June 03, 2012

The Dynamics of Political Weapons

Drones and cyber weapons are not the same thing, as Tim Stevens notes. Yet they are both popularly perceived as political weapons---specialized capabilities employed at the discretion of the President. Executive control of deadly weapons, the meme goes, are part of a growing centralization of potent force that is inherently anti-democratic. Aside from the inconvenient parts of the narrative---drone attacks are politically popular and conducted under the auspices of an Authoritization of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress has declined to challenge because it reflects such public desires---there is reason to believe that political weapons will be less of a potent force than their critics imagine.

Covert operations--political warfare, propaganda, and military support to paramilitary groups--were the first modern political weapon. Contrary to the myth of out-of-control intelligence agencies, covert operations were mostly presidential projects. Presidents searched for flexibility in a Cold War whose alliance structures and nuclear dangers firmly challenged executive freedom of action. They also occured within a Cold War framework that generated broad public support for non-military measures to counter Soviet influence at home and abroad. The Marshall Plan, for example, was only one half the benign aid project as popularly remembered. It was nested within an overall plan for the defense of Europe that included strategic influence operations, covert operations, and the creation of paramilitary stay-behind networks.

Covert operations, however, did not deliver the Presidential flexibility intelligence agencies promised. In order for covert operations to be successful, infrastructure had to be developed and unruly local clients contracted. The classic example is the Bay of Pigs, as the United States generated a private army that could not be successfully utilized without direct American air support. Faced with a choice between sending them to fight an hopeless battle on the Cuban beaches or let them dissipate back into the US and reveal the covert preparations, the US let tactical matters determine policy. Sometimes covert operations paid dividends, but usually out of proportion to their costs.

Similarly, require host nation political agreements to deploy. They are weak against air defenses and require an intelligence, surveillence, and command and control human and technical infrastructure. As Dan has blogged, their weaknesses force them to be supplemented by manned aircraft, special operations forces, and missiles. Cyber computer network weapons like the Stuxnet attack require detailed development and highly specific kinds of target intelligence, and have yet to achieve a serious political objective. Merely by deploying Stuxnet, the United States has rendered itself unable to use it again. As Thomas Rid notes, the present generation of strategically useful cyber weapons are effectively single-shot tools.

Covert operations, drones, and cyber weapons are most successfully employed within the context of larger strategic efforts rather than standalone political weapons. But the process of creating a strategy for their use, paradoxically, reduces their utility as option-maximizers because it widens the span of institutional actors involved. The successful employment of information warfare tools against Iraqi air defenses in 1991 occured within the context of large-scale warfare. The covert defense of Europe was tied to the overall American containment and rollback policies in that theater. Finally, covert operations in Afghanistan were also, as any viewer of Charlie Wilson's War knows, hardly confined to secret White House deliberations.

Finally, Iran-Contra, the most significant case in which the executive tried to develop a political weapon that bypassed the legislature and the wider public, resulted in substantial scandal and blowback. Iran-Contra is not necessarily proof that the "system worked," but what it does demonstrate is how difficult it is in America for a President to carry out large-scale covert operations without legislative and public acceptance. Political weapons certainly give Presidents new capabilities, but also constrain them.