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.