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.  

Donnerstag, 1. März 2012

Santorum's Problem

The biggest surprise of the current election cycle is the totally unexpected rise of Rick Santorum to frontrunner status in the Republican primaries, even though some of the things he has said recently would have to locate him a bit in the nutty corner. And herein lies the problem. Rick Santorum has not only presented himself as a religious fanatic, which is bad enough. He does not even live by the standards he so openly and daringly sets for himself.

In a September 2011 Republican primary debate, a gay army captain asked the candidates whether they would re-introduce don't ask, don't tell when elected and was promptly booed by the audience. Rick Santorum was the first to give a largely incoherent answer to the question and, more tellingly, failed to remind the audience of the service the officer was providing to the nation or thank the dedicated soldier himself. This could largely be seen as an isolated incidence, as the candidate later went on to claim, would it not fit into a pattern of troubling responses or rather the lack of a response. When a woman in an audience of a recent Rick Santorum campaign event suggested that Barack Obama might be a Muslim, Santorum did not see a need to correct her on that simple factual issue. Instead, he left the insinuation hang in the air, later claiming that it was not his job to educate his followers. Though, again tellingly, the erstwhile presidential candidate John McCain did take the time on his campaign trail to point out that he might have political disagreements with then Senator Barack Obama, but that he was certainly a patriot and a Christian. Santorum's relationship with truth is casual at best.

Speaking of the president, the problem with Barack Obama's re-election strategy of pitting 99 percent against the one percent of top income earners has always been that most people are more focused on their own lives rather than on that of millionaires who have simply managed to realize the American dream. But Santorum is using a similar strategy by suggesting that higher education is poisonous and snobbish. It is true that most people who go into colleges having faith are going on to question it, which simply is a product of knowledge and critical thinking and that in itself is a rather good thing. But receiving a higher education is part and parcel of the American dream, which, after all, is that one's children might have a better life than oneself.

The problem with the issues Santorum is raising is not that they are outside the American mainstream. The problem is that Santorum is willingly surrendering the only advantage he had over Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney has flip-flopped on more issues than even a journalist could possibly be expected to remember. But changing one's mind on a policy issue is sort of trademark in a politician. Rick Santorum, however, is doing worse. He has introduced himself as the one politician who stands firm on his believes. But he does not the follow the principles he claims to adhere to, instead he openly disavows them when a women in one of his audiences calls the president a Muslim, or when he tries to explain his endorsement for Arlen Specter. Rick Santorum does not flip-flop, its worse: he does not stand by the principles he presents as his strong-suit.