Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Reagan view on intervention

I was reading an old essay by Kenneth Waltz today when I came across something that seemed straight out of today's discussions about bounded sovereignty and the responsibility to protect:
Senior officials in the Reagan administration elevated the right to intervene to the level of general principle. As one of them said, we "debated whether we had the right to dictate the form of another country's government. The bottom line was yes, that some rights are more fundamental than the right of nations to nonintervention, like the rights of individual people... [W]e don't have the right to subvert a democratic government but we do have the right against an undemocratic one."
(Waltz himself was quoting from a 1985 book called Intervention and the Reagan Doctrine, by Robert W. Tucker.)

I suppose the international consensus on R2P is more sophisticated than the rationale explained here, at least, in that it establishes a somewhat more rigorous standard for intervention—one that's based on the ability to relieve human suffering and not on what must necessarily become a subjective determination about levels of democracy. But still we're left with the inescapable reality that decisions about intervention or nonintervention are made in national capitals on the basis of national interests; thus ever was it so.

Friday, June 15, 2012

R2P's regime-change conundrum

If you haven't yet, I recommend you all read the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (pdf), the foundation of R2P doctrine. As far as reports go, this is a pretty good one: full of interesting thoughts and extremely readable. Please read all of it, but here we are going to focus on the sections related to military intervention and specifically chapter 4.

This report begins the discussion of deciding to intervene by establishing the starting point as the principle of non-intervention, comparing this principle to the Hippocratic principle - first do no harm (para 4.11, pg 31). States should respect other states' sovereignty as a starting point and should only violate their sovereignty when culprit states "shock the conscience of mankind" (more Americans should read and think hard about this principle - and not just within the context of Syria).

The report then goes on to establish six criteria for military intervention:

  1. right authority
  2. just cause
  3. right intention
  4. last resort
  5. proportional means
  6. reasonable prospects
The first two are discussed at length within the report.  But these are the go/no go criteria to determine if we should intervene. I think it would be difficult to for anyone supporting intervention in Syria to legitimately claim that criteria 1 and 6 have been met as of yet with some other criteria certainly disputable. Obtaining the right authority will be difficult and pro-interventionists have generally glossed over the Syrian military's ability to act against international intervention (admittedly, anti-interventionists have been particularly pessimistic on this criteria).  While the report's discussion of these criteria is interesting, it is not exactly earth-shattering stuff. 

Except for the section on right intention (para 4.33, pg 33):
The primary purpose of the intervention must be to halt or avert human suffering. Any use of military force that aims from the outset, for example, for the alteration of borders or the advancement of a particular combatant group's claim to self-determination, cannot be justified. Overthrow of regimes is not, as such, a legitimate objective, although disabling that regime's capacity to harm its own people may be essential to discharging the mandate of protection - and what is necessary to achieve that disabling will vary from case to case. 
Overthrow of regimes is not, as such, a legitimate objective. While this aligns with R2P's primary purpose to halt or avert human suffering, this presents a massive hurdle to the reasonable prospects criteria.  The "although" clause seems to suggest that rendering the regime ineffective may be legitimate in some cases, but regime change is not a legitimate objective. In a case like Syria where the regime abjures its responsibilities by committing acts violence against its own citizens, the problem is with the regime itself. How is military intervention supposed to succeed if the objective of that military action cannot remove the source of the human suffering? I see three potential consequences of this statement if the regime does not step aside on its own accord:
  1. The intervening force overthrows the regime out of operational and/or strategic necessity. However, such a precedence calls into question the legitimacy of R2P as violating its own principles. 
  2. The intervening force does not overthrow the regime, remaining compliant with R2P's principles, but renders the regime ineffective by destroying its ability to use force - which in cases like Syria effectively destroys the regime's ability to govern. The potential for greater instability is quite significant through a lack of governance or a more evenly-matched civil war. 
  3. The intervening force only limits the regime's ability to project force into safe zones in order to prevent instability - through defensive or offensive methods. However, the regime maintains the ability to use force, which could be projected in the absence of a foreign military presence. If you like decades-long military operations with little hope of resolution, you pick this option (see: Kosovo, Sinai). Is this a reasonable prospect? 
Dr. Slaughter and others smart on R2P have been pushing for military action somewhere between consequences 2 and 3. If the removing the regime is not in play, success is logically unlikely if the regime is the primary cause of the human suffering in the first place. This may be where R2P has its greatest doctrinal weakness as it attempts to align multiple principles that are often at odds with each other. 

The other problem with these criteria are their lack of application to the internal strategic formulations of potential participating nations. As Dan Trombly deftly observes, every military action should be placed within and debated in terms of ends, ways, and means. Colin Gray makes the same point with regard to counterinsurgency, but his comments apply to R2P as well - it cannot be a theory unto itself. What are the United States' interests in intervening, especially if it is likely to result in an extended military campaign? The report discusses this in chapters 4 and 8 with regard to domestic political will, concluding that good international citizenship should be a national interest. How extensive are the means we are willing to commit for good international citizenship when those means may more directly benefit the American people through domestic spending or kept in reserve for actual security threats?  Halting human suffering in Syria is an excellent objective, but if the means of doing so will be tied up for 10 years or more (most likely scenario), is it still worth doing? While military force may sometimes be in a nation's interest, good international citizenship is not inherently a national interest in every case. Especially if the cost is too high or the prospects for success too low. America does its best to do right by the world, but there are limits to that magnanimity because of our own internal interests and needs. 

With the preclusion of removing the Syrian regime, interventionists must show reasonable prospects for success, keeping in mind the American people are probably not inclined to count another decade-long commitment of military force with an indeterminable outcome as a reasonable prospect for success.  I'm certainly not so inclined. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

On Values

Late last week the WaPo ran a series of opinions regarding U.S. intervention in Syria. The battle lines were as well drawn as they are on the blogosphere and Twitter. I don't intend to rehash the specifics of Syria this morning and instead want to dial in on the last paragraph of Anne-Marie Slaughter's contribution.

She begins her conclusion with the statement: "President Obama believes in sovereignty as responsibility." I can't disagree with the sentiment, but this sentence fills me with an unnamed dread. As she discussed in the previous paragraph, this position has been accepted by the UN as an emerging international norm. There seems to be a lot of variance around the terms included in "responsibility", especially with regard to war crimes and civil wars. That's not to say the United States isn't sure about those definitions, but certain other countries are allowing broad definitions based on their own self-interest and in order to maintain maneuver space in case they run into the same problems later. Therefore, as sovereignty as responsibility is technically codified as an international value it is nearly impossible to determine when that responsibility is violated based on the many possible interpretations of definition.

This discussion leads to Slaughter's second sentence of that paragraph: "Standing up for that principle will result in a world that will be more stable, prosperous and consistent with universal values - the values Americans know as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  There are two problems with this statement. First is that standing up for the principle of sovereignty as responsibility means that those with more liberal interpretations of responsibility are in conflict with those who have more archaic (by Western standards) views on responsibility or view each contentious situation through the lens of their own self-interest beyond the responsibility issues at hand. This conflict can be seen in any location where sovereigns have abjured or violated their responsibilities: Syria, China, Pakistan, Burma, Mali, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, just to name a few. Standing up for the principle of responsibility means standing against other powers who view responsibility differently. This is not a path to stability or prosperity, it is a path to political, economic, or military conflict. Syria is the cause du jour, but how many violations of the American sense of responsibility to we ignore out of our own interests? Some of the places I mentioned are allies or partners of ours because of some other strategic interest. Universally standing for this principle may be the right thing to do morally, but disabuse yourself of the notion that it leads to more stability or that liberal-minded nations even have the power to affect change.

The second problem with this statement is obvious if you read the words. Standing up for responsibility, according to Slaughter, will result in a world consistent with universal values. Which universal values? Why American values! A professional of Dr. Slaughter's caliber must know that defining universal values is nearly impossible. She must also know that American values are not universal. And yet American values are the values she suggests we act to preserve in the name of universality. As a great power, the United States is prone to act as other great powers have in promoting its own values globally. But do not believe for a second that our values are universal. We may think other countries are wrong or even evil for what they do to their people, but that is through our lens, by our measures.

This is not to excuse atrocities which are universally wrong. And I believe that what is happening in Syria should be considered wrong universally. But we are not yet at a point in human existence where this is the case and we need to recognize that. Not excuse regimes who have different values from our own, but recognize when this occurs. And recognize that often the United States does excuse regimes violating their responsibilities because it benefits our other interests, much as China and Russia do. How would we react if these two stalwarts of obstinacy decided to take Saudi Arabia to task for its treatment of women? Are their liberties not impeded?

Values are important to every nation. Some values are universal, but that list may extend only to sovereignty and life. And even these are negotiable depending upon with whom you are talking. Outside of the most egregious cases, most violations of universal values occur in the margins where values can be contested and especially where they intersect or diverge from interests. I'm also wary of a world where nations go to war to uphold their values beyond their borders. Such a world is fraught with nationalistic militarism more reminiscent of the early 20th Century instead of the 21st. I'm also wary of a world that except in the most exceptional cases uses war - the purposive taking of life - in order to protect life. There is a contradiction in the American use of lethal force to promote our values for human life and I'm not sure that parts of the world understand that. The potential for even greater suffering contrary to universal values is not only significant, it is likely. I am with Dr. Slaughter in her disgust for the Syrian regime for what they are doing to their own people. I agree that they have violated their responsibilities as leaders. But I hesitate to support the use of American military force to wage war in an action that is likely to result in the deaths of more civilians than the regime's current actions. Values are an American interest, but are they worth war without overwhelming support from the rest of the globe? I don't think so. Values are a great reason to flex the United States' ample diplomatic and economic capabilities as this approach is more in line with our values.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Shadows of 2003

Once upon a time there was a country in the Middle East ruled by a Ba'athist dictator. This dictator used special intelligence units and his military against his own people, often using horrible weapons to suppress his subjects. This dictator's regime has in the past supported terrorist organizations and is thought to possess weapons of mass destruction. Pundits and academics clamor for the United States to take action. Don't worry, they say, their military is weak, untrained, under-equipped, and not loyal. Don't worry, they say, we have limited objectives and military intervention will be easy against this flaccid force. Don't worry, they say, we won't have to govern this country after we intervene, we'll let them sort that out. Democracy's hard but this will be easy.

This sounded wrong in 2003 when it was said by Neoconservatives. It sounds wrong today when said by liberal interventionists. It feels right to want to help the Syrian people as much as it felt right to help the Iraqi people. But we have to actually be capable of helping them and so far the pro-interventionists are making about as valid an argument that intervention might work as Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, et al did in 2003, even if the current scenario lacks cooked intelligence to give the casus belli. The military concepts are equally bad. And here's why after a quick primer on military planning.

In the Army (I don't know the exact terms in the other services), military planning is focused on objectives. These objectives in high-intensity warfare are usually enemy-focused. But even if they are not enemy-focused, the enemy will play a big role in the ability of the friendly force to achieve its objectives. Therefore the most important assumptions are done through intelligence analysis where intel officers create what are called the enemy's Most Likely Course of Action (MLCOA) and Most Dangerous Course of Action (MDCOA). These are the most important assumptions in any military plan. The first, MLCOA is the best-guess assumption on what the enemy is actually going to do. This is derived from the best intelligence available and analysis and extrapolation of known capabilities versus friendly capabilities. Gaps in intelligence require assumptions, but the assumptions must assume some level of difficulty to friendly forces and cannot be assume away. MDCOA is an assumption on what the enemy could do that would be most dangerous to friendly forces or their objectives. This is not the most likely event to occur, but it's in the realm of possible. Simply stated, your military plan of operations is based upon your MLCOA assumption, but a branch or decision point is in hand in case the MDCOA becomes reality (in some cases the decision point may be to disengage from contact because the price isn't worth the benefit of meeting the objective). Briefly: plan for MLCOA, know what you'll do if the enemy executes the MDCOA.

This gets at why I have not yet heard a viable military option for intervention in Syria. The greatest proponents of intervention, Shadi Hamid and Anne-Marie Slaughter to name just two as an example (and two I very greatly admire on everything except their military operational planning skills), have laid out their ideas for what a U.S.-lead coalition could do militarily to slow and/or stop the killing of civilians in Syria (as well as break the Hezbollah-Iran connection and maybe stop Syria's WMD programs). But their "plans" are based on the Syrian military executing the Least Dangerous Course of Action (LDCOA: see here) with regard to friend forces. They, and they are by no means alone in doing this, have assumed away the Syrian military to the point that they seem to consider a nominally 300,000-man force as negligible. That is exactly what the Bush Administration Pentagon did and what CENTCOM did under their leadership with regard to Iraq. Assumed away the enemy forces. And we see how well that worked out. You cannot plan military operations based on the LDCOA. It must be based off of the MLCOA at a minimum and I don't think the Syrian military is just going to walk away from the field. That may have generally happened in Libya, but it's very rare and unlikely. Also, they cannot assume away a post-conflict environment potentially devoid of government. We did that in Iraq, too.  I think you get the point.

There are a couple of reasons this matter and isn't a mere matter of opinion on the fighting capabilities of the Syrian military. Firstly, by committing forces to fight for American interests we would need to ensure the military plan is viable and established upon a solid set of assumptions. Current intervention proposals simply are not. Their assumptions are based on hearsay or intuition, not analysis, that the Syrian military isn't a serious fighting force. It is almost word-for-word the nonsense I heard in the Kuwaiti desert in March 2003. And I have yet to see any evidence that they will not react, potentially with effect, against any intervention. Without such evidence you must assume that they will be capable of reacting with some effect. Second, any proposal that puts American lives and resources on the table requires some assessment of what point is the intervention worth doing. That's what the MDCOA would provide in this type of situation. How much is it worth intervening? Assad using WMD against his people or against us? What if the civil war expands significantly and the death toll mounts higher and fast than if we had not intervened? Are 10 years in Syria potentially conducting population-centric counterinsurgency worth our doing something, anything now? These cannot be assumed away. They need to be addressed through thorough and dispassionate analysis to determine if they're possible and what the United States would do if they occurred.

These pundits may feel they do not need to convince me on the merits of intervening in Syria and may think this a matter of disagreement. But this is the lowest level of rigor the military will apply to any plan they come up with. If you are so ready to commit foreign troops into harms way because you feel it's the right thing for America and her allies to do, the least you can do is apply the same level of rigor to propose military options. I'm not asking for synchronization matrices. I'm asking for a thorough and rigorous analysis of the MLCOA and MDCOA if we intervened in whatever way you envisioned. If you keep spouting this LDCOA-assumption malarkey, I and many others who possess understanding on the use of force will continue to compare your plans with those of Wolfowitz, Feith, and Franks, even if we agree with the sentiment that drives you to want to execute these plans. Yes, a lot of people are dying. But intervening might cause more deaths. I can't tell because your assumptions are, in a word, useless.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Grand strategy: good but unlikely

I really enjoyed this post by the always excellent Daveed Gartenstein-Ross as a counter to anti-interventionists with regard to Syria. Daveed lays out arguments made by wunderkind Dan Trombly and his posts against intervening in Syria; mainly that acting in Syria does not further American interests, that non-interventionists need to prescribe alternative methods of dealing with the situation, and (getting to this post I wrote earlier) that a grand strategy would help the United States determine trades more effectively when deciding to intervene.

Frankly, I don't disagree with any of that and I'm not sure Daveed characterizes my post and position on grand strategy most accurately. Which is why I don't disagree with him. My writings on grand strategy have focused until recently upon the need for a grand enemy to formulate a strategy of equal magnitude. That is not the same as saying we only need grand strategies for grand enemies. Rather, the political entities that craft grand strategies tend to permit strategic drift in a state void of a grand enemy. Grand enemies serve as a beacon or focal point for strategy development. In the absence of such enemies, nations have difficultly determining their role in the world and focusing their resources and efforts because of such increased uncertainty. Therefore, grand strategy is not and should not be dependent upon a grand enemy, but grand strategy is less likely to exist without a grand enemy to drive its formulation.

That said, my post did not argue against a grand strategy for the United States or that it would not be a good thing, but rather that policy-makers have no interest in developing a grand strategy with the intricate and elegant statements of purpose we would expect from such a document. Such a document is what I considered a pipe dream. Elucidations of the nation's challenges, foreign and domestic, that require action by the Government could compel the Government to take action in situations where action may be unwarranted, immoral, or simply not in our interest regardless of what was written on a piece of paper. And no policy-maker wants to be compelled into a situation they think is unwise, even if the folly of the act only affects domestic political capital.

The Syria conundrum is indicative of this. One of the enduring American interests listed in the National Security Strategy (and the QDR and QDDR) is "respect for universal values at home and around the world."  For policy-makers, this is perfectly worded because it leaves them a maneuver axis 10 divisions wide. What are universal values? There's an entire focus of philosophy dedicated to studying and arguing for or against the existence of universal values. Are there values that the preponderance of the human race could probably agree are valid? Of course. But using a (non-) term such as universal values, as yet undefined, allows us to act to protect certain values when we can and want and not protect them when we can't or won't. The United States has intervened in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia (1990s), and Libya because of values and because we thought we might be successful. We didn't in Rwanda, Uganda, and as of yet Syria in spite of our values. One could argue that we had no strategic interest in the former group and yet intervened because of values and yet acted. We had equal strategic interest in the latter yet intervening would have been coherent with our values. Why the difference?

In a word: flexibility. The first group above were deemed more achievable than the latter group. While there is a significant strategic calculus to determine that the United States should only act when it thinks it can be successful (a moral imperative even), our description of interests is so broadly defined as to allow politicians to pick and choose what are vital American interests. Values are among the squishiest interests we have, enigmatic wisps of emotion couched in strategy. This is not to say that defense of values does not constitute a strategic interest, but it's impossible to define. Would Presidents Bush and Obama agree on what our values are? Or what values are worth defending? That Venn diagram probably has a lot of overlap, but it wouldn't be one circle.

Because of this, there is no constituency to create a grand strategy that may compel politicians to act when they don't want to - for whatever reason. An amorphous role in the world benefits the political class. Someone with moral certainty who can attain high levels of power, Anne-Marie Slaughter for example, could certainly add the protection of civilians against murderous regimes to the list of universal values for which the United States would go to war. Would a subsequent administration want to be held to that standard? How would they remove such an item from their list of values? What if that value is believed to be valid but compels the United States into a conflict it cannot win? How does a president explain that even though our values are worth defending, we just really, really can't in a specific case?

There is a lot of goodness to a grand strategy. It would help the United States understand the myriad challenges it faces and draw lines in the sand that would help it determine its role in the world more clearly for ourselves, our allies, neutral parties, and our adversaries. It would help us conduct the trade-off calculus to determine whether or not to intervene in most situation. I would love to see such a grand strategy. But I just don't see it happening. Daveed and I are both interested in avoiding foreign policy mistakes, but both paths (with and without grand strategy) are fraught with potential mistakes. In the current situation politicians have a freer hand to make those mistakes instead of possibly being forced into them. They have no impetus to change this condition.

Happy Birthday Preemption!

The season of college graduations is most likely just over by now. I was in New York the other week during Columbia University's celebrations, which was fun hearing the waves of cheering as schools finished their ceremonies within minutes of each from one part of the campus to the next. Graduates and their parents beaming as the former chatted into a cell phone to coordinate post-graduation festivities. I didn't catch who the speakers were at any of the ceremonies, but one held later that week made the news. The speech given was nice if only a more eloquent (less?) version of Oh, the Places You'll Go! And yet it seems that as far as commencement speakers go, it really wasn't that bad.  It seems to me that many of these young folks will fondly remember (or not remember as the case may be) the day they symbolically transitioned into real adults and probably not much more.

Today marks 10 years since my own graduation from college. I, too, had a president speak, but this president's speech told us exactly where we would go and not in terms of platitudes.  Just 9 months after the attacks of 9/11, President Bush used my class' graduation from West Point to declare his doctrine of preemption. Granted, our nation was already at war in Afghanistan, but that was a small war we all thought would be over by the time we reported to our units (ah, youth!). But as a few of my classmates lightly dozed through the speech, it was not lost on me that he was telling us that he was sending us to Iraq. I had a flashback to a cocktail party a couple of months earlier when a very senior Army officer told me to prepare to go to Iraq - and this was in March 2002. I should have listened closer instead of lightly guffawing through my "Yes, sir." It would have prepared me for the first of June, 2002, when President Bush used a day that was supposed to celebrate the achievement of surviving the United States Military Academy, our commissioning to second lieutenant, a number of classmates' weddings, and the future in general and instead clouded our horizons with foretold war.

Part of me was grateful. Not about the war, but about the warning. If he had given that speech elsewhere  I may have missed it and his point entirely. But instead I knew I had to focus my preparations and did not necessarily have much to time get ready. Which was in retrospect was one of the wisest things I've ever done: 6 months and a few weeks later (only 3 weeks after signing into my first unit) I was in the Kuwaiti desert preparing my platoon for war. A war which occurred 2 months after I got to Kuwait. The rest, they say, is history. And frankly, it's been a very busy 10 years since I sat through that speech.

While I feel some nostalgia for the days spent at my Rockbound Highland Home on June 1sts, I mainly feel awe in how much that day actually changed my life and not symbolical way. It was one of the most important speeches given in the past 10 years and one that affected the lives of millions of people - myself and the rest of us there that day very intimately. The question is, 10 years on, does the United States believe preemption is still a valid justification for war? I hope not. There aren't many things you want dead by their 10th birthday, but preemption is one of them.