Mittwoch, 22. Februar 2012

Obama's Foreign Policy Legacy

Whenever I turn to American television and watch Ed Schulz and/or Al Sharpton, I hear the same message: Republicans are in trouble and now fall back to to the social/religious frontline, because the president looks increasingly good on the economy and national security, the latter, astoundingly enough, because, well, he killed bin Laden. In the eyes of Al Sharpton and Ed Schulz this seems to be fully sufficient to mark a foreign policy legacy. Tellingly enough, the best ten page summary of Obama's Middle East legacy comes from Israel, authored by Mark Heller

Samstag, 11. Februar 2012

Let's Arm the Syrian Opposition—Here is Why

Courtesy of the US Army on flickr

Marc Lynch has come up with a long list of reasons why scepticism vis-à-vis arming the Syrian opposition should prevail, calling arming the Syrian opposition a daunting task. But just because it would be a daunting task is not a good enough reason for not doing it. Here is the complete list of what Lynch has to offer in opposition to arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA):
  • We do not exactly know whom we should and would be arming. For one thing the Free Syrian Army is too localised and too small to really challenge the Assad regime, for another it is too fragmented and disorganised to be an effective adversary to the Syrian regime.
  • We cannot provide enough weapons to really level the battlefield, the regular Syrian army is too well trained and well-equipped. Moreover, us arming the opposition could motivate the Russians and Iranians to arm the Assad-regime in response.
  • What will Assad be doing in response?
  • What if arming the opposition does not give the opposition a fighting chance or does not bring Assad to the bargaining table?
  • What if he does fall and the ensuing chaos would be even more disastrous?
All these are perfectly valid points and questions that need to be raised. But I do take issue with this list for a couple of reasons and would challenge some of the points.
  1. It is certainly true that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is currently very small and weakly organised. But if we are waiting until the Free Syrian Army has the sort of command and control structures we are used to within NATO, we might be waiting a while. The whole point of the debated assistance is to help a generally weak opposition. Weakness is not a a very good argument against assistance. Such assistance could also be made conditional: as we arm the opposition, further arms shipments can be made conditional on progress in consolidating command and control structures within the FSA and some sort of a formal agreement
  2. Even if we do ship arms to the Syrian opposition, we will not be able to really alter the military balance in Syria. That much certainly is true. The regular Syrian armed forces have about 4900 MBTs, 2600 BMPs and another 1500 APCs at their disposal. This is an arsenal so large that Syria has amassed more firepower than most European NATO countries combined, at least far as ground forces are concerned. That is, if all of that stuff is actually operational, which I highly doubt. But arming the opposition would still help level the battlefield. Most of these tanks are of ancient design and can easily be hit. (The Russians have lost a number of comparable vehicles in the 2008 Georgian war and only prevailed because of a WWII-like strategy) The influx of weapons and the destruction of some weapons could trigger even more defections. The angle here is not levelling the odds in battle, but morale of government forces.
  3. It is also true that Iran and Russia might be arming the Syrian regime, once we start arming the opposition. But Iran and Russia are doing that anyway. And while Iran will continue to do so no matter what we do, the Kremlin might eventually realise that it is about to repeat all the foreign policy mistakes it made in the late 1990s on the Balkans.
  4. It is also true that arming the opposition might not help change the situation at all and that we might still have to intervene. Put differently arming the opposition might well pave the way for intervention. But politics is a game of alternatives, not ideal solutions. As long as the consensus is that we do not want to intervene now, but also do not want to see the Assad-regime to continue its horrible and awful regime, we might at least gain some time in the meantime by arming the opposition.
The case for arming the Syrian opposition is not be found in what or how little we know about Assad's adversary, it is to be found in how well we know Assad by now. Surely, problems might well remain, as they do in Libya. But the argument Marc Lynch completely fails to engage is that the lack of action is also producing costs, first and foremost in lives lost. Dan Drezner therefore has it right: Arming the opposition will be bloody and costly. But in all probability, that will still be the lesser of two evils.

Mittwoch, 8. Februar 2012

On History and Strategic Thought

After having slammed Brzezinski pretty hard for a serious lack of strategic thinking and intellectual rigour, I do feel compelled to give an example of what sound historical and strategic thinking should look like. Historical thought is, after all, an indispensable prerequisite for strategic thought, even though it is largely underestimated. Consider for a moment this:

No government which is vicious in principle and corrupt in practice can hope, particularly in the atmosphere of military defeat, to retain the allegiance of those who do not share in the benefits of its dishonesty.”

Despite its beautiful prose, it is hard to tell to which country and which crisis it applies. But to a certain extent the question would miss the point. Sound historical thought has always been primarily concerned with learning about the underlying structures in time (Reinhart Koselleck, my favourite German historian, always wanted to draft a historical theory of time. He never had the time to do it, which I am guessing, must be some kind of historical joke. But his first attempts can be found here and here). The quoted sentence has first been written in 1923 by Harold J. Laski (and is now available here). Laski was describing Tsarist Russia and explaining why it had to give way to the Soviet Union. Yet, what he has penned here can be applied to virtually all states at all times. Some thirty or forty years ago, Reinhart Koselleck published a book in which he followed the introduction a new general rural law in Prussia (its a 700 pages volume and was in fact the first book I've read when I began to study modern history). Though he was studying a very limited period in Prussian history, from the angle of a very specific subject—rural law—he was still making a more general point. Namely, that every state is constantly situated between reform and revolution and that in fact reform is the minimum of change necessary to avoid a revolution. The consequences are, of course, enormous and the conclusion can still be applied today and with far better and more convincing results than any IR-theory. Iran, for instance, is structurally incapable of reform, a revolution will inevitably be the result. The most fascinating part of Karl Marx's introduction to the Communist Manifesto is still his description of an unfolding global economy, an apt and particularly terse summary of globalisation, still outranking a Stiglitz, Zakaria or the lame attempts of a Paul Krugman. Laski, by the way, was doing what every historian is educated to be doing his whole life, the essence of historical thought: comparing.

I make these points for a single reason. Understanding the underlying forces of history, getting a glimpse of the longue durée is a prerequisite for strategic thought. It allows for the certainty that Iran's regime will eventually fail and allows the policymaker to formulate a strategy that will not trigger (there is no need for that), but accelerate the process. It'll motivate a dialogue on the sources of historical change that can and should be taken into account by anyone trying to formulate grand strategy. It will also help avoid the bizarre generalisations a Brzezinski makes. I finish this post with yet another Laski quote on fascist Italy and communist Russia:

Yet, save in intensity, there has been no difference in the method pursued by the two men; and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the different reception of their effort is the outcome of their antithetic attitudes to property. Yet the danger implicit in each philosophy is a similar one.”

Dienstag, 7. Februar 2012

On the State of the Afghan Campaign

Courtesy of the US Army on flickr

It has not been that much of a secret that if you look for a substantive critique of the allied effort in Afghanistan, you do not have to look much further than what the U.S. military publishes itself through its various organs. In fact, the ease with which U.S. officers and military leaders can sometimes voice their opinion stands out in stark contrast to the practices on this side of the pond or, in fact, to the commonly held assumption that the U.S. is one tight behemoth that does not reflect in any meaningful way on its own operations. In fact, the best insight into allied efforts has often been produced by the SSI and is often being published in the public domain by such quarterlies as the Parameters (It is here that in 1986 a young major named David Petraeus penned a stark challenge to the Powell-Weinberger doctrine as the ultimate lesson from the war in Vietnam). The Armed Forces Journal is not a DOD publication, but many of its authors have a background in the military and the journal has therefore gained a reputation for being very much right on the mark.

In a piece that has already gone viral, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis demonstrates why that reputation is well-deserved. In Truth, lies and Afghanistan, he paints a gloomy picture of Afghanistan today, noting the virtually total absence of progress in the Afghan theatre. What struck me most in the stories Lt. Col. Davis relates is that Afghan security forces are already bracing themselves for the day allied forces leave. Now, Davis repeats what many others have said already, basically that we are now in this war's tenth year and have little to show for it. And that is not quite accurate. ISAF has been restricted or rather restricted itself to Kabul for the first half of the mission. Only since 2006 has NATO begun to expand its mission to the entire country and only in 2009 did the counterinsurgency-campaign commence in earnest. And just as the campaign was making progress in the wake of the Afghan surge, the alliance already started eyeing for the exit. But a real counterinsurgency-campaign needs about eight to ten years to be effective and so far no allied government has made the sort of commitment necessary. I'll leave it here, but suffice it to say that the real problem of the Afghanistan mission is not its futility, but the lack of a real strategy and the willingness to commit to it.