Author: Patrick Porter (Page 1 of 2)

A Small Farewell

It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches.

Actually, it isn’t. I’ve just always wanted to use that line from the end of Name of the Rose. In fact its about room temperature in the American Institute Library and my thumb is thriving.

Anyway, I don’t blog much any more because of work and other things, and its even a job pushing out opinion on the barbaric form of Twitter. So I’d like to say farewell to the Duck. Its been a real privilege. Many thanks to Dan Nexon for the invitation to come on board a few years ago. The Duck is a great site and its allowed yours truly to talk about IR, American strategy and political thought generally with lively minds from across the pond. All the Ducks should be proud.

See some of you in Toronto for ISA, I hope. And just remember, anarchy is what it makes of you. I think I’ve got that right.



The Great War of…1990

The year 2014 is nearly on us, and reflections on World War One are already weighing down bookshop shelves. In my own research, I’ve stumbled across an odd tendency: that whereas in Britain the cause of World War One, if not its conduct, attracts strong supporters as well as critics, the first Gulf War is remembered as a bit of a disappointment.

Consider the difference with one of history’s archetypal ‘limited’ wars, which few seem keen to defend.

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Questions about Syria

The US and UK are apparently preparing for air strikes against the Syrian Assad regime, claiming there is little doubt that it is responsible for horrific chemical weapons attacks. Syria has allegedly crossed President Obama’s ‘red line.’

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague claims that “We can not in the twenty first century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, that people can be killed in this way and that there are no consequences for it.”

Several problems here:

This rush to judgment is happening before the UN has established beyond reasonable doubt who is responsible. Do we really need to be reminded that WMD-related claims are worth subjecting to a decent standard of proof before going to war?

There is a greater amount evidence from the UN to date that Syrian’s rebels, or at least some of them, may have also used chemical weapons, which has been substantiated though not conclusively found by a formal investigation. If so, they did it in the twenty first century, killed people and so far the US and its allies have not applied punishment.

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Ham Omelettes and Taiwan’s Defence

In the old old question of why the weak occasionally beat the strong, my favourite metaphor is the Ham Omelette. In a Ham Omelette, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.

In a clash over the Taiwan Strait, who would be the pig, who the chicken? This matters, because in the end predicting the outcome of a China-Taiwan clash would not be about the absolutes of military victory narrowly conceived, but about the issue of cost tolerance and the fear of a Pyrrhic result. Continue reading


Sorry General, War is a Choice

General David Petraeus advises Americans and their allies to be coldly realistic about what force can achieve. Oddly, he also advises them to prepare for a future where small wars are pretty much inevitable, where America must intervene early to prevent worse things happening later on, and where ‘stabilisation’ is a core part of war itself. Because, ultimately we sometimes have no choice.

Looking back on the ‘lessons’ that have been ‘written in blood’ in America’s wars since 9/11, Petraeus thinks he can see the greatest lesson, but repeats a common fallacy:

Our enemies will typically attack us asymmetrically, avoiding the conventional strengths that we bring to                     bear. Clearly, the continuation of so-called “small wars” cannot be discounted. And we should never forget                   that we don’t always get to choose the wars we fight.

To the contrary, countries like the United States almost always do get to choose. Not only the wars they fight, but how they fight them. That’s the thing about being an offshore superpower with a nuclear arsenal, friendly neighbours, overwhelming naval and air power shields and a strong army and marine corps to boot. If ever a state existed that usually, emphatically, does not have to accept war being imposed by others, it is this one. ‘Vital’ interests should mean just that – interests that are necessary for life.
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Iraq: It takes a President

Some further thoughts on why the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. We’ve had a few posts already now that the tenth anniversary has come. But given the magnitude of the decision and since even its most vocal defenders were caught off guard by how costly, lethal and protracted it was, it is worth lingering on the question.

In varying degrees of sophistication, there is a recurrent argument that the Iraq war flowed out of pre-9/11 developments, with 9/11 itself merely functioning as an enabling event deftly exploited by the war party in Washington. But against the grain of some interpretations, some contingencies and one important individual also mattered. Continue reading


A (very reluctant) case for Airport Security

For students of international affairs and security, especially from either side of the Atlantic, its that time of year again when we  congregate at the ISA Conference to muse on the globalisation of everything in a borderless world…after enduring an increasingly unpleasant border regime at the Airport.

I’m not sure about our readers, but the general experience of Heathrow, JFK or LAX is not exactly border free. In the age of anxiety, about mass casualty terrorism especially, the airport in states that once fancied themselves far away from the troubled places on the planet has become an ever more humorless and irritating place. For those who particularly don’t enjoy the slow strip-tease on the human conveyor belt towards the metal detector, not to mention being touched by uniformed strangers, it is positively humiliating. Bio-security is just no fun.

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On the Word ‘Global’

The word ‘global’ has become so frequently used in Western strategic debate that is has almost become background music. On one level, overuse robs it of resonance. But on another, it might be contributing to the conceptual and rhetorical overstretch that has led the US to overextend itself.

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Planning to be Shocked

One of the most repeated, and most dubious, axioms about strategy is the notion that being proactive is wiser than being reactive, and that reactivity is something we should be allergic to. In the words of Briain’s foreign secretary William Hague, ‘the nation that is purely reactive in foreign policy is in decline.’

Likewise, written into the folklore of the US foreign policy establishment is the notion that the ‘strategic shocks’ that struck America – such as Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11 – happened because Washington was passively sleeping. A quick read of Presidential speeches on the anniversary of that attack shows how powerful the creed of active vigilantism lives on, even if it doesn’t power all of America’s day to day behaviour.

Never mind that a prehistory of activism triggered both crises, whether an escalating conflict in the form of economic warfare with Japan, or deep entanglement with the very regimes that galvanised Al Qaeda to take its war to the far enemy. The logic still goes: it is wiser to be active, shape the environment so that it precludes threats.

The trouble with being proactive is that it implies a confidence about forecasting the future. What if world politics is too chaotic to anticipate? Can we make strategy if we can’t predict? This problem is implicit within many ‘strategic’ documents and general theories of strategy – which start by announcing that the future is unpredictable, before going on to…predict it.

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Is Victory Bad for Business?

All wars end. Or do they?

Rather too often, we are being reminded that the ‘war on terror’ against the Al Qaeda terrorist network is far from over, in fact that it will never end and even, that it can never end. One military analyst, for example,

a former employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the US, states OBL and his closest circle in Pakistan were hardly influential to AQ franchises and affiliates. In his last few years as AQ’s leader, OBL was never concerned in the operational aspects of AQ. This perhaps means that the death of OBL, though a great success for counterterrorism, will not greatly affect AQ and its operations around the world, for example, AQ in the Arab Peninsula has been permitted to operate against the Gulf rulers without any open meddling from AQ’s inner leadership.

Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies states AQ has had ten years to attain another leader, has formed strong and international cells and superfluous networks, and has found alternative sites throughout the world. AQ is still a large threat and the US and its allies still have a long way to go in the war against terrorism.

Really? Firstly, the body of evidence uncovered from Osama Bin Laden’s hideout contradicts these  statements.  He was far more than a figurehead or ‘rock star’ icon of dark charisma. He tried to maintain an intricate bureaucratic chain of command while realising that there were franchises that were semi-autonomous. OBL was still influential, he was giving orders, he took great interest in the operational side of his movement, and he did have resources at his disposal. And in the cases where he was not fully in control, OBL recognised what some Western observers don’t, that the loosening of the structure came at a high price, enabling the counter-productive behaviour of Al Qaeda affiliates, imitators and franchises and leading to a crisis of legitimacy for the network, from Algeria to Iraq. Indeed, in their own audits and self-assessments, Al Qaeda Central were more willing to entertain the idea of their own failure than many Western analysts.

Secondly, how is AQ still a ‘large threat’ to the security of the United States and its allies in any measure? Against Western targets, it has failed to pull off a complex, mass casualty assault of the 9/11 variety in over ten years since 9/11, and since 2003-2005, none of the lesser scale of a 7/7 or Madrid bombing. It has become wildly unpopular and suffered violent blowback in lands it regards as sacred to its cause, like Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Its attempts at even low-tech attacks in the West have been disrupted and/or ineffective. Third-order nuisance maybe, non-trivial concern in places like Somalia and Syria perhaps, downright lethal still in its car bombings occasionally in Iraq, but ‘large threat’? When its brand is at best marginal amongst most protesting masses in the Arab Spring, how dangerous is it, in terms of translating violence into political results?

The killing of Bin Laden removed one of the networks most skilful, iconic and seasoned players. The regular killing of his subordinate commanders has also drained it of hard-won skills. Terrorism isn’t an instant capability that anyone can acquire at the click of a mouse. It takes experience, group cohesion, a high level of political will, operational security and a range of intellectual and technical abilities.

No doubt violently draining the network of talented folk can produce blowback and have ‘martyring’ effects. But to announce that Bin Laden was just a figurehead, a borderline irrelevance, and that this World War must continue as though the adversary is just as potent as it was on 10 September, is to perpetuate one of the most serious errors of the War on Terror, the failure to measure risks and costs soberly.

There is also a more unfortunate side to this debate: the refusal of professional experts at times to acknowledge not only that AQ has taken hits to its credibility and cohesion, but to acknowledge that it even could. Is it bad for business to recognise when the object of one’s intellectual fascination is fading in importance?

The War on Terror provided many people with a chance to build an industry around worrying about terrorism and warning that the threat is dire and almost never-ending. The last thing they would want would be to admit that the death of OBL and his subordinates has been a serious blow, or the policy implications flowing from it, that we can scale back our global efforts to conventional, day-to-day counter-terrorism. That would be bad for business.

But for those who disagree, please consider this: what would defeat, or marginalisation, look like? If you are saying that Al Qaeda is still a large threat worthy of an ongoing, top-priority war, what are your criteria for our success and their failure?


Why worry about an Iranian bomb?

With sanctions and talks – and a big stick in the background – the United States and its allies are trying to curtail Tehran’s nuclear programme. Australia is playing its part. Canberra recently blocked a shipment of industrial equipment to Iran. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, believes preventing a nuclear Iran is vital. Is he right?

Kenneth Waltz thinks not. The celebrated American political scientist says we should redefine the problem. The real difficulty in the Gulf is not Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he argues. It is the fact that one state in the area (Israel) has a nuclear monopoly. An Iranian bomb would be a good thing. It would create a healthy balance of power, and restore equilibrium to an anxious region. Far from being the crisis, Waltz sees an Iranian bomb as the solution.

At this stage, his argument is hypothetical. To the best of our knowledge, it is not clear that the Islamic Republic has decided to go beyond uranium enrichment and build a bomb. It is not clear that it will. Efforts to dissuade it through economic sanctions, threats of regime change or actual military action may work. Or they may be perverse, motivating Tehran to go for weaponisation.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa against the making and use of nuclear weapons in 2005. Yet if Iran changes its mind, it has a doctrine of flexibility that it used during the Iran-Iraq war to justify starting a chemical weapons programme, allowing the needs of the Islamic Republic in extremis to trump Islamic law.

But if Iran keeps enriching to weapons-grade level, what then?

Waltz builds his case on a reading of diplomatic history. This is where the mischief lies. Claiming that the emergence of two nuclear states stabilises regions, he points approvingly to the example of India and Pakistan.

In doing so, he steps lightly over the history of standoffs, confrontations and escalations between those adversaries, whose mutual fears are worsened by ongoing clashes in disputed territories and the ambiguous role of armed proxies.

In the wake of 9/11, a Pakistani army general warned India that his country could launch a rapid nuclear attack, telling Alastair Campbell to remind the Indians: ‘It takes us eight seconds to get the missiles over.’ If this volatile frontier is a signpost of things to come in the Gulf, then the future is dark.

Waltz also builds his case on a rosy view of nuclear deterrence in the Cold War (1947-1989). For him, nukes have a constraining effect because of their own terrifying logic. Mutually Assured Destruction works. After all, the world has had multiple nuclear states in it since 1949, without a nuclear war.

But we have come close. In the Cold War, despite a deterrence system in a supposedly ‘stable’ bipolar contest, there were still a series of high-stakes ‘near misses’ where fear, misperception, false alarms or system errors nearly resulted in nuclear war. In 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged the Kennedy Administration to attack Cuba, not knowing that Soviet combat forces possessed nuclear-tipped missiles and were authorised to use them. A Soviet submarine commander believed the war had started, and had to be dissuaded by fellow officers not to fire a nuclear torpedo. It was bad enough with two adversaries familiar with each other. A world of more nuclear states makes it harder still. We have avoided Armaggeddon through luck, not just statecraft.

So we should be cautious about Waltz’s ahistorical faith in a stable deterrence system.

More deeply, we should not be narrowly obsessed with the issue of rationality and intentions. Waltz and others assure us that a nuclear Iran would be well behaved, that nukes have a constraining effect. Pessimists often claim the opposite. They fear that a nuclear Iran would be more dangerous than deterrable adversaries such as the Soviet Union, because the theocratic regime is mad and/or bad.

These fears are questionable. That the regime is homicidal does not necessarily make it suicidal. Its commitment to survival was clear during the Green uprisings of 2009. It barks aggressively, but its bite is underwhelming. Recall its hollow threat to block the Straits of Hormuz. It has sound defensive reasons to acquire a nuclear deterrent given its dangerous neighbourhood, encircled by enemy forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and now an Israeli airbase in Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, Israel could be forgiven for staying alert. Tehran has made death threats against it. It officially sponsored a holocaust denial conference. ‘Death to Israel’ is its populist catch cry. Do we expect a people that has been through genocide and wars of survival to dismiss such rhetoric as mere words? As a holocaust survivor once said, ‘if someone says they want to kill you, believe them.’ A nuclear Iran would frighten Tel Aviv, not to mention Riyadh and Cairo, however reasonable those fears would be. That in itself is dangerous.

The issue is not whether Iran or any state is mad or bad. The issue is that they are uncertain, insecure and lack full knowledge. The existential fears of Iran and Israel are strong. They have no strong dialogue in which to signal and communicate. All this is ripe for accident or error. It makes nuclear weapons a problem when they eyeball each other.

Even if Iran turned out to be a sober and responsible nuclear power, the danger would be considerable. A Gulf with two nuclear enemies in it could generate a witches’ brew of fear, suspicion, sabre rattling and a fresh arms race. That could take the region – and the world – to the brink.

Cross-posted at The Offshore Balancer


The Neocons Made Me Do It: Iraq and the Alibi of Liberal Hawks

Looking back on the disaster (or extremely Pyhrric Victory) that was the Iraq War, Stephen Walt reflects:

‘The remarkable thing about the Iraq war is how few people it took to engineer. It wasn’t promoted by the U.S. military, the CIA, the State Department, or oil companies. Instead, the main architects were a group of well-connected neoconservatives, who began openly lobbying for war during the Clinton administration…

As the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman told Ha’aretz in May 2003: ‘Iraq was the war neoconservatives wanted… the war the neoconservatives marketed…. I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office [in Washington]) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.’

For the record, Thomas Friedman also supported war in 2003. Nevertheless, he is pleased to suggest that Other People, an inner bloc of power figures, made war happen. Well, its not as though he exercises any influence among policymakers. He doesn’t have a powerful platform to legitimise or promote ideas. He’s only a columnist for the New York Times.

The Neocons were central actors in supplying the Bush II Administration to war in Iraq. Who knows? Applying the counterfactual, it may be that without the organised, persistent and networked influence exerted by well-connected figures such as Richard Perle, David Frum or Paul Wolfowitz, America would be trillions of dollars, thousands of soldiers and nine years of fatigue better off, that hundreds of thousands would not be dead, and Iran would not be the dominant regional power in the Gulf.

But that doesn’t diminish the responsibility of those who backed it.

An open acknowledgement: for what its worth, some time after the toppling of Saddam and in a rather naive time of life, I was won over for a time by the hawkish idealism of those who hoped it would liberate and thereby make the world more secure. It was damned foolish. But its not to be denied. And its not to be blamed on Douglas Feith.

So what to make of the focus on neoconservatives? Its apparent that the word is often thrown about by Liberal Hawks who initially supported the war and then became embarrassed about the whole fiasco. It has become a sinister alibi. It amounts to a denial of responsibility.

The Bush Administration did not wage war in Iraq. The United States did. After a vote in Congress that  authorised force by decisive margins. Measured by votes, Gulf War ‘Two’ attracted more support from Democrats than did the Gulf War of 1991. Democrat supporters included then-Senator Hillary Clinton, who after voting for the worst military adventure in our time, went on to advise Americans that they should exercise ‘smart power.’

The usual defence here is that they voted on false evidence. But, as Paul Pillar reminds us, most Democrats in Congress were remarkably incurious about the intelligence estimate on Iraq before they voted. Only six senators and a few representatives consulted it, according to the staff who kept custody of it.

Its almost as if they weren’t primarily moved by the evidence, but voted because they shared the underlying assumptions of the war proponents, and/or because they thought it was politically wise, to support a then-popular war president in a conflict they presumed would succeed at acceptable cost.

The case for war against Saddam was made strongly and influentially not just by neoconservatives, but by the likes of Kenneth Pollack, President Clinton’s former regional specialist on the National Security Council.

Had Bush not been President, and if the Democrat Candidate of 2000 Al Gore had been, the Oval Office would have been occupied by a man with a consistent record of hawkishness, who ran as muscular interventionist against the-then foreign policy ‘humility’ candidate in Bush, who bought in to the notion that Saddam was a lurking danger, with ties to Terrorism, who had to be overthrown somehow or other.

Then again, maybe becoming President of the world’s most militarily powerful nation – in a post 9/11 political culture where it pays to look tough – would have dampened down his predispositions.

A ‘neocon’ alibi gets the likes of Anne-Marie Slaughter off the hook too lightly. Having supported war in Iraq, and routinely supporting American military action from Rwanda to Libya to Syria, Slaughter would prefer us all to move on, and focus on the real issues of how to rebuild from the rubble created by the wars she endorses in the first place.

We can’t say with certainty than subtract neocons, and the war would have happened anyway. But we can say that a lot of non-neocon Liberal Hawks worked very hard indeed to support it, and to be seen to support it.

By trying to sequester blame onto a score or so of reviled individuals, the rest of the warlike idealists would like the interrogation to be about something other than them.

By isolating the blame to neocons, it is also an attempt to protect their stubborn and dubious world view, that we should still accept, as Glenn Greenwald describes it, that ‘we can fix other countries by controlling and ruling over them, that we’re going to spread human rights around the world like magic fairy dust by occupying and bombing them with our military, that wise and magnanimous American political leaders are both able and eager to navigate complex, foreign ethnic and religious conflicts and impose our will on other countries in order to bring Good to the world.’

On the whole, it really would be better if the Liberal Hawks who backed Bush in 2003 took some responsibility for once.


The unconquerable village

I’m very much looking forward to attending this year’s International Studies Association conference in lovely San Diego. This is partly because I can fight a losing struggle against its declared theme for this year:

‘Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message,” and coined the term “global village.” McLuhan died in 1980, but his insights are even more relevant today. The information environment is drastically different from that of even a decade ago, as new forms of information flows come into existence almost annually.

Facebook now has over 500 million users, and Twitter, a service barely in existence three years ago, counts over 175 million users. These tools are not only for finding long-lost school friends or sharing pictures of loved ones: they often are used for political purposes. For instance, both text messages and tweets served as vital communication tools during the 2010 post-election protests in Iran. Indeed, Reuters reported that United States government went so far as to ask Twitter to postpone maintenance and maintain service during this time.’

This is a crisp re-statement of what has become an orthodoxy for our time: the myth of the global village. In my own field, it is inflected as the myth of the global battlespace, shrunken by technology to the point where distance is virtually obliterated, along with the distinction between ‘over here’ and ‘over there.’ Franklin Roosevelt, in fact, summed it up neatly when he instructed Americans that after Pearl Harbor, they could no longer measure their security in terms of miles on a map. This body of ideas has reached the status of a self-evident objective truth, more often affirmed that measured or tested. Globalism has taken a battering in critical revisionist works in economics – it deserves a little more scrutiny in other fields.  For what it’s worth, I’ve been suspicious of it for a little while.

Sure, technology has an effect, whether the invention of bridges to cross water, the invention of railways to cross land, the invention of TVs or phones or cyber space to accelerate movement, transmission or exchange. But has it really conquered space to the point where we inhabit a virtual village? Has it generated a world so interconnected that it is lethal, or alternatively, given us tools that can conquer space and liberate as never before?

First, visitors flying to the conference (or driving long distances) will not turn up fresh and immaculate. The miles traveled through the global village will exert themselves on their bodies and minds. They will have to endure the increasingly humourless and tiring experience of the airport, at both ends, a level of scrutiny and control that travellers in the nineteenth century would have found absurd. There are borders, all right. Once they get there, the ability to tweet and facebook will not be a substitute for being in the room with their loved ones. Being on the road means that life will get more expensive for those staying in hotels and making calls, dining out, booking cabs – the traditional logistical cost of those projecting themselves faraway. Distance will have its day, and reimpose its tyranny in all sorts of material and psychological ways.

Second, it is just so very fashionable. Let’s question the source. Who is telling us about this revolution? Who are the believers in Globalism? Could it be an international class of folk whose experience of the world is atypical, compared to everyone else, who fly a lot, who cross borders regularly, who buy exotic imported goods, and who fancy themselves the enlightened post-national citizens of the world?

Its actually not clear that Twitter was the vital agent in the Iranian uprising. There was an awful lot of tweeting about it, but apparently not much in Iran itself, according to one of the few serious inquiries into it, and it wasn’t so central to the development of resistance. The US government might have decided that twitter was a crucial means of revolt, but that is only evidence for what the US government thought. It turns out that many foreign observers who spoke and blogged in utopian terms about the revolutionary impact of gadgets were…those who tweet. To defy the state publicly, it took raw courage, social solidarity and old-fashioned organisation. The internet was a useful but limited tool. But it was also double-edged, as the regime in Tehran also exploited it. Not for the first time, Westerners gazed on others fighting a battle and making their own history, and didn’t miss an the opportunity to talk about themselves.

Third, can we really speak of a global village in the world of armed conflict? Territoriality still seems to matter a great deal. Go tell Palestinians and Israelis fighting it out in the West Bank about the borderless world of ‘flows’ and the quaint backwardness of frontiers and strategic depth. Go tell ISAF forces just trying to operate and stay running by getting their supply through the resistance of the terrain and armed adversaries in Central Asia. If we think of distance as a shifting mix of space and cost and as a gravitational force, the costs of operating are immense, from bribing double-dealing entrepreneurs, to the wear and tear on vehicles, and the sapping of morale in fighting a war in a land that still feels – and in many ways is – very remote. Fighting ‘over there’ in what is still a limited war for our side, we run out of political will as it goes, while the enemy finds an existential stake in the crisis, fighting on their turf for everything. That was Clausewitz’s warning to any invader.

In terms of major war capability, it is tempting just to assume the distance-destroying power of offensive weapons. But intercontinental missiles, access denial techniques, nuclear stockpiles – these have widening as well as narrowing effects. China can inflict grave punishment on any maritime adversary from further and further away. Long-range aggression might technically be easier- but expansion and encroachment is potentially more costly than ever. In that respect, Napoleon had a greater capacity on foot and horseback to conquer distance than would-be aggressors today.

Just as the strategic bomber in World War Two did not conquer space but instead ran up against defensive air power, a very bloody competition in technology and doctrine, so too is cyber capability running up against cyber defences. Stuxnet, hailed initially as a game-changing tool of long-range subversion, postponed Iran’s nuclear programme, perhaps only by a matter of months. The damaged centrifuges were quickly replaced. The new tool had a delaying nuisance effect, but it was not a technological solution to a deep and entangled diplomatic problem. Even if the cyber-warrior gets through more often, the evidence to date suggests that the breaches they create in systems defences are temporary, localised and quickly fortified. The guerrillas of the Information Age are not exempt from the endless offence-defence cycle.

In the realm of terrorism and ‘netwar’, the down-low on how to make a bomb might be a click away. But expertise, experience, group cohesion and operational security is not. In fact, the internet is such a dangerous highway that Osama Bin Laden did not dare use it himself. He relied on couriers. Moreover, the ability of his network to strike Western targets on 9/11 was dependent partly on practical, territorial organisation, namely flight schools in Alabama and meeting houses in Hamburg. There was not a straight line making Tora Bora and Manhattan proximate neighbours. And having lost a secure ‘base’ in Afghanistan as well as being shut down in  alerted Western states, Al Qaeda’s capacity to launch complex, mass casualty attacks has been disrupted as it has dispersed. That is the tradeoff of surviving as a network. And the grievances of Al Qaeda, for all their mutability and flexibility, have a territorial and geopolitical complaint at their core: the cause of restoring a lost empire, of uniting and purifying particular lands – giving geographical expression to the ‘Muslim nation’ -corrupted by the apostate regimes. So too is their remedy: taking the war to the ‘far enemy.’

Globalism, at least as it is articulated in strategic studies, often reflects two older obsessions: the optimistic  view of humanity’s ability to master space or nature with its tools (or wonder-weapons), and the deep pessimism that this could be turned against us, showing our fragility in the face of instruments against which there are no shields. But maybe instead of being the solution, the notion of the small world is part of the problem. Maybe we need to expand our mental maps instead of shrinking them. Maybe the planet is not reducible to our iphones.

A synthesis of classical geopolitical thought, with its emphasis on the material constraints of geography, and critical geopolitics, with its stress on the ideologically-loaded nature of what often passes for geographic knowledge, can help us I think.

Whatever the case, I will be at the conference bar to chat about this with anyone willing to take the edge off their travels over a beer. There’s some things that never change.


How to Be a Good Realist

I’m going to delve clumsily into IR Theory here, so I’d be grateful to get some feedback on the question of the ‘Realist’ minimum.

In a fascinating post recently on US-China relations, Stephen Walt wrote:

“First, as a good realist, I think that the basic state of Sino-American relations will be driven more by balances of power and configurations of interest than by the personalities of individual leaders. As I’ve noted before, if China continues to grow more powerful, Bejing and Washington will view each other with an increasingly wary eye and are likely to find more issues about which to conflict. A serious security competition — especially in East Asia — will be likely (which does not mean that war is inevitable or even likely, by the way). Again assuming China’s continued ascent, I’m guessing this will occur no matter who is in power in each country.”

Hang on. Are realists actually supposed to think that the personalities of leaders are marginal forces in world politics?

There are a number of difficulties here. Strictly ‘structural’ realists might believe that impersonal things like ‘balances of power’ are more often than not the engine that propels (or shapes and shoves) the world. But (from my recollection), even Kenneth Waltz didn’t straightforwardly take that view. But classical (or neoclassical) realists such as Colin Dueck, Gideon Rose, or Asle Toje surely are attentive to the things that can mediate between the world and the folk who wield power. Those things can be ideas, agents or contingencies.

After all, good realist commentators and theorists like Stephen Walt don’t write as though intervening variables matter little. Realists pay great attention to the figures (eg. Bismarck, or maybe more recently Deng Xiaoping) who succeeded in navigating their nations through the anarchy of the world. In so far as their personalities mattered, they were figures who interpreted the world around them coherently and applied power effectively. Realists often also make concrete recommendations about policy. Its not clear why they would prescribe policies if they were so deterministic to assume that states would behave only in structurally undifferentiated ways regardless of who was in power or what ideas they had. Or is it?

That’s not to say that realists should always privilege ‘personality’ as the main agent. Political elites conceivably can share a ‘common sense’ concept of interests drawn from a wider political culture (such as the GOP/Democrat Consensus on Israel that Walt has argued for). But if intervening variables can count, why not the views/assumptions/quirks of a powerful individual from time to time? The research agenda in this area would presumably be charting and explaining when and how individual personalities interacted with everything else (both ideational and structural), as well as the causal mechanisms behind these interactions, whether in the parsimonious and systematic form of some scholars, or the richer but less systematic ways of others.

Ultimately it is always hard to prove or falsify this kind of stuff. It relies eventually on counterfactuals. Can we be sure that a ruler other than Stalin would have resisted intelligence reports of Hitler’s imminent attack in 1941? Would a President less incuriously dogmatic than George W. Bush have responded sooner to growing evidence of an insurgency in Iraq? Of course, such counterfactuals raise their own problems – of explaining how someone not like Stalin or Bush would have been in the harness at that time. Its a slippery thing.

Regardless, we should resist the notion that Realists can only call themselves Realists if they privilege big impersonal forces as the dominant way of explaining behaviour. As Dan Nexon wrote a while back, (and in less sympathy than my own affection for neoclassical forms of Realism), being a Realist emphatically does not require believing that states consistently act rationally in their self-interest:

“What’s odd here is why realists would react to putatively self-defeating state policies as if they comprised some kind of anomaly. Almost all of their “timeless lessons” about international politics involve states screwing things up: provoking counter-balancing coalitions, trying to make collective security work, getting involved in irrelevant peripheral conflicts, and so forth. Moreover, their underlying theoretical architectures are, as we’ve already seen, compatible with a broad range of state behavior.”

So what does it mean to be a Realist? Could a better version, staked out in its neoclassical form, be that states (and non-states, for that matter), may screw up for a range of reasons. It is the anarchical system around them that has its own, dark and unforgiving rationality, that penalises self-defeating behaviour.


Begging to differ on Libya and R2P

In a reflective post not long ago, Robert E. Kelly noted:

“…we are elated that the Libya operation worked, (against all odds given the Iraq experience and what we know about foreign intervention in LDCs generally). Lots of Duck writers supported the intervention. (I found Jon Western’s arguments last spring particularly persuasive; some of my writing on Libya is here and here.) Even if you didn’t support it, and worried that it meant more ‘empire,’ it still tugged at your heartstrings to see Libyans fighting and dying against a nasty tyrant. So you probably supported the NATO intervention even though you didn’t want to.”

Robert is probably right that most Duck writers did respond this way. Personally, I didn’t.

For a start, isn’t it a little premature for students of world politics to be declaring victory? Isn’t that the kind of simplistic triumphalism that we are supposed to mock George Bush Jnr for? Who is to say that the feuding coalition that has come to power will not itself become authoritarian, or oppressive, or violently divided? And if that does happen, we will be directly implicated. Libya demonstrates, as if we needed more proof, that conflict is a continuum, that straddles the binary war/peace divide, and that civil strife leaves every participant unlovely.

My own objections to the war were based firstly on a sense that far from ‘standing by’ while the oppressed were slaughtered, Western nations were labouring under great burdens. Trying to extricate themselves from a losing struggle in Afghanistan and a tragic one in Iraq. Trying to survive a debt-deficit crisis that threatened to overwhelm Euro-Atlantic economies. Dealing with rising unemployment and decaying infrastructure. All of these tasks were morally serious ones.

Moreover, I feared we were under-estimating the complexities of what we were taking on in north Africa, and that a discrete and limited campaign would grow like a cancer, well beyond our limited means. As it happens, I was a little over-pessimistic – but there wasn’t much sign that the governments in London or Paris had thought hard about what to do if the stalemate endured.

What about saving victims? From the outset, I feared that NATO was not just protecting the innocent from predators, as the mainstream media so simplistically suggests. It was taking a side in a civil war. It was not obvious that there was about to be another genocidal atrocity on the scale of Srebrenica, as proponents of intervention sometimes suggested. And more likely that not, in intervening to prevent an atrocity, objectively it would become an accessory to counter-atrocities. Its happened before. Credible reports of illegal detentions, torture and dispossession of black Africans in Libya suggest that fear was not unfounded.

Unlike what seems to be the thrust of R2P good intentions, the first principle is surely Do No Harm. We have played a decisive role, it would seem, in turning Libya into a country unsafe for black people to live in. Are we supposed to rejoice at this? Should the Assad regime fall in Syria with our assistance, who is to say, for example, that the country’s Arab Christians will not feel the blade?

Proponents of intervention invoked moral obligation so intensely, and (at times) accused opponents of being amoral men of stone. It is only fair to hold pro-interventionists to their own lofty standard.

I also was uneasy with intervention because of the dangerous utopian paradox that Robert so nicely identifies:

“It is awfully tempting to think that just a little bit more exertion, a little more defense spending, a little more covert assistance could help push through desperately needed change in places like Syria or Zimbabwe…

 But that’s exactly the ‘utopian’ attitude toward force that realists from Morgenthau to Walt would disparage, right? One small step leads to another to another, and pretty soon you’ve got US empire to handmaiden democracy everywhere all the time, with all the militarization, killing and other unintended consequences such a project must inevitably entail.”

Exactly that. A programme of regular, well-intentioned military interventions – a continuous project of liberal crusading, in fact – certainly would and does have tragic unintended consequences.

It must and does affect international security more widely, and any serious reckoning with the rights and wrongs of intervention should not happen in a strategic vacuum. Regularly overthrowing tyrannical regimes has made it very attractive indeed for the likes of Iran and North Korea to accelerate their nuclear programmes and move closer and closer to the actual bomb. If war accelerates nuclear proliferation and a spiral of international insecurity, then it has had a potential tragic consequence.

Fighting wars regularly breeds a growing expectation that one will intervene again. Will this not give false hope to some oppressed peoples that if they rise up, an external power will ride to the rescue?

Moreover, a country cannot be constantly at war without such a condition damaging its constitution and its values. It has led to a dangerous expansion of state power. It has fuelled human rights violations. It has created an imperial presidency. And it leads other states to look constantly back to the American superpower to do the fighting and shoulder the burdens of fighting. It is precisely an objection to spreading democracy violently abroad that it will erode democracy at home.

I’ll shut up with this:

On January 26, humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres said it had stopped its work in detention centers in the city of Misrata because its medical staff were being asked to patch up detainees mid-way through torture sessions so they could go back for more abuse.


Literally, NATO’s war helped bring that about. You could call it many things, and maybe it will all work out for the best. But if it was a war for human rights, ‘Victory’ is a stretch.


On Security Dilemmas and The Absurdity of Newt Gingrich

When he isn’t comparing himself to Ronald Reagan (whose withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, arms control negotiations with Gorbachev, nuclear abolitionist visions and moderation on immigration, and general sunny persona suggest they aren’t politically identical), Newt Gingrich says things like this:

I would say that the most dangerous thing — which, by the way, Barack Obama just did — the Iranians are practicing closing the Strait of Hormuz, actively taunting us, so he cancels a military exercise with the Israelis so as not to be provocative?

“Dictatorships respond to strength, they don’t respond to weakness,” Gingrich continued, “and I think there’s very grave danger that the Iranians think this president is so weak that they could close the Strait of Hormuz and not suffer substantial consequences.

Its already pointed out that his claim about the cancelled exercise is factually false.

More deeply, its simply untrue to claim that dictatorships (or any regime type, actually) only respond to ‘strength’, which is Gingrich’s shorthand for bellicose escalation.

It shouldn’t take a degree in political science (or indeed, in Gingrich’s case, a Phd in History), to ponder why this might be ever so slightly misleading. For a start, talk of ‘being strong’ because its the only way to change your enemy’s behaviour is exactly how Iran’s Supreme Leader is reported to talk about America. How would a President Gingrich react to equivalent Iranian posturing?

Surprisingly enough, history suggests that regimes which are highly motivated to survive might respond badly to threats, sabre rattling, and confrontation.

A really important case of this happened between 1937-1941, which despite the obsession with that era amongst Gingrich and his fans, is often neglected. President Franklin Roosevelt imposed economic sanctions on Imperial Japan (including oil, tin and rubber) which would virtually destroy its ability to operate. He did so to pressure Japan to abandon its brutal expansionism in China. He was confident that the presence of the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii would act as a deterrent against retaliation.

Seeking to avoid a war in the Pacific, Roosevelt’s twin approach of coercion and deterrence had perverse results. Given the choice between abandoning its imperial ambitions in continental Asia, and challenging the US directly, Japan’s rulers chose Door Number 2.This unleashed a Pacific war of unimaginable suffering that neither country actually wanted.

Had Gingrich been advising President John Kennedy in 1962, would he, like the Joint Chiefs, have been muttering about Munich and warning the President to look strong by escalating against an opponent, we now know, armed with nuclear-tipped ground-to-ground missiles and authorised to use them?

Kennedy, fortunately, was mindful of other Western strategic history, when escalation resulted not in bloodless climbdowns but in the war of 1914-1918, with the horrors it bequethed to the twentieth century.

Most important of all, Gingrich falls prey to the false binaries of what passes for foreign policy ‘debate’ amongst those who call themselves Reaganites (and who conveniently forget how disappointed they were by the actual Reagan in the mid-1980’s). He characterises strategic choices as a matter of strength versus weakness.

For Gingrich, there is no middle ground of prudence and restraint. Reagan sometimes escalated, and sometimes backed off. We can debate how well or badly he did so, and whether it was part of a conscious design or an erratic indecision. But there was a sense that diplomatic behaviour, and the mix of deterrence and talks, could be calibrated and measured.

Not so with Newt, who simply won’t recognise that his own talk of threats, sanctions, regime change and military strikes might make Tehran want a deterrent (or even just a latent capability) even more, thereby making Newt a potential co-creator of the very monster that he warns against.

I yearn for his political implosion, and return to the outer darkness of the political fringe.   

Cross-posted at The Offshore Balancer


Obama’s Offshore Dominance

Before I launch in, I just wanted to say quickly to Dan Nexon and all the folk at the Duck, thanks for letting me stay on board! I normally lose respect for institutions that decide to keep me as a member, but this is one exception.

Its a little late in coming, but I wanted to post some thoughts on Peter Beinart’s thoughtful recent description of President Obama’s evolving approach to US grand strategy as ‘offshore balancing.’

Stephen Walt has already responded, and there have already been some great posts on the broader issue of what really counts as offshore balancing, here, and here.

One of the difficulties in the endless debate over how to taxonomise US strategic behaviour is that many folk naturally emphasise techniques or goals (or means and ends) at the other’s expense. Perhaps this reflects a deeper reflex in Washington foreign policy debate, where the overriding goals of American diplomacy are debated far less intensively than the means. Muscular liberals might agree with Neoconservatives that the ultimate goal is American benevolent primacy in the world, which in turn would advance American and global security, but they disagree at times over how to get there (consensual multilateralism and institution-building or hawkish unilateral action, etc). At times this can lead to a certain ‘narcissism of small differences.’

So there is a temptation to stress the ‘offshore’ aspect and downplay ‘balancing.’ As Peter Beinart characterises it:

One way of understanding America’s shifting policy in the Middle East is that we’re moving offshore. Instead of directly occupying Islamic lands, we’re trying to secure our interests from the sea, the air and by equipping our allies. That’s in large measure what the Obama administration is trying to do in East Asia, too.The central message of Obama’s trip last week to Australia was that the U.S. finally is focused on restraining China’s rise in the Pacific. And how will the U.S. do that? A token deployment of Marines in northern Australia notwithstanding, the Obama administration’s strategy will be to buttress America’s naval presence in the Pacific and aid those nations on China’s periphery that fear its hegemonic ambitions.

This echoes the approach of the likes of Robert Pape, who argues (especially in the context of how to reduce anti-American terrorism) for a lighter footprint and a more naval-oriented military posture. And to be sure, it is important to consider that a big part of driving down the costs of American strategy could be moving offshore and avoiding large-scale expeditionary land commitments.

But offshore balancing, at least as it has been formulated since the first generation of post World War Two realists all the way to contemporaries such as Barry Posen, Christopher Preble and Christopher Layne, is a bigger and more demanding creature than that.

It isn’t just an alternative path to maintaining American hegemony abroad, or to making hegemony cheaper. It proposes a substantively new role for the U.S. in the world. As Brian C. Schmidt argues observantly in a paper he gave a while back, it is an argument that the US abandon the pursuit of unipolar primacy in the world. Its about ‘ends’ as well as ‘means’, or at least, it argues that America’ security interests are better served by accommodating what is inevitable, the return of mulitpolarity.

Take Obama’s recent Defence Strategic Guidance, and the stance he articulated recently, orienting the US strategically towards East Asia while scaling back its onshore commitments, de-emphasising prolonged counter-insurgency and nation-building missions and ramping up investment in drones and cyber capabilities.

While it may be tempting to define this – as some of Obama’s defenders and supporters do- as a fundamental grand strategic shift, it really isn’t. Its an attempt to pursue the existing, inherited grand strategic goal (the preservation of American primacy) while adjusting the ever-shifting mix of military supremacy, deterrence, reassurance, democratisation and liberalisation, in an apparently increasing important part of the world where the economic weight and political ambition is moving. (It is also, incidentally, a softly expressed but unmistakable confirmation that America is drawing down its military protectorate in Europe).

The title of Obama’s Defence Strategic Guidance gives the game away: ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership.’ Which is a polished, euphemistic way of saying that America is not abandoning its role as No. 1, the guardian of world order. Offshore Balancers who go beyond tactics and techniques and methods do not usually share this ambition.

In fact, they regard the pursuit of primacy and the vehicle to pursue it -a vast, forward-leaning military-strategic presence, a set of permanent formal alliances, and the attempt to remake the world in America’s image – as pernicious, exhausting, prone to inviting ‘free riding’ from others and creating security dilemmas unintentionally, as well as damaging American democracy at home. If America isn’t to embrace an amoral cynicism in place of the Pax Americana, they argue that it can better embody and repair its values at home, as an example to the world.

The main challenge for offshore balancing, in trying to navigate a mid-point between isolation and hegemony, is how to operationalise such a role, and how to give it geopolitical shape. In other words, precisely where would US forces be parked if they aren’t just to pack up and go home, and how should the US prepare for the possibility of competitive balancing or even bandwagoning if its onshore presence its reduced? On that note, I’m writing a little pamphlet that will be published later in 2012, all being well.

The suspense must be killing you.

Cross-Posted at The Offshore Balancer.


The Iraq surge: vindicated then exposed?

We haven’t got all the details, but promptly after the departure of US combat troops the Iraqi Prime Minister is feuding badly with Sunni political figures, and a bomb blast suggests that Iraq may be escalating into more sectarian conflict.

If so, what does this say about the surge? On one hand, the relatively quiet withdrawal of American troops on Tuesday vindicated one objective of the surge: to create more stable conditions to that America could pull out quietly without it being humiliated and without the kind of chaotic flight to the exits that would polarize its society.

On the other hand, the major declared objective of the surge launched by President Bush II in 2006-7 was to depress levels of violence, secure the population and thereby create critical space in which there could be political progress and reconciliation.

Advocates of enlightened counterinsurgency and muscular state-building argued that Iraq vindicated their position. They argued that the combination of more troops and more restraint played a major role in depressing the levels of violence and giving Iraq a breathing space to recover from the communal bloodletting it suffered in the post-invasion years.

But if Iraq descends again into the traumatic violence of 2005-6, we must acknowledge that this approach had its limits. It bought time and got the issue off the front pages – no small thing for a superpower that has seen presidencies destroyed in the past by protracted small wars – but a new civil war of sorts would suggest that the surge did not achieve its most profound objective.

Its not actually obvious, historically, that gentler, more sophisticated ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns necessarily work, if we define success as marginalising insurgencies while leaving behind a strong state that governs in the interests of the departing occupier.

Successful counterinsurgency campaigns in the past relied on favourable geopolitical conditions and some pretty unsentimental techniques. Forced population resettlements, virtual concentration camps (albeit with well-run facilities), indiscriminate bombings, bribery on a massive scale, proxy violence, etc. Which is precisely one reason why I am uneasy with our countries doing this kind of campaign, given the dark price victory has often exacted.

In some ways, the Petraeus revolution mixed the fluffy, appealing liberal versions of hearts and minds (cultural literacy, heroic restraint, a population-centric view that you can’t kill your way out) with some hard-nosed methods, such as walling off warring communities, putting potential insurgents on the payroll, and sustaining a round-the-clock kill and capture programme.

And yet, car bombs are going off and there are new rumours of war.

Alternatively, there is the line being peddled that America should not have left. Making Iraq an indefinite commitment would be mightily expensive. And by shouldering this burden well into the future, it would come at other costs, putting the US in the eye of whatever storms were coming in the future.

Ultimately, Iraq showed in a brutal way how limited American power is. If the surge only bought some time and space, and postponed another round of internal conflict (possibly metastasizing into a wider regional one), then policymakers should not conclude that perpetual armed nation-building works if only we get our methods right. Ultimately, COIN just isn’t a venture that we should fatalistically accept as part of our strategic future.

Contrary to the late Christopher Hitchens, endless war is not only a bad idea. It is beyond America’s limited strength. And compared to its costs, its dividends, at least in this case, may be slight indeed.

Cross posted at Offshore Balancer.


Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Christopher Hitchens has died. The world has lost one of its most luminous minds.

He will be acclaimed for his literary criticism, his political stances, and his raw physical courage as a writer-journalist, entering dangerous battlespaces from Belgrade to Baghdad. Not to mention his wit, occasional rudeness, his filthy limericks, and his dignified and reflective meditations on his coming death. His greatest work, I think, was Why Orwell Matters – a penetrating study of another brave and ferociously sharp Englishman.

I was lucky enough to meet him a few times, and interview him. He drank a whole bottle of whiskey and actually got sharper as the conversation went on. And it was great to witness his public fight with George Galloway at Baruch College in New York, an exhilirating showdown between the different tribes of the Left.

Some obituaries are summarising Hitchens’ politics crudely as an evolution from Left to Right. That is misleading. Like some other former revolutionaries, Hitchens came to believe that the most revolutionary force in world politics – the only viable remaining revolution – was the United States, and the most liberating instrument was its military power. We have seen the limits of that power, and the tragedies that flow from a utopian politics, but Hitchens believed himself to be on the side of revolution until the end.

I’ll never forget walking around the Quadrangle at Christ Church College Oxford with him for a few minutes, and arguing about whether it was religion or dogmatism of any stripe that was the true problem. It was a bit rash to pick an argument with the man who had been voted the world’s second ranked intellectual.

But it was a sparkling little moment, culminating in drinks at the Bear pub nearby. A drink and a row about God. He wouldn’t ask for anything more.

Well met, Hitch. It was good for the world that you were here.

Cross-posted at Offshore Balancer

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