The Anti-ISIS Campaign: Beware the Seeds of Escalation

Paul Pillar

The wisdom of any application of military force will involve much more than the goals initially laid out and the resources initially applied to achieve those goals. Those initial conditions are only a snapshot in time of what is inevitably a dynamic process. History has repeatedly shown that overseas military endeavors have a way of becoming something much different from what they began as. History also has repeatedly shown that the dominant type of change is escalation to something bigger and costlier than originally intended, sometimes even to the point of expanding to blunders of tragic proportions.

Several processes, working together or independently, drive the process of escalation. Some of these processes are, considered in isolation, logical and reasonable. Some of them are rooted in universal human nature; some are more characteristically American.

The “Win the War” Objective. A distinctively American (and non-Clausewitzian) way of approaching the use of military force is to believe that if something is worth fighting for, then we ought to realize that we are “at war” and ought to do whatever it takes to “win” the war. This mindset has had a huge influence through the years on discourse in the United States about using the military instrument in foreign affairs, including in more recent years with a so-called “war on terror”. The attitude severs the use of force from all other calculations about the costs and benefits of using it in particular ways and particular circumstances. There thus is no limit to potential escalation as the sometimes elusive “win” is pursued.

Standard Procedures and the Military's Operational Requirements. Military forces, for quite understandable reasons of operational security or effectiveness, insist that if they are called on to perform certain missions then they must be permitted to use certain minimal levels of forces, to put their troops in certain places, or to operate in certain other ways regardless of the political or diplomatic side-effects. Some of the classic and most consequential examples occurred at the onset of World War I, when mobilization schedules of armies helped to push statesmen into a much bigger armed confrontation than they wanted, and when German troops violated Belgian neutrality because that's what a military plan called for. More recent U.S. military history has had many more modest examples of military requirements driving escalation, such as ground forces being needed to provide security for air bases. In the interest of force security, a remarkably large amount of firepower has sometimes been used in support of quite small objectives (such as the deposition and capture of Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1989).

Hoping That Just a Little More Will Do It. If a given level of force does not accomplish the declared objective, then an understandable and quite reasonable next question is whether a bit more force will be sufficient to do the trick. It may be logically sound to decide that it is worth trying some more force. The calculation of the moment weighs the marginal costs of doing so against the marginal benefits. The marginal cost of a slight escalation may be low, with the benefit being the chance of a significant breakthrough. But a series of individual decisions like this, while they may be individually justifiable, can result in escalation to total costs that are far out of proportion to any possible benefit. The U.S. escalation of the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1968 is an example.

One Objective Leads to Another. The nature of some objectives is such that if they are to be achieved—or as a consequence of being achieved—some other objective needs to be pursued as well. Or even if it does not really need to be pursued, it comes into play naturally and is not easily dismissed amid the momentum and fog of war. This is the process that often is given the name mission creep. An example is how Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which began as an offensive to oust the Taliban, became a long-term nation-building effort.

Responding to the Adversary's Escalation. It take two to tango and to make war. The adversary has many of these same reasons to escalate a conflict against us, and perhaps other reasons as well. When he does, we are apt to counter-escalate, not only for emotional reasons of revenge but also perhaps for more justifiable reasons of deterrence. This is the chief type of escalation that was the subject of much strategic doctrine developed during the Cold War.

Domestic Political Vulnerability. Statesmen do not make their decisions about military force in a political vacuum. They have domestic political flanks to protect. Mitigating charges of weakness or wimpiness is an added, and possibly even the principal, motivation to escalate the use of force against what is widely perceived as a threat.

The emerging military campaign against ISIS will not become another World War I or Vietnam War, but all of the above factors are seeds of escalation of that campaign, possibly to levels well above what either the Obama administration or its more hawkish critics are talking about. Some of the factors are already quite evidently in play. The absolutist vocabulary about being at war and having to win the war is very prevalent. The president already has been pushed by the political and rhetorical forces this vocabulary represents toward greater use of military force than he otherwise would have preferred. The dynamic of each side in the armed conflict escalating in response to the other side's escalation also has already begun. A major stimulant for the American public's alarmist and militant attitude toward ISIS was the group's intentionally provocative videotaped killings—which the group described as retaliation for U.S. military strikes against it.

The military's operational requirements are also starting to come into play as a mechanism of escalation, as we hear military experts telling us how air and ground operations really are inseparable, and how effective air strikes depend on reliable spotters on the ground. There also will no doubt be decision points ahead about whether a little more use of force will do the job, as the United States pursues the impossible to accomplish declared objective of “destroying” ISIS. Finally, the potential for mission creep is substantial, with unanswered questions about what will follow in the countries in conflict even if ISIS could be “destroyed.” Perhaps the most glaring such question is in Syria, where, given the anathema toward dealing with the Assad regime, it remains unclear what would fill any vacuum left by a destroyed ISIS—and what the United States can, should, or will do about it. The much-discussed "moderate" forces are far from constituting a credible answer to that question

There is significant danger of the campaign against ISIS and the costs it incurs getting far, far out of proportion to any threat the group poses to U.S. interests.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsTerrorism RegionsMiddle East

Be Afraid: Why America Will Never Defeat ISIS

The Buzz

On the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, while commanding the 101st Airborne Division, then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus repeatedly asked Rick Atkinson the rhetorical question: “Tell me how this ends.” What began as a private joke between a military commander and an embedded journalist has become a warning for the need to define clear objectives and be cognizant of unexpected outcomes before going to war.  Last week, President Barack Obama attempted to provide clear strategic guidance for the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), declaring: “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL.”

I published a column in Foreign Policy recently that highlights two troubling elements about Obama’s declared end state.

First, other Obama administration officials have offered their own end states that confuse or contradict what the president stated just eight days ago. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough stated recently: “Success looks like an ISIL that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States. An ISIL that can’t accumulate followers, or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iran, Iraq, or otherwise.” Also, Secretary of State John Kerry declared before the the Senate Foreign Relations Committee something else: “The military action ends when we have ended the capacity of ISIL to engage in broad-based terrorist activity that threatens the state of Iraq, threatens the United States, threatens the region. That’s our goal.”  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee that “success” included “stability in the Middle East.”

Second, the United States—and any combination of partners or allies—will never “destroy” ISIS. The evidence supporting this assertion is simple: Both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama declared that the Taliban and al-Qaeda and its affiliates would be “defeated” and “destroyed.” Meanwhile, the size and lethality of these groups has increased almost everywhere that they exist. The reason that presidents make such absolutist and totally unachievable pronouncements says more about American political culture than providing realist military campaign objectives. As I wrote in my column, a courageous president would tell the American people the truth, which is:

“The United States will attempt to diminish the threat that [ISIL] poses to U.S. personnel in the region to the greatest extent possible based upon the political will and resources that the United States and countries in the region are willing to commit.”

That is a strategy of mitigating ISIS’ threats and containing its influence within Iraq and the surrounding region. Yet, while mitigation and containment will drive the U.S. counterterrorism strategy regarding ISIS as a reality, the Obama administration (and Congress and the media) will pretend that the strategic end state is to defeat and destroy them. So when you hear the White House promise to destroy ISIS, don’t believe them, but consider why it is politically mandatory that they make such an outrageous and impossible claim.

This article first appeared on CFR's blog channel: Power, Politics, and Preventive Action here

Image:  U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsISISSecurityPolitics RegionsMiddle East

The Decline of the Bretton Woods Institutions

The Buzz

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Bretton Woods institutions—the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO)/GATT—appeared invincible. Orchestrated by the United States as the sole superpower, they seemed set to durably underpin a universal economic order. But they are now in rapid and unmistakable decline, which can only be reversed by a major shift in approach by their political masters.    

As the Cold War receded, all three institutions felt a strong wind in their sails. Hundreds of millions of Chinese, Russian and Vietnamese workers became part of the global market economy. The Eastern Europeans became enthusiastic joiners of the European Union. China, Russia, and dozens of other countries embarked on comprehensive negotiations to become members of the WTO, not only adopting the totality of the rules that govern trade, but accepting even tougher disciplines than applied to existing members. Previously planned economies became active members and users of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, eagerly adopting the tenets of the Washington Consensus. Meanwhile, economic growth in the developing world surged, democracy spread, and international conflicts declined in frequency and intensity.

But, as we now know, this trajectory was not to last. The outward appearance of a powerful apparatus remains, but the Bretton Woods institutions are now in trouble, hampered by profound disagreements among the large powers over ownership structure and/or their direction, and seemingly paralyzed by their incapacity to adapt to the rapidly changing world around them.

Dysfunction is evident for each of the Bretton Woods institutions.

Frustrated by the Doha deadlock, the United States and its allies have launched mega-regional negotiations that in effect promote alternatives to the WTO as rule-maker in addition to bypassing China, India and other large developing economies. India has just returned the favor by torpedoing the Bali trade-facilitation negotiations. China is stalling on a new Information Technology agreement and promoting its own version of Asian mega-regionals. The United States is, in turn, opposing China’s efforts to join the negotiations on International Services, which are being conducted outside the WTO.

The IMF still plays a role in acute crisis situations, but—despite its attempts to adopt a less rigid stance on issues ranging from fiscal adjustment, inflation targets, to capital controls—it remains profoundly distrusted by many developing countries. Still viewed as an instrument of the finance ministries and central banks of rich countries, the IMF suffers from near-pariah status in Asia where the memories of draconian austerity policies it imposed during the crisis of the late 1990s linger, prompting various initiatives to establish alternative crisis rescue facilities, and inviting increased self-reliance through large-scale, foreign-exchange reserve accumulation. Attempts to reform its ownership have failed, scotched by the U.S. Congress.

Meanwhile, the World Bank’s development lending has shriveled to insignificance in comparison not only to private financial flows, but also to national sources of aid and development finance. The so-called BRICS bank (founded by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is meant to compete with the World Bank and overcome some of its shortcomings.

Completing this unsettling picture, the G20, which has officially replaced the G7 as the premier economic forum, has achieved little since the financial panic of 2009 abated. Many observers now view it as little more than an oversized talking shop.

The change of fortune for the Bretton Woods institutions is not difficult to explain. It is in no small part a result of its own success in invigorating growth, trade and foreign investment across the developing world. Most important, however, is the fact that the group of the world’s largest economies—those that can call the shots—is no longer formed by a small group of rich countries with similar worldviews. It now includes several countries with large populations, diverse political systems and different economic structures, whose only common trait is that they are relatively poor.

As examples: China (a mass manufacturer) and Russia (a commodity exporter) are now part of the world market, but they remain state-led autocracies. India, South Africa and Brazil retain some of the world’s highest trade barriers. While these rising powers rightfully insist on a larger role in global institutions, they also understandably place a higher priority on fighting their own pervasive poverty than solving the world’s problems.

At the same time, industrial countries continue to be plagued by economic crisis. They are seeing internal divisions deepen and budgets tighten. The United States’ ill-fated and enormously costly foray into Afghanistan and Iraq has made the American public even more skeptical of foreign entanglements than it naturally might be. Large factions in the U.S. Congress favor a smaller role of government at home and see even less of a need for investing in international institutions.

So while in theory the need for the Bretton Woods institutions to support the globalization of markets is greater than it has ever been, in practice the deals needed to retain their vitality have been difficult to strike.

The United States (the richest economy in the world) and China (the second richest economy in the world) are now respectively the largest and second largest trading nations. They have the greatest interest in open and predictable international markets and the greatest influence among their peer groups. Yet, while they talk of partnership, the undercurrent of rivalry is evident in their actions, and even more so, in the dearth of any joint initiative to tackle the major issues they confront in common.         

It would be misleading and alarmist to suggest that the decline of Bretton Woods constitutes an immediate threat to open trade, globalization or the extraordinary development progress we have seen in recent years. These advances certainly depend in part on international institutions, but, at their core, they are driven by fundamental forces—most notably technology and countries’ desire to better the lot of their people by engaging in international trade and investment. After all, economic progress and globalization held sway long before the Bretton Woods institutions were established.

However, it would be equally wrong to underplay the long-term risks that lurk behind the widening shortfall in international economic governance. The global economy needs better rules to keep trade open and predictable, more effective regulation of large international banks, stronger rescue mechanisms at times of crisis, and development paradigms that do not devastate the environment or trample on workplace safety standards.

More ominously, as we have seen at the border of Ukraine and in the East China Sea, geopolitical and security concerns can feed into economic disputes (and vice versa) contributing to a dangerous escalation.

The Bretton Woods institutions are not dead—far from it. The major powers may still find a way to reform and allow them to adjust to the world’s new distribution of economic power. What we know for sure: until they do adjust, vital reforms will be delayed and international investors and exporters can expect to face a riskier environment than in the past; and they will never regain their vitality without the active support and sustained collaboration of China and the United States.

Uri Dadush is a senior associate in Carnegie’s International Economics Program.

TopicsGlobal GovernanceWorld BankIMFWTO RegionsUnited StatesEuropeChina

Good Regional Vibrations from a Nuclear Deal with Iran

Paul Pillar

The negotiations between Iran and the consortium known as the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) about the future of Iran's nuclear program are inching back into the news after being largely obscured by other diplomatic tasks and events over the past couple of months. The two sides will be fully engaged in the talks during the remainder of this month, in anticipation of a late-November target date for completing a deal. We are hearing again technical and numerical details about centrifuges and capacity for enriching uranium that represent much of what evidently needs to be resolved for a final agreement. But the significance of an agreement, and thus what is at stake in whether or not one is reached, go far beyond the nuclear minutiae. They extend to the capacity of the United States to address fully and effectively many problems in the Middle East and South Asia.

This week The Iran Project, a group led by former U.S. ambassadors and dedicated to supporting U.S. interests through diplomacy on matters that involve Iran, released a report on likely regional implications of a nuclear deal with Iran. (I am involved with The Iran Project and participated in preparation of the report.) The report has some thirty signatories and endorsers, including former national security advisers and other former senior officials. A premise of the report is that a successful nuclear agreement, by resolving the issue that has so heavily dominated for years the U.S.-Iranian relationship in particular, is likely to have other repercussions in the Middle East. This is partly because it would open up opportunities in the U.S.-Iranian relationship itself to address other problems of mutual concern. It is also because, given the importance of the United States to many states in the region, there are apt to be secondary effects involving the relations of those states with Iran.

In anticipating any such regional changes, it is important to distinguish actual interests and likely post-agreement behavior from what regimes may say disingenuously for effect today. This is most obviously the case with Israel, where smart people concerned about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon realize that the object of their concern is much less likely to materialize with an agreement than without one, but where the right-wing government is doing everything it can to kill a deal in order to keep Iran in the international doghouse, suppress it as a competitor for regional influence and U.S. attention, and retain it as an all-purpose bogeyman to distract attention from things the Israeli government would rather not talk about.

To a lesser degree there is some of the same divergence with the Gulf Arabs and especially Saudi Arabia, whose preferences regarding Iran have long been subject to misinterpretation. Certainly the Saudis have long seen Iran as a competitor for economic and political influence, going back to the days of the shah. But the Saudis also have their own history of rapprochement with Iran, including with the Islamic Republic. The two big Persian Gulf states, along with the smaller Gulf Arab monarchies, share an interest in not letting instability in their neighborhood spin out of control and threaten, among other things, the oil trade. Over the last several months the Gulf Arabs, probably stimulated by the prospect of better U.S.-Iranian relations, have once again moved toward their own rapprochement with Tehran, as reflected in some high-level visits.

Iran's own perspectives toward the region have evolved significantly since the first few years after the revolution. In those early days of the Islamic Republic, there was a view that the revolution would not survive if it did not spawn like-minded upheaval in nearby countries. Three and a half decades later, Iranian leaders know that is not the case. There still is an Iranian sense—more ostentatiously apparent under the shah—of Iran as a nation with a glorious history and rightfully exercising a regional leadership role. But right now the main Iranian goal is to get out of the doghouse and enjoy full and normal relations with the rest of the region. That means all of the region, not just a Shia crescent. As Iranians know, there are more Sunnis that Shiites.

Some of the irreconcilable hardline American opponents of an agreement have been putting a few more of their cards on the table in the last few months and in effect admitting that what they don't want is not just a “bad” deal but any deal at all with Iran. Sign an agreement with Tehran and start lifting sanctions, they say, and Iran will exert more influence in the region—as if that were ipso facto bad. But whether it really would be bad, good, or neutral depends on what that influence would be used for, and how the Iranian objectives relate to U.S. interests.

In fact there are conspicuous parallel interests that the United States and Iran share in the region, and they have just gotten more conspicuous and parallel with the surge of alarm about ISIS. The parallel interests are most apparent in the countries immediately adjacent to Iran, to its east and its west. To the east is Afghanistan, where after 9/11 and the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, U.S. and Iranian officials worked very effectively together in forging a new and moderate Afghan political order under Hamid Karzai—until the George W. Bush administration slammed the door in the Iranians' face by declaring them to be part of an axis of evil. The United States and Iran continue to share interests in a stable Afghanistan in which extremists such as the Taliban do not rule, religious and ethnic minorities have their rights respected and share in political power, violence is not exported, and the drug trade is curtailed.

To the west in Iraq, the principal Iranian objective is never again to see a regime that would, as did Saddam Hussein in 1980, launch a war of aggression. The Iranians do not want endless instability on their western border. They want Iraqi Shiites to have power commensurate with their majority numbers, while they realize—as indicated by their welcoming the departure of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki—that narrowly sectarian or authoritarian rule does not serve either Iraqi stability or their own interests. They definitely oppose the rise of Sunni fanatics such as those of ISIS, as indicated by the very active support that Iran is giving to the Iraqi government in opposing ISIS. All of these objectives are consistent with and even supportive of U.S. interests. And on the last topic, they are directly supportive of what has come to be seen in the United States as a pressing policy priority.

The potential for—and the need for—greater coordination and communication between the United States and Iran should be obvious, and a nuclear agreement would open the door to more such coordination and communication. Evidently it is not obvious, however, to some of the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who questioned Secretary of State Kerry this week and wanted to make darned sure that the United States was not coordinating with Iran about confronting ISIS. Evidently some members, however much they may be fired up about anti-ISIS measures, believe that uncoordinated measures are better than the coordinated variety. Iran is more evil than ISIS, explained one member. Such attitudes are directly detrimental to the pursuit of important U.S. interests in the Middle East.

If the negotiators succeed in reaching a deal, by all means let us evaluate it according to the specific declared purpose of making an Iranian nuclear weapon less likely, and let us discuss whether the agreement does a better job of that than the absence of an agreement would. But let us also weigh an agreement versus no agreement according to all the other U.S. interests in the region that might be affected. Movement toward a more normal U.S.-Iranian relationship would be a step toward making possible the practice of U.S. regional diplomacy without having one hand tied behind our back—tied by ourselves because we have subordinated so much else to the nuclear obsession.                        

Image: U.S. State Department Flickr. 

TopicsIran Iraq terrorism RegionsMiddle East

The Federal Reserve Will Never Be Dull Again

The Buzz

Much is being made of the Federal Reserve beginning to normalize its policy. It sounds as though the Federal Reserve is getting back to its old, boring self. While labor market progress is debatable with too many part-timers and a low participation rate and inflation remains subdued, the Fed is set to cease its quantitative easing (QE) stimulus program. The federal funds rate or “fed funds”, the primary tool of monetary policy, is set to re-emerge as the favored instrument.  The Fed will wind down QE in October, and begin to raise interest rates sometime thereafter. The theory being that the US economy can support normalized policy without stumbling—at least too much. It seems the Fed will once again become the dull and subtle institution.

But this is simply not the case. Monetary policy is not going to be “normal”—and the Fed is not going to be boring, dull or subtle—anytime soon. At nearly 0 percent, the fed funds rate must move much higher to reach pre-recession levels. From January 1993 (the trough in fed funds after the 1990 recession) through the end of 2007 (before the Fed dropped it to nearly 0), the monthly average was about 4.4%. This would be no small move from current levels. The Fed itself sees rates of around 4 percent in the longer run, but does not agree on how quickly to move towards it. The Fed is also up against the downward trend in the fed funds rate since the late 70’s, early 80’s inflation was broken—each business cycle saw increasingly lower Fed Funds to combat an economic slowdown, and lower peak rates to cool an expansion.

Aside from the time it will take to move Fed Funds back to a more normal level, the side-effects of quantitative easing will take time to work out. The Fed’s balance sheet is currently sitting at about $4.4 trillion as QE led to the rapid accumulation of assets. The Fed should stop adding to its stockpile soon, but that does not imply that it will stop its purchases.

Much attention has been paid to how quickly the Fed purchased additional assets, but little given to the “rolling of maturities”. The Fed is currently maintaining the size of its balance sheet by purchasing new securities with the proceeds of those that mature. This keeps the balance sheet the same size, but does not increase it. A critical part of Fed guidance will be how quickly—if at all—they shrink the balance sheet. There are options. The Fed could stop rolling entirely, roll a portion, maintain the current policy and allow the balance sheet to stay large, and tweaking around the amount of mortgage-backed securities and treasuries among other options. The Fed has stated it intends to reduce the balance sheet to only what is necessary to operate, will hold mostly treasuries, and will let them roll-off, but has not provided guidance on when or how rapidly. The key here is that the Fed will be purchasing securities after it “ends” its QE program—just not growing the balance sheet.

It is worth asking whether Fed policy will ever approach something equivalent to a historical norm. For the moment, the answer appears to be no—at least for a very, very long time. Even if the Fed is able to raise fed funds moderately over the next couple years, it is unlikely it will be able to move them higher quickly enough to get them “off the ground” in any real way. There is also the question of how effective monetary policy can be in this type of environment. If there is a shock to the economy in 2016 and the Fed Funds rate is sitting at 1.5%, how will the Fed react? With little room to move rates lower, the Fed would likely resort to QE or halt shrinking the balance sheet (or both). Unconventional monetary policy is becoming much more conventional.

The Fed is nearing the conclusion of its latest round of QE, but this does not mark the end of an era. The balance sheet will remain inflated for a long time—even if an effort is made to reduce it. The balance sheet will become a more important  tool of monetary policy (shrinking the balance sheet is a form of relative tightening). QE will likely be used in the future to stimulate the economy as moving the fed funds rate has less of an effect. A once simple to understand institution—moving interest rates up or down—has become an increasingly difficult one to understand. Monetary policy may someday return to the simplicity of old, but normal will not return anytime soon.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsUnited States