Tag: intervention

What Is Russia’s Intervention in Syria All About?

There’s been a lot of speculation in the press recently about Russia’s motives for its military intervention in Syria, and many are quick to attribute the intervention to a desire to – metaphorically speaking - poke America in the eye. Surrounding this speculation are images of Vladimir Putin as a strategic genius, playing geopolitical chess at the grandmaster level.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s certainly convenient for Putin to make the United States look bad in any way he can. But there are a variety of other reasons for Russia’s involvement in Syria. And though Putin may briefly look like he is in control of the situation in Syria, the intervention is likely to end badly for him.

It’s notable that while many reports are portraying the Russian intervention in terms of U.S.-Russian relations, and intimating that Russia is in some way ‘winning’, Russia specialists are more likely to point to other factors, and to view the intervention as ill-fated.

Politico recently published a compilation of interviews with 14 Russia specialists on Putin’s goals in Syria. All but one pointed to a couple of key factors to explain Russian intervention: 1) Russian domestic concerns; 2) a desire for diplomatic gain; or 3) a desire to prevent other authoritarian regimes from falling. More tellingly, the vast majority also expressed the opinion that Russia’s actions are reckless, and will end badly.  

The first of these motivations – domestic political concerns – is likely the key reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria. It’s an excellent opportunity for Vladimir Putin to distract domestic attention from his ongoing failings in Ukraine, and to present an image of Russia as a great power.

The Interventionist Itch

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs just released its 2015 survey documenting American foreign policy attitudes. Entitled “America Divided: Political Partisanship and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the Council’s report emphasizes the stark disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over foreign policy goals and the means for achieving them. While there are certainly important differences between the two camps, there is a dangerous underlying consensus today that unites left and right: Americans of all stripes suffer from an “interventionist itch.” With respect to fighting terrorism and the Islamic State, Americans are far too supportive of the kinds of military intervention that have proved ineffective and counterproductive in the past.

As 9/11 receded and the war in Iraq descended in to insurgency, Americans became less interested in having the United States play an active role in world affairs and more wary of military intervention. Over the past year, however, as concerns have mounted over the Islamic State, so has the public’s willingness to support various measures to combat terrorism. Drawing on the CCGA survey, Table One reveals public support across party lines for a host of interventionist activities. In addition, the CCGA report notes, a majority of Americans would support cyberattacks and airstrikes (though not the use of ground troops) against Iran should Iran renege on the nuclear agreement.

American Support for Military Intervention: In order to combat international terrorism, please say whether you favor or oppose each of the following measures (% favor)*






US air strikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities





Using drone strikes to assassinate individual terrorist leaders





Assassination of individual terrorist leaders





Attacks by US ground troops against terrorist training camps and other facilities





Providing military assistance to Arab governments to combat violent Islamic extremists groups





Keeping some US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 for training and counterterrorism





These figures suggest several sobering conclusions. First, they clearly indicate a stable interventionist consensus that includes both obvious advocates (Republicans) and less obvious advocates (Democrats and even Independents). Such a consensus is somewhat surprising considering all evidence from the past 14 years of intervention makes clear just how poorly such tactics have worked and because the public has repeatedly come to oppose the interventions they previously favored after they prove ineffective. On the other hand, the presence of this consensus is understandable given the interventionist agendas of the Bush and Obama administrations and the vocal support from both Republican and Democratic leaders for more intervention of various kinds.

Second, the consensus illustrates the degree to which the threat of terrorism has come to dominate the U.S. conversation about national security. The 2015 CCGA study finds no increase in support for the use of military force to aid Taiwan, or Israel, or South Korea. But terrorism, even 14 years after 9/11, remains a lighting rod capable of inducing overheated rhetoric and overheated fears.

Finally, these figures indicate that interventionist cries from the candidates will find a receptive audience as we approach the 2016 elections. All of the Republican candidates (Rand Paul aside) as well as Hillary Clinton have staked out positions arguing for more intervention. There is thus every reason to believe that the United States will find itself further entangled in the Middle East in the near future.

*Source: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “America Divided,” 2015. http://www.thechicagocouncil.org

European Union Sacrifices Serb Self-Determination—Again!

The Balkans Wars ended years ago, but ethnic divisions remain strong, promoted, unfortunately, by the European Union. The latest example of geopolitical malpractice is the EU-brokered agreement for Serbia’s de facto recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

Two decades of America’s and Europe’s toxic mix of diplomacy and war-making followed one consistent policy: the Serbs always lose. Everyone else in the disintegrating Yugoslavia got their own country. Minority ethnic Serbs were expected to live under the sometimes heavy boot of others.

Independence for Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo were perfectly reasonable responses to Serb brutality, but no side was innocent of atrocities. That is evident in Kosovo where, as I point out in my new article in the American Spectator Online: after the war NATO “stood by as ethnic Albanians kicked out more than 200,000 Serbs, Roma, Jews, and others. In 2004 another round of Albanian-led violence ensued, as mobs destroyed the homes and churches of ethnic Serbs, creating additional refugees.” Even the Council of Europe acknowledged that allied policy had “led to numerous human rights violations and [had] not produced lasting solutions for the underlying problems.”

Some 120,000 ethnic Serbs remain in Kosovo, with roughly half concentrated in four counties around the city of Mitrovica north of the Irba River. They should be allowed to stay with Serbia, but the EU was horrified by such a suggestion. Instead, Brussels threatened to slow if not kill Belgrade’s membership aspirations if the latter did not come to terms. Serbia agreed to a nominal compromise which promises Serbian Kosovars limited autonomy in return for what looks to be eventual full recognition of Kosovo.

Of course, the decision is up to Belgrade, which is under heavy pressure to concede. However, the Kosovo Serbs may not go quietly. Far better, I argue, would be to offer ethnic Serbs the same right of self-determination granted others. As I conclude:

It’s too late to remedy the geopolitical and humanitarian messes that have resulted. But if the Europeans desire a stable solution, they should encourage genuine negotiations among the new Balkans nations, Serbia, and remaining disaffected minorities. Reasonable border changes are the only means to ensure peace. Continuing to suppress the aspirations of ethnic Serbs throughout the Balkans risks renewed conflict.

Our Astrategic Syria Debate

Only a terrifically secure country could have as poor and astrategic a debate about war as the one we’re having about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. 

Actually, we’re not having a debate about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. That’s the problem. We’re debating Syria as though it’s an engineering question—an electrical outage, or a bit of erosion in the backyard. Doing so removes the most vexing aspects of the issue, leading us to the delusion that military action can easily make things better. 

Too much of the discussion has focused on moral arguments and too little of it on the very real political problems beneath the war. Take the advocacy of Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. As Hamid wrote of his thinking on Syria in January 2012, he was pro-intervention “emotionally, and from a purely moral perspective,” but had some nagging non-emotional, non-moral concerns: “I cannot say whether military intervention would work.” By June, though, the emotional and the moral took over, with Hamid declaring that it was “not the job of civilian think tanks” to figure out how military intervention would produce the desired outcome. 

Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, who until recently occupied George Kennan’s old office at the State Department, has similarly assumed away Syrian politics, making the case for intervention much easier. As she tweeted Sunday, “Suppose US goal in #Syria were simply to STOP THE KILLING. Forget who might/might not win down the line. What’s fastest/best way to do that?” 

But forgetting who might win down the line waves off the central problem: the killing is happening for a political reason. Bashar al-Assad and his enemies are not engaged in wanton, nihilistic slaughter; they are struggling over political control of Syria. Any analysis that removes that basic fact from the discussion of how to “STOP THE KILLING” turns a complex political question into a technical, scientific project, creating the delusion that it can be readily fixed by the U.S. government. 

In fairness to Hamid and Slaughter, they are carrying the torch of a time-honored American tradition of foreign policy thinking. Historically, debates over foreign intervention in the United States have featured liberal analysts against realists and the military. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower reportedly had to admonish his activist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to calm down: “Don’t do something, Foster, just stand there!” 

In the 1990s, apolitical liberal thinking on war reached its pinnacle. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell expressed hesitation about the Clinton administration’s intervention ideas, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lashed out: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” And President Clinton’s lack of understanding of war caused him to ruminate, accurately, to General Hugh Shelton that it would “scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”

In the 1990s, realists like Richard Betts were warning Americans not to fall victim to the “delusion of impartial intervention.” Admonishing policymakers for their newfound enthusiasm for limited, ostensibly apolitical intervention, Betts reminded readers of a ground truth: “A war will not end until both sides agree who will control whatever is in dispute.” This is as true in Syria as it is anywhere. Alternatively, if analysts want to use the U.S. military to regime-change Assad, they have every obligation to explain how they intend to shepherd the country toward whatever political order they seek.

More honest hawkishness can be found at the Institute for the Study of War, whose recent paper advocating aiding the Syrian opposition admitted that politics matter

The goal behind U.S. support to the opposition should be to build a force on the ground that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria, with a government more likely to respect American interests. 

That outcome is presumably what all analysts urging intervention desire. The trick is to acknowledge the problems of connecting military means to our political desiderata. Anyone who doesn’t deal with the underlying political problems at stake is threatening to push the country into another ill-considered, potentially costly war.

The Hagel Hearings: Congressional Politics at Its Worst

The confirmation hearings on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to head the Pentagon are mercifully over. His wobbly performance earned derision among neoconservatives, but he responded as they intended to an interrogation that was all about politics, not policy. 

As I have noted before, Hagel is under fire because he disputed neoconservative nostrums to speak unpleasant truths to the Republican Party. He was an orthodox conservative, including on foreign policy. However, he was an Eisenhower, not a Dubya, Republican: Hagel criticized the debacle in Iraq, urged negotiation to forestall Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and backed reductions in today’s bloated military budget. General turned President Dwight Eisenhower could not have put it better. 

But this enraged a GOP that has turned perpetual war into its most important foreign policy plank. Hence the ludicrous attempt to paint him as an anti-Semite. Only slightly less dishonest was the performance of Hagel’s Republican interlocutors in the Senate, who asked the sort of questions which could not be honestly answered without wrecking the political façade behind which legislators on both sides of the aisle hide. His performance was disappointing, but far more striking is the fact that the uber-hawks who badgered him over every past statement exhibited little interest in exploring the most important challenges facing America. 

Consider the analysis of questions from Rosie Gray and Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed.  They counted 166 questions about Israel—an important ally, but more important than every other ally combined? There were 144 questions about Iran. No one wants Tehran to build nukes, but U.S. intelligence does not believe Iran has an active weapons program and there is no evidence that the Iranian government cannot be deterred, as were Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Surely there are options short of war. And is Iran that much more important than Afghanistan, where Americans continue to die, which rated only 20 questions? Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) fixated on Iraq, an invasion that should never have been launched, irrespective of the impact of the “surge.” And from which, if he hadn’t noticed, U.S. troops have been withdrawn. 

Nothing else received serious attention at the hearings. Not how to adjust America’s foreign policy to reflect inevitable Pentagon budget cuts, since Washington no longer can afford to police the globe. Not China, including the worrisome possibility of war between Japan and China over worthless islands in the Sea of Japan. Not North Korea and the enduring challenge of dealing with the world’s most malign actor.  

Not Europe, which continues to under-invest in the military while relying on America for its defense. Not Africa, where the U.S. is steadily being drawn into more conflicts. Not Russia, which, despite the difficult bilateral relationship, has been helpful in Afghanistan and Iran. Not Venezuela, where the possible death of Hugo Chavez could open up opportunities for reform and engagement with America.

And the neoconservatives claim to be serious about international issues and military capabilities. 

Chuck Hagel is eminently qualified to be Secretary of Defense. As my colleague Chris Preble has noted, Hagel’s thinking is mainstream and noncontroversial. Obviously, one can disagree with him on particular issues, such as the possibility of nuclear disarmament.  However, the president still will make the ultimate decisions. Hagel will bring a fresh perspective to administration discussions of foreign and military policy. That is reason enough to welcome him to the Pentagon. 

20 Years and Counting: America’s Vicious Cycle of Intervention in Somalia

Yesterday, the L.A. Times revealed that the United States is equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to fight al-Shabab, the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government. For now, outsourcing the combat to African countries may appear to bring America minimal risk, but Washington’s renewal of its multi-decade attachment to Somalia continues a cycle of deciding its winners and losers. Among an assortment of tribes, clans, and African states fighting for self-serving ends, Washington has handcuffed itself to a hornet’s nest.

The hubris of policymakers who believe they can remedy Somalia’s problems could produce policies that draw more recruits to the cause of militant groups, much as similar policies have in the past. Policymakers have failed repeatedly to bring order to the destitute African state, such as when it descended into clan-based warfare in the early 1990s.

At the time, U.S. officials agreed to enforce a March 1993 U.N. resolution that pledged to rehabilitate Somalia’s economy and reestablish national and regional institutions. State Department official David Shinn spoke of “basically re-creating a country,” while then-U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright said America’s mission in Somalia “aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations.” The humanitarian mission eventually tasked America’s military with disarming Somali warlords and conducting house-to-house weapons searches. What began as U.S. leaders imbued with the best of intentions eventually ended with our brave military’s ignominious defeat.

Today, the United States fights al-Shabab by proxy. The group poses no direct threat to the security of the United States; however, exaggerated claims about the specter of al Qaeda could produce policy decisions that exacerbate a localized, regional problem into a global one. Amid news that African troops are doing the fighting, but that “The United States is doing almost everything else,” African Union forces could be seen as a puppet proxy of Uncle Sam.

Washington is supplementing the training of African troops with private contractors. Outsourcing makes intervention easier, as policymakers can hide the costs of a mission they have yet to clearly define. Intervention on the cheap also becomes costly in other ways. For a commander in chief who allegedly believes he should take moral responsibility for America’s lethal counterterrorism operations, privatizing intervention allows him and his administration to escape accountability should the forces we train, or the weapons we provide, turn against us or our allies.

Like moths to a flame, disparate Somali groups may rally around the perception they are fighting against the injustice of foreign meddling. Moreover, while military analysts were boasting back in June that al-Shabab could be facing the end of its once-powerful rule, questions surrounding what form of political stability will fill the al-Shabab vacuum remain unasked and unanswered.

The United States began fighting al-Shabab after December 2006, when Washington backed Ethiopia in toppling Somalia’s loose network of Islamist Sharia courts. The intervention backfired. The Islamist movement grew more powerful and today, U.S. officials fear al Qaeda could gain a foothold unless al-Shabab is defeated.

Sadly, America’s history of intervention in Somalia aptly demonstrates the resiliency of unintended consequences. Although developments in Somalia have some observers arguing that America should become more involved, the more reasonable conclusion to draw—looking at the historical record—is that America has tried and failed repeatedly to transform Somalia at an acceptable cost.

Administration Bait and Switch in Afghanistan?

U.S. combat troops are leaving Afghanistan in 2014. That was the consistent message which I received on my NATO-organized visit two months ago to a country now defined by war. The American and European governments have promised to provide long-term financial assistance and combat training, but they plan on shifting the actual fighting to Kabul’s hands.

Maybe not, it now seems.  The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, said America might just stick around and continue the war. Reported the New York Times:

The ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, speaking at a roundtable event with a small group of journalists, said that if the Afghan government wanted American troops to stay longer, the withdrawal could be slowed. “They would have to ask for it,” he said. “I could certainly see us saying, ‘Yeah, makes sense.’ ”

The ambassador’s standard is whether the Afghan government asked the United States to stay. It would make more sense to ask the American people what they think.

The argument that it’s time for Washington to go, but to go in a manner which attempts to preserve something positive has appeal, though there are plenty of reasons to doubt that it is feasible. President Hamid Karzai & Friends appeared to be neither more competent nor better loved than when I visited last year. I don’t expect much improvement next year. Nevertheless, the case for a phased withdrawal deserves to be treated seriously.

But leave the United States must. Had President George W. Bush announced in 2001 that he was embarking on a long-term mission to transform Afghanistan by turning it into a Western-style liberal democracy with a strong central government in Kabul, he would have been laughed out of Washington. The American people would have unceremoniously tossed him out of office in 2004.

Yet remake Afghanistan is what the U.S. government now is attempting to do. When I asked what justified this expensive attempt at nation-building, Afghans and Americans alike warned that al Qaeda could reemerge. I assume no one really believed that. At least, I hope no one really believed that.

After all, al Qaeda is in sharp decline. Intelligence officials say that al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is minimal. The likelihood of revival seems small.

Moreover, terrorists have demonstrated an ability to operate all over the world. Of course, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. There are plenty of other potential sanctuaries available in failed and semi-failed states. Indeed, the biggest Islamic terrorist threat these days appears to come from local groups which identify with, but are not controlled by, al-Qaeda. Afghanistan is irrelevant to the latter’s operation and impact, and of no interest to other terrorists.

There’s also strong humanitarian appeal in staying, but that can’t justify endless war in Central Asia. Washington would never have intervened to make Afghanistan a more humane place. American troops have been fighting there for ten years—as long as World Wars I and II combined.

If the president plans on keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the promised 2014, he should ‘fess up. Then the American people can make their views known. And, more important, they can take appropriate action in next year’s presidential election.