Tuesday, June 30, 2015

warnings of World War III

Warriors, politicians, pundits, and novelists often ponder the possibilities of future wars. Sometimes these are merely thought experiments; often they are connected to budget fights. Last year we commemorated the start of the first world war, which offers compelling lessons about the dangers of miscalculation, miscommunication, rigid war plans, and naive assumptions about the unlikelihood of war. This year marks the centenary of the dramatic six weeks in that war when, in an effort to escape the deadly stalemate in the trenches, Germany began and its adversaries soon adopted new, more terrifying ways of killing: poison gas, aerial bombardment, and submarine attacks on passenger ships.

Today two different analysts have written warnings about the prospects and risks of a third world war. One discusses an American war with China, said to be neither imminent nor impossible. That's a judicious conclusion, for policymakers need to confront the possibility in order to reduce its likelihood. Both the United States and China are developing military capabilities that need to be kept under tight civilian control and wise conflict management.

Another analyst details the growing risks of a NATO war with Russia, pointing out the frightening parallels with 1914. I don't think Putin is a Hitler, but he may well be as stupid as the Kaiser -- and western allied leaders are far from unified in how to respond either to Russia's tactics or Ukraine's many problems.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Pentagon doves

There is a recurring myth that the U.S. military regularly advocates the use of force while civilian policymakers are skeptical. That really hasn't been the case since the Vietnam war. If anything, the most hawkish policymakers have usually been civilians in the White House or State Department.

-- The Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed U.S. deployments to Lebanon in the early 1980s.
-- The Chairman of the JCS when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait opposed what became Desert Storm.
-- Gen. Colin Powell repeatedly cautioned against U.S. military involvement in the former Yugoslavia.
-- The JCS were opposed to the Kosovo bombing campaign.
-- The JCS were skeptical of Gen. Franks' campaign plan for attacking Iraq.
-- The JCS and theater commanders were opposed to the 2007 "surge" in Iraq.

And now, the Post reports that senior military leaders have been reluctant to endorse increased U.S> military action in Iraq and Syria.
Top military officials, who have typically argued for more combat power to overcome battlefield setbacks over the past decade, emerged in recent White House debates as consistent voices of caution in Iraq. Their shift reflects the paucity of good options and a reluctance to suffer more combat deaths in a war in which America’s political leaders are far from committed and Iraqis have shown limited will to fight.
I think it's a good sign that U.S. commanders realize that success depends on political changes in Iraq. I wish the chickenhawk warriors running for the Republican presidential nomination  would actually listen to the military for a change.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

rethinking China policy

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent summary of new ideas on U.S. policy toward China. I also have sensed a growing number of policy analysts who doubt that the longstanding engagement policy is adequate to deal with Chinese assertiveness on security, foreign policy, and economic matters. What to do? The article has links to several differing prescriptions -- a Council on Foreign Relations study, a Carnegie scholar, and -- most intriguing to me -- a study by former Australian PM Kevin Rudd.

The range of options is far broader than more of the same engagement and 1950s style containment and isolation. Let's hope we make smart choices.

Friday, June 12, 2015

U.S. combat forces in 12 countries today

The President had so many operations to report on under the war powers act that he sent Congress a "consolidated report."

Here's the scorecard with current numbers of U.S. military personnel:
Afghanistan: 9,100
Iraq: 3,550
Airstrikes in Syria
Counterterrorism strikes in Somalia
"Direct action" in Yemen
Troops deployed for "posturing" in Djibouti
Cuba: detention operations at Guantanamo
Niger: 200
Central Africa against Lord's Resistance Army: 300
Egypt: 700
Jordan: 2,200
Kosovo: 700

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

NATO crumbling

It's discouraging to read the latest Pew survey of opinion in NATO countries on various topics. Majorities in France, Germany and Italy say that they do not favor using force to defend other NATO countries that may get into conflict with Russia. So long, Article V.

empire building, Chinese style

In the 19th century Great Britain invested heavily in the United States and elsewhere in the western hemisphere. In the 20th century, under the label "dollar diplomacy," the United States deepened its economic involvement in Latin America and elsewhere. Today, the Chinese are following the same playbook.

Defense One has a comprehensive look at what is happening. I think the Chinese actions are opportunistic rather than threatening, but if the United States fails to live up to its leadership role -- such as by the congressional refusal to adopt IMF reforms -- the baton will shift to Beijing.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

sunshine in Denver

As a third generation native of Denver, I've always been proud of its climate. I remember the almost never too hot days, the cool nights, the snow melting the next day in bright sunshine. I heard, and bragged to others, that Denver gets 300 days of sunshine a year.

Well, it turns out that that was a myth propagated by the early railroads, eager to lure people to Colorado. In fact, I learned only recently, Denver has about 250 days with sun and only 115 truly sunny days. Those numbers are still high, just not mind-boggling. It's still a wonderful place.