Monday, February 27, 2012

These aren't the ends you're looking for

When I wrote about austerity and how it will affect our definition of victory in conflict, I failed to make an important distinction related to this excellent post by Adam Elkus on R2P and the gap between policy and strategy/tactics. Contrary to how we've described our policy goals these past 10 years, I was trying to argue that our policy goals (ends) will be limited in the future and that winning (as Adam says: accomplishing your political object) can no longer be maximal statements of everything to everyone. Or even worse, interpreted in many ways to substantiate practically any military strategy imaginable. Clarity and focus should best describe our political objects in war since we seem unwilling to pay for much more than that. A change in how we perceive victory has to do with our ends, not in our ways. We are, in other words, going to take a much harder look at the first two questions of the Powell Doctrine before we intervene.

There are a few aspects of this that apply to R2P. First among these is the apparent lack of understanding of the military art and science by the policy proponents of R2P. Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent op-ed in the NY Times is a perfect case in point: she attempts to provide a military solution to end the violence that ostensibly uses minimalist objects. A "no-kill zone" sounds like a limited objective, but militarily it is not. Providing the Free Syrian Army with such materiel as "countersniper and anti-aircraft weapons" gives the impression that we'll give them a few tools and some advice and they can carry the fight. However, countersniper weapons are usually other snipers, tanks, artillery and airstrikes, according to U.S. military doctrine. These are weapons of offense, not defense. And they are weapons most effectively used by an intervening force, not a loose coalition of Syrian anti-regime forces. Also, please read Adam's discussion of stalemate and how it's not an end as well as Robert Caruso on the logistics of intervention and Spencer Ackerman on how Dr. Slaughter's plan could easily spin beyond our intended trajectory.

The point of all of this is that statements of ends cannot be "limited" if the ways and means required to affect them are not. Syria is a very good example that limited ends require ways and means that in reality create a new, maximal ends in order to achieve them. This is not to suggest that policy should be dictated by the military - such a path would be against our traditions, however often it actually happens - but policy should be informed by the military perspective to avoid a disconnect between policy and strategy. CvC himself hits on this point:
If policy is right, that is, if it succeeds in hitting the object, then it can only act with advantage on the War. If this influence of policy causes a divergence from the object, the cause is only to be looked for in a mistaken policy.

It is only when policy promises itself a wrong effect from certain military means and measures, an effect opposed to their nature, that it can exercise a prejudicial effect on War by the course it prescribes. Just as a person in a language with which he is not conversant sometimes says what he does not intend, so policy, when intending right, may often order things which do not tally with its own views.

This has happened times without end, and it shows that a certain knowledge of the nature of War is essential to the management of political intercourse.
Right on, Carl. The problem we're facing is that much of the policy world is calling for action to end the violence against civilians in Syria, yet these individuals - while brilliant in many things - have such little understanding of the mechanisms of war that they are unwittingly calling for things which do not tally with their own views. This is a difficult topic as their calls for action come from an honest place: their own humanity. But a full understanding of the military implications of their policies may require more killing that already exists and will very likely naturally expand their intended ends. This also puts those who better understand the required military strategy in the position of allowing the continued killing of civilians by opposing action. Do not confuse this with inhumanity. It (generally) comes from the calculus that intervening (i.e., waging war) will create a great humanitarian calamity and that the risks/benefits equation for the United States doesn't add up to force change to the status quo.

The situation in Syria is tragic, but there is no limited-ends policy to abate it. The military strategy required to affect limited ends create new, broader ends that are likely unpalatable to a nation that has been at war for 10 consecutive years.


  1. What bugs me most about AM Slaughter's op-ed is that I can't shake the thought that **she should know better!!** She used to advise the SECSTATE on policy! She's an international relations professor at Princeton!!

    I don't fault her for not knowing (off the top of her head) the operational and tactical implications of the security operations she advocates. But isn't research what she does for a living? Barring that, she HAS to know somebody who knows about this sort of thing; couldn't she pick up a phone, or tap out an email asking "what would it take to execute this policy?"

    It blows my mind that someone with her education and experience can't see the massive escalation that lurks one baby-step beyond the antiseptic, morally tidy, precisely measured, defensive-only intervention she imagines. Drives me fucking crazy. Slaughter's glib, hand-waved dismissal of Ackerman's reasonable questions about what happens after the bullets keep flying--doubling down on the fantasy in the face of legitimate criticism--made my stomach turn.

    It would be great if Slaughter and the other like-minded interventionists would just come right out and say "we should invade Syria," then proceed with a cost-benefit analysis of the implications from there. But I'm not holding my breath. When I tweeted as much on Friday, I got a brush-off reply of "with whose troops [would an invasion be carried out]?" Well, whose do you think, Professor? The reply at least tacitly admitted the awareness that there was really only one answer to the question: the U.S.

    Anyway, good piece. Reading this, and Ackerman, Elkus, and Caruso's responses, has been a soothing antidote to Slaughter's great-idea fairy op-ed.

  2. @Mike Forbes:

    "she should know better!!"

    You remind me of Kay in The Godfather being admonished by Michael Corleone(or Marge on The Simpsons being admonished by Homer): "Now who's now being naive?"


    1. Heh. OK, I'll admit that reading that abortion of an op-ed on Friday made my bang my head on my desk so hard that a tiny drop of naive idealism sneaked through a crack in my usual shell of cynicism.

      But is it really naive to expect that PhD IR professors and the senior levels of DoS be possessed of the tiniest bit of critical thinking skill and the ability to project one--just one!--move ahead when advocating foreign policy?

  3. I don't want to focus on Dr Slaughter too much as she's certainly not alone - just the most recent and most public version. I respect her quite a bit and admire her work, even if I think she was wildly off the mark on this. I can't discern why she wrote what she did, but it struck me that was considering past critiques of her writing on Syria and attempted to address them. Which is admirable in it's own - even if I STILL think she's wrong. But your point, Mike, remains: she should have asked someone. I'd volunteer to help, but I'm probably too much of a pessimist on the utility of force for her sake!

  4. @MikeForbes:

    Thanks for the "Heh." But yes, it is really naive.

    A couple of disjointed thoughts:

    First, Slaughter is not a security/strategic studies scholar; she's not a "bombs and rockets" person like (say) John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen or Robert Pape. I've only read an article or two by her and was impressed; that said, I would not necessarily turn to John Mearsheimer for an analysis of factor endowments, and I would not necessarily turn to Daron Acemoglu for an analysis of international law. Perhaps the tyranny of the division of labor is rearing its ugly head here.

    Second, even if she were a security/strategic studies scholar, academics are humans first and foremost, and as I noted in response to Jason Fritz's post in re Diane Wueger and the "Crossing the Rubicon" "International Security" article, emotion perhaps trumps cognition. I don't think it's too hard to find ostensibly really smart people who cannot be divorced from their ideas, facts and logic to the contrary be damned.

    Third, a family friend was a fairly prominent sociologist who invented the subfield (or sub-subfield) in which he worked. He described academia to me as resembling Bismarck's description of politics as the sausage-making process.


  5. @ Jason:
    Despite the tone of my comments, I also admire Dr. Slaughter and agree that her op-ed is serving as a proxy for the truckload of other interventionists out there. But that admiration itself is what inspired such a strong backlash over the weekend from Ackerman, Elkus, Caruso, you, Elkus again, and now Trombley today. If it was just some guy off the street, nobody would care--it's surprising precisely _because_ AMS is otherwise so prominent and respected. How's that saying go about a hundred 'atta-boys' being erased by one 'aw shit'?

    All good points, especially about the "tyranny of the division of labor." I couldn't agree more, which is why if I were asked to analyze "factor endowments," I would seek the advice of someone who knew what that phrase even meant before opening my mouth about it.

    On academia, politics, and sausage-making: Yes, viewing the inner workings of the USG, academia, and who knows what else is not for the faint of heart. But naive or not, I still think it extraordinarily dysfunctional that we have very high expectations of competence from one end of the Executive Branch (i.e., the operating forces in DoD), but we shrug off incompetence at another end (i.e., senior State policy advisors). If the captain of an aircraft carrier were to run it aground, would we demand accountability or simply say "eh, steering a ship is like making sausage; you should expect a grounding every now and then, don't be so naive"?

    1. @Mike Forbes:

      Why ask a live person when there's wikipedia? :)

      This is probably a complete and total aside, but FWIW, I do actually reading an article on, I think, the court martial of Chester Nimitz for grounding his first command, or one of his first commands, in USNI "Proceedings." It lamented the zero tolerance attitude in the military, or at least the Navy, and harped positively that a promising young career wasn't attended and, IIRC, speculated zero tolerance prohibits essential risk-taking. But, of course, your main point is well-taken and uncontested: a junior officer running a small craft aground (which is what I think occurred) isn't the same as the captain running an aircraft aground; the head of Policy Planning is an entry-level Foreign Service Office or analyst.


    2. Why did I use the word "attended?" I don't think it means any cease. Please substitute "curtailed" (or whatever is more appropriate) in its place.


  6. I don't wish to focus on personalities, either, but were any of the more prominent people arguing for intervention in Syria (such as Dr. Slaughter) members of the interagency policy group that put together the white paper on our "AFPak" policy?

    I am uncomfortable writing this, and yet, I find the process of Washington opinion shaping and policy making very strange from the outside.

    Again, I mean no disprespect and I'm not trying to demonize anyone. I bring it up because we are talking about lives, Syrian, American, others. Precious blood and treasure.

    It's funny. We physicians can get sued for our mistakes, and, wait, I don't want to go down this road.

    I don't know what I am trying to say. I'm trying to be respectful and I am also trying to understand how people can make recommendations with confidence if, perhaps, there prior recommendations didn't work out.

    - Madhu

  7. Oh jeez, guys, am I out of line on my above rambling comment? There is no way to be involved in public policy and not make mistakes because the situations are so complicated and multifactorial. But shouldn't that suggest caution?

    - Madhu

  8. Hillary Clinton is regularly briefed on all of these policy areas -- and contributes at the Principals meeting to the policy discussion. The envoys brief Clinton as does Deputy Secretary of State for Policy James Steinberg - who is constantly coordinating and working well with the National Security Council's Deputy Tom Donilon.
    Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton hosted a small dinner of Iran experts organized by Policy Planning Staff Director Anne-Marie Slaughter. Richard Holbrooke, Dennis Ross, and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns participated in the dinner with a number of outside experts who were queried by Clinton and others in what was essentially a roundtable briefing for the Secretary. Slaughter has done a number of such briefing dinners, including one on Afghanistan/Pakistan.

    But this is just people doing their jobs so I'm not being conspiratorial or accusatory. Just trying to understand intellectual lineages.

    - Madhu

  9. FunkMaster - Sorry, mate. Had to delete your comment as the first graf violates our comment policy. If you'd like to comment again without calling anyone retarded (at least without substantiation) you're more than welcome to.

    Madhu - If I ever crack the code, I'll let you know right away. People who lead the discussion in DC do so from multiple sources of standing. In some cases, getting more right than wrong preserves your right to lead. In other cases, as long as you have an ideological following, have at it. Dr Slaughter falls into the first category in my opinion. But there's no real definitive way to assess it.

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