Our Thermian elites

In the 1999 sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest, Tim Allen stars as Jason Nesmith, a washed-up egotistical actor from a long-defunct television series in the vein of Star Trek. The show was cancelled 18 years ago, so Nesmith and his fellow co-stars make a living doing skits for advertisers using their old characters, going to fan conventions and signing autographs for $15 a piece.

Unbeknownst to them, broadcasts of Galaxy Quest reached the Thermians, an alien race locked in a genocidal struggle with the evil General Sarris. Interpreting the television show to be actual historical documents, the Thermians model their entire civilization after the heroic adventures of Commander Peter Taggart and his loyal crew. Eventually they travel to earth and recruit the unwitting Nesmith and his co-stars to lead them in battle against Sarris.

The Thermians are incomprehensibly naïve, leading to this exchange as the actors try to explain that they’re not really astronauts and can’t help them in their war with Sarris:

Life imitates farce.

In recent months I have been repeatedly reminded on the hapless Thermians by the comments of Western elites concerning the unraveling world order. No matter the issue – Russian aggression in eastern Europe, the Assad’s regime’s unwillingness to make peace with rebels, Iranian adventurism throughout the Middle East, China’s territorial ambitions, etc. – American and European policymakers seem completely unable to understand, let alone respond to, events. Comments in press conferences and media interviews haven acquired notes of despair. It is not simply that Western elites are disappointed by the failure of liberal internationalism and consensus-based foreign policy to secure peace; they seem bewildered…occasionally petulant. This indicates a deeper failing, as if more realist schools of thought are not even known to exist, and therefore no contingencies were made in accordance with their proscriptions. We are witnessing the complete intellectual failure of Western institutions, at least vis-à-vis foreign policy, akin to that which occurred in the years before World War II.

Edward Hallett Carr described those years in a way that could be seamlessly transposed to the present:

The statement that it is in the interest of the world as a whole that the conclusion eventually reached, whether maintenance or change, should be reached by peaceful means, would command general assent, but seems a rather meaningless platitude. The utopian assumption that there is a world interest in peace which is identifiable with the interest of each individual nation helped politicians and political writers everywhere to evade the unpalatable fact of a fundamental divergence of interests between nations desirous of maintaining the status quo and nations desirous of changing it. A peculiar combination of platitude and falseness thus became endemic in the pronouncements of statesmen about international affairs.

Listed below is a small sampling of illustrative quotes drawn from recent newspaper articles. I encounter similar comments with such frequency that this may become a recurring feature on the blog:

Worst possible city in which to host cease-fire talks.

Russian Intervention in Syrian War Has Sharply Reduced U.S. Options

MUNICH — For months now the United States has insisted there can be no military solution to the Syrian civil war, only a political accord between President Bashar al-Assad and the fractured, divided opposition groups that have been trying to topple him.

But after days of intense bombing that could soon put the critical city of Aleppo back into the hands of Mr. Assad’s forces, the Russians may be proving the United States wrong. There may be a military solution, one senior American official conceded Wednesday, “just not our solution,” but that of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Confusion Reigns Over Syria Cease-Fire Deal

“There’s this concern that the Russians have a broad definition of terrorists and are going to essentially continue striking what they consider to be terrorist targets,” said a senior U.S. official who took part in the Munich talks.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

Russia Plays Familiar Hand in Syria 

Western officials say they are losing patience with Mr. Putin, accusing Russia of in effect pushing more moderate Syrian opposition into the arms of the extremist Islamic State…the Kremlin’s pattern of obfuscation – for instance, sending troops in unmarked uniforms to occupy Crimea while maintaining deniability – have left many skeptical of the latest diplomacy.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Hospitals in Syria Bombed as Fighting Escalates

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the bombing of civilian targets “casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people.”

Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, also condemned the continued bombing. “We think it runs counter, frankly, to the commitment made in Munich on Friday,” she said.

Break out the big guns…

U.S. to have ‘very serious conversation’ with China over suspected South China Sea missile deployment

The United States is very concerned about China’s growing militarization of the South China Sea and intends to have a “very serious conversation” with Beijing after reports emerged that it had deployed suspected ­surface-to-air missile batteries on a disputed island, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday.

“There is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another,” Kerry told reporters when asked about the reported deployment, agencies reported. “It’s of serious concern.”

“We have had these conversations with the Chinese, and I am confident that over the next days we will have further very serious conversation on this,” Kerry said.

U.S.-Beijing Spat Escalates Over South China Sea

The Obama administration sharply criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday after charging that China’s military had deployed batteries of advanced missiles on a disputed South China Sea island.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the missile deployment was at odds with a pledge made by Mr. Xi while visiting the White House last year to refrain from militarizing clusters of disputed islands throughout the South China Sea.

“When President Xi was here in Washington, he stood in the Rose Garden with President Obama and said China will not militarize in the South China Sea,” Mr. Kerry said on Wednesday. “But there is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another. It’s of serious concern.”

China Positions Missiles on Disputed South China Sea Island

Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday that he didn’t have confirmation of the missile deployment but that if true “it could be an indication of militarization of the South China Sea in ways that the president of China, President Xi [Jinping], said he would not do.”

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Adventures in Futility: Syrian Edition

In a lengthy post several years ago, I argued that covert paramilitary action is not a viable policy instrument because of its inability to produce decisive outcomes on its own, the high likelihood of embarrassing failure and damage to U.S. prestige, and its propensity to be abused as a policy hedge in pursuit of hazy, ill-defined political objectives when officials feel that they must do something, but are unwilling to commit to a more robust course of action. Covert paramilitary action tends to become an objective in itself when policymakers are unable or unwilling to formulate actual strategy.

In the realm of foreign policy, where there are only bad choices, it has often been considered an ideal third option between inactive passivity and the overt use of military force. However, in the U.S. experience, covert paramilitary action has often resulted in spectacular failures that did not achieve their objectives, embarrassed the United States, undermined policy, and damaged prestige.

Last year, President Obama authorized U.S. intelligence agencies to supply light weapons and military training to small numbers of Syrian rebels. Not that there was any doubt to the contrary, but it is now clear that the operation in Syria is a victim of these same pathologies. A recent Wall Street Journal article details how the U.S. muddled itself into the present state of affairs, with a paramilitary operation woefully inadequate for countering Iranian resources that are bolstering Assad.

U.S. military officials, who sought to do more to help the rebels, saw the covert arming plan as flawed because they believed the effort was too small to make a difference. They argued that the cautious approach to arming such small numbers of rebels actually would handicap efforts to stand up a viable opposition.

The program, at the time, was meant to turn out between 50 and 100 new fighters a month. Overwhelmingly outgunned, they would be up against thousands of Hezbollah fighters in Syria, and thousands more trained and equipped by Iran and al Qaeda.

Within the CIA, many analysts, including Mr. Morell [then-acting Director], agreed the odds were bad, given the mismatch in commitments, officials said. Mr. Nasrallah [Hezbollah Secretary General] had gone all in; the same couldn’t be said of the Americans, these officials said.

In this sense, the current operation in Syria mirrors previous ones in Poland, Ukraine and Albania in the early Cold War, when the CIA supported small numbers of partisans against the Soviet Union despite the fact that such insignificant forces would be of no consequence to the targeted regimes. When called to justify the operations, U.S. officials would deny the existence of concrete military objectives and lapse into noncommittal language about the need to “apply pressure,” “coerce,” “demonstrate resolve,” etc. And so it is with Syria:

The objective wasn’t so much to help the rebels win as to assuage allies who thought the U.S. wasn’t engaged, administration officials privately acknowledge. Mr. Obama’s decision to authorize the program was meant to “relieve pressures and buy time,” one senior official said…

When deeply skeptical lawmakers pressed the administration on what their game plan was, Vice President Joe Biden intervened, arguing that the U.S. had to have “skin in the game” in order to have credibility, according to a former U.S. official. Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials argued that the training and arming effort, through limited, was needed because regional partners like Saudi Arabia were about to “walk away from us,” another official said.

What is it about the use of violence that inclines politicians to think of it as nothing more than a diplomatic signaling exercise? American policymakers have made the same mistake time and time again: using the blunt instrument of military force – both overt and covert – in pursuit of objectives well outside of its nature, in political and social environments beyond their understanding. In Syria, the consequences of failure are not as severe as they were for paramilitary operations during the Cold War, but U.S. prestige has been committed and rival powers are eager to profit from its devaluation:

After Mr. Obama’s decision not to strike in the chemical weapons attack, the U.S. learned that Russian, Iranian, and Chinese officials were discussing how weak the U.S. now looked on the international stage, said one former official briefed on the intelligence…

A longtime American diplomat in the region said that, for now, it looks like Messrs. Assad, Nasrallah and Soleimani have “won.”

The weaknesses of the Syrian program can be boiled down to the following major points:

1. Too small to be of military significance or an adequate demonstration of American resolve to support Assad’s removal.

2. Ill-defined political objectives that are mostly unrelated to the status of the Assad regime.

3. Vulnerable to subversion by Islamist elements, despite its small size and various efforts to guard against this.

According to the Wall Street Journal, administration officials are finally starting to realize that the project was ill-advised:

Some administration officials say, in retrospect, the White House could either have been more supportive of the opposition or more up front about its reluctance to get more involved. “We weren’t consciously bluffing,” a senior defense official said, “but we weren’t committing either.”

Indeed.

Stalemate in Syria

The lack of decision in Syria’s civil war, now entering its third year, can be explained by the failure of the various rebel groups to coalesce into more coherent military formations and develop beyond the low-level guerrilla tactics they have been using since the beginning of the uprising in 2011.

In Syria, unlike the other states that have experienced the turbulence of the so-called “Arab Spring,” the rebels are facing an entrenched regime based in a threatened minority population: the Alawites. Consequently, for the regime itself and the 2.6 million Alawites of Syria, holding onto power is an existential question; victory is survival and defeat is annihilation. These are primary interests not subject to mediation or compromise motivated by the gradual exhaustion of political will. In other words, the Assad regime will not lose the will to  fight. This leaves only one strategic path for the rebels: military victory. A tall order, but not one without precedent or doctrine. For guidance, they must look to the eternal form of war for the weak: guerrilla warfare. They are already practicing this at the tactical level, but their challenge is to produce strategic outcomes.

Continue reading

Revisionism versus Realpolitik: The Strategic Culture of Syria

The concept of strategic culture – which argues that culture can influence strategic behavior just as it can social behavior – remains somewhat controversial. On the one hand, idealists reject the notion that not all cultures share in the supposedly universal aspirations of humanity, while on the other hand, neorealists are often hostile to an alternative system of explanation that does not depend on rational calculations of the balance of power. (It is, however, very compatible with the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau)

In my opinion, neorealism is a much more flexible and inclusive paradigm than many of its critics (and proponents) give it credit for. Kenneth Waltz’s “third image” of international relations describes how the structure of the international system can itself be a cause of war and also permits wars that derive from non-systemic factors, such as megalomaniacal leaders or warlike governments; it is at these levels – the first and second “images” – that strategic culture can be a useful supplement to neorealism.

This post is based on a paper I wrote a couple years ago, which used the concept of strategic culture to identify the sources of Syrian foreign policy. I think it is a good – if amateurish – example of how the national security community tries to employ the concept, conducting extensive cultural analyses to identify key factors that influence the subject’s strategic thinking.

Syria is a difficult case study for students of strategic culture. Ever since the Assad regime rose to power in 1970, Syria’s international behavior has been largely consistent with that of a realist rational actor. However, strategic culture can help explain the origins of that behavior.

Continue reading