuan.
Because China frequently faced internal rebellion, warlordism, and extreme capacity problems, its latitude for offensive action was extremely low. Indeed, one of the main reasons the Qing were able to field offensive military campaigns was because the Manchus, which previously drained Ming resources as they attempted to incorporate those territories under Chinese rule, were now running the empire itself. Raiding, punitive invasions, and tributary extraction, rather than extended occupation, proved a more frequent mode of war in many cases because the simple act of launching an invasion made outright occupation of a hostile state prohibitively expensive, a problem that Qing innovations in logistics and incorporation of Manchu and Mongol troops improved but did not solve.
Given the immensely devastating consequences of a Chinese military which frequently plundered and razed the target country, and the high financial cost of fielding this force for long periods of time, a tributary relationship ultimately provided an acceptable resolution to the war. The overall consequence of this sort of behavior by China, though, was contributing to the maintenance of an Asia impoverished and weakened to powers with greater military and economic means.
In other words, the Chinese system was not some well-functioning, harmonious relationship disrupted by the nasty intrusion of Western imperialism and realpolitik. It was, by the 19th century, a decaying remannt of system running on path dependence and pragmatic acceptance that failed to produce military and economic adaptations that would ensure its geopolitical survival – it was “good enough” for maintaining the status quo against other Asian states, but not much better than that. Geography and political-military capability distributions explain Asian geopolitics far better than a simple acceptance of benevolent Chinese hegemony. China faced massive structural constraints to expansion into South, Southeast, and East Asia. While Mishra claims China was “militarily capable of enforcing territorial claims on neighboring states,” the historical record reveals that Chinese efforts to enforce territorial claims were incredibly difficult and helped weaken and exhaust the empire, particularly because the fighting in northern and western China, and the possibility of revolt, so frequently threatened to distract from any Chinese offensive.
Mishra’s account of the dissolution of the Tributary system is rather odd. He writes:
Within a few decades [of the beginning of China's century of humiliation], Japan broke free of East Asia’s old tribute system and began its calamitous effort to find a place in the new global order of competitive empires and nation-states ordained by the West.
This is, quite simply, not how it happened. Japan infrequently paid tribute to China during the Ming dynasty, and the Tokugawa and the ruling bakufu never saw themselves as a Chinese inferior in the way the Chinese did. They were not a Japanese vassal or tributary during the Qing period, and indeed the bakufu sought to create a Japanese-centric tribute system to compete with China’s by the time of the Sakoku period (the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam, of course, also attempted to create a Vietnam-centric tribute system). When European forces did arrive in the 19th century, they did not detach Japan from any kind of Sinocentric system. Instead, they convinced and already Japan-centered government to adopt European-inspired innovations in state structure and military capacity. This, in turn, left territories which were isolated and weak ripe targets for Japanese expansion
Indeed, considering that during the Qing period the British would pay tribute to China after its subjugation of Burma, at a period when the British had already begun their humiliation of China, treating the tribute system as a supplication to a frequently tenuous and weak Chinese hegemonic capacity is incredibly dubious. Indeed, the increasing direction in studies of Chinese international relations is to challenge the idea of the tribute system as a dominant analytic model explaining vast periods of Chinese history, rather than a relationship with incredible amounts of variance in both outcome and motives for participation. Since the term ‘tribute system’ is a western invention devised no later than the nineteenth century,” it makes more sense to “talk about tributary relations without feeling simultaneously obliged to stick to the tribute system.”
Mishra’s account of co-dependency proceeds from this grievously flawed view of imperial Chinese history to a similarly flawed view of current events. Mishra argues that Asian countries will reject U.S. influence because it means war with China, without any reference to Chinese military history after 1949.
Few Asian countries can afford a war with China, even one fought with enthusiastic U.S. assistance. Also, Asian policy makers are unlikely to have forgotten how badly the previous U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia ended in Saigon in 1975, forcing even Thailand, an eager facilitator of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, to start deferring to China.
There is not one portion of this paragraph above logical, factual, or rhetorical suspicion. Firstly, just because Asian countries do not want to fight China does not imply they are unwilling to invest in their self-defense. When China invaded Vietnam in 1979, it beat the Chinese back despite being just years into recovery from a massively costly war with the United States and its allies. It is precisely the high cost of fighting a war with China or the Soviet Union that led Japanese leaders to accept an occupying power and security guarantee for decades from a country which had just engulfed Japanese cities in incendiary and atomic holocausts, so that Japan could recover without fear of a threat from mainland Asia. And it is precisely fears of the cost of a war with China that is leading Vietnam and the Philippines to reconsider their objections to U.S. military presence in the region.
Even so, Asian governments are not relying on a U.S. security guarantee to ensure their sovereignty and interests. Asia is engaging in a massive arms buildup and modernization. Although it would be a mistake to assume that all of this is due to China or even a general “arms race” dynamic, massive Asian military investment is important to establishing these countries as credible partners in an Asian security system, and raising the potential costs of a Chinese intervention.
Invoking the Vietnam War’s historical memory as a deterrent to Asian cooperation with the U.S. is, well, laughable. Vietnam itself is getting over the Vietnam War, and it would take someone totally militarily oblivious to think a U.S. conflict with China, even in the context of a proxy warfare on land in Korea, would resemble that conflict. A U.S. war with China would be challenging for a very large number of reasons, but Vietnam, more recently a victim of China than the U.S., points us to none of them.
Even Mishra’s analysis of the aftermath is dubious. Thailand was not “deferring” to China as some kind of neo-tributary state, but cooperating with China because of their common interest in checking Vietnamese-Soviet power in postwar Southeast Asia. Rather than “deferring” to a massive Chinese power, Thailand, for its own interests, promoted Chinese engagement in Southeast Asia.
In other words, the supposed “fantasies” of “futile and counterproductive” balancing behavior in Southeast Asia continued even after the U.S. withdrew from the region. The Jakarta Post columnist that Mishra cites aside, Asia is indeed balancing against China. Even Burma, as Salam notes, is reducing its diplomatic isolation and increasing military ties with India and even the United States to ensure it is “no longer at the mercy of a single regional power.” In other words, power-balancing against China or with the U.S. is a fantasy, except that Australia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, and Burma are continuing or beginning to engage in it to some degree. Sure, China was able to use its economic leverage over relatively poor states such as Cambodia to disrupt, say, ASEAN negotiations on the South China Sea, but when it has tried to use its economic power to interfere with countries such as the Philippines and Japan, it has increased their desire for cooperation with the United States rather than compelled them to embrace a harmonious neo-tributary system.
Simply implying, as Mishra does, that Chinese nationalist stirrings are at fault for disrupting the fantastical return of a neo-tributary system, is part of the problem with the entire analysis here. The tributary system, which never operated in the manner Mishra suggests anyway, cannot come into being precisely because nationalism cannot be wished or managed away. China indulges nationalists as a necessary feature of its political and developmental model, while Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, the Philippines, and other countries now have nationalist mindsets that will refuse to accept Chinese economic centrality as legitimating writ for Chinese political-military supremacy or a downgrading of their sovereignty and international status.
As in the past, the reason to be optimistic are the continued constraints on Chinese military behavior, not any kind of return to Chinese magnanimity or peripheral Asian supplication. While China is unlikely to engage in expansionist wars on its northern frontiers soon, concerns about conflict with India and unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet continue to draw its military attention there. Similarly, the continuing possibility of internal unrest forces China to concentrate to a larger degree than many of its neighbors on internal security. Meanwhile, the simultaneous need to modernize its aging military, enhance its sovereignty-claims against strengthening local rivals, and consider the needs of power projection all threaten, as Andrew Scobell and Andrew Nathan point out, to create an overstretched military.
The geographic and military problems which made Chinese interventions in the Southeast Asian frontier difficult in the Ming and Qing periods largely exist today, indeed, one of the reason that many Southeast and East Asian countries are increasingly wary of a Chinese threat is that China is investing in naval and maritime capabilities which might allow it to circumvent the difficulties that its land campaigns faced. Though China performed well in the Sino-Indian War, India is modernizing its own military with an increasing eye to China. Similarly, the inexperience of the recent Chinese military in recent large-scale conflicts, and its questionable performance in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, mean that a diminished China threat, as before, has less to do with magnanimity than incapacity or risk-aversion.
An honest evaluation of the multitude of internal and external problems which challenge and divert Chinese power from subjugating its periphery does a much better job of explaining China’s place in international relations than an ahistorical and analytically flawed concept of a harmonious tribute system spoiled only by European rapacity. China’s neighbors have long courted external actors, resisted Chinese expansion, raised the costs of Chinese punitive behavior, and tactically engaged in tributary relations, but China has never had the ability to exert the hegemonic role in Asia that Mishra describes. Indeed, China is unable to exert comprehensive hegemony over the territory that China describes as Chinese. To the extent that Chinese military power increases, we should expect to see the role of the offshore U.S. security guarantor and nationalist, military-modernizing Asian states continuing to play a counterbalancing role. Mishra infamously savaged Niall Ferguson for clinging to and romanticizing outdated systems of Western imperialism and promoting latter-day reincarnations. It would do well for him to stop performing a parallel exercise in Asia.
There is a rather odd article about Azerbaijan in the Washington Post today, heralding its role in defying Iran through courting Western attention and Jennifer Lopez. No, really:
BAKU, Azerbaijan — The latest weapon in this country’s ideological war with Iran arrived late last month in an armada of jets from California, accompanied by a private security force, dazzling pyrotechnics and a wardrobe that consisted of sequins and not much else.
A crowd of nearly 30,000 gathered to watch as the leader of this mini-invasion pranced onto a stage built on the edge of the Caspian Sea. With a shout of “Hello, lovers!” Jennifer Lopez wiggled out of her skirt and launched into a throbbing disco anthem, delighting her Azerbaijani fans and — it was hoped — infuriating the turbaned ayatollahs who live just across the water.
“You could almost feel the Iranians seething,” said an Azerbaijani official who attended the U.S. pop star’s first concert in this predominantly Shiite Muslim country of 9 million. “This stuff makes them crazy.”
Let it develop. They’re going somewhere with this, I swear.
“It is one of the most serious threats to the long-term viability of the Iranian regime,” said Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan who now works as a private consultant. “Every day that Azerbaijan grows stronger economically and more connected to the Euro-Atlantic community — that’s another day in which the Iranian regime grows weaker.”
There’s just a few minor hiccups.
It is hardly a perfect role model. The government in Baku is dominated by a single political party, and it has frequently come under criticism by independent watchdogs for its human rights record and alleged corruption. Azerbaijan also is mired in a nearly two-decade-old conflict with another of its neighbors, Armenia, over control of the disputed enclave known as Nagorno-Karabakh.
It should not surprise anyone that the Western world is willing to overlook a certain amount of, well, blatantly undemocratic and illiberal conduct in exchange for an indulgent environment for foreign investment and, more importantly, a favorable stance on foreign policy. Azerbaijan, and by this I mean the Aliyev regime which rules it, is quite sensible to take the stance it does. When all you have to do is make yourself look better than an oppressive quasi-theocracy that is violently opposed to the Western world and its allies in the region, there is very little in your foreign relations portfolio that security cooperation, open markets and a demonstration of cultural progressivism and globalized pop appeal cannot fix.
It is not at all uncommon for authoritarian regimes which present potential Western partners to play up these attributes to attract patronage, particularly within the former Soviet Union. The Post’s reception and many officials depiction of Azerbaijan’s pop culture campaign, though, is rather bizarre. Azerbaijan is historically independent or opposed to Iranian policy on security issues, yet it offers no extremely pressing value to the West on that front (except in the case of a war the U.S. and Azerbaijan both would rather avoid). As a locale of foreign investment, there’s appeal to Azerbaijan but it does not really affect the power political or security balance vis-a-vis Iran. Now, to sweeten both of these sorts of deals, authoritarian regimes frequently court celebrities and pop icons to demonstrate their pro-Western bona fides for governments, investors, and tourists alike.
What is bizarre is the notion that Azerbaijan deserves credit, especially with regards to U.S. policy on Iran, for hosting J Lo. Merely saying Azerbaijan isn’t a “perfect model” is not really enough. How a regime treats mega-celebrity musicians is, frankly, an irrelevant barometer, to well, anything that even needs to be mentioned in the same article, let alone breath, as Iran policy. If the goal of putting lipstick on a pig is making the pig look nicer, then what we have here is an entire Washington Post article about how great the pig’s lipstick is, and then portraying the lipstick as some sort of secret weapon against other rival pigs (daily newspaper op-ed columnist editors, yes, I can maul metaphors twice a week. Call me).
Even the notional strategy of pop cultural cold war does not seem to make much sense. It certainly does not weaken the Mullahs. Despite the Islamic Revolution, Iran has long had a strong undercurrent of liberal and relatively secular thinkers and a freewheeling youth culture. But these folks do not go out into the street and protest the regime or work against it because they like J. Lo. In both 1999 and 2009, liberals and reformists protested because their favored political candidates, acting within the constitutional framework of Iran, faced censorship, disenfranchisement and suppression from hostile regime power centers. Not because of sequins or booty-wriggling. Nor should we expect Azeri pop culture to win over Iranians sitting on the fence, such as working-class conservatives. Indeed, the idea of trading a theocracy for a nakedly oligarchic single-party state with more popular sex appeal may not be very appealing to Iranians generally. But we see no real investigation as to how Iranian people perceive this apparent “pop power” offensive.
Of all the challenges to the Iranian regime’s legitimacy – its eroding constitution, its violent clampdowns, its harsh and unfair justice system, its suppression of political debate, its collapsing, sanctioned economy – Azerbaijan simply existing as a fun country to live in does not seem particularly concerning, even from an ultraconservative Mullah’s perspective. The critique of the “Westoxified” authoritarian state was part of the revolution against the Shah in the first place.
Deepening ties with Azerbaijan could make sense for any number of reasons, but being nice to J Lo simply isn’t one of them. Devoting the majority of an article on the country to its pop music developments is one thing, framing it as part of Western-Iranian relations is simply inexcusable. Azerbaijan’s concerts are irrelevant to its value or lack thereof as an ally, but playing them up does wonders for promoting favorable perceptions of Azerbaijan as a partner and locale for tourism and investment. In other words, while it makes perfect sense for the Azeri regime and its associated beneficiaries to play up such news, it is about time we stop elevating the importance of superficial celebrity courtship in determining the degree or value of a country’s pro-Western leanings. Having an article which relegates Azerbaijan’s considerable human rights, corruption, and foreign policy issues to a secondary role to an anti-Iranian stance and cultural appeal simply brings us to another situation where informed Western observers will understand little about a country’s internal problems until some supposedly magnanimous celebrity decides to bring them to light.
Azerbaijan’s outreach to Iran’s adversaries serves above all to protect the interests of the Aliyev regime, and very often to protect interests that have little or nothing to do with Iran. Take, as Joshua Kucera points out, Azerbaijan’s hypothetical cooperation in a hypothetical Israeli attack on Iran. The probability that Azerbaijan will have to exercise these risky duties is quite low. However, in exchange, Azerbaijan has made massive defense contracts with Israeli suppliers. Yet all this hardware is going to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and the associated confrontation with Armenia. The notion that we are seeing a meaningful dramatic realignment of Azerbaijan’s caution toward Iran is false, but perpetuating this belief among anti-Tehran sets in Washington and elsewhere is extremely lucrative for Azerbaijan. If the U.S. does not want to get duped by another “hardly perfect” client state, it ought to ignore the sound and fury to get an accurate assessment of its partner and what it is actually willing to do to advance U.S. interests. Azerbaijan’s public relations offensive is probably not doing much to hurt Tehran, but maybe it will have better luck eroding the better judgment of future international patrons.
It’s been a while since there’s been a post about intervention in Syria, but this piece from Michael Moran demands a response if only for exemplifying the obsession and stranger mythology associated with no-fly zones.
To begin with, Moran leads off with the old invocation of Bosnia. He does so in a way, though, that makes about the worst possible case for the policy he then outlines:
But it struck me recently that it was at about this point in 1992 that NATO finally established a no-fly zone over Bosnia-Hercegovina, about 11 months after the event now recognized as the start of that war, a mortar attack on Sarajevo that killed 16 shoppers in a Muslim neighborhood.
Remember, after 11 months of ethnic cleansing – not a bad term for what the Assad regime is currently attempting on the unmeltable ethnic pot that is Syria – Bosnia’s darkest days were most definitely ahead.
Concentration camps, like the one exposed by The Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy at Omarska, were already known to exist.
But the massacres at Srebrenica, the destruction of the ancient bridge of Mostar, the killing thousands in the siege of Sarajevo by snipers and artillery barrage, and the score settling murders and rapes and other atrocities committed by all three sides all over the land continued for three more years before the dictators bluff was finally called.
Why should we care about Syria? Well, that’s a post for a less intelligent audience, I hope.
So, full well acknowledging that Bosnia’s civil war by many metrics got worse, and that atrocities by the sides the no-fly zone supported also increased, Moran argues for a no-fly zone, with the implication – later explicitly stated – that a no-fly zone would not in fact be enough to meaningfully change the situation in Syria. If this is the hook to an argument that is supposed to impress the “intelligent” audience, I would hate to see what Moran has in store for those he finds unworthy.
Operation Deny Flight also turned out to be not particularly useful. As Moran acknowledges, violence continued and accelerated in many parts of the country, demanding the expansion of a no-fly zone into close air support strikes, and U.S. sanctioning of a private military contractor assisting the Croatian military as it launched a massive offensive to help eject Serb forces from Bosnia. Deny Flight proved utterly ineffective in noticeably resolving or expediting the conflict in Bosnia, unless, of course, one considers a no-fly zone a sort of gateway drug into the harder stuff of actively conducting airstrikes against ground military capability and sponsoring the mobilization of superior combat forces on land.
Remember, the question is Syria is not a purely military one, it’s about momentum. If the outside world remains outside, Assad’s well-armed regime, fearing reprisals, has a good chance of wearing down resistance and restoring its reign of terror. But dictators, at least in recent history, don’t survive no-fly zones — whether or not they ever truly tip the battlefield balance.
Trying to doge the issue of actual military efficacy by invoking nebulous “momentum,” along with leadership or seriousness is a tired cliche of interventionist rhetoric, but here it is again. Dictators survive no-fly zones. Leaving aside Deny Flight, which was never about ending a dictatorship and obviously failed to destroy Yugoslavian leadership if we judge it by that ahistorical metric, we have the cases of the Iraqi no-fly zone and the Libyan no-fly zone. That is basically it as far as major operations that preceded regime change are concerned.
Did Saddam survive the no-fly zone? Of course he did. If it took cruise missiles pounding Iraq and a land invasion, with American armor rolling through Baghdad before Saddam fell, then he survived the no-fly zone. He survived the no-fly zone precisely because it failed to meaningfully influence the military and political capability of Baghdad to maintain power in non-Kurdish Iraq, and even failed to effectively deter him from launching punitive actions in Kurdistan and supporting favored factions in the Kurdish Civil War. Claiming that Saddam didn’t survive his no-fly zone is an act of supreme historical obfuscation.
As for Libya, did Gaddafi survive the no-fly zone? Yes, of course he did. The imposition of the no-fly zone did not topple Gaddafi, air strikes on regime infrastructure and ground forces bought time for Benghazi, allowing arms and training to help the rebels build combat strength against Gaddafi’s relatively dilapidated and small military and associated paramilitaries. That civil war then reached a prolonged stalemate until more air strikes and decisive ground operations ended it. Had NATO simply conducted a Deny Flight-style operation in Libya, we would have gotten something what Deny Flight really did give us, a strategically ineffective use of air power that failed to temper the much more horrific on-the-ground violence of the civil war it operated over.
In neither case did a no-fly zone break the will of the targeted regime to resist. Strikes unrelated to denying the use of airspace had to begin, and fighting continued until ground troops with supporting air-strikes and foreign backing, directly or indirectly, entered the capital.
The more important lesson for advocates such as Moran is that a no-fly zone sets the stage for more aggressive and effectual foreign involvement, and helps create sunk costs mindsets under which the failure of an inherently limited policy is used to justify more and more forceful intervention by putting national honor and reputation at stake and exhorting that an unsuccessful policy must be doubled down upon. This seems clear when Moran argues for, of course, arming the Syrian rebels, and created a Turkish-led NATO peacekeeping force (!) in Syria.
Moran appears to understand a no-fly zone is insufficient, but then simply constructs straw-man counterarguments that do not attack the many, many flaws that appear with the parts of his policy which would be much more obviously controversial, such as flooding Syria with more weaponry and putting NATO troops on the ground. He acknowledges as much when he notes that while the U.S. and NATO “sat on their hands” after 1993, in Syria, we should do no such thing.
First, though, let us address one of Moran’s rebuttals to a counterargument:
Actually, we’ve got three carrier strike forces in the Persian Gulf for the first time in decades because of the risk of an Israeli-Iranian clash. So they’re in place, and in spite of the conventional wisdom about Syria’s air force, it’s little more formidable that Saddam’s. In effect, a two day problem and (for the real penny pinchers) “monetizing” the current deployment of our naval assets. Meanwhile, Turkey’s interests here align perfectly with our own if ground forces become an issue.
Actually, no we do not. There are two carriers in the 5th Fleet AOR as of September 26, CVN-65 and CVN-69. Also, they are not “in place” for operations in Syria. Carrier groups in the Persian Gulf are roughly 1,000 miles from Syria’s main urban centers, which incidentally also severely pushes the range limits of the U.S.’s latest generation of cruise missiles (Block IV TLAM-E), hundreds of which would be instrumental in any Libya-like campaign to dismantle, at the very least, Syria’s Integrated Air Defense System and C4I. This is all assuming the sovereign country of Iraq allowed the U.S. to overfly its airspace. Not that Iraq could meaningfully contest U.S. airspace, but given Iraq’s substantial role in providing a conduit for Iran into Syria, their opinions and desires ought not be casually wished away.
Of course, any military plan that involved servicing targets and conducting EA-18G sorties from carrier groups in the Gulf is poorly advised. Much more sensible would be deploying carriers to the 6th Fleet AOR in the Mediterranean where they could plausibly support air or ground operations being conducted from Turkey (and presumably Italy).
The fact that we have two carriers in the Gulf to deal with the risks Iran presents to U.S. interests (which are hardly limited simply to the prospect of an Israeli-Iranian conflict, but the frequent Iranian threats against the Strait of Hormuz, the persistent threat the IRGC/QF pose to U.S. bases in the region, assurance of regional allies at threat from Iran and the credibility behind any deterrent threats made against Iran generally) is all the more reason not to devote these assets to a war in Syria. By any military and geographic logic, going to war in Syria devotes limited U.S. interests to a much less substantial strategic concern and meaningfully degrades our ability to conduct operations in the Persian Gulf. Even at the conflict’s conclusion, the alteration in the deployment cycle due for the necessary replenishment of Tomahawk missiles (whose vertical launch systems cannot be replenished underway), the maintenance or replacement of damaged or destroyed aircraft, and the greatly under-appreciated costs of maintenance would prove a hindrance to filling U.S. needs in the 5th Fleet AOR, which could require tapping assets planned to operate in the 7th Fleet AOR at a time when a great power naval dispute is in full swing in the Pacific and may well continue.
As I have written elsewhere, destroying Syrian IADS is not a two-day cakewalk but would require an ongoing effort that would need to ensure not simply initial strikes but a comprehensive SEAD effort, especially if close-air support, broadened strikes against targets unrelated to NFZ imposition, or generalized patrol of safe zones were to occur.
Not only would a Syrian intervention involving naval assets quite obviously disrupt U.S. carrier operations in the Persian Gulf, they would also disrupt the deployment of amphibious units. Even if Moran’s plan involved no conventional ground forces – not Turkey’s, (but it does) not America’s (but it would probably, unless Turkey was willing to bear the blood cost of a land war entirely solo), not anyone’s – the U.S. would likely need to re-task, at the very least, an Amphibious Ready Group in order to support operations. This is hardly an unreasonable assumption considering that the Kearsage Amphibious Ready Group, consisting of the eponymous LHD and the LPD Ponce, carrying the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, were all part of Operation Odyssey Dawn, both in order to conduct search and rescue mission and to provide an immediate response capability if the need to deploy ground troops arose. Syria would be no different.
When the Kearsage Amphibious Ready Group deployed as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn, it ended up disrupting deployment schedules to Afghanistan. In the case of Syria, the use of an Amphibious Ready Group would detract from more important security priorities simply within the Middle East. One, it could detract from the Persian Gulf. The conventional USMC operations, mine-clearing and small-boat missions, and potential SOF missions ships such as the Ponce can support are all part of U.S. contingency plans for dealing with everything from an irregular naval conflict in the Persian Gulf to fending off IRGC attacks on U.S. bases. Two, it could detract from any current or future USMC operations in augmenting the security of U.S. diplomatic and military facilities in North Africa and the Middle East, let alone any future counter-terrorism operations which might emerge. Given that both these cases where American government officials, military personnel, nationals, and allies are all under actual or potential threat, it is not unreasonable to question launching an open-ended intervention in Syria.
Moran then makes a strange argument questioning concerns about second and third order effects:
c) We can’t be sure what will follow a collapse of the Assad regime.
No, but we can be sure what follows his survival. A bolstering of Iran, its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, a message to Iraq’s Shia leaders that the US has lost its resolve, and unwelcomed new fuel for Israeli paranoia. Additionally, if we wait any longer, our desperately desired help will be displaced by the very real money and arms being channeled into the country by Saudi and Gulf sources. Anyone remember how that turned out in Pakistan or Afghanistan?
How on earth can we be “sure” Assad’s survival would “bolster” Iran or Hezbollah? Any Assad victory will come at a cost to Iran in treasure and lives (such as those of the IRGC operatives captured by the FSA not long ago), and it will certainly leave Syria with a state infrastructure far more oriented around maintaining internal control than enabling new adventurism. The survival of the Assad regime would not be a “win” for Hezbollah, but simply a “non-loss” that would be unlikely to improve their position vis-a-vis Israel and the Syrian civil war, if anything, could disrupt Lebanese politics and force them into more domestic concerns. A win for Assad is more likely to exacerbate these actors’ problems than embolden their aims.
As for Iraq’s Shia politicians, it is unclear what resolve being demonstrated would accomplish, or how letting Assad win would significantly impact their assessment of it. If anything, opposing the interests of the Iraqi government by trying to topple Assad is likely to strain US-Iraqi relations through aiding, indirectly and directly, the interests of Sunni jihadist groups on the Iraqi frontier, which is hardly going to win us any favors with Iraqi Shia. Toppling Assad would also likely make strengthening relations with Iraq more attractive – and necessary – for Tehran.
Starting a war in Syria to assuage Israeli fears about the country is also an ill-advised move. Israel is rightfully skeptical of the unknown outcome of Assad falling. Although there is no love lost between Israeli and Syrian governments at this time, Assad falling opens opportunities for a variety of extremist groups, and more generally, it strengthens the rise of political Islamists, which is not likely to calm Israeli nerves. Not only that, but a Syrian intervention would undermine the ability of the U.S. to conduct military operations against Iran’s nuclear program, which is Israel’s top concern, particularly with regards to U.S. military activity.
The “arm the rebels so the bad Arab governments don’t” argument remains implausible. The U.S. enabled Gulf money and weaponry to flow into Afghanistan by conducting Operation Cyclone, and portraying the empowerment of extremist groups as the result of wanting U.S. help is simply incorrect. It was precisely U.S. help that strengthened the hand of the ISI and fueled their enormous expansion during the 1980s to keep up with the scope of proxy operations in Afghanistan. While Turkey would play some role in provisioning the FSA inside Syria, Turkey’s intelligence service is not very large, while Gulf Arab state intelligence services and special forces are experienced in training and provisioning rebel groups in a conflict zone. They just did it in Libya, after all. Nor is it clear why the U.S. and Turkey backing relatively moderate groups would dissuade Gulf states from trying to create their own proxies, particularly among the extremist groups the U.S. is unlikely to create influence over anyway.
All that aside, Moran’s use of the no-fly zone as gateway drug permits avoiding serious scrutiny of the obvious followup military actions that would be necessary for expediting Assad’s downfall, an objective which he says precludes a limited escalation such as that of Bosnia. We hear about the insertion of Turkish ground troops, with the ludicrous insistence that the U.S. and Turkey have “perfectly aligned” interests. Turkey and the U.S. do not have perfectly aligned interests, as Turkey is probably far more likely to accept a larger U.S. military role than the U.S. is, a larger role for Islamist and possibly even extremist groups than the U.S. is, a suppression of, say, Kurdish minorities than the U.S. is, among myriad other concerns.
Indeed, given that there does not appear to be a broad public appetite for a war in Syria, which inserting ground troops in any strategically-meaningful capacity would entail, it would be against Turkey’s interests not to demand the U.S. and the rest of NATO take some share in the ground combat, or at the very least, some of the post-civil war peacekeeping operations. Things would get particularly dangerous here, as the insertion of ground troops would require persistent close-air support and ISR sorties, among others, and a contingency plan for irregular attacks on Turkish troops. After all, Iran’s IRGC have units which specialized in coordinating proxy attacks against Coalition troops in Iraq, and there are also jihadist groups which, in the bloody aftermath of Assad’s fall, would be tempted to turn their guns on troops that would almost certainly be backing their political rivals for power in Syria (Before any notional NATO peacekeeping commitment in Syria, the French and the Turks would do well to sort out their respective men in Syria, Manaf Tlass and Farouq al-Shara, do not step on each other’s toes either).
No-fly zones, then, offer a simple-to-advocate, easy-to-obfuscate, and emotionally and symbolically appealing policy prescription that help make the later medicine, like months of close air support and bombing, a prolonged occupation by peacekeeping forces, arming sundry groups of questionable allegiance, and whatever operations become necessary to protect Western interests in a security environment shaped in the shadow of the Benghazi Consulate attacks, just a bit more palatable. Such appeals, though, rely on consistently overlooking the limitations of no-fly zones and giving short shrift to the inevitable concurrent or subsequent policy measures designed to do the bulk of the work in overthrowing the Syrian government and policing its aftermath.
Moran says he hopes the template is not Bosnia. I agree, but for different reasons. What we tried in Bosnia would likely go over poorly in Syria. What’s advocated instead, though, would come in a manner less affordable than war in Bosnia was, and at a time where U.S. interests are under greater stress and its ability to finance them even more so. There is no bargain bin case for intervening in Syria that lets the U.S. advance a policy of intervention there without a cost to more pressing concerns. Not with a no-fly zone, not with arming the rebels, and certainly not with signing onto a NATO peacekeeping force, Turkish-led or no.