The Futility of the Long U.S. War in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

Andrew Bacevich has done a tally of the number of countries in the Islamic world that, since 1980, the United States has invaded, bombed, or occupied, and in which members of the American military have either killed or been killed. Syria has become the 14th such country. Several of the countries have been the scene of U.S. military operations more than once. Most of the countries are in the Middle East, although the list also includes Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the Balkans, and Somalia in Africa. Probably most Americans, however much they may be aware of the latest U.S. military foray, have little appreciation for how extensive this list has become.

Bacevich also notes the sorry record of accomplishment from all this lethal activity, and gives one partial explanation: “American policymakers have repeatedly given in to the temptation to unleash a bit of near-term chaos, betting that longer-term order will emerge on the other end.”

This sort of bet often is placed in response to a desire, and political pressure, to do something about a perceived problem, with military force being the most visible and demonstrable way to “so something.” That is clearly a major part of the Obama administration's response to the perceived problem of ISIS. The biggest instance of unleashing chaos in the hope that long-term order will somehow emerge, however—the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the operation that gave birth to ISIS under a different name—was not a response to such pressures but instead entirely a war of choice. It was the leading example of the Jerry Rubin school of political-military affairs: of destroying things and then grooving on the rubble.

Several other reasons also account for the miserable U.S. record of military force in that part of the world—of so often making things worse rather than better. One is that although U.S. military force can help to accomplish some really important and beneficial things—such as, say, winning World War II, or in the Middle East, reversing blatant aggression as in Kuwait in 1991—it cannot accomplish many other things, given the nature of those things. The U.S. military is a wonderful hammer, but many of the thorniest problems in the part of the world we are talking about are not nails. Political and social order cannot be injected through the barrel of a gun. Creating a lasting order is about construction; guns are about destruction. Political culture and political will, especially the will to accommodate conflicting interests, are essential to creating order, and they cannot be created with military force.

Much of what needs to be accomplished to create new order needs to be accomplished by those who will be part of that order. Sometimes outsiders can help, but no matter how powerful and well-intentioned an outsider may be, unless a solution is owned by the locals it will not last. That's what happened with the “surge” in Iraq, which bought a temporary respite from the worst of the violence but failed to accomplish its more fundamental objective of providing the space to enable Iraqi political factions to reach an accommodation.

The current attempt to use force to counter ISIS illustrates in particularly acute form another sort of hazard, which comes from taking sides in someone else's civil war that is defined in mostly sectarian or ethnic terms. The United States has no national interest in taking sides in such conflicts. It is a prescription for making enemies on one side and getting little better than a “what have you done for me lately” response from the other side.

Not least important, the use of U.S. military force in internal turmoil in the Islamic world has repeatedly fostered resentment and hatred and the sort of anti-American extremism that thrives amid such resentment. This results partly from the collateral casualties and damage that are an almost unavoidable consequence of the application of military force in such situations. It is also partly from the mere fact of the superpower exercising its power in this way. Not putting boots on the ground helps to lessen this response, but dropping bombs on the ground isn't really better.

Several political and military dynamics, including the desire to double down on a bet that hasn't yet paid off, may drive escalation of the latest U.S. military effort in the region. Taking a larger perspective, something similar has been happening regarding the whole multi-decade U.S. military encounter with the Middle East. There is a strong inclination to believe that whatever is the current chapter in that encounter will bring the sort of payoff that previous chapters did not. Don't bet on it.                              

TopicsUnited States ISIS RegionsMiddle East

Obama's Inconsistency on Hong Kong

The Buzz

In 2011 remarks before the Australian parliament, U.S. President Barack Obama laid out the three pillars of his so-called pivot to Asia: “security, prosperity, and dignity for all.” That third pillar should be taking on renewed importance in light of the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong.

During his speech, the president asserted American “support for the fundamental rights of every human being,” which include the freedom of the press, assembly, religion and “the freedom of citizens to choose their own leaders.”

This emphasis coincides with longstanding U.S. policy, including policy regarding Hong Kong as codified in law. According to the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, “support for democratization is a fundamental principle of United States foreign policy. As such, it naturally applies to United States policy toward Hong Kong.” Moreover, the law states, “the human rights of the people of Hong Kong are of great importance to the United States and are directly relevant to United States interests in Hong Kong.”

And yet, the administration’s clumsy reaction to the demonstrations thus far has done little to pursue the supposedly “fundamental principle” of democratization in Hong Kong. If anything, official statements to date may make a positive resolution less likely.

First came the U.S. Consulate’s September 29 press release on the demonstrations, which claimed support for “Hong Kong’s well-established traditions and Basic Law protections of internationally recognized fundamental freedoms” but announced that “we do not take sides in the discussion of Hong Kong’s political development.” The U.S. government’s first reaction to the peaceful protests: the status quo is just fine, thank you very much.

Worse, according to the consulate’s statement, “we encourage all sides to refrain from actions that would further escalate tensions, to exercise restraint, and to express views on the SAR’s political future in a peaceful manner.” The implied moral equivalency here—between the peaceful protesters; the Hong Kong authorities whose initial impulse was to use tear gas on teenage demonstrators; and the Chinese Communist Party, still going strong twenty-five years after the Tiananmen Square massacre—is astonishing.

The administration quickly modified its tone. According to White House press secretary Josh Earnest:

We’ve consistently made our position known to Beijing and we’ll continue to do so. We believe that the basic legitimacy of the Chief Executive in Hong Kong will be greatly enhanced if the Basic Law’s ultimate aim of selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage is fulfilled. We also believe that the legitimacy of the Chief Executive will be enhanced if the election provides the people of Hong Kong a genuine choice of candidates that are representative of the people’s and the voters’ will.

Although the show of support for the demonstrators’ aims is welcome, the statement is still problematic. The phrasing conveys that message of support to Beijing while also implying—probably unintentionally—that Washington views the unelected Chinese central government as illegitimate. At the same time, there is no suggestion here that the White House will take any action beyond cheerleading from the sidelines.

What is the ultimate effect of this construction? A Beijing convinced both of Washington’s hostility and of Washington’s impotence. Such is not an equation for Chinese restraint.

Admittedly, the United States may have little ability to force the outcome it presumably wants—true democracy in Hong Kong. It can, however, take steps to encourage compromise while deterring China from escalating its standoff with protesters and, perhaps a more likely scenario, from later rolling back Hong Kong’s freedoms should the demonstrations be resolved peacefully.

Yesterday, according to a White House readout of the meeting, the president told Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi that “the United States is following developments in Hong Kong closely.” But that seems unlikely to alter China’s calculus. To do so, a firmer stance will be necessary.

Going forward, President Obama should make clear that he is ready, should Hong Kong or Chinese authorities shift to a more coercive or forceful approach, to cancel his upcoming summit meeting with Xi Jinping, suspend military ties with the People’s Republic, halt negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty, consider retaliatory measures for Chinese abuse of its anti-monopoly laws and call for an international investigation of rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Finally, if China signals that none of those actions is likely to sway its approach to Hong Kong, President Obama should pull the ace he may not even realize is up his sleeve. Xi Jinping should know that in the wake of anything but a peaceful resolution to the standoff, the White House would issue an immediate invitation to Ma Ying-jeou, current president of Taiwan and symbol of Chinese society’s capacity for vibrant democracy. That would surely get Beijing’s attention.

Such bold action on the international stage, especially vis-à-vis other major powers, seems to be counter to the president’s nature. But if democracy’s advance in Asia is as important as he claims and if, as he implied in his Australia speech, security, prosperity and democracy are mutually reinforcing, then the success of Hong Kong’s “umbrella revolution” should be an American priority. The consolidation of liberal institutions in the former British colony would open the door—even if just a crack—to democratization in mainland China. By the president’s own logic, that is a strategic prize in Asia well worth pursuing.

TopicsDemocracyForeign Policy RegionsChinaUnited States

After Kim: Why the Mystery Surrounding North Korea is a Very Bad Thing

The Buzz

Fifty years ago, Washington insiders were preoccupied with speculation that Nikita Khrushchev was about to be ousted as leader of the Soviet Union.  Opaque to the outside world, the tall walls of the Kremlin denied America’s Sovietologists the ability to make firm predictions about when Khrushchev would go and exactly who would replace him.  Intelligence reports were clear, though, that something was afoot.  The LBJ administration was able to plan accordingly.  When Khrushchev was deposed, it came as little surprise.

Today, talk is rife that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un might be about to undergo the same fate as Khrushchev.  To be sure, experts downplay the likelihood that Kim has been or will be overthrown.   Yet the recent flurry of conjecture about North Korea’s future only highlights the extent to which outsiders do not know what takes place along Pyongyang’s corridors of power.  The level of uncertainty is far beyond even that which characterized U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War and makes it almost impossible for the United States, South Korea and others to develop judicious policies for handling the infamously volatile North Korean regime.

Most foreign news reports out of North Korea concur that Kim’s month-long absence from public view is the result of ill health, possibly gout or an obesity-related sickness.  Yet a significant number of dispatches add that there is at least the possibility that Kim has lost political power to a group of North Korean grandees known as the Organization and Guidance Department, a version of events lent some credibility by the testimony of prominent North Korean defector Jang Jin-sung.  It is even being reported that Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, has taken the reins.

The problem is that there is precious little reliable information about what is taking place inside North Korea—a level of uncertainty that breeds guesswork and thus the potential for anxiety and alarm.  By comparison, when the Johnson administration pondered what would happen after Khrushchev’s replacement, there was (perhaps surprisingly) little in the way of apprehension.  It was assumed that whoever replaced Khrushchev would do so according to some semblance of order.  Part of the reason for this ambivalence may well have been that Soviet insiders themselves viewed the impending power transition with resignation.  Khrushchev himself is said to have confided:

“I’m old and tired. Let them cope by themselves.  I’ve done the main thing.  Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn't suit us anymore and suggesting he retire?  Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing.  Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals.  That’s my contribution.  I won’t put up a fight.”

In the event, Khrushchev’s was proven right to be so cautiously optimistic about the manner in which he would be removed.  Although they acted in secrecy with neither sentimentality nor ceremony, Khrushchev’s detractors—Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin chief among them—were at least able to execute their plan with a minimum of disruption.  No blood was spilt.  Life carried on as normal on the streets of Moscow and across the country, and the Soviet Union’s international relations were left unaffected, at least in the immediate term.

Other authoritarian regimes have gone further in routinizing their methods of leadership turnover.  China, for example, changes its national cadre of leaders on a regular basis—currently every ten years—allowing the process to take place with predictability and with the perception of order and deliberateness.  The process apes the formality and stability provided by regularly scheduled elections in China’s democratic counterparts.  Neither the Chinese people nor outside observers need fear the transfer of power from one generation to the next: everybody knows how the process is supposed to work.

Such security and predictability is entirely lacking in North Korea.  The North Korean regime is a paradox: monolithic, unmoving and stubbornly persistant; yet fractured, unsettled and perilously fragile all at the same time.  In truth, it might be unlikely that Kim Jong-un is at risk of losing power.  But the more important and deeply unsettling point is that observers in the west simply cannot predict what will happen if the opposite turns out to be true.  And that is a very bad thing indeed.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurityPolitics RegionsNorth Korea

The Next Boko Haram Threat: Heavy Weapons?

The Buzz

The Nigerian military has announced that it captured from Boko Haram a “T-55 armored tank” and a “highly sophisticated” armored personnel carrier during a battle near the town of Konduga in Borno state.

This indicates that Boko Haram has tanks and armored personnel carriers and is growing in military strength.

There are unanswered questions. Sahara Reporters carries a picture of the captured tank which it identifies as a “T-55.” However, the picture is not of a T-55 tank. The T-55 is of Soviet manufacture first produced more than fifty years ago. The militaries of Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, Togo, and Nigeria all have T-55’s or a variant in their arsenals. Qaddafi’s Libya had many of them. If the tank was indeed a T-55, Libya would be a likely source. However, the “tank” in the photo appears to be a Panhard ERC-90 Sagaie, a wheeled armored fighting vehicle of French manufacture. Chad and Cote d’Voire each have a few of these vehicles, and, according to one commentator, the Nigerian military has forty-two of them. If that is accurate, then it is likely that the tank and the armored fighting vehicle were stolen from a Nigerian military armory and did not come from Libya.

Hard evidence as to where Boko Haram gets its weapons is scarce. But, a credible hypothesis is that most of its weapons are stolen from Nigerian military sources.

This piece first appeared in the CFR blog Africa in Transition here

TopicsBoko Haram RegionsNigeria

ISIS and the Politics of Surprise

Paul Pillar

The recent burst of recriminations about what the U.S. intelligence community did or did not tell the president of the United States in advance about the rise of the extremist group sometimes called ISIS, and about associated events in Iraq, is only a variation on some well-established tendencies in Washington discourse. The tendency that in recent years has, of course, become especially strongly entrenched is that of couching any issue in the way that is best designed to bash one's political opponents. For those determined to bash and frustrate Barack Obama at every turn, it is a tendency that trumps everything else. Thus we now have the curious circumstance of some of Mr. Obama's Republican critics, who in other contexts would be at least as quick as anyone else to come down on U.S. intelligence agencies (and most other parts of the federal bureaucracy) like a ton of bricks, saying that the president got good information but failed to act on it. (Some critics, however, have tried to lower their cognitive dissonance by saying that “everyone” could see what was coming with ISIS.)

Relationships between the intelligence community and presidential administrations over the past few decades have not fallen into any particular pattern distinguishable by party. One of the best relationships was with the administration of the elder George Bush—perhaps not surprisingly, given that president's prior experience as a Director of Central Intelligence under President Gerald Ford. Probably the worst was during the presidency of the younger George Bush, whose administration—in the course of selling the Iraq War—strove to discredit the intelligence community's judgments that contradicted the administration's assertions about an alliance between Iraq and al-Qaeda, pushed for public use of reporting about alleged weapons programs that the community did not consider credible, and ignored the community's judgments about the likely mess in Iraq that would follow the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime. Relations also have varied under Democratic presidents. Mr. Obama, given the evidently deliberate and methodical way he weighs input, including from the civilian and military bureaucracy, before major national security decisions, probably has been one of the better users of intelligence, at least in the sense of paying attention to it. His remark on 60 Minutes that led to the accusations about ISIS, however, did sound like gratuitous blame-shifting.

One very longstanding and bipartisan tendency that this recent imbroglio has diluted (because the political motive to attack Obama is even stronger than political motives to attack intelligence agencies) is to assume that any apparently insufficient U.S. reaction to an untoward development overseas must be due to policymakers not being sufficiently informed, and this must be because intelligence services failed. It is remarkable how, when anything disturbing goes bump in the night overseas, the label “intelligence failure” gets quickly and automatically applied by those who have no basis whatever for knowing what the intelligence community did or did not say—in classified, intra-governmental channels—to policymakers.

The current case does demonstrate in undiluted form, however, several other recurrent tendencies, one of which is to affix the label “surprise” to certain events not so much because of the state of knowledge or understanding of those who make national security policy but more because we, the public—and the press and chattering class—were surprised. Or to be even more accurate, this often happens because those of us outside government weren't paying much attention to the developments in question until something especially dramatic seized our attention, even though we actually had enough information about the possibilities that we should not have been surprised. Thus the dramatic gains by ISIS earlier this year have been labeled a “surprise” because a swift territorial advance and gruesome videotaped killings grabbed public attention.

Another tendency is to believe that if government is working properly, surprises shouldn't happen. This belief disregards how much that is relevant to foreign policy and national security is unknowable, no matter how brilliant either an intelligence service or a policymaker may be. This is partly because of other countries and entities keeping secrets but even more so because some future events are inherently unpredictable—given that they involve decisions that others have not yet made, or social processes too complex or psychological mechanisms too fickle to model. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was referring to this epistemological reality in the comment that he made recently about the Iraqi army's collapse and that the president erroneously characterized in his 60 Minutes interview. Clapper was not saying that the intelligence community messed up on this question; he instead was observing that this type of sudden loss of will in the heat of battle has always been unpredictable.

Yet another recurring tendency is to think that proper policy responses always flow from a good empirical understanding of the problem at hand, including the sort of information, analysis, and predictions that a well-functioning intelligence service might be expected to provide. In fact, proper responses often do not flow that way from an understanding of the problem. Often there are conflicting national interests at stake, there are serious costs and risks to possible responses, and the likely benefits of responses may not outweigh the likely costs. No matter how accurate a picture of ISIS the intelligence community may be providing to the president and his policy advisers, that picture is not likely to constitute a case for the United States to take more, rather than less, forceful action in Syria or Iraq. If President Obama is now taking more forceful measures in those places than he was earlier, it is neither because he is belatedly reacting to good intelligence nor because the intelligence community is belatedly getting its judgments right, but instead because he is responding to how the rest of us have decided that we are not just surprised but alarmed by ISIS.

Image: White House Flickr.                                                       

TopicsISIS RegionsMiddle East