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Dread Sovereign?

September 13, 2012

The protection of American lives, particularly of those exercising their rightful privileges under international law and duties under U.S. law, is a paramount concern of American policy and one with a long historical tradition. Gunboat diplomacy was not simply a euphemism for intimidation, but very frequently a necessary show of force to give diplomats, operating far from home in an age where rapid relief was impossible, the peace of mind and security they needed to conduct diplomacy effectively. I touch on this in my latest post at Abu Muqawama, but there are broader questions I’d prefer to explore here.

Early on in news about the attacks and riots, there erupted some speculation and anxiety about how incidents in Benghazi and Cairo would change Western policy discourse about Syria and other trouble spots in the Middle East and North Africa. Some, such as Shadi Hamid, looked on with trepidation as American anger about the ingratitude from a city it supposedly saved from annihilation produced not simply an unconscionable outrage against American citizens, but also shattered pulchritudinous American views about the liberalism of the Arab Spring.

It would be, of course, a significant overreaction to infer the political affiliations or general views towards America by all Benghazi citizens, let alone all Libyans, all Arabs, or all Muslims, from what happened at the Benghazi consulate. It is not wrong, though, to ask, if we have been focusing on the wrong metrics and indicators in assessments of our foreign policy and national security. Despite the wide pro-American sentiment in Libya, it was obvious from the start of the conflict that there were strongholds of radicalism and anti-American attitudes in Libya – in eastern Libya in particular – and the Libyan civil war opened significant opportunities for them to develop arms and influence. Nevertheless, being pro-American is not the same as being willing to produce America’s desired political outcomes.

As I recently wrote in Abu Muqawama, a combination of unwillingness and inability has plagued the Libyan government, which represents its relatively moderate, cooperative  Libyan majority and nominally controls the patchwork of militias and armed groups that constitute its nascent security forces. Despite the favorable attitudes towards the U.S. among many Libyan politicians and Libyan citizens, they cannot or will not effectively crack down on armed extremists groups. Considering the months of threats to foreigners in Benghazi and the attacks on shrines, the Libyan security forces (and local militias) assault on the consulate’s besiegers seems too little, too late. Now that Marine FAST teams are en route to Libya, along with two U.S. destroyers diverted from normal patrols in the Mediterranean, perhaps the Libyan government will take notice. But given the weakness of Libya’s internal security institutions it is unthinkable the U.S. will simply be able to rely on the capability and cooperation of the Libyan government to secure its interests in the country.

This uncomfortable situation illuminates much of the misguided strategic and policy thinking that has unduly influenced Western foreign policy as of late. In the wake of 9/11 and then the lamentable decision to invade Iraq, there came an understandable concern with the images and narratives of American behavior that started to pervade the Islamic world. Part and parcel of these theories was the expansion of the enlightened self-interest into a kind of cosmopolitan vision of collective security. In conducting humanitarian and altruistic interventions, the U.S. could marginalize the risk that groups hostile to the U.S. would emerge, produce effective partner governments it could share security burdens with, and improve cooperation with third party countries that would presumably admire or welcome U.S. intervention against the targeted foe.

Yet this always relied on a number of complicating factors which provided little to no short-term gains for U.S. interests or security, and questionable prospects for the long run. It tacitly advanced assumptions that the problem with military interventions seeking to steer the internal political development and security policies of regimes was a matter of intentions and optics rather than inherent clashes of interests. Conflicting views of what represented threats and priorities, and how much gratitude or prospects of U.S. cooperation could ply potential partners away from those conflicting visions, clouded expectations of efficacy.

In Libya, the United States got, for its aid, a government mostly willing to cooperate with the U.S. on principle, but with strong incentives to avoid doing so on issues most critical to Washington. The presence of extremist militias was tolerable to the Libyan government, which would have accrued more risk cracking down on them than it did by treating them with relative neglect. The United States, however, is of course sensitive to any violent extremist groups targeting its interests or its citizens, even though in many cases they rarely represent the majority or even a significant plurality of a country’s government or population.

As Adam argued at the conclusion of this post, it might do the United States well to refocus more of its employment of force, when it does choose to use it, towards the protection of U.S. citizens and interests generally (even if the utility of it in each particular siege will vary widely), and especially when it does so in response to violent depredations of international laws. Even rival great powers such as Russia and China are largely silent of U.S. targeted killings against terrorists, and many are outright supportive or even more hawkish when it comes to, say, defending Indian Ocean shipping against Somali piracy.

The protection of diplomatic and maritime rights were enshrined in the rational world of international law as basic elements necessary for commerce, communication, diplomatic coordination, and later, and, in part, a sense of cosmopolitan hospitality. These international protections and privileges, and that sense of hospitality, were enforced, if not always at gunpoint, but very frequently with the power of arms visible in the background. Sovereignty as a system of nominal equality between states demanded that they extend protection and courtesy to representatives of foreign states.

As American political objectives increasingly seek to control internal outcomes in the politics of other countries, and, even more problematically, try to make the internal political processes of other countries the ways and means of American policies and strategies, and not simply the ends themselves, the aforementioned kind of intervention has become more unsavory, while newer, more cosmopolitan and complex justifications have become more commonplace.

Emblematic of the problems with these sorts of concepts is the “war of ideas,” which Adam Elkus compellingly critiques in a recent post:

One of the enduring cliches of the post-9/11 era is that the United States is engaged in a “war of ideas” against its adversaries. Victory in such an conflict would be contingent on developing and selling a winning message. Antulio Echevarria has critiqued this idea by noting that the idea of a purely ideational conflict neglected the actual role of physical events in determining the outcome of “wars of ideas.” But another flaw in this idea is that it presumes that the United States and foreign audiences are using the same standards to judge the information competition. Some Americans may consider domestic culture as a enduring strength that will help make foreigners appreciate the United States, pointing to the supposed role of Western popular culture in undermining the Eastern bloc through samizdat bootlegs.

Actual operational analysis of jihadist doctrine has found a remarkably consistent idea among militants that American popular culture constitutes a kind of organized information warfare designed for the purpose of subversion. This viewpoint is actually not limited to Islamist militants. As Timothy L. Thomas has observed, military officers in Russia subscribe to a belief that the West won by waging a “Third World War” by means of popular culture and information to subjugate the Soviet Union. Other military theorists have written similar sentiments about the importance of “public opinion warfare“  and warned of the risks to domestic stability from Western popular culture. The book Occidentalism contains a repository of loathing of Western culture from individuals ranging from 19th century Russians to al-Qaeda. To be fair, Western states have had moments of panic too over what they viewed as information wars against them, but never to the degree often seen abroad.

The implications of these beliefs for US policy is that foreign audiences may be convinced that the US is waging war against them even if the United States government has little to do with the cultural product they find objectionable.

There is a broadening of the battlefield here that reduces the U.S. to effectively implement standard strategic concepts and maintain control in such a way as to reliably and appreciably advance U.S. interests. Critical to the war of ideas is singing the praises of liberalism and democracy – yet disavowing the inevitable cultural products that such a system creates when they offend the target audience. Even worse, as the United States tries to wage a war of ideas by using the government to promote ideological products it believes promote desired U.S. values, it must disavow it has a hand in promoting the undesirable and counterproductive ideological products that emerge naturally in a free society. The U.S. would like to insist its war of ideas is being waged only about the merits of moderation versus extremism, self-determination versus tyranny, and not West versus Arab, Christianity versus Islam, or godlessness against faith. Of course, expanding or circumscribing the battlefield remains a valuable countermeasure. The very nature of the ideas the United States embodies provides plenty of potential vulnerabilities to exploit.

Unfortunately, U.S. concepts of security are increasingly enmeshed in frameworks that requires not simply momentary compliance in external policies, but fundamental changes in interior politics. Mirroring this, the war of ideas posits that policies seeking to change outward actions and norms of behavior are, in the long run, inferior to policies that can change inner intentions, interests, and motives.

This opens the door to policies whereby American action focuses on changing the narrative or perception of American power exerts as much or more power than any material interests advanced. In Libya, the United States thought it could change regional perceptions of its power, put itself on the “right side” of a historical narrative, and encourage the rise of favorable actors to positions of power. Those less liberally internationalist minded frequently argue for the vigorous use of force to dispel perceptions of weakness or decline as the keys to preserving America’s favorable hegemonic position. In both cases, effective demonstrations sidestep material calculations and realpolitik through altering the will of potential partners or creating overpowering perceptions of U.S. strength or righteousness.

Yet in an era of diminishing resources, such hail marry attempts at taming the unknowns and the open-ended, non-deterministic processes of history can no longer provide a combination of efficacy and affordability. Worse, they detract resources and require limiting or actively disavowing the use of conventional forms of intervention that protect essential, albeit far more limited and modest, U.S. interests. The establishment of effective norms is contingent on their compatibility with a system’s underlying power structure and the relative capabilities of those seeking to implement and oppose them.

In the case of protecting U.S. diplomats, sailors, and other far-ranging citizens, the cost of doing so has been relatively inexpensive, since defending their rights generally is a similarly modest objective. However, such actions become more difficult in a world where resources are diverted to other forms of intervention, and where frameworks rely on a model where any poorly-interpreted U.S. action can undermine the entire policy. If one holds out enough hope for the long run, accepting these limitations on the U.S.’s resources and political scope to conduct may seem acceptable. However, in the context of limited resources and declining U.S. leverage, many current frameworks are unsustainable.

A systematically flawed conception of soft power projection or ideological war,  long-shot gambits to nudge a civil war and political transition towards capable and reliable pro-U.S. bearers of political and military power, and even more fantastical attempts to use those interventions to seize control of a mythical and uncontrollable narrative about U.S. power, all of these factors that would supposedly deliver the U.S. from the tightening scope of its material resources, domestic will, and freedom of action will prove ineffective or insolvent long before the promised transformative effects arrive – or, at best, historical happenstance will play out favorably. In the meantime, undertaking this whole enterprise will drain resources and political space from defending America’s indisputable sovereign rights and its less lofty conceptions of national interests, both of which we have aggressively safeguarded even in those forgotten periods of martial penury and geopolitical provincialism. Most important decisions to intervene today will not involve the safeguarding of diplomats, but nevertheless a rethinking of what kinds of goals merit the hazarding of lives and treasure, and which really do reserve more restraint, more patience, and less militarized responses is long overdue.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 13, 2012 10:06 am

    Re the long quote from Adam Elkus: Isn’t the role of US popular culture a bit more two-sided than he suggests? For every person in a largely Muslim country who is offended by some product of US pop culture (e.g. any given Hollywood movie), there may well be another person who has been enchanted by it. Surely there has been research on this, and one might think it might be worth citing. (Of course I know from my own experience that bloggers don’t often have a lot of time to go digging through ‘the literature’.)

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