Tag Archives: US foreign policy

No Endgame in Sight

endgameAs we sift through the information about the latest terrorist attacks in Brussels, the immediate responses are fairly predictable. Leaders in Europe will condemn the attack, as will most mainstream Muslim leaders around the world. Far-right parties in Europe will say, “I told you so”. Donald Trump will renew his call for a ban on Muslims coming into the US and for torturing terror suspects. None of this is new or particularly interesting.

There will also be predictable calls for stepped-up security, debates over appropriate levels of surveillance, and the usual tactical discussions that take place in the wake of these events. Government intelligence agencies will review what happened to see where (or if) they failed to “connect the dots”, and everyone will vow to do better next time. There will be some renewed attention to Syria and discussion about whether that war, the Daesh phenomenon, or the refugee flows coming into Europe have contributed to the latest string of terrorist attacks.

What I don’t see from anybody, right or left, Democrat or Republican, European or American, is an endgame. No one has to my knowledge yet articulated a strategy on how to achieve a future in which these kinds of attacks no longer happen. Continue reading

US Defense Spending: There Used to Be a Debate

Yesterday I posted a brief discussion about conservatives (or the lack thereof) in academia, in response to a Facebook conversation I had gotten into with some friends. Nothing earth-shatteringly insightful, just some noodling with ideas on an old question (and an opportunity to plug the much better work of some friends of mine).

That blog post led to another FB exchange, which I reproduce here:

[Name Removed] As usual I enjoy reading your blog and admire your knowledge and reasoning skills. But I would contend that there is something inherently ideological in, for example, designing military hardware, bombs, or the circuitry that can operate a drone or deliver an intercontinental missile with a warhead attached, as opposed to designing an artificial limb or artificial womb for premature babies or a convection oven. Funding decisions get made and engineers decide to put themselves in the way of specific types of funding that come from a particular ideological position about the value of, for example, random strangers’ lives in comparison to personal or national objectives. We don’t tend to see these things as ideological because we have so deeply absorbed a belief system that says, of course the state can only enforce its will through violence. Physicists can imagine a death ray, engineers build it, business people figure out how to make a profit from it; but it takes the liberal arts to say, “Gee, is building a death ray a good idea?”

[Me] You make an excellent point. It takes a humanities perspective to see the fundamental ideological assumptions that underlie many of our systems, structures, and activities. At this point, there is little disagreement between “liberals” and “conservatives” about the military or militarization, which is a sad indication of how far our ideological goalposts have moved. Of course, that may be partly due to living next to a really big Air Force base…

There’s a broader political observation here that has gone almost totally unremarked upon. I don’t think this is just the result of living next to a massive AF base, in an area whose regional economy is substantially tied to defense spending. I think this is a national phenomenon.
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Russia and Syria: Let’s You and Them Fight

My friend and fellow blogger Brandon Valeriano is a much better security studies scholar than I am. He’s written a great piece today about Russia’s involvement in Syria, and in particular how unimpressive that involvement is so far relative to the breathless hyperbole appearing in the American press.

Some of this, of course, is press coverage in the context of an American presidential race. Republican candidates, none of whom have any credentials on foreign policy, are swift to criticize the Obama administration for making the US “look weak” and for “capitulating” to Russia. The narrative of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war plays into that fable well, and helps win votes from tribal Republicans. It has no bearing on reality, but neither does most of the rest of the campaign. For those of us interested in the world as it is, we can safely ignore the three-ring circus and look instead to what we already know about international conflict and what that might tell us about the US-Russia strategic balance. Continue reading

My Enemy, My Friend? Why the Islamic State May Be the Best Thing to Happen to Iraqi Kurdistan

Watching the sudden and (to Western eyes) unexpected unfolding of the Islamic State and its territorial gains in Iraq has been fascinating. The dynamics have been heretofore unpredictable – a few weeks ago a conflict scholar asked on a social media forum whether ISIS (as it was then known) would bother with the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan or concentrate on Baghdad. The consensus at the time was that the Kurdish peshmerga, battle-hardened from years of war, were probably too much for this new upstart force and that the Islamists didn’t really want to rule the Kurds anyway.

Turns out we were wrong. While the Islamic state has been pushing south towards Baghdad, it is also pushing east towards Erbil and Kirkuk, the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan. And along the way it’s been doing pretty well, by press accounts, in battling what had been Iraq’s most organized and formidable military force. The popular explanation for this, which may be true, is the imbalance of heavy weaponry (tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery) between the Islamic State forces (which have taken significant quantities of these weapons from the dissolving Iraqi military) and the Kurds (which have few if any heavy weapons). This looks bad right now for the Kurds – but it this crisis may contain the seeds of their greatest victory.

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Maybe Iraq Really Is Vietnam?

When George W. Bush was pushing the Iraq war, the concern from some of the left was: is this another Vietnam? By “another Vietnam”, most Americans mean “a really long war with lots of US casualties that in the end we lose”. And there was fear in 2003 and 2004 that Iraq would end up that way.

The Bush administration pushed back with absurd assertions that we’d be done in 6 months and “Mission Accomplished” photo ops. Obama finally fixed the problem by pulling US troops out of Iraq a couple of years ago, at which point the “ghost of Vietnam” went away. But there is another aspect of the Vietnam debacle that I think does apply to the Iraq mess. Continue reading

Deterrence & the Inigo Montoya Problem: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Inigo Montoya MemeInigo Montoya famously said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Journalists seem especially prone to the Inigo Montoya problem, especially when it comes to basic ideas in international relations.

David Sanger had an article in yesterday’s Sunday NYT op-ed section titled “Deterrence Revisited“. In it he argues (borrowing from a White House official) that President Obama is trying to find “a middle ground between the isolation strain that has emerged and the overextension of the past decade”. This has become a common, well-worn trope: present two “extreme” points of view (“isolationism” poorly-defined on the one hand and whatever it was that George W. did on the other) and then present something vaguely in the middle as the “reasonable” center. Nixon’s aphorism that we’re all Keynesians may or may not be true, but we sure are all Hegelians. Continue reading