A War of Convenience

I’m sure this strategy has Putin and Assad cowering in fear:

America’s allies in Britain and France declared that they were prepared to act again if necessary, but made clear that they did not want to become further involved in Syria.

Translation:

We will take all necessary measures to deter our enemies…unless doing so becomes a hassle.

Right, but wouldn’t that be an invitation on Putin and Assad’s part to make it a hassle? If you don’t want “to become further involved in Syria,” wouldn’t non-involvement be the more obvious method to adopt?

We Play Our Part, and They Play Their Games

To paraphrase Bon Jovi, our Syria strikes shot through “the heart” of Syria’s chemical weapons program. “We are,” Nikki Haley tells us, “confident that we have crippled Syria’s chemical weapons program.” But

“I would say there’s still a residual element of the Syrian program that’s out there,” General McKenzie said. “I’m not going to say that they’re going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future. I suspect, however, they’ll think long and hard about it.”

Just a little FYI: the metaphor of shooting something through “the heart” means that you’ve killed it. Supernatural powers or magic aside, death is forever. So unless you’re invoking magic or the supernatural, it makes no fucking sense to say that you’ve killed something but you’re “not going to say” that it’s “going to be unable” to re-constitute itself. In that case, what you’re saying is that you’ve killed it, but it’s not dead. In which case you probably shouldn’t have claimed to have killed it. Continue reading

Rolling Blunder: Airpower Redux

From George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, pp. 179, 180:

Rolling Thunder

The United States relied heavily on bombing. Airpower doctrine emphasized that the destruction of an enemy’s war-making capacity would force that enemy to come to terms. The limited success of strategic bombing as applied on a large scale in World War II and on a more restricted scale in Korea raised serious questions about the validity of this assumption. The conditions prevailing in Vietnam, a primitive country with few crucial targets, might have suggested even more questions. The air force and navy advanced unrealistic expectations about what airpower might accomplish, however, and clung to them long after experience had proven them unjustified. The civilian leadership accepted the military’s arguments, at least to a point, because bombing was cheaper in lives lost and therefore more palatable at home, and because it seemed to offer a quick and comparatively easy solution to a complex problem. Initiated in early 1965 as much from the lack of alternatives as from anything else, the bombing of North Vietnam was expanded over the next two years in the vain hope that it would check infiltration into the South and force North Vietnam to the conference table. …

The manner in which airpower was used in Vietnam virtually ensured that it would not achieve its objectives. Whether, as the  Joint Chiefs argued, a massive, unrestricted air war would have worked remains much in doubt. In fact, the United States had destroyed most major targets by 1967 with no demonstrable effect on the war. Nevertheless, the administration’s gradualist approach gave Hanoi time to construct an air defense system, protect its vital resources, and develop alternative modes of transportation. Gradualism in encouraged the North Vietnamese to persist despite the damage inflicted on them.

Sound familiar?

503+ Boots on the Ground and Counting

No comment on this item except to say “I told you so”:

More flexibility for American commanders appears to be coming. Representative Mac Thornberry, Republican of Texas Republican and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday that he expected the White House to remove “artificial troop caps” in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current “force manning level” for Syria sets a limit on the number of American military personnel in Syria at 503. But the limit does not count temporary reinforcements, like the roughly 400 personnel who were deployed in Syria when the Marine artillery battery and Army Rangers were sent to the country.

There was another telling indication on Wednesday that American Special Operations would continue to play an important role. Col. Jonathan P. Braga, the chief of staff of the Joint Special Operations Command and the former deputy commander of Delta Force, has been named as the next senior operations officer for the American-led command that is leading the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Surely you remember President Obama’s “no boots on the ground” promise (“promise”)? It took less than three years for the promise to evaporate and be forgotten. Continue reading

The Audacity of Hope: Studies in American Foreign Policy

From this morning’s New York Times, “Obama to Send 1,500 More Troops to Assist Iraq“:

Since the departure of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister, American officials have been far more vocal about blaming him for what is widely viewed as a dismal initial performance by the Iraqi military against the Islamic State. On Friday, Admiral Kirby said that the new Iraqi government under Mr. Abadi has shown a new willingness to work to engage Sunni groups, including in Anbar, and to train its soldiers to stand and fight.

“We did spend a lot of money and effort training the Iraqi Army,” Admiral Kirby said. “When we left them in 2011, we left them capable.” He said the Maliki government “squandered” the American military’s training of Iraqi troops, but expressed optimism that things will be different now. “This is a completely different game,” he said, pointing to a recent visit by Mr. Abadi to Anbar Province to engage Sunni leaders in the fight against the Islamic State.

Administration officials said they expect international allies will help in the training effort and announced a commitment Friday of 120 military personnel from Denmark to the cause.

As usual, American foreign policy mostly defies comment: the best case against it is simply to quote its champions, and leave it at that. I’d call Kirby’s comments a reductio, but  there’s no room for a “reduction” to absurdity if you begin there. Read the rest of the article for lots more absurdity.

Perhaps our policy-makers would do better to stop thinking of warfare on the analogy of a game? When I was an undergraduate IR student back in the day, I used to wonder whether anyone honestly believed that warfare could be “modeled” on game theory. I mean, was trench warfare during World War I really just a series of iterated Prisoner’s Dilemmas, as Robert Axelrod had supposedly “taught us”? (I’d be rich if I had a nickel for the number of times the Axelrodian mantra was recited to us.) We weren’t supposed to ask “naive” questions like that, so I mostly kept quiet. The older I get, I suppose, the more naive I get, and the more inclined to ask “dumb questions” about the verities I was once taught with such confidence (I’m happy to note that occasionally, one gets answers by this method). Of course, sometimes the naivete of youth is indistinguishable from the despair of middle age:

Belaboring the Obvious: We’re the Ones Arming ISIS

Here’s a depressing belaboring of the obvious from this morning’s New York Times:

In its campaign across northern Syria and Iraq, the jihadist group Islamic State has been using ammunition from the United States and other countries that have been supporting the regional security forces fighting the group, according to new field data gathered by a private arms-tracking organization.

The data, part of a larger sample of captured arms and cartridges in Syria and Iraq, carries an implicit warning for policy makers and advocates of intervention.

It suggests that ammunition transferred into Syria and Iraq to help stabilize governments has instead passed from the governments to the jihadists, helping to fuel the Islamic State’s rise and persistent combat power. Rifle cartridges from the United States, the sample shows, have played a significant role.

“The lesson learned here is that the defense and security forces that have been supplied ammunition by external nations really don’t have the capacity to maintain custody of that ammunition,” said James Bevan, director of Conflict Armament Research, the organization that is gathering and analyzing weapons used by the Islamic State.

Providing weapons to the regional proxies, Mr. Bevan added, is “a massive risk that is heightened by poorly motivated security forces that are facing great challenges.”

I would only dispute Mr. Bevan’s use of the passive voice. It’s not a “lesson learned” by those who most urgently need to learn it.

Rand Paul on Syria

This comment (reported here) by Rand Paul offers a nice counterpoint to yesterday’s featured quotation from Samantha Power:

Amid the interventionists’ disjointed and frankly incoherent rhetoric, the only consistent theme is war. These barnacled enablers have never met a war they didn’t like.

I’m not sure that Samantha Power has barnacles, but I still think it works.

Bomb First, Testily Allow Questions Later

This high-level rationalization for “expanded airstrikes” on Syria really defies commentary, from a News Analysis in this morning’s New York Times:

The American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, on Tuesday struck a testy note when asked whether there was a legal basis for airstrikes on Syria.

“We believe we have a basis for action,” she said, declining to describe what they were, because, as she said, it would depend on the action taken and under what circumstances. “In the event that action is taken, believe me, we will have plenty of time to engage on it.”

We believe you! Sorry for asking!

Debating Syrian Intervention

Check out the conversation on Syrian intervention at Notes on Liberty, “A Few Remarks on Interventions in Syria and Iraq.” And feel free to check out last year’s conversation on the same subject here, from the now-defunct Institute for Objectivist Studies blog (11 posts). If I can change one mind on the subject, I’d count my efforts as a success.

P.S.: In an earlier post, I described Bruce Ackerman as a strange bedfellow in the debate over Syrian intervention. But I think I’d have to kick Howard Friel, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Herman out of bed, despite agreeing with them on the narrow question of the need for a Congressional vote on Syria, and on the potential applicability to the case of Syria of the War Powers Resolution. In a letter published in today’s New York Times, Friel, Chomsky, and Herman casually (but dogmatically) assert the following:

While the president must request and receive congressional approval within the strictures of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, as both Mr. Ackerman and your editorial rightly demand, neither Congress nor the president is free to violate the United Nations Charter’s prohibition “against the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Individual nations are bound by their international obligations regardless of their constitutional law. Thus, the reach of law here goes beyond the War Powers Resolution to the United Nations Charter.

It’s a claim to confirm the most paranoid fears of the most paranoid right-winger: the United Nations Charter supersedes the U.S. Constitution. On the face of it, I don’t see how the United States (or any other country) can be “bound,” whether legally or morally, to adhere to the terms of a document when doing so would violate its own constitution. The perplexity is increased when you consider that it’s obvious how and why the U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, but not obvious that international “law” is law at all.  Though it’s a bit of a distraction from the issue directly at hand, I’d be curious to see an argument for their claim.

AUMF, ISIS, and Imperialism

I rarely if ever agree with Bruce Ackerman on political matters, but the politics of warfare, I suppose, makes for strange bedfellows. What Ackerman says in this Op-Ed, pointedly titled “Obama’s Betrayal of the Constitution,” seems to me exactly on target:

Mr. Bush gained explicit congressional consent for his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In contrast, the Obama administration has not even published a legal opinion attempting to justify the president’s assertion of unilateral war-making authority. This is because no serious opinion can be written.

This became clear when White House officials briefed reporters before Mr. Obama’s speech to the nation on Wednesday evening. They said a war against ISIS was justified by Congress’s authorization of force against Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that no new approval was needed.

But the 2001 authorization for the use of military force does not apply here. That resolution — scaled back from what Mr. Bush initially wanted — extended only to nations and organizations that “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks.

Mr. Obama is rightly proud of his success in killing Osama bin Laden in 2011 and dismantling the Qaeda network he built up. But it’s preposterous to suggest that a congressional vote 13 years ago can be used to legalize new bombings in Syria and additional (noncombat) forces in Iraq.

To suggest that a Congressional vote 13 years ago responding specifically to the 9/11 attack can be used to legalize new warfare in Syria is to flout the plain meaning of the words of the original Authorization of the Use of Military Force, and to suggest by implication that words have no meaning. It’s about as obvious a violation of the rule of law as can be imagined–a paradigm case of violation staring us straight in the face, while masquerading as law. It also marks another sad milestone in the United States’s childish, eyes-wide-shut descent into imperialism.