Tag: military

Fighting Piracy through Nation Building?

Even though I was on vacation last week, I followed the story of the Maersk-Alabama and Captain Richard Phillips with great interest. And I exulted when three of the four pirates met their end. The safe return of the Maersk-Alabama and her entire crew was a clear win for the cause of justice, and could serve as a model. Future efforts to protect ships from pirates are likely to include some combination of greater vigilance on the part of the shipping companies and crews, in collaboration with the navies of the many different nations who have an interest in keeping the sea lanes open and free. (This is one of the themes that I develop in my new book, and that I will discuss next Monday at Cato.)

We do not need to reorient our grand strategy to deal with pirates. We don’t need to reshape the U.S. Navy to fight a motley band of young men in leaky boats. As my colleague Ben Friedman has written, piracy is a problem, but decidedly minor relative to many other global security challenges.

But some are criticizing the approach taken to resolve last week’s standoff. They say that the only way to truly eliminate the piracy problem is to attack and ultimately clean out the pirates’ sanctuaries in lawless Somalia. This “solution” fits well with the broader push within the Washington foreign policy community that would deal with our security problems by fixing failed states.

I have gone on at length, usually with my colleagues Justin Logan and Ben Friedman, on the many reasons why an overarching strategy for fixing failed states is unwise and unnecessary. I won’t expand on that thesis here, other than to point out that of all failed states in the world, Somalia is arguably the most failed. “Fixing” it would require a massive investment of personnel, money, and time — resources that would be better spent elsewhere.

Mackubin Owens offers one of the more intriguing defenses of this approach in a just published e-note for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Owens likens a strategy of fixing Somalia to Gen. Andrew Jackson’s military operations in Florida, a story that features prominently in John Lewis Gaddis’s Surprise, Security and the American Experience. As Owens notes, when some members of President James Monroe’s cabinet wanted to punish Jackson for exceeding his mandate — in the course of his military campaign he captured and executed two British citizens accused of cavorting with the marauders who had attacked American citizens — Secretary of State John Quincy Adams jumped to Jackson’s defense and proposed a different tack. He demanded that Spain either take responsibility for cleaning up Florida or else give it up. And we all know what happened. Under the terms of Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, Florida became a territory of the United States. Some 26 years later, it became our 27th state.

I’ve vacationed in Florida many times. Walt Disney World is wonderful for the kids; I’ve been there six times. I spent three memorable days watching March Madness in Miami a few years back. Spring training baseball is great fun. Adams couldn’t have imagined any of these things when he acquired a vast swampland; he cared only that Florida under Spanish control, or lack thereof, posed a threat.

Here is where the parallels to the present day get complicated. I’ll admit that I’ve never been to Somalia. Perhaps they have their own version of South Beach, or could have some day. But I’m frankly baffled by the mere intimation that our national security is so threatened by chaos there that we need to take ownership of the country’s — or the entire Horn of Africa’s — problems.

And yet, that is what many people believe. And this is not a new phenomenon. In many respects, we have chosen to treat all of the world’s ungoverned spaces as the modern-day equivalent of Spanish Florida.

Max Boot and Robert Kaplan compare U.S. military operations in the 21st century to the westward territorial expansion of the 19th century. In 1994, Kaplan authored one of the seminal works in this genre, “The Coming Anarchy,” in which he advised Western strategists to start concerning themselves with “what is occurring … throughout West Africa and much of the underdeveloped world: the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war.” Less than two years later, William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote, “American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order.” Boot in 2003 advised Americans to unabashedly embrace imperialism. “Afghanistan and other troubled lands,” he wrote, “cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”

Americans have resisted such advice, and with good reason. The world will not descend down the path to total ruin if the United States hews to a restrained foreign policy focused on preserving its national security and advancing its vital interests. That is because there are other governments in other countries, pursuing similar policies aimed at preserving their security, and regional — much less global — chaos is hardly in their interests. The primary obligation of any government is to defend its citizens from threats. Curiously, our conduct in recent years suggests that U.S. policymakers doubt that other governments see their responsibilities in this way. Indeed, we have constructed and maintained a vast military largely on the grounds that we, and we alone, must police the entire planet.

In The Power Problem, I quote Machiavelli, who noted in his discourses: “Men always commit the error of not knowing where to limit their hopes, and by trusting to these rather than to a just measure of their resources, they are generally ruined.” I continue:

As Machiavelli would have predicted, the notion of what Americans must do to preserve and advance our own security has steadily expanded over the years to encompass the defense of others. Seemingly unconstrained by the resources at our disposal, we are driven by our dreams of fashioning a new global order. But we are also driven by false fears. We believe that we can only be secure if others are secure, that insecurity anywhere poses a threat to Americans everywhere. If someone on the other side of the planet sneezes, the United States is supposedly in danger of catching pneumonia. The putative cure is preventive war. Such geostrategic “hypochondria” has gotten us all into much trouble over the years. We would be wise to take measure of our relative health and vitality, and not confuse a head cold with cancer.

[Cross-posted from PSA’s Across the Aisle]

Gun Control for the Sake of Mexico: The Meme That Wouldn’t Die

Fox News already debunked the claim that 90% of the guns involved in Mexico’s drug war come from the United States.  Facts aside, the press onslaught continues in a new push for gun control.

The fact is that out of 29,000 firearms picked up in Mexico over the last two-year period for which data is available, 5,114 of the 6,000 traced guns came from the United States.  While that is 90% of traced guns, it means that only 17% of recovered guns come from the United States civilian market.

Where did the rest come from?  A number of places.  To begin with, over 150,000 Mexican soldiers have deserted in the last six years for the better pay and benefits of cartel life, some taking their issued M-16 rifles with them.

Surprisingly, a significant number of the arms are coming to the cartels via legitimate transactions.  They are produced and exported legally every year, regulated by the State Department as Direct Commercial Sales.  FY 2007 figures for the full exports are available here, and State’s report on end-use is available here, alleging widespread fraud and use of front companies to funnel the weapons into the black market.  (H/T to Narcosphere)  This doesn’t even take into account the thousands of weapons floating around Latin America from previous wars of liberation.  This Los Angeles Times article also shows how the cartels are getting hand grenades, rocket launchers, and other devices you can’t pick up at your local sporting goods store.

Perhaps this is why law enforcement officials did not ask for new gun laws to combat Mexican drug violence at recent hearings in front of Congress.

Never mind those pesky facts.  The story at the New York Times recycles the 90% claim.  The associated video is just as bad.  Narrator: “The weapons that are arming the drug war in Juarez are illegal to purchase and possess in Mexico.”  They’re also illegal in the United States.  As the narrator says these words, the Mexican officer is handling an M-16 variant with a barrel less than sixteen inches long.  This rifle would be illegal to possess in the United States without prior approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE).  As the video mentions the expired “Assault” Weapons Ban, the submachine gun in frame would also be classified as a short-barreled rifle and require BATFE approval.  Ditto for many of the rifles shown in the video.  The restrictions on barrel length would not apply to weapons exported as Direct Commercial Sales.  Law enforcement folks call this a “clue.”

The language of gun control advocates is changing subtly to demonize “military style” weapons.  “Military style” weapons is a new and undefined term that means either (1) automatic weapons, short barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, and destructive devices already heavily regulated by federal law; or (2) a term inclusive of  all modern firearms in a back-door attempt to enact a new gun control scheme.

Yes, ALL modern firearms.  Grandpa’s hunting rifle?  Basis for the system used by military snipers.  The pump-action shotgun you use to hunt ducks and quail?  Basis for the modular shotgun produced for the military.  The handgun you bought for self-defense, a constitutionally protected right?  Used by every modern military.

This is not a new tactic.  The Violence Policy Center has previously tried to fool people by portraying ordinary rifles as machine guns with the term “assault” weapons: “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons-anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun-can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”

Making our domestic policies based on the preferences of other countries is unacceptable, especially in an activity protected by the Constitution.  One of Canada’s Human Rights Commissioners is on record saying that “[f]reedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”  (Apparently, it makes the folks at the Department of Homeland Security nervous too)  In a similar vein, the United Nations says “[w]e especially encourage the debate on the issue of reinstating the 1994 U.S. ban on assault rifles that expired in 2004.”

It’s not theirs to say, and we shouldn’t listen to an argument based on lies.  Related posts here and here.

Will the Military Industrial Complex Save American Foreign Policy?

Missing from most of the commentary on the Secretary of Defense’s big defense spending speech yesterday is the fact that the program cuts he proposed are largely a result of freezing the topline – keeping defense spending level (once you adjust for inflation) for the next decade.

For nearly a decade the country has really had two defense budgets – one for imagined conventional wars against states like China, another from nation-building, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. The first budget requires a small ground force and lots of big platforms operated by the Air Force and Navy. The latter requires much larger ground forces, a few niche capabilities like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and less high technology wonders.

The current American love affair with counterinsurgency has resulted in a gradual shift of dollars from the conventional budget to the unconventional one. We are reversing the old idea that the American way of war is to replace labor with capital, or manpower with technology. We are becoming a land power first.  We have been increasing manpower in the Army and Marines – adding 90,000 new troops – and paying them way more (compensation per service member is up by almost half since 1998). Personnel costs are taking more of the budget.  And for more complex reasons, including health care costs, the operations and maintenance part of the budget – essentially the day to day cost of running the military – has also been growing fast when measured per service member.  (For details on these issues, read this testimony by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service.)

That was bound to squeeze the other big parts of the defense budget – research, development and procurement of new weapons systems. There is too much future cost in the budget for everything to fit without topline growth, so something had to give. Big weapons programs are where the most give is, if you don’t want to cut manpower.

That conflict was delayed while the budget topline grew, but now that it is flat, it erupts. The manpower intensive military that follows from our current policies is eating into the conventional military that delivers manufactoring jobs across the country and the high-technology dreams of our military leaders.

What will be interesting to see is whether this shift encourages those leaders and their friends on the Hill to take up the arguments that people like me have been making for years: that small wars are mostly dumb wars.  Preparation for these wars didn’t much hurt the military industrial complex before, now it does. 

An additional note: Gates’ criticism of the acquisition process was on the mark. Rather than blaming out of control weapons costs on the kind of contracts we write or crafty contractors, as the President seems to, Gates noted correctly that the trouble is the requirements process – what we want, not how we buy it.

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a comprehensive daily email from the Cato Institute. You can subscribe, here.

  • Doug Bandow weighs the usefulness of NATO in the American Spectator.
  • David Isenberg discusses the use of private military and security contractors in war for United Press International.
Topics:

The State of Play in the Bomb-Iran Debate

Via Philip Weiss, I see that last week Karim Sadjadpour and Martin Indyk debated Elliott “Get Down Out of Those Trees and Be Democrats” Abrams and Joshua Muravchik on the proposition: “America cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran and must go to any lengths to prevent it.”  It’s a topic that’s been of interest to me for some time now.

Indyk and Sadjadpour acquitted themselves rather well, but it made me chuckle to see Abrams and Muravchik throwing some very familiar-smelling handfuls of argument into the discussion.  I thought it might be worth passing a few of them along.

Muravchik responds to the argument that bombing would merely delay an Iranian nuclear capability by a period of years by saying that we’ll just keep bombing them, then:

muravchikif we bomb and do wholesale damage to its nuclear weapons program, then the clock starts running on the next round.

And I donʹt see any reason to assume that, technologically, Iran is going to beat us in the next round. That is, they will be trying to find new ways to fortify and hide and whathave‐you, their rebuilt nuclear weapons program, if, in fact, they do attempt to rebuild it.

And we, in turn, will move forward with developing better bunker‐busting bombs or whatever else we need, and with additional intelligence, to find out where those things are and to have the capability to hit them …

Note in that last paragraph that we’re supposed to accept, arguendo, perfect intelligence and military technology endowed with borderline-magical powers.  This is a variant of the “I don’t know, the military will have to figure that stuff out” argument.

Elliott Abrams, freshly minted as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons and is poised to cause trouble in the Middle East, it’s possible that the countries in that region will lay down and decline to defend themselves:

if the Arab states look at Iran growing in power and see that what the United States has done, to prevent it from going nuclear, is nothing or something that failed, itʹs not at all clear that they will then further side with the United States against Iran, they may appease Iran.

Abrams then reaches for a 2003-vintage “greet us as liberators” selection, proposing that the Iranians might thank us for bombing their country by overthrowing their government for us:

abrams-cheneywe are not talking about the Americans killing civilians, bombing cities, destroying mosques, hospitals, schools. No, no, no – weʹre talking about nuclear facilities which most Iranians know very little about, have not seen, will not see, some quite well hidden.

So they wake up in the morning and find out that the United States if attacking those facilities and, presumably with some good messaging about why weʹre doing it and why we are not against the people of Iran.

Itʹs not clear to me that the reaction letʹs go to war with the Americans, but rather, perhaps, how did we get into this mess? Why did those guys, the very unpopular ayatollahs in a country 70 percent of whose population is under the age of 30, why did those old guys get us into this mess.

When Indyk protests that this reasoning didn’t pan out terribly well for the Israelis in Gaza recently, Abrams shrugs that he’s “not persuaded” that Gazans blame Israel for the IDF killing between a thousand and two thousand Palestinians during their incursion.

Then Muravchik reaches for the trump card: “our talks with North Korea have completely failed but if we bomb Iran they may well succeed the next day.”

It goes on and on like this.  If you’re interested in these type of arguments, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of Jack Snyder’s Myths of Empire.  These sorts of arguments are literally straight from the pages of Myths, a book where Snyder attempts to generalize the “myths” that empires endorse as they overexpand.

Trying Harder in Afghanistan

President Obama today gave a statement about his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first thing to say here is that, according to those who attended a White House briefing, the strategy is not complete: the goals are not defined.

Second, there seems to be a gap between rhetoric and reality. On the one hand, the White House is rhetorically embracing the idea that, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned,  the problem is insufficient U.S. effort. That is consistent with what Obama has said all along: that we are failing in Afghanistan because U.S. efforts there are starved of resources that went to Iraq.

So we need more trainers for the Afghan army (a brigade from the 82nd Airborne gets that job), more combat troops (although only the 17,000 already committed), more U.S. government civilians to aid local development, and more drug eradication (on the folly of this, read Ted Carpenter and David Rittgers). As an enthusiastic Robert Kagan points out, this seems to be a stronger embrace of the nation-building strategy. The partial departure is the willingness to try to buy off elements of the Taliban. 

On the other hand, the trainers being sent were requested long ago, and the troop increase is not new. The other shifts are minor. So, in terms of action, little has changed. There seems be a compromise here between the so-called minimalists and maximalists, which caused essentially a stalemate.

If you agree that the trouble in Afghanistan is that we weren’t trying hard enough, you should wonder why we aren’t trying even harder — doubling down on troops and effort, not just saying so. If you think, as I do, that we need a new strategy of radically reduced objectives, you have the opposite concern.

Nothing particularly new is happening with Pakistan, either, which matters more. We are continuing airstrikes and increasing aid. The White House recognition that the trouble with Pakistan is its vulnerabilty to India, which causes it to avoid policing its west and to embrace militants, is useful, even though it’s hard to see what we can do about it.

One particulary troubling observation that the president made today is this:

The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked. We have a shared responsibility to act — not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends on it. And what’s at stake at this time is not just our own security — it’s the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago, and that must be our common purpose today.

There are two problems here. First, we can pay the price of an Afghanistan in chaos if we figure out ways to prevent terrorist havens. That is possible at considerably less cost than we spend on that project today. The question is whether we can afford to resurrect Afghanistan from chaos. The president fully buys into the idea that Afghanistan would quickly revert to its 1990s state, with Al Qaeda sanctuaries, absent the U.S. military. That’s a claim in need of interrogation.

Second, it is silly to cast the war as a test of multilateralism.  Free nations consistently ally when their security obviously requires it. Europeans sensibly wonder if that is still the case in Afghanistan.  What we’re testing is how willing nations are to unify to fight wars where their security is not obviously at stake.

No No-Fly Zones over Darfur

Should the United States lead a Western coalition to enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur, Sudan?

This idea, which has been kicking around since at least 2006, was articulated recently in the Washington Post by former Air Force Chief of Staff and Obama advisor Tony McPeak, writing with Kurt Bassuener. Back when they were campaigning, President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all backed it. So it stands a good chance of becoming US policy.

The goal is to protect Darfurians from their nominal government without a costly US effort. But the opposite seems a more likely outcome. The no-fly zone may increase the violence in Darfur. And by committing the US to Darfur’s protection and failing, it may suck us deeper into Sudan’s civil war.

Like most advocates of U.S. intervention in Sudan, McPeak and Bassuener avoid saying that what is occurring in Sudan is a war with sides rather than an irrational slaughter.  Attacks on civilians in Darfur, however reprehensible, are a tactic used by a weak, brutal central government to maintain power.

Sudan has some helicopters and Russian cargo aircraft converted into bombers that they use to support a counterinsurgency campaign executed mainly by its army and allied militias, some of which used to be rebels. The militias, in particular the horse-riding Janjaweed, kill and displace civilians because Darfur’s insurgent groups rely on them for things rebels need: intelligence, supply, and recruits.  According to the Christian Science Monitor, about 400 civilians died as result of air strikes in 2007 and 2008, a fraction of the total killed by ground forces.

Take away the air strikes, McPeak and Bassuener say, and you get leverage over Sudan’s government. The leverage can be used to compel Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force to augment the largely useless African Union force there now.

Leaving aside the question of logistics (patrolling Darfur would be very costly given its the massive size), this plan simply doesn’t bear much logical scrutiny.

It is an application of strategic airpower theory, which tends to make magical assumptions about the political impact of aircraft.  That theory tends to depict the enemy as an extremely cost sensitive actor ripped from the pages of economic textbooks rather than what we find in history:  governments motivated by nationalistic norms to pursue their political aims at extraordinary cost.  Sudan is not going to give up trying to unify its country because we won’t let helicopters and aircraft fly over it.

Because Darfur’s rebels could arm and police their territory behind the peacekeeper lines, allowing a real peacekeeping force into Sudan would be de facto recognition of Darfur’s secession. What leader of Sudan would accept that?

Beyond that, a no-fly zone is likely to make life worse for Darfur’s civilians. As Alan Kuperman notes, a no-fly zone, rather than forcing Khartoum to the table, is likely to drive it to increase ground attacks. We might see accelerated ethnic cleaning and slaughter occurring beneath NATO aircraft powerless to stop it, a repetition of past experience. Likewise, a no-fly zone may further discourage Darfurian rebels from coming to terms with the government, pouring further accelerant on the war. It would also keep Sudan from allowing aid workers to travel to Darfur.

A no-fly zone will also symbolize a US commitment to the dissolution of Sudan and the protection of Darfurian civilians. By accomplishing neither, it would likely produce calls for a more robust intervention – either US boots on the ground or air strikes against people on the ground. Acceding to these calls would make the United States a combatant in Sudan’s civil war. Those who push military intervention in Sudan should recognize that is the logical result of their position.

That position is not unreasonable. Full fledged intervention might protect civilians. And who wouldn’t be sympathetic to a revolt against an awful central government like Sudan’s?

But the United States needs to get out of the other people’s civil war business, not double down.  We are participating in two civil conflicts abroad now. That is too many already. And Darfur is not the world’s only humanitarian nightmare. Peacekeeping the Congo might have more humanitarian payoff.  We can’t fix everything.

That does not mean doing nothing. We should push Sudan to allow humanitarian workers full access to Darfur, condemn atrocities, and push the rebel factions to sign the peace deal outlined in 2006 or something like it.