Freitag, 30. August 2013

The Shot Across About the Bow: The Problem With Syria

I really do not need any convincing: the situation in Syria is appalling and it is high-time the world does something about it. And if it comes to regime change, well, count me in. I've argued elsewhere, why an intervention is necessary. However, I am deeply troubled by what the Obama administration is currently coming up with.

Military violence is a means to a political end. And as such, there needs to be at least an idea of a political end before military violence is employed. There is, however, a massive disconnect between the political ends the Obama administration has thus far outlined and the way an intervention is being set up right now. Basically, president Obama has articulated two political objectives, Assad's ouster and an end to the use of chemical weapons. The problem now is that the intervention, as it is being prepared at the moment, will with certainty achieve neither of these aims. Which, awkwardly enough, is part of the rallying cry by this administration: look, its not going to be regime change and hey, we'll not rely on a vulnerable presentation of intelligence findings to the Security Council. Which begs the question, what then is an intervention assumed to achieve?

The administration argues that this is primarily about showing resolve and punish those that use chemical weapons. I am very much in favour of making that clear, but since Assad used those weapons before, even a successful purely punitive campaign is not going to demonstrate that. What it would demonstrate is that the use of chemical weapons at a certain scale will have consequences. And that ain't the message the better part of the international community wants to send, is it?

The unfortunate truth is this: punishment for the use of chemical weapons cannot easily be disconnected from other political objectives, since these objectives are often, as in this case, informed by the conduct of the party it thinks needs punishment. Which is to say that a dictator willing to utilise such weapons should be brought to justice, or at least taken away from such weaponry. And that brings the strategic conundrum full circle. The political end would have to be to deny Assad the use of such weaponry permanently and since air-strikes cannot target chemical weapons directly, the narrowest way to achieve this would be to decapitate the Assad regime. Instead, the current strategy seems to be purely symbolic. As such it might end up not as a symbol for resolve but the bungled approach the Obama administration is taking towards security and foreign policy.  

Samstag, 24. August 2013

What the US is Doing in Syria, and What It Isn't Doing

There is a lot of talk now about a possible US intervention in Syria following what looks like a devastating and heinous attack in which the government used Chemical Weapons (CW). The common notion is that these attacks have not yet been independently verified (though even the Iranians seem to be accepting that they were employed), while some already scream that the United States is pushing for war. To which I really want to reply: stay calm, carry on and consider some of the following thoughts:
Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

No, the United States has not yet decided to intervene. No, seriously, it has not. So far, President Obama has only said that the attack is of grave concern. Whatever this means, he stopped short of calling for military action. If there is any movement at all, it's that the White House is beginning to take the issue seriously, simply because further inaction is now going to cast a shadow over Obama's foreign policy legacy. Take the military side of the issue. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are still adamantly opposed to any intervention, its Chairman, Martin Dempsey, has time and again stated that there is no real ally in the country and that the opposition is too weak to establish any order, even if Assad were forced out. This is the classic Colin Powell tactic of delivering assessments that are so bleak that no military options really remain – you might remember Madeleine Albright going ballistic on Colin Powell during the Bosnia war, asking him what good it was to have the finest military in the world, if you are not prepared to use it. (On a different note, why is the White House relying on a Pentagon assessment of what at least to me sounds like a job for the intelligence services and the State Department?) Which is why I would add a second note of caution: No, the United States is not preparing for an intervention, at least not yet. There is always significant confusion over this in the press, but there are two different steps in preparations. The first is to draw up contingency plans, which is what is happening. This is by and large a paper exercise (though a useful one), in which the Pentagon is beginning to crunch numbers and looking at available assets to figure out what resources could be mobilised to meet certain objectives. Its basically an exercise in what could be done. This is not the same as mobilising to implement a contingency plan, which is only happening once a principal decision has been reached, which the White House insists has not been made. What the US is doing is delaying the return of the USS Mahan, a destroyer with some guided missiles. Leaving it in place in the Med is not exactly the same as a massive build-up of forces.

Which would be surprising in any event. After all, the basic calculus of the Obama administration remains the same: No intervention on any foreign soil if that is at all avoidable. This has been a basic Obama rationale and should be kept in mind when talking Syria today. The president has been going to some lengths to avoid interventions, he was pressed into doing Libya and when he actually is ordering military operations, its usually of the smallest footprint possible. Drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan and some special forces to haunt down Joseph Kony and the LRA in Central Africa. Apparently he has a liking for small-scale precision missions with narrow political objectives. With regard to Syria, this probably means that any intervention in Syria would not be Kosovo 2.0, as some have argued, but rather a version of Clinton's 1998 bombing following the attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. Which is why I remain overall hesitant to predict that any sort of intervention is going to be mounted. If Obama is prepared to only go in a really tiny little step, someone better advises him to stop – you cannot get involved in wars and hope to extract a win by staging what isn't even a half-measure.

The basic conundrum for Obama is this: by not acting in Syria—despite having drawn a pretty clear red-line—he has allowed for US credibility to be lost. Assad would not have crossed this line yet again, would he really think the president is prepared to regain his credibility by staging an intervention. This whole CW attack was a sort of in your face move by Assad. If the US were to conduct missile strikes and nothing more, Assad might still survive and would then have defeated not only the opposition but also escaped US air-strikes and punishment for killing thousands. And if you think dealing with him now is a nightmare, wait for what happens if he does win. But US credibility would then be lost permanently. By the way, the war in Syria has now claimed more lives than the entire civil war in Iraq following the 2003 ouster of Saddam. If that doesn't give you pause, I don't know what will and if there is a red-line where President Obama should consider an intervention its this.

Sonntag, 11. August 2013

Obamas Zweite Amtszeit Gießener Gespräch

Apologies, this short piece is in German (simply because the video is): Die Gießener Gespräche sind schon eine Weile her, aber ich habe vor einer Weile etwas zur zweiten Amtszeit Obamas gesagt, was so allgemein natürlich immer noch gilt.

Donnerstag, 8. August 2013

Of History and Revolutions: the Arab Spring, the French Revolution and the Insularity of Political Science

Recently, the unthinkable happened. I was having a delicious dinner with friends and colleagues after a long conference in Western Africa on the crisis in the Sahel. It was a beautiful night close to the beaches of Cotonou, Benin and a post-conference ease disorder had set in. But such dinners are also a place were one trades the wisdom previously gathered. I was involved in a little exchange on the insularity of political science, when another colleague chimed in to ask this (I paraphrase, though not that much): “The French revolution doesn't tell you anything about the Arab Spring. What is it you want to learn from the French revolution for today, anyway? Or from history?”

My colleague, I hasten to say, is not an expert of revolutionary change. But in these few sentences she made the case for the insularity of political science in quite a remarkable fashion. I had to admit that this attitude was both monumentally ignorant (and I am afraid that still falls in the category of sugar-coding it). The extent of the ignorance on display was unique, the sentiment behind it, however, was not.

This is partly due to the way political scientists approach their subject. As a subject political science relies heavily upon data sets, even though political scientists are usually very well aware that compiling data for data sets is more than just a bit tricky. Its part of a constant effort to consolidate the empirical base from which science tries to gain conclusions. This is by and large a laudable effort and particularly in conflict and war studies, it might help dampen the surge in ideologically driven research paradigms. Abu Muqawama had a lovely entry a little while ago, where he dissects General Mattis' take on history, who poignantly argued that there is nothing new under the sun.

In it, Abu M tried to explain why he believes in data sets and not sloppy historical analogies. Which is why I want to make some general remarks on the value of history off the cuff. Whether its all been here before or not, is a mute question. History does not repeat itself, but it has patterns and those have been here before, as Richard Holbrooke used to say its like jazz, an improvisation of a constant theme [I owe this nugget to Vali Nasr's book]. And historical sciences have tried to come to terms with those patterns. Take, for example, the concept of Sattelzeit, a concept developed by German historian Reinhart Koselleck, whose work has greatly influenced yours truly and who is certainly among the ten most important German historians of the twentieth century. Or take the Annales school of French historians who tried to conceptualise history over what they called a longue durée [and just in case you haven't read Fernand Braudel, now is the time to do so], with which the interdependence of geography, political systems and finally culture was highlighted.

The bottom line is this. Historical analogies can be a tempting trap and their bad reputation stems from a sloppy use, among historians but first and foremost among journalists. Like the myriad of journalists who argued that Afghanistan is sort of like Vietnam. This sort of analogy is sure to land you in the graveyard of stupidity and since that's a rather crowded place, it ought to be avoided. In seeking historical explanations an analogy is a starting point, not in itself already an analysis. The analogy can be useful, however, if it is used to a specific end. Some similarities should be warranted before going any further with an analogy. For good measure, there are some of these between the current struggle in Afghanistan and the long and bloody war in Vietnam, the most noted being that both are somehow forms of irregular or asymmetric warfare and that the enemy cannot be defeated on the battlefield alone [In fact, David Petraeus drew some important lessons from Vietnam that he incorporated in his Iraq strategy years later, pdf]. But, an analogy is useless if it stops right there. The more interesting questions regard the differences and looking for those is what most journalists do not do. Neither is Afghanistan divided (unless you really really want to renegotiate the Durand Line), nor is the enemy as unified as the Vietcong. And though much of the tactics finally employed by the allies, such as counterinsurgency, have been tested in Vietnam, the war is less deadly, I mean far less deadly. And that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the differences. The whole point is not to make an analogy, but making an informed comparison. In order to learn from history, the differences between the cases put into an analogy are far more important than superficial similarities.

Take the case of the Arab Spring and the French revolution. Too many scientists and pundits regard revolution simply as the product of social upheavel, asking when people are so disenchanted or angry with their government that they choose to attack it. Many early analyses of the Arab Spring went something like this: Social problems + unemployment = angry people, i.e. revolution. That's certainly the most simplistic approach one can possibly take towards such a complex situation as a revolution and, though it should be needless to say so, people are angry at their governments all the time. So there must be a little more to it.

Speaking of the French Revolution, the similarities to the Arab Spring are so obvious, it takes some effort to miss it. Both had a massive impact not only on the country in which they first unfolded, but on their respective regions. Had political scientists heeded the lessons of history, a respected political scientist such as Stephen Walt would never have thought of arguing that the revolution would be confined to Tunisia in early 2011. Unfortunately, he did not look at history before making his argument. In fact, the Arab Spring is a reminder that there are historical concepts that should be reviewed in light of the Arab Spring. Theda Skocpol's analysis of revolutions – centred on the organisation of the means of coercion by the state – is a valuable first step, after all the Egyptian and Tunisian armies were central to the success of the revolutionary movements in 2011. Since its still morning, this is what I'll be doing today.

Samstag, 3. August 2013

Egypt's Coup

Secretary of State John Kerry went all the way to Pakistan to finally clarify – if that's the right word – the US position on the coup in Egypt. He basically said that it wasn't a coup because the ouster of President Morsi was supported by a good deal of people. I really don't know why he would make that assertion in Pakistan of all places, a country that has been plagued with coups and certainly cheers the idea that now any military takeover that is popular in some quarter is now no longer considered a coup, but what Kerry said is bizarre anyway. A military ouster is almost always a coup and whether its popular has nothing to do with it. After all, its about the principle of constitutional order.

Here is what is so bedazzling. The United States is obligated under law not to offer any assistance to a country that has suffered a coup, hence the tussle. But the George W. Bush administration faced a similar dilemma after 9/11 in Pakistan, Musharraf, after all, had come to power through a coup himself. The Bush administration wanted to cooperate and did the only thing it could, it looked for a Congressional waiver, which it received. It upheld the rule of law, did not have to torture the English language and still got to do what it wanted in Pakistan. Why the Obama administration is not doing the same in the case of Egypt is a mystery, since it would almost certainly receive this waiver and naming it a coup would probably even add to the US leverage over Egypt. Anyway, here is my latest piece on Egypt over at the North Africa Post

Freitag, 2. August 2013

A (Very) Short Note on Drones and the Security Scholar's Hypocrisy

The issues security scholars focus on are hardly ever those that drive global security, let alone the conflicts that currently plague the globe. The drone debate is a very good example for an agenda that is driven by research interest and not actual warfare or, for those who pretend to care, its victims. The current issue of Foreign Affairs devotes quite a number of pages to that debate and yours truly got into the debate as well.

Some opponents of drones argue that drones are just a first step towards fully automated warfare. And though they cannot clearly explain what makes a Predator drone different from more old-fashioned artillery systems and thus the first step towards that sort of warfare, there is another issue we tend to forget. Western powers are not the only ones working on remotely operated weapons or weapons that are triggered automatically. A weapon more devastating than drones, more widespread, either remotely controlled or fully automatic and with a high likelihood of proliferation is the Improvised Explosive Device (IED). And yet, IEDs have hardly received scholarly attention.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) just released its latest report on Afghan civilian casualties [pdf]. Remember that many opponents of drones base their case against drones on the exceedingly high number of civilian casualties (though the number of civilian casualties is actually pretty low). But if the concern for civilian casualties would really drive the research agenda, the UNAMA report would gain far more attention. After all, it states that Afghanistan witnessed no less than a 23 percent increase in the number of civilian casualties over the first six months of 2013 compared to last year, 74 percent of those casualties are attributed to anti-government forces, mostly the Taleban. One of the most commonly employed weapon by the Taleban is the IED, which has a pretty indiscriminate impact.

In Tell Me How This Ends, Linda Robinson describes in great detail the impact IEDs had on the Iraqi battlefield and she made some important observations on how insurgents used IEDs, learned to improve them and gained the skill to employ them more effectively. Of particular impact were IEDs made with Iranian support that could pierce even the armour of a modern Bradley tank. These experiences should raise important questions on how these weapons and related techniques are being proliferated, particularly since the costs of acquiring these techniques should be relatively low. I don't have the funding to start that research myself, but given the impact these weapons have, at least some of the bucks spent on drone related research in social sciences in certainly misdirected.