Category Archives: US Foreign Policy

Why Is H.R. McMaster Pleading For More War?

The National Interest

May 12, 2019

Retired Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster contends that support for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, which is now in its eighteenth year, is being undermined by a “defeatist narrative that’s inaccurate, and doesn’t reflect what’s at stake.” Instead, Americans should see the fight as an “insurance policy” against the collapse of a friendly Afghan government and its replacement by enemies of the United States.

Before becoming President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, McMaster was perhaps best known in policy circles for his 1999 book Dereliction of Duty, a sharp critique of American political and military leaders during the Vietnam War, arguing that it “lost in Washington . . . even before the first American units were deployed.”

Ironically, McMaster is resurrecting two tropes from that era which sustained an unwinnable fight and then shifted blame for our failure: the domino and stabbed-in-the-back theories.

McMaster pleads, “If you think about the importance of the mission in Afghanistan, to protect what is fundamentally a transformed society, from the enemies that we’re facing—the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies — it is a cost that is sustainable.” Moreover, he warns, “They’re trying to establish these emirates. And then stitch these emirates together into a caliphate in which they force people to live under their brutal regime and then export terror to attack their near enemies, Arab states, Israel, and the far enemies, Europe and the United States.”

The echoes of the domino theory are unmistakable in both the dire inevitability and the absurdity of the predicted cataclysm.

In January 1951, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Dean Ruskdeclared, “It is generally acknowledged that if Indochina were to fall . . . Burma and Thailand would follow suit almost immediately. Thereafter, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Indonesia, India, and the others to remain outside the Soviet-dominated Asian Bloc.”

On April 7, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower formalized the theory and give it a name. Asked to comment on “the strategic importance of Indochina for the free world,” the president pointed to the  “possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world” and the “broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle.”

He explained, “You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”

How profound?

“But when we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about areas that no only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through the loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking about millions and millions of people.”

Oh, it gets worse: “It turns the so-called island defensive chain of Japan, Formosa, of the Philippines and to the southward; it moves in to threaten Australia and New Zealand. It takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go—that is, toward the Communist areas in order to live. So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world.”

While those dire warnings seemed plausible to many in those scary early days of the Cold War, they were widely rejected by experts well before the escalation of the American war effort and seem positively absurd in hindsight. Despite a handful of revisionists who argue that America’s losing effort in Vietnam somehow staunched the spread of communism to the region, most see the individual nation-states as independent actors minimally influenced by events in Indochina.

We can’t, of course, know with certainty what will happen in the aftermath of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. But we do know that Al Qaeda doesn’t need Afghanistan. After being routed there by the initial American invasion in 2001, they reconstituted in Yemen and elsewhere, albeit in a much less centralized, effective form. And the notion that the return of Taliban control over Kabul would engender a global caliphate is more fanciful than Australian going communist in the wake of defeat in Indochina.

Additionally, McMaster’s claim that the American public’s disillusionment with what is now easily the longest war effort in the country’s history is caused by some vague “defeatist narrative” harkens to the excuses made by American military leaders four decades ago.

In 1968, U.S. Marine Col. William R. Corson warned that “an American version of the German ‘stab in the back’ myth is being actively promoted by the hawks on Vietnam.” They were quite successful. It became received wisdom in military circles “that if only Johnson would allow his generals to prosecute the war with sufficient brutality—mining the Haiphong Harbor, destroying the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia—it could be won.”

More than that, though, was the sense that “the military mission had been compromised, even betrayed, by weak-kneed liberalism in Congress and seditious radicalism on college campuses.” Widespread but almost certainly mythological stories of troops returning home from war only to be spat upon and called baby killers “provided reassuring confirmation that had it not been for those duplicitous fifth-columnists, the Vietnamese would have never beaten us.”

Few serious scholars now believe that the war in Vietnam was winnable. The same is true—and has been for quite some time—of Afghanistan. And, indeed, despite the a majority of the American public thinking the war not worth fighting for more than a decade, we have continued muddling along.

To his credit, McMaster concedes that “Afghanistan is not going to become Switzerland. It’s just not.” Instead, he contends, “It can be Afghanistan, and it can be an Afghanistan like it was in the ’70s or like it was during this really short but brutal period of rule under the Taliban from 1996 to 2001.”

But, eighteen years in, there’s little evidence, indeed, that we are anywhere near close to achieving even that modest goal.

The historian Ronald Spector, reviewing McMaster’s book contemporaneously for the New York Times, charged that his “preoccupation with the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and their decisions displays some of the same ethnocentrism, the same assumption of American omnipotence, for which McMaster pillories the leaders of that era. It largely leaves out of account the ideas, plans and actions of the Vietnamese.”Revisiting the book upon McMaster’s elevation to National Security Advisor, he noted that “American GIs in Vietnam, including this author, usually saw the South Vietnamese government and army as incompetent and ineffective. As an historian, I would still argue that they were corrupt and ineffective, crippled by nepotism and unable to unite.”

Despite so much scholarship since, Spector laments, “the Vietnam War, as viewed by Americans, remains primarily an American story. The culprits are still to be found in the White House and the Pentagon and, depending on your political stance, among the anti-war left of the 1960s. The victims are the American soldiers sent to fight and die in an unnecessary and futile war. Yet more than forty years after the fall of Saigon, Americans are beginning to acknowledge that the Vietnamese had something to do with it.”

Surely, the same is true of the Afghans? No matter how much the American military, its political leadership, and the public they both serve may want to turn Afghanistan into Sweden or even just 1970s Afghanistan, it’s not really up to us.

Additionally, while all we have is a single report of the speech, it appears that McMaster brought out the tired chicken hawk trope that was so popular among neoconservatives during the early days of the conflict. He told of watching a recent town hall in which “A young student stood up and said ‘all I’ve known my whole life is war.’” McMaster observed, “Now, he’s never been to war, but he’s been subjected, I think, to this narrative of war-weariness.”

It’s problematic, indeed, to suggest that citizens who haven’t served in the war shouldn’t be concerned about it. It’s doubtless true that a tiny percentage of them have deployed to combat. But one would hope that they view those being sent to fight and die in that war as fellow citizens whose lives should be risked only in service of the most worthy—and achievable—goals.

Original article

‘Bloody Nose’ Strike Illegal but Unstoppable


February 9, 2018

Eighteen Democratic Senators have reportedly signed a letter to President Trump informing him they are “deeply concerned about the potential consequences of a preemptive military strike on North Korea and the risks of miscalculation and retaliation.” Further, they assert, “without congressional authority, a preventative or preemptive U.S. military strike would lack either a constitutional basis or legal authority.”

They are certainly right. Under the provisions of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, “The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” While it has never been tested in court, there’s little question that this framing is Constitutionally sound. (The subsequent provisions giving Congress the power to force the president to cease hostilities after 60/90 days are much more contested.)

The problem, alas, is that there’s simply nothing the Senate, or the Congress as a whole, can do to stop the President from acting as he sees fit. The House could certainly impeach him after the fact for overstepping his legal authority and, subsequent to that, the Senate could punish him by removing him from office. But the strike itself would be a fait accompli—as would the almost certain international war that would follow.

The Constitution famously set forth, as Edward S. Corwin put it over fifty years ago, an “invitation to struggle” over foreign policy and military affairs. Article I gives Congress the power to declare war, control of defense appropriations, and all manner of authority to regulate the armed forces. Article II makes the President commander-in-chief. In theory, the legislature is much more powerful in peacetime and the advantage shifts to the executive when the nation is at war. The reality is not that simple.

The mere existence of a standing force gives the President enormous leverage. Teddy Roosevelt recognized this more than a century ago. In his memoirs, he described a standoff with Congress over sailing the Navy into the Pacific:

The head of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs announced that the fleet should not and could not go because Congress would refuse to appropriate the money—he being from an Eastern seaboard State. However, I announced in response that I had enough money to take the fleet around to the Pacific anyhow, that the fleet would certainly go, and that if Congress did not choose to appropriate enough money to get the fleet back, why, it would stay in the Pacific. There was no further difficulty about the money.

Roosevelt understood that, while Congress certainly had the power to withhold funds, it would have been politically impossible for them to do so. Realistically, then, a President’s action with a force-in-being is limited mostly by the political fallout that ensues, not the approval of Congress.

Historically, the size of the force was itself a powerful constraint. While the United States has maintained a sizable Navy for the last century and a half, the Army was typically a garrison force until Congress declared war and provided the authority and money to build it up. That tradition ceased with the advent of the Korean War in 1950. While the nation continued buildups for war and drawdowns after, the exigencies of the Cold War and the desired for continued global hegemony in its aftermath have kept the “peacetime” force massive by global standards. This has significantly enhanced the freedom of maneuver of the commander-in-chief.

The existence of nuclear forces complicates matters even more. The deterrence strategy of the Cold War depended on the President be able to order a massive retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union in short order. It was simply not feasible to involve Congress in the decision, given the exigencies of time. While the Cold War has been over more than a quarter-century, few questioned the notion that the commander-in-chief should retain that power until Trump assumed that post and began routinely issuing provocations via his Twitter account.

Hearings this past November before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee aimed at rethinking this policy. Senator Chris Murphy, a signatory to Monday’s letter, declared at the time, “We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests.”

Alas, witnesses including the sitting and former commanders of US nuclear forces, former national security officials, and scholars were unanimous that there was little that could be done by Congress to prevent such a strike. While lawyers could advise the president against the action and civilian and uniformed professionals are duty-bound to refuse to follow orders they deem illegal or immoral, the entire system is predicated on swift obedience to the duly elected commander-in-chief. A President hell-bent on launching missiles would simply fire people until he got to ones who would carry out the order.

The bottom line is that absent radical disarmament on a scale that no serious analyst is calling for, the major restraint on a President’s war powers rests with his or her character and good judgment. The public ought to seriously weigh whether they trust a candidate to make life-and-death decisions before entrusting them with such awesome responsibilities. Failing that, the Constitution provides the extreme options of removal via the aforementioned impeachment process and the provisions of the 25th Amendment. Both of those are extreme options, however, that would undermine faith in our democracy if undertaken in other than the most exigent circumstances. Otherwise, we must wait until the next election and hope the public chooses more wisely—and that the commander-in-chief does not start World War III in the meantime.

Original article 

How Trump’s National Security Strategy Breaks with the Past

The National Interest

December 19, 2017

President Trump unveiled a new National Security Strategy on Monday. Previews of the document, based on leaked drafts and backchannel interviews, had given the impression that it would be a bland continuity of previous administrations’ strategies, with a few sops to Trumpism thrown in to satisfy the boss. A careful reading, however, shows it to be the reverse: a radical departure from the past within a penumbra of stability.

Obama’s February 2015 NSS was an idealist wish list, bordering on constructivism. Trump’s is petulance and solipsism masquerading as realism.

Certainly, there is considerable overlap in the documents; all National Security Strategies to date have centered on protecting the physical and economic security of the American people, with the standard homilies on enduring threats and interests. And the current NSS, like other recent iterations, pays due homage to terrorism and cyber threats.

But this version is starkly different, repeatedly sandwiching Trumpian policy in between platitudes about long-standing American values. Of course we’re not racist—but no immigrants. Of course we love our allies—but they’d better stop freeloading. Of course we support free trade—but only if we come out ahead. Of course we continue to support global institutions—but only insofar as we win.

Trump’s cover letter declares, “The American people elected me to make America great again,” and brags, “During my first year in office, you have witnessed my America First foreign policy in action.” After a long litany of complaints about the ways the country had declined under his predecessor, he promises, “we are charting a new and very different course.”

And, indeed, he is.

Any previous NSS could have contained the sentence, “Americans have long recognized the benefits of an interconnected world, where information and commerce flow freely.” But it’s hard to imagine one that followed that sentence with, “Engaging with the world, however, does not mean the United States should abandon its rights and duties as a sovereign state or compromise its security.” Or one that then continued, “Openness also imposes costs, since adversaries exploit our free and democratic system to harm the United States.”

It’s only natural that the document would begin with the premise that “the United States is safer when Europe is prosperous and stable, and can help defend our shared interests and ideals” and “the United States remains firmly committed to our European allies and partners.” But, in true Trumpian fashion, that’s caveated: “The United States fulfills our defense responsibilities and expects others to do the same. We expect our European allies to increase defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024, with 20 percent of this spending devoted to increasing military capabilities.” None of that is new as a matter of U.S. policy, but it’s unprecedented for it to be so bluntly stated in our capstone strategic statement.

While no one would have been surprised to see the line, “The United States understands the contributions immigrants have made to our Nation throughout its history” in a previous NSS, it seems a departure from the rhetoric and policies of this president. But that nod to our better angels is quickly followed by the caveat that “illegal immigration, however, burdens the economy, hurts American workers, presents public safety risks, and enriches smugglers and other criminals.”

While averring that “the United States will continue to welcome lawful immigrants who do not pose a security threat and whose entry is consistent with the national interest,” the focus is on “enhancing the screening and vetting of travelers, closing dangerous loopholes, revising outdated laws, and eliminating easily exploited vulnerabilities.” It vows to “reform our current immigration system, which, contrary to our national interest and national security, allows for randomized entry and extended-family chain migration.”

Along those lines, the standard declaration that “the United States rejects bigotry and oppression and seeks a future built on our values as one American people” is used to set up the not-so-subtle anti-Islamist line, “We will deny violent ideologies the space to take root.”

There’s doubtless continuity in the line, “For 70 years, the United States has embraced a strategy premised on the belief that leadership of a stable international economic system rooted in American principles of reciprocity, free markets, and free trade served our economic and security interests.” Alas, that assertion serves merely to bolster the complaint that “the United States helped expand the liberal economic trading system to countries that did not share our values” and “espouse free trade rhetoric and exploit its benefits, but only adhere selectively to the rules and agreements.”

Likewise, the standard rhetoric, “Working with our allies and partners, the United States led the creation of a group of financial institutions and other economic forums that established equitable rules and built instruments to stabilize the international economy and remove the points of friction that had contributed to two world wars” is followed by the threat, “But the United States will no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating, or economic aggression.”

The document explains that “a world that supports American interests and reflects our values makes America more secure and prosperous.” But that’s immediately followed by the declaration, “We will compete and lead in multilateral organizations” (pick one!) “so that American interests and principles are protected.”

Perhaps the biggest departure from the trend of sandwiching Trumpian policy between odes to classic values is the long tribute to America’s diplomatic corps, “our forward-deployed political capability, advancing and defending America’s interests abroad.” It declares that “diplomacy catalyzes the political, economic, and societal connections that create America’s enduring alignments and that build positive networks of relationships with partners,” “sustains dialogue and fosters areas of cooperation with competitors,” and “reduces the risk of costly miscommunication.”

There is no caveat to that homage, save perhaps a backhanded declaration that “we must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities to compete in the current environment and to embrace a competitive mindset.” But none of the listed reforms speak to ridding the State Department of its most experienced personnel, gutting the hiring of topflight young people, or failing to appoint key senior leaders.

That said, the section on diplomacy is buried in a chapter on “Preserving Peace Through Strength,” which, as one might expect, focuses heavily on the military instrument. The actions of the administration thus far, as well as the longstanding predilections of Congress, leave little doubt where the priority of resourcing will be.

Those who voted for Trump, especially those who took him both seriously and literally, should rejoice in this strategy. Those who did not can perhaps take some small comfort in the fact that these documents seldom have much influence on public policy. Regardless, elections have consequences, and this is undoubtedly a very different strategy than we would have seen had Hillary Clinton’s name been on the signature page.

Original article

Normalizing Hysteria

The National Interest

November 15, 2016

Critics of Donald Trump, of which I have long been one, have spent the past sixteen months arguing that he is manifestly unprepared by experience and unsuited by temperament to be President of the United States. The Republican national security establishment, in particular, has been at the forefront of the #NeverTrump movement. Now that he is president-elect, however, I think that constant comparisons of Trump to history’s worst monsters are bound to boomerang. The opponents of Trump say they want to avoid “normalizing” him. In fact their hysterical comparisons accomplish what they profess to want to avoid.

While most politicians are indeed playing the game by the ordinary rules of civility—those which, incidentally, we were warned would not be followed by Trump were he to lose, thus causing grave damage to our Republic—we’re certainly seeing a lot of the opposite from a smug commentariat.

Consider outgoing Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. Not all that burdened by the bounds of comity even before retiring from office, he declared, “The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry [3]in America.” For good measure, he adds, “White nationalists, Vladimir Putin and ISIS are celebrating Donald Trump’s victory, while innocent, law-abiding Americans are wracked with fear – especially African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Muslim Americans, LGBT Americans and Asian Americans.”

While histrionic, that’s at least grounded in fact. But we’ve already reached Peak Godwin.

New York Times feature noting how badly the Newspaper of Record misdiagnosed the rise of Hitler [4] back in 1922 is again making the rounds [5].  The lede: “Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.”

Yet, given that Trump passed for decades on the Manhattan cocktail circuit as a social liberal, it’s quite possible that the vociferous nativism of Trump’s campaign was for show. More importantly, however, the problem with comparing people to Hitler is that, well, nobody else is Hitler. Compared to death camps that slaughter millions, anything that Trump might propose will seem reasonable by comparison. But, surely, Hitler isn’t the left limit of American democracy? (Of course, as Holocaust historian Gavriel Rosenfeld has noted, Hitler himself has been normalized [6] as fodder for humorous Internet memes.)

On a similar note, Esquire‘s Charles Pierce, who has called on the Electoral College to stage a coup [7] and elect Hillary Clinton president despite the election outcome, declared on his Twitter feed, “The hiring of Steve Bannon as a WH policy adviser is exactly the same as hiring David Duke [8].” He adds the obligatory, “Please don’t normalize this.”

The problem with this is that Duke is the very symbol of racism in modern America. He has been a leader of Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups going back nearly five decades. While he long ago denounced the violence of the Klan and eschewed hoods and bedsheets for suits and ties, he’s remained at the forefront of white nationalist and neo-Nazi movements. Bannon, by contrast, has run a website that gives free reign to white nationalists [9] and hosted a talk show that gives a platform to anti-Semites and Muslim bashers. That’s terrible.  I don’t think Bannon should be the chief political advisor to the president of the United States. But claims that he’s equivalent to David Duke actually serve to make Bannon seem reasonable by comparison. And, again, “well, at least he’s not David Duke” should hardly be the measuring stick for unacceptability.

Whether it’s refusing to release his tax returns; declining to say whether he would accept the outcome of either the Republican primaries or the general election if they didn’t go his way; not answering questions from reporters for months on end; or getting away with dozens of outrageous statements and flubs that would have surely sunk any other campaign, Trump has not played by the rules and he’s seemingly been rewarded for it. That’s infuriating. But the answer isn’t to refuse to normalize the elected president of the United States but to treat him precisely as we normally would a president.

New York Times political correspondent Maggie Haberman, frustrated at questions as to whether a dubious charge against Trump was actually true, answered, “Don’t you think the standard at this point needs to be that thepresident-elect clarifies or we print it [10]?”  While I share her frustration, the obvious answer is No. Journalists should actually do their jobs and investigate claims made by and about Trump.

At the same time, they should stop treating him as a reality show host making a playful run for the presidency and treat him as someone who has made a successful run for the presidency. The should absolutely dig into and expose the backgrounds of people Trump appoints to positions in his administration, certainly to include Bannon. They should demand answers to questions as to how or whether he’ll implement the rather vague policy pronouncements he made on the campaign trail.

Will he actually build (another) wall along the Mexican border, or was that just a campaign device? He now claims he’ll “immediately” deport three million illegal immigrants? How will he identify them? How will he do this without terrorizing those here legally?

What is his relationship with Vladimir Putin? What will his policies be with regard to our Article 5 commitments to our NATO allies? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Our conflicting interests in Syria?

Is he really going to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal? If so, what’s his alternative plan for restraining the mullahs?

Speaking of nuclear weapons, is he really okay with proliferation to the likes of Saudi Arabia?

Is he really going to re-institute torture policies that have now been specifically prohibited under US law?

Those are just some of the most obvious issues just on the foreign policy front. Trump ran a campaign with no precedent in modern American history and we have reason for deep concern about his presidency. Yet there’s no escaping a modicum of normalization. Rather than crying “Hitler,” we must now be more vigilant. Let’s call Trump out if he puts unqualified or intemperate people into positions of power. Let’s push back on unwise policy proposals or executive orders. And let’s remember that the standard is not whether Trump’s policies resemble those of fascists and totalitarians but whether they’re in the best interests of the United States and our allies.

Original article

In Defense of Crazy Talk: Why Bradford’s West Point Article is Worth Talking About

War on The Rocks

September 10, 2015

The dust has now settled after William C. Bradford, a newly hired West Point law professor, made headlines for a controversial essay published in the little-read student-run National Security Law Journal. The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman reported that Bradford was denied tenure a decade ago from the Indiana University School of Law for wildly misrepresenting his military service and that, in the law review article in question, he seems to have misrepresented his affiliation with the National Defense University. These offenses made his employment by a military academy whose honor code is central to its mission untenable. It was therefore not surprising when Bradford resigned.

So that’s the end of it, right? We can all just forget about this sorry episode? Wrong.

While I wholeheartedly reject not only Bradford’s outrageous argument but most of the premises from which it flows, I rise to a qualified defense of the article on a number of fronts and I think we owe it to ourselves to keep talking about it.

Bradford’s article argues that a handful of prominent American legal scholars are a “fifth column” lending support to the Islamist enemies of the United States and should therefore be targeted for death as combatants in the war on terrorism. The argument is absurd on both first glance and deeper reading. It is nonetheless a highly valuable contribution to the national security debate.

First, there’s great value in outrageous but well-argued polemic. By pushing an argument to its logical extreme, Bradford has invited a vigorous pushback from the scholarly community. Second, debating the article would be especially valuable for cadets and more senior officers alike, many of whom share some of Bradford’s premises, even if they might never come to his extreme conclusions. Third, Bradford’s argument presents an opportunity to examine some actual U.S. policies.

Following the firestorm, the article was repudiated by the incoming editorial board of the National Security Law Journal in which it was published as an “egregious breach of professional decorum” and excoriated in its pages as “bonkers” by George Mason law professor Jeremy Rabkin, who calls its central charge that prominent scholars are intentionally acting on behalf of Islamists “too preposterous for anyone to take seriously.”

Interestingly, Bradford and Rabkin were among the signatories of a March 2003 public letter calling attention to the legal prohibition against Saddam Hussein’s government’s use of human shields to protect its military forces from impending attack from the U.S.-led coalition. Both are conservative legal scholars inclined to sympathize with the plight of a United States government hamstrung by international norms in fighting enemies who do not observe them. They simply reach different conclusions on where to draw the line.

Indeed, Rabkin and the student editors are not indisputably right. While I find the notion that the scholars should be murdered because their arguments happen to aid the jihadists risible (to put it mildly) there is certainly precedent for arguing that scholars have some responsibilities as citizens to consider how their arguments impact their country’s war efforts. There’s room for debate as to whether that obligation still exists and, if so, where the line is drawn and how the interests of the state are balanced with freedom of speech.

Bradford repeatedly feeds into a variation of the sentiment, popular in military circles since the Vietnam era, that America is fighting a “limited war” with one hand tied behind its back while its enemy fights a “total war” with no constraints. His central premise is that the Islamist foe, notably the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, are fighting a “fourth generation war” on the field of battle but nonetheless “will prevail if they psychologically exhaust the West, inveigle its peoples into doubting the utility and morality of the war, make the price of victory exceed the costs, and compel its peoples to pressure their governments to abandon the fight.” In particular, Bradford contends, the Islamists are exploiting Western fealty to the rule of law and, especially, a law of armed conflict (LOAC) that evolved over centuries of fighting like-minded foes.

Building from this foundation — which is itself perfectly reasonable — Bradford argues in exhausting detail (the essay is 193 pages long and contains 774 footnotes) that prominent Western legal scholars are abetting this strategy by harping on violations of these rules while giving little attention to the fact that the enemy is not playing by them at all.

He notes that respect for the rule of law has been a core belief of Americans, especially the elites, going back to the Declaration of Independence and is central to its foreign policy. Therefore, “for America to be chastised for violations of law, or worse, branded a rogue and anomic regime, threatens the fundament of U.S. legitimacy.” Thus, mere allegations of LOAC violations — and especially charges by well-respected legal scholars that their country is fighting an illegal war — “directly assault American political will.” Further, Bradford argues, this is not an indirect effect but central to the enemy’s strategy:

This is precisely why Islamist strategists have orchestrated a two-dimensioned operational plan consisting of an information element — a PSYOP campaign — supported by a military element — the unlawful use of armed force — to convince Americans that the United States is an evil regime that elected to fight an illegal war against Islam, that the United States systematically commits violations of law in prosecuting this war, that U.S. crimes erode national security and destroy core values, and that the only way the United States can restore its moral virtue, recommit to the rule of law, and protect itself, is to withdraw in defeat.

Bradford here evokes the “stabbed in the back” mythos popularized by Colonel Harry Summers and other military apologists for the loss of the Vietnam War:

The most transparent example of the power of elite institutions to shape popular opinion as to the legitimacy of U.S. participation in wars is the traditional media. During the Vietnam War, despite an unbroken series of U.S. battlefield victories, the media first surrendered itself over to a foreign enemy for use as a psychological weapon against Americans, not only expressing criticism of U.S. purpose and conduct but adopting an ”antagonistic attitude toward everything America was and represented” and ”spinning” U.S. military success to convince Americans that they were losing, and should quit, the war. Subordinating reality to a “narrative,” journalistic alchemists converted victory into defeat simply by pronouncing it; Americans, sitting rapt at their televisions but lacking facts to gainsay the media version of events and as yet unaccustomed to doubting media personalities, accepted the verdict. When CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite misrepresented the failed North Vietnamese Tet Offensive of January 1968 — an operational win for the U.S. — as a Communist victory,” the imprimatur of “the most trusted man in America” made it so.

Bradford’s rhetoric here is almost comically over-the-top. But his version of events has strong support in both military and national security circles.

From here, Bradford argues that “Islamists have identified strongpoints and force multipliers” to help them “attrit American political will” within “an interconnected government-media-academic complex” of “public officials, media, and academics who mould mass opinion on legal and security issues.” Bradford asserts that “Whereas these institutions and intellectuals once embraced values consonant with the society in which they root, over the past half-century they have sharply diverged.” Again, while this argument is strained, its basic premise is widely shared in military and conservative foreign policy circles.

Nor is Bradford mistaken in arguing that legal scholars at America’s most prestigious institutions are generally “regarded as neutral arbiters of truth dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and above the American political and cultural fray.” While it greatly overstates things to say that “their pronouncements on all manner of subjects, including U.S. conduct in the war with Islamism, are received by the lay public as the essence of wisdom itself,” they doubtless shape public opinion substantially. Indeed, Bradford is likely right that those of us who question the way the United States has fought the war on terror have helped to undermine domestic support for the war effort — questioning everything from our use of torture and drones to the excesses of Abu Graib and Guantanamo — and that this helps the Islamists. In my judgment, that’s the price of living in a democracy. Bradford is simultaneously correct that the LOAC hampers our fight against an enemy that doesn’t abide by it and wrong in concluding that we should therefore abandon it.

Jumping from this premise, Bradford identifies “about forty contemptuously critical LOACA scholars” who have stood out in this regard “by proposing that LOAC restrictions on Islamists be waived to provide unilateral advantage, that Western states face more rigorous compliance standards, and that captured Islamist militants be restored to the battlefield, effectively tilt the battlefield against U.S. forces, contribute to timorousness and lethargy in U.S. military commanders, constrain U.S. military power, enhance the danger to U.S. troops, and potentiate the cognitive effects of Islamist military operations.” Furthermore, “rather than make good-faith legal arguments as to what LOAC does, does not, should, and should not require, offers up politicized arguments — against evidence and reason — that the Islamist jihad is a reaction to valid grievances against U.S. foreign policy.” Thus, Bradford contends, they are actively helping the enemy and thus should be targeted accordingly.

While the implication that we should execute these critics strikes me as nuts, it’s not that far down a slippery slope from actual U.S. policy during the war on terror. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed into law the USA PATRIOT Act, greatly increasing the discretion of the president and power of the agencies under him to go after those suspected of ties to terrorist organizations, both at home and abroad, while substantially curtailing judicial authority to check excesses.

Most notably, the Bush administration claimed the right to declare American citizens suspected of ties to al-Qaeda or the Taliban “illegal enemy combatants” and deny them the most fundamental civil liberties, including imprisoning them without trial or access to an attorney. Yaser Esam Hamdi was detained for almost three years without charge, until the Supreme Court ruled that he was entitled to due process. He continued to be held for several months after that ruling and only released on the condition that he renounce his citizenship, agree not to sue the U.S. government for its treatment of him, and agree to be deported to Saudi Arabia.

Hamdi, at least, was actually an enemy combatant, captured fighting against American soldiers in Afghanistan. Jose Padilla was arrested at a Chicago airport on suspicion of plotting a radiological bomb attack, held without habeus corpus as a material witness, and then declared an enemy combatant and held in a U.S. military prison despite having no military affiliation. Specifically, the president found “that Padilla was an enemy combatant who (1) was ‘closely associated with al Qaeda, an international terrorist organization with which the United States is at war’; (2) had engaged in ’war-like acts, including conduct in preparation for acts of international terrorism’ against the United States; (3) had intelligence that could assist the United States to ward off future terrorist attacks; and (4) was a continuing threat to United States security.”

Despite several judicial rulings that this exceeded the president’s constitutional authority (the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule on this for technical reasons), he was denied access to counsel for two years. He was ultimately convicted on charges tangential to those on which he was held, namely that he had “participated in a South Florida-based al-Qaeda support cell that in the ’90s began to send money and people to wage holy war in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo and Somalia.”

More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, Bush’s successor, a former constitutional law professor at an elite university, authorized a fatal strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen “who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes,” for his role as an al-Qaeda recruiter and jihadist motivational speaker. (I should add that, while I have some misgivings about the rationale used and its potential implications, I support the specific decision in the killing al-Awlaki for reasons outlined elsewhere.)

And yet as Freedom House’s Arch Puddington and Thomas O. Melia note in their assessment of the impact on civil liberties of the war on terror,

It is important to point out that the setbacks to individual rights during the war on terrorism pose less severe threats to American liberty than those that arose during the major conflicts of the past. The United States has not declared a wholesale suspension of habeas corpus rights, outlawed political dissent, placed tens of thousands of nonwhite residents in domestic detention centers, ordered security services to conduct campaigns of surveillance against war critics, or blacklisted entertainers and academics who differed with the policies of the federal government. Nor has the government taken sweeping action against the press, despite article after article that revealed sensitive information about counterterrorism initiatives.

It’s noteworthy that Melia is now a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Thankfully, most of us agree that killing thinkers for the crime of pointing out the legal and moral flaws in U.S. war policy goes way beyond the pale. But most also accept that the exigencies of war sometimes require changes to business as usual, including some restrictions on otherwise fundamental rights and exceptions to otherwise sacrosanct moral principles. Bradford, presumably unintentionally, points to the absurd extreme. Where the actual line between the two is drawn, however, is subject to continuous debate. Bradford’s essay can help drive it.

Original article

The Inter-Service Wars are Looking Like Calvinball

War on The Rocks

August 26, 2015

In an iconic installment of “Calvin & Hobbes,” the beloved comic strip by Bill Watterson, little Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes are playing baseball. Calvin gets a hit and rounds the bases to home, but Hobbes cries foul. “You didn’t touch all the bases!” he tells Calvin. Calvin protests and Hobbes retorts, “You didn’t touch seventh base.” They then debate what all the bases are, revealing there are at least 23 bases in addition to — as Hobbes reveals — a “secret base.” Calvin asks where it is and Hobbes tells him he can’t say. It is a secret, after all. A confounded Calvin grouses, “I can’t believe this moronic sport is our national pastime.”

This is how I often feel as I watch the inter-service wars — increasingly the national pastime of the U.S. military.

In their recent essay at War on the Rocks, “Airpower May Not Win Wars, But It Sure Doesn’t Lose Them,” two senior Air Force pilots, Mike Pietrucha and Jeremy Renken, argue that the United States has departed from “the successful post-Vietnam template that relied on airpower to seek limited objectives” in favor of a “ground-centric approach” that “failed to achieve stated goals” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Few national security analysts would disagree with their assessment of the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the key words of their thesis are “limited objectives” and “stated goals,” not “airpower” or “ground-centric.”

The United States should stop fighting unwinnable wars, whether by land, sea, or air. Alas, given that its political leadership has repeatedly ignored that advice, it would be foolish to make force planning decisions based on a fantasy alternate reality. As a wise man once noted, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

It’s true that airpower was the primary U.S. and NATO contribution to the successes in Bosnia (Deliberate Force, 1995) and Kosovo (Allied Force, 1999). But the victories in Grenada (Urgent Fury, 1983) and Panama (Just Cause, 1989) were predominantly ground combat operations. What these victories had in common was very limited strategic goals that were amenable to quick resolution by military force.

Having served as an Army field artillery officer in Desert Storm, I’d like to think ground forces helped win that war. But, certainly, the massive aerial campaign that went first was the main effort. (And doubtless saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of us ground pounders.) Regardless, we won a decisive and relatively quick victory mostly because our aims were exceedingly narrow: force Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait.

A dozen years later, our successors accomplished a much more challenging mission — invading the heart of Iraq and toppling Saddam’s regime — in half the time with a quarter of the forces and half the casualties of Operation Desert Storm. The failure was in achieving the nebulous, arguably unachievable, follow-on objective that post-Saddam Iraq would “set an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful and self-governing nation.” To the extent that goal — for which some 4,400 Americans died in vain trying to achieve — was attainable through U.S. military action, it was going to be facilitated by ground forces. But it wasn’t going to happen in an acceptable timeframe, without a massive mobilization of forces, or otherwise fit within the political constraints rightly imposed by a democratic society on war aims so tangential to the national interest.

But let’s not forget that, in the intervening period, a series of aerial operations (Southern Watch from 1991 to 2003, Northern Watch from 1997 to 2003, Desert Strike in 1996, and Desert Fox in 1998) failed to achieve much less ambitious aims in Iraq. Saddam continued to repress the civilian population, conduct air operations, and thumb his nose at UN nuclear inspectors throughout the period, and attempted to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush to boot.

For that matter, while Pietrucha and Renken are right when they note that “the ground-centric military paradigm undertaken in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom was strategically questionable, costly, and did not prevent the emergence of strengthened radical Islamist movements,” the same could be said of more than a decade of air strikes not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in places such as Pakistan and Yemen. And, while I wholeheartedly share President Barack Obama’s reluctance to deploy significant American ground forces against the Islamic State, it’s worth noting that a year of a rather heavy “air-centric military paradigm” hasn’t exactly been a rousing success, contrary to what Pietrucha and Renken argue.

The authors argue that landpower was unsuccessful in Vietnam because it could only be applied “at extreme cost in blood, treasure and popular support.” But it’s not as if the Air Force or naval aviation sat that war out. A massive, years-long bombing campaign did nothing to further our strategic aims. As noted by Dennis M. Drew, a retired Air Force colonel and long-time member of the Air University faculty, Operation Rolling Thunder, “the longest sustained aerial bombing campaign in history,” spectacularly failed to achieve the objectives set forth at the outset: “to persuade the North Vietnamese to quit the war, or failing that, to entice them to the negotiating table to arrange a compromise settlement of the problems in Southeast Asia.” Follow-on missions, notably Operations Linebacker I and Linebacker II, were more tactically successful but nonetheless not strategically decisive. As with the ground war, military superiority over the enemy couldn’t overcome the unachievable political objectives and the concomitant constraints on the use of force.

Pietrucha and Renken rightly note that the dropping of two atomic bombs was the decisive blow in the Pacific theater in World War II and claim this “settled that airpower could end wars.” But our political leadership wisely rejected the idea of using atomic weapons in Korea and Vietnam and never seriously considered using them in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our strategic aims seldom rise to the level at which the nuclear option is viable. At the same time, they repeatedly rise to the level at which our democratically elected leaders deem war necessary.

In fairness, Pietrucha and Renken fully admit that airpower has its limitations. But they judge it by different standards than they do ground combat. They seem to dismiss the failure of aerial warfare to achieve our stated political aims as a feature — “reversibility that preserve[s] options for decision-makers” — rather than a bug. Meanwhile, “landpower proved insufficient to meet the challenges” and “produced costly failures that we should not be eager to repeat” even in wars in which a massive application of airpower was employed in conjunction with the ground campaign. Airpower can win but never lose only if we’re playing Hobbes’ version of baseball or, even better, Calvinball — the game invented by Calvin in which the players may declare new rules at any point in the game.

Naturally, all of this is about a budget fight. The authors contend that “both the Air Force and Navy are struggling to make up for chronic neglect brought on by a focus on land campaigns” and suggest that budget resources should be allocated more generously to the U.S. Air Force and Navy rather than to the Army.

First off, while it’s certainly true that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were exceedingly costly in terms of American blood and treasure, it’s hard to argue with a straight face that it has resulted in “neglect” for the Air Force and Navy. We have, after all, famously continued to pour billions into the F-35 boondoggle which costs more than the entire GDP of Australia, enough to buy every homeless person in America a mansion, or whatever other cutesy comparison you’d like to make for a trillion-dollar airplane. Meanwhile, the Navy is getting ready to field the first Ford-class aircraft carrier at just under $13 billion a copy, with two more on the way.

Second, the Obama administration is already doing precisely what they recommend. The Army and Marine Corps, which bore the brunt of the last fourteen years of fighting, are being drastically downsized. The Army is shrinking from a wartime high of 570,000 to 450,000 and could fall as low as 420,000 if sequestration remains in place. (This, as the talking point goes, issmaller than it’s been since before WWII. That’s technically if only barely true, but largely meaningless in terms of combat power.) The Marine Corps drops from a wartime high of 204,000 to 182,000, or 175,000 under sequestration. Meanwhile, the main austerity inflicted on the Air Force is doing away with the A-10, whose sole mission is to support the Army, while the Navy is having to do with fewer Littoral Combat Ships used to support Marines. Indeed, while the Army budget plummets from a wartime high of $287.2 billion to $126.5 billion in FY2016 constant dollars, the Air Force only drops from $183.8 billion to $152.9 billion. The Navy takes a modest haircut, going from $194.4 billion to $161.2 billion — much of which comes out of the hide of the Marine Corps.

Given limited resources, a rising China, a resurgent Russia, and a weariness around counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, that’s arguably a sound policy. If, as Pietrucha and Renken suggest, we can simply rely on being “isolated by two great oceans,” accept “limited objectives,” and stop expecting “decisive conclusion[s]” to our disputes with other countries, it’s certainly the right call.

Yet history shows that this can never remain American policy for long. We are, as the historian Geoffrey Perret dubbed us more than a quarter century ago, “A Country Made by War.” Indeed, we’ve fought an awful lot of them since. While even sequestration-sized Army and Marine Corps would be more than adequate for any deterrent mission plus various special operations, humanitarian relief missions, and other small deployments, they’d be woefully inadequate for a re-run of the last decade.

While the obvious solution is the one stated at the outset — avoid such a re-run — a global superpower never runs out of challenges to its perceived interests. Recall that the man who led us into Iraq campaigned on a “humble foreign policy” that eschewed “nation-building.”

Original article

Tom Cotton’s Open Letter to Iran was Hardly ‘Mutiny’

Christian Science Monitor

March 16, 2015

WaPo’s Jonathan Capeheart found a retired general to pile onto the criticisms against Sen. Tom Cotton’s open letter:

The open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran signed by 47 senators and instigated by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was a stunning breach of protocol. One so outrageous that my former colleagues at the New York Daily News dubbed the signers “traitors.” While it is indeed a slap in the face of President Obama and an affront to the presidency, I’m not sure I would go that far, especially since Cotton is an Army veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. So, I turned to retired Major Gen. Paul D. Eaton for perspective. He wouldn’t say Cotton and Co. were “traitors,” either. He had a better word.

“I would use the word mutinous,” said Eaton, whose long career includes training Iraqi forces from 2003 to 2004. He is now a senior adviser to “I do not believe these senators were trying to sell out America. I do believe they defied the chain of command in what could be construed as an illegal act.” Eaton certainly had stern words for Cotton.

“What Senator Cotton did is a gross breach of discipline, and especially as a veteran of the Army, he should know better,” Eaton told me. “I have no issue with Senator Cotton, or others, voicing their opinion in opposition to any deal to halt Iran’s nuclear progress. Speaking out on these issues is clearly part of his job. But to directly engage a foreign entity, in this way, undermining the strategy and work of our diplomats and our Commander in Chief, strains the very discipline and structure that our foreign relations depend on, to succeed.”

Now, I’m generally a fan of Paul Eaton and agree with him on foreign policy matters more often than I do Tom Cotton. But let’s not pretend that Eaton is a neutral observer here. He’s a senior adviser to the Democratic-aligned National Security Network.

Likewise, I’m much  more aligned with Eaton than I am Cotton on the particular matter of our negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program. While I’m skeptical that we’ll get an ironclad deal with the mullahs that allows the level of intrusive inspections that are required to make an agreement meaningful, I don’t see a better alternative on the table. And, while I don’t think Cotton’s letter will impact the negotiations one way or the other, I agree with Eaton that they’re unhelpful.

All that said, Eaton is flat out wrong on the matter of Congress’s proper role, and the notion that the letter is “mutinous” is simply absurd.

In his capacity as an Army officer, Eaton was subject to a chain of command. The president, in his constitutional role as commander-in-chief, is at the top of that chain. Similarly, during his time in the Army, Cotton was subordinate to the president, as was I during my own long-ago stint.

There is an argument to be had that Eaton, as a general officer on the retired list, is still beholden to the chain of command. It’s a stronger argument for more recently retired officers, who have a powerful sway over former subordinates still in uniform. The argument gets weaker as every year goes by and, since Eaton retired in 2006, it’s pretty weak, indeed, at this point.

There’s zero argument that former officers, like Cotton and myself, who merely served a time in uniform and draw no retired pay, are subject to the chain of command. (I’m an employee of the Defense Department and have some strictures in that regard. But, essentially, my relationship to the chain of command is no different than that any civilian employee has with their bosses.)

Moreover, Cotton is a United States senator. He is in that capacity a member of a separate, co-equal branch of government. As a matter of protocol, he’s expected to address Obama as “Mr. President.” But he’s not in any way the president’s subordinate. Nor is he required or even expected to observe any sort of “discipline” with regard to the negotiations in which the president engages.

The distinction Eaton makes between “voicing [an] opinion in opposition to any deal” and “directly engag[ing] a foreign entity” is nonexistent. Not only are members of Congress absolutely permitted to engage foreign entities as much as they please, but the “open letter,” like all open letters, was clearly a publicity stunt aimed at the American people, not the leaders of Iran. And, while I happen to disagree with Cotton and his co-signers on the merits here, they’re absolutely entitled to “undermine” foreign policy strategies with which they disagree.

The president is the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces. He’s not commander-in-chief of the United States. He’s not even commander-in-chief of US foreign policy.

Original article

Obama’s ISIS AUMF: A Convenient (But Necessary) Excuse

The National Interest

February 13, 2015

When President Obama declared last September that he would “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy” without the use of American ground combat troops, most observers were skeptical. Now, five months later, the president is asking Congress to authorize him to dramatically escalate the fight, including the use of ground combat troops, ostensibly in very limited numbers with a very limited mission for a limited period of time. In fact, it’s likely to lead to expanded American involvement.

Wednesday morning the White House released a letter from the president to the Congress  declaring, “Although existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions, I have repeatedly expressed my commitment to working with the Congress to pass a bipartisan authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIL. Consistent with this commitment, I am submitting a draft AUMF that would authorize the continued use of military force to degrade and defeat ISIL.”

The text of the draft “Joint Resolution: To authorize the limited use of the United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” declares that said authority ” does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations” and “shall terminate three years after the date of the enactment of this joint resolution, unless reauthorized.” But it does expand the mission to “associated persons or forces,” which it defines as “individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.”

Wednesday afternoon, Obama gave a very short speech stating that, while the ongoing operations against ISIL are going swimmingly— “We’re disrupting their command and control and supply lines, making it harder for them to move. We’re destroying their fighting positions, their tanks, their vehicles, their barracks, their training camps, and the oil and gas facilities and infrastructure that fund their operations. We’re taking out their commanders, their fighters, and their leaders”— and “our coalition is on the offensive, ISIL is on the defensive, and ISIL is going to lose,” we need “flexibility” for “unforeseen circumstances” and “continuity.”

Returning to the Constitutional requirement that non-emergency military action be authorized by Congress is a good idea. It’s a position Obama articulated passionately during his brief tenure in the Senate and as a presidential candidate. Yet, it’s worth noting that, since assuming the Oval Office, Obama has been as aggressive as any of his predecessors in finding ways around that inconvenience when it suits him. Aside from wildly escalating the drone war around the globe, during the Libya campaign in 2011 Obama ignored even the modest restrictions imposed on him by the War Powers Resolution, simply declaring that the combat sorties American forces were flying weren’t “hostilities.” The only time he’s actually asked Congress for its blessing to go to war was to give him an excuse to avoid taking strong action against Syria’s Assad for crossing the “red line” of chemical weapons use.

Regardless of the apparent hypocrisy, getting Congress involved is not only consistent with the law of the land but it’s also shrewd politically and important strategically. Self-serving or not, Obama is right when he declares, “we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together.” If we’re to get more heavily involved in this fight against ISIL, there ought to be a public debate and bipartisan approval.

Indeed, this may well be one of those rare times where Congressional Republicans are enthusiastically on his side while Obama’s co-partisans constitute the opposition. So far, the main objection prominent Republicans are offering is that Obama is expanding the war too slowly and asking for too little power for himself.

Senator John McCain declared  that any AUMF “should not constrain the president of the United States, and it should not be specific to ISIS. He was elected by the American people. The Constitution of the United States says that he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. We cannot set the precedent of constraining the president of the United States.” Without apparent irony, the man who spent seven years being tortured in a Vietnamese prison camp explained, “If we don’t like what the president is doing, all we have to do is cut off the funding. We did that after the Vietnam War was over.”

House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement that “Any authorization for the use of military force must give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people. While I believe an AUMF against ISIL is important, I have concerns that the president’s request does not meet this standard.” Meanwhile, his Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, said, “We hope to have bipartisan support for something that would limit the power of the President, but nonetheless protect the American people in a very strong way.”

In terms of the policy itself, it’s easy to sympathize with the president’s plight. ISIL is wreaking havoc in a vital and already fragile region and murdering innocents in particularly graphic, public fashion. There’s enormous pressure on him to “do something” and yet very little appetite for the sort of military response that could potentially yield quick, decisive results. So, while I was skeptical that our months-long game of Whack-a-Mole would do the trick, it seemed the least bad option given the reality that there are simply too few local fighters willing to do the dirty work for us, and fewer still who are capable of doing it.

Further, politics aside, the existing approach (I won’t call it a “strategy”) against ISIL is consistent with the constructivist incrementalism that has characterized Obama’s foreign policy.

While, “Our successes will happen in fits and starts, and sometimes there’s going to be a breakthrough and sometimes you’ll just modestly make things a little better” makes for a lousy bumper sticker, it’s a perfectly prudent approach in a world of bad options. And, while there are mixed reports from analysts far better positioned to evaluate the facts on the ground than me, there’s reason to believe things are indeed modestly better in Iraq and Syria than they would otherwise be had we not intervened.

Still, most of the “comprehensive strategy” Obama again outlined in Wednesday’s speech is fantasy:

A systematic and sustained campaign of airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Support and training for local forces on the ground, including the moderate Syrian opposition. Preventing ISIL attacks, in the region and beyond, including by foreign terrorist fighters who try to threaten our countries. Regional and international support for an inclusive Iraqi government that unites the Iraqi people and strengthens Iraqi forces against ISIL. Humanitarian assistance for the innocent civilians of Iraq and Syria, who are suffering so terribly under ISIL’s reign of horror.

Aside from the Kurdish Peshmerga, there really are no significant local forces to oppose ISIL. If there was ever a “moderate Syrian opposition,” it’s gone—or allied with ISIL against their common enemy Assad. Iraqi forces remain a sad joke despite a decade of American and Coalition effort and there’s no near-term hope for a government that unites the Iraqi people.

And, of course, as the president reiterated again Wednesday, there’s no stomach in America or elsewhere in the West to fight another ground war in that part of the world. Not only does Obama specifically outline that in the draft AUMF but he stressed it in the speech: “The resolution we’ve submitted today does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq or Syria. It is not the authorization of another ground war, like Afghanistan or Iraq. The 2,600 American troops in Iraq today largely serve on bases — and, yes, they face the risks that come with service in any dangerous environment. But they do not have a combat mission. They are focused on training Iraqi forces, including Kurdish forces.” And, again, for emphasis: “As I’ve said before, I’m convinced that the United States should not get dragged back into another prolonged ground war in the Middle East. That’s not in our national security interest and it’s not necessary for us to defeat ISIL.”

So, what is it that the American reinforcements are going to be doing? Why, “giving us the flexibility we need for unforeseen circumstances.” For instance? “For example, if we had actionable intelligence about a gathering of ISIL leaders, and our partners didn’t have the capacity to get them [editor's note--they wouldn't], I would be prepared to order our Special Forces to take action, because I will not allow these terrorists to have a safe haven.”

This seems reasonable on its face. If it’s worth the risks to our air crews to conduct operations with no end in sight, it’s probably worth taking calculated risks with small commando squads if there’s a sufficiently valuable mission that requires their skill set.

At the same time, it’s hardly inconceivable that the man who argued that combat sorties over Libya didn’t constitute “hostilities” would come up with a creative interpretation of “enduring offensive ground combat operations” if he deemed it necessary. For that matter, since the AUMF wouldn’t expire until a year into Obama’s successor’s term if it were passed tomorrow, it might be the next Commander-in-Chief making that call.

Twenty years ago, when the bloom was off the rose of post-Cold War interventionism, the phrase “exit strategy” came into vogue. It was a shorthand for questions like, What will the situation on the ground look like when we’ve accomplished our mission? How will we know when we’ve won, or at least can transition from kinetic military operations to a post-conflict phase?

Original post

National Security Strategy to National Defense Strategy


February 11, 2015

President Obama released the first National Security Strategy in five years last Friday. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s more a wish list than a strategy. That’s a shame because Obama has articulated a much more nuanced view of national security in various speeches and interviews and this was a missed opportunity to put that vision down on paper. Given that it serves as the basis for crafting our National Defense Strategy and dozens of other policy documents across the interagency, that’s a problem.

Section 603 of the Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 – commonly known as the Goldwater-Nichols Act – directs that, “the president shall transmit to Congress each year a comprehensive report on the national security strategy of the United States” that “shall be transmitted on the date on which the president submits to Congress the budget for the next fiscal year.”

That timetable was more-or-less adhered to from 1987 to 2002, with 13 iterations being released over those 15 years. Only three have been released in the subsequent 13 years, with revisions coming out in 2006, 2010 and 2015. This simultaneously makes the documents less useful and more impactful: They’re less responsive to changes in the threat environment but have a much longer shelf life.

Goldwater-Nichols also directs the Secretary of Defense “shall include in his annual report to Congress,” the National Defense Strategy (NDS), “(A) a description of the major military missions and of the military force structure of the United States for the next fiscal year; (B) an explanation of the relationship of those military missions to that force structure; and (C) the justification for those military missions and that force structure.” And in the report’s preparation, “the secretary shall take into consideration the content of the annual national security strategy report of the president.”

The NDS in turn fuels a National Military Strategy, signed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Subsequent legislation directs the chairman to submit a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which also shapes the NDS.

All of these documents are part of the planning phase of the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) System that determines which programs are developed to meet military strategy requirements and how much funding they receive.

Naturally, if the foundational document – the NSS – is flawed, it will create ripple effects throughout this chain and either misinform or fail to inform the programming, budgeting and execution phases.

Because the new NSS is so vague in its prioritization, it doesn’t achieve the goals laid out in Goldwater-Nichols of articulating “the foreign policy, worldwide commitments, and national defense capabilities of the United States necessary to deter aggression and to implement the national security strategy of the United States.” Nor does it assess “the adequacy of the capabilities of the United States to carry out the NSS of the United States, including an evaluation of the balance among the capabilities of all elements of the national power of the United States to support the implementation of the national security strategy.”

The NSS assesses the “top strategic risks to our interests” as “Catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland or critical infrastructure; Threats or attacks against U.S. citizens abroad and our allies; Global economic crisis or widespread economic slowdown; Proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction; Severe global infectious disease outbreaks; Climate change; Major energy market disruptions; and Significant security consequences associated with weak or failing states (including mass atrocities, regional spillover, and transnational organized crime).” The Defense Department could conceivably be called on to respond to most if not all of those crises; indeed, U.S. Marines were dispatched last year to fight Ebola in Africa.

The document contains the standard boilerplate about the role of the military instrument of power, observing that, “U.S. forces will continue to defend the homeland, conduct global counterterrorism operations, assure allies and deter aggression through forward presence and engagement. If deterrence fails, U.S. forces will be ready to project power globally to defeat and deny aggression in multiple theaters.”

It demands that, “although our military will be smaller, it must remain dominant in every domain.” Indeed, it promises “to build a versatile and responsive force prepared for a more diverse set of contingencies.”

While declaring that, “we shifted away from a model of fighting costly, large-scale ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the United States—particularly our military—bore an enormous burden,” and promising that, “instead, we are now pursuing a more sustainable approach,” the aforementioned declaration that “U.S. forces will be ready to project power globally to defeat and deny aggression in multiple theaters” rightly means that the ability to fight future costly, large-scale ground wars must be maintained.

Still, the NSS “prioritizes targeted counterterrorism operations, collective action with responsible partners, and increased efforts to prevent the growth of violent extremism and radicalization that drives increased threats.” Additionally, “our leadership will remain essential to disrupting the unprecedented flow of foreign terrorist fighters to and from conflict zones.” This is both necessary and a monumental task requiring that we “work to address the underlying conditions that can help foster violent extremism such as poverty, inequality, and repression. This means supporting alternatives to extremist messaging and greater economic opportunities for women and disaffected youth. We will help build the capacity of the most vulnerable states and communities to defeat terrorists locally.”

Some of these functions will at last partially be performed by others in the interagency and, theoretically, by other nations. Indeed, the latter is a recurrent theme of the NSS, including such declarations as “we will train and equip local partners and provide operational support to gain ground against terrorist groups. This will include efforts to better fuse and share information and technology as well as to support more inclusive and accountable governance.”

The NSS keeps faith with longstanding US policy that, “as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States must invest the resources necessary to maintain—without testing—a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent that preserves strategic stability.” But, aside from some reductions in our own stockpiles, there’s no cost savings or reprioritization to be had here; it’s status quo.

Likewise, the strategy continues to protect “shared spaces—cyber, space, air, and oceans—that enable the free flow of people, goods, services, and ideas,” rightly noting that, “they are the arteries of the global economy and civil society, and access is at risk due to increased competition and provocative behaviors.” In the cyber realm, especially, the document calls for stepped up capabilities.

The document outlines ambitious Prosperity and Values agendas, most of which only tangentially involve the DoD. The International Order agenda, however, is very reliant on military forces – at least in a supporting role – and offers no retrenchment.

In Asia, we’ll be “modernizing our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines” while “deepening partnerships” with Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia; welcoming “the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China” while preparing for the alternative; strengthening “our strategic and economic partnership with India,” while we “continue to work with both India and Pakistan.”

We’ll be maintaining “a profound commitment to a Europe that is free, whole, and at peace,” including “steadfastly support[ing]the aspirations of countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration,” while also “continu[ing] to transform our relationship with Turkey, and enhance ties with countries in the Caucasus while encouraging resolution of regional conflict.”

Meanwhile, our commitment to “stability and peace in the Middle East and North Africa” will continue. We’ll “dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people, confront external aggression against our allies and partners, ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world, and prevent the development, proliferation, or use of weapons of mass destruction,” while “investing in the ability of Israel, Jordan, and our Gulf partners to deter aggression while maintaining our unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”

In Africa, “we will increase trade and business ties, generating export-driven growth,” while “investing in tomorrow’s leaders,” “strengthening civilian and military institutions” and “deepening our security partnerships.”

And, of course, “We will continue to advance a Western Hemisphere that is prosperous, secure, democratic and plays a greater global role.”

While there’s room for quibbling here and there, most of that agenda is sufficiently aspirational that it enjoys widespread support on both sides of the aisle. The problem, however, is that it’s all but useless as guidance. If everything is a priority, nothing is.

What, precisely, isn’t the U.S. military going to be prepared to do? The watchword in DoD planning documents in recent years has been “risk.” Given substantial budget cuts, there will simply be less military capability to bring to bear in achieving the perfectly desirable goals laid out in the NSS. Which ones are urgent and which will be put off for another day? Where can we risk a shortfall in capability, and where is it absolutely vital that we be able to answer the call to respond?

It’s possible that these issues will be rendered less pressing by the late release of the document. DoD is less able to avoid complying with the law than the White House, so the QDR was released last March and won’t be revised again until the next presidential administration—and quite probably the next NSS. The National Military Strategy was last revised in February 2011. There’s certainly enough time to issue an update between now and the end of the administration’s term. Perhaps, given the lack of useful guidance, the Pentagon will simply punt until 2017. Given that real decisions need to be made on personnel structure and weapons systems, that would be a bad outcome, indeed.

 Original article

Is Obama Real(ist) Confused?

War on The Rocks

February 11, 2015

The Obama administration’s updated National Security Strategy (NSS), released Friday morning, has been widely panned by defense analysts, including yours truly, as a wish list lacking in strategy, being overly focused on placating the U.S. domestic audience, and “really just a PR exercise.” (To be sure, others are more positive, seeing it as rising “above immediate crises and headlines” to provide “a compelling picture of the broader context of the global environment,” albeit one not remotely aligned with the administration’s military spending and procurement policies.) By contrast, President Obama’s actual national security strategy is quite nuanced and very much takes into account costs and benefits. And while he eschews the “realist” label, his actual policy choices seem very much guided by hardheaded weighing of gains to the national interest versus cost in terms of blood, treasure, and bandwidth.

On Monday, Vox released an interview executive editor Matthew Yglesias conducted with the president “in late January.” Off-the-cuff Obama is strangely more lucid–and certainly more candid–on his national security priorities than his staff, at least in the form of the NSS. He articulates why he eschews the realist label, identifies “disorder” as our biggest national security threat, and lays out a reasonably detailed series of thoughts on conflict intervention.

Obama caricatures idealists as “singing Kumbaya” and realists as “supporting dictators who happen to be our friends,” then proclaims “I just don’t think that describes what a smart foreign policy should be.” Neither realists nor idealists would reflexively reject his middle ground approach of using “diplomacy for setting up a rules-based system wherever we can, understanding that it’s not always going to work.” And he certainly leans heavily realist when he adds, “I also think that if we were just resorting to that and we didn’t have a realistic view that there are bad people out there who are trying to do us harm — and we’ve got to have the strongest military in the world, and we occasionally have to twist the arms of countries that wouldn’t do what we need them to do if it weren’t for the various economic or diplomatic or, in some cases, military leverage that we had — if we didn’t have that dose of realism, we wouldn’t get anything done, either.”

Trying to appeal to the idealists, he said, “what I do think is accurate in describing my foreign policy is a strong belief that we don’t have military solutions to every problem in the 21st century,” a caveat most realists would very much endorse.

Ultimately, Obama seems to position himself as a constructivist, saying that treaties and other “rules-based” institutions “reduced the number of problems that you have and the security and defense challenges that you face if you can create those norms,” and that while not perfect, “the UN, the IMF, and a whole host of treaties and rules and norms that were established really helped to stabilize the world in ways that it wouldn’t otherwise be.” But again, neither Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, nor any of the other great realists would disagree with that.

Even more constructivist is the president’s pronouncement of “disorder” as America’s “biggest challenge.” He rightly notes, “we don’t have a peer in terms of a state that’s going to attack us and bait us.” The president continues, “The closest we have, obviously, is Russia, with its nuclear arsenal, but generally speaking they can’t project the way we can around the world. China can’t, either.” He adds, again reverting to his realist instincts, “We spend more on our military than the next 10 countries combined.”

Thus, we’re left with “disorder. Failed states. Asymmetric threats from terrorist organizations” as the biggest challenges to American security.

While Obama has hardly been averse to the use of military power to address these threats, he maintains that “we just have more tools in our toolkit to deal with the actual problems that we have now and that we can project into the future, rather than just constantly relying on the same tools that we used when we were dealing with Germany and Japan in World War II.”

The drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan have freed up forces such that “we can then more strategically deploy, with a smaller footprint, special forces, trainers, partnering, that allows us to get at the actual problem and then frees us up to be able to send a team to prevent Ebola. To double-down on our investments in things like cybersecurity. To look at the new threats and opportunities that are out there.”

While that’s a pretty broad definition of “disorder” and one that, like the National Security Strategy, seems to set no limits on American interventionism, the president has actually been a reluctant intervener. Most notably, he has avoided a major involvement in Syria, arguably the most disorderly place in the Middle East, and been very limited in his engagement against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

After a long and nuanced analysis of the situation in the Middle East, particularly the disruptive effects of the Arab Spring, Obama observes, “this is going to be a generational challenge in the Muslim world and the Middle East that not only the United States but everybody’s going to have to deal with.” He adds, “And we’re going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don’t have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out. And that to some degree, the people of these countries are going to have to, you know, find their own way. And we can help them but we can’t do it for them.”

Yglesias observes, “members of your administration often seem acutely aware of the idea of limits of American power, maybe to a greater extent than they always feel comfortably articulating publicly” and asks, “Is it difficult to say, in the political and media system, that there are things that you can’t really do?”

Obama responds, “As I said previously in speeches: when problems happen, they don’t call Beijing. They don’t call Moscow. They call us. And we embrace that responsibility. The question, I think, is how that leadership is exercised,” adding, “Where the issue of limits comes in is what resources do we devote that are going to be effective in solving the problem.”

The failure to address that question is at the heart of the critiques of the National Security Strategy, which mentions the need to set priorities but fails to actually do so. But the president at least attempts to do so in the interview: “So, in Iraq, when ISIL arises, if you think you have no constraints, no limits, then I have the authority as commander-in-chief to send back 200,000 Americans to re-occupy Iraq. I think that’d be terrible for the country. I don’t think it’d be productive for Iraq.” So, instead, we get very limited intervention with significant caveats, “What I said was Iraqis have to show us that they are prepared to put together a functioning government, that the Shia majority is prepared to reach out to the Kurds and Sunnis, and that they’re credibly willing to fight on the ground. And if they do those things, then we can help, and we’re going to have a 60-nation coalition to do it.”

Now, most observers, myself included, are incredibly skeptical that those conditions can be met and that, therefore, the president’s ostensible strategy of “defeating and ultimately destroying” ISIL is doomed to failure. But it’s actually a very realist position: we’re willing to take minimal risks to mitigate the problem but don’t see the threat to our interests as great enough to commit large numbers of ground forces. The rhetoric is in direct conflict with the actual policy. But that beats a dumb policy to carry out overly ambitious rhetoric.

Obama continued, “I think the real challenge for the country not just during my presidency but in future presidencies is recognizing that leading does not always mean occupying. That the temptation to think that there’s a quick fix to these problems is usually a temptation to be resisted.” That’s a lesson frequently identified, but seldom learned, from the last quarter century of American interventions into civil wars (including a couple spurred by our interventions).

Additionally, he repeated an oft-stated axiom of his administration’s policy that was articulated in both NSS’s under his tenure: “American leadership means wherever possible leveraging other countries, other resources, where we’re the lead partner because we have capabilities that other folks don’t have. But that way there’s some burden-sharing and there’s some ownership for outcomes.” While this often comes across as idealist multilateralism, it seems realist in application. Essentially, it’s an updated version of the Truman and Reagan doctrines, applied to “disorder” rather than communism.

The sum of all this is an interesting minimalism: “in the meantime, you take the victories where you can. You make things a little bit better rather than a little bit worse. And that’s in no way a concession to this idea that America is withdrawing or there’s not much we can do. It’s just a realistic assessment of how the world works.” Indeed, the strategist Edward Luttwak dubbed this “post-heroic warfare” two decades ago. Perhaps because of the poor branding, the concept never caught on. Maybe a quarter century of failed interventions has made the idea more palatable. But, interestingly, even while admitting this is his actual policy, Obama continues to articulate maximalist goals—like “destroying” ISIL.

Later in the interview, Obama again returns to the baby steps idea. He says that while he will continue to tell American partners that “you are better off if you’ve got a strong civil society and you’ve got democratic legitimacy and you are respectful of human rights,” he’s “also going to acknowledge that for a country that, say, has no experience in democracy or has no functioning civil society or where the most organized factions are intolerant, you know, religious sects, that progress is going to be happening in steps as opposed to in one big leap.” This is a much more compelling articulation than the bland and undefined “strategic patience” of the NSS.

Thus, he returns to the juxtaposition of realism and idealism: “I think, the goal of any good foreign policy is having a vision and aspirations and ideals, but also recognizing the world as it is, where it is, and figuring out how do you tack to the point where things are better than they were before. That doesn’t mean perfect. It just means it’s better.” Again, most realists would accept that as a truism.

Similarly, Obama observes that, “We can’t guarantee that the forces inside of Iran take what should be seen as a good deal for Iran. We can’t guarantee that they make a rational decision any more than we can guarantee Russia and Mr. Putin make rational decisions about something like Ukraine.” Given that, “We’ve got to guard against their efforts militarily. Any aggression they may show we’ve got to meet firmly and forcefully.” At the same time, “We’ve also got to see whether things like diplomacy, things like economic sanctions, things like international pressure and international norms, will in fact make a difference.”

In closing, the president returns to a constructivist incrementalism: “Our successes will happen in fits and starts, and sometimes there’s going to be a breakthrough and sometimes you’ll just modestly make things a little better.” That requires flexibility and patience: “Sometimes the play you run doesn’t work and you’ve got to have a plan B and a plan C. But the overall trajectory, the overall goal, is a world in which America continues to lead, that we’re pushing in the direction of more security, more international norms and rules, more human rights, more free speech, less religious intolerance.” Finally, “Those efforts over time add up, and I’m confident that there’s a way for us to maintain our idealism, be hardheaded in assessing what’s out there, confronting the dangers that we face without exaggerating them.”

Just that last paragraph alone contains more strategic nuance than the entirety of the National Security Strategy. By failing to prioritize, the latter makes all threats seem central and all objectives seem equal; that’s the opposite of strategy. Thankfully, the president seems to understand that few threats are sufficient to warrant major military intervention and that attempts to make the world safer and more prosperous by spreading our values are worthwhile but not urgent; it’s a slow process of chipping away.

If Obama isn’t a realist, he’s a constructivist with strong realist tendencies. But, if the president would prefer to eschew the label but accept the policy, I won’t complain too much.

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