Friday, April 28, 2017

How Trump Just Screwed Up South Korean Elections (And Hurt U.S. Interests)

One of the U.S.'s most critical allies in Asia is South Korea.  In response to North Korea's recent actions--including its threats to use missiles against South Korea and Japan--the United States has deployed an anti-missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.  While the deployment will certainly protect South Korea, the deployment is also very important to the protection of U.S. military bases in South Korea as well (and the tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel in South Korea).

The decision to allow the U.S. to deploy THAAD has been controversial in South Korea for several reasons.  First, China is deeply opposed to this deployment because they think the sophisticated THAAD radars will allow the U.S. to take a deep look into China.  As a result, China has imposed informal  economic sanctions on South Korea in an effort to force South Korea to reject the deployment.  Second, the deployment did not receive Parliamentary approval.  Indeed, the deployment of THAAD has been a major focus of the South Korean elections, which occur on May 9.  The leading candidate, Moon Jae-in, has called for an immediate halt to the deployment.

Given that the U.S. has a deep interest in protecting its military bases in South Korea from North Korean missile attack, you would think that the Administration would want to maintain a low profile on the THAAD deployment during this critical election.  After all, the U.S. wants to be able to persuade the winner--especially if it is Moon Jae-in--that deployment of THAAD is in the interests of both South Korea and the U.S. despite the Chinese opposition.

Sadly, President Trump doesn't seem to have understood this, and just made comments to the press about the THAAD deployment that already has affected the South Korean elections and will significantly increase the chances that South Korea will halt the deployment of THAAD.  He announced (apparently without warning South Korea) that we would demand that South Korea pay for THAAD, despite a previous agreement that the U.S. would pay for the deployment:
To protect against a North Korean attack, the United States is on the verge of making a new antimissile system operational in South Korea. Mr. Trump said in the interview that he would seek to have South Korea pay for the system, known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad, putting its cost around $1 billion.

Under its arrangement with Washington, South Korea was to provide land and build a base for the Thaad system, while the United States would pay for it and cover its operational costs.

In South Korea, Mr. Trump’s comment shook the election campaign to choose a successor next month to Park Geun-hye, the ousted president. Ms. Park’s decision to accept the Thaad deployment has been one of the most contentious issues on the trail, and Moon Jae-in, the leading candidate, seized on the remarks and, through a spokesman, called for a halt to the deployment.

“We must consider whether it conforms to the spirit of the alliance,” the spokesman, Youn Kwan-suk, said on Friday, accusing Mr. Trump of “demanding unilaterally and without close bilateral consultations that South Korea pay the cost” of the missile defense system.
Read more here.

Remarkably, despite the facts that the U.S. has a vital interest in the deployment of THAAD, that South Korea only reluctantly agreed to allow this deployment, and the fact that THAAD was a leading issue in the South Korean elections, President Trump decides that it is time for an Asian variant of "we will build a wall, and they will pay for it."  The result will be that South Korean opposition to THAAD will grow, and the U.S. may have to stop its deployment, thereby removing one of the few defenses against a North Korean missile attack against our bases in South Korea.

Both China and North Korea must be thrilled.

Two Economists Discover Sweatshops Are Bad

While conditions in third world sweatshops are appalling, economic theory nonetheless supports the view that even these bad jobs can be “an escalator out of poverty,” because the jobs are better than the alternative and a booming industry will raise wages over time.  While it is great sport to criticize economists for being out of touch with reality at times, there is historical support for this theory.  The industrial revolution in Western Europe was based on horrible factory jobs, but in the end this turned out to be the road to prosperity for workers.

Economists Christopher  Blattman and Stefan Dercon set out to prove this was indeed the case in the third world today, and were surprised to find that the evidence did not support the theory:
We picked Ethiopia because its small export industry was beginning to boom. It offered a chance to see what effect these jobs would have at the earliest stages of industrialization. In addition to local exporters, many Chinese, Indian and European companies are setting up factories in Ethiopia, producing everything from clothing to flowers.

.  .  .

Since there were more qualified applicants than jobs, we had a perfect opportunity for a randomized trial. Five businesses — a beverage bottler, a garment factory, a shoemaker and two industrial greenhouse operations — agreed to hire qualified applicants by a lottery. We followed the 947 applicants who were and were not offered the job over a year, surveying them multiple times.
To our surprise, most people who got an industrial job soon changed their minds. A majority quit within the first months. They ended up doing what those who had not gotten the job offers did — going back to the family farm, taking a construction job or selling goods at the market.

Contrary to the expert predictions (and ours), quitting was a wise decision for most. The alternatives were not so bad after all: People who worked in agriculture or market selling earned about as much money as they could have at the factory, often with fewer hours and better conditions. We were amazed: By the end of a year only a third of the people who had landed an industrial job were still employed in the industrial sector at all.
Blattman and Dercon still believe that industrial employment over time will mean better and higher paying jobs, but they caution that their study suggests that the path is not smooth.    Read it all here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Dangers of Overreacting To North Korea


Fred Kaplan has an excellent post about why treating a real long term problem (North Korea's ability to use ICBM's to hit the US) as a short term crisis (in response to a new nuclear or missile test) is quite dangerous.  First, Kaplan makes the case that this is exactly what Trump appears to be doing:
The worry (and it’s a legitimate worry) is that, sometime soon, the North Koreans will test another ballistic missile or nuclear weapon, which would, yet again, violate a U.N. resolution and put them one step closer to threatening American troops and allies in East Asia—and maybe, years from now, the United States itself. But there is no immediate crisis, no threat that must be staved off now or never. And yet President Trump is sending an aircraft-carrier task force and a guided-missile submarine toward North Korean shores. At the same time, he has summoned all 100 U.S. senators to a classified briefing on the subject, to be conducted on Wednesday, at the White House, by the secretaries of defense and state, the director of national intelligence, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

U.S. military exercises in the region are routine, as are top-secret briefings to select lawmakers. But to hold a briefing for all senators, by the administration’s top security officials, is unusual. To hold it at the White House (or, more precisely, the Executive Office Building next door to the White House), instead of in the Capitol, is unprecedented. And to do all this while the deadliest warships in the U.S. Navy’s non-nuclear fleet dart toward the country in question—well, the leaders in the region needn’t be paranoid to infer that Trump might be preparing to launch an attack on North Korea.
Second, if Trump decides that he needs to show resolve by military action in response to a new test, all hell might be unleashed:
 But let’s say Kim ignores Trump’s unwitting stab at the ploy and risks another missile or nuclear test. Will Trump—riled by Kim’s persistence or feeling a need to display “resolve” and “credibility”—launch a volley of cruise missiles and more at the test sites, at some nuclear facilities, or even at Kim’s hangouts in Pyongyang?
Most North Korea–watchers are convinced that, in this scenario, Kim would retaliate with an attack—possibly a bring-them-all-down-with-me attack—on U.S. bases and allies, not necessarily with nuclear weapons but with a barrage of artillery shells. North Korea’s military has thousands of these shells deployed on the border with South Korea (whose capital, Seoul, sits only 35 miles away) as well as on its eastern shore (within firing range of Japan). North Korea’s live-fire long-range artillery drills on Tuesday were no doubt meant as a “signal” of what Trump should expect if he follows through on his own threat.
 No one could possibly want a military conflict, with hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of casualties on both sides. But a mix of mutual bluff, bluster, ego, and insecurity—fueled by heavy firepower and an itchy trigger-finger or two—makes for a potentially lethal concoction. In the annals of history, wars have erupted from less combustive kindling.
Read it all here.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Success in Colombia: An Example of Smart Power (and Praise for My Wife's Work)


While we seem to be wallowing in our foreign policy failures, we need to celebrate one of our critical successes.  Twenty years ago, Colombia was suffering from an active insurgencies that perpetuated great violence on the Colombian people.  These same insurgencies were also fueling a large increase in cocaine smuggled into the U.S.  Twenty years later, we have a peace agreement, and a far more peaceful and stable Colombia.  This was no accident.  while most of the credit must go to the Colombian government and people, the United States planned a critical role.  I must admit upfront that I take special interest in this success because my wife, Allison Blanchard (then Allison Major) was a key player who helped frame the U.S. policy that was such a success.

Bill Lane has a great op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explaining this success:
A politician looking for new material should cast a gaze toward South America. Twenty years ago, Colombia was on the verge of becoming a narco-terrorist state. The government had ceded large swaths of territory to the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. In 2000, President Clinton and House Speaker Dennis Hastert came together in a bipartisan effort to help Colombians take back their country. It was known as Plan Colombia.

The program combined military assistance with civil-society initiatives. Free-market reforms were included, resulting in the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. All of this bolstered the efforts of Colombia’s determined political leaders, its courageous citizenry and its dedicated military.

.  .  .

The U.S. invested about $10 billion in Plan Colombia. To put it in perspective, the financial cost of the entire effort was equivalent to about three weeks of the Iraq war.
Plan Colombia is a reminder that a sustained, bipartisan intervention that includes defense, diplomacy, development and democratic values can be effective. Smart power isn’t cheap, quick or easy, but it can work.
Read it all here.   Some other articles about this success can be found here, here, and here.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Some thoughts About The French Elections

The French election results are in, and they some good news for those of us concerned with the rise of far right nationalism.  Center/left reformer Emmanuel Macron came in first with 23.9% of the vote, and far right Marine LePen came in second with 21.4% of the vote.  they will participate in a runoff on May 7.  All polling shows Macron with a 26% lead over Le Pen, which if it holds, is good news indeed.

A few observations about this election.  First, what is notable here is that the two major parties in Franch that have dominated French elections since Charles de Gaulle--the conservative Republicans and the left Socialists--did not even make the runoffs.  Instead, the candidate of a fringe far right wing party (Le Pen) and an independent movement arising from the reformist center/left (Macron) prevailed.  Indeed the candidate of the incumbent Socialist party only got 8% of the vote.  To be far, the Republican candidate might very well been in the top two had he not had a serious of mini-scandals.  The French voters sent a clear message--they want serious change.

Second, the polling in France was remarkable accurate, which suggests that polling showing a huge Macron lead will also hold.  Nate Silver has an excellent post explaining why we should not expect a Brexit/Trump surprise in France.


Third, the stakes in the first round are striking.  With the exception of Macron, all three leading candidates were very close to Putin.  Two of the candidates were hostile to the U.S. and NATO, as well as the EU.  If Macron had not made it to the runoff, the future of Europe would have been very bleak indeed.

Fourth, while immigration and the EU were center to the election rhetoric.  The real reason for the rejection of the establishment was the very low growth in the French economy and the bleak employment prospects for young French citizens.  Both the far left candidate and the far right candidate blamed the EU, and both adopted pretty similar prescriptions--more State involvement in the economy, an end to the Euro and either the elimination or the weakening of the EU.  Yet, France's economic troubles long predate both the immigration surge and the current Euro troubles.  Most economists have long blamed the very inflexible labor system and its extraordinarily high payroll taxes as the reason for slow growth in employment.  Macron was unique is promising to focus on solving the diagnosis offered by most economists, and rejecting the excuses of the left and right.  A good analysis of the economic issues in this race can be found here.

Finally, Macron appears to be taking on the rising nationalism in Europe head-on by distinguishing patriotism from nationalism, and arguing that a true French patriot needs to be true to the nation's values.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Why the French Elections Matter

The French people today are going to the polls, and the results could have profound impact on the U.S., Europe and the world.  Indeed, I would argue that these elections are even more consequential than the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.  We have four major candidates that are basically running neck and neck.  Two candidates--those on the far left and right-- are hostile to both NATO and the EU, and if those two candidates are in the runoff, it is hard to see how the EU survives.  And it will also have a profound impact on European unity in the face of an aggressive Russia.

The extremist candidate are Maine LePen from the ultra-nationalist, anti-EU and anti-immigrant Natioanl Front, and Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is running far to the left, with an agenda that is hostile to both NATO and the United States.  The "mainstream" candidates are Francois Fillon, who is a social conservative focused on the Catholic vote, and Emmanuel Macron, who is running as a Centrist.  Interestingly, despite the unpopularity of the EU in France, Macron is unabashed in his support of the EU and of the need for economic reform.

What has been fascinating about this election is that only one of France's leading parties, The Republicans, has survived.  The Socialist party is largely out of the picture.  Both Melenchon and Macron are effectively independent candidates.  This largely reflects a big desire for change, and the results of this election--no matter who wins--will have a profound effect on the future of Frane.

The most likely result today is a Le Pen/Macron runoff, what in a normal election year would be won by Macron.  The nightmare scenario for stability in Europe would be a contest between Le Pen and Melenchon.

I for one, am rooting for Macron.

You can read more about the election here.  The first results will come in around 2 pm Eastern time.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Incoherent "Message" of the Syrian Missile Attacks

As I previously posted, the missile attack on Syrian following its use of chemical weapons had little military impact.  Syria was able to fly missions from that airbase the next next.  The real importance of this attack, therefore is symbolic and focuses on the message being sent.  Of course there are multiple potential audiences of this message.  They include the domestic American audience (with the message that Trump is not afraid to use military force), our Allies in the region (with the message that Trump has their back in the fight against Assad), and Syria itself (there are consequences of chemical weapons).

In the days following the attack, however, it is becoming more and more apparent that any message for this attack is muddled at best (other than to the applauding domestic audience of "serious" national security types).  Paul Pillar lays out the muddle nature of the message at The National Interest:
The best face-value interpretation of the attack in Syria is that it had to do with punishing and deterring use of chemical weapons.  But if the purpose was to enforce an international norm and international law about use of chemical weapons, persuading anyone of that was made more difficult by the lack of any effort to obtain international sanction, especially through the United Nations Security Council, before a retaliatory strike.  Moreover, other bellicose administration rhetoric about Syria has sounded much broader.  And indeed, casualties from chemical weapons have been a tiny fraction of overall casualties—including civilian suffering inflicted by the regime’s military operations—in the Syrian war.  So if it really was just about chemicals, how much good did any message-sending strike do?  The Syrian regime evidently was not deterred from  promptly attacking again the same neighborhood that was the scene of the chemical incident.

Messages—like names, and unlike sticks and stones—don’t necessarily hurt very much.  A message-sending military attack can actually help the regime or group that is targeted, by giving it an opportunity to demonstrate to its constituencies how it is surviving the attacks of, standing up to, and striking back against the American superpower.  And it does so with the added benefit of riding any popular resentment against foreign, especially U.S., intervention and resentment against any casualties inflicted by foreign military operations.

.  .  .

What is most important in the end is not only the message and the risk of escalation but a belief in the minds of the leaders of the other state that our own leaders consider the issue at stake to be so important that they are willing to fight a bigger war over it.  But that is not true of the civil war in Syria.  The United States simply does not have that kind of stake in its outcome, which is why the Obama administration wisely did not immerse the United States in that civil war.

Read it all here. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A New National Security Problem: Stopping Killer Asteroids?

A large asteroid will come very close to the Earth today, and this is raising the obvious question:  if it were on a path to hit the Earth, what could we do to stop it?  The asteroid is 2,000 feet wide and will come within 1.1 million miles of the Earth.  If it hit the Earth, it would destroy an entire continent.  This is not just a often-used plot for a Hollywood movie, but a topic of discussion at NASA.  Andrew Follett has an interesting post at National Interest, about NASA's thinking on this unique national security (actually, global security) problem:
“I think that we would have tried very hard to launch an interceptor mission,” Dr. Joseph A. Nuth, a senior asteroid scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“Given the short time to impact this would most likely have been a mission that would target the asteroid on close approach,” Nuth said. “My guess is that the mission would carry the largest nuclear device possible and would try to both disrupt the body and slow its approach.”
NASA’s nightmare scenarios is an asteroid on an impact course with Earth. Nuth isn’t sure NASA could get a mission together in time to stop it. It could take five years just to build a spacecraft capable of the intercept.

“Given the short warning time, the mission might not work,” Nuth said. ” No design is available for such a mission so everything would be done ‘on the fly’ with little review or testing and probably no backup options. ‘Hail Mary passes’ do occasionally work however, so this attempt might work as well.”
. . .
In recent war games, NASA and other federal agencies were unable to deflect a simulated asteroid on course to hit Earth with four years of warning.

The “city-killer” asteroid ended up land off the Southern California coast. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel were forced to coordinate a simulated mass evacuation of the Los Angeles area to mitigate the damages of a potential tsunami.

You can read the full post here.

Why No One Seems to Care that the Syrian Missile Strike Violated International Law

As I have noted in previous posts, the Syrian missile strike almost certainly violated the U.N. Charter's rules governing the use of military force.  As I have also posted, this may as much an indictment of the dysfunction of the U.N. Security Council as it is of the strike itself.  Indeed, apart from Iran and Russia, Syria's closest allies, the international community's reaction to the missile strike has either been to praise it or to remain silent.  Remarkably, China has not criticized the attacks.  Julian Ku, a very smart international law professor has a great post today that explores why this may be the case:
 In the view of most international lawyers, the US strike on Syria is a crystal-clear violation of the UN Charter. So why doesn’t anybody, except Russia and some international lawyers, seem to care?

.  .  .

This gap between the reactions of governments and the reactions of most international-law scholars is striking. If the United States is flouting a law that usefully constrains nations who otherwise might be tempted to go to war, it could be increasing global instability. On the other hand, if the United States acted correctly in its efforts to deter the further use of chemical weapons by using military force, then international lawyers may be revealing themselves to be wedded to an outmoded and formalistic ideas about the international system — to a worldview that overrates the sovereignty of nation-states and underrates the lives of people living within them. This argument is made by dissenters from the international-law “consensus” view, including Yale’s Harold Koh, the former top lawyer in President Obama’s State Department.

But there is still another, more hard-nosed, realist take on the foreign reaction to the Syria strikes: that the UN’s rules on when force is permitted don’t meaningfully constrain states’ behavior. Although the Trump administration has not formally endorsed this position, I suspect this view is held by many of its decisonmakers.

.  .  .

I am not claiming that international law doesn’t matter; all things being equal, states would prefer to act in concert with their international obligations. But there are many powerful non-legal forces affecting the decisions of states to use or not use military force. Those non-legal forces include questions of global stability, military capability, support from other key and affected states, and domestic political support. Such factors are always going to be more significant drivers of action than the views of international lawyers.
Julian's post is really well worth reading if you want to understand the arguments about the legality of the strike and the increasing irrelevance of the U.N. Charter to the use of force.  I think he is absolutely right that the disconnect between legal academics and the international community suggests that non-legal  factors are making the U.N. Charter far less relevant to many use of force decisions.

This should not be surprising: the U.N. Charter reflects the experience of World War II and reflects a desire to stop all uses of force in international relationships.  The reality of the world today is different, and nations are far less willing to cede the decision to use force to the Permanent Members of the security Council.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

What Are International Law Limits On the Presidents Use of Military Force?

In light of the missile strikes against Syria, the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq against the Taliban and ISIS, and the threats of war against North Korea, I thought that it might be useful to offer a basic primer on the principles of international law that govern President Trump's use of military force.

International law in this area largely comes from three sources: First, nations can create law by the adoption and ratification of treaties.  In the context of the legality of military action, the key treaty is the U.N. Charter.  Second, nations can create "customary international law" by practice.  If a large number of countries declare a principle and actively act in compliance with that practice, the principle is recognized as a settled principle of international law.  Third, international tribunals such as the International Court of Justice provide decisions on these issues.

In the modern era, the critical legal document is the U.N. Charter.  Adopted after the horrific experience of World War II, the Charter is imposes a very restrictive view of when a nation can engage in the use of force.  It provides that "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations."  The only exceptions are the use of force authorized by the Security Council and the right of individual and collective self defense.  The self-defense provision, however, makes clear that this right of self-defense only applies until the Security Council has taken action:
Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.
The text of the U.N. Charter leaves lots of open questions such as What is the use of force? Must a nation wait for an attack or can it take preemptive action?  Practice over the years, however, has resulted in some consensus on many of the open issues, and the International Court of Justice has offered some guidance as well.  For example, it is largely accepted that a nation need not wait for an an attack, but can take steps to defend itself from an attack that is imminent.  A merely preventive attack, however,--such as to take out a weapon--is not permitted unless an actually attack is imminent.

Some recent examples of military action illustrate these principles.  While the Vietnam War was deeply controversial, the U.S. intervention in defense of South Vietnam was a lawful exercise of collective self defense in support of South Vietnam.  Both the Gulf War and our more recent intervention in Libya were authorized by the Security Council.  The legality of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is deeply controversial, but it is worth noting that the U.S. at the time justified the war as authorized by Security Council resolutions, and in particular as the resumption of the previously authorized use of force against Iraq (to defend Kuwait) after violations of the cease fire.  Finally, our current fight against ISIS has the express consent of Iraq and at least the implied consent of Syria, and both are also instances of our own self-defense.

This is not to say, however, that every military action taken by the U.S. has had even a plausible legal basis under the U.N. Charter. In recent years, the most challenging situations have been circumstances of serious humanitarian crisis in which the Security Council could not come to agreement. The best example here is our air war against Serbia to stop human rights abuses in Kosovo.  The Security Council could reach no resolution, but NATO decided to act nonetheless.  I would put Trump's missile attack against Syria in this same category.  Vietnam's intervention in Cambodia to dislodge the Khmer Rouge is yet another example.  Some legal scholars have used the odd phrase "illegal, but justified" to describe these cases.

So what about Korea?  Clearly, if there is an imminent legal attack on the U.S. or its allies by North Korea, we could act to defend ourselves with out waiting for North Korea to launch its attack.  I am doubtful, however, that current legal principles would allow us to  use preventive war to take out a missile silo or nuclear facility absent such an imminent attack.  Israel attacked a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 with little international reaction, suggesting that the international community might accept an "anticipatory self-defense" justification, at least when weapons impose an existential threat.

What about Syria?  Could we take military action to create a no fly zone or even support regime change?  In my view, the answer is a clear no under the U.N. Charter unless an exception is developed for humanitarian intervention.

Some important observations before I leave this primer.  First, the Cambodia, Kosovo and Syrian examples, have lead many to question the continued Security Council control over humanitarian intervention.  If China and Russia will veto any humanitarian intervention, no matter how justified, perhaps a new framework will be required.

Second, it is important to note that the United States was the leading power in developing the U.N. Charter framework.  It was not imposed on the U.S.; to the contrary, in large measure we (and our Allies) imposed this framework on the rest of the world.  And while it has constrained our action, it appears to have restrained other aggressive action as well, and has not restrained us when our vital rights of defense were at stake--such as in the current wars against  terrorist groups.  The result has been a far more stable world than before the Charter.

Finally, while it is often easy for a good lawyer to concoct an exception to these rules (as we did in Kosovo), we need to be cautious.  An exception we come up with to suit our national interests can just as easily be used by future adversaries.  Indeed, Russia has used the Kosovo example to justify its aggression in Georgia and Ukraine.  Put more plainly, we need to always remember that one person's "humanitarian intervention" is another's aggression.  Our examples matter.




The Doolittle Raid, the Syria Missile Strike, and Symbolic Military Action

Seventy-five years ago today, on April 18, 1942, a squadron of 16 Army Air Force led by Colonel James Doolittle took off from an aircraft carrier for a surprising attack on Japan during the darkest moments of World War II.  Little actual damage was done to Japan, but the symbolic importance was huge-it gave the U.S. public a huge boost and it  eliminated the Japanese sense of invulnerability.  The Doolittle Raid is one of the most important stories told in the U.S. Air Force, and I had a painting of the raid prominently displayed in my office.

Which brings me to the Syrian missile strike.  It too did little damage to the Syrian military, but as the Doolittle Raid suggests, even inconsequential military actions can have symbolic importance.  Is that true of the Syrian attack as well?  Michel Paradis makes the persuasive case to the contrary in the Weekly Standard:
he Doolittle Raid was a publicity stunt whose tactical significance was infinitesimal relative to its cost. But it was nevertheless one of the most consequential military actions of the entire war. And if we consider why, the lessons are illuminating. The raid defied expectations about U.S. military capabilities. It left the Japanese uncertain about the U.S. future intentions. And—most crucially—it debunked the governing myth upon which Japan's ruling militarists depended for their own legitimacy: that the Japanese would always be safe inside Japan.

These criteria are helpful in assessing the possible effects of military strikes that may seem purely symbolic, like the one on Shayrat Airbase. On the one hand, the fact that the Trump administration was willing to reverse the president's long-touted intention to cede Syria to Assad and Russia, regardless of the consequences, has undeniably provoked a reassessment of U.S. intentions. Was it a one-off strike for the television cameras? Or does it portend greater U.S. involvement? The uncertainty itself can be unsettling to adversaries.

On the other hand, nothing about the strike exceeded standard expectations of the United States' war-fighting capabilities. More Tomahawk missiles were fired, for example, on the rudimentary training camps in Afghanistan that President Bill Clinton targeted in retaliation for al Qaeda's 1998 Embassy bombings. If anything, the Shayrat strike confirmed the unfair, but widely held, conventional wisdom that the United States is only willing to fight from a safe distance.
More troubling is how the Shayrat strike might bolster, rather than undermine, the governing myth that has been essential to the Assad regime's political legitimacy for nearly half a century. Where Japan's militarists depended upon a perception of invulnerability, the Assad family depends on quite another governing myth.

.  .  .
Assad's governing myth is based on resilience, not invulnerability. He and his family can weather anything; even an attack by the most powerful military on earth. And by launching his squadrons from Shayrat Airbase the very next day, Assad himself sent an unmistakable message.
Read it all here.  You can find more on the Doolittle Raid here.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Syria and Monday Morning Quarterbacking: Should we Have Intervened?

By almost every measure, the civil war in Syria has been a disaster.  Even apart from the remarkably large loss of life by Syrians, the humanitarian disaster, and the outrageous human rights violations by the Syrian regime, the war has had quite serious adverse consequences for the United States and its allies.  The resulting refugee crisis has flooded Europe with refugees--far more than could be accommodated (and checked) by normal refugee processing.  This has changed the politics of Europe profoundly.  The war in Syria is, in large measure, why the Islamic State was able to take territory in Iraq and Syria, which it has used to successfully encourage  lone wolf terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe.  Finally, the war has given Russia and Iran increased geopolitical power in the Middle East.

Given all of this, it must have been a profound mistake for the Obama Administration not to have militarily intervened in the civil war, right?  Not so fast.  Even in 20/20 hindsight, it is not at all obvious that the situation would have been better had the U.S. used military force.

Critics of the Obama Administration point to several military options for intervention.  These included one-time retaliatory military strikes in response to particular human rights abuses (such as the use of chemical weapons), the use of  a no fly zone, the creation of "safe zones" on Syrian territory, and outright military support of some faction or the other of the Syrian rebels.

For several reasons, I remain deeply skeptical that any of these options would have improved the situation in Syria.

First, the recent history of military intervention hardly offers much support for the notion that U.S. military intervention in the Middle East improves matters.  We were initially successful in enforcing regime change in Libya, but the result has been a failed state where ISIS and other extremists thrive.  We were initially successful in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but to call the result in Iraq (including the rise of ISIS) anything but a disaster would be disingenuous.  In each case, the complicated tribal and sectarian divisions made military intervention--in the long term at least--the wrong solution.  Most of the military leaders I worked with in the Pentagon, by the way, recognized this, and were opposed to intervention in Syria.

Second, with the exception of a one-time missile strike, most of the options above would have required a risky and extensive military campaign that would have required air strikes on hundreds of targets in Syria--often in areas near civilians.  Syrian has a robust and modern air defense system (thanks, Russia), and any military option that required that we have unhampered access to Syrian territory or air space would have first required that we destroy the air defense system.  I am fully confident that our Air Force and Navy would be up to the job, but the level of violence required would have been shocking.  (This was likely the reason, by the way, that Trump used missiles, and not aircraft, for his strike on Syria).

Third, lest we forget, at the time military intervention was under active consideration, there was a complete absence of support by the American people (and much of  the international community for that matter).  Most voices in Congress were opposed.  The British Parliament actually voted against intervention. And polling showed little appetite by the American public for another war in the Middle East.  Given that most of these options required some sustained action over many years to be effective, the lack of support by the American people was critical.

(And even apart from all of the above, the legal justification for military intervention under both international law and U.S. domestic law was dubious at best.  A sustained military operation would have required congressional consent under the War Powers Act, and the U.N. Charter does not permit unilateral military action absent a clear self-defense rationale).

To be clear, I still find the situation in Syria very troubling, and all of us should consider whether this was a case where some military action was warranted.  I, for one, remain, deeply skeptical,

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The "Mother of All Bombs" Explained

My friend Michael Schmitt, a former Air Force JAG officer now on the faculty of the Naval War College, is my go-to academic on all Law of Armed Conflict issues.  For those troubled by the use of a 22,000 pound bomb known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast Weapon ("MOAB") in Afghanistan, Alongh with Lt. Commnander Peter Barker, Mike offers a very useful primer at Just Security:
The MOAB is huge by conventional bomb standards. Weighing in at approximately 11 tons, it contains 18,700 lbs. of H-6 explosive, which was originally developed for underwater explosions due to its low sensitivity to shock and stable storage characteristics.  This is the largest quantity of explosive in any non-nuclear weapon in the US inventory (although there are larger weapons by weight, they contain less explosive due to having heavier casings designed to penetrate targets).  By way of comparison, the frequently-used Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) comes in at launch weights of between roughly 500 lbs. and 2000 lbs.

.  .  .
The MOAB can be viewed as a weapon with value at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of warfare.  It is tactical in the sense that the weapon is especially useful against certain targets, such as caves and tunnel systems. General John Nicholson, Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, noted that the MOAB strike served tactical purposes: “As ISIS-K’s losses have mounted, they are using [improvised bombs], bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defense…. This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K.” He added, “It was the right time to use it tactically against the right target on the battlefield,”
Beyond tactical use, the MOAB could serve to force the enemy to discard particular tactics to achieve operational level of war objectives. And at the strategic level, it is useful in signaling resolve and other strategic messaging. However, in light of its cost ($16 million each) and size, it is unlikely to be used with any frequency.
Despite the attention it has drawn, the MOAB presents no unique issues or challenges for international humanitarian law (IHL).   As a guided weapon, it does not run afoul of the prohibition on weapons that are by nature incapable of being directed at lawful military objectives.  On the contrary, the fact that it is a precision munition using GPS for guidance cuts the other way.  Nor is the MOAB a weapon that causes superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, for its effects on combatants are basically the same as those of other blast weapons that rely upon the creation of a pressure wave to injure or kill.  It appears clear that the MOAB is not a weapon that is unlawful per se.
Read it all here.  As Mike and Commander Barker explain, while the MOAB is not unlawful per se, given its power, its use in a particular circumstance could violate the law of armed conflict.  For example, if it were used in a setting where many civilian casualties would be expected, its use might be unlawful.  In the use last week, however, it was used in a remote location with no civilians present.

Why Would North Korea Use Nuclear Weapons?

Ryan Pickrell has an excellent analysis of what would happen in the event of a war with North Korea that is well worth reading.  It offers a reasonable, but quite sober analysis of what would happen in such a war.  the bottomline (which sounds right to me) is that the United States and its allies would prevail, but the loss of life and damage would be huge--with millions dead in Korea and Japan, and with the possibility of a successful nuclear attack on a U.S. city.

To me the most interesting part of the paper is Pickrell's analysis of when North Korea would use nuclear weapons:
 “Putting this in a North Korean perspective, they see themselves as facing the world’s largest single military and nuclear power in a potential conflict. The pursuit of nuclear weapons, then, is intended as a deterrent, to counter their weaker military position,” Baker explained.
North Korea’s primary aspiration is “to stop a buildup of U.S. forces around them and protect North Korea from the fate of Iraq,” Pollack told TheDCNF. The aim is primarily nuclear deterrence.
Were North Korea to use a nuclear weapon, it would most likely be in the event of a conflict, if a conflict appeared imminent, or if some external factor posed an immediate threat to the country’s survival. How each side perceives these conditions varies, making it difficult to determine which actions might push the Pyongyang over the edge.
“It is not clear, for example, if they consider a limited strike against their nuclear or missile facilities as an imminent threat, or if they would initially respond with conventional systems,” Baker explained, “Though given the military disparity, even a limited strike could be seen as the beginning of a more concerned military effort, leaving the North needing to use its WMDs quickly or risk having its capability knocked out.”
Despite North Korean threats, the probability that North Korea would choose to launch a nuclear strike is relatively low, but at the end of the day, Kim Jong-un, while not irrational or crazy as some suspect, is very much a two-dimensional thinker who might decide to do the unthinkable if push came to shove.
Read it all here.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

An Argument in Favor of Humanitarian Intervention

The strikes against Syria in response to the Sarin attack are causing a very useful dialogue among international law scholars about the legality of humanitarian intervention under international law.  One of the scholars I most respect, Jens David Ohlin, has an excellent post arguing that the U.N. charter should be read to allow for humanitarian intervention.

By way of background, the U.N. Charter includes several provisions that regulate the use of force by member states of the United Nations.  Article 2 of the Chater states that the U.N. is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of nations, which includes the requirement that "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations."  The only exceptions are the "inherent right" of self and collective defense, and the use of force  authorized by the Security Council.

The debate over Syria has largely focused on whether military action done for humanitarian purposes can be justified as either not "inconsistent with the Purposes of the United States," or as included in the right of self defense.

Jens takes a larger view that focuses on the reasons why we might want to read the U.N. Charter as consistent with humanitarian intervention:
The Charter regime on the use of force (article 2 combined with Chapter VII and article 51) is designed to reduce or eliminate the number of sovereignty violations caused by international war.
This articulated goal has deep roots in World War II. Indeed, one could point to Nuremberg and the tribunal’s conclusion that crimes against peace (aggression) were the supreme international crime because they contained within them the seeds of the other international crimes. The lesson, apparently, is that stopping international conflicts is the most important goal of the international legal system.
Unfortunately, I think this principle, which is just one principle among many, has been taken to an extreme level, and fetishized to the point where other noteworthy principles are devalued.
We should never forget that preserving international peace has mostly instrumental value. Protecting the integrity of states and their domestic arrangements has little value in and of itself.  If the states and their domestic arrangements are fundamentally unjust, then preserving international peace is merely protecting those unjust arrangements.To make my point, consider a “perfect” world without a single article 2(4) violation. Every state respects the borders of all other states and never launches a military assault against them.  Each state is inwardly directed.  But internally, each state is viciously repressing and killing its own civilians and subjecting them to unimaginable horror.  Would this be a “perfect” world from the perspective of the UN Charter or from the perspective of international law generally? From the sole perspective of article 2(4), this world is indeed perfect.  But it is far from perfect — it is a disaster.  Protecting the sovereignty of each state has instrumental value because it allows states to flourish.  But if sovereignty is simply preserving injustice, we need to consider that there are other values at stake, other values that are promoted by international law.
Read it all here. While this point is valid, I think that Jens ignores the deeply skeptical view of the use of force contained in the U.N. Charter, and the predominant role given to the Security Council in authorizing the use of force in contexts outside of self defense.  I think a better reading of the Charter is that humanitarian intervention is permitted only with the authorization of the Security Council.  In an age of Chinese and Russian vetos of such interventions, this is deeply unsatisfying, but I think it better reflects what was intended by the framers of the Charter.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Ignore the Media Hype: The World is a Better and Safer Place

If you simply watched cable news over the past few weeks, you would think that the world is going to hell quite quickly: Sarin gas and retaliatory bombings in Syria, nuclear weapons in North Korea, and the mother of all bombs dropped on ISIS in Afghanistan.  When you add to this, increasing bad relations with Russia, and China's aggressiveness in the South China Sea, it seems like the world is becoming a dark place.

As this article in the Washington Post notes, however, quite the opposite is true.  While very bad things happen in the world everyday, by almost every measure, the world is actually a far better place than it has been in its history.  The human race is healthier, richer and more peaceful than anytime in its history.

And here are some highlights:

The number of humans living in extreme poverty has dropped dramatically in the last few decades.  Over the last 30 years, the percentage of humans living in extreme poverty has dropped fro over 50% to under 17%.  And this is not the only economic measure that has gotten better. Child labor has dropped by more than 50% in the last 16 years alone.  World literacy rates are rapidly increasing and we are actually approaching 100%.  Violent crime in down in most areas of the world.  Life expectancy is increasing at a dramatic rate in the developing world, and infant mortality is dropping fast.  And the percentage of people living in democracies is far higher today than it was even two decades ago.

But perhaps the biggest story is that despite the daily headlines about war and terrorism, the world today is actually far more peaceful than it has ever been in its history.  Yes, there are conflicts across the world, but they are less intense, and far more limited than in other times in our history.  Heck, even if you focus only on terrorism, your chances of being a victim of terrorism was higher in the 1970's than it is today.

If you want still more data, you can find it here,  here and here.

President Obama made the observation that if you were allowed to choose which period of history you would live in, but were not told your nationality or gender, you would be crazy not to choose today.

These facts raise several important questions.  First, if the world is such a better place, why do most of us feel that the world is actually a worse place.  There are several explanations.  First, the pace of progress has been most evident in the developing world, with many in countries like the U.S. feeling that things are getting worse and not better.  To some extent this is true.  Moreover, when we are bombarded by images of horrific events and acts of violence, it is hard to put these events in the broader context.

Second, even if the world is a safer place today than in the past, will this continue to be the case in the future.  With a rising China, an assertive Russia, and a barbaric ISIS, can we really be assured that the trend lines will continue.  This, I think, is the real question.  I, however, remain an optimist.  While stupid decisions by arrogant leaders can always lead to war, the trend has occurred because of a complicated set of reasons.  Most fundamentally, most nations now realize that war seldom results in the achievement of political aims, international institutions restrain the use of force, and attitudes towards war have dramatically change over the years

We need to be vigilant to insure that progress will continue, but we need as well to avoid being discouraged and disheartened by the headlines.  The world is a much better place than it was even 20 years ago. Our job is to make sure we continue to make progress.


Friday, March 31, 2017

More Reasons to Resist Further U.S. Involvement in Yemen


In a previous post, I explained my concerns with the Department of Defense proposal to offer direct military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.  Daniel DePetris has a good piece in National Interest that explained why this would indeed be a bad idea.  DePetris focuses on the impact of further U.S. involvement on the current humanitarian crisis, and also notes the violation of the laws of armed conflict by all sides.  The most interesting argument he offers, however, focuses on how our intervention will hurt efforts to negotiate a peace:
The civil war in Yemen isn’t a top-tier priority for policymakers in Washington, but when it is discussed in the public domain, U.S. officials often repeat the mantra that there is no military solution to the conflict. The State Department talking points are repetitive, but ultimately correct: only a Yemeni-led peace process among all of the country’s belligerents and stakeholders will end the conflict and allow Yemenis and the international community to begin the expensive process of rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. During his last months in office, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to the region and met with Arab leaders on multiple occasions, ultimately coming to the same exact conclusions: that the war is at a military stalemate; no combatant is strong enough to vanquish their enemies without completely destroying Yemen as a nation; and the most durable way to resolve Yemen’s many political problems is by striking a fair political agreement that ushers in a new era of Yemeni politics.
If the U.S. does indeed decide to plunge further into the conflict and assist the Saudis and Emiratis in their campaign, Washington is effectively deepening its role as a belligerent to the advantage of one side in an internal conflict. In other words, at the same time that the United States would be trying to work with the UN to resurrect a dormant Yemeni peace process that is hanging on by a thread, Washington would be sending thousands of smart bombs to Riyadh and improving the intelligence picture for Saudi and Emirati aircraft searching for Houthi targets. The two are completely contradictory; the United States would be dousing a burning house with water on one day, only to light a match the next.
You can read the entire article here.  As I explained in my last post on Yemen, the motivating factor here within the Administration seems to be a desire to push back on Iran.  In my view, Yemen is not the time or place for this pushback.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Why U.N Peacekeepers Are a Good Deal For America


It appears from the Trump "Skinny Budget" that the U.S. financial contribution to United Nations peacekeeping forces will take a big hit.  As Heather Peterson explains in a U.S. News post, this is a bad decision.  U.N. Peacekeeping is both effective a good deal for America.  The U.N. peacekeeping forces mean U.S. military forces don't have to intervene:
The answer is that U.N. peacekeeping operations are generally successful and much more cost effective than using U.S. forces. Research by RAND found that U.N. peacekeeping operations have a pretty good track record and can be "an effective means of terminating conflicts, insuring against their reoccurrence, and promoting democracy." This conclusion is supported by research by Nicholas Sambanis who found U.N. peacekeeping operations have a "robust positive effect on peacebuilding outcomes … (which is) stronger when peacekeepers remain." In other words, U.N. peacekeepers are good at their jobs, especially if they stick around.
But, what about the cost to the U.S.? It turns out that U.N. peacekeepers are an incredibly good deal when compared to U.S. forces. Let's take a historical example. In 2004, a coup in Haiti created a potential refugee crisis as Haitians attempted to flee the violence in boats bound for U.S. shores. The George W. Bush administration decided to deploy U.S. military forces to Haiti to stop the violence and prevent a potential influx of refugees. After the initial intervention, Haiti was far from stable. In order to maintain stability, a long-term military presence was needed. The U.S. didn't want to keep forces in Haiti and was able to convince the other members of the U.N. Security Council to authorize a peacekeeping mission.
The Government Accountability Office put together a report comparing the actual costs of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti to a hypothetical U.S. force (over a 14 month time period). The GAO determined that if U.S. forces stayed in Haiti, it would have cost the U.S. $876 million. The cost to the U.S. of the actual U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti was $116 million.
In other words, the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping forces saved the U.S. approximately $760 million in just over a year.
Read it all here. My friend Colonel Dave DesRoches (West Point graduate with a PhD) points out thst even these savings estimates are too low.  It doesn't include the lifetime medical costs of sending soldiers and Marines in a Malaria infested area.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Facilitating Lone Wolf Terrorists: ISIS's "Virtual Entrepreneurs"


As is apparent in the recent terrorist attacks in both Europe and the U.S., the biggest threat now are "lone wolf" attacks by radicalized Americans and Europeans.  It is therefore imperative that we better understand the radicalization process so we can effectively intervene. Seamus Hughes and Alexander Melagrou-Hitchens of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, have done some very interesting work that could help us stop these attacks.  They have focused their attention on ISIS's use of English speakers on social media to recruit and facilitate these attacks.  They have found that these "virtual entrepreneurs" were involved in at least 21% of all terror plots in the U.S. and more than half the plots in Europe:
Virtual entrepreneurs represent a natural progression of the IS threat to the West. As military pressure has squeezed the group in its bases in Iraq and Syria, and governments have largely staunched the flow of foreign fighters from their shores, the group has sought to exploit its online reach to maintain a presence in the countries of its enemies.
Junaid Hussain’s presence on social media platforms like Twitter, for example, allowed him to gain an almost cult-like following among Western sympathizers. Hussain, a former hacker who had frequent run-ins with law enforcement, travelled to Syria while awaiting trial for a charge of violent disorder. Here was a man who practiced what he preached; he talked the talk and walked the walk. Not only did he support jihad on his Twitter feed, he joined and fought for the group in its heartland. Hussain’s actions gave him a level of credibility that he quickly leveraged into a following, allowing him to further the terrorist aims of IS in the West. Hussain was revered by American and British jihadists, who looked to him for religious advice and practical answers on everything from how to travel to join IS to religious rulings on fighting Jihad.
Hussain was always happy to advise potential jihadis on matters large and small. In one case, he provided an Ohio man, Munir Abdulkader, with the address of a U.S. military officer, and suggested that he be killed. Abdulkader relied on Hussain to provide material details. “Make sure the soldier was in Iraq or Afghanistan,” one text stated. “Do you know his work schedule? When he home etc?” said another. Abdulkader went further in his requests: “How do you make Molotov? You have a link? And what’s the knife to use? Sharpest?” He gave Hussain a play-by-play of his surveillance of targets and the supposed ease of purchasing a AK-47. At each step, Hussain was online and encouraging. Abdulkader was arrested shortly after that, having plotted part of his attack with an accomplice who was an FBI informant.
Read their Lawfare post here.  They elaborate on their work in West Point's Combating Terrorism Center's Sentinel.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Trump is Wrong: America's Allies Are A Critical Strategic Advantage



If you listen to much of the rhetoric coming from Donald Trump during the campaign, you would think that America's allies are a bunch of useless leeches that drain American strength.  Indeed, he all but implied that Making America Great Again and America First meant that we needed to rethink our alliance relationships.  Fortunately, at least some of this rhetoric has been tempered after the Inauguration, but it raises the question:  was candidate Trump right that our alliances sap our strength?  To me, the answer is an emphatic NO.

The U.S. alliance network comes in four forms.  First, we are members of multilateral security alliances.  This includes NATO (Europe, Iceland and North America) and ANZUS (US, Australia and New Zealand).  Second, we have formal bilateral agreements with several countries, including South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.  Third, we have informal, but quite strong security understandings with some countries, most notably Israel and Taiwan.  Finally, we have lots of security arrangements that make limited formal commitments, including agreements with many Middle Eastern nations.

The scope of this alliance network is huge: over 60 nations that produce 75% of the world's economic network have have a total population of $2 billion  people.  This is in marked contrast to our major peer competitors.  Neither China nor Russia have more than a handful of small allies, and these alliances are, by and large, usually momentary alliances of convenience or exist on paper only.

Given this extensive U.S. alliance network, there are two possibilities: either these alliances are entangling arrangements that drain us economically (Candidate Trump's view) or they are a core strategic advantage for the U.S. (my view).

In my experience, our alliance network is a huge strategic advantage for several reasons.  First, in both Europe and Asia, our alliances have kept the regions secure and peaceful, which is no small thing considering that NATO includes two nations that are often at odds (Turkey and Greece) and two of our Asian bilateral partners (South Korea and Japan) have a rocky relationship even in the best times.  Our economic prosperity is a direct result of this peace and stability.

Second, our alliance network allows us a global reach.  We have bases around the world that allow us to respond quickly to national security threats anywhere in the world.  Our bases in Europe and the Middle East, for example, were critical to our rapid response to the September 11 attacks.  Moreover, our allies have come to our aid.  NATO helped us after September 11th (including flying AWACS planes in the U.S.), and our NATO allies fought with us in Afghanistan.

Third, it is hard to overstate the simple relationship advantages that come from our alliances.  I knew well and worked with the top Defence Ministry lawyers in several countries (especially the UK and Australia) and that relationship was critical in working on common problems (or disputes).  Most senior U.S. military officers have known their alliance nation counterparts for years since we train and exercise with our allies.  And our diplomats similarly know their counterparts very well.  These relationships, built over years, are critical when we face cries or difficult problems.

Finally, to a remarkable degree, our allies are good at getting us not to do stupid stuff.  And we have prevented our allies from doing the same.  I wish we had listened to the French before we invaded Iraq, but there are actually other examples where we listened to our allies and wisely stepped back from military action, as Tufts Professor Michael Beckley explains:

Against this limited evidence of entanglement are numerous cases in which alliances restrained the United States. Allies dissuaded the United States from escalating the Korean War and crises in Laos and Berlin, and struggled in vain to prevent the United States from entering or escalating other conflicts, the 2003 Iraq War being only the latest major example. Indeed, instances of alliance-induced restraint are evident even within the ¬™ve cases of entanglement discussed above: in the 1954–55 Taiwan Strait crisis, concerns about European alliances discouraged U.S. policymakers from bombing the Chinese mainland and publicly committing to defend Jinmen and Mazu; in the Vietnam War, allies impeded U.S. entry into the war and then repeatedly implored the United States to get out; and in Bosnia and Kosovo, U.S. allies initially restrained the United States from lashing out violently and then provided all of the NATO ground forces and most of the postconflict peacekeepers for the eventual operations.
We should obviously continue to evaluate whether our current security agreements make sense, and a little jaw-boning to urge our allies to pay more for the common defense makes sense.  But we also need to remember that the alliance network created since Wold War II has served us well, and is a key element of our national power.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Blaming Islam

There is an assumption in many conservative circles, and some unease even in liberal circles, about whether there is something unique in Islam that results in the terrorism we see today.  Both point to some passages in the Quran that seem to advocate violence.  David Shariatmadari has a well-reasoned post in the Guardian explaining why it is geopolitics, and not religion, that best explains Jihadist violence:
Let’s assume for a moment, then, that Islam is especially predisposed towards violence. If that’s your view, then you’ll need to show why the history of jihadi terrorism is so very short: this is emphatically a late 20th and early 21st century phenomenon, yet Islam has been around since the seventh century.

What about its wars of conquest? Well they definitely happened, but not in a way that marks Islam out from other cultures. The subsequent wave of imperial expansionism came via the sky-worshipping Mongols, before they settled down to become Muslims. Not only that, the dominant military powers since the 17th century have been Christian – and they often regarded themselves as having an explicitly religious mission.

Aspects of Islamic teaching do indeed justify some kinds of violence. Islam isn’t a pacifist religion. But again, it has this in common with Christianity, Judaism and other world faiths. Since that’s the case, and since we know that violence in the name of Islam has waxed and waned, it follows that we cannot look simply to theology to explain recent Islam-inspired terrorism.

.  .  .

It’s here that the question of politics – geopolitics – becomes inescapable. The Qur’an and the hadith, the sources of Islam, didn’t get rewritten in the last few decades. But they were taken up and used by certain political actors to justify horrific violence. Why?

The answer must lie among the political, economic, military and social changes in the Middle East in our times, and how they have ramified in the wider world. It’s only by looking beyond the texts that we can hope to understand why certain interpretations of them have gained currency among a tiny minority – but a minority willing to indiscriminately kill civilians.
Read it all here. The point here is that politics and economics are driving the terrorism and Islam and the Quaran are largely being used as a post hoc justification for the violence, instead of being the ideology that drives the violence.

Is the Trump Administration About to Escalate the War in Yemen?

The Washington Post is reporting that Defense Secretary Mattis has asked President Trump to lift restrictions on U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia, UAE and other Persian Gulf states engaged in a civil war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.  The obvious question is whether this request makes sense.  I, for one, am deeply skeptical.

Yemen is a complicated mess, and for most of its history it has been a complicated mess.  I can hardly do justice to explaining the current conflict, and don't pretend to be an expert.  I am also firmly convinced that few in the U.S. Government understand Yemen as well (which may well be our biggest problem).  Nonetheless, I will do my best to provide some context for what is going on.

There are multiple conflicts going on now within Yemen, but there are two main conflicts that get the most attention.  First, the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen has been challenging the central government for years.  In addition, this group has global  aspirations to conduct terrorist operations in Europe and the United States.  For this reason, the United States has been engaged in armed conflict with this al Qaeda affiliate, including several air strikes.   Even this conflict is itself complicated.  While al Qaeda in Yemen clearly wants to strike the West, it is allied with local tribal groups that have a more locally focused desire to challenge the central government.

Second, an Iranian-backed Shi'a group, the Houthi rebels, have been engaged in a civil war with the central government.  With the backing of Iran, they control significant territory in Yemen--including Sanaa, the capital.  This conflict has effectively become a proxy war between the Sunni Persian Gulf states, and Iran, with the Saudi Air Force engaged in a highly controversial air war against Houthi held territory.  This conflict is also complicated,  with the former President of Yemen allied with the Houthis.

And to make matters even more complicated from time to time al Qaeda and the Houthis attack each other.  Given that the Houthis' focus on been local, and have shown no desire to attack the U.S., we have largely stayed out of this conflict (other than the uncomfortable fact that much of the weaponry used by Saudi Arabia was made by U.S. companies).

So the current situation is a mess, which raises the critical question: why on Earth would Mattis think intervening to support the Persian Gulf states was in our national interest?  These Gulf states are clearly our major allies in this reason, and the stated purpose of the request to the U.S. is to open a port for humanitarian aid.  All true, but it still begs the issue of why the U.S. should join a proxy war against Iran.  My only guess is that elements in the Administration are eager to join any fight against Iran.

My own view is that we need to be cautious, and avoid escalating this already tragic conflict.  While the Houthis have not shown any desire to strike the West, our involvement could cause them to expand their aims.  More fundamentally, as we have learned even in our conflict with al Qaeda, Yemen is complicated, and the ally of our enemy is not necessarily our enemy as well.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Some Thoughts on the Civilian Casualties in Mosul

The press reports and images are horrific--over 100 Iraqi civilians killed in an apparent U.S. airstrike in Mosul last week.  The U.S. military has confirmed that they engaged targets in this part of the city while providing close air support to Iraqi ground forces that were in  a firefight with ISIS, and has announced an investigation.

I thought that this might be a good opportunity to discuss the Laws of Armed Conflict, Rules of Engagement, and the reality of modern warfare.  Given that the investigation is just underway, I won't have much to opine about what occurred here.  I am confident, however, based on what I know about how the U.S. manages air war, that this was a horrific mistake and not the result of intentional targeting of civilians.


So first a brief primer on the Law of Armed Conflict.  As a result of several international agreements (to which the U.S. has been an active participant), there are rules that govern the conduct of warfare.  These rules are not at all alien to the U.S.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued the so-called Lieber Code that ordered the Union Army to comply with the same basic principles found in these international agreements.

The thrust of the Law of Armed Conflict (or "LOAC" if you want to be cool) is to protect civilians in armed conflict.  The basic rules are these.  First, you can only target military targets, and not civilian targets.  Second, you must take reasonable steps to prevent civilian casualties even as you target legitimate military targets.  Third, if civilian casualties are likely even after you take reasonable steps to prevent casualties, the value of the military target must be proportional to the likely loss of civilian casualties.  This last point deserves some emphasis: LOAC reflects the reality that there may be civilian casualties in war, but insists that large numbers of casualties only come when targeting very important military targets.  (If you want to see the U.S. view of the obligations under LOAC, the best place to look is the DoD Manual on LOAC.)

In the Combined Air Operation Centers that run the Navy and Air Force air war (for both U.S> forces and our allies), there are always lawyers present to make sure that the rules of LOAC are followed.   In the current wars we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the Commanders demand more than compliance with LOAC.  They issue "Rules of Engagement" that impose far stricter rules for when force will be used in an effort to avoid civilian casualties altogether.  This is not done out of humanitarian concern alone.  The Commanders recognize that civilian casualties greatly hurt our effort to defeat the enemy.  For example, General Stanley McChrystal  did not hesitate to use lethal force against the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he imposed a near zero tolerance for civilian casualties in his Rule of Engagement.  As you can see from the picture to the left, there are lots of intelligence analysts, lawyers, and weapons experts advising the commander on every target.

So that is the law, but it is imposed in the realities of the battlefield.  While military leaders work hard to comply with LOAC and the Rules of Engagement, there is much that can go wrong.  Intelligence can be wrong, human beings can transpose numbers in a targeting location, equipment can fail, and human emotions can result in incorrect information.  By and large the U.S. military has a great record for planned attacks (targets chosen days in advance) because it has time to assess likely civilian casualties and double check intelligence.  Most of the civilian casualties, therefore come not from planned attacks, but instead calls for assistance from ground troops in a firefight with the enemy.

It appears that the Mosul airstrike was the result of the U.S. providing air support to Iraqi forces that were under attack from ISIS.  What we don't know is why so many civilians were killed.  Did the Iraqi forces not know that the civilians were in the building (press reports suggest that were hiding in the basement)?  Did Iraqi forces instead fail to tell the U.S. about the presence of civilians?   Were the civilians present because ISIS itself violated LOAC by using the civilians as human shields?  These are all questions for the investigation.

So what are the "take aways" here?  First, to a remarkable degree war is fought subject to clear legal principles recognized by the entire international community and strongly endorsed by the U.S. government for well over a century.  Second, the U.S. takes these legal requirements quite seriously, and in recent Rules of Engagement, the U.S. has been even more protective of civilians than the law requires.

But third, war is a messy business, and errors in information and human mistakes can cause large civilian casualties, which is why we need to not be cavalier about suggesting the use of military force.