Category Archives: Strategy

Obama’s Goldilocks Syria Plan

The National Interest

September 11, 2013

In a speech to the nation, President Obama warned that if the United States does not launch a punitive strike against Syria, Iran will pursue nuclear weapons, Al Qaeda will try to kill Americans, and bad men will do bad things.

Despite “a brutal civil war” in which more than “a hundred thousand have been killed” and “millions have fled the country,” the president “resisted calls for military action because we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Alas, the “situation profoundly changed” three weeks earlier when “Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children.”

Obama explained America must go to war over a thousand dead—after limiting ourselves to “humanitarian support” as 99,000 others were killed over more than two years—because “the civilized world has spent a century working to ban” chemical weapons and that their use is “a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.” The president noted that they can “kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant,” which hardly distinguishes them from other weapons that Assad has used and that, indeed, the United States routinely employs. The difference is that we prioritize minimizing civilian casualties and Assad does not.

The president correctly observed that, “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory” and proclaimed, “The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people, to those children, is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”

The problem with invoking international law here is that, while Assad has likely violated it, so would our enforcement of it through military force without authorization from the United Nations Security Council. To be sure, this would not be the first time we’ve elided that nicety of the UN Charter, which happens to be not only international law but, as a treaty ratified by the Senate, U.S. law as well. But it would be the first time we’ve done so to enforce an international treaty which itself specifies the enforcement mechanism.

The problem with declaring Assad’s use of chemical weapons in a civil war far away “a danger to our security” is that it is sheer and utter nonsense.

The president’s rationale is the most slippery of slippery slopes.

He declared that the use of chemical weapons by a dictator in a civil war, an event which is sadly far from unprecedented, means that United States soldiers would face them on the battlefield, despite the passage of a century since that has happened without an American military strike in support of the principle. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons while getting direct intelligence support from a United States government fully aware he was using them, and yet dared not use them in two subsequent wars against the United States, the second of which had the express purpose of ousting him from power and led to him being hanged. What has changed? The president didn’t say.

The president declared—without evidence or explanation—that chemical weapons might somehow spill over into Turkey, Jordan, and Israel if left unchecked. This, despite later acknowledging in the same speech that “Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise, and our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force.” Additionally, he forthrightly promised that we can target Assad with impunity because “the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military” and that “any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day.”

He claimed that “failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.” Yet Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons since before Assad’s father came to power and will surely continue regardless of what we do in response to the son’s deployment of chemical weapons. Indeed, if anything, military strikes against an ally will only reinforce the need to acquire nuclear weapons as a bulwark against American military action.

Similarly, the president argues that “Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.” But, of course, Al Qaeda has been targeting innocent civilians for going on two decades now and is on the opposite side of this fight.

Meanwhile, we’re told that “Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.” Not a single word of that is true. Our nation is just as secure as it was three weeks ago, when the latest of the chemical attacks allegedly perpetrated by the Assad regime occurred. We don’t actually lead the world but, to the extent that we’re the most powerful voice among sovereign equals, we’re only weaker now than we were three weeks ago because of hysterical rhetoric emanating from this administration in support of a policy which seems to change by the hour.

Indeed, the president admits in the speech that he put the war on hold to seek approval from Congress because of the “absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security.”

The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate noted that he has “spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them.” Which is true if one doesn’t count the massive escalation of the war in Afghanistan, launching a war in Libya, and stepping up of our drone and special operations wars around the globe.

And, so, as important as it is to deter tyrants from using chemical weapons and avoiding the tenuous threats to our security, the president promised that he would not “put American boots on the ground,” “pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan,” or even “pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo.” Rather, “This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective, deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.” At the same time, lest his audience get the wrong idea, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”

Additionally, after two years of declaring “Assad must go,” the president told us “I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next.” So, no regime change, just a more-than-pinprick-less-than-Libya strike that would make “Assad—or any other dictator—think twice before using chemical weapons.”

Perhaps we’ll call this one Operation Goldilocks.

Assuming that there’s an operation at all. Oddly, after that long buildup justifying an authorization for war, the president told us he has “asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force” while he pursues the “diplomatic path” created by his secretary of state’s off-the-cuff remark that Assad could avoid the more-than-pinprick-less-than-Libya strike that he so richly deserves if he hands over his chemical weapons. Yet, because a good outcome on that one is by no means certain, he has “ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.”

This is beginning to resemble a Monty Python sketch. Alas, Graham Chapman is no longer with us to interrupt and tell us this is too silly to continue.

Original article

Smart Wars Don’t Need Selling

The National Interest

September 10, 2013

President Obama is pulling out all stops in a thus-far failing bid to convince the American people and their representatives in Congress to back military action in Syria. His secretaries of state and defense have been everywhere talking up the horrors of chemical warfare and the price to be paid in American credibility for inaction. A series of television interviews Monday night will be followed by a primetime Oval Office address Tuesday.

Some lament the timing of all of this, with the president having to compete with the opening of the NFL season, the release of the new iPhone, the start of the school year, and even Yom Kippur for attention. Indeed, he apparently postponed the speech one night so as to avoid having to compete with Monday Night Football. His crosstown rival, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, would surely have won that one, even if he didn’t fare so well against the Eagles.

During the run-up to the Iraq War, White House chief of staff Andrew Card famously observed, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” But, given how that launch turned out, perhaps the better lesson is that wars that need to be “marketed” probably shouldn’t be fought at all. Indeed, if it requires a hard sell to divert the public’s attention from their daily lives, it’s a good bet that the interest at stake is less than vital.

Franklin Roosevelt didn’t need to mount a marketing campaign to get buy-in from Congress after Pearl Harbor; they declared war on Japan the very next day with only one vote against.

George W. Bush did not have to compete with football season for news coverage after the 9/11 attacks. Not only was even ESPN wall-to-wall with talk about the attacks and their impact but both the NFL and the NCAA promptly postponed their games—as did Major League Baseball and most other sporting leagues. Even the Super Bowl was delayed.

To be sure, the president isn’t proposing anything like our responses to those two attacks.

Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken assures us that, “This is not boots on the ground. This is not Afghanistan. This is not Iraq. This is not even Libya.” Secretary of State John Kerry helpfully adds that it will be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”

Apparently realizing that this messaging also gets to his counterpart in Damascus, Obama told NBC News Monday night that, “The U.S. does not do pinpricks,” adding the non sequitur “Our military is the greatest the world has ever known.”

The constantly changing, contradictory, and convoluted logic trotted out over the last three weeks has not exactly inspired confidence.

Is it any wonder that some two thirds of the American public have yet to be persuaded that military action is in the national interest? Or that the president is “not confident” that Congress will authorize it?

Sunday, Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead wryly expressed his hope that “the Good Foreign Policy Fairy comes along and waves her magic wand over this Syria mess and somehow helps the administration avoid the disaster it has struggled so hard to produce.” The next day, she did, in the form of the make-it-up-as-they-go-along amateurism that has characterized the selling of this war.

Asked by a reporter in London Monday whether there was any way for Assad to avoid being hit by the unbelievably small strike that would be by no means a pinprick, Kerry ad-libbed , “Sure. He could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay.” He added, “But he isn’t about to.”

As he flew back to Washington to continue pressing Congress, he got a call from his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, saying that his country welcomed Kerry’s “plan.” He followed this with a public announcement that “We are calling on the Syrian authorities [to] not only agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.”

Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem followed this with a statement that his government “welcomes Russia’s initiative, based on the Syrian government’s care about the lives of our people and security of our country.”

Obama reacted with understandable skepticism to this development, acknowledging that it “could potentially be a significant breakthrough” but warning that “you have to take it with a grain of salt.” He promised to “run this to the ground” and “make sure that we see how serious these proposals are.”

Presuming this is not just a stalling move by Moscow, it would be the best possible outcome from the mess created by the administration’s muddled policy pronouncements. To be sure, we would be no closer to the president’s stated objective of removing the Assad government and Assad would not be punished for repeatedly crossing the Obama “red line” on chemical weapons. But Obama could reasonably claim a win for getting Assad to give up the prospect of using said weapons in the future without having to fire so much as a single Tomahawk. More importantly, we would avoid fighting an unbelievably small, limited kind of war that almost nobody actually wants to fight.

Original article

No More Baby Steps: DoD Needs a Real Strategic Review

Barry Pavel and James Joyner

Defense News

September 8, 2013

The United States must fundamentally rethink its defense strategy in light of major changes in both funding and the security challenges we face in the world. 

The Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review is just beginning. This strategic review must offer the president and Congress a clear-eyed assessment of the capabilities the nation cannot do without, the luxuries it can, and which risks it must accept in light of fiscal and strategic realities and uncertainties.

As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced last month, the Pentagon is grappling with continuing major budget cuts of roughly $500 billion over the next decade if sequestration continues unabated.

There also are major uncertain security challenges looming. Some are driven by new geopolitical developments — e.g., the possibility of a China-Japan conflict over disputed maritime territories, or spillover from the Syrian civil war destabilizing the region. Others are being propelled by dramatic changes in technologies that are putting threatening new military capabilities in the hands of small groups and individuals. We live in an age of disruptive technological change, which means the chances of a military surprise — think swarming drone attacks on our fleets or bioterror attacks in our cities — are increasing quickly.

All this means that we need a real strategy-driven review at the DoD, not an exercise that jumps right to program and cost analyses to produce more incremental change. Real strategy options that include fundamentally re-examining the missions and mix of US military forces are essential.

US ground forces have grown since 2001 and are now being pared back toward 2001 levels. These planned cuts — much less the substantially larger ones being floated by Hagel and other Pentagon leaders to meet sequestration targets — come with substantial risks. While the 2000-level force was more than adequate to invade Iraq while fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, even the expanded force was too small to achieve the assigned political objectives.

While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over and winding down, respectively, major instability looms in the Middle East and Asia. Syria, Iran and North Korea are obvious flashpoints that might require a US response — and we frequently fight wars in places that seemed unlikely beforehand. A smaller ground capability limits our options.

But the risk of not making major cuts is even greater. Projected increases in personnel and overhead costs are unsustainable and, if not checked, will greatly erode our combat effectiveness.

The Pentagon needs to stop talking about how important it is to get a handle on burgeoning costs — of excessive infrastructure, bloated and redundant headquarters, and skyrocketing health care, military compensation and retirement benefits — and do something about it. Otherwise, continuing increases in such costs will force us to pare back force levels to dangerously low numbers, or field a hollow force that is inadequately trained and equipped.

Without massive reforms, even a 2000-level force would be much more expensive now than it was then. Manpower costs, including pensions and health care for retirees, account for nearly half of the defense budget, and the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, forecasts that 80 percent will go to compensation by 2023 unless we fix the problem.

Hagel’s proposed 20 percent cuts in Pentagon and combatant command staff between 2015 and 2019 is both a strong symbolic gesture and a good start toward ending the enormous headquarters bloat. Recent suggestions to consolidate military command staffs in North and South America, and in Europe and Africa, make sense.

But much more must be done. The military services’ component command staffs in each of the combatant commands also should be reduced significantly. The war plans should continue to be reviewed with an eye toward new concepts of operation that leverage US military advantages and give allies greater roles in their own self-defense. The US military’s undisciplined and far-flung cooperative efforts with allies and partners should be scaled back and given real focus. The US should seek to leverage new partners, including China, where it makes sense to do so (e.g., helping patrol the sea lanes in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean).

These are times of immense change in the world and in the economy. Incremental reviews and baby steps in our defense posture will no longer suffice.

Original article 

Why Obama’s Plan to Strike Syria Makes No Strategic Sense

The Atlantic

August 30, 2013

Having backed himself into a corner by declaring a “red line” that has now been crossed, President Obama is by all appearances ramping up for military action in Syria. As best we can tell from the not inconsiderable leaks coming from Washington and elsewhere, the planned strikes would use aerial assets, last only a short period, and decidedly not be aimed at achieving our declared strategic goal.

The president has repeatedly articulated, going back to August 2011, that there is but one acceptable end state: “Assad must go.”  Dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and former ambassador Christopher Hill may well be right that this declaration “was not carefully arrived at” and has “boxed us in,” it nonetheless remains the administration’s policy.

Yet, the White House has been emphatic that the action contemplated here is not aimed at achieving that strategic objective. Press secretary Jay Carney declared Tuesday that, “It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change” and that “there is no military solution available here, that the way to bring about a better future in Syria is through negotiation and a political resolution.”

So, what then?

Carney declared “there must be a response” to the chemical attacks and other “administration officials” have said that the strikes would “send a message.” Any message sent by launching military strikes explicitly not designed to achieve one’s stated strategic goal would be cryptic, and should probably be accompanied by a decoder ring.

An editorial in the German business daily Handelsblatt, helpfully translated by Der Spiegel, puts the case brilliantly:

Humanitarian wars are also wars. Those who jump into them for moral reasons should also want to win them. Cruise missiles fired from destroyers can send a message and demonstrate conviction, but they cannot decide the outcome of a war. Neither can a “we’ll see” bombardment. There has to be a strategic motivation behind the moral one, and it demands perseverance.

To paraphrase military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, humanitarian wars have their own grammar but not their own logic. That is, they’re fought to achieve political objectives and judged on whether they have been achieved. Regardless of what modifier accompanies it, wars are fought, in the words of the British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart, to “obtain a better state of the peace.”

While Secretary of State Kerry’s August 26 speech setting the stage for US response was eloquent and emotionally satisfying, its fundamental argument makes no strategic sense. Who could argue against the idea that “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity”? As Fred Hof, President Obama’s former special advisor for transition in Syria and my colleague at the Atlantic Council, rightly notes, “Such slaughter is, in fact, morally obscene and criminal irrespective of the weaponry employed.”

Chemical weapons account for less than one percent of the more than 100,000 killed in this conflict. Yet, while I’m sympathetic to international relations expert John Mueller‘s argument that chemical weapons are not inherently more horrible than many modern conventional weapons, their “development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use” are technically prohibited as a matter of international law. While Syria is one of seven states who have not signed and ratified the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, they acceded to the 1925 Geneva Protocol in 1968.

But enforcement of these agreements is the province of the UN Security Council, not the executive branch of the U.S. government. And, rather inconveniently, Kerry’s speech was delivered on the same day that Foreign Policy reported that the U.S. government aided and abetted Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran in 1988.

If the goal is to send the message that using chemical weapons is unacceptable, as security specialist Charli Carpenter notes in Foreign Affairs,  it would be unfortunate to use “Tomahawk missiles, which are capable of carrying cluster munitions and which have been decried on humanitarian grounds by numerous governments and civil society groups.” Additionally, “the planned strikes would likely involve the use of explosives in populated areas, which is in violation of emerging international concerns about such behavior.”  If, on the other hand, the primary goal is protection of the civilian population, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine:

requires policymakers and military planners to weigh just cause against the question of whether there is a reasonable prospect of success at reducing civilian bloodshed, given the available resources and constraints, and to select the best type of intervention to meet the goals, which generally means a much longer commitment of blood and treasure than punitive air strikes.

Leaving aside the niceties of international norms—odd though it might be when they are ostensibly the entire point of the operation—there’s little reason to think that punitive strikes actually have the intended deterrent effect. A Los Angeles Times analysis notes that similar actions, including strikes against Libya and al-Qaeda in 1986 and 1998, respectively, were not only ineffectual but quite probably counterproductive. The Libya raid was followed by—and apparently inspired—the Lockerbie bombing. And, of course, al-Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attack three years after the widely derided strikes on the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.

Center for Strategic and International Studies military analyst Anthony Cordesman observes:

Can you do damage with cruise missiles? Yes. Can you stop them from having chemical weapons capability? I would think the answer would be no. Should you limit yourself to just a kind of incremental retaliation? That doesn’t serve any strategic purpose. It doesn’t protect the Syrian people, it doesn’t push Assad out.

As John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor and former State Department official Elliot Cohen rightly notes, “no one — friends, enemies or neutrals — would be fooled” by a token effort and therefore “A bout of therapeutic bombing is an even more feckless course of action than a principled refusal to act altogether.” Indeed, token strikes that do little damage to regime assets could conceivably embolden Assad.  The Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis’s Bilal Saab and McGill professor Rex Brynen lay out numerous potential responses, ranging from expanding his conventional weapons attacks on Syrian civilians to fomenting regional spillover effects.

Cohen prefers a more robust campaign with “serious targets” such as the air force, air defense system, and airports. But the reason we haven’t already done that, despite a stated goal of regime change, is that we have no way of achieving that objective at an acceptable price. In his letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee a month ago, Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey outlined our military options, which ranged from horrible to awful.

Dempsey warned then that it “is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state.” He added, “Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

Red lines or not, that hasn’t changed.

Original article