Friday, June 08, 2007

Military activism

By Carol Gee

The term "military activism" is not an oxymoron for people whose defining war was Vietnam. But it could be a contradiction in terms for many of us who have retired, because our defining war was World War II. We were growing up during the 1940's, the decade when most everyone had come to agreement that World War II was a "just" war. We were united; no one protested.

The meaning of the term, for me as I first use it in this post, is "anti-war or pro-war activism within the ranks of the active military or among veterans." From the Korean War on, some American people -- including some veterans -- became disenchanted with the government's stated justifications for going to war. Vietnam was the impetus for the emergence of the first really significant antiwar veteran activism. Senator John Kerry cut his teeth in such public service soon after he returned from his stint in the jungles and waterways of southeast Asia.

What is the current level of antiwar or pro-war military activism associated with the war in Iraq today? An article in my current Democratic Strategist linked to a fascinating story in the Washington Monthly that was the basis for yesterday's South by Southwest blog post. It's title is "How a Democrat Can Get My Vote: Advice from seven recent war veterans." It opens with these statistics:

Three years ago, in 2004, 60 percent of military voters polled by the Military Times identified themselves as Republican. Today, that number is down to 46 percent, or less than half. The reason for this change is obvious: Iraq has gone from bad to worse. Afghanistan, too, is in trouble.

The article ends with links to seven short and very interesting essays (see *list below) "from a group of military veterans of various ranks and political persuasions, each of whom wrote a short essay in response," as well as a link to, quoting further from the Monthly,

"The Bitter End," a reported piece by Washington Monthly national security correspondent Spencer Ackerman, who argues, based on what he has seen in Iraq and at home, that Democrats are right on the merits of withdrawal from Iraq but misguided on what message that will send to our troops there.

Exploring the term "military activism" further, I was surprised when it became apparent that the government can also be the activists. I found a fascinating article from 2002 entitled, "The 'New Warfare' and the New American Calculus of War," the Project on Defense Alternatives' Briefing Memo #26, written by Carl Conetta, 30 September 2002. Table of contents:

1. Introduction
2. The new calculus of war
3. The new warfare
4. The poverty of analysis: a splendid little war?
5. Precision attack, chaotic outcomes
6. The new warfare: disappearing "the civilian"?

"Rosy scenario-with cautions?" -- Quoting the author's introduction reveals what might have been the "prevailing wisdom" in military thinking at the beginning of the war in Iraq:

One legacy of the 20th century's great conflicts was the emergence of a general societal presumption against war: the simple idea that war should be an instrument of last and infrequent resort. Although this lesson came at a very high price, it has proved difficult to retain. Especially since the end of the cold war, the idea has been in retreat. A new cost-benefit calculus is at work in American policy discourse and practice -- one accepting a lowered threshold for the use of force as an instrument of US policy.

Important in shaping this development was the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of global superpower conflict. This geostrategic revolution elevated America's relative power position to one of distinct military primacy and it mitigated concerns about the possibility that regional intervention might escalate to the level of an all-consuming nuclear conflagration.

Also important in altering America's war calculus has been the putative "revolution in military affairs" (or "RMA") which is associated with developments in the field of information technology. RMA capabilities are supposed to give the United States the capacity to fight regional wars surgically and to conclude them rapidly with minimal casualties and collateral damage. Much as the geostrategic revolution served to relax concerns about war escalation, emergent RMA capabilities have served to mitigate the fear that regional intervention might lead to "quagmires" reminiscent of the Vietnam War.

…the cautions -- The author's closing two paragraphs are eerily prophetic:

The increasing role of special operations troops and covert operatives, and the increased dependence on indigenous ethnic militias, may also have the effect of blurring the military-civilian boundary. In addition, the use of ethnic militias or other local irregular troops as proxies raises issue of control and accountability. In the aftermath of the Afghan war, some elements of the Northern Alliance may have committed grave and systematic breeches of the Geneva Conventions, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross and several human rights organizations. At minimum, this could reflect badly on the United States and tarnish the moral authority of the war against terrorism.

The demise of the Soviet Union elevated America to a position of unparalleled global military superiority. Today the United States accounts for more than forty percent of world defense spending. In the shadow of the 11 September attacks, US military power may seem more relevant than ever. But America's preponderance of military power does not settle the question of how to employ this instrument or when. Nor does it tell us how best to balance this instrument with others in order to meet today's unique challenges. Although these questions are urgent ones, we cannot hope to answer them wisely without a better accounting of both the "new warfare" and the dynamics associated with military activism in the new era.

"Not so fast," says Russia. In the face of our current president's (OCP) weird missile defense proposal for/against(?) Russia, Vladimir Putin has been exercising a bit of military activism himself. The ContraCosta Times headlines the dilemma into which OCP has again gotten us, "Bush assuages, assails Putin on defense." To quote:

President Bush gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a double-edged message Tuesday, reassuring him that he has nothing to fear from a missile-defense system that he abhors, then slapping him verbally for backsliding on democratic reforms.

Bush's words threatened to inflame his already-tense relationship with Putin and to overshadow the Group of Eight Summit that opens today in Germany.

Bush said he intends to tell Putin when the two leaders meet Thursday at the G-8 summit that the U.S. plan to build a Europe-based missile-defense system poses no threat to Russia.

*The Seven Veterans' Essays:

-- One Soldier's Story: An Introduction - by Phillip Carter
-- Withdraw Decisively - by Ross Cohen
-- Stay and Fight - by Garth Stewart
-- Understand the War We're In - by Andrew Exum
-- Elect More Jim Webbs - by Clint Douglas
-- Bash the Generals - by Melissa Tryon
-- Ask Americans to Serve - by Nathaniel Fick

(Cross-posted from South by Southwest.)

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  • Here's a somewhat parallel view from STRATFOR:

    Geopolitics and the U.S. Spoiling Attack
    By George Friedman

    The United States has now spent four years fighting in Iraq. Those who planned the conflict never expected this outcome. Indeed, it could be argued that this outcome represents not only miscalculation but also a strategic defeat for the United States. The best that can be said about the war at the moment is that it is a strategic stalemate, which is an undesired outcome for the Americans. The worst that can be said is that the United States has failed to meet its strategic objectives and that failure represents defeat.

    In considering the situation, our attention is drawn to a strange paradox that has been manifest in American foreign policy since World War II. On the one hand, the United States has consistently encountered strategic stalemate or defeat in particular politico-military operations. At those times, the outcomes have appeared to be disappointing if not catastrophic. Yet, over the same period of time, U.S. global power, on the whole, has surged. In spite of stalemate and defeat during the Cold War, the United States was more in 2000 than it had been in 1950.

    Consider these examples from history:

    Korea: Having defeated the North Korean army, U.S. forces were attacked by China. The result was a y stalemate, followed by a partition that essentially restored the status quo ante -- thus imposing an extended stalemate.

    Cuba: After a pro-Soviet government was created well within the security cordon of the United States, Washington used overt and covert means to destroy the Castro regime. All attempts failed, and the Castro government remains in place nearly half a century later.

    Vietnam: the United States fought an extended war in Vietnam, designed to contain the expansion of Communism in Indochina. The United States failed to achieve its objectives -- despite massive infusions of force -- and North Vietnam established hegemony over the region.

    Iran: The U.S. containment policy required it to have a cordon of allies around the Soviet Union. Iran was a key link, blocking Soviet access to the Persian Gulf. The U.S. expulsion from Iran following the Islamic Revolution represented a major strategic reversal.

    Iraq: In this context, Iraq appears to represent another strategic reversal -- with U.S. ambitions at least blocked, and possibly defeated, after a major investment of effort and prestige.

    Look at it this way. On a pretty arbitrary scale -- between Korea (1950-53), Cuba (1960-63), Vietnam (1963-75), Iran (1979-1981) and Iraq (2003-present) -- the United States has spent about 27 of the last 55 years engaged in politico-military maneuvers that, at the very least, did not bring obvious success, and frequently brought disaster. Yet, in spite of these disasters, the long-term tendency of American power relative to the rest of the world has been favorable to the United States. This general paradox must be explained. And in the course of explanation, some understandings of the Iraq campaign, seen in a broader context, might emerge.

    Schools of Thought

    There are three general explanations for this paradox:

    1. U.S. power does not rest on these politico-military involvements but derives from other factors, such as economic power. Therefore, the fact that the United States has consistently failed in major conflicts is an argument that these conflicts should not have been fought -- that they were not relevant to the emergence of American power. The U.S. preoccupation with politico-military conflict has been an exercise in the irrelevant that has slowed, but has not derailed, expansion of American power. Applying this logic, it would be argued that the Soviet Union would have collapsed anyway under its own weight -- as will the Islamic world -- and that U.S. interventions are pointless.

    2. The United States has been extraordinarily fortunate that, despite its inability to use politico-military power effectively and its being drawn consistently into stalemate or defeat, exogenous forces have saved the United States from its own weakness. In the long run, this good fortune should not be viewed as strategy, but as disaster waiting to happen.

    3. The wars mentioned previously were never as significant as they appeared to be -- public sentiment and government rhetoric notwithstanding. These conflicts drew on only a small fraction of potential U.S. power, and they always were seen as peripheral to fundamental national interests. The more important dimension of U.S. foreign policy was statecraft that shifted the burden of potential warfare from the United States to its allies. So, regardless of these examples, the core strategic issue for the United States was its alliances and ententes with states like Germany and China. Applying this logic, it follows that the wars themselves were -- practically speaking -- insignificant episodes, that stalemate and defeat were trivial and that, except for the domestic political obsession, none were of fundamental importance to the United States.

    Put somewhat differently, there is the liberal view that the Soviet Union was not defeated by the United States in the Cold War, but that it collapsed itself, and the military conflicts of the Cold War were unnecessary. There is the conservative view that the United States won the Cold War in spite of a fundamental flaw in the American character -- an unwillingness to bear the burden of war -- and that this flaw ultimately will prove disastrous for the United States. Finally, there is the non-ideological, non-political view that the United States won the Cold War in spite of defeats and stalemates because these wars were never as important as either the liberals or conservatives made them out to be, however necessary they might have been seen to be at the time.

    If we apply these analyses to Iraq, three schools of thought emerge. The first says that the Iraq war is unnecessary and even harmful in the context of the U.S.-jihadist confrontation -- and that, regardless of outcome, it should not be fought. The second says that the war is essential -- and that, while defeat or stalemate in this conflict perhaps would not be catastrophic to the United States, there is a possibility that it would be catastrophic. And at any rate, this argument continues, the United States' ongoing inability to impose its will in conflicts of this class ultimately will destroy it. Finally, there is the view that Iraq is simply a small piece of a bigger war and that the outcome of this particular conflict will not be decisive, although the war might be necessary. The heated rhetoric surrounding the Iraq conflict stems from the traditional American inability to hold things in perspective.

    There is a reasonable case to be made for any of these three views. Any Stratfor reader knows that our sympathies gravitate toward the third view. However, that view makes no sense unless it is expanded. It must also take into consideration the view that the Soviet Union's fall was hardwired into history regardless of U.S. politico-military action, along with the notion that a consistent willingness to accept stalemate and defeat represents a significant threat to the United States in the long term.

    Resource Commitments and Implications

    Let's begin with something that is obviously true. When we consider Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran and even Iraq, it is clear that the United States devoted only a tiny fraction of the military power it could have brought to bear if it wished. By this, we mean that in none of these cases was there a general American mobilization, at no point was U.S. industry converted to a wartime footing, at no point were nuclear weapons used to force enemy defeat. The proportion of force brought to bear, relative to capabilities demonstrated in conflicts such as World War II, was minimal.

    If there were fundamental issues at stake involving national security, the United States did not act as though that was the case. What is most remarkable about these conflicts was the extreme restraint shown -- both in committing forces and in employing available forces. The conservative critique of U.S. foreign policy revolves around the tendency of the American leadership and public to recoil at the idea of extended conflict. But this recoil is not a response to extended war. Rather, by severely limiting the force available from the outset, the United States has, unintentionally, designed its wars to be extended. From this derives the conservative view that the United States engages in warfare without intending victory.

    In each of these cases, the behavior of the United States implied that there were important national security issues at stake, but measured in terms of the resources provided, these national security issues were not of the first order. The United States certainly has shown an ability to mount full-bore politico-military operations in the past: In World War II, it provided sufficient resources to invade Europe and the Japanese empire simultaneously. But in all of the cases we have cited, the United States provided limited resources -- and in some cases, only covert or political resources. Clearly, it was prepared on some level to accept stalemate and defeat.

    Even in cases where the enemy was engaged fully, the United States limited its commitment of resources. In Vietnam, for example, the defeat of North Vietnam and regime change were explicitly ruled out. The United States had as its explicit goal a stalemate, in which both South and North Vietnam survived as independent states. In Korea, the United States shifted to a stalemate strategy after the Chinese intervention. So too in Cuba after the Cuban missile crisis; and in Iran, the United States accepted defeat in an apparently critical arena without attempting a major intervention. In each instance, the mark of U.S. intervention was limited exposure -- even at the cost of stalemate or defeat.

    In other words, the United States consistently has entered into conflicts in which its level of commitment was extremely limited, in which either victory was not the strategic goal or the mission eventually was redefined to accept stalemate, and in which even defeat was deemed preferable to a level of effort that might avert it. Public discussion on all sides was apoplectic both during these conflicts and afterward, yet American global power was not materially affected in the long run.

    The Spoiling Attack

    This appears to make no sense until we introduce a military concept into the analysis: the spoiling attack. The spoiling attack is an offensive operation; however, its goal is not to defeat the enemy but to disrupt enemy offensives -- to, in effect, prevent a defeat by the enemy. The success of the spoiling attack is not measured in term of enemy capitulation, but the degree to which it has forestalled successful enemy operations.

    The concept of a spoiling attack is intimately bound up with the principle of economy of force. Military power, like all power, is finite. It must be husbanded. Even in a war in which no resources are spared, some operations do not justify a significant expenditure. Some attacks are always designed to succeed by failing. More precisely, the resources devoted to those operations are sufficient to disrupt enemy plans, to delay an enemy offensive, or to create an opportunity for political disruption of the enemy, rather than to defeat the enemy. For those tasked with carrying out the spoiling attack, it appears that they are being wasted in a hopeless effort. For those with a broader strategic or geopolitical perspective, it appears to be the proper application of the "economy of force" principle.

    If we consider the examples cited above and apply the twin concepts of the spoiling attack and economy of force, then the conversion of American defeats into increased U.S. global power no longer appears quite as paradoxical. In Korea, spoiling Communist goals created breathing space elsewhere for the United States, and increased tension levels between China and Russia. A stalemate achieved outcomes as satisfactory to Washington as taking North Korea would have been. In Cuba, containing Fidel Castro was, relative to cost, as useful as destroying him. What he did in Cuba itself was less important to Washington than that he should not be an effective player in Latin America. In Vietnam, frustrating the North's strategic goals for a decade allowed the Sino-Soviet dispute to ripen, thus opening the door for Sino-U.S. entente even before the war ended. The U.S. interest in Iran, of course, rested with its utility as a buffer to the Soviets. Being ousted from Iran mattered only if the Iranians capitulated to the Soviets. Absent that, Iran's internal politics were of little interest to the United States.

    If we apply the twin concepts to Iraq, it is possible to understand the reasons behind the size of the force deployed (which, while significant, still is limited relative to the full range of options brought to bear in World War II) and the obvious willingness of the Bush administration to court military disaster. The invasion four years ago has led to the Sunnis and Shia turning against each other in direct conflict. Therefore, it could be argued that just as the United States won the Cold War by exploiting the Sino-Soviet split and allying with Mao Zedong, so too the path to defeating the jihadists is not a main attack, but a spoiling attack that turns Sunnis and Shia against each other. This was certainly not the intent of the Bush administration in planning the 2003 invasion; it has become, nevertheless, an unintended and significant outcome.

    Moreover, it is far from clear whether U.S. policymakers through history have been aware of this dimension in their operations. In considering Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Iran, it is never clear that the Truman, Kennedy, Johnson/Nixon or Carter/Reagan administrations purposely set out to implement a spoiling attack. The fog of political rhetoric and the bureaucratized nature of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus make it difficult to speak of U.S. "strategy" as such. Every deputy assistant secretary of something-or-other confuses his little piece of things with the whole, and the American culture demonizes and deifies without clarifying.

    However, there is a deep structure in U.S. foreign policy that becomes visible. The incongruities of stalemate and defeat on the one side and growing U.S. power on the other must be reconciled. The liberal and conservative arguments explain things only partially. But the idea that the United States rarely fights to win can be explained. It is not because of a lack of moral fiber, as conservatives would argue; nor a random and needless belligerence, as liberals would argue. Rather, it is the application of the principle of spoiling operations -- using limited resources not in order to defeat the enemy but to disrupt and confuse enemy operations.

    As with the invisible hand in economics, businessmen pursue immediate ends without necessarily being aware of how they contribute to the wealth of nations. So too, politicians pursue immediate ends without necessarily being aware of how they contribute to national power. Some are clearer in their thinking than others, perhaps, or possibly all presidents are crystal-clear on what they are doing in these matters. We do not dine with the great.

    But there is an underlying order to U.S. foreign policy that makes the apparent chaos of policymaking understandable and rational.

    By Blogger RoseCovered Glasses, at 11:40 AM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:59 AM  

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