Tag: intervention

Obama's "Lack" of Strategy Towards ISIS

The last two days have seen a maelstrom of media attention to President Obama’s admission that he currently does not have a strategy for attacking or containing ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in Syria.   It is no surprise that those on the right criticized Obama’s candid remarks, and it is equally not surprising that the left is attempting some sort of damage control, noting that perhaps the “no strategy” comment is really Obama holding his cards close to his chest.   What seems to be missing from any of the discussion is what exactly he meant by “strategy,” and moreover, the difficult question of the end he would be seeking.

Let’s take the easy part first. Strategy, at least for the military, has a very particular meaning. It is about ends, ways and means of a military character. Indeed, strategy, as distinct from operational planning and tactics, is about the overall end state of a war (or “limited” war).   The strategic goal, therefore, is about the desired state of affairs post bellum. It requires that one ask: What is it that I want to achieve? How would I get there through the use of force? “Strategy” is not tantamount to “planning,” and for the strategist, ought to be reserved for strictly military activities.

Once one identifies the desired end, one must then take this goal and break it down into more manageable pieces through another two levels: operations and tactics. The operational level concerns the middle term: it something beyond a particular tactic (say aerial bombardment of an enemy’s rear line), to something broader, say a collection of missions. All the operations ought to be directed toward some particular portion of the overall strategy.   At each level a commander is issued a set of commands, and each commander then takes her orders and operationalizes them into how she thinks to best achieve those orders (commander’s intent). She does so by consulting with a variety of reporting officers (weaponeers, logistics, lawyers, etc.) This is a hierarchical and a horizontal process, and it always feeds back upon itself to ensure those goals are in fact being achieved.   Or, at least, this is how the process ought to go.

It is, therefore, laudable that President Obama admitted that he does not yet have a strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria. Why? Because, the desired “end goal,” of which any strategy necessarily requires, is not yet clear. Does the US want to “defeat” ISIS? Surely that is part of the equation, as Secretary of State Kerry called it a “cancer.”   Yet there is more to this tale than merely quashing a group of radicalized, well-organized and heavily armed nonstate actors.  The US military power could do this relatively quickly, if it desired to do so.   But this would not “defeat” ISIS in the way of seeking a better peace or achieving one’s end goal. For taking it out does not entail that justice and harmony will prevail.

This brings us to the second and more difficult question: What is the desired end goal? While I am not privy to the Commander-in-Chief’s thought processes, nor am I present with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in their briefings to the President, but as a student of strategy and an observer and academic, it appears to me that the President has not adequately formulated what this end goal ought to be yet. If one truly desires that ISIS is “defeated” this will take more than air strikes, it will take more than (whoever’s) boots on the ground.   It will take establishing the rule of law, providing for basic needs, such as food, security and water, as well as jobs, education, and infrastructure. For ISIS is not a traditional “enemy,” it is a monster made from the blood, havoc, insecurity and fear that have ruled Syria for three years. This new crisis over ISIS does not come from nowhere: over three million Syrians are refugees; over six million are internally displaced; and almost two hundred thousand have died. Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against humanity and war crimes provided the incubator for ISIS. Moreover, the world’s—not just the US’s—failure to do anything to protect the Syrian people and respond to Mr. Assad’s crimes generated an expanse for ISIS to grow and consolidate. That the international community manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect the Syrian people is obvious, and it is equally obvious that one cannot ignore a crisis and think it will just go away.

Recall that at the very beginnings of the Syrian crisis, up until the (in)famous “red line” of chemical weapons, the US could not garner support from its allies or from its own people. The geopolitical situation then, while heavily dictated by Iran and Russia, is not much different. To be sure, Russia is clearly on its own dangerous course in Ukraine, and Iran has ISIS in its backyard, but there is no upwelling of international support to this cause.

Secretary of State Kerry’s op-ed in the New York Times calls for a “global coalition” to fight ISIS. Whether he realizes that this threat is not just about ISIS, that ISIS is merely a Golgothan of the Syrian civil war, is yet to be seen. To actually “defeat” ISIS is to remove the need for ISIS. ISIS has merely filled a Hobbesian vacuum where:

“The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place [in a state of nature]. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law; where no Law, no Injustice. Force and Fraud, are in warre, the two Cardinal Vertues. Justice, and Injustice are none of the Faculties neither of the Body, nor Mind. […] They are Qualities, that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude” (Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter 13, para. 63.)

Yet if we view the fight against ISIS beyond the mere military victory, it is a fight against ideology, insecurity, and fear. Indeed it does require a global coalition, but one directed towards the establishment of peace and security in the Middle East – and beyond – and the protection of human rights and the rule of law. In this, it requires states to look beyond their immediate self-interests. Therefore, I am actually happy to see the President give pause. For maybe, just maybe, he too sees that the problem is larger than dropping tons of ordinance on an already destroyed nation. Maybe, just maybe, he sees that ISIS can only be defeated through broader cosmopolitan principles of justice.   If this is too tall an order, then he must tread very carefully while formulating his restricted and “limited” strategy.


Clarifying Punitive Intervention

[Editor’s Note:  This is a guest post from Professor Anthony F. Lang, chair in International Political Theory and  Director of the Centre for Global Constitutionalism at the University of St. Andrews.]

Since I wrote my short defence of punitive air strikes against Syria last week in a post at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs , a number of commentators have given their own, more critical, accounts of this use of military force (see, for instance lots on Duck itself, such as Charli Carpenter; Stephanie Carvin on Opinio Juris ;  , and Dan Kenealy and Sean Molloy in The Scotsman.  I wanted to respond to some of the points made in these posts and elsewhere, not to end discussion, but to continue it. The following are specific issues that have been raised with my thoughts on them: Continue reading


Syria: in Defense of a Broad Military Authorization

Editor’s Note: as per my earlier announcement, I am phasing out of the Duck of Minerva. But my blogging won’t officially end for around another two weeks. That means that, although administrative inquiries should be sent to other team members, I have not gone cold turkey on the writing front.

I remain uncertain as to the wisdom of any kind of US-centered military action in Syria. But if the Obama Administration is going to act, then it needs a broad Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). Indeed, today has seen significant concern about the breadth of the proposed AUMF. Jack Goldsmith writes that:

(1) Does the proposed AUMF authorize the President to take sides in the Syrian Civil War, or to attack Syrian rebels associated with al Qaeda, or to remove Assad from power?  Yes, as long as the President determines that any of these entities has a (mere) connection to the use of WMD in the Syrian civil war, and that the use of force against one of them would prevent or deter the use or proliferation of WMD within, or to and from, Syria, or protect the U.S. or its allies (e.g. Israel) against the (mere) threat posed by those weapons.  It is very easy to imagine the President making such determinations with regard to Assad or one or more of the rebel groups.

(2) Does the proposed AUMF authorize the President to use force against Iran or Hezbollah, in Iran or Lebanon?  Again, yes, as long as the President determines that Iran or Hezbollah has a (mere) a connection to the use of WMD in the Syrian civil war, and the use of force against Iran or Hezbollah would prevent or deter the use or proliferation of WMD within, or to and from, Syria, or protect the U.S. or its allies (e.g. Israel) against the (mere) threat posed by those weapons.  Again, very easy to imagine.

As the history of the 9/11 AUMF shows, and as prior AUMFs show (think about the Gulf of Tonkin), a President will interpret an AUMF for all it is worth, and then some.  The proposed Syrian AUMF is worth a lot, for it would (in sum) permit the President to use military force against any target anywhere in the world (including Iran or Lebanon) as long as the President, in his discretion, determines that the the target has a connection to WMD in the Syrian civil war and the use of force has the purpose of preventing or deterring (broad concepts) the use or proliferation of WMDs in, to, or from Syria, or of protecting the U.S. and its allies from the mere threat (again, a broad concept) of use or proliferation of WMDs connected to the Syrian conflict.

Congress needs to be careful about what it authorizes.

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Not All Interventions are the Same.

It now looks almost certain that we will see a US military strike of some sort in Syria. There is a lot of angst out there about such a strike — what are its goals? What will it accomplish? and, Where will it all end? Many are asking “what the hell is the Obama administration thinking?” Many have already concluded that it will be a disaster.

This is a fair set of questions in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. Erica Chenoweth is running a number of articles over at the Monkey Cage on what some of the political science research says when looking at the aggregate data with respect to third party intervention. It suggests that this isn’t going to end well. Maybe. But, there is a broader analysis and context that are also likely influencing President Obama’s decision.

First, not every intervention is the same — time to dust off that copy of Schelling. Continue reading


Will this be the Straw that Break the Back of Non-Intervention in Syria?

There are gruesome reports out of Syria today of a chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus. If they are accurate, the chemical weapons inflicted mass civilian causalities. As David Kenner reports at Foreign Policy:

The information coming out of the Ghouta region, where the rebels enjoy significant support, is still unconfirmed by independent observers. But videos allegedly taken Wednesday in the area showed Syrians lying on the floor gasping for breath, medics struggling to save infants, and rows of bodies of those who had reportedly died in the attack (warning: the footage above is graphic). Syrian state media denied that chemical weapons had been used, attributing such stories to media channels that “are involved in the shedding of the Syrians’ blood and supporting terrorism.”

The opposition Local Coordination Committee, however, reported that at least 755 people had been killed in the attack. If that figure is true, what is happening on the outskirts of Damascus today is the worst chemical weapons attack since then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein unleashed poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 people.

The pro-rebel website, The Revolting Syria collects videos that, frankly, I had to stop watching. If this is propaganda, then it is incredibly effective propaganda.

Assuming the veracity of these reports, will it prompt a consequential US intervention? My gut reaction, is no. Continue reading


What’s wrong with red lines?

obama pic

So everyone is bashing Obama’s use of red lines on Syria.  In Sunday’s New York Times, Daniel Byman took the concept of red lines to task because failure to act on them weakens America’s credibility and reputation:

…when deterrence fails, the United States looks weak and indecisive…. Moreover, not acting after issuing ultimatums harms America’s reputation.  As Mr. Rogers and others have argued, inaction makes it more likely that American red lines elsewhere in the region will be questioned, especially in Iran, which is facing pressure on its nuclear weapons program and watching Syria closely.

But here is the question:   Does the United States really look weak and indecisive if it fails to follow through on a bluff?   The United States uses force at a rate that is several times greater than others – it has already toppled regimes on Iran’s western border and on Iran’s eastern border – and somehow it is the lesson of Syria that is more salient for Iran?   More broadly: why should an occasional bluff matter?

Well, actually it doesn’t.   Robert Jervis demonstrated four decades ago that signaling is complex business.  Jon Mercer’s excellent book on reputation shows that we’ve spent far too much blood and treasure over the folly of preserving our credibility.  Daryl Press spent years trying to demonstrate the costs of lost credibility when a state fails to follow through on its threats.  His finding?  The conventional wisdom on credibility “is wrong.”  In his book Calculating Credibility:  How Leaders Assess Military Threats, Press writes:

A country’s credibility, at least during crises, is driven not by its past behavior but rather by power and interests.  If a country makes threats that it has the power to carry out – and an interst in doing so—those threats will be believed even if the country has bluffed in the past….When assessing credibility during crises, leaders focus on the “here and now,” not on their adversary’s past behavior.

He and Jenny Lind have a nice post on Steve Walt’s blog warning against using the idea that we have to intervene in Syria to defend American credibility in the wake of Obama’s red line.  We don’t.

But, this also raises another interesting question.  Continue reading


Magical Thinking in the Sahel

This time last week, international intervention plans in Mali consisted of a rather under-powered African (ECOWAS) force, which was expected to arrive no earlier than September.  This force was not backed by overpowering consensus. Nigeria and Mauritania, the two best-equipped militaries in the region, were reluctant to pledge serious troops. The United States insisted that free and fair presidential elections must precede any international intervention, even after a December coup rendered this unrealistic.  And the Malian government itself seemed an obstacle.  The December coup signaled the resurgence of hardliners within the junta, who claimed that the Malian military – broken and demoralized as it was – could deal with northern insurgents on its own.  Tweets out of Mali (and even statements in the press) took a nationalist turn, and international intervention, even by an African force, began to seem fraught.

And now, seven days later, we’re in a brand new world.*

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An Interventionist Weekend


Quite a weekend, the opening of Zero Dark Thirty in the U.S. reminding everyone of the interventionist elements of the Obama Doctrine (see my next post) and a full-fledged French intervention in Mali, not to mention U.S. assistance with a French hostage liberation operation tucked away on the inside pages.

Washington, D.C. is a funny place these days…all but two of the think tanks here are obsessed with the rise of China and just about the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment is choking on economic austerity and therefore fully inclined to doubt that our government or any other can afford much in the way of armed interventions these days.

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Syria and Presidential Debate Bingo

Greetings, Duck Followers.  I’m Amanda – assistant professor at Mizzou, avid hiker, crazy sci-fi romance novel reader, and pretty competent mother.  I’m excited to be a new “duckling” on the block.  On the eve of the next US presidential debate, I’ll go out on a limb and guess that the dire human rights situation in Syria will be mentioned.  I’ll also bet that neither candidate will say definitively that a humanitarian military intervention is needed.

But, in line with my research and that of my colleagues, some forms of military intervention – especially intervention with a stated humanitarian purpose and that against the perpetrator of the abuses- could really help the extremely dire human rights situation in Syria.  Other interventions, however, could exasperate human rights problems.  David R. Davis  and I have made the case that only peacekeeping operations with a stated humanitarian goal will improve human rights after civil war – some other forms of peacekeeping actually lead to a decrease in human rights…. But, that’s after the conflict. What about during the conflict/genocide/craziness?

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Libya and Feminist Peace Theory

At the Daily Beast John Avlon gestures quizzically at the presence of women among those influencing the Libyan intervention:

The Libyan airstrikes mark the first time in U.S. history that a female-dominated diplomatic team has urged military action. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and the influential Office of Multilateral and Human Rights Director Samantha Power to argue for airstrikes against Libya. Their advice triggered an abrupt shift in U.S. policy, overturning more cautious administrations’ counselors. In the end, that a female-led diplomatic team argued for war will be a footnote in this conflict as it unfolds. But it is historically significant. And that it seems almost unremarkable to contemporaries is a small mark of our constant evolution toward a more perfect union, even within our civilian-led military

What may be true about this statement (I need to check more carefully) is that this is the first time the foreign policy apparatus has been quite so female-dominated at a time that a President was urged to take military action. What is more obviously less true is Avlon’s implication that female diplomats have not pushed for war in the past or wouldn’t generally do so. Easy counter-examples come to mind. Condoleeza Rice pushed for war in Iraq. Madeline Albright pushed, along with a significant American feminist lobby, for intervention in the Balkans. Jeane Kirkpatrick was not known for her pacifist views.

Avlon may think this week’s events are “historically significant” due to the myth that women are generally more diplomatic and opposed to war than men. This myth has been pushed in particular by Foreign Affairs Magazine in essays by Fukuyama, Hunt and Coleman and by the Hunt Alternatives Fund as well as by a variety of NGOs. Of course there’s plenty of counter-vailing anecdotal evidence, but the real question is what are the general trends? Surveys by Richard Eichenberg conducted at the start of the Iraq war found that it depends on the type of war: women tend to oppose war more than men in general, but the relationship reverses when it comes to waging wars to protect civilians in other lands.

In other words, Condoleeza Rice was the outlier: Powers, Clinton and Susan Rice represent more or less what feminist IR theorists would predict – both in their preference construction and their ability to convert their critical mass into policy influence when push came to shove. This will indeed be historically significant – the outcomes of war waged by the world’s largest military usually are – but it is hardly surprising.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


Saudi and Emirati Intervention in Bahrain

Saudi APCs and Emirati troops are now on the streets of Bahrain attempting to squelch what was formerly a non-violent, secular, youth-led, economically rooted, democracy movement as America does little other than urge restraint from its allies. Such mealy mouthed statements toward a regime which is using live ammunition against unarmed protesters and then denying the victims of its rampage access to medical facilities indicates that the US foreign policy establishment has failed to adapt its posture toward authoritarian client regimes since the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Consequently, the monarchists’ narrative explaining the democratic demands of the protests in sectarian terms and foreign influence appears to be becoming self fulfilling.

The situation reveals the paralyzing contradictions in American foreign policy, economic interests, and political ideology, but perhaps more importantly the failure of the Obama administration to decisively restrain Saudi and Emirati intervention may threaten regional stability. The Iranian republic has already called on the monarchies to leave Bahrain “immediately.” There have been popular protests in Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait against the crackdown in Bahrain.

Despite the regime’s attempt to erase the memory of the protests, Manama is not pacified. If the underlying reasons for the unrest are not addressed quickly and substantively, a wider escalation could eventually involve the US.


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