Thursday, May 25, 2017

NATO's Image Rising


Pew Research Center this week just released a very interesting poll that shows that in both the North America and Europe, views of NATO have improved the past year.  this is a bit of a surprise given hostile comments by then Candidate Trump about NATO, and the rise of nationalism in Europe.  My best guess is that rising concerns about Russia account for the increased support of the NATO alliance.  Notably, however, support of NATO by Republicans actually decreased during the past year.  Pew offered this analysis:
In both North America and Europe, views of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have generally improved over the past year. Today, roughly six-in-ten Americans hold a favorable opinion of the security alliance, up from just over half in 2016, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Majority support for NATO has also strengthened in Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. And after a steep decline a year ago, most French again express a favorable view of the security alliance.
 .  .  .
Behind the overall uptick in favorable views of NATO, there are sharp political and partisan differences in how publics in member countries perceive the alliance. In the U.S., for instance, liberals (81%) are much more supportive of NATO than conservatives (48%). In fact, American liberals’ opinions of the alliance have improved 23 percentage points since 2016. Conservatives’ views are unchanged.
 In several European countries, those on the ideological right are more likely than those on the left to support the alliance. In Spain, the right and left are 27 percentage points apart – 59% vs. 32% respectively. In Sweden the ideological gap is 26 points, in France 14 points, and in Germany 13 points. The share of the French right with positive views of NATO has grown 14 points in just the past year, while the opinion among the German right is up 13 points over the same period.
Read it all here.   The partisan U.S. numbers are especially interesting, and do reflect the 2016 election:


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How Should We Measure Burden Sharing Among NATO Allies

With President Trump attending the NATO meeting tomorrow, we can expect him to push more nations to meet the 2% of GDP target for defense spending by our NATO allies.  While the emerging Russian threat in Europe certainly justifies a renewed focus on other nation's contributions to the NATO alliance, the 2 % target itself is very misleading.  Former Bush official Richard Fontaine explains:
It’s instructive to look at which ally spends the greatest proportion of its GDP on defense. At the top of the list isn’t Britain, which has fought alongside the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and in operations against the Islamic State. Nor is it the Germans, who, with their paltry 1.2 percent, have made the third-highest troop contribution to the counter-Islamic State campaign. The winner is Greece, which allocates 2.4 percent of GDP to defense but can hardly be considered NATO’s vanguard. (It has helped the numbers that, while Athens slashed its defense spending in absolute terms, its GDP has shrunk faster still.) Today, Portugal is closer to the target, percentage-wise, than the Dutch, and Albania is closer to it than Canada. Clearly such budget numbers tell just part of the story at best.
A more accurate evaluation would look to other important criteria. Some allies bring niche capabilities to the fight, such as Dutch, French, and Spanish special operations forces and British maritime assets, while others, like Italy and Turkey, are integrated into America’s extended nuclear deterrent. Still others host American bases or troops on rotation. At times, allies shoulder some of the defense load in certain arenas. France, for example, took charge of counterterrorism operations in Mali, allowing the United States to focus on other areas. When Germany declined to participate in the 2011 NATO operation in Libya, it subsequently picked up other missions, like patrolling the Aegean Sea in 2016 and deploying a battle group to Lithuania this year.
A broader measure would also look at allies’ reliability and their will to stay engaged in grinding fights. According to the latest available statistics, Denmark and Britain have suffered more fatalities per capita in Afghanistan than has the United States, with Estonia and Canada not far behind. Such comparisons can be crude, but they demonstrate one dimension of their willingness to remain in a war engaged by NATO to defend America, rather than the other way around.
Read it all here.  One reason that the budget numbers are so misleading is that some countries (such as Greece) use their military as a jobs program without any significant military capability.  Others, such as the UK, Germany, and Denmark have highly efficient and effective militaries.  All should do more, but we should not focus too much on the budget numbers.

Were NSA Hackers Just Outed by the Russians?

In 2014, the United States indicted five Chinese military hackers by name for their hacking of several U.S. companies.  Earlier this year, the U.S. indicted four Russians (including two officers in Russia's Federal Security Service) for their involvement in the Yahoo breach.

Apparently, what is good for goose is good for the gander, as the Russian affiliated "Shadow Brokers" group appears to have outed the names of several NSA employees--the first necessary step in a reciprocal Russian indictment:
But something went largely unnoticed outside the intelligence community. Buried in the files’ “metadata”—a hidden area that typically lists a file’s creators and editors—were four names. It isn’t clear whether the names were published intentionally or whether the files were doctored. At least one person named in the metadata worked for the NSA, a person familiar with the matter said.

Additionally, the hacking group in April sent several public tweets that seemingly threatened to expose the activities of a fifth person, former NSA employee Jake Williams, who had written a blog post speculating the group has ties to Russia.

For people who work in the intelligence community, having their identities or the work they have done outed is a significant concern, said Robert M. Lee, chief executive of cybersecurity firm Dragos Inc. and a former member of the intelligence community.

Because nation-state hackers might run afoul of other countries’ laws while discharging their duties, they could, if identified, face charges when outside their country. So, to keep their own people safe, governments for decades have abided by a “gentleman’s agreement” that allows government-backed hackers to operate in anonymity, former intelligence officials say.
The Shadow Brokers “made this personal,” Mr. Lee said. He believes the group left names in the metadata either because the group doesn’t care about redacting sensitive information, or because they wanted the names public.
Read it all here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Some Thoughts on Trump Sharing Classified Information With the Russians

The news media is once again ablaze with a "you have got to be kidding" story about President Trump: that he revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador.  The Administration has issued denials.  So what are we to think?  As I explain below, I think that it is abundantly clear that some highly classified information was told to the Russians.  Whether we ought to be outraged by this, however, requires much more information.  We need more information, but I strongly suspect that reckless describes what occurred here.

So what to make of the denials?  In order to put these in context, you need to understand an old Washington trick--the nondenial denial.  The pattern is this:  A news article alleges that some category of activity occurred.  The "nondenial denial" does not categorically deny that something with in that category occurred, but instead denies only that specific types of activity within that category occurred.  By inference, there is an admission (or at least not a denial) that something in that category occurred.

Here, there has not been a categorical denial that classified information was shared.  Instead, we have more specific denials: “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”  From this you can surmise that highly classified information was shared--just not intelligence sources or methods or secret military operations.  From this, I surmise that the Washington Post article accurately reports that Trump "did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat."  And Trump has since tweeted that he has the right to disclose classified information.

So what are we to think about this disclosure?  It is here that we need more context.  The President has the legal authority to share classified information with a foreign nation.  And we often do--even with countries like Russia--when it is in our interests to do so.  The issue here is whether it was wise--or reckless--to do so.  We need more information, but I strongly suspect that reckless describes what occurred here.

The calculation that needed to be made is whether the risks of disclosure are outweighed by the benefits of disclosure.  Here the downside risks are enormous.  the Washington Post article explains that the source of the information was a foreign intelligence agency that was itself highly classified (and not even disclosed to our allies).  It was "code-word" information, which means that access was tightly controlled even among those with the highest security clearances.   (My friend Jonathan Lee has a great primer on the highly classified nature of this information here.)  The downside risk is that in disclosing both the existence of the plot and the city where the foreign partner detected this information, the Russians could deduce the source of the information and surmise that there is a human agent  or technical means in that City.

The downsides here include the lack of future sharing by the foreign partner and the increased danger of exposure of the source.  As the article explains, "The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it."

So when would the risk be worth taking?  If the plot was directed toward Russia, the intelligence might be "actionable" in Russian hands, and therefore worth the downside risks.  If, however, as the article suggests, Trump was merely bragging about what he knew, disclosure looks reckless.

To me the most damning evidence that this was not a calculated disclosure is the fact that the White House only discussed the disclosure with the intelligence community after the meeting.  This suggests that there was not a pro/con vetting of the disclosure by those with knowledge of the situation.

So what should be done?  I think the House and Senate Intelligence Communities are the logical places to get to ground truth.  Sadly, given the highly classified nature of the intelligence here, their conclusions might not be made public.  Still, they might be able to at least give a judgment about whether the benefits here were worth the large risks.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Next Battleground: Space?

It is hard to overstate the dependence of the United States military on its space assets.  We rely on satellites for intelligence, early warning of the launch of enemy missiles, communications and navigation.  For years, our satellite assets were largely invulnerable.  As the Director of National Intelligence testified last week, this may soon no longer be the case:
“We assess that Russia and China perceive a need to offset any U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems and are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine,” reads congressional testimony from Daniel Coats, director of National Intelligence on May 11. “Both will continue to pursue a full range of anti- satellite (ASAT) weapons as a means to reduce U.S. military effectiveness.”

.  .  .

Most attacks against U.S. space assets are likely to be non-kinetic, focusing on electronic attacks and cyber-warfare. “Development will very likely focus on jamming capabilities against dedicated military satellite communications (SATCOM), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging satellites, and enhanced capabilities against Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), such as the US Global Positioning System (GPS),” Coats’ testimony reads. “Blending of EW [electronic warfare] and cyber-attack capabilities will likely expand in pursuit of sophisticated means to deny and degrade information networks. Chinese researchers have discussed methods to enhance robust jamming capabilities with new systems to jam commonly used frequencies. Russia intends to modernize its EW forces and field a new generation of EW weapons by 2020.”

However, when electronic warfare and cyber-weapons fail to achieve their desired objectives, the Russian and Chinese are prepared to use kinetic force to physically destroy American space assets. “Some new Russian and Chinese ASAT weapons, including destructive systems, will probably complete development in the next several years,” Coats stated. “Russian military strategists likely view counterspace weapons as an integral part of broader aerospace defense rearmament and are very likely pursuing a diverse suite of capabilities to affect satellites in all orbital regimes.”
Read it all here.  You can read the actual testimony here.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Comey's Firing: A Primer on Pretextual Excuses

Trump fired FBI Director Comey yesterday based on  the Deputy Attorney General's memorandum that discussed at length Comey (mis)handling of the Clinton email investigation.  I agree with the memorandum, and believe that Comey's conduct described in that memorandum would justify terminating Comey, but I nonetheless find the termination of Comey deeply troubling.  How can that be?  Because the memorandum was a mere pretext for more troubling motives.

In employment law there is a well-known doctrine called "pretext."  It states that if you  even terminate an employee for reasonable and plausible reason, you can still be found liable for the violation of the employment laws if your reason was merely a pretext for an improper reason.  the typical case is when a black employee is fired "because she came to work late," when the real reason she was fired was because she was black.

It is stunningly obvious, and the news reporting even by conservative newspapers like the Wall Street Journal supports, that the rationale offered by the Trump Administration was a complete pretext.  Hell, Trump applauded Comey's handling of the Clinton email investigation at the time.  If he had serious concerns about Comey's behavior in the investigation, Comey would have been terminated early in the Administration.  He was not.  Trump's reliance on this explanation is simply laughable.

Well sourced news stories now make clear that Trump had other reasons to dislike Comey--most notably Comey's statement that there was no Obama wiretapping of the Trump campaign, his statement that he felt "nauseous" that he might have influence the election, and Comey's dogged focus on the Russia investigation.

So while the Rubenstein memorandum offers a reasonable basis to terminate Comey, it is clearly a mere pretext for the firing.  As such, the termination of Comey hurts the independence of the FBI and should be troubling to all Americans.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Killer Robots: The Real Challenge to Using Artificial Intelligence in Military Applications


We are undergoing a revolution in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to solve problems, and some of the results are amazing.  For example, a research team at Mount Sinai Hospital applied AI to the hospital's massive patient records, and the resulting program was amazingly effective in predicting disease.  Not surprisingly, many at the Department of Defense are advocating the use of AI to empower autonomous weapons:  weapons that can identify the enemy and make targeting recommendations (if a human is involved) or decisions (if the system is completely autonomous).  The attraction of such autonomous weapons is obvious--the weapons can where human-controlled weapons cannot go (think emerging air defense systems) and can act more quickly to threats than human beings.

Now there are lots of concerns with military AI.  Indeed, there is an active campaign to stop killer robots, and the U.N. is actively considering a ban on these weapons.  The Campaign focuses on a hosts of concerns, but focuses largely on the inability of current technology to comply with the laws of armed conflict.  But even aside from these concerns is an even more fundamental problem: for modern "deep learning" AI programs, the system teaches itself and we really have no idea why the machine is making the decisions that it makes.  As the MIT Technology Review explains, "deep learning" AI does not work by simply following an algorithm.  Instead, modern AI uses a biological model in which the computer essentially teaches itself:
Others felt that intelligence would more easily emerge if machines took inspiration from biology, and learned by observing and experiencing. This meant turning computer programming on its head. Instead of a programmer writing the commands to solve a problem, the program generates its own algorithm based on example data and a desired output. The machine-learning techniques that would later evolve into today’s most powerful AI systems followed the latter path: the machine essentially programs itself
. .  .  .
 You can’t just look inside a deep neural network to see how it works. A network’s reasoning is embedded in the behavior of thousands of simulated neurons, arranged into dozens or even hundreds of intricately interconnected layers. The neurons in the first layer each receive an input, like the intensity of a pixel in an image, and then perform a calculation before outputting a new signal. These outputs are fed, in a complex web, to the neurons in the next layer, and so on, until an overall output is produced. Plus, there is a process known as back-propagation that tweaks the calculations of individual neurons in a way that lets the network learn to produce a desired output.
Now it is unsettling enough that we don't know exactly why the Mount Sinai Hospital program is so effective  in predicting disease, but at least it can still be useful even if we don't understand why it works.  It becomes a non-starter, in my view at least, if we unleash a lethal weapon in the wild if we don't really understand why it is so effective in making targeting decisions.  A failure to understand how a machine makes targeting decisions could lead to surprising, and tragic, errors.

This is an problem with deep learning AI that is getting a lot of focus.  The MIT Tech Review article does a great job of explaining the work that is being done to solve this problem.  But until we know why AI works, I don't see it being useful in autonomous weapons unless a thinking human remains in the decisionmaking process.

You can see what else I have written on the topic of autonomous weapons here, here, and here.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Political Case For the Euro

George Mason Professor Tyler Cowen, my favorite economics blogger (and local  ethnic food blogger as well) has a column in Bloomberg that explains his new view that the Euro as a currency has a better future than he had originally thought.  Cowen, being an economist, focuses on the economic reasons why the Euro's future seems brighter, but he makes a very interesting political point as well:  one unanticipated affect of the Euro is to make nations more committed to the EU:

It’s always worth re-evaluating one’s views, and my latest revision is that the euro currency is better and less vulnerable than I had thought. I still believe its creation and later expansion were mistakes, but I now see them as much smaller mistakes than before. Many of the biggest costs lie in the past, so the euro might be a net plus moving forward.

What’s the new evidence? For one thing, geopolitics seem to be favoring the euro. France, the Netherlands and (soon) Germany are rejecting at the voting booth far right and populist parties that oppose the European project.

One of the original goals of the euro was to tie countries to the European Union and its rules for free trade and free migration. The major EU country that eschewed euro adoption, the U.K., has now voted itself out the union altogether, to its detriment. Estonia and Latvia, which adopted the euro in part for political reasons to tighten their bonds with the EU, still seem secure against potential Russian aggression. The biggest political trouble spots seem to be Hungary and Poland, neither of which are euro members. That may be a coincidence, but it may also reflect a very real psychological tie resulting from the currency adoption.
Read it all here.  Check out his economics blog here, and his ethnic food guide to the DC area here.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Key to Understanding the New Russia: It is Now a Conservative Power


For many of us who grew up during the Cold War (or who simply study 20th Century history), old habits are hard to break.  We remember the Soviet Union, which was a bed rock ally of every left-wing government and movement in the world.  In the right/left dichotomy, the Soviet Union was on the left.

Of course, for most of its history (with the notable exception of  the Soviet period), Russia was a reactionary power.  In the 19th Century, winds of change were causing monarchies to either topple (France) or to cede power to democratic processes (the UK, and to a lesser degree Italy and Germany).  Russia was the exception.  It remained an autocratic monarchy until the end of World War I.  And in social and economic policy, it remained deeply reactionary, with freedom of Russia's serfs not occurring until 1861.

The key to understanding Russia today, in my view, is to recognize that Russia has reverted back to its reactionary roots.  This is true both domestically and in its foreign affairs.  While gay rights are ascendant throughout much of Europe, repression of the LBGT community in Russia is on the rise.  While the rest of Europe has become deeply secular and un-churched, Russia's Orthodox Church is increasingly  powerful in political affairs.

Even apart from efforts by Russia to influence political development worldwide, conservatives across the world have expressed admiration for Putin's Russia.  Right wing Christians in the U.S. like Russia on social policy, and the French traditional conservative  candidate (Fillon) also expressed admiration for Russia based on its conservative social policies.  And, as we now know, Russia has been actively supporting reactionary forces across the world (including LePen in France).

Clearly, Russia has geopolitical reasons to support the right in Europe even aside from ideology.  It wants to disrupt NATO and the EU, and the right is the best vehicle to do so.  (Mush as the Left was the best vehicle to do so during the Cold War).  Nonetheless, I think we miss the big picture here if we don't begin to take into account that Russia is, once again, a reactionary power.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Fundamental Problem With Trump's Foreign Policy

I have been working on a post that contrasts Trump's "Let's Make a Deal" foreign policy with the more rules focused foreign policy of all his post World War II predecessors, but I can't improve on a recent essay by conservative writer David Frum in the Atlantic magazine.  In a really thoughtful essay on why Trump's disdain for European unity, and his embrace of European nationalism are so counter-productive to U.S. interests, Frum offers this thoughtful discussion of the problems with Trump's  insistence that the U.S. fully assert its power in every engagement with our allies:
 Trump is not the first leader to think this way. In fact, almost every previous ruler of a mighty state has thought this way, from Ozymandias onward. But they have all failed, with disastrous consequences. States that dominate inevitably inspire resistance. The subject states join together to overthrow the bully. And they almost always win, because no one state is ever stronger than all other states combined, or not for long anyway.

The men who built the postwar world anticipated this danger and sought to avert it. They designed trade and treaty systems governed by rules, rules to which the United States would submit, even though it was the strongest party. Indeed, they intended exactly the things that Donald Trump now complains about—that the U.S. would have to make concessions to smaller partners; that it would not act as judge in its own cases; that it would subordinate its parochial and immediate national interests to the larger and more enduring collective interest. America would find security by working for the security of others.

The Americans who led the effort took this approach in part because it’s what they were accustomed to: The U.S. Constitution likewise overweights the interests of minorities and small groups. They also did it because they had learned from their wars against rulers who sought to dominate their neighbors. In the world as at home, systems that serve the interests of all endure better than systems that oppress many to serve a few.

They wanted a future in which non-Americans would be the ones who most wished to uphold U.S. hegemony and most feared to see that hegemony end. They succeeded in this, against every external danger. And now the good and wise and even glorious accord they created is more threatened than ever before—not by an enemy, but by the narrow-minded, shortsighted bullying of an accidental and unfit American president. Will the story really end this way? It all seems not only heartrendingly sad, but also teeth-grindingly stupid.
Read the whole article here.  The final point is worth emphasizing.  One hige benefit of our rules-focused foreign policy in the past is that a large number of countries in the world (including dozens of allies) are not merely comfortable with U.S. power, but are actually huge fans of this power.  this is true in both Asia and Europe.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Law of Armed Conflict and Human Shields


One unfortunate tactic used by ISIS and other groups who understand that international law prohibits the targeting of civilians has been the use of human shields.  Now, this tactic itself violates the Law of Armed Conflict, but it raises an interesting question: what does the law say about the obligations to protect civilians when they are being used as human shields.  Two senior Army JAGs, Lt. Col. Winston Williams and Lt. Col. Chris Ford, offer a very good explanation of the topic as part of a larger piece on how changes to Rules of Engagement might be able to reduce civilian casualties:
Before ISIS used this tactic, coalition planners and commanders would plan an attack based on their knowledge of a given target in the circumstances ruling at the time, including the construction of a building, the function of the building, nature and type of surrounding buildings, etc.   With this information, planners could estimate through a set of institutionalized procedures—the “collateral damage estimation methodology”—potential civilian casualties for a given attack.   Understanding the threat to civilians and civilian objects is critical to an informed proportionality analysis as well as effective precautions in attack.  Thus, an attack on an arms cache in a warehouse on the outskirts of town, late at night might be judged to present a relatively low risk of civilian casualties.  When, however, ISIS has clandestinely fills the building with civilians, this would change the analysis considerably.

It is a widely accepted that customary international law imposes an obligation on attacking forces to take “feasible precautions” to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects.  This requirement is captured in Article 57 of Additional Protocol I, and US military doctrine in the Department of Defense Law of War Manual (¶ 5.11).  Article 57(1) requires that “constant care shall be taken to spare the civilian population, civilian and civilian objects.”  Article 57(2) provides several specific precautions in attack including notably, an obligation to “do everything feasible to verify that the objectives to be attacked are neither civilians nor civilian objects” and the obligation to choose a “means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss to civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”  The DoD Law of War Manual utilizes similar, but distinct language:  “parties to a conflict must take feasible precautions to reduce the risk of harm to the civilian population and other protected persons and objects.” (¶ 5.2.3). (The differences in language are not relevant to our analysis here.)

.  .  .
.
A key element of the precautions requirement is feasibility.  As recalled in the official commentary to Article 57, the drafting process involved significant debate over the phrase “everything feasible.”  Notably, as recalled in Bothe, Partsh, Solf, the drafting committee rejected an absolute standard (e.g., States shall “ensure”…) in favor of a qualified standard (States shall “do everything feasible”…).   A number of countries made reservations regarding this article to emphasize that feasibility was to be judged in the circumstances at the time.   The DoD Law of War Manual (¶ 5.2.3.2) expresses a similar qualification, noting that “feasible precautions are those that are practicable or practically possible, taking into account all circumstances ruling at the time.”

We suggest that absent intelligence to the contrary, it is not feasible (or reasonable) to assume every building is filled with civilians.  It may be the tactic was employed only once by a single ISIS commander and will never be used again.  That said, additional precautions must be a taken if intelligence indicates that this tactic is being used regularly, or will be used in the future.  It is incumbent upon commanders to assess the intelligence available at the time—to include knowledge of ISIS’ tactics—in determining the nature and extent of precautions that can be taken.  The implementation of such precautions leads us to our second point of discussion:  how the ROE can be designed to reduce casualties in urban warfare.
Read it all here.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Defense Reform that Focuses on Military Families

The last 15 years have been tough ones for military families.  With multiple deployments in a very short period of time, family life can be brought to the breaking point. More than 40 percent of military families had a soldier, sailor, marine, airman or airwoman deployed more than six months out of the previous eighteen months.  And with more and more military spouses with careers of their own, even normal assignment rotations can be challenging.  I know of too many extraordinarily talented military members who left the military because the family stress just became too much.

I was therefore pleased to see Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute (who usually focuses on more traditional defense issues) team up Kathy Roth-Douquet of Blue Star Families to offer some suggestions about how deployments can be reformed to make family life more of a priority:

Too many of today’s deployments are being conducted in formulaic, traditional ways that often unnecessarily separate servicemen and servicewomen from their spouses and children. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and a few other combat zones—as well as the high seas—separation may be unavoidable. But in other cases and other places, the Department of Defense needs to make the welfare and togetherness of military families a more central factor in how it deploys and employs the total force.
In Korea, for example, the Pentagon could allow most troops to bring their families with them for year long stays. Historically, South Korea was an underdeveloped country with serious security challenges, so the United States deployed forces there without their families. Today, most of our 28,000 military personnel on the peninsula (primarily Army and Air Force) are still unescorted. This puts an unnecessary burden on the force. Yes, Korea is still dangerous—but tens of thousands of American civilians not working for the Department of Defense live there anyway. Military families can handle the risks, too.
.  .  . 
There are also ways to maintain naval presence more effectively. Rather than always keep sailors on the same ship, and thereby wasting several weeks out of every deployment traversing the oceans to and from American ports, the U.S. Navy could rotate sailors by airplane every six months or so. Ships could stay on station for a year or two at a time, only coming home when maintenance requirements so dictated; sailors would train on one ship near U.S. shores and then deploy to another of similar vintage abroad, improving the efficiency of our overseas presence operations.

Read it all here.

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,