I have been abroad for the past five weeks and just got back two nights ago. I have currently worked my way through two weeks of emails and have another three to go, so if you have tried to get in touch over the past month, have some patience with me. I was working a bit while I was abroad, as anyone who watched me in debates on France24 knows, and I want to provide some links to my columns for World Politics Review so that you can reach beyond the paywall. (Now having said that, I encourage you all to actually buy a subscription to WPR. It's not terribly expensive, and -- my column aside -- the content is both fresh and informed.)
1 August 2012: "Fallout from Libya Precedent Felt in Syria Debate"
25 July 2012: "State, USAID Must Learn From Afghanistan Errors"
18 July 2012: "U.S.-Israel Military Ties Face Long-Term Strains"
4 July 2012: "No Crisis in Wartime U.S. Civil-Military Relations"
27 June 2012: "America's Dysfunctional Decade in Afghanistan"
Earlier today Shadi Hamid set off something of a minor conflagration on Twitter by asking why, in the face of clearly horrific and mounting violence in Syria, should think-tank civilians advocating intervention be expected to come up with detailed military plans for an intervention?
Speaking as a
civilian writing on a think-tank affiliated blog, this struck me as a very
distressing position. If one is going to advocate for a military intervention -
of any kind - serious analysis of a military plan is absolutely vital, and
think-tanks - unlike, say, service members or policymakers, have a unique
position to publicly weigh in on such debates with candor. Let me be blunt: if an
analyst or the think-tank she or he represents cannot offer a plausible
military strategy for an advocated intervention, then it is difficult to treat
that advocacy with weight or authority.
It is a cliché to note that war is too important to be left to the generals because it's also absolutely true - and it would also be unfair to single out Hamid or the issue of Syria. Similar arguments have been trotted out by commentators, analysts and public figures on a variety of military issues, although more often as excuses to defer responsibility to military staffs for decision-making, or arguments to wrest away decision-making from policymakers with undesired views. As Adam has noted, basic victory definition is inseparable from policy prerogatives. Think-tanks, like other public institutions and figures engaging in policy debates, have a role in offering informed advice, even on matters might not be the professional domain of civilians, that can help shape those prerogatives. If an organization advocating intervention lacks access to civilians, veterans or military fellows with sufficient expertise such that it cannot confidently and cogently substantiate its case for military intervention, that's a problem for the organization to rectify, not for the audience to accept.
Nobody is expecting a think-tank to elaborate a full OPLAN – although there are some which probably could. But an ends, ways and means analysis subjected to the scrutiny of those with defense experience and expertise is all too often lacking in our public discourse. At a point when “leaving it to the generals” has become a rhetorical stoplight to paper over strategic aimlessness in debates over Afghanistan, it is not simply a necessary component of argument but something of a civic responsibility to ensure that the public have a chance to assess the likely costs and outcomes of the use of force - something that the government, by virtue of political and operational concerns, will be reluctant or unable to do without restriction.
Hamid has argued it is unreasonable to demand this since analysts can’t predict what actors would be in play - but the beauty of an ends, ways and means analysis would be that it could formulate what was necessary to achieve objectives, and then determine what combinations of actors, resources, and techniques would be necessary to make the executions of those plans a reasonable choice. Obviously, analysts, which are not psychic, cannot be expected always either to predict the future or read the minds of those privy to militarily relevant information they lack. But they can offer plans that relate the ends, ways, and means of their course of actions, with their assumptions made explicit so that effective debate and critique can be offered - and they should respond to those critiques by examining what kind of resources or strategies would be necessary to address the risk that those assumptions might be false.
War is a grave matter, and discussing war on its own terms is hardly an unfair expectations of advocates who would wish the U.S. participate in it. Similarly, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has noted, advocates of non-intervention should be frank about the consequences of the status quo and the feasibility of alternatives. What is dangerous, however, is advocacy without substantive engagement in the subject matter of its aim - whether about Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, or anywhere else. Policymakers and publics alike need voices outside the military capable of assessing military subjects, at least so long as we live in a society that exercises civilian control over the armed forces.
During the American Civil War, the U.S. was lucky enough to be led by perhaps our finest self-taught strategist ever, Abraham Lincoln. If today, a coterie of officials were able to claim a monopoly on military knowledge and operational practice as McClellan attempted to, it would be difficult for the public and policymakers alike to effectively resist the charm of their authority and expertise. Not only, then, does military uninformed civilian debate make it more difficult for a policymaker to undertake militarily-reasonable operations, it can also create space for the military to resist civilian policies. Strategy (and even passing familiarity with operations) should not be cult knowledge kept by an anointed caste, they should be published in vulgate and nailed to doors. Not every policymaker, let alone every voter, can be Lincoln. Hawks and doves alike must endeavor to ensure that their policies and critiques have enough strategic fluency to be worthy of informing laymen and advising leaders.
Update: While I was pounding away at this, Jason Fritz wrote a far superior post. Check it out.
There has been much understandable worry about the civil war in Syria re-igniting dormant conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq. Despite the ongoing violence in northern Lebanon, I used my World Politics Review column yesterday to explain why spillover was likely but also why it would not take the form of civil war.
(As my article went online, Emile el-Hokayem published this excellent analysis on the drivers of conflict in northern Lebanon. Highly recommended.)
My column for World Politics Review this week is on the conflict in Syria. I first explore the concerns of the Obama Administration before discussing the difficulty we analysts face in trying to understand what is taking place on the ground. I conclude by referencing some of the literature on civil wars and insurgencies for clues as to what might happen. Read it here.
I am teaching a class today in how civil wars and insurgencies end. I am also, meanwhile, writing my column for World Politics Review this week on the conflict in Syria. The following articles, then, have been on my mind as I think about how the conflict there might end:
Know of any other good literature on the termination of civil wars and insurgencies? That's what the comments section is for.
"I think that Vogue is always on the lookout for good-looking first ladies because they're a combination of power and beauty and elegance. That's what Vogue is about. And here was this woman who had never given an interview, who was extremely thin and very well-dressed and therefore, qualified to be in Vogue." -- Joan Juliet Buck
I have been busy teaching and writing of late, and the blog has been neglected. But when I have written on the blog, it has usually been to ask that we get serious about thinking through the feasibility of military options for Syria before we either argue for U.S. military intervention or abstain from direct involvement in the conflict. I have been proud, then, to have worked a little bit with Marc Lynch as he wrote this most recent policy paper for the Center for a New American Security (.pdf). Marc has done great work, and it's been rewarding to watch him think through the various options available to policy makers. Those screaming for military intervention should pay especially close attention to pp. 3-7.
As some of you may know, I have been shocked by the ease with which some in U.S. policy circles have begun to consider armed intervention in Syria. Many of these same people supported the military intervention in Libya, though few of them seem to have any intellectual interest in dealing with the awful mess that remains -- perhaps proving that when it comes to post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction, most liberal interventionists are no better than most neoconservatives.
Since most analysts seem to have quickly realized that the establishment of safe havens or no-fly zones would be very difficult if not also quixotic, the new big idea is to arm the Free Syrian Army, which may or may not even be an actual thing. John McCain thinks this is a good idea, as does Elliott Abrams. Even Dan Drezner, who is usually a careful thinker about such things, is on the bandwagon.
My colleague Marc Lynch has a long post explaining why no, this is probably not a very good idea.
My question for those who support arming Syrian guerrilla groups was prompted by something Drezner wrote:
What’s going on inside of Syria is a civil war, and the government is clearly receiving ample support from both Russia and Iran. Arming the opposition at least evens the odds on the battlefield.
Really? Did Drezner or anyone else consult an actual order of battle before talking about "evening the odds?" According to the 2011 Military Balance, Syria has:
Now, for the sake of argument, let's say Syria can only field half of the above equipment and personnel due to maintenance issues and defections or whatever. We're still talking about a ridiculous amount of advanced weaponry. What arms, then, are we talking about giving these guerrilla groups? Nukes?
The balance in Libya was only tipped when NATO warplanes began "enforcing the no-fly zone" by destroying Libyan tanks and armored personnel carriers. (I know those things don't actually fly, but the only way you can be really sure they won't grow wings is by dropping a GBU-31 on top of them.) If a scheme to train and equip the Syrians is not matched with a similar effort to degrade the capabilities of the Syrian army, I fail to see how arming the rebel groups will even any odds.
That doesn't mean the rebels don't stand a chance -- they can always carry out a guerrlla campaign using raids, ambushes and IEDs. But it does mean that schemes to train and equip the rebel groups will be more about doing something that makes us feel better about ourselves rather than an act that seriously changes the game in Syria.
I could always be wrong, of course. I am not an expert on the disposition and composition of the Syrian army and have no insight into how it is holding up through this campaign. But a quick glance at the strength of the forces doesn't make me optimistic about either the rebel groups or any western attempts to arm them.
Steven Cook, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Shadi Hamid and Dan Byman -- smart analysts whose work I always read and admire -- have all now argued we need to consider military intervention in Syria. The problem is, for me at least, "military intervention" at once means everything and nothing. On the one hand, the decision to use force to achieve a desired political end is momentous in and of itself. On the other hand, though, I cannot determine whether or not "military intervention" is a good or bad idea until I have some idea of what, precisely, is meant by the term. Analysts who argue either for or against military intervention have an obligation to sketch out the ways in which one could possibly intervene so that we can determine which ways, if any, make sense given the circumstances.
A broader problem here, as I was discussing with both Adam Elkus and Robert Caruso, is that regional specialists rarely understand military capabilities and options well enough to make an argument for or against, and those who understand military capabilities and options rarely understand the regional dynamics well enough to make an argument for or against. It is important, in that context, for scholars to work collaboratively to complement areas of expertise.
Along these lines, Marc Lynch is working on an analysis piece for CNAS that I hope will go some way toward addressing specific ways in which the United States could intervene militarily in Syria to better determine which options, if any, are worth attempting. This kind of analysis takes time but is, I think, ultimately the more responsible way to go about making these arguments.
Each year, around this time in the (lunar) calendar, Western newspapers are usually filled with stories about the latest exciting Ramadan soap opera everyone is watching. Nothing happens during Ramadan, the story goes, so most reporting on the Arabic-speaking world is of the human interest variety.
It's worth pausing to consider, then, how remarkable this year has been and continues to be. I woke up this morning to images of Hosni Mubarak in a cage, on trial in Egypt. This is a stunning image for me to see, so I can only imagine the effect it has on 83m Egyptians and about 250m other people in the region.
Elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world, meanwhile, violent civil wars and upheavals continue to press for the fall of the Qadhdhafi regime in Libya, the al-Asad regime in Syria, and the Saleh regime in Yemen. If I had to place my bets, I would bet all will ultimately and bloodily be successful.
Remarkable. Ramadan mubarak indeed.