17 May 2014

***** The Gift of American Power

May 15, 2014

Despite the East-West territorial clash over the buffer state of Ukraine, despite the sanguinary battles for patches of ground across the swath of the Middle East -- in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq -- and despite the zero-sum territorial conflicts throughout maritime East Asia, the myth persists of a world benignly ruled by multilateral institutions and agreements, by international financial markets that have all escaped geopolitics, and by the geography on which it is based.

Such thinking obviously contains a large measure of truth, but taken too far it creates the dangerous illusion of inexorable progress that is willfully blind to dangers ahead. While geography tells many stories, often contradictory, and can be overcome by human agency -- especially in the form of brave and moral leadership -- a belief in the inevitability of progress is dangerously deterministic. It was such deterministic optimism that made the civilized world less prepared for the two world wars in the 20th century.

As long as the world is ruled by imperfect men and women -- some of whom will be evil, some of whom will be naive and some of whom will be competent yet unable to avoid disputes with other competent leaders whose self-interests and national interests are simply different -- conflict will dominate international relations. And as long as human beings live on this earth they will have disputes over territory that, no matter how bleak or water-starved or lacking in other resources, constitutes holy ground fundamental to their group identity.

This situation will be aggravated by the world population increasing from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050, according to the latest U.N. projections. Most of this increase will occur in the poorest and least stable countries -- those already prone to war. Geography is about to become more precious than ever. Meanwhile, communications technology will make geopolitics increasingly claustrophobic, as events in one part of the world can affect those in another as never before.

Interlocking, catalytic conflict rooted in geography is about to define the 21st century. To wit, Europe lacks the will to enforce meaningful sanctions against Russia because it is too dependent on Russia's webwork of natural gas pipelines -- a fact of geography if ever there was one. This leads to a perception of weakness on the part of the West that can only encourage the Chinese to be even more provocative in pressing territorial claims in the South and East China seas. The Japanese, who contest territory in the East China Sea with China, have specifically warned of the danger that the Western response to Crimea poses to them.

Meanwhile, the collapse of distance wrought by advances in military technology has brought China and India into a strategic competition that has no precedent in their collective histories: Indian space satellites spy on Chinese airfields; Chinese fighter jets have the capability to incorporate India into their arc of operations; Indian missiles can target Chinese cities and Chinese warships are present in the Indian Ocean. The world has shrunk, in other words, even as vast and poverty-wracked cities expand, and group identity -- whether tribal in Africa, sectarian in the Middle East or ethnic and nationalistic in East Asia -- has been dangerously reconstructed by the Internet and other technologies into the most exclusivist, inflexible forms.

The world's largest democracy might also be its worst

James Tapper
May 15, 2014 

India's month-long election kept the police and corruption investigators working overtime. 

Indian frontrunner Narendra Modi raised enough money to address campaign rallies via hologram. (Indraneel Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — This may be a socially conservative country, but you wouldn't know that from the election that just ended, which was apparently all about booze, bribes and journalistic lies, all paid for by politicians.

In the five weeks that it took this sprawling country to vote, election officials seized 22.5 million liters of illegal alcohol, $52 million in cash and even 400,000 pounds of marijuana and heroin — all used to entice votes.

They are investigating a further 3,553 allegations that candidates paid newspapers and TV channels to give them positive coverage, a practice known as “paid news.” And more than 70,000 allegations of criminality known as First Information Reports (FIRs) have been lodged with police about candidates and parties.

Voting ended on Monday, and election results will be announced on May 16. According to the exit polls (which have a history of being wildly inaccurate), the Hindu nationalist candidate Narendra Modi could soon be India’s next prime minister.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is predicted to fall shy of the 272 seats required for a majority, but would still be in a strong position to form a coalition with one or more regional parties. Voters are turning to the BJP after despairing at the current Congress-led government, which has become stagnant and mired in corruption allegations.

“We caught two fellows with $1.3m in cash… in big sacks on the roof of a bus. It weighed about 300 pounds.”

Modi himself was very well funded. He appeared in person at 437 rallies — and in dozens more including when he showed up as a holographic image. His footslog across India was assisted by a massive BJP advertising spend.

Some reports estimate the party spent $850 million on advertising alone. Others say the total by all parties was around $3 billion. Candidates are limited to spending $120,000, although parties are not subject to any controls.

A number of underhand tactics are used to woo voters.

At rallies and public meetings, party workers give gifts to voters. Over the years this has changed from blankets and material for saris (women’s garments) to laptops, according to veteran India correspondent Mark Tully, who began covering Indian elections for the BBC in 1977.

“The booze usually comes in plastic pouches,” he said. “Booze and money have been problems for a long time.”

Other methods include simply driving into a village and handing out cash from the back of a car.

A Looming Arms Race in East Asia?

The answer might surprise you.

May 14, 2014 

The annual SIPRI and IISS reports about military spending have recently been published, and it appears there is an emerging consensus that East Asian countries are engaged in a massive arms buildup and an increasingly volatile arms race, with war increasingly likely. For example, last year, Reuters announced that Asian defense spending had exceeded Europe’s for the first time in modern history. While true, the real cause was that European spending had declined more quickly than East Asian spending, although that headline would not have been nearly as provocative. The Financial Times recently claimed that Asian defense spending was a worrisome $332 billion—but without defining which countries were included, whether comparisons to earlier years were adjusted for inflation, and lacking any comparison to other regions.

However, these are headlines, designed to shock and awe. A closer inspection reveals that East Asian regional military expenditures are at a twenty-five year low when measured as a proportion of GDP, and are almost half of what countries spent during the Cold War. The major East Asian countries have increased their spending about 50 percent less on average than Latin American countries since 2002. The country most actively increasing its military spending is China.

Accurately measuring what countries are doing, in addition to what they are saying, will provide a clearer understanding of regional threat perceptions and help guide U.S. policy. Measuring defense expenditures and capabilities in the major East Asian countries is one direct way to assess whether or not the region has heightened threat perceptions. If expenditures are actually high, then the conventional narrative about an increasingly dangerous region is probably accurate. If military expenditures are low, then the U.S. rebalance to Asia that emphasizes new ways to create security that are not focused on the military and also burden-sharing with allies and partners is in sync with regional attitudes and critical to continued stability.

This restraint does not include China. Although China has claimed that it wishes to engage in a “peaceful rise,” China has also rapidly modernized its armed forces and become increasingly assertive. The army has been streamlined even while training and equipment have been improved. The air force has better weaponry than ever before. Most notable has been China’s quest for a blue-water navy. The PLA Navy has increased the quality of its submarines, sought improved weaponry and missile capabilities, and has been slowly creating power-projection capabilities. This improved military capability has been accompanied by more powerful and assertive declarations of Chinese sovereignty over disputed islands and more direct challenges to the Cold War status quo that existed in East Asia. The real question is not whether China is rapidly increasing its military spending, but whether other East Asian countries are responding in kind.

East Asian Defense Spending Looks Like Latin America

A successful and sustainable American grand strategy for East Asia depends critically on an accurate understanding of how East Asian states view themselves and China. Defense expenditures are perhaps the most direct indicator of a nation’s threat perceptions, and macrolevel data appears to present a puzzle of declining—or at most, marginally increasing—East Asian military expenditures.

The standard way in which security scholars measure a country’s militarization is to measure the defense effort—i.e., the ratio of defense expenditures to GDP. Data on the East Asian defense effort reveals that East Asian military expenditures have declined fairly significantly over the past quarter century. The eleven major East Asian countries (including China) devoted an average of 3.35 percent of their economies to military expenditures in 1988, but by 2013 that average was 1.86 percent of GDP. Furthermore, the gap between East Asian and Latin American spending has narrowed considerably. In 2013, Latin American countries devoted an average of 1.72 percent of their economies to the military.

4 Strategic Mistakes in China's Oil Rig Fiasco

China's Confrontation with Vietnam Is Backfiring

May 15, 2014

China on May 1 moved its giant indigenous oil rig, Hai Yang Shi You (HYSY) 981, southward in the South China Sea (SCS). The new location, only 120 miles from Vietnam's shore, is well within Vietnam's continental shelf and its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). To support and protect this oil drilling structure, China dispatched over 80 vessels, a number that continues to rise. Foreign ships are warned to stay away from the rig for security and safety.

This move exhibits a new and dangerous escalation by China. Since 2007, Beijing has been increasingly assertive and aggressive in defending its territorial ambitions in the SCS. Chinese authorities attacked and captured foreign fishermen working traditional fishing zones in the area. Petroleum companies were pressured to withdraw from contracts with Southeast Asian claimants for fear of China's reprisal.

In 2009, Beijing officially stated its nine-dash line claim to over 80 percent of the SCS. This move was followed by the assertion in 2010 that the SCS was one of China's core interests. In 2012, China established Sansha City, the center of the local government of which was located in Woody Island, part of the Paracels and contested by Vietnam. A new garrison was formed and stationed on Woody Island to protect it and carry out military missions. During this period, China's military capabilities have significantly improved, and it is can now contest the US, both in the air and at sea, in the SCS.

China's newest escalation in the SCS represents a serious miscalculation by China's policy makers. They have made four strategic mistakes. First, the new development gives Vietnam no alternative but a bold and determined reaction. Article 56 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 (UNCLOS) established that a coastal state has sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources in its EEZ. Therefore, no interpretation of the UNCLOS can explain China's intention to drill oil well within Vietnam's EEZ.

Vietnam, like other countries, does not clearly explain its position regarding territorial disputes in the SCS. This strategic ambiguity gives states space to negotiate and maneuver. However, China's newest move has crossed the line drawn by Vietnam's top leaders. Hanoi, therefore, responded furiously. Vietnamese Vice Prime Minister cum Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh called Chinese Councilor Yang Jiechi to protest China's move and asserted that Hanoi will "apply all necessary and suitable measures to defend its rights and legitimate interests" in the seas. Vietnamese marine police and fishery protection ships have been dispatched to stop deployment of the rig.

China countered this move by sending over 80 vessels to protect its property. Collisions have occurred between ships of the two sides and more incidents are expected. This development has pushed Vietnam further from China and strengthened its security relations with other powers, such as the US.

China’s Hard Landing Is Coming, But It’s Not The One You Expect

The future of the world's second largest economy hinges on how the country's political elite responds to Xi Jinping's reforms

by Taboola For years, people have worried whether China is headed for a hard landing. Those concerns are overstated—just like fears that the U.S. was going to default, or that the Eurozone was going to fall apart. But there is trouble coming in the long term: either many leaders and elites will have a hard landing, or far more troublingly, the country itself will.

Here’s why there is good reason to be confident that China will do well over the next year or so: The leadership under Xi Jinping has actually engaged in transformational economic reform without the specter of urgent crisis. Leaders rarely undertake difficult projects when circumstances don’t absolutely force their hand (and even then, those responses begin to recede along with the threat itself). That’s what we saw with the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis, and with financial reform in the U.S.

By contrast, even in the absence of crisis, China’s leadership has been able to make methodical, significant change, dictating their own pace and priorities for economic reform. The most significant reforms have been around the environment, particularly air quality; Xi Jinping understands that these issues will take a long time to fix. There has been financial reform as well, which struck him as urgent because many of the leaders most committed to it will retire by 2018. And Xi is reforming state-owned enterprises, while loosening the rules for foreign direct investment.

Even as Xi slowly opens up the economy, he is clamping down politically to mitigate risk. Xi is surrounding himself with strong leaders, consolidating support at the top echelons of government. He’s taking firm control of the military, something he worked out with the former president and which typically takes longer to happen. He has managed to build institutions within the party that are focused on internal control, such as a national security council that focuses resources on internal stability. He has also waged a strong anti-corruption campaign to keep political leaders in lockstep with his economic reforms.

And it has all gone pretty smoothly thus far. China’s growth has actually remained quite strong; it’s tapered off slowly in recent years, but that’s part of the process of building a more sustainable economic model. And there has been very little political backlash. (The only example has been former President Jiang Zemin’s warning that “the footprint of this anti-corruption campaign cannot get too big”). When it comes to popular dissent, it hasn’t materialized in any acute way. (Yes, there are demonstrations in the country, but we’ve been reading Tom Friedman columns for decades claiming China is going to implode. He hasn’t written any of those lately.) In short, Xi has a well-considered plan, and he has sufficient internal support to pull it off. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where this falls of the rails in the near future.

Taking China’s Carrier Operations Seriously

May 14, 2014 

“The United States Navy is the envy of every other navy in the world. They don’t want to be like us—they want to be us.” – Admiral Leighton Smith

“You fight your way, I’ll fight my way.” – Mao Zedong

This past week, Sino-Vietnamese tensions rose as China moved a deep-sea drilling rig into disputed areas and began earnest exploration for oil. Coming in the wake of President Obama’s visit to Asia, this suggests that Chinese assertiveness has not been deterred by the American pivot, but, rather, has accelerated. Of particular note to the Chinese may have been President Obama’s decision to personally underscore the American commitment to Japan, specifically the disputed Senkaku Islands.

The President’s visit occurred against the backdrop of a growing Chinese naval aviation capability, most prominently embodied by the new Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning. Indeed, as with the J-20 test on the eve of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ visit, and the J-31 on the eve of Secretary Panetta’s, Beijing unveiled the J-15 just before Secretary Hagel arrived in China. This new fighter is intended for carrier operations. The Chinese reportedly began large-scale production of this aircraft late last year.

Since the J-15′s sea trials in 2012, the Chinese have developed carrier operations more rapidly than many had predicted. There have been several conventional landings and take-offs from the carrier, rather than just “touch-and-go” landings as had been predicted. Similarly, the Chinese decision to begin serial production of the J-15 suggests a program that has already completed trials and test-flights. Meanwhile, the Liaoning has also undertaken coordinated operations with escort vessels, reflecting the Chinese understanding that carriers do not operate alone, but in conjunction with escorts and other vessels. Indeed, one report suggests that the Chinese assembled not only surface escorts (two destroyers and two frigates), but also amphibious ships and even submarines—a very potent group of vessels more closely resembling a combined expeditionary strike group than just a carrier group.

China’s interest in aircraft carriers was never expected to be limited to the Liaoning, a vessel originally built for the Soviet navy that eventually passed into Chinese hands by way of Ukraine. Consequently, it should be seen as a training carrier intended to provide China’s navy with experience in the conduct of carrier flight operations and combined operations at sea. Reports indicate that China is currently building at least one and perhaps several aircraft carriers on its own, which are expected to be substantially larger than the Liaoning’s 60,000 tons. (An American Nimitz-class aircraft carrier displaces over 100,000 tons.)

In some quarters, this presages a Chinese move to emulate the United States in developing a carrier-centric navy. Indeed, some analysts see China as hewing closely to a Mahanian conception of naval power. But while China may decide to build several aircraft carriers, that does not necessarily mean that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will follow in the footsteps of the United States Navy. Instead, China’s new naval strategy will reflect Chinese requirements and conditions; in short, there will be Mahan “with Chinese characteristics.”

Carrier Operations with Chinese Characteristics

For the United States, it is essential to field an “expeditionary” military, insofar as America’s wars tend to be far from the United States homeland. In essence, the United States has structured its forces to fight “away” games. But China’s primary threats and security concerns are far closer—preventing Taiwanese independence, defeating a revanchist Japan, and dominating the waters of the South China Sea. Indeed, any potential conflict between the United States and China in the foreseeable future is far more likely to be fought on the Chinese doorstep than the American one.

SitRoom: Taking Nominations for Drone Strikes

May 13, 2014

Winston Burrell was late. His chair, at the head of the table that filled the room, was empty. The Seal of the President of the United States hung on the wall behind his chair, giving the room an aura. This was not a corporate boardroom, not a Congressional committee room. It was a place where power was the currency. Meetings in this space had saved lives and taken lives. Today’s meeting was about taking lives.

The old chair had been replaced with one that better fit Burrell’s height and weight. He was not of average build. He was not average in many ways. For a man who had started his professional life as an international relations academic, he had become the quintessential behind- the-scenes operator, making things happen first in state government, then in the corporate world, and then in national politics as the White House National Security Advisor. While he could recite the details of almost any national security issue, it was in understanding their domestic political relevance that he excelled. The President was focused on domestic policy challenges. Burrell was intent on not letting national security get in the way or take up too much of the leader’s time. He saw his job as preventing disasters, promoting those causes that bought the President domestic support.

The men and women who waited were far from displeased to have some time together without the National Security Advisor. This was when the number twos and number threes from the departments and agencies got to meet, gossip, ask each other for favors, trade and deal, complain and bargain, with only one aide each looking on. This time, before the meeting started, was where the wheels were greased and coordination accomplished, without rhetoric or pretense.

“Sorry to be late,” Burrell said as he entered the room and plopped down in the big chair. He wasn’t sorry, of course, and everyone knew it. “Sorry, too, that we haven’t been able to have this meeting sooner,” he said. Most of those around the table doubted that, too. They knew he found these sessions distasteful. He disliked having to decide who lived and who died.

Winston Burrell looked around the table. The two highest ranking representatives were the Under Secretaries from State and Defense, both women. Nancy Schneidman from Defense might be the first female Secretary of Defense in a few years. Her opposite number from State, Liz Watson, was a career Foreign Service officer. She had been ambassador to Turkey.

Admiral Harlan Johnston was a SEAL assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. Like many of the “Special Operations community,” he did not look the part. Slightly shorter than average, he probably weighed less than anyone in the room. As he opened his briefing book, he donned a pair of black glasses that would have made his social life difficult had he still been in high school. He had served in combat in Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and places where the Pentagon never acknowledged the presence of U.S. military personnel. Then they had made him an admiral and assigned him to Special Operations Command headquarters in Tampa, where the endless PowerPoint slides and bullet papers had caused him to see the optometrist.

Beating Boko Haram

Why It Attacks Schools -- And How to Fight Back

May 10, 2014 

Women at protest in Abuja, April 30, 2014. (Afolabi Sotunde / Courtesy Reuters)

The abduction last month of 276 schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has become international news. In a video that surfaced this week, Boko Haram’s leader issued a chilling message in which he called the girls “slaves” and threatened to “sell them in the market.” Soon after, a social media campaign called #BringBackOurGirls went viral. And this week, First Lady Michele Obama even tweeted a photo of herself holding a sign with the campaign’s hashtag. Governments around the world, including those of the United States and China, have offered to help track down the terrorists.

It is surprising that it has taken so long for Boko Haram’s murderous rampages to garner such attention. Although linked to various al Qaeda groups, Boko Haram is a homegrown movement in impoverished northeastern Nigeria. It was born of desperation and anger at the government’s corruption and ineffectiveness. As one Nigerian journalist put it, Mohammed Yusuf, the group’s first leader, “would have found it difficult to gain a lot of these people if he was operating in a functional state. But his teaching was easily accepted because the environment, the frustrations, the corruption, [and] the injustice made it fertile for his ideology to grow fast, very fast, like wildfire.”

Like the group’s roots, its aims are local. Its harsh, fundamentalist version of Islam rejects Western and secular influences and calls for the establishment of a “pure” Islamic state in Nigeria. To that end, the group has been committing heinous attacks across the country’s north for years, frequently targeting schools. In a particularly gruesome incident in February, Boko Haram attacked a boarding school in the north, killing dozens of teenage boys in the night. Some were burned alive. In that raid, the girls were spared. They were told to return home, renounce secular education, and get married.

NATO and Ukraine: Walking Familiar Ground

May 14, 2014 

While in some ways the actors and scene are different, the basic dynamics of the Ukraine crisis are very old, not just for NATO, but for alliances in general. States seek to ensure their national security at the lowest cost possible. The costs in this case differ among NATO’s North American members, for whom the crisis fits in a larger global context; its Western European members, whose primary stake appears to be economic; and its Central and Eastern European members, whose security interests are most directly affected by Russia’s Ukrainian adventure.

Alliance members’ national interests often differ – crises highlight these differences. This variation in interests suggests that the wider effects of the Ukraine situation depend largely on the United States’ ability to strike a balance among reassuring friends, alarming Russia, and encouraging free riding among allies.

Virtually from NATO’s birth, a “Europeanist” current has favored the development of an autonomous European defense identity, separate and distinct from NATO, while an “Atlanticist” current has favored a more integrated transatlantic security community. These currents persist today. Early in NATO’s history, though, a third current, favoring accommodation with the Soviet Union for strategic (not ideological) reasons, emerged. If the United States was not fully invested in Europe’s defense, advocates like French Premier Leon Blum argued, a hobbled post-war Europe lacking in strategic depth could not hope to defend its territory alone and therefore should prepare to accommodate the USSR. The presence of this strategic “third way” made reassuring allies like Blum’s France a key task for the United States in NATO’s early years. Today, reassuring NATO’s Eastern allies is similarly important – varying interpretations of Russian assertiveness, combined with national and alliance capabilities, could lead them in either of the three directions outlined above.

Given this need for reassurance, the central problem for the United States remains: how to reassure allies without encouraging free riding? The Ukraine crisis highlights this dilemma, but is by no means its cause. The alliance political economy literature suggests that choices are limited: free riding is likely in an alliance in which one member disposes of significantly more resources than the rest, and the extent to which free riding occurs depends on the extent to which the benefits of collective security are excludable. This means that a world in which a relatively richer United States, whose investments in security generate benefits not just to the United States but, in an automatic way, to its allies, is a world in which free riding is likely.

This collective action argument is powerful, and its implications present a dilemma for the United States. The world described above is, in many ways, the kind of world the United States prefers – the United States has sought, and continues to seek, a leadership role in global politics. This leadership role implies costs, often assumed in the form of unequal burden sharing. Arthur Balfour captured this “hegemon’s security dilemma” neatly in his 1918 lament that “Every time I come to a discussion – at intervals of, say, five years – I find there is a new sphere which we have got to guard, which is supposed to protect the gateways of India. Those gateways are getting further and further from India, and I do not know how far west they are going to be brought.”

If Conflict Comes to Europe, America Should Go "Covert"

A plan of action if the worst-case scenario in Eastern Europe unfolds.

May 14, 2014 

Russian actions in Crimea—and possibly soon in eastern Ukraine—point to Moscow returning in force to the game of great-power politics. For its part, the United States and its NATO allies are stuck in a psychological, political and military paralysis, like a bystander who suddenly witnessed a horrible car crash.

Clearly, Russian President Vladimir Putin suffers from no such paralysis. Over the last several years, Putin has begun the process of trimming down, professionalizing, and modernizing Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces while NATO has been sleeping. While American and European elites pranced about with delusions of a blissful democratic peace reigning supreme in Europe and the world, Putin was rebuilding the means needed to restore what he saw as Russia’s rightful place on top of the regional and world balances of power.

Putin has shown himself as a shrewd statesman, knowing that the true nature of international politics has not changed in millennia, despite how the Western elites boast about the merits of international law, norms and democracy. It remains the same as it was at the time of the Peloponnesian War when Thucydides captured the stark realities of power in the Melian dialogue. As the Athenian expedition sent to conquer the Spartan colony on the island of Melos told its victims: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Putin masterfully orchestrated a modern rendition of the Melian dialogue with his capture of Crimea and his military preparations to forcibly take more territorial chunks out of Ukraine. Putin must have enjoyed a good laugh after hearing American Secretary of State John Kerry’s school teacher-like reprimand: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text.” Putin probably split his sides with laughter at President Barack Obama’s attempted barb that “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors—not out of strength but out of weakness.” With Russian forces sitting on Crimea and facing eastern Ukraine, no one in the world today, save Obama, sees Putin as weak.

Putin rightly assesses the political and military weaknesses of the United States and its NATO allies. While in 2013, NATO proudly conducted its largest live-fire exercise in seven years in the Baltic states and Poland with some 6,000 personnel, the Russians flexed more impressive military muscles with an exercise the same year that fielded some 70,000 troops in Belarus, Kaliningrad, and around the Baltic states and Poland. Putin knows that NATO’s ground forces today are in pathetic shape. The United States, which provides the most capable army units to the alliance, does not even have one measly army division in Europe. That is a far cry from the estimated 40,000 Russian troops prepared to strike Ukraine. NATO airpower can only partially compensate for the alliance’s ground force inferiority to Russian forces.

Russia’s invasion of Crimea and possible preparations against the remainder of Ukraine adroitly blend guile, deception, propaganda, intelligence and elite military forces. At the same time, Russian diplomacy has brilliantly sowed confusion among credulous Western statesmen and diplomats by concocting political narratives to mask Russia’s true intentions behind military preparations along Ukraine’s border. In response to growing Western anxiety about the large build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine’s border, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was publicly emphatic: “We have absolutely no intention of—or interest in—crossing Ukraine’s borders.” At hearing those lovely words, far too many Americans and Europeans breathed sighs of relief, and foolishly believe that the crisis has passed.

“Small is Beautiful”: El Salvador’s Lessons and Non-Lessons for the Indirect Approach

May 15, 2014 

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from David H. Ucko’s article in Small Wars & Insurgencies, “Counterinsurgency in El Salvador: the lessons and limits of the indirect approach.”

The soon-to-be-released U.S. Army field manual, Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies, has reinvigorated the ongoing discussion of the lessons to be learned from recent counterinsurgency campaigns. One of the key criticisms of the earlier iteration of the manual, FM 3-24, was that it focused predominantly on ‘direct’ counterinsurgency: the deployment of large formations to provide security and take on various military and civilian tasks for a foreign population. As the doctrine was written in 2006, when 144,000 U.S. troops were actively countering an insurgency in Iraq, this focus was apposite. But now, given the perceived failure of direct counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and, more generally, the high costs of this approach, the consensus has shifted in favor of an ‘indirect’ approach that relies primarily on the structures and capabilities of the host-nation partner.

There are good reasons for this shift. The indirect approach recognizes the limits on what external powers can by themselves achieve in a foreign land, particularly one they scarcely understand. The focus on partnerships also acknowledges the need to maintain host-nation legitimacy, build local capacity, and engage in a manner that is financially and politically sustainable. Yet while the notion that “small is beautiful” can be correct, it is dangerous to stop the analysis there. Indeed, as with counterinsurgency of any type, the indirect approach brings severe challenges that, unless carefully understood, are likely to result in past mistakes being repeated and national resources going to waste.

These challenges are effectively brought out by a close examination of the El Salvador counterinsurgency campaign of the 1980s, ironically considered among the most emblematic and successful of indirect engagements. That the campaign was ‘indirect’ is clear: the United States never officially deployed more than 55 advisers, whose task was to assist the host nation and its military in their struggle against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). But the war’s outcome in 1992 – the disarming of FMLN and its transformation into a democratic party – has led many observers, particularly in the counterinsurgency community, to suggest that it was U.S. assistance and advice that ‘won the war’. Some commentators recognize that the Cold War’s passing helped to enable the outcome, but the US input is nonetheless seen as central, hence the frequent, unqualified inclusion of El Salvador among US counterinsurgency ‘success stories’.

This narrative eclipses three critical points. First, the counterinsurgency program in El Salvador does not rank very highly among the factors behind the war’s celebrated outcome. Second, even with talks underway, significant, creative, and sustained political engagement was needed, both regionally and internationally, throughout the two years of negotiations. Third, this effort did not and could not stop with the peace agreement, but rather required a longer-term assistance program, which, despite its many successes, produced a peace far less stable and unproblematic than sometimes suggested. Combined, these points should stem the hurried search for models, remind us to study past cases on their own merits, and be more modest about what external intervention typically brings.

French Operations in Africa: Lessons for Future Leaders

May 2, 2014


As the Marine Corps builds up the Special-Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (MAGTF –CR) under Marine Forces Africa (MARFORAF), there are valuable lessons to be learned from recent French military operations on the African continent. This essay gives some background on France’s historic interventions in Africa and makes recommendations for future changes to the force structure of the SPMAGTF-CR.


Although the popular press in the United States often maligns the French military in general and France’s willingness to involve itself in Coalition military endeavors in particular, in reality, the French are both powerful and active in the realm of military affairs, especially when it comes to Africa.

France is the sixth most powerful nation in the world from a military perspective; in addition to a large and modern conventional force, it maintains a credible nuclear deterrent arsenal. Interestingly, the French military connection to its former colonial possessions in Sub-Saharan Africa does not extend to arm sales; while the French are the world’s fourth largest exporter of military hardware, (Rapport au Parlement, 10) exports to Sub-Saharan Africa account for only 5 percent of their total sales, and France has never made the Top Ten list of African arms suppliers compiled annually by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Historically, Russia and Ukraine have occupied the top spots on this list, but since 2006, China has edged out the former Soviet Republics as the preeminent supplier of military hardware in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Arms sales aside, France has long maintained strong economic, linguistic, cultural, political, and diplomatic ties to Sub-Saharan Africa, and this special relationship, dubbed “la Françafrique” has existed to a greater or lesser extent from the end of the Colonial Era in the 1960s to the present day. The recurrent theme of la Françafrique most relevant to this paper is the French record of military involvement in Africa, which since the end of World War Two has dwarfed that of any other Western power, consisting of 37 major military operations in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa operations in the last 50 years (Griffin, 3) most of which have been conducted without the involvement of other Western states. France also maintains permanent bases in Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso, and has defense agreements with the governments of Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Comoros, Côte d' Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Djibouti, Gabon , Senegal, and Togo. (Livre Blanc, 55)
By contrast, the United States is a relative late-comer to the stage of modern warfare in Africa. Bloodied by Somali insurgents, the U.S. pulled out of Somalia in 1995, and like most of the world was a mere bystander to the genocide in Rwanda. There has been a U.S. presence in Djibouti, Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) since 2002, but its focus has largely been on combating militant Islam and piracy in the Horn of Africa. Popular pressure from KONY 2012 campaign resulted in the dispatch of about a hundred advisors from the Special Operations communities, but the elusive warlord remains at large. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and its Marine Component, Marine Forces Africa (MARFORAF) were stood up in 2008, but were based in Germany because no suitable home could be found for them on the African continent. In the context of first the “Long War” and then the “Pivot to Asia”, Africa remains, as former AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham observed in 2012, “not a part of the world that the United States military has focused on very intently.”

But that is likely to change. Africa has become a leading U.S. supplier of strategic natural resources, including oil, gas, and minerals, with Angola and Nigeria being two important suppliers of oil. The rise of non-state actors, including violent extremists and transnational criminal organizations engaged in trafficking drugs, people, and weapons is another reason, and is linked to the third driver of change; an increased emphasis on human security and the “Responsibility to Protect.” (Brown, 6-10) This latter has been described by David E. Brown as:

Perimeter Defense

May 13, 2014 

Is America still feared by enemies and trusted by friends? The Economist doesn’t seem to think so. This storied magazine recently bemoaned “The Decline of [American] Deterrence.” It highlights President Obama’s recent tour of Asia, during which he was repeatedly questioned about America’s commitment to its allies in the region.

But The Economist and other critics of this administration’s inaction over Ukraine seem unable to distinguish between our peripheral interests and vital interests. Dana Allin and Steve Simon at the International Institute for Strategic Studies define a vital interest as one that, if threatened, would directly endanger us “militarily or economically, or its neglect constituted the betrayal of a solemn moral or strategic commitment that we have undertaken.” Implied in this definition is the use of military force to protect said vital interest.

American vital interests in the region consist of our commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which – notably – does not include Ukraine. Still, member countries, such as the Baltic States, Poland, and Turkey have been shaken by the ongoing turmoil in Ukraine by virtue of proximity and their own troubled histories with Russia and the Soviet Union. Like it or not, their threat perceptions impact the U.S.-underwritten international order, and thereby should be of no small concern to Washington. Consequently, America must respond clearly to Russian military and paramilitary provocations but not in the way The Economist suggests.

Direct military aid to Kiev, as many have suggested, is highly provocative to Moscow. Our diplomatic options are also limited given Russia’s permanent presence on the United Nations Security Council and Europe’s continued freeriding on the U.S. security dividend. Nonetheless, Washington still has a set of viable, indirect military and direct economic options for exerting real influence over a situation in which Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has seized the initiative.

A good start would be enacting a set of policies labeled “Perimeter Defense.” In basketball, perimeter defense is designed to limit an agile opponent’s freedom of movement and vision of the field while forcing weaker than intended actions. It would be wise to follow a similar strategy in the current crisis with Russia. Perimeter Defense would start with the indirect military option of augmenting our NATO allies with U.S. forces. This would involve the semi-permanent deployment of Special Forces and Parachute Infantry Regiments in Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia as was done just days ago in the Baltics and Poland. These light infantry deployments would be augmented by rotational training deployments of Heavy Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) to Eastern Europe in the manner of REFORGER during the 1970s and 80s. The intent would be to enable their training in response to a pseudo-military incursion (e.g. unmarked green men coming across the border), create a stronger barricade opposed to Russian armed incursions and resurrect a Cold War “tripwire” strategy that is effective against Russian “salami-slicing” tactics.(for those readers unfamiliar with this concept, see the Berlin Brigade or U.S. Forces along the Korean De-Militarized Zone). In doing so, the U.S. would raise the risk of Putin’s current strategy and force him to explore alternatives that are more conducive to NATO’s strengths (e.g. peacekeeping and conflict prevention).

No, America is not in retreat

May 15, 2014 

Is America retreating from its global duties? That’s what a number of critics of the Obama administration would have us believe. In the wake of Washington’s alleged failure to respond to Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, critics charge that the United States is in “retreat” and getting “left behind.” John McCain accused President Obama of pursuing “a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore,” while others believe that the President lacks a foreign policy entirely. Most recently, The Economist joined the chorus, questioning America’s credibility in the face of its “retreats” around the world.

It’s certainly true that America is changing its role on the world stage. But that’s not the same as retreating from that stage altogether. In fact, the opposite is true: by many measures, the Obama administration has increased American engagement with the world. What has changed is not the amount of engagement, but its nature. Obama has sought to re-orient our foreign policy away from a military-first approach, and toward a more comprehensive approach that leans more on diplomatic and economic tools.

This new approach is hard to stomach for those who conceive of American strength and influence as military in nature. This conception assumes, incorrectly, that that “clashes across the planet are all about ‘us’ and that the dominoes of the world rest precariously on [our] every move.” But because this worldview is so unpopular, having yielded disastrous results over the years, its proponents prefer to cast Obama’s sensible re-orientation in a negative light, through the use of dirty words like “retreat,” “decline,” “weakness,” or “isolationism.”

Consider the case of Iran’s nuclear program. If you ask the naysayers, this is just another example of U.S. fecklessness: It has become an article of faith on the right that the weak, irresolute Obama has “given up” on pressuring Tehran and even that he “conceded the bomb to Iran.”

But the facts tell a different story. Not only has Obama aggressively pursued the Iranian nuclear issue, he has also produced concrete results. The administration’s groundbreaking diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement with Iran have meaningfully and verifiably limited the country’s nuclear program for the first time in a decade. And last year’s agreement in Geneva was the culmination of years of coalition-building by an administration determined to convince a reluctant international community to join in on pressuring Iran, including through the creation of a devastating international sanctions regime. There’s no way to credibly argue that Obama is disengaged from this issue, that he doesn’t have an Iran policy, or that this policy hasn’t achieved results. By contrast, under George W. Bush, any hopes of long-term diplomatic progress were dashed by the administration’s unrealistic insistence — described by one analyst as an “abstinence-only approach” — that Iran halt uranium enrichment altogether, coupled with Bush’s infamous inclusion of Iran within the “Axis of Evil.”

When critics say that Obama has failed to address the Iranian nuclear issue, they mean that he has failed to address it the way they want him to — that is, he hasn’t given enough credence to the military option. That’s a policy disagreement that critics should feel free to air (although they no doubt know that doing so will pit them against both American public opinion and the overwhelming consensus of security experts against military action). But to suggest that Obama hasn’t been a leader on this issue and many others is simply incorrect.

The Square People, Part 1

MAY 13, 2014 

HANOI, Vietnam — I think I’ll plan to go from Kiev to Hanoi more often. It’s only when you go to two seemingly disconnected places that you see the big trends, and one of the big ones I’ve noticed is the emergence of “The Square People.”

In 2004, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote about an emerging global “superclass” of “Davos Men” — alluding to attendees of the Davos World Economic Forum — a transnational, cosmopolitan elite drawn from high-tech, finance, multinationals, academics and NGOs. The Davos Men had “little need for national loyalty” and more in common with each other than their fellow citizens, Huntington argued. They also had the skills to disproportionately benefit from the new globalization of markets and information technologies.

Well, a decade later, as the I.T. revolution and globalization have been democratized and diffused — as we’ve gone from laptops for elites to smartphones for everyone, from networking for the lucky few at Davos to Facebook for all and from only the rich heard in the halls of power to everyone being able to talk back to their leaders on Twitter — a new global political force is aborning, bigger and more important than Davos Men. I call them The Square People.

They are mostly young, aspiring to a higher standard of living and more liberty, seeking either reform or revolution (depending on their existing government), connected to one another either by massing in squares or through virtual squares or both, and united less by a common program and more by a shared direction they want their societies to go. We’ve seen them now in the squares of Tunis, Cairo, Istanbul, New Delhi, Damascus, Tripoli, Beirut, Sana, Tehran, Moscow, Rio, Tel Aviv and Kiev, as well as in the virtual squares of Saudi Arabia, China and Vietnam.

The latter three countries all have unusually large numbers of Facebook, Twitter or YouTube users, or their Chinese equivalents, which together constitute a virtual square where they connect, promote change and challenge authority. The most popular Vietnamese blogger, Nguyen Quang Lap, has more followers than any government newspaper here. In Saudi Arabia, one of the most popular Twitter hash tags is “#If I met the King I would tell him.”

And The Square People are only getting more numerous and empowered. “Our goal is that, in three years, every Vietnamese will own a smartphone,” Nguyen Manh Hung, who leads the Viettel Group, a Vietnamese telecom, told me. “We are now manufacturing a smartphone for less than $40 and our goal is $35. We charge $2 a month for Internet connection for a P.C. and $2.50 for voice from a smartphone.” Because the Vietnamese media is tightly censored, it is no accident that 22 million of Vietnam’s 90 million people are on Facebook. Just two years ago there were only 8 million. Vietnam has about 100,000 students studying abroad; a decade ago it was a tenth of that. All future Square People.