Dienstag, 17. September 2013

Classics in Modern War and Warfare


From time to time I review books on this blog, mostly books on military history and war studies. Today's book review is no different. I've spent the weekend reading Victor Davis Hanson's Savior Generals, a fine and short book. Hanson is controversial in the United States, where he is sometimes seen as a neoconservative. This label is a bit misleading, for he is by profession a historian and does not dive into the theoretical schools political science has established for decades now, though he is certainly not avoiding politics as a subject. This has led to a scholarly canon that most political scientists sometimes find discomforting, simply because he does not subscribe to any particular modern school of political thought. Moreover, his interest in military history spawns centuries and Savior Generals adequately reflects that—the first of the five case studies deals with Themistocles at Salamis, 48o B.C., the last is focused on David Petraeus and his Surge in Iraq. His earlier books on war and warfare do not always span quite such a period of time, but they too take a longue durée approach to military history nonetheless.

But in contrast to some modern historians, who are interested not in particular historical epochs but rather with the way mankind takes over the doorstep from one epoch to the other—from European absolutism to the period of modern history, which most historians date with the French revolution, Hanson is interested in what does not change. And some of the continuity he is looking for he finds in the general principles that determine war and warfare. This makes him largely suspicious of anyone who claims that a totally new era of war is approaching. And in the context of sheer endless debates on drones, robotics, swarming and a revolution in military affairs, his approach is—somewhat ironically—refreshing. Having said that, its rather unusual to look for this continuity by focusing on personalities and not structures. But he makes his case eloquently and illuminates five military leaders, which have turned the tide of wars. Methodologically that approach is not easy to defend and Hanson's only explanation is that all things being equal the wars these military leaders got involved in, would have ended differently had it not been for them. Based on these criteria, this book makes a compelling read.

I'll focus on the last three case studies – Sherman (Civil War), Ridgway (Korean War) and Petraeus (Iraq). I am not an expert on the American Civil War, though the Sherman chapter is the strongest in my view. Ridgway was particularly interesting for his legacy, while the Petraeus chapter hit me as being the weakest, not because Petraeus' impact has been smaller than Hanson argued (it hasn't), but largely because Hanson does not fully succeed in describing the minutiae of the changes Petraeus adopted (there is a lot more to counterinsurgency than protecting the population, while going after the bad guys at the same time). Overall, all cases underline a major point Hanson is making. The nature of war and warfare is not changing and the tide of the battle can still be turned by whoever is the most adaptive, open-minded and risk-taking strategist on the battlefield, no matter what weapon is being employed.

Freitag, 13. September 2013

The Syria Deal That is Bringing Down Obama and not Assad.


I really do not want to crush the party. But since many view the current developments in the diplomatic game surrounding Syria as promising and I remain somewhat sceptical, I felt it was time to jump into the debate yet again. That's simply because the basic problems will persist, Russia still wants Assad to stay in power and the U.S. wants Assad to go. And there is a lot more to it than that. President Obama just squandered a huge amount of his remaining political capital in a way that leaves me wondering whether this is simply poor leadership or an administration bend on its own demise. Even when leaving aside for a moment that the president just used a nationally televised speech to ask for, well, nothing and that he has just put a good junk of his foreign policy legacy into the hands of Vladimir Putin. Even despite all that it still looks that there is something odd about this.

One of the reasons is that this entire deal, provided it actually materialises, is not in the least bit about ending the bloodshed in Syria. One has to wonder why Vladimir Putin, who does not only have opposite interests in Syria, but also cannot be expected to be a fellow with an unwavering desire to help President Obama out of difficult pickle, volunteered to bring chemical weapons out of Syria. After all President Obama's attempt to get Congressional approval for his military strikes was headed toward a resounding defeat. In reality, Putin's strategy is easy to see through. On the one hand, it removes the spectre of U.S. military action (and there is a sigh of relieve from the White House and Congress over that). And in the absence of U.S. military action, Assad can continue his slaughters without having to worry about consequences, he killed thousands and used chemical weapons and is now going to get away with it. Loosing his chemical weapons arsenal (or some portion of it), might diminish his battlefield capabilities, one would think. Only that he will be amply compensated for that by conventional weapons systems that Russia will deliver and there are already reports that the Kremlin is stepping these deliveries up. Since these weapons are more useful anyway, Assad might not only survive this, but might even be in better shape than before he crossed the red line. And if he were to use chemical weapons again – nobody believes that all his stockpiles can be removed in less than a year or that we even know how much he has got under his control – he could now always point at the opposition, after all, had he not just turned them over? If this is the outcome of U.S. strategy, it is leaving me flabbergasted.

Barack Obama is making a poor leader these days. Sure enough, the decision to use military force is never an easy one and rightly so. But he has taken the world on a ride through his conflicted mind for months now and the world, adequately reflecting the president's thinking, is confused. He used a televised speech to ask for nothing and tried to reinforce a red line by first sending his Secretary of Sate out to make the case for war, only to undermine him the next day and go to Congress. Letting people like Michelle Bachmann decide whether to go to war sets a dangerous precedent, since, after all, he is the Commander in Chief (and Bachmann a bit in the nutty corner). But it also demonstrated that right after John Kerry came out and made the case for war, the President took all the urgency out of it, declaring his intent to punish the person who started the barfight, while declaring an intention not to act.

It is, I am afraid, complete nonsense to argue, as the President did in his address, that the U.S. military does not do, to use the president's terminology, “pinpricks”. To the contrary, the U.S. military does what it is ordered to do and if the Commander in Chief orders pinpricks, you better believe the military can deliver that. I am pretty sure that the strikes that Clinton ordered in 1998 as a response to the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam would qualify. By the way, these certainly did not deter al-Qaeda, as we would all learn three years later.

There is also a technical problem, nobody knows for certain how big the CW arsenal of the Syrians really is. Its certainly among the larger remaining stocks in the world and dismantling that might be incredibly difficult. And I would not bet on the Russians insisting to get all of it out, after all this is a costly and time-intensive endeavour and though Syria is a Russian ally, even if the Russians were to insist to get all the weaponry out (which I doubt), Syria might not comply. In any event, the process will take many months and not a couple of weeks.