Wednesday, February 18, 2015

alternative views on ISIL and Iraq

Two new articles are making me rethink the problems posed by ISIL and the divisions in Iraqi politics.

Audrey Cronin of George Mason University has a provocatively-titled piece for Foreign Affairs, "ISIS is not a terrorist group." What she means is that ISIL is quite different from al Qaeda, and the preferred U.S. strategies of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency won't be effective. Her logic: ISIL is differently motivated than most terrorist groups: it seeks to control territory; already has substantial funding from oil revenues; has an urban power base, not susceptible to drone strikes; has a large, well-controlled military force. It can't be defeated by counter-insurgency, she argues, because Sunni Iraqis have already lost all faith in the Iraqi government. It's not 2006. when the surge was adopted.
But vast differences exist between the situation today and the one that Washington faced in 2006, and the logic of U.S. counterinsurgency does not suit the struggle against ISIS. The United States cannot win the hearts and minds of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, because the Maliki government has already lost them. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has so badly undercut its own political legitimacy that it might be impossible to restore it. Moreover, the United States no longer occupies Iraq. Washington can send in more troops, but it cannot lend legitimacy to a government it no longer controls. ISIS is less an insurgent group fighting against an established government than one party in a conventional civil war between a breakaway territory and a weak central state.
She rules out a large American conventional war against ISIL because public support can't be sustained for it.
Of course, this opens up a third possible approach to ISIS, besides counterterrorism and counterinsurgency: a full-on conventional war against the group, waged with the goal of completely destroying it. Such a war would be folly. After experiencing more than a decade of continuous war, the American public simply would not support the long-term occupation and intense fighting that would be required to obliterate ISIS. The pursuit of a full-fledged military campaign would exhaust U.S. resources and offer little hope of obtaining the objective. Wars pursued at odds with political reality cannot be won. 

The sobering fact is that the United States has no good military options in its fight against ISIS. Neither counterterrorism, nor counterinsurgency, nor conventional warfare is likely to afford Washington a clear-cut victory against the group. For the time being, at least, the policy that best matches ends and means and that has the best chance of securing U.S. interests is one of offensive containment: combining a limited military campaign with a major diplomatic and economic effort to weaken ISIS and align the interests of the many countries that are threatened by the group’s advance.

Another alternative view of Iraqi politics comes from Doug Ollivant, who has military and NSC policy experience in Iraq.Like Cronin, he sees the Iraqi Sunnis as decisively weakened.
The occupation of the Sunni regions of Iraq by ISIL is a cataclysm from which the Sunni will not recover for a generation or more.
He also sees the Kurds as like "just plain Iraq."  Their dreams of independence have been vetoed by Turkey, who also controls their export of oil, and their corrupt politics limits their chances. Ollivant is more hopeful that Iraqi politics will find ways to muddle through, but I was surprised by his pessimistic views of the Kurds and the Sunnis.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

bigger than Ukraine

Dan Drezner of the Fletcher School has a lot of smart ideas. He is particularly astute on foreign economic policy questions.  Now he has an excellent piece on how to handle Putin and Russia.

Like me, he's skeptical about sending western weapons to  Ukraine. Yet he has some excellent suggestions on how to pressure Putin on other issues of importance to him.
  1. Create a pathway for Sweden and Finland to join NATO
  2. Finish negotiating TTIP.
  3. Start building CoCom II
  4. Pay attention to Moldova.
  5. Play the long game of a frozen conflict in Ukraine.

I hope western leaders will pay attention and go for it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Is Obama a reluctant warrior?

Peter Feaver of Duke, a noted scholar-practitioner and a longtime friend, suggests that President Obama is casualty-phobic to the point that he undermines the military operations he authorizes.

After noting limitations Obama imposed on several military operations, he takes notes of a Washington Post article by Greg Jaffe.
Jaffe quotes Obama’s principal communications advisor, Ben Rhodes: “We believe it is a national security objective not to be losing service members in wars.” If Rhodes was trying to say that the administration does not want the military to take needless risks, then he picked an especially unfortunate way of conveying that idea. For the message Rhodes sent, intentionally or not — and the message I believe the military received — was: “the Obama administration elevates force protection above mission accomplishment.” And that is the early indicator of casualty phobia.

Statements like this exacerbate what has been Obama’s most vexing debility in the area of fulfilling his responsibilities as commander-in-chief: never has a U.S. president presided over such an extensive use of the military while doing so little to mobilize public and political support for those military missions. Even very ardent supporters of the president have commented in private about how reluctant Obama is to make the public case on behalf of the wars and military missions, especially during the crucial phases of the fight when the success or failure of the mission still hangs in the balance.
I have a different take on the same facts. Yes, Obama put a somewhat higher priority on ending the wars begun by his predecessor than on continuing them with the hope of success. That reflected both his view of his political mandate and his doubts about military planners who wanted more resources with no real endpoint in view -- a trait with a long history. After all, the goal of both wars was a political accommodation that has been quite limited, despite the military efforts to buy time and security for it to occur.

And yes, Obama does not give frequent speeches trying to build pubic support for U.S. military operations, which seems to be Feaver's key test of leadership. I think other tests are even more valid -- such as approving risky operations like the Bin Laden raid, such as approving extensive lethal drone operations despite widespread public uneasiness, such as defending large military budgets despite calls from his political base to cutback.

No, Obama is a reluctant warrior, and a cautious one. General Colin Powell applied the same label to himself and no one doubted his leadership.

acronyms old and new

I was reading a thriller, written by a Foreign Service Officer and portraying an FSO as the hero. Set in a conflict in Africa, the young diplomat is working with the UN military mission deemed the UN Special African Force, or UNSAF. That force has cobbled together some airplanes for transport and supply, which of course is called UNSAF airlines. The joke comes when you think how everybody pronounces that acronym -- and wonders about its reliability.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld overnight banned the use of the acronym CINC [commander-in-chief, pronounced "sink"] by the regional military commanders on the grounds that only the President is commander-in-chief. Technically true, but nobody wants to label the President CINCUS.

The Pentagon probably has more acronyms than Marines. And sometimes it catches embarrassing ones a little too late. Remember that for several days the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was called Operation Iraqi Liberation, until someone pointed out the acronym and it was changed to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The classic acronym story comes from 1933 when FDR wanted to call his new agency to help farmers the Agricultural Stabilization Service. Aides pointed out the acronym, and the name was changed to Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, although conservation was a small afterthought.

Congress is no slouch when it comes to acronyms either. Remember the USA PATRIOT Act? The Senate has a committee named Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. And the nasty House investigative committee is OGR ["ogre" -- Oversight and Government Reform].

On the other hand, isn't it clever that, when the Weather Bureau was renamed, it was called NOAA?

second thoughts on military aid to Ukraine

There seems to be an emerging consensus among Washington foreign policy elites that the United States should provide lethal and offensive military aid to Ukraine, beyond the defensive equipment already announced. A blue ribbon group assembled by Brookings has issued a report urging such action in order to deter further offensives by Russia. Another former DOD official analyzes and supports the report.

On the other hand, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations points out that there are logical gaps in the Brookings group proposal:
The report makes a convincing case, based upon the authors’ discussions in the region and their net assessment, that these military capabilities are indeed needed by the Ukrainian armed forces and could change the battlefield calculus, assuming that separatist and Russian forces themselves remain relatively static.

But will the death of a few more separatists and destruction of Russian equipment achieve the political objective—changing the calculus of Putin’s thinking in order to compel him to endorse a genuine settlement. This is improbable, and there are two more troubling and foreseeable pathways that could unfold:  it demonstrates that Ukraine is actually not that important to the transatlantic alliance, and this limited capability is the maximum of what the United States and NATO will do (this seems most likely); or, it triggers Putin to double-down on his support for separatist forces and non-uniformed Russian security forces in Ukraine to firmly establish facts on the ground before those capabilities are fully integrated into Ukrainian security forces, which could take nine to twelve months (this escalation concern seems less likely).
Another doubter is longtime Russia expert Eugene Rumer, writing in the Financial Times:
What do we do if Russia continues to escalate the conflict? Or if the Kremlin launches a cyber attack against an American financial institution, destroying data about asset ownership? Does America then inch closer towards war?   

It is not a kindness to kindle unrealistic hopes. Of course Ukraine is a victim of aggression. But, short of a campaign like that fought by the US and its allies in the Balkans in the 1990s — which no one now advocates — no amount of US or Nato assistance can alter the fact that Russia has the upper hand. In August, and again in January, Mr Putin chose to escalate rather than allow the separatists to be defeated. Ukraine will need help rebuilding its army, and the US should provide it. But it will take years, and cannot be done in the middle of a war with a more powerful neighbour.
We spent the past year reexamining the start of World War I.  One lesson still valid today is to worry about the downstream consequences of small military steps. In Ukraine and elsewhere, the United States should not be promising more than can actually be delivered and accomplished.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

no secrecy, no certainty

In late 1992 or early 1993 I sat with other faculty and students at the National War College as our geeky commandant, an Air Force Major General, displayed how he could use his personal computer to search around the globe and plug into computer sites and data bases -- discussion groups, weather data, library catalogs, and the like. Wow!

Other people have described some of their experiences in those early days. [How did I find these? Google, of course, today.]

The first search engines were coming on line about then, and the arrangement was about to be christened World Wide Web. [How nice to find a use for W, which doesn't exist in many non-English alphabets.]

My reaction that first day turned out to be prescient. With the Internet, I told my colleagues, there is no longer either secrecy or certainty.

What I meant was that the global linkages made it easy for people to share everything, including information governments wanted to keep secret. [Remember, the bad old Soviet Union had tight controls even on photocopiers to limit samizdat publications by dissidents.] Similarly, the Internet opened front and back doors to those we now call hackers, who could steal secrets faster than they could usually be protected.

As for certainty, I also feared that misinformation would proliferate and it would be hard ever to know what is accurate, what is true. The now-retracted   supposedly scientific study of the link between measles vaccines and autism is just the latest example of false information that takes on a life of its own and infects all corners of the Web.

The brave new world we have constructed in cyberspace has many benefits, but also the draws of no secrecy and no certainty.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

been there, done that, wish we hadn't

It is important to remember that there have been some very dark streets in that shining city on the hill that is America.  Time and again, there have been eruptions of powerful nativist movements. In the 19th century they were anti-foreigner, then specifically anti-Irish, then broadly anti-Catholic, periodically anti-Jewish, anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese, and by the start of the 20th century, just generally anti-immigrant.

Prior to about 1915 , one of the most respected and best assimilated immigrant group was the Germans. And yet, with war fever growing, along with spurious reports of German sabotage and actual deaths of Americans on British ships like the Lusitania sunk by German submarines, public opinion turned against residents of German ancestry.  As John Higham wrote in his classic, Strangers in the Land, once the United States entered the war:

German societies dared not hold public meetings or outings even in cosmopolitan New York. I]n numerous areas local officials banned the sale [of German-language newspapers]. Before the war ended, some whole states -- Delaware, Iowa, Montana, and others -- banned the teaching of German. German opera was boycotted, sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage," and many towns, firms, and individuals with German names changed them. Theodore Roosevelt advised shooting or hanging any German who showed himself disloyal, and eminent clerical spokesmen demanded the death penalty for German propagandists.
It wasn't just government cracking down; these were the actions of hitherto tolerant Americans.

I worry that anti-Muslim hysteria may bring back such dark days.