The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
Almost every major political figure has a social-media presence today. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov is an Instagram addict, as is Syria’s first family. Hugo Chavez was a prolific tweeter, and Fidel Castro blogs occasionally. Iowa senator Chuck Grassley live-tweets University of Northern Iowa Panthers women’s volleyball matches. Yet nobody’s quite as strange as Iran’s Supreme Tweeter, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He’s on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, even though the last two have been blocked in Iran. And while all three accounts are almost certainly managed by his office rather than the Rahbar himself, they still have the remarkably ad hoc and disorganized feel you’d expect from a seventy-four-year-old cleric learning the digital ropes. He uses hashtags poorly. He offers opinions almost at random, dredging up lines from decades-old speeches without explaining why they bear relevance to his audience today. He’s translated into imperfect English, and abbreviates words like a teenager—“Do ur scientific works in a way that Westerners learn #Farsi 2 read ur articles.Farsi has such capacity that can Xpress most subtle sciences”. And like Grassley, he enjoys volleyball. The Ayatollah begs to be hipper.
Yet in the last few days, the Ayatollah’s social-media team has mounted something like a PR campaign, with the apparent goal of showing the world that Khamenei is no medieval scold, but a modern Renaissance man, a voracious reader and a real intellectual. And so there have been two bursts, on multiple platforms, of posts about the Leader’s love for literature. He’d like you to know that he favors novels over nonfiction—“The Historical narrative [...] can show photos of a city taken from a 10 thousand feet altitude. On the other hand, in an artistic narrative you can well imagine that you have got into a city.” And he’d like you to know that he’s read a lot of them, and he names a handful as proof—“I have read plenty of novels that relate to the events of different centuries. I have also read some very old novels. For instance I have read the Divine Comedy, Amir Arsalan, One Thousand and One Nights.” He doesn’t like all novels, of course—“some #novels r mere fantasy&have no message&shouldn’t be read,” but he wants to remind you that nobody stops him from reading them anyway—“Although I’ve also read those novels since no 1 has ever told what to read”. He also would like to to know when he reads them—on the bus and in other spare moments. He brags that this has enabled him to read “maybe hundreds of books.” And he knows “many ppl who’ve done the same.”
Yet it’s not enough for you to know what a great mind Khamenei is—he wants you to emulate him. “We should habituate ourselves&our #children 2read #books;eg 2read books when they want 2go 2bed or hours of Fridays & summer #holidays.” “Once they get home, all working ppl should spend at least half an hour on reading;lots of works can be read during these 30min of free times”. And this is how all of Khamenei’s hobbies and habits are. They aim to humanize him, to show his personality, but without failing to show him as great. He reads like you, yes, but he reads more, he reads it with more taste, and he reads it with more discipline. Perhaps next week he’ll tell us of his great humility.
The irony in Khamenei’s self-promotion is deep. For while “no 1 has ever told [him] what to read,” his regime tells his subjects what to read. The internet is heavily and meticulously censored. Books are often banned—including some of the classics. And Iran’s greatest contribution to world culture, its poetry, faces censorship. And so it should be no surprise that the leader of a country with a deep literary culture and a deep sense of nationalism still would pick a foreign novel—Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which he brands “a miracle in the world of novel writing”—as his favorite. Khamenei has seen to it that many great Persian novels—like Sadegh Hedayat’s mesmerizing The Blind Owl—are kept off the presses. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rowhani, has dropped hints about easing controls, and Twitter and Facebook were partially unblocked yesterday. But until then, Iranian readers face another year of chains on the galleys with Jean Valjean and Ali Khamenei.
It’s time for a reality check. Russia’s proposed deal for Syria to abandon its chemical weapons arsenal is hardly, in President Obama’s words, a “significant breakthrough.” The president said last week that the initiative could avert American strikes on Syria “if it’s real.” But it isn’t. Rather, the Russian plan will not work—and Obama knows it. Yet he and his administration have welcomed this initiative. Why?
A senior State Department official recently said that any proposed deal must be “swift”, “real”, and “verifiable.” The administration has also declared that it must be “comprehensive” and “enforceable.” For many reasons, it can be none of these things.
The deal won’t be swift. As Dina Esfandiari has pointed out, even if Assad were to fully declare all of his chemical weapons stockpiles—a big if—it is unlikely that this could be done in the seven-day timeframe proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry, who rejected Assad’s argument that Syria should have 30 days to do so. Destroying a chemical arsenal as large as Assad’s, estimated by some to be the world’s largest, “doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it is more realistic to talk in years than in months.”
The plan won’t be enforceable, because Russia has refused to agree to any deal that is. Although the U.S., Britain, and France concur that any chemical inspection regime for Syria must be legally binding and backed by the authorization to use force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in response to Syrian noncompliance, Russia has already objected to a draft Security Council resolution to this effect. So administration officials changed their tune on Friday, saying that Obama would accept a UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) not backed by the threat of force.
Although Russia and the U.S. have since agreed to file a UNSCR under Chapter VII, any violations warranting punishment would be referred back to the Security Council, where Russia could block the use of force. As Secretary Kerry noted, “Use of force is clearly one of the options that may or may not be available to the Security Council" (italics mine). But even with Chapter VII authority, the middling American and international reactions to the regime’s previous alleged instances of chemical weapons use—to the extent that there has been any reaction—would hardly convince Assad that violation of the deal would be inescapably met with force.
No wonder Assad immediately embraced the plan. What’s more, he is attempting to milk it for all it’s worth. Russian President Vladimir Putin said a deal could work only if the U.S. and its relevant allies “tell us they’re giving up their plan to use force against Syria.” Apparently this is insufficient for Assad, who said in an interview on Thursday that Syria won’t relinquish its chemical weapons unless the U.S. stops arming the rebels, which the CIA began doing in recent weeks, according to Syrian figures and American officials.
A deal along the lines of the Russian proposal will also not be comprehensive, verifiable, or real, owing to the fact that the Assad regime and opposition forces each control territory in Syria, and many areas are hotly contested. Although a CRS report released on Thursday states that “U.S. officials have expressed confidence that chemical weapons stocks in Syria are secured by the Asad regime”, on-the-ground inspection will be necessary to verify this; that is, they are needed if the goal of the plan is to verifiably rid Syria of chemical weapons—as opposed to merely depriving the Syrian government of them.
That some element(s) of the opposition might possess chemical weapons is not beyond the realm of possibility. In May, Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Enquiry on Syria, suggested in an interview that the rebels had used sarin gas, a claim quickly rejected by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Gwyn Winfield, the editorial director of CBRNe World, argues that the rebels possess the experience and perhaps also the delivery capability to launch a chemical attack, and that it is possible that the rebels may "have overrun an arms dump which had some of the [chemical] agent" or that a government "defector brought a limited amount with him." On Friday, Turkish prosecutors alleged that Syrian rebel groups were seeking materials to produce sarin gas for the Al Nusra Front and the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade (both groups are unaffiliated with the FSA). From the first instance of alleged chemical weapons use, in Aleppo this March, to the most recent, in Ghoutta on August 21, the Syrian government has accused the rebels of using chemical weapons, as has Russia. Secretary Kerry did not contest Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's contention that there may be one or two chemical weapons sites in rebel-held locations.
Will inspectors even attempt to enter rebel-held territory? If chemical disarmament in Syria is to be truly comprehensive, then they must. (After all, Russia and Syria have charged that there are chemical weapons in these areas.) The plan envisions that both government and opposition forces with facilitate the inspectors’ work.
This puts the anti-Assad opposition in a serious bind. If a deal is reached and weapons inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are sent to Syria, will they be granted access to rebel-held areas, which comprise a majority of the country? What incentive will the rebels have to facilitate a verification effort that, if successful, would significantly reduce the likelihood of international armed intervention in their favor? None. But they also would not want to be seen as obstructing the inspectors’ efforts and, by extension, sabotaging diplomatic attempts to resolve the conflict. Whether or not the opposition concocts some reason to deny the inspectors access or obstruct their movement, they would have an incentive to do so.
Unsurprisingly, the opposition slammed the deal. The leader of the FSA, General Salim Idriss, already categorically rejected the plan. He insisted that there are “no chemical weapons on territory controlled by the Free Syrian Army,” but declared that his forces would “not hinder the work of UN monitors” if they sought to enter rebel-controlled territory. The Syrian National Coalition has also opposed it, saying in a statement that “Crimes against humanity cannot be absolved through political concessions, or surrendering the weapons used to commit them.”
Nonetheless, even if the rebels do not currently control chemical weapons, government-held territory where chemical weapons are based could fall into their hands before the weapons are removed or destroyed. As the recent CRS report notes, “The nature and recent course of the conflict in Syria suggests that rapid changes in control over critical military facilities may occur.” And if rebels do possess chemical weapons—now or prospectively—these weapons could subsequently fall into government hands if the regime makes territorial gains.
There are also many other reasons why a deal can’t work on an operational level, particularly because it would have to be implemented in an active warzone, but you get the point. So what could explain the administration’s embrace of it?
One potential explanation is that Obama really does want to strike Syria, and is attempting to build political support for doing so. By pursuing this diplomatic path—which he knows is likely to fail—the president can make the case that all peaceful options have been exhausted and that he is resorting to force as a last resort. This could help shift opinion at home, both in Congress and amongst the American people, as well as internationally, particularly among U.S. allies. It provides time to whip together much-needed votes on the Hill for authorizing force—if there ever is a vote.
Another possible explanation is that the administration doesn’t know what it will do next, and sees Russia’s proposal as a way to just buy time and determine its next move. It can be tempting to try to make sense of individual actions by situating them within the context of some larger, preconceived strategy. But we should keep in mind that there might be no overarching game plan here. Many aspects of how the administration has responded to the Syrian crisis so far are certainly consistent with this.
Or maybe Obama just wants a break. By pursuing Russia’s proposal, the administration has embarked down a road to nowhere. Yet it is difficult to know how long of a road it will be, or what might transpire along the way. It seems plausible that Obama hopes it will be quite long—prolonging the time during which the ball is not in his court—or that it will hit a dead-end upon reaching nowhere. Perhaps he wants both.
The president seems to want to wipe his hands of this whole mess. This was clearly illustrated when he told reporters on Thursday that he is shifting his focus to domestic priorities and leaving Secretary Kerry to handle Syria talks. "Even as we have been spending a lot of time on the Syria issue [...] it is still important to recognize that we've got a lot more stuff to do here," he said. Instead of Syria, the president will now focus on immigration, budget, and healthcare issues. Unlike with regards to Syria, he might make meaningful progress in these areas.
Image: Flickr/Victor1558. CC BY 2.0.
Starting today, TNI’s Managing Editor, Harry Kazianis, will select the day’s top foreign policy, national security, and defense articles for your reading pleasure. From the latest crisis in Syria or the Middle East, to China’s rise, to important matters of U.S. foreign policy, TNI has you covered.
What you need to know for Monday 9/16:
Foreign Policy: John McCain Will Attack Vladimir Putin in the Pages of Pravda
Foreign Affairs: Open Source, Open World - “In the late 1960s, technology companies realized that they could sell the programs that they had been giving away with their computers. For software developers, though, that was a betrayal of their field's values: collaboration and sharing. Here's how the technologists have worked to bring those principles back.”
The Washington Post: U.N. Inspectors Find ‘Convincing’ Evidence of Chemical Attack Outside Damascus
The New York Times: South Korean Troops Kill Man Trying to Cross Border
The Washington Post: How the United States, Russia Arrived at Deal on Syria’s Chemical Weapons
The ongoing crisis involving Syria, its deadly civil war, the release of chemical weapons and the various responses to fast-moving events have dominated the headlines for the past several weeks.
With talk of an American strike to punish the Syrian regime to Russian proposals to solve the crisis and ongoing diplomacy, covering this issue from all perspectives has become our mission here at TNI.
We are proud to present some of our best material on the subject. By no means comprehensive, our goal is to showcase to our readers the various perspectives on the crisis, the long-term consequences for U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East and beyond.
Syria: World Sees Way Out in Lavrov Proposal By: Nikolas K. Gvosdev - Caught between Obama's interventionism and Putin's defense of national sovereignty über alles, an international solution is attractive to many.
Whether or not President Obama actually enforces his “red line” by attacking Syria, his decision to seek authority to act from Congress, after his administration already conveyed its intention to strike, has seriously undermined American credibility. The Syrian regime and its Iranian backers – and U.S. friends and foes alike – have surely taken note.
After the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons outside Damascus on August 21, the administration quickly created the impression that it would respond with force, and soon. Following the House of Commons’ vote against any British involvement in a potential military action against Syria, the administration announced its willingness to even take unilateral action against Syria.
These declarations to back U.S. threats with actual action seemed commendable at the time, although Obama’s irresolution has since become increasingly apparent.
On August 31, Obama bowed to calls from members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – that he obtain congressional approval before taking action in Syria. Any notions that the U.S. would intervene decisively, in a manner that might tilt today’s military balance in the rebels’ favor, were quickly dispelled: a limited, three-day strike employing only stand-off weaponry was envisioned. It would be, in the words of one U.S. official briefed on the administration’s options on Syria, "just muscular enough not to get mocked.” Nonetheless, mocked this proposed use of limited force certainly was.
In the face of these criticisms, reports on Thursday indicated that President Obama has ordered the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of targets in Syria. This order was prompted by intelligence reports suggesting that the Assad regime has been relocating troops and materiel as Congress debates authorizing action; common sense would also suggest that the regime would react in this way. Now, the regime has even more time to ready itself for the increasingly uncertain prospect of limited American intervention, because the Senate is expected to vote sometime this week and another one-week delay is expected on the House side.
Understandably, Obama punted to Congress in order to obtain political cover to act, given the significant potential for events and American involvement in Syria to go horribly awry and expand considerably in scope. An even more cynical reading is that Obama sought political cover to not act: if Congress refuses to authorize force, which is certainly possible – and, as matters stand now, likely – Obama does not intend to act, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said Friday.
This uncertainty concerning whether Congress will “allow” the president to act makes his threats to potentially employ force elsewhere – against, say, Iran – difficult to take seriously. Setting the precedent of seeking congressional support once fosters the impression that Congress will have a say – and potentially a veto – next time. There is a qualitative difference between the president conveying that he will use force in response to a given contingency, and declaring that he might act if Congress grants him permission to do so.
The president declared in his 2010 State of the Union address that “as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise." This might have been taken seriously by Tehran then. Now, however, the Iranian regime would likely interpret Obama’s statement thusly: “…there should be significant doubt: they, too, might face growing consequences. That is a hope."
Israeli officials have argued that enforcing the president’s red line on Syria is essential to deterring Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials have argued similarly that a ‘no’ vote from lawmakers would embolden Iran and North Korea. Yet this is a problem of the administration’s own making. This lame attempt to pass the buck to Congress is the antithesis of strong leadership.
Beyond obtaining political cover for action – or inaction – Obama certainly had many other reasons to go to Congress. An NBC News poll released on Friday found that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe the president should obtain congressional approval before acting in Syria. Only 36 percent of respondents in a new Gallup poll also released on Friday support using force in Syria, the lowest level of popular support for any U.S. military intervention in the last 20 years. If he had chosen to bypass Congress, these factors alone would provide ample ammunition for Obama’s critics on the right. Additionally, bypassing Congress would have also left him vulnerable to criticisms from the left for acting unilaterally, à la George W. Bush.
If Obama intended to seek congressional approval to act in Syria, he should have discreetly put out feelers on Capitol Hill well before publicly creating the impression that he planned to use force. If obtaining sufficient support seemed unlikely, then the administration could have still announced that it intended to act, and settled for cobbling together a bipartisan group of congressional supporters to provide at least a sheen of political support and cover. Opponents of using force could have been urged to dampen or mute their subsequent public criticisms of the administration’s actions in Syria.
It is not necessarily always a problem for this or any president to seek congressional authorization to use force. (Of course, presidents are often able to use force abroad independently of Congress, and have done so more often than not.) Indeed, the president should, when practicable, attempt to solicit congressional support for launching military action. Ideally, he or she should try to achieve an at least somewhat consultative and cooperative relationship with Congress when it comes to employing military force.
However, sound statesmanship, encompassing the imperative of maintaining a credible deterrent capacity, necessitates that the president should never create the impression that he is beholden to the whims of Congress in acting as commander-in-chief. Unfortunately, this administration has indicated that this is exactly the case.
It now appears that America’s entry into the Syrian civil war is inevitable. The crucial question now is not whether this is a good idea, but what our goals are and how our imminent use of force can best achieve them. The popular purpose proffered for the pending war is punishment—that is, to inflict harm on the Assad regime over its reprehensible chemical attack on its own people. On one hand, this is remarkably easy to achieve—the first measure of a successful punishment is that it is proportionate to the offense, so we merely need to inflict as much harm on Assad as we think is appropriate, and we have succeeded. On the other hand, punishment is a highly unusual goal for a war. Morally, it is unusual (and risky) that we are assuming the power to judge and mete out punishments to other states—this power is normally exercised by a sovereign authority, and it is an empirical fact that we do not exercise sovereignty over Syria. Strategically, it is unusual as war, per Clausewitz’s classic definition, normally aims to make the enemy do what you want. If our intent is to punish Syria, no action is required of the Syrian government besides “being punished”—we wage war against it as an object, and do not ask anything of it in return. A war like that would not even be strategic.
So the goal is really more complicated—we aim to prevent as much as we aim to punish. By harming the Syrians, we hope that other states will hesitate to use chemical weapons. And we hope that the Syrians won’t use chemical weapons yet again. The former goal requires that our attack be brutal and effective enough that others would fear it. It’ll be hard to do that with the three days of cruise missiles that the Obama administration is hinting at.
But the latter goal is far harder. The Syrian government uses chemical weapons because the rebels threaten its survival. The United States needs to create a comparable threat if it wants Assad to think twice. Yet for now we aren’t attempting regime change, and a three-day war probably won’t give the rebels a decisive advantage. (Indeed, one anonymous official told the Los Angeles Times that the attack would be “just muscular enough not to get mocked.... just enough to be more than symbolic.”) Assad has already lost half his country—we’d have to endanger a lot to hold his attention, and few in America want a war big enough to do that, or even want a war at all.
All is not lost. There are other ways to create near-existential fear. As Lincoln Bloomfield has pointed out, the Alawite elite that stands behind Assad has suffered relatively little, especially in its coastal homeland. Attacks there might have little significance to the broader civil war, but could reshape the internal discussion and create support for a negotiated settlement—America’s broader goal in Syria. Our expectations must be bounded, though. The Alawites rightly fear that an Assad defeat would see them driven, with savage violence, into a pathetic rump state behind the coastal mountains. It’ll take a lot to convince them to negotiate—a lot of force and a lot of confidence in their own diplomacy. But attacking them in their homeland offers a key advantage: compared to many other options, it is less likely to turn the tide of the war in favor of, say, Al Qaeda sympathizers among the rebels, but more likely to alter Assad’s calculations.
A second option is to directly target those involved in the chemical attacks, and other members of the security elite. There’s some evidence that Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother, commanded the recent atrocities. As head of a Syrian military unit, he’s a perfectly legitimate target in war. Yet individuals are notoriously hard to target, so while an attempt on his life should be made, other actions will be necessary. The units implicated in the chemical attacks should be struck viciously and without mercy. This fits the war’s punitive rhetoric, and could give pause to those ordered to carry out future chemical attacks. Such an attack will be difficult to carry out by cruise missile—ground-attack aircraft, supported by live intelligence from JSTARS and drone aircraft, would be more effective. (And surrounded by other Syrian divisions, the targeted units wouldn’t even be able to surrender, Iraqi Army-style, to their aerial attackers.)
Destroying Assad’s air defenses is worth serious consideration, as the three-day war probably won’t achieve its goal. We’ll most likely have to go back. Leaving Assad more vulnerable to a broader follow-up attack, this time by aircraft, will amplify whatever message we manage to send by making that follow-up attack easier and cheaper for us. On the other hand, it is unwise at this stage to destroy Assad’s air force. This is counterintuitive, given how important the air force is to his regime’s survival. But if our goal is to prevent Syria from using chemical weapons again, destroying his primary alternative to chemical weapons would be foolish. Further, leaving a fair share of his air force intact leaves him with something to lose—again amplifying our message. (Of course, if follow-up attacks do become necessary, much of the air force would have to be destroyed for the safety of our own pilots.)
In spite of all this, we cannot escape that Assad enjoys strategic advantages. We’ve signaled that we (rightly) aren’t willing to become deeply involved in Syria’s war. Assad, with his back to the wall, has a vastly greater pain tolerance than us. He can also attempt to use the war to his advantage—for example, by launching new chemical attacks in rebel-held areas he’s wanted to hit, and then announcing that the American campaign had caused their accidental release. He won’t want to provoke the United States too much (a broader war is still bad for him), but he’ll have many ways to retaliate through proxies and asymmetric methods (terrorism, etc.). This will inflict pain on us and our allies, but it will be harder for us to respond to than a naked Syrian attack.
Iran holds the strongest hand of all in this conflict. A U.S. entanglement in Syria couldn’t be better for Tehran. No matter how deeply involved we become, we’re unlikely to achieve outright victory. And the more deeply involved we become, the less power (military and diplomatic) we’ll have to wield against Iran. Israel will be left essentially alone in its stand against the Islamic Republic’s advancing nuclear program. Tying up America for even a year or two could be decisive, giving Iran enough time to develop a robust nuclear breakout capability, a capability that would leave it much less vulnerable to the United States—and especially to a United States left even more war-weary than it is now. Accordingly, we must be on guard for Iranian actions in and near Syria that aim to lure us deeper and keep us around for more than the White House’s scheduled three days of conflict.
The complexities of the situation and the numerous unfavorable dynamics mean that the Weekend War probably won’t achieve its goals, and may expose us to new dangers. Yet if we’re going to do this, we should do it right.
Image: Flickr/Steve Jurvetson. CC BY 2.0.
Here we go again. The season of planning documents in foreign and defense policy is arriving. In 2010, the Obama administration released its first National Security Strategy (NSS), Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), meaning that their second-term equivalents would roughly be expected next year. At Foreign Policy, John Norris recalls that the 2010 QDDR—the first of its kind—took a whopping seventeen months to complete. This means that work on a successor would need to begin soon if it were to be kept on about the same schedule—that is, if there is even to be a second one. The word “quadrennial” in its title suggests that the 2010 version was intended to be the first in a recurring series, but it is not required by law, as are the QDR and NSS. An attempt was made last year to pass legislation that would institutionalize the review process and require the State Department to produce regular QDDRs, but it did not succeed.
Meanwhile, Doug Wilson argued last month at Defense One that the Defense Department should scrap the next QDR. Wilson contended that the January 2012 “Defense Strategic Guidance” had effectively performed all of the functions that the QDR was meant to address. He thus recommended that the Pentagon save itself all the man-hours and dollars required to conduct the review and “stick with the product produced last year, endorsed by consensus, strongly supported by the president and incorporating all of the requirements of a QDR.”
Is all of this just a waste of time? As others have observed before, the principal problem that tends to afflict these kinds of big-picture planning documents is that they often wind up simply serving as laundry lists, looking more like political speeches than articulations of strategy. They’re drafted by committee, meaning that every division within the department or interagency process gets to add their two cents about why their issue matters and the actions they are taking are important to the country. There is rarely if ever any real sense of prioritization—that is, a ruthless accounting of which issues are truly of vital importance and which ones represent only secondary interests.
For example, near the beginning of the 2010 NSS, the White House included a section titled “Advancing Top National Security Priorities.” In an excellent dissection of the document, the pseudonymous blogger Gulliver catalogued and paraphrased all the “priorities” that fell under this category:
Pursuit of a nonproliferation agenda/security weapons of mass destruction; disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda and Associated Movements; succeeding in the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan; denying extremists safe haven in Pakistan; transitioning full responsibility for Iraqi security to that nation's sovereign government; comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and its neighbors (to include creation of a Palestinian state with contiguous territory); engagement with Muslim communities around the world; rebuilding American economic strength; pursuit of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements; support for individual opportunity and state capacity abroad; promotion of “universal values” (er, but just by example), to include global equality for women; the shaping of a just and stable international order “capable of addressing the problems of our time.”
As Gulliver rightly noted, if you have a whole bunch of priorities, you don’t really have any. The result is a document that capably outlines what the world would look like if the president of the United States had a magic wand and could reshape the world in any way he wanted, but one that pays little attention to the constraints that policy makers actually face. The same was true of the inaugural QDDR, as David Rieff described in these pages in 2011.
One defense of this ritual is that it’s a situation where “the process matters more than the product,” as Richard Fontaine argued in discussing the most recent NSS. In Fontaine’s words, in conducting one of these reviews, policy makers “are forced to think through core issues and future possibilities in a way that is much different from their day to day grind.” It’s true that it is easy for senior officials to get caught up in whatever the immediate crisis of the day is and eschew any long-range planning. Requiring them to do this kind of planning in a systemized way, therefore, makes some sense and has an intuitive logic to it.
Still, if we are going to require the White House, Pentagon and State Department to devote time to these reviews, they shouldn’t just be useful exercises for the people conducting them—the products should have some positive value as well. So, given that the practice of drafting them is not going away, here are a few very modest suggestions on how the process could be improved.
First, the NSS should be completed before all of the other subordinate documents. This has not happened the last several times; for instance, in 2010 the QDR was published in February while the NSS was not published until May. According to the law mandating the QDR, one of its chief purposes is “to delineate a national defense strategy consistent with the most recent National Security Strategy.” The idea is that the QDR and the military’s other planning documents are supposed to determine which of the objectives identified in the NSS require military means to be accomplished, and lay out what the Defense Department will do and what resources it needs to achieve them. When the QDR comes before the NSS, however, those writing it are left either relying on the previous NSS—even if it came from a different administration—or improvising and defining America’s objectives for themselves.
Second, these reports ought to contain at least some semblance of prioritization. This doesn’t mean that they need to have an ordered list of priorities ranked from most to least important. As Fontaine explains, administrations understandably don’t want to alienate overseas partners or domestic constituencies by declaring their pet issues to be minor or unimportant. At the same time, careful readers shouldn’t be left totally guessing as to what the government’s true priorities are either.
Finally—and this applies particularly to the NSS—it would be helpful if the government could develop a more modest and meaningful definition of the phrase “national security.” There’s an unfortunate tendency to cast any negative development that occurs abroad as a “national security” threat, even when the security of the American people is not really at issue. Likewise, following the true but banal assertion that America’s ability to project power and influence overseas depends on its economic strength at home, it’s also common to hear that the performance of the U.S. economy is a “national security” issue as well, as the 2010 NSS contended. The combined result is to render the phrase “important for national security” as virtually meaningless. It more or less serves as shorthand for “anything the United States would like to accomplish in the world,” or just as a club to beat one’s political opponents with. One big-picture strategic review is not going to change this, of course. But a document called the “National Security Strategy” would be as good a place as any to start.
Over the last several weeks TNI has hosted a spirited debate regarding American military strategy when it comes to a possible conflict with the People’s Republic of China. As a strategic-studies watcher and Asia security hand myself, I wish to applaud the professionalism and candor both sides displayed. There is nothing like a spirited debate allowing ideas to be vetted, challenged and ultimately made stronger. Considering the theoretical topic—what would likely be a Third World War—it is a debate worthy of our most serious attention.
Such a contest at its core pits two very different visions against one another in an attempt to define one of the most daunting security challenges America faces today—the growing military might of China.
While each side—AirSea Battle and Offshore Control—both have their own merits and drawbacks; I would like to offer some concluding points as we wrap up (at least for now) what has been a worthy contribution to this important discussion that has much larger repercussions when we begin to consider what type of military the United States will need in the future.
AirSea Battle: It’s Still an Operational Concept
This is a point I myself and several others have made. But it seems clear ASB could be rolled into a larger war plan and quite worthy of being compared to other strategies in a broader debate. Since DoD war plans are classified, comparing ASB and OC is a difficult challenge for sure. However, we do know that ASB would attempt to create a higher level of joint combat operations to hinder the ability of Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) practitioners to deny access to the commons and negate U.S. military capabilities. China and to a lesser extent Iran are clearly in ASB’s crosshairs.
In the near-future, defense analysts will have a number of ways to gage possible ASB-based strategies when it comes to China and A2/AD practitioners specifically. Clearly U.S. planners are beginning to think about how to fight from distance while also retaining the utility of multibillion-dollar aircraft carriers. The X-47B program—brought back from a very short retirement—clearly demonstrates that U.S. military planners are thinking about how naval aircraft can fight from range considering present aircraft strike capabilities would place carriers close to multiple PLA missile platforms (cruise and ballistic) including the highly touted “carrier-killer,” the DF-21D.
How Would Offshore Control Do Against Other A2/AD Challenges?
There is certainly a lot to like when it comes to Offshore Control. Such a strategy clearly aims to exploit China’s dependency on the seas for trade and natural resources in an attempt to compel Beijing to end conflict and mitigate any possibility of escalation. Adding to its appeal, such a strategy seems possible with current U.S. force levels and technology.
There are some inherent challenges. It’s important to consider whether Offshore Control could work against other possible A2/AD challengers. Various nations have already begun to embrace the weaponry of A2/AD—ballistic and cruise missiles, sea mines and quiet, conventional-powered submarines, as well as possible attacks across cyber and space domains. American forces could someday soon find themselves in harm's way from multi-dimensional strikes that not only seek to deny U.S. forces access to a combat zone, but also take the fight to America's military in an asymmetrical fashion. Would OC work against an Iranian A2/AD strategy with tight sanctions already in place? What about other nations who in the future could also embrace such technology through purchases from nations like China, Russia or possibly others? While I can see a strong argument being made that OC could be modified to take into consideration such situations, it remains to be seen whether it will.
What About Sequestration?
Clearly any China strategy would suffer if sequestration were to stay in place. Various texts concerning ASB suggest new weapons systems, such as new, stealthy long-range bombers and other expensive items would be needed if strikes against targets in Mainland China are considered part of the strategy. Where would the money come from?
Indeed, sequestration could impact ASB as well as an OC strategy. Considering Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent declarations concerning possible future consequences of sequestration it makes sense that any future strategy geared towards China could be weakened considerably. While Secretary Hagel did layout one scenario which trades “away size for high-end capability” and “would protect investments to counter anti-access and area-denial threats, such as the long-range strike family of systems, submarine cruise missile upgrades, and the Joint Strike Fighter” one could clearly see possible challenges implementing either ASB or OC in such an uncertain budgetary environment. Dollars will need to be spent to implement either of these strategies or something entirely different—the money just might not be there.
The Problem of Escalation Control
In any conflict, especially when considering nuclear armed states, the idea of escalation takes on an importance all its own. No matter what strategy one employs, how does one stop such a conflict from reaching dangerous levels of escalation? James Holmes may have said it best:
Chinese sea power fuses seagoing and shore-based assets into a single implement. PLA commanders would presumably use all assets at their disposal, sea and land, once Chinese vessels started descending to Davy Jones' locker. What if anti-ship cruise or ballistic missiles or combat aircraft flying from airfields ashore started landing heavy blows against allied fleets, whether underway or berthed in ports like Yokosuka or Sasebo? Would Washington or Tokyo really exempt land-based PLA weaponry from counterstrikes should Beijing unleash it?
If so, they would be granting the adversary one heckuva sanctuary. In short, two can escalate. Whether allied political leaders could resist popular pressure to retaliate against the source of attacks on their ships, their sons, and their daughters is a question worth pondering.
The above clearly demonstrates the frightening nature of a U.S.-China conflict. What if American counterattacks on the mainland were misinterpreted as a possible strike on China’s small but capable nuclear arsenal? Here is where we get to scenarios almost too frightening to imagine.
Looking Towards the Future
Recent reports clearly show U.S. military planners beginning to lay plans concerning its position in the Pacific. A recent article in Foreign Policy explains:
The U.S. military is encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports. The latest link: a small airstrip on the tiny Pacific island of Saipan. The U.S. Air Force is planning to lease 33 acres of land on the island for the next 50 years to build a "divert airfield" on an old World War II airbase there. But the residents don't want it. And the Chinese are in no mood to be surrounded by Americans.
The Pentagon's big, new strategy for the 21st century is something called Air-Sea Battle, a concept that's nominally about combining air and naval forces to punch through the increasingly-formidable defenses of nations like China or Iran. It may sound like an amorphous strategy—and truth be told, a lot of Air-Sea Battle is still in the conceptual phase. But a very concrete part of this concept is being put into place in the Pacific. An important but oft-overlooked part of Air-Sea Battle calls for the military to operate from small, bare bones bases in the Pacific that its forces can disperse to in case their main bases are targeted by Chinese ballistic missiles.
The pieces goes on to note:
In addition to the site on Saipan, the Air Force plans to send aircraft on regular deployments to bases ranging from Australia to India as part of its bulked up force in the Pacific. These plans include regular deployments to Royal Australian Air Force bases at Darwin and Tindal, Changi East air base in Singapore, Korat air base in Thailand, Trivandrum in India, and possibly bases at Cubi Point and Puerto Princesa in the Philippines and airfields in Indonesia and Malaysia, a top U.S. Air Force generalrevealed last month.
Clearly the United States is implementing the often criticized military aspect of its “pivot” to Asia. While America has always been an integral part of Asia-Pacific and broader Indo-Pacific security architecture, it is now quite clear words are now truly being matched by deeds.
A great-power conflict between the United States and China today, despite tensions over a multitude of issues, seems quite unlikely—but is quite frightening nonetheless. Considering the technology and weapons both sides would be able to employ the potential for the creation of one of the greatest tragedies in human history is a possibility—thanks to nuclear weapons. This is why dialogue on both sides, however blunt and at times taxing, is necessary so that current tensions never turn into future conflict.
In my view, there is no clear winner between ASB and OC. If pressed, I would favor ASB, however, I think there is much more soul searching to be had. Any strategy that deals with possible conflict with China needs some portability to other A2/AD challenges—with budget dollars getting tighter there may not be any other choice. While it seems aspects of ASB are being implemented, OC could also be utilized in current and future battle plans. Who knows, maybe both ideas could be merged together to create a dynamic, highly flexible strategy that would be even more adaptive based on the wide geographic, strategic and military domains a possible U.S.-China or future A2/AD based-conflict could occur in. Now that would be an interesting idea. Any takers?
Harry J. Kazianis is managing editor of The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.
The title character of Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 classic Oblomov may be literature’s most indecisive man. We meet the young Russian nobleman lying in bed in the late morning; it takes two chapters for him to get out of bed—and collapse onto an armchair. He spends most of his life lying down, though he has much to do. His estate is in disarray, he faces eviction from his apartment, his friends come calling hoping to bring him to town or on a trip abroad, he needs to find a wife. And Oblomov has many ideas for putting his life in order—he daydreams of the house he’ll build on his estate, of the wife he’ll meet, of travelling with his friends. Yet first he must get up, wash, trade his dressing-gown for proper clothes. And there are endless interruptions—Oblomov may hardly move, but he is constantly planning to move, telling his servant what to do to prepare things for his move, thinking up what he’ll do once he’s moving, before he loses his handkerchief or his train of thought and must start anew. And so he’s been planning to fix up his estate for years without doing anything. He’s promised friends he’ll accompany them, but never has. A book he’s reading lies open to the same page for a month. He remains on his back, in his dressing-gown, into the afternoon. And of course he sees none of this as his fault—the interruptions, the incompetence of his servant, the visitors, all intervene to keep him from acting.
One evening his friend Andrei Stolz, exasperated, tells Oblomov that they will at last take their long-planned trip.
"We will start to-morrow. It must be done now or never." With that he went to bed. "Now or never." Somehow to Oblomov the words seemed a sort of threat....Two weeks later Schtoltz departed for England, after exacting from Oblomov a pledge to join him later in Paris, Oblomov even went to the length of procuring a passport, ordering an expensive travelling coat, and purchasing a cap....A month went by—three months; yet Oblomov still did not start. Stolz, who had reached Paris long ago, continued to send him letter after letter, but they remained unanswered.
The Obama administration’s Egypt policy lately shows shades of Oblomov. It has many grand plans for Egypt’s future, many deeply felt opinions about the regime’s actions, about the Muslim Brotherhood’s responses, about what the Egyptian people deserve and what the American people hope. Scarcely a day passes that the administration doesn’t see the need to inform the public of its views on the situation—and on many days it weighs in more than once, in case anyone forgets over lunch which outrages are deplored and which are merely condemned. Yet all this talk has seen precious little action. A few F-16s the Egyptians can barely use have been delayed; a military exercise has been cancelled. And of course many long phone conversations, the administration assures, have been had.
The administration’s Oblomovtschina was on full display early last Thursday afternoon, the second official comment on matters Egyptian in three hours. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s briefing included a series of long, meandering exchanges with Associated Press reporter Matt Lee, chiefly concerning whether the administration thought its policies were effective, or were even intended to have an effect. Lee repeatedly asked whether the administration’s cancellation of an exercise merely was intended to send a message of disapproval to Egypt’s military, or whether it was intended to change the military’s behavior; Psaki repeatedly sidestepped the question, stating that the administration can’t “determine on behalf of the Egyptians what steps they’re going to take,” but that it is taking “a number of steps to encourage the Egyptians to get back on a productive path.”
Psaki repeatedly told Lee that the violence “did impact our decision-making,” that the administration “will continue to assess and review our aid in all forms,” and that it was “continuing to put constructive ideas forward.” Psaki stated that “the end result is what’s important,” prompting Lee to ask whether the administration was “confident that it is pursuing the appropriate policy to bring about its goals.” Psaki replied by reiterating the administration’s goals and emphasizing that “we’ve known this would be a long journey,” that “we can’t look into the future...we evaluate every day what the appropriate steps are.” But, of course, “reaching the goal is up to the Egyptian people to reach. We can’t do it on their behalf.” And the exchange repeated several minutes later, as Psaki filigreed a distinction between reviewing “the appropriate steps”—which can be done “every day”—and evaluating “where things stand”—which cannot.
At times Lee seemed to be getting a malicious joy from questioning Psaki. One round ended with a remark that was less a question than the pin that sticks a struggling moth to the board:
QUESTION: All right. And then my last one – and I will stop, I promise, after this – do you think – is the Administration confident that the steps, that the policy that you have pursued thus far in Egypt and also in Syria --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- are worthy of a President who not so long ago won the Nobel Peace Prize?
MS. PSAKI: Yes, Matt.
QUESTION: You do. Okay.
Psaki has spent nearly all of her short tenure squirming beneath the press corps’ skewers. Exchanges like this one on Egypt happen regularly. The crossing of Obama’s Syrian “red line” saw a similar wave of urgent reviews, evaluations, and factorings-in; Psaki was even stumped later on in Thursday’s briefings—again by Lee—when asked whether new Israeli settlements in the West Bank were “illegitimate.”
Some of the blame lies with Psaki, who (unlike her predecessor Victoria Nuland) is a career political operative, not a foreign-policy wonk. Yet the root of the problem is the entire administration. Psaki’s answers shed little light because there is little to shed light on. The Obama administration has no strategy for Egypt. It has no vision or central goal. And without a goal, it has no way to balance the complex and competing interests and values in play in Cairo. It does not know what to do or say. But it knows it must do or say something. And so it conducts evaluations without end. It asserts contradictions, then resolves them with sophistries. It weighs its options. It shares its feelings. It makes sure everybody knows how complicated the situation is, how many factors must be considered, how measured the president’s policies are, how tough these decisions have been. And there are reviews, and reviews of reviews, all of which are soon reviewed anew. “We continue to review our relationship with Egypt,” said Psaki. “I talked about the range of factors that are part of that consideration, including the depth of our partnership, including our national security interests and regional stability. And we’ll continue to review.”
“Now or never.” “To be or not to be.” Oblomov rose from his chair, but, failing at once to insert his foot into a slipper, sat down again.
Image: Flickr/Steve Parker. CC BY 2.0.
Paul Kennedy, the dean of great-power historians, has a very good op-ed in Wednesday’s International Herald Tribune in which he attempts to put our current crop of leading nation-states in perspective. After running through some of the spats currently consuming world leaders—from the U.S.-Russian fracas over Edward Snowden to the U.K.-Spanish feud over Gibraltar—he asks:
To historians of world affairs, including this one, the only proper response to this litany of spats, pouting and injured pride is to ask: “Is that all?” Are these the only issues which divide and upset the Great Powers as we enjoy the second decade of the 21st century? And, if so, shouldn’t we count ourselves lucky?
The answer, of course, is yes, as he goes on to explain. He reminds us that it wasn’t all that long ago that the great powers of the twentieth century plunged the globe into two devastating world wars, each resulting in millions upon millions of casualties. The second killed a jaw-dropping 2.5 percent of the total world population at the time. In contrast, he writes, today’s great powers—consisting of the United States, China, Europe, Russia, Japan, India and Brazil, in his mind—are not the world’s real “troublemakers.” That is, none of them wishes to undo the basic nature of the international system. The real dangers to peace and stability, he says, lie elsewhere:
in the unpredictable, overmilitarized lunatic asylum that is North Korea; in an Iran that sometimes seems to be daring an Israeli air strike; in a brutal and autistic Syrian regime; in a Yemen that both houses terrorists and pretends to be killing them off; and, far less purposefully, in the conflict-torn, crumbling polities of Central Africa, Egypt and Afghanistan, and many nations in between. Here are the world’s problem cases.
If there are neurotic Kaiser Wilhelms or bullying Mussolinis or murderous Stalins around today, they are not — thank heavens — to be found in Beijing, Moscow or New Delhi.
It’s possible to quibble with Kennedy’s piece around the edges. Is Brazil really a great power right now? Is Europe a single, unitary actor in global affairs? And might China, as its economic and military strength increases over the next several decades, develop correspondingly more expansive aims as well? But the core argument is sound: none of today’s great powers, however one defines them, currently appear to be revisionists in the sense of seeking broad territorial conquest or seeking to change the rules of the liberal international order.
Kennedy doesn’t say this explicitly, but his piece serves as a direct rebuttal to the threat inflation that often comes from Washington’s leaders of both parties, many of whom often declare breathlessly that we live in a uniquely dangerous world. Senator Lindsey Graham is perhaps the best example, asserting just a few weeks ago that “we live in the most dangerous times imaginable.” We don’t. In fact, these are far from the most dangerous times imaginable—they’re not even the most dangerous times in recent history. Nor, for that matter, did the annals of ancient history represent a particularly safe, peaceful era, as Steven Pinker shows in The Better Angels of Our Nature.
This is a point that’s easy to dismiss or even mock when any day’s headlines might contain news of a foreign tragedy like the ongoing and horrific mass killings in Egypt. Obviously, it’s of no comfort to Egyptians, Syrians or others suffering elsewhere around the world. Nevertheless, it’s an essential fact for trying to make sense of the threats that the United States and the world face today. None of the “problem cases” that Kennedy highlights, and that dominate international news coverage on a day-to-day basis, are threats of the magnitude that a truly revisionist power would pose.
What this situation requires from the big powers, Kennedy observes, is “self-restraint, year after year, decade after decade.” It doesn’t represent an end to war, but it means that the great powers work to ensure that the conflicts that do occur—whether involving themselves or their client states—remain local. No doubt “Comparatively Less War Now” doesn’t make for an inspiring bumper sticker. For the moment, however, it’s a slogan that appears to be true, and we should hope it stays that way.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Van Howell. CC BY-SA 3.0.