Mittwoch, 12. September 2012

Iran--And Yet Another Step to Becoming Nuclear Power

The Iranian nuclear programme continues to expand. Hardly anyone still doubts that Iran is at least trying to achieve a breakout-capability. A capability that would basically put all pieces into place, so that the construction of a bomb could be finished on short notice. The last report by the IAEA on the implementation of the Safeguard Agreements clearly indicates that Iran is making dramatic progress and the ISIS is arguing that it is time for the Security Council [pdf] to take up the issue again. Its fairly obvious that the crisis does not present a single good option, yet the debate in academia and international relations has shifted considerably over the past few months. More and more analysts seem to perceive the task at hand as one of avoiding war and not avoiding another nuclear power entering the fray. And that is a problem in itself.  

Dienstag, 11. September 2012

Is a Ceasefire With the Taleban Possible?

This RUSI report [pdf] occupied me for the last hour or so and I thought it worth sharing. Now, by and large I have enormous respect for RUSI and most of what is being published there is outstanding. This report, however, is a bit awkward, though not necessarily misguided. It is kind of strange to see four scholars interviewing four Taleban or Taleban-associated players and coming away with some very general, far-reaching conclusions. Basically that it is time to negotiate a ceasefire with the Taleban, a ceasefire, moreover, that would only need Mullah Omar's endorsement to take hold. There are a couple of things that give me pause. On facebook a colleague pointed out how strange it is for a Taleban-associated political player to use a reference to the British Tory-LibDem government to compare the inner workings of the Afghan Taleban. And in fact it is. If its an accurate portrayal of the conversation, the interviewee is probably living in the UK, which raises some questions on which authority he can actually give insight into the inner workings of the organisation. I have argued repeatedly, and so have many other before and after me, that there is actually no Taleban. The Taleban are a highly fractured movement and it remains debatable to what extent Mullah Omar actually is in control. Omar, that much the report does acknowledge, would hardly be in a position to speak for the Haqqani network, operating out of Pakistan. And how a ceasefire would translate to Pakistani politics in the region is an entirely different, though highly important question. Can the Taleban maintain any cohesion once the war comes to a hold, or would it not fracture even more and hence render the ceasefire useless in the first place? This, after all, is a war we find ourselves in, but its not a war that will end with our withdrawal. And the report does not go into detail when it comes to the areas that actually are in control of the Taleban. There, it seems, the group is imposing policies that would take the country right back to the 1990s (and theirs wasn't the good nineties). But even if this report accurately reflects the position of some Taleban figures, it leaves some open questions, all of them hard to untangle. Would the Taleban be willing to demobilise? Probably not. Would the Taleban acknowledge secular law? Surely not. Would the Taleban, if the would allow elections, allow women to vote? Almost certainly not. Would the Taleban allow for non-Muslims to run for office? You want to hold your breath? The bottom line is this: Some negotiations will have to take place and sooner rather than later. But this report reads a little to perfect to be accurate.

Remembering 9/11

Eleven years ago, Salman Rushdie offered one of the best takes on 9/11 and it is always worth re-reading, as Rushdie is in general: "The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love." I find it re-assuring that today more people can enjoy these freedoms than they could eleven years ago. 

Donnerstag, 23. August 2012

On the state of the Romney Campaign and Why Obama might just win

Had Romney called a press conference and called for Congressman Todd Akin to leave the Missouri Senate race immediately and not waited for a reporter to put that question to him, he might have had a little more influence on Akin's calculus to stay in the election. But he did not, which speaks to a more general problem of the Romney campaign. I've been looking for a strategy behind the Romney campaign and I couldn't find one. Normally I would have expected that Romney, like any presidential candidate, would steer to the middle once the primaries came to a close. In order to re-assure his base, he could have picked a real conservative. But Romney did the latter, without doing the first. Which leaves me wondering, is the Romney campaign seriously thinking that they can win without winning the middle? I am just saying, Todd Akin is going to feed the newscycle as long as he remains a viable candidate. And he did not misspeak, his legitimately idiotic views are views he really holds.

Mittwoch, 22. August 2012

Another Very Glittery Reading List Reviewed

Trying to make sense of the Arab Spring is not exactly an easy task and has, hence, given rise to all sorts of explanations, some credible, some nutty. But there was always something odd about the Middle East being the only region left out of the third or fourth way of democratisation that started in the 1990s. Yet, while many people in the Middle East are now fighting for democracy and freedom, there are still people who argue that such aspirations should be eschewed in favour of the stability that autocracies supposedly provide. In fact, this line of thinking is frighteningly widespread among Western intellectuals, both right and left-wing. Yet, when trying to make sense of the developments, I felt it might be useful to take another look into Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. His ideas, first developed in the early 1990s, still ring surprisingly true and though I certainly won't have to re-evaluate his theories here, there is one witty take-away. Fukuyama observed that while socialism and communism were largely being discredited in Eastern Europe and Asia, Western intellectuals had increasing sympathy with the ideologies. While none of these Western intellectuals wanted to live in communist or socialist countries, they still felt that these systems might have legitimacy for others. In the eyes of these intellectuals such legitimacy grew with the cultural and geographic distance of the society in question. It often appears to me that the very same dynamic is at work today when Western intellectuals question the genuine nature of the Arab Spring and the prospect of democratisation in the Middle East.  

Putting the Arab Spring in context is not an easy objective in itself, but discussing what influence the West has had when spreading democracy and the rule of law is where it becomes even more interesting. And in that vein, Robert Kagan's new book The World America Made is an interesting contribution that is by no means as bad as some people have dubbed it. Kagan is quite right in pointing out that the United States has been a reluctant sheriff that only faced up to the challenges presented by the world when left with no other option. Kagan remains deeply sceptical when considering whether the BRICS will uphold the world order the United States had created. This pessimism is partly routed in Kagan's distrust in multilateral institutions, which is all too understandable. Yet, at times, he is taking the argument a little too far. After all, this world is more peaceful precisely because the United States has created a world order that is easy join and more difficult to overturn. That is not to say that there won't be tensions in the future, but the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, for instance, would go a long way in easing tensions in the South China Sea. Still, Kagan reminds us of the contribution of this beneficial hegemon.  

Yet, Kagan's anxiety over the nature of the newly rising powers is not without merit. In fact, despite the Arab Spring, there is also an authoritarian resurgence in places like Venezuela or Russia. Slate contributor William J. Dobson in his new book The Dictator's Learning Curve is looking into the way regimes in Russia and Venezuela and other places are trying to paint themselves as democrats while destroying the democratic institutions these countries still possess or have possessed. He is giving a very detailed account of how voter suppression, electoral manipulation and persecution is being executed in states like Venezuela, Russia, the People's Republic of China and—before the Arab Spring commenced in earnest—in Egypt. All of this is from time to time a chilling account, yet Dobson also gives reason for hope. For the first time, democracy and human rights activists have formed a truly global movement, where one movement learns from each other.

Now politics is all nice and lovely, if you're a policy wonk like Christine O'Donnell, but that is not all in life. If you feel ready to be read about the adventures of a bird-watcher, than Jonathan Franzen's Farther Away is a good read that might take your mind of politics. And if you even want to read a German book than Rafael Horzon's Das weisse Buch is certainly everything but a waste of time.  

Dienstag, 21. August 2012

Another Note on Civil Military Relation in the United States

Its always slightly disconcerting when it is suggested that someone who did not serve in the armed forces is somehow not qualified to decide whether to commit troops to a war or not. It has been, and rightly so, a cornerstone of modern democracies that the military is subordinate to civilian leadership and that leadership, irrespective of their personal background, has the sole authority to put men and women into harm's way. Now, democrats always had a disadvantage when it came to national security and American voters traditionally tend to favour Republicans when they have national security issues on the forefront of their minds. Republicans have nominated a presidential candidate that has never served. And his VP-pick, Paul Ryan, also lacks military experience. I have served myself, but the idea that you're only qualified to speak on matters of national security and defence when you happen to have a military record is downright anti-democratic and this is why I find it mind-boggling that Democrats now hammer the Republican ticket on the lack of their military record. Watch Martin Bashir making this nonsense argument:  

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Sonntag, 5. August 2012

With Putin Back in the Kremlin - Where Will Russian Foreign Policy Go?

I've commented before on Russian foreign policy and it looks like this is going to be a recurrent theme on this blog and, frankly, a theme that I hope will be picked up by others as well. Over the past couple of weeks, there were two remarkable developments that did not quite make it to the news bulletins across the world. But both are indicators of what Russian foreign policy will look like, now that Putin has returned to the Kremlin. The first is actually a setback for Moscow's strategic aims. Following a visit from Putin to Tashkent, Uzbekistan announced that it will be leaving the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). The organisation was once supposed to e Russia's NATO equivalent, but it was also a tool with which the Kremlin had hoped to consolidate its influence in Central Asia. But some Central Asian countries are growing uncomfortable with Moscow's entitlement attitude to the region and after the Kremlin had pioneered the introduction of a Rapid Reaction Force that could be deployed without full consent of all member states, Uzbekistan signalled it was willing to drop out. Following the allied withdrawal from Afghanistan, the CSTO moved towards a strategy for containing Afghanistan's potentially destabilising influence with a containment strategy along the Uzbeki-Afghan border. This would have required, in all likelihood, the long-term deployment of Russian forces to Uzbekistan, a move that would have undermined, at least potentially, the independence of Uzbekistan. It did not help that Russia's Chief of the General Staff General Nikolai Makarov, already having the reputation of a nutter, gave credence to such fears. In Helsinki a couple of days ago, he told his Finnish audience that any cooperation between Finland and NATO would be considered an unfriendly act and a sign of hostile intent. Never mind that Finland as a Western and independent power is free to cooperate with whomever it pleases, it is such rhetoric and often the action that follows suit (think of Estonia in 2007) that drives countries from the Russian camp and not towards it. And it is against this background that Mitt Romney (whom I otherwise find little compelling) has a point. Under Putin's leadership, Russia is indeed moving to become the West's 'number one geopolitical foe'.

Donnerstag, 19. Juli 2012

What to Learn From Afghanistan

Courtesy of the US Army on flickr
A couple of decades ago a young major in the US Armed Forces penned an article for Parameters, a journal published by the Strategic Studies Institute. Shortly after the end of the war in Vietnam, the major warned that the US should not make the mistake of thinking that Vietnam saw the last counterinsurgency campaign the US might find itself embroiled in. The US then did exactly what the major had warned against: it decided to only fight conventional, symmetric wars. But that came full circle in 2001: No one can choose what sort of war they will have to fight in the end. The conclusion from that observation should be obvious. Assuming that we can simply choose not to fight another Afghanistan is irresponsible, war will continue to be unpredictable. But most policymakers within NATO seem to assume that following the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 we are not going on similar endeavours. The young major was David Petraeus and his point is more important today than ever before. We need to look at Afghanistan and draw real lessons from that conflict. Joshua Foust of the Atlantic and the American Security Project makes a good first start here.

Donnerstag, 12. Juli 2012

And a Quick Note for my German Readers: NATO

I think I've mentioned about a hundred times that I've been in Chicago a couple of weeks for the NATO summit. I've penned a short review of the summit's results and it has now been published by the Adenauer-Foundation here

Freitag, 29. Juni 2012

When Killing MEADS Who Saves Missile Defence

The House Appropriations Committee 2013 spending bill is basically de-funding the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS). Though the Pentagon does not plan to buy the system anyway, the White House opposes the cuts for the moment, largely out of political considerations. MEADS is being developed jointly by Italy, Germany and the US and though all countries have at times expressed reservations about both affordability and military value of the system, it offers both Germany and Italy unique access to US technologies. But given the budget situation in all allied nations, the question in fact is, how urgently MEADS is needed as a replacement for the aging Patriot-system. But in Europe at least, terminating MEADS would have negative implications for missile defence. Though that will certainly explored in more detail some place else.  

Samstag, 23. Juni 2012

Modern Classics in War and Warfare—XV

Studies in war and warfare do not usually receive much attention in courses of international relations, particularly not in my home country, where anyone who deals with military affairs is often suspected of being a militarist. That is a sad state of affairs and in some cases the results are predictably terrifying. When, for instance, the pros and cons of intervention in Syria are being debated, not that many people pay attention to what is militarily feasible. My point is this: For a lively debate on war and warfare one always has to turn to the United States and the United Kingdom and it is there that the more interesting books are being published. It is against this background that I am reviewing David French's history of the British armed forces following the end of World War II, published under the somewhat academic title Army, Empire and Cold War. The British Army and Military Police, 1945-1971.

David French, this much can be said up-front, has written a remarkably fascinating history of the British Armed Forces, unusually well researched and argued in the best fashion of British academia. That is saying something since the subject does not give itself lightly to any author trying to penetrate it. Armies have always exhibited a disconcerting love for acronyms and the British is no different. The first chapters are therefore a little nauseating, particularly when it comes to the back and forth in Whitehall. But French manages not to get tangled up in the dealings between No. 10, Whitehall and the FCO and instead focuses on the way the British armed forces prepared for the conflicts they expected to be embroiled in.

Bernard Porter argued that throughout the era of imperialism and colonialism the British empire rested on a huge bluff, which made people believe that the United Kingdom was one of, if not the greatest military power. Though it is true that the British navy was perhaps the most powerful sailing the waters of the 19th century, the British possessions had nonetheless overextended the British empire. Yet, London could hold on to its empire largely because people believed that Britain had the military power to enforce its territorial claims even in places as far from the British Islands as South East Asia. That the British empire existed well into the 20th century had more to do with the reluctant way in which the colonies were calling Britain's bluff rather than with the military power the United Kingdom had at its disposal.

Following the end of World War II the United Kingdom drew down its forces and de-mobilised many of its divisions, which was, to put in the highest praise a British bureaucrat can muster, only sound. But it also meant that the British soon found themselves stretched extremely thin. The United Kingdom still had a huge empire and even though it was willing to accept independence as inevitable, reducing the resulting global responsibilities was not exactly easy. At the same time, Britain's capabilities always seemed to be shrinking faster than its global responsibilities were decreasing. The result being that the British armed forces were always testing the limits of their operational capabilities. French masters a wonderful description of this peculiar situation. And he is not afraid of drawing provoking conclusions. When it comes to counterinsurgency, French points out that attrition and coercion are more important in British overseas operations than hitherto recognised. In the same vein, French re-evaluates huge parts of the history of de-colonisation. All of which make this book a pleasure to read.

In 1967 the British government realised that its position had become untenable and that it needed to limit its operations outside NATO. The Wilson government announced that it would withdraw from what it called the area east of Suez. Not only had the economic difficulties already led to an overextension of British responsibilities, the independence of more and more colonies made it harder to maintain the basing and overflight rights necessary to sustain forces on the other half of the globe. The British government also realised that its global commitments were coming with a huge price tag in its relations vis-à-vis NATO. The United Kingdom had stationed a huge number of forces in Western Europe as part of the NATO deterrent against a potential aggression by the Warsaw Pact. But it also did so to ensure that Washington would maintain an interest in its special relationship with London. But the global commitments put a burden on the British ability to sustain a credible deterrent in Western Europe. It simply could no longer do both: Deterring the Soviet Union while at the same time committing itself to what Montgomery had dubbed 'village cricket'. Two decades into the Cold War, no one needed to call the British imperial bluff, history had moved on. Perhaps more importantly, however, there was now an acute awareness that independence for most colonies was inevitable and too drastic a measure against insurgencies always carried the risk that when a country would eventually gain its independence it might turn to the Soviet Union more readily. All of that came against the background of changing domestic and international conditions. The British public grew more sceptical on interventions and the Suez crisis had demonstrated the costs of acting without backing of the United Nations or the United States. And it is with regard to the latter that a word of criticism on French's account must be voiced: The (special) relationship with the United States is repeatedly mentioned, but not really explored. Other than that: Army, Empire and Cold War is hugely recommendable.

Donnerstag, 14. Juni 2012

A Quick Note on Pakistan

Vice Media is out with a new documentary on Pakistan. And as always these reports are highly fascinating. I watched the producer of the new documentary on NOW with Alex Wagner and there was a line that struck me as absolutely central: “Pakistan has sacrificed in this proxy war on behalf of the US.” This is probably the way Pakistan does see it, but its also the exact opposite of what is going on. This war will not be a deciding factor in the US or the West as a whole. But if Pakistan fails to adequately address the challenge by Islamist networks like al-Qaeda, its Pakistan that goes down drain, not the West. So its really us fighting proxy war for them, even though Pakistan has trouble seeing that.  

Montag, 11. Juni 2012

The Syria Question—On Kissinger, History and All That

With the death toll rising in Syria, the Kofi-Annan peace plan facing break-down, there is a new urgency in the Syria debate. And rightly so. Not at all surprising, Henry Kissinger came out against intervention in an op-ed that quickly became the centre-piece of the renewed debate (and got him an endorsement on TNI's Robert W. Merry). Full disclosure here: I am not Kissinger's greatest fan. He embodies the sort of realpolitik that I despise. And as a historian I would like to call attention to his often ill-fated advice: it was Kissinger who in 1989 counselled George H. W. Bush to accept a permanent East-West division of Europe in order to get other concessions from the Soviet Union (whatever those would have been). Which is why I think it fair to spend some of my (and your) precious time on the Syrian conundrum and on Henry Kissinger's piece.

Kissinger traces the origin of the current international order to the peace of Westphalia and to that extent he states something rather obvious. But there are three things that struck me as odd about that line of argument. The first is that I find it awkward to suggest that the treaty of Westphalia established the only model of a working international order. It is true that ever since the Westphalian peace whatever happened in any given country was being treated as a domestic affair. But it is also true that this understanding has led to numerous atrocities, genocide and war. The fact that such tragedies could go by without interference might even have contributed to even larger wars at a later point in history. Suggesting that the Westphalian order is the only order that preserves as much peace as possible is a bit of a stretch.

My second objection to invoking the order of Westphalia as the only norm is that Kissinger does not seem to be aware of the changes in policy (not necessarily politics) over the past two decades. Argues Kissinger:

“The diplomacy generated by the Arab Spring replaces Westphalian principles of equilibrium with a generalized doctrine of humanitarian intervention. In this context, civil conflicts are viewed internationally through prisms of democratic or sectarian concerns.”

This is with absolute certainty the most awkward way in which one could possibly describe the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). There is of course no doctrine of humanitarian intervention. What there is is a new understanding of sovereignty that was first established as a norm (and not a doctrine) in a resolution by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2005. Six years before the Arab Spring set off in earnest. Kissinger seems to have missed that entirely and now babbles about a doctrine, when in fact what we have had for a couple of years now is a new norm that is slowly taking root.

He is right that the conduct of a government now does matter; he is wrong is asserting that civil conflicts are now perceived “through prisms of democratic or sectarian concerns”. That is simply factually incorrect. After all, no one is advocating to intervene in China or Azerbaijan, even though these countries are not democracies and sectarian allegiances could not matter less in both. There is a concern for the most basic human rights and only a serious violation of the most basic human rights can trigger a military intervention, justified by the R2P. Kissinger seems to be afraid of a norm that centres on what a states does and provides and not on what he controls. Given Kissinger's legacy that is by no means surprising. What is surprising is his insufficient grasp of the change.

Finally, Kissinger argues that the Westphalian order never fully took root in the Middle East, because there were only three states with what he calls a historical basis: Egypt, Iran and Turkey. This strikes me as equally odd. Now generally speaking, most historians will raise objections to the idea that there are somehow 'natural' states and the order established in Westphalia recognised numerous states that long have ceased to exist. But be that as it may, even if it is true that the Westphalian order never really applied to the Middle East, why then should we care to apply it now, as Kissinger so clearly argues for?

And with a final note of disbelief. Argues Kissinger: “Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any non-democractic government (…)?” Well, no. Firstly, as said previously, this only demonstrates a lack of understanding on what the R2P is. Its certainly not designed (though I might wish for it) as an instrument for democracy promotion. The question Kissinger tries asking is this: “Does America consider itself obliged to intervene in any conflict in which a governmental or non-governmental actor is committing mass-atrocities?” Because, contrary to what Kissinger believes, the R2P also was not designed as an instrument of regime change. It clearly stipulates a duty to assist for the international community, when a state actor fails in providing security. Which is why, for instance, American forces are in Central Africa helping root out the LRA. But it is true that when a state actor is responsible for the atrocities, the R2P might provide an impetus for regime change, after all nothing helped the Libyan people more than ousting Qadhafi. But the general point is this: Even if one cannot help in all cases, that does not mean one should not help help in any case.

Kissinger's main argument against intervention is that it might undermine international order. This, however, strikes me as disingenuous, not only for the fact that his understanding of both the international order today and its historic origins are problematic. The United States intervened in Panama in 1989 without a mandate by the UN Security Council, NATO did so in Kosovo in 1999. Even if, as Kissinger argues, the current debate centres unduly on humanitarian intervention, this did not start with the Arab Spring. The world has seen humanitarian interventions without UNSC mandates for years, why a Syria intervention—and whether the UNSC says no is so far a reasonable assumption, but no more than that, an assumption—would mark a significant departure from the previous international order remains an open question, Kissinger does not even try to answer.

But the question that Kissinger remarkably fails to ask is this: Why is the international order that he thinks is the Westphalian order worth preserving? Why is it, to put it differently, good? Since most wars of the previous two decades were not inter-state wars, but civil wars of asymmetric nature, the changing nature of warfare already implies that something is afoot. During the past two decades the most appalling atrocities were committed in places like the DRC, Rwanda and by al-Qaeda in Iraq. So if nation states no longer fight wars and the nature of warfare changes, why should the international order—which, argues Kissinger, was established to avoid inter-state wars—not change with it? On a more abstract level, Kissinger's whole understanding of history is problematic. For he assumes that in order to preserve peace, changes in international order have to be avoided. A historian's take would be markedly different. Change is always indispensable in order to preserve what is worth preserving. Put differently: The real question is what do we want to preserve: the Westphalian order or peace? The latter would mandate change.

So far, as the reader will have noted, I have not said a single word on Syria. That is not to say that I am for or against intervention. But I have been going on with Kissinger for a while and so will get back to Syria tomorrow. Suffice it to say, Kissinger was also wrong on Libya.  

Dienstag, 29. Mai 2012

Another Conflict in the Making - The Sad State of Sudan

There is fresh bloodshed in Sudan. The North and South are struggling to get get control of Abyei province, where much of the two countries oil revenues are coming from. One of the underlying themes of the conflict, however, is to do with culture and religion. In many ways, the Horn of Africa is best understood, when considered being a bridge between Africa and the Arabian peninsula. There is only a limited amount of well-written books on the subject [see Hansen's and Twaddle's book for an absolute must-read and Alex de Waal's superb book], so every paper on the subject starts from scratch by lying out all issues that are at stake. That makes most papers on African affairs hard to read for anyone who is already familiar with the issues. And that amounts to the only weakness I can see in Marina Ottaway's otherwise terse analysis on the recent escalation of the Sudanese conflict (see here [pdf]). I have always thought of Sudan as being the one state that does not fail from the inside but rather on its periphery—though that exact relationship deserves a hell of a lot more academic research—in contrast to Somalia, which imploded in 1991 when Siad Barre was finally ousted. And it is indeed remarkable to what extent conflicts within Sudan (i.e. North Sudan) continue to plague the state. Not only is there a looming danger of all out war between South Sudan and Sudan over Abyei, but Sudan itself is facing numerous challenges in Khordofan and Blue Nile, which in fact are the new South of the country (as Hassan al-Turabi seems to have put it). I only mention this, because this conflict does not get any media attention, though it should. South Sudan is no match for Sudan's armed forces and in a renewed confrontation, both sides might hence return to destabilising each other by proxy forces, which could eventually resuscitate organisations like the Lord's Resistance Army. What I am saying is this: this conflict is not small potatoes.

Freitag, 25. Mai 2012

I am pulling an all-nighter tonight, having rather a lot to do and still being a bit jetlagged. Whilst doing that, I also catch up on US politics. Hardball is probably the only show worth watching on msnbc, and this one with Newt Gingrich is really lovely.

Letter from Chicago – A NATO Summit Review

No conference without a bag. The NATO conference
offered a Nato cake and a hand-written note
from a high-school student.

Last weekend I was given access to NATO's summit in Chicago, as part of a delegation of Young Atlanticists, from some 35 countries. Being in Chicago for the NATO summit was, I confess, a pretty thrilling experience, which might have something to do with all the cakes and pastries that were in abundant supply. Then, of course, that sugar was more than needed, since Herman van Rompuy was about to give a speech that bordered on the surreal. Asked for specific successes of Europe's soft power, he said something along the lines that Europe won the Cold War without hard power, but would otherwise refrain from commenting on what he understood as hard and soft power. Also the European crisis is limited. One seriously has to fight the urge to stand up and tell him that the West won the Cold War because there were hundreds of thousands American soldiers on German soil, to make sure we were not overrun by Soviet tank divisions. And whenever someone says the Cold War was won without firing a shot, I really want them send back to high school. Its not only that there were numerous proxy wars, but people were shot at the border itself.

Anyway, I wasn't in Chicago to give van Rompuy a good scolding, but rather to enjoy the city and the summit. I was surprised to hear that the Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen acknowledged that the problem with pooling and sharing was assured access. Put differently, how does the alliance ensure that the pooled resources are available to nations in need. That might be manageable, but what if there is a weapons systems that needs soldiers from more than one country to be operational and a crucial member state objects. On that note, SPIEGEL today ran a story that has the parliamentary speaker saying that any deployment of German Army forces will remain in the sole authority of the German parliament. So much for assured access (I've pointed out to SPIEGEL that there is no new strategic Concept, so that's been taken care of) Which clearly demonstrates the major problem with pooling and sharing: we are not going to share the resources we really deem essential, which means the really expensive systems are probably going to remain national assets or will be shared only with partners that are deemed reliable (and following Libya, that basically means no one is going to share anything important with us). But the major problem is this: pooling and sharing is a fiscal rather than a military initiative. Its a smart way to cut budgets, and not in any way intended to close the capability gaps, NATO clearly has. Look no further than the one project that is being touted as a major success for the entire initiative: In the first 48 hours I spent in Chicago, I heard the Strategic Airlift Command purchase of three C-17 Globemasters by twelve nations being touted as a success of pooling and sharing no less than four times. Mind you, what happens when two or three nations happen to need these planes at the same time, I do not know. And I am guessing that nobody really knows.

On my way out, I got a copy of Colin Powell's latest book—It worked for me—which I really cannot recommend. I always liked Powell, but the book only offers advice along the lines of, work hard, but do not work so hard that you forget what matters like family and stuff. Find a balance. And seriously, 280 pages could have been put to better use (he received a pretty solid scolding at Slate today, not totally undeserved).  

Donnerstag, 24. Mai 2012

Pakistan – Today's Most Revealing Quote on the Internet

Politico's Morning Defense carried a short note on the sentencing of Dr. Afridi. He had helped the United States by disclosing Osama bin Laden's location and was now sentenced to 33 years in prison for treason. That caused quite a stir in Washington, where Senators McCain and Levin quickly pointed out that Afridi should be pardoned right away and in fact be commended for his job.

But to Pakistan that might be anathema, as Morning Defense tells us: “A senior government lawyer tells the Lawfare blog, 'Imagine the tables turned -- that a doctor in the U.S. cooperated with the Iranian Government to provide information that led to the killing of an Iranian dissident in the U.S. by the Quds Force. There's no doubt that this conduct would violate U.S. law.'”

Whoever that government official was, he was right. Even to a greater extent that he was probably aware of. After all, Iran is an enemy of the United States, in fact calls for the U.S. downfall once a week—usually on Fridays—and has killed dissidents abroad. The premise of Pakistan's response is that Osama was a dissident and that the U.S. is an enemy, not an ally. At least they now admit it, after they behaved like it for more than a decade.

Donnerstag, 17. Mai 2012


I am off to Chicago now for a couple of days, being at an event on the sidelines of the NATO summit later this weekend. Stay tuned, I'll try to be blogging. 

Dienstag, 8. Mai 2012

Modern Classics in Politics—Geoffrey Kabaservice's Rule and Ruin

With the primaries in the United States effectively being over and Mitt Romney being the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, the general election is well under way. But whether Mitt Romney will have a genuine shot at the White House to a large extent depends on his ability to steer to the middle of the road, as he needs to get independents to vote for him in half a dozen crucial swing states. Against that background, the latest book by Geoffrey Kabaservice—Rule and Ruin—is a timely addition to the analyses of this year's election cycle.

The greatest strength of Kabaservice's narrative is also the greatest weakness of the book. Kabaservice's account is unusually rich in detail and the description often exhaustive. Yet, while he is busy developing the narrative, the analysis often falls short. In this way, the book is brilliant introduction for students of American political history, but to the professional academic it offers little new insight. At length he goes into the fate of Advance magazine, the Ripon society and individual moderate legislators. All of that is highly fascinating to read but occasionally one is left wondering what the details contribute to the overall narrative the author is trying to develop.

It is the final irony of his account that he dates the decline of the moderate movement with George Romney's rise and fall, an early stalwart of moderate Republicanism. In his conclusion, Kabaservice practically serves as a medical examiner, proclaiming moderate Republicanism dead. But he does so on the expense of moderate Republicans, who are still alive and plenty. It is no coincidence that George Romney's son emerged as the presidential nominee. And moderate Republican thinkers such as Mike Castle—who lost the now infamous Delaware Senate primary to Christine O'Donnell (oh and watch this)—and a number of former George W. Bush administration and McCain campaign staffers try to reinvigorate the moderate movement by setting up a movement as impressive as no labels, while the Tea Party failed to make a decisive impact on the 2012 primaries. Kabaservice might have spelled his sentence a little too early. 

Freitag, 4. Mai 2012

NATO Missile Defence—Makarov Going all Bonkers

My personal standard response to the status of U.S.-Russia relations is always the same: what reset? In fact, relations between the United States and NATO on the one hand and Russia on the other seem to be deteriorating continuously. The Kremlin does not have much leverage over NATO, but it does seem to think that teasing NATO here and there helps to rally the nation around the flag that might otherwise be inclined to ask: what's next? But the fact that the NATO missile defence shield is still being presented as a project directed not against Iran but Russia itself has always been a bit awkward. But now the Russian Chief of Staff, General Nikolai Makarov, insists on going all bonkers, threatening to act pre-emptively against NATO's missile defence system.

Let me put it simply: the very idea that the missile defence system is directed against Russia is nuts. How do we know? Well, for one thing NATO is intent so declare a preliminary operational capability at its Chicago summit without having invested much in the system so far. Which is easy to explain, since most of the system will simply combine the capabilities NATO already had at its disposal. These are systems that are actually quite old, AEGIS destroyers in the Med and a Patriot battery here and there (note for a moment that the more modern and more capable replacement for Patriot—MEADS—is being scrapped). The only thing changing will be command and control and early detection. The site selected for a new radar site is Izmir, Turkey, which clearly indicates that the real reason for the entire project is located in the Middle East. Unless, of course, Russia is volunteering to scrap all its SSBNs. And provided that its missiles can somehow no longer go over the Arctic to reach the US, which I am guessing some guys would fine surprising. But the bottom line is this: Russia initially declared its willingness to cooperate with NATO on missile defence. I wonder what has changed that they moved from cooperation to declaring it such a threat that they would have to act pre-emptively? The answer, rather tellingly, is not be found on NATO's territory.  

Freitag, 27. April 2012

A Quick Note on Civil-Military Relations - Why Romney Shouldn't Pick Petraeus

Now normally, I find myself agreeing with most of the well chosen words published on Foreign Policy's shadow government. This is partly due to Peter Feaver's brilliant foreign policy understanding, and it is partly due to the fact that I find the foreign policy by the Obama administration uninspiring. But what Paul Miller has put out on the internets got my attention and I find myself wholeheartedly disagreeing with him. The idea that General David Petraeus would be a fine pick for the GOP vice presidential pick is seriously misguided. That is not to say that Petraeus is not a fine officer. He certainly is one of the best military leaders the US military has produced. See this 1986 article on counterinsurgency for example [pdf]. But a thorough understanding of military professionalism would strongly suggest not to pick an officer for a political position, since that would compromise the fine line there is between the military and political sphere and keeping these spheres separate is a distinguishing feature of a modern day democracy, just like keeping church and state separate. Appointing Petraeus as head of the CIA was already a delicate move, since he does not exactly qualify for leading a civilian institution, for that he should have had a civilian professional background. I would actually be surprised if team Romney would even seriously think about the proposal, since a) they don't want to create the impression that Romney would be elected on Petraeus' coattails and b) the Republicans have a better track record in sticking to civilian supremacy. Picking Petraeus would be, forgive me, a coup. But it would not be a good one.  

Donnerstag, 26. April 2012

A Quick Note on the US Response to Syria

While the civil war in Syria continues unabated, the United States finds itself in a difficult and precarious position. On the one hand, they often find themselves accused of meddling in other people's affairs, but when push comes to shove, there is no other power capable of taking the lead and stopping mass atrocities, as Libya reminded us. But Syria presents a really tough challenge to the international community. In contrast to the Libyan situation, there is actually strategic benefit in removing Assad from power, despite stopping a brutal genocide in the making, which obviously should be reason enough. But at the same time, any sort of intervention is likely to face serious opposition by a rather well-equipped army. Even humanitarian safe zones would require a robust military intervention for which no one currently has the resources, let alone the political will. So while the Russian and Chinese intransigence on the Syrian issue is really annoying, the simple truth is that it also hands the international community a cover for not acting, when so few would actually like or be able to act. Joshua Foust recently had a good piece on the dynamics of that.

Speaking at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Monday, President Obama outlined a number of policies designed to better deal with genocide and mass atrocities. The formal establishment of an Atrocities Prevention Board, however, leaves me wondering. Designed as a clearinghouse for intelligence, I have to ask: Is providing that sort of intelligence not the job of the CIA? The problem, as Syria demonstrates, is not one of bad intelligence, but of actual policy.

Mittwoch, 25. April 2012

NATO: From the Department of Unpreparedness

While NATO is gearing up for its Chicago summit, the Visegrad states just published a statement that includes some juicy language.

“The upcoming NATO Summit in Chicago will be a good opportunity to clarify mutual obligations on both sides of the Atlantic: a lasting and substantial U.S. commitment to Europe and Europe’s more coherent and visible investment in defence capabilities.”

Courtesy of the US Army on flickr 
The Visegrad group is also submitting a call for basing the upcoming exercises on Art. 5 scenarios, which is interesting in two respects. The first is that the Visegrad countries—and of course the Baltic states—have always been concerned first and foremost about Art. 5 scenarios. In contrast to Western European countries, who like to fancy themselves as being focused on what they ostensibly call emerging security threats. And with the US Asia pivot, they are concerned that a smaller US European footprint will leave a Europe unprepared for any serious contingency and they rightly ask themselves just how much the US is going to remain a European power, when its focus is elsewhere. But there is a second dimension to it. Operation Unified Protector in Libya was an intervention abroad, authorised by the United Nations Security Council. But in its initial phase it was very similar to what an early Art. 5 response would have looked like. And there were serious shortcomings in command and control during the early days of Operation Unified Protector. Twelve years after the Kosovo intervention, one would have to think that NATO had that covered. But the remaining shortcomings suggest that NATO still needs to work on that and invest more resources in enhanced and timely C4ISR capabilities. The most serious Art. 5 scenario would of course be the compromising of territorial integrity of one of the member states. And for most Eastern European countries, the problem is a resurgent Russia, as this thinly veiled reference to a traditional power demonstrates:

“NATO should also discuss the consequences of increased defence spending and acquisition of advanced capabilities by some traditional and emerging powers.”

Transnistria: From the Department of Nothing Left to Loose

Russia meanwhile appointed Dimitry Rogozin not only as Deputy Prime Minister, but also as “Russian presidential envoy for Transnistria” and as the Russian head of the Russia-Moldova intergovernmental cooperation commission. These steps are really lovely moves, since Russia previously only had special envoys for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. What this amounts to is nothing less than an implicit endorsement of Moldova's partition. Russia is moving quickly to establish more direct relations between Moscow and Tiraspol, Chisinau increasingly finds itself bypassed or over-ruled. As if this would not be enough, Russia has also signalled that it will introduce new and better equipment to its forces in Transnistria, a move that would normally need the host nation's consent. That of course would be Moldova and the government in Chisinau would surely reject any such permission. But Moscow is unlikely to even ask. And in contrast to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moscow is not on route to recognise any sort of independence. In fact, Rogozin is a strong nationalist and just like his new boss, Vladimir Putin, he regards it as the Kremlin's duty to protect all citizens of the former Soviet Union and that includes Transnistria. During the last presidential elections, Moscow had opened 24 polling stations in Transnistria, again without seeking Moldova's approval. Rogozin explicitly stated that in order to resolve the conflict, Moldova should recognise Russian authority over the region and refuse the participation of what he calls non-involved powers, a not so subtle hint at the European Union and the United States.

The Kremlin obviously does not mince words. And in a way it does not have to. If Moldova does not obey Russia's suggestions, or seeks membership in the EU or NATO or wants to become part of Romania, Russia might always move to recognise Transnistria. And if Moldova does not move, so won't the Kremlin. The status quo, after all, benefits Russia more than it does any other country. But it is also indicative of a foreign policy, in which Russia tries to re-assert itself. The message its sending is clear: It feels entitled to predominance in the CIS space and sooner or later that sense of entitlement will clash not only with the EU and NATO, but with the independence and sovereignty of the states in the former CIS space. Some will acquiesce to Russian pressure, but others might look to the West for protection. We better brace for impact.   

Samstag, 21. April 2012

Modern Classics in War and Warfare—XIV

Andrew J. Bacevich' 2005 The New American Militarism was perhaps one of the earliest accounts of an academic trying to come to grips with the foreign policy of the Bush administration. It was also an attempt to deliver a devastating critique not only of would eventually be Bush's foreign policy legacy, but with American foreign policy itself. Bacevich openly argues for a smaller U.S. footprint overseas and—in general terms—would like to see a more realist foreign policy being enacted. There are many such books on the market and only few of them are worth reading (see the latest by Brezinski for a monumental waste of time). But this one, even if it is not always convincing, is among those that are worthwhile. One caveat up front: Bacevich takes issue with the religious underpinnings of George W. Bush's Wilsonianism. That in itself is a legitimate argument to make and I confess I feel a little unease about the importance of religion in Bush's weltanschauung myself. That being said, Bacevich, in a rather telling instance, describes Bush's religious outlook as an aberration of the normal role of religion and what he seems to think is the true importance and meaning of religion and/or god. For a European scholar such attitudes are always a little disconcerting and Bacevich could have made a far more persuading argument had he realised that there is no right or wrong interpretation of any religion.

Having said all this, the most fundamental problem with Bacevich's book is that it often rests on misleading comparisons and arguments. This is not a small point to be directed against a book, so I feel inclined to give an example for that sort of problem. Right at the outset, Bacevich argues that the new militarism is evidenced not least by the fact that the U.S. spends more on defence than the next ten countries combined. Which is true, but somewhat misleading. For one thing, the U.S. is the world's economic powerhouse, larger than virtually any other economy on the planet. The result being that once you look at defence spending as part of GDP a far more accurate picture emerges, in which the US only ranks fifth, with roughly five percent of GDP being allocated to defence expenditures. But even that is still not too useful a picture. The really important question after all is, what does it buy and what does it get for its money. It does not need a professional background in military affairs to realise that the individual soldier in the U.S. armed forces is one of the best equipped in the world, receiving a decent pay and the security that comes with an expensive health care system for soldiers and veterans alike (Tricare). And that stuff costs real money and is the envy of servicemen in many a European army. Bacevich continues to compare the size of the Marine Corps to that of the entire British Armed Forces, concluding that the Marine Corps alone is lager than the entire army fielded by the United Kingdom. Again, on the face of it, that is correct and yet again, it is also misleading. For one thing the United Kingdom is considerably smaller, has less interests and can rely on a really well-equipped ally, which allowed for rather unreasonable cuts in the British defence budget in the first place. But the size of the Marine Corps does not present itself as a reasonably fitting counterpart for the sort of comparison Bacevich intends to draw. The Marine Corps was significantly expanded following 9/11, but it will also be drawn down in number once the war in Afghanistan comes to a close. The U.S. after all is a country that fields a navy in peace-time and raises an army in war-time. It has done so in all wars, so the abstract size of the Marine Corps is only a snapshot of a nation in war-time. But Bacevich argues that the size of the Marine Corps is indicative of the US government to resort to military solutions, instead of diplomatic ones. But for that to be true, he should have looked at the size of the Marine Corps on 9/10. What he is presenting here is nothing more than a circular argument.

The same holds true for another argument he is making, namely that during the Cold War, the United States staged a mere six interventions, whereas following the end of the Cold War it has already been up to nine, in which he includes quite a number of smaller operations. But that is again a gross distortion, for he fails to do the same for the period till the end of the Cold War and the number increases considerably, for it would then have to include missions such as the botched 1980 Iranian hostage rescue attempt ordered by Jimmy Carter, the Tanker War, the 1975 operation to free merchants in Cambodia that were taken hostage by the Khmer Rogue. By now, one gets the picture. But even if the number did increase, its more related to the fallout of the Cold War and the US being the sole remaining power that often had to deal with the consequences because it had to, not because it wanted to (the thing about the power vacuum left behind by the Soviet Union's demise and all that). After all, the US was not exactly keen to stop the genocide in Bosnia and did so only after it was becoming apparent that the Europeans could not do so themselves. One does not need to come to these conclusions, but making an argument for some sort of abundant militarism, one should at least engage this kind of argument.

Why oh why, then, did I add this book to the classics, the beloved reader might rightfully want to inquire? Well, for one thing, I have added books that are classics in their own right to this list before and Bacevich would have to be on the list of anyone who is seriously interested in civil-military relations. And that is precisely what Bacevich is good at. Wherever and whenever he takes issue with the demise of the citizen-soldier, he is at his best. His criticism of Colin Powell as a JCS chairman is among the best I've read and pretty solid in argumentation. This second chapter of his book is also by far the best of the entire book, the rest of it pales in comparison. The remaining chapters of the book are in fact somewhat of a disappointment. For one thing, his argument rests on the case that every single group he is looking at underwent some sort of militarisation over the past decades, the religious right, the Democratic Party, the economy, the cinematic culture, the intellectuals, etc. But there are two problems with that argument. On the one hand, I remain deeply sceptical that an entire society was militarised by its own doing. But secondly, Bacevich himself argues that much of this is a correction to the fallout of the Vietnam War that left large parts of the country critical of the military. If that is true, which I personally suspect it is, than this is not testimony to an overall militarisation of American society, but rather a return to pre-Vietnam level of support for the military and the role of the military in U.S. foreign policy.  

Dienstag, 17. April 2012

The Great 2012 GlobSec Review

As one or two of you might already know, I spent a couple of days in Bratislava at this year's GlobSec, a marvellous conference organised by the Slovak Atlantic Commission. And I promised some impressions from the event, so while still being in self-imposed exile, here is what I took away from the summit.

1. We are screwed
The most candid assessment on NATO's current state from an elected official came, as might have been expected, from the Norwegian minister of defence. To put it all in proper context, some might recall that in the early 1990s the challenge for NATO was to find a new consensus on where to go (actually that challenge was never really resolved and NATO still disagrees on where to go exactly). But one sentence came close to formulate the little consensus that was there: go out of area or out of business. The reasoning was that with the Soviet Union imploding and a power vacuum all around NATO's territory, military conflicts at NATO's periphery went unchecked. NATO had to leave its own area and take the lead in responding to these conflicts, because no one else could or would. Would it not have reacted, NATO would have been a mere paper-tiger and when it finally rose to the occasion, it ended it bloody civil war in Bosnia that the United Nations were unable to respond to firmly. But that was in the old days, when NATO states still had impressive armies. These days, as one might have noted, are gone. NATO as a whole is trying to get through a difficult time of general austerity and only a mere five of its members spend the two percent of GDP on defence the alliance has agreed upon as being necessary to sustain at least some of its capabilities. But while the alliance cuts its defence spending to the bone (and cracks some while doing so), symmetric warfare becomes more feasible again and the Norwegians rightly wonder, how we ended up in a situation where the alliance has not done anything in contingency planning for some its members for years. That is a very Norwegian position, of course, since Norway finds itself confronting a resurgent Russia from the first row. But to put it differently: Now the challenge is to be in area or in trouble.

2. We Germans screw all the rest, really
Which leads me to comment on Germany's role. Germans in general do not seem to be overtly interested in security and foreign policy, but even when they are they are not very likely to see Russia as a challenge. And fully satisfied with their piecemeal contribution in Afghanistan, they are willing to go back to the early 1990s, when they could write checks instead of marching orders. But every-time a Polish defence minister challenges his German counterparts by pointing out that they are not spending enough on defence, you know you're in trouble. And while the Germans were hard-pressed to explain the precise amount of their cutbacks in defence, the Polish are wondering how they ended up having more than twice as many main battle tanks than Germany in their arsenal. In fact, Germany is so radically and rapidly getting rid of its military assets that it is hard to imagine what Germany's contribution to NATO's core mission—territorial defence—would actually look like, should it ever come to that.

3. And before I forget, we do not have a plan. Really, we don't
So Germany came up with a plan. Berlin introduced, what in NATO jargon is sometimes called smart defence or pooling and sharing. Its not that we had stupid defence, before someone came up with smart defence. Its that NATO, as its Secretary General likes to point out, wants to do better with less. That is as lovely a notion as it is laughable. Not doing worse with less would be a challenge hard enough to accomplish. But alliance members want to spend even less on defence then they are already spending, so pooling resources might be a sensible proposition. Germany for instance is taking a leadership role in pooling and sharing of airborne maritime surveillance capabilities. As sensible and promising as this initiative is, pooling and sharing is coming dangerously close to finally pressing Europeans to come up with a plan on what to do when half the nations that have pooled want to go into action, and the other half does not. And what when more than one country, because of a natural disaster, suddenly need the same capabilities? At the same time, pooling and sharing is a pretty good indicator of the alliance's overall problems. It is finding and building of niche-capabilities by default, not by design. Or is anyone seriously thinking that the good people of NATO, the German defence ministry and other states sat down, took a hard look at the last Strategic Concept and the overall threat environment and then concluded that what we really needed more of is airborne maritime surveillance capabilities?

Bottom Line: Did I mention that we are screwed?
NATO might be considered—as it is by some—as a force multiplier. But in order to multiply, there needs to be a force. And there is less of that today than at any other time of the alliance's rich history. Operation Unified Protector in Libya is yet another interesting demonstration of NATO's continuing problems. After all, as the Norwegians try to point out, the initial phase of the Libya campaign was not that different from an early phase of an Article 5 NATO mission. And against that background, the shortcomings in command and control, target identifying and intelligence capabilities—a full twelve years after NATO's mission in Kosovo—have to be really scary. At least for anyone who is seriously thinking that NATO might be able to defend you. In a world where symmetrical warfare is becoming a more realistic prospect again, that is not exactly reassuring news.  

Montag, 9. April 2012

Being Busy like a Bee

I wanted to get back to my desk and comment on the prospect of war with Iran (or lack thereof), the Grass-debate, the American primaries, Chinese military developments and coups in Sub-Saharan Africa among, you know, other things. But for the moment, I am still traveling and am now off to Bratislava, where GlobSec 2012 is taking place. I hope to put some of the impressions into writing and blog them as soon as possible. And I will be back with some reviews soon. I don't know whether one still uses that in internet-era, but in any event: stay tuned. In the meantime, you might be interested in what a couple of put out in writing on the coup in Mali here.  

Montag, 2. April 2012

Short note on a foreign policy that is not as good as you might think

President Obama is a successful foreign policy maker. Or so MSNBC keeps telling its audience. It was, after all, Obama who had ordered the daring raid on bin Laden's compound in Abottabad, Pakistan (Andrew Sullivan offered a similarly unconvincing argument in defence of the president and stirred up quite a controversy with it). There are many things wrong with this talking point in the specific circumstances of the Abottabad raid, though one might well think of it as a daring endeavour. But I do wonder how a president, who was elected on the promise of hope but has subsequently failed to come up with a vision for American foreign policy in general and who's foreign policy in the front lines of the war on terror rests nearly entirely on an expanded drone programme, yet falls short of providing meaningful support for opposition movements in the Arab world, is considered an overwhelming success by, of all people, the left. It is certainly not an exaggeration to assert that the Obama administration's relationship with Congress is also a problematic one, but as a civilian supremacist I am also slightly concerned with the president's administration not complying with the laws set by Congress. And so, rightly, is John McCain

Mittwoch, 28. März 2012

Hiatus -- A Really Short One

I am off to Azerbaijan for a couple of days, but will resume blogging in early April. Promise. In the meantime, I direct you to my most recent piece on Mali and the EU in the Maghreb, written with my fine colleagues Dario and Joy. And if you happen to speak German take a look at the recent issue of Welttrends, where I have a new piece on the Chinese military build-up.

Donnerstag, 22. März 2012

Disagreeing with Stephen Walt is way too much fun

Courtesy of the US Army
Stephen Walt is someone I hardly ever agree with. And I can say with some satisfaction that that has not changed today. Walt is taking it away by drawing ten lessons from the war in Iraq. First lesson, the United States lost, because it did not win in any meaningful way. In fact, Iran seems to have gained most, or so Walt argues. To which I simply have to reply this: Sure the United States did not remove any WMD, because there weren't any. So, they did not fail on that either. But today, Iraq is a relatively free country and beyond any shadow of a doubt it is better off than at any time under the awful regime of Saddam Hussein. Perhaps it would be a good idea to recall the Bush doctrine for a second. The 2002 NSS stated very clearly, I am paraphrasing here, that the survival of freedom at home increasingly depends on the fate of freedom abroad. If that is the benchmark—and I do think that in evaluating the Bush doctrine's impact we should at least partially apply its own goals—its cause has been advanced successfully. Sure enough, Iraq is not the sort of Switzerland democracy I would wish for in my wildest of dreams. But for the first time in a couple of decades there is now a path toward such a future for Iraq. Its also not true that Iran has gained most. In fact, in the long-run it might be said that Iran lost. Prior to the war in Iraq, Iran was the freest society in the Middle East (except of course Israel). People enjoyed more freedom and liberty in Tehran than any other capital of the region. That changed considerably, Tehran is today one of the least free places in the world and that, in the end, will bring down the Iranian regime. Iraq is exactly what the Iranian regime has to fear most. The place where the alternative to the Iranian regime and its system of the rule of the jurisprudent can now be formulated. But the quote that amused me most in Walt's article is this:

"The danger of this false narrative is obvious: If Americans come to see the war as a success--which it clearly wasn't--they may continue to listen to the advice of its advocates and be more inclined to repeat similar mistakes in the future."

If that would be a useful advise, we would have stopped listening to or reading Stephen Walt a long time ago. After all, Walt argued that the Arab Spring would not move beyond Tunis. Mearsheimer, who, after all, is a beloved colleague of Walt's, argued that NATO would not survive the end of the Cold War. Yet, NATO is alive and well and so is Mearsheimer. Put differently, be careful what you wish for. The remaining nine lessons are along the lines of “conterinsurgency is ugly”, so I won't dive into those. But I am going to add this: The lessons strangely omitted are these:
  1. If you happen to intervene, commit the necessary resources and time.
  2. Address the regional dimension before going in.
  3. Make sure you have the necessary resolve and the stomach to sell the war even if the going gets rough.   
If you cannot do any of that, you're probably doomed. President Bush did all that in Iraq, whereas in Afghanistan, President Obama did not, even though he referred to the war in Afghanistan as the 'necessary' one. 

der SPIEGEL on the Falklands: Another Bias

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
I am not exactly a fan of Germany's primary political weekly, der SPIEGEL. In fact, I've stopped reading it a little while ago and only on occasion do I read its online page. But this today caught my eye, an article that boldly claims that the UK government is clinging to the Falklands because their might be oil. What a terrific nonsense that is. Whether there is oil or not could not matter less. The UK after all went to defend it thirty years ago without the prospect of a single drop of oil. Its argument now as then: The Kelpers consider themselves British. And since they live on the islands and the Argentinians don't, we should consider the Argentinian claim for what is: colonialism.

I'll make it brief: the idea that any government should hand the Falklands to the Argentinians, because they consider themselves to be the rightful heirs of the Spanish empire is simply ridiculous. Since when exactly are colonial arguments ok in the international arena? The only way for the islands to change hands legitimately would be to ask the islanders themselves. And Buenos Aires knows well why it is not putting this idea forward.  

Dienstag, 13. März 2012

Modern Classics in War and Warfare—XIII

Bernard Fall's Street Without Joy is in fact a classic of military history for it was first published in 1961, precisely at the moment the United States was about to expand its involvement in Vietnam. The book, hence, came at a timely moment and until today it allows the reader to see which lessons could have been drawn and been incorporated into the renewed war effort and which, more interestingly, were not. At times, the book is a little tiresome to read, particularly when Fall recounts the fate of single units. Though Fall was very well aware that the war effort was being undertaken without a political strategy accompanying it, his book does not go into that political level at all. However, the book adds what most accounts of such wars lack totally: an appraisal of tactics, not strategy. And it is here that the real contribution of the book is to be found.

During the war, the French were keen to show presence along the roads and had therefore built a string of strongholds, which had locked up more than 80.000 troops along with artillery and mortars. But that never translated to strength on the ground, since the small strongholds themselves suffered from a still weak contingent that allowed the Vietminh to stage attacks at a time of their own choosing, with little risk. The sort of strategic thinking that the French had was to prove fatal, when the French wanted to defend Dien Bien Phu, or as Fall himself put it: “For one last time, the 'Maginot Line' spirit had prevailed and it led straight to the biggest pillbox of them all: the fortified camp of Dien Bien Phu.” Worse still, the French suffered heavily from the 'fighting the last war' syndrome and desperately tried to apply those lessons to Indochina that they had to learn during World War II, namely quick movements with tanks and mechanised infantry units. But while this worked well for the German Wehrmacht in World War II, it was doomed to failure in Indochina, where the thick jungle along the roads allowed for thousands of ambushes even with small infantry units.

One of the commonly held assumptions about asymmetric warfare is that the enemy is usually weaker, inferior in number, skills and equipment. And though is some cases that might be true it never was in the Indochina war (or for that matter in the Vietnam war that was to succeed it). In fact, the French were continuously out-gunned, were never in a position to gain momentum on the battlefield and could never put the one superiority they enjoyed—air superiority—to full use. This was not the sort of asymmetric warfare, other powers sometimes had to encounter, as perhaps the US in the Philippines. The Vietminh, after all, fought in battalions and divisions. As in any asymmetric war, two factors proved to be decisive that, rather tellingly, never get the attention of the media or self-proclaimed experts, who rapidly offer their wisdom by pointing out that 'such a war cannot be won'. It can, of course, and throughout history it often was. But over-extended supply lines prove costly and the French, after all, were recovering from a World War. But perhaps more importantly, outside factors often prove decisive. The French received support from the US, but the Vietminh received even more support from the Soviet Union and the material superiority the French enjoyed at the outset of the war was levelled during the course of the war effort.

In perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book, Fall dives into the question of how to term the sort of war the French were fighting in Indochina. He quickly points out that terms such as 'guerilla war', 'counterinsurgency', and 'limited war' do not really cover the political aspects of these wars. I do need to point out that there are lessons to be drawn from that war for the Afghanistan war, but I leave that particular job to my dear reader.