My Weekly Reader, 29 May 2018.

The war correspondent Thomas Ricks reads war books for the NYT Book Review.  It’s not worth summarizing his summaries, but he often has interesting observations to make.  Discussing a book[1] on the rise of autonomous-killing machines (“war-bots” like the “fem-bot” in “Austin Powers”) he reports that the Stuxnet computer virus was injected into the Iranian nuclear project’s computer system through flash-drives loaded with porn.[2]  More alarming, and less comic, is the contention that machines can learn and that, as they learn, they will become still more autonomous.  “The bottom line,” says Ricks, “is that the more an autonomous weapon is let free to roam in time and space, the more likely it is that something will go catastrophically wrong.”  So, while it seems impossible to stop the development of autonomous weapons, people should be working hard to prevent the development of autonomous nuclear and chemical or biological weapons.  There are degrees of catastrophe.

The Syrian Civil War (2011-the present) seems to have been going on forever (although not for anywhere near as long as the war in Afghanistan).  Will it never end?  A couple of scholars who have written recent books think not—or not anytime soon.[3]  Seeing the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq as consequences of the destruction of tyrannical “republics,” they think that there will be follow-on conflicts even after the likely victory of the Assad regime over its opponents and the defeat of the Islamic State.

The foreign policy of the Obama administration is starting to take fire from new critics.  The New Zealand political scientist William Harris has described it as “feckless” in Syria and Ricks says he portrays Secretary of State John Kerry as “almost buffoonish.”  (If you’ve ever seen photographs of Kerry in a one-to-one with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, you might already have suspected this to be the case.)  Ronan Farrow has taken time off from belaboring highly-placed swine in other areas of American public life to upbraid political leaders for the shrinking role of American diplomacy in maintaining world order.[4]  However, not all of his argument serves his purpose.

Farrow once served as an assistant to Richard Holbrooke, one of the pro-consuls of the American empire.  Holbrooke had “negotiated” an end to the horrible war in Bosnia, so he aspired to become Secretary of State.  However, he got stuck in civil life through the political incompetence of several Democratic presidential candidates.  Later, denied the top job at Foggy Bottom, he settled for special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Well, not really “settled.”  Farrow describes Holbrooke as “grasping, relentless,” and “oblivious to social graces in the pursuit of his goals.”[5]  In short, he was a jerk, especially in the eyes of other power-seekers and power-wielders in the Obama foreign policy establishment.  On the other hand, he thought that the only way out of Afghanistan lay in talks with the Taliban.  One key point here is that no administration wants to get charged with having lost a war, even when the war became unwinnable on another administration’s watch.  In a sense. Holbrooke was what Raymond Chandler once called a “tarantula on a piece of Angel’s food cake.”

A second point, however, is that individual ambitions and animosities (or amities) shape policy decisions.  Democrats didn’t have (and don’t have) a deep bench on foreign policy.  Holbrooke was an old guy from the Clinton administration from which the Obama administration wished to distance itself.  However, Holbrooke had accomplished something, and he had supporters as well as opponents.  So he got a job.  He died doing it.  Still, his “failure” to persuade could be read as a sign of how little traction Hilary Clinton possessed when serving as Secretary of State.

[1] Paul Scharre, Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War.

[2] So there is a market for pornography among Iran’s technical elite and it is tolerated by the watch-dogs of the regime.  Meanwhile, women are policed for immodest dress.  Tells you a lot about the Iranian Republic right there.  Still, one can be curious about the particular type of porn that interests Iranian scientists.  Suppose “Stormy Daniels” is a rock star.

[3] William Harris, Quicksilver War: Syria, Iraq and the Spiral of Conflict; Ahmed Hashim, The Caliphate at War: Operational Realities and Innovations of the Islamic State.

[4] Ronan Farrow, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (2018).

[5] Actually, this is pretty “American” behavior in the time before the Preppies, Yuppies, and investment bankers seized control of American foreign policy.  And much else.

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My Weekly Reader 29 June 2017.

A pessimist’s analysis of the American position in the world might run something like the following.  The United States is the world’s only global power.  (As such, it performs many of the vital military, political, and economic functions of a world government.)  It faces a host of regional powers bent on disrupting the global order created through American leadership after the Second World War.  Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and radical Islamist jihad all offer examples of the failure of military power as a solution to challenges.[1]  Moreover, the foundations of American power have been cracked by changes in America’s society and economy.  Liberal internationalist elites ignored the human costs of their policies until they inspired a backlash under the last three presidential administrations.  Domestic politics have come to center on divisive identity politics and the expansion of entitlements (including the entitlement to not be taxed) beyond what the traditional economy can support.  In light of these grim facts, America should shift from “hard” (lawyers, guns, and money) power to “soft” power (diplomacy, humanitarianism); America should seek to lead from behind by encouraging allies to assume their responsibilities; and America should do its nation building at home.

Eliot A. Cohen takes sharp issue with this point of view.[2]  “The chances are growing that the United States will find itself using military power chronically and at varying levels of intensity, throughout the early decades of the 21st century.”  Even over the short-run, the United States faces complex challenges: China’s rise as an economic and military power in a key region for American interests; an aggrieved Russia trying to punch above its weigh while it still can; and a transnational radical Islam that will continue to inspire local insurgencies.  These quarrels may have to be resolved in places as different as the high seas, the anarchic peripheries around or between failing states, and even outer space.  So far as he’s concerned, micro-lending isn’t going to cut it.  “Hard” power will have to be at least part of the response.

Cohen is equally persuasive, alarming, and rough-edged in the rest of the book.  Asking whether America possesses the means to use force where needed, Cohen answers with a qualified “Yes.”  His deepest concern lies in the nature and quality of thinking about the use of the instruments of power, rather than about the quality and quantity of those instruments.  One danger springs from what he sees as the capture of strategic thinking by process-oriented bureaucrats.  Plans, working papers, studies, and a deep dive into minutiae introduce rigidity and myopia into thinking about the long-term strategic environment.  In short, dopes have a large voice in the use of military power.  Another concern arises from our public discourse on these issues.  The United States, says Cohen, needs to do some serious thinking and debating on its relationship to the outside world and on how and when to use military force.  Not only must Americans recognize the need for force, they will have to accept that the country is in for a series of long wars with no easy resolution, let alone parades.  In the White House, in Congress, and in the Pentagon, decision-makers are too much concerned to define the “end state” of any military action.  Get in, wreck stuff, get out defined the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq.  Neither resolved the basic problem.  Here Cohen could profit from a review of the post-WWII experience.[3]

Left largely unaddressed is the problem of paying for all this power.  It seems presumptuous to believe that Americans will prefer national security to Social Security.

[1] Hence, the Obama administration recognized that the American people opposed any new war in the Middle East.  From this perspective, a deal to slow down Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons made a lot of sense.

[2] Eliot A. Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force (2016).

[3] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/06/29/soldiers-become-governors/

Command Crisis.

When George C. Marshall became Chief of Staff of the United States Army in 1939, he perceived a striking disparity between the officer corps and the grim international situation. The Army had been reduced to a small size after the First World War; America had been at peace for twenty years; promotion had been glacially slow; and the upper ranks of commanders were clogged with elderly men who lacked energy and imagination. America would be endangered, at the very least, by the looming European war, and might well be drawn into the fighting. To revitalize the Army, Marshall ruthlessly purged the officer corps. Six hundred senior officers were removed from command or nudged into retirement before Pearl Harbor. Since the world crisis led to a dramatic expansion of the armed forces, many more than six hundred younger men rapidly rose to high command. (The most dramatic example of this is Dwight Eisenhower, who went from colonel to lieutenant-general in just over a year.) Marshall didn’t demand just energy and imagination. He also demanded ruthless effectiveness. During the Second World War, sixteen division commanders and five corps commanders were relieved of command when they failed to perform up to standard.   The rise, fall, and resurrection of George Patton might be offered as a book-end to that of Eisenhower.[1]

Thus, it can be argued that one determined man took advantage of a grave crisis to re-make a hide-bound bureaucratic institution.[2] The failures in Vietnam and in the second Iraq War seem to suggest that something went awry after Marshall and his ruthless followers had faded away. Slowly and in stages[3], the Army reverted to a cautious, self-protective rather than self-critical, bureaucracy. One sign of this change is the reluctance to remove failed commanders. Relief is taken as a sign of institutional failure because it suggests to critics that senior commanders had made a poor choice in the first place. Short command tours reinforce this trend. A duff leader will cycle out in a couple of years anyway, so why rock the boat? Now it takes really egregious personal misconduct, rather than professional incompetence, to bring relief.[4] Will it take another existential crisis to bring new life to the Army?

This analysis strikes a chord with many observers.[5] What it ignores is the malign effects of civilian political meddling and incompetence. Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki didn’t under-estimate the number of troops needed to occupy a defeated Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did. Tommy Franks didn’t disband the army of Iraq and order the purge of Baath Party members from public institutions, Paul Bremer did. A critical examination of the failings of the military can’t stand alone in the effort to better defend America. We have to be equally honest and critical in examining the political institutions to which the military is subordinate. Nor should the examination be a partisan witch-hunt. President Obama prolonged a war in Afghanistan in which he plainly did not believe. There is a lot of blame to go around.

[1] See: Forrest Pogue, George C. Marshall, 4 vols. (New York: Viking, 1963-1987); Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower, vol. 1 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983); Carlo D’Este, Patton: A Genius for War (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

[2] Thomas E. Ricks, The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today (New York: Penguin, 2012). See also: Anton Myrer, Once An Eagle (1968).

[3] Except for Vietnam, from the end of the Korean War to the first Iraq War, the Army was “at peace.” Even Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq did not amount to existential struggles on a par with the Civil War or the Second World War.

[4] See, for example, Stanley McChrystal’s ill-considered statements in front of a reporter.

[5] See, for example, Max Boot, “Bureaucrats in Uniform,” NYT Book Review, 9 December 2012; Thanassis Cambanis, review of Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents, NYT Book Review, 27 January 2013.

Man Hunters.

Before the Second World War the United States possessed intelligence-gathering organizations that were derisory in comparison to those of the great powers. The War Department gathered information on the military capabilities of foreign states from military attaches; the State Department reported on political and economic developments; both War and State maintained signals intelligence (code-breaking) offices. However, the US possessed no “secret intelligence service” equivalent to the British MI-6 or the action services of other countries. During the Second World War, the US sought to make good this deficiency with the temporary Office of Strategic Services (OSS). After the Second World War, America’s new global role and the Cold War demanded an enhanced intelligence-gathering capability. In 1947, Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to fill this role. Filled with wartime OSS veterans, the new agency had a predisposition to clandestine action, not just to intelligence gathering. Confronting the brutal Soviet KGB around the globe, CIA played a rough game. Eventually, CIA fell afoul of changed national values. The Church Committee hearings led to restrictions on CIA action like assassinations. From the mid-Seventies onward, CIA concentrated conventional intelligence-gathering and analysis.

Then came 9/11.[1] The scales fell from their eyes, or they had a Road to Damascus experience, or whatever other Biblical reference occurs to you. An executive order from President George W. Bush overturned the limits on action. CIA agents lashed out at Al Qaeda operatives wherever they came within reach. Some were killed, either by a rapidly-expanded paramilitary arm of CIA or by drone strikes. Some were captured and subjected to “enhanced interrogation.” In 2003, the US attacked Iraq, only to see early triumph turn into a gory insurgency that seemed to have no end. Soon, there came a backlash against both big wars and the use of torture.[2] A new consensus emerged: killing terrorists is acceptable, but torturing them is not. Certainly, it is less likely to get people keel-hauled by a Congressional committee. According to Mark Mazzetti, CIA “went on a killing spree.” Drones and commandos struck Islamists[3] in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. While banning the use of torture, President Barack Obama has continued all the other programs begun by the Bush administration.

Arguably, the results have been as disastrous, if not quite so dramatic, for American intelligence as for the Islamists hit by Hellfire missiles launched from Predator drones. In an Econ 101 analysis, multiple needs compete for finite resources. Resources (money, manpower, attention) spent “man-hunting” can’t be devoted to other needs. Yet the US faces multiple current, latent, and potential threats.

The CIA already suffered from maladaptation between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. Its budget fell as part of the “peace dividend”; spending on new technologies further reduced the resources for human intelligence-gathering and analysis; and its former strengths in Soviet and East European issues could not easily be shifted to new areas. (Pashto and Polish both begin with a P, but there the similarity ends.)

America’s political culture is having a hard time discussing the choice between long-term trends and immediate action. The recent murder of five servicemen by what looks like an Islamist “lone wolf” will only make “man-hunting” seem more vital than ever.

[1] Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (New York: Penguin, 2013).

[2] In 2004, CIA’s Inspector General condemned some of the practices as “unauthorized” and “inhumane.”

[3] Including the occasional American renegade who declined to surrender himself to more formal American justice.

Good enough for government work.

What follows is the sort of quibbling over details that appeals only to scholars. However, historians believe that human affairs are “contingent.” That is, even if humans are storm-tossed in some vast sea of historical processes, the actions that individuals take or do not take always have consequences.

Commenting on the troubles in Yemen and Libya, Professor Daniel Benjamin (US State Department counter-terrorism co-ordinator, 2009-2012, and now a professor at Dartmouth) said that “The forces that drove the Arab Spring [of 2011] were of such enormous dimensions that it’s unrealistic to think any president or any group of leaders could steer these events.”[1] It is possible to take a different view.

For one thing, the “forces that drove the Arab Spring” have been totally mastered. Protests in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, and Somalia all soon ended after largely cosmetic concessions by the authorities.   Something harsher was required in in Egypt and Syria. Under pressure from the crowds in a few urban areas and from the United States, the Egyptian military dictatorship bent but did not break. Now it has reasserted its power, using the threat of Islamism as its justification. Seeing what was happening in Egypt, the far more ruthless Assad government in Syria took a strong line with the urban malcontents.   They malcontents are mostly in refugee camps at the moment. What the Syrians were left with was an uprising among conservative Sunni Muslims who have been joined by a flood of Islamist foreign fighters, just as the insurgency in Iraq attracted hordes of Islamist jihadis. What does Islamism have to do with the American liberal vision of the “Arab Spring”?[2]

For another thing, the United States played an active role in creating the chaos that now engulfs both Libya and Yemen.   The Obama Administration exceeded its mandate from the UN when it expanded its involvement in the Libyan rebellion from protecting civilian lives to toppling the Gaddafi regime through air-power.[3] Then the U.S. walked away when the overthrow of Gaddafi opened a Pandora’s box of troubles. Much more reasonably, the U.S. also supported the initiative by the Saudi-dominated Gulf Co-operation Council to push “president” Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office. Here alone the Americans had a clear goal: to preserve the ability to hunt Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula jihadis.

As the NYT headlined the story in which Daniel Benjamin was quoted, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For.” That’s a modest goal. Not transformative of the entire Middle East. Not a lasting solution to the problem of radical Islam. Not the sort of thing to win someone a Nobel Peace Prize. But manageable within the limits of our power.

[1] Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For,” NYT, 17 June 2015.

[2] See: “Arab Youth,” September 2014.

[3] It also helped poison Russian-American relations. See: “Obama versus Putin,” September 2014.

What we learned from Seymour Hersh 3.

Between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, the C.I.A. had declined in some areas while growing stronger in other areas. The areas of its strength did not match well with the immediate needs of counter-terrorism. The areas of its weakness were just those areas where competence was in high demand. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld[1] knew very well the weaknesses of the C.I.A. because he had served on several task forces on intelligence during the previous Bush and Clinton administrations. It would take several years to bring the C.I.A. back to full strength. The terrorists were not going to wait in a neutral corner until the Americans got back on their feet and the referee allowed the fight to continue. If the C.I.A. could not fill the leadership role, then some other organization would have to lead.

Very soon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began to press for “the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, and not the C.I.A., [to get] the lead in fighting terrorism.” (p. 17.) What Rumsfeld wanted was “to get the U.S. Special Forces community into the business of what he called…”manhunts,”…” (p. 16.)

Immediately following 9/11, Rumsfeld ordered General Charles Holland[2], commander of Special Operations, to come up with a list of known terrorist targets for immediate attack. (p. 265.) In October 2001, numerous cases occurred where either Air Force pilots or Special Forces teams were prevented from striking at suspected Al Qaeda targets by various bureaucratic and/or legalistic restrictions. (pp. 48-49.) At about the same time, Holland provided a list, but warned that there was a dearth of “actionable intelligence” to support any rapid attack. (p. 266.) Rumsfeld suggested that Special Operations be made a “global command” directly under the command of the Secretary of Defense, with responsibility for all military operations against terrorists. (p. 271.)

In late 2001 or early 2002, President George W. Bush signed a legally required “finding” that authorized the Department of Defense to create a special unit to attack Al Qaeda. Henceforth, Hersh identifies this program as the SAP (for “special access program”).[3] (p. 16.) This “highly secret program….was given blanket advance approval to kill or capture and, if possible, interrogate high-value targets…..The program would recruit operatives and acquire the necessary equipment, including aircraft, and would keep its activities under wraps.” (p. 49.) “In theory, the operation enabled the Bush Administration to respond immediately to time-sensitive intelligence: commandos crossed borders without visas and could interrogate terrorism suspects deemed too important to for transfer to the military’s facilities at Guantanamo. They carried out instant interrogations, often with the help of foreign intelligence services—using force if necessary—at secret C.I.A. detention centers scattered around the world. [4] The intelligence would be relayed to the SAP command center in the Pentagon in real time, and sifted for those pieces of information critical to the “white,” or overt world.” (p. 50.) In July 2002 Rumsfeld ordered General Holland, commander of Special Operations, “to develop a plan to find and deal with members of terrorist organizations…The objective is to capture terrorists for interrogations or, if necessary, to kill them, not simply to arrest them in a law-enforcement exercise.” (p. 265.)

The Defense Department was going to collect and analyze intelligence on terrorism.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Rumsfeld

[2] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_R._Holland

[3] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_access_program The Wikipedia entry illustrates some of Hersh’s problems. There are a host of “Special Access Programs.”

[4] On the “black sites,” see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_site

What we learned from Seymour Hersh 1.

Seymour Hersh (1937- ) is an investigative journalist and—on occasion—a Holland Tunnel of an ass-hole in the eyes of American government officials. His parents were Lithuanian Jews who got to the United States before the Holocaust. He got a BA in History at the University of Chicago, then drifted into reporting. His politics leaned left and he was hard to corral.[1] His first big break came when he broke the story of My Lai (1969). Then he worked in the Washington bureau of the New York Times during the Watergate events (after which he wrote a highly critical book about Henry Kissinger). More books critical of American foreign policy followed. Hersh became controversial not only for his sharp stabs at alleged government wrong-doing, but for his use of anonymous sources. Richard Perle called Hersh the “closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist.” Hersh has won five George Polk Awards for investigative journalism and a Pulitzer Prize. In 2004, Hersh published a book on the enormities arising from the intersection of intelligence and policy-making in the run-up to the Second Gulf War.[2] What did we learn?

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the CIA had gone into a steep decline. One factor in this decline had been the change in the nature of the target. CIA case officers were overwhelmingly European-language speakers used to suborning treason on the part of Soviet bloc officials while operating under diplomatic cover. The implosion of the Soviet target and the liberation of the eastern European satellites had rendered most of these men redundant. Emerging dangers in the post-Cold War scene were difficult to identify with certainty; it was even more difficult to create new cadres of officers to deal with these dangers. These factors led to a considerable decline in the over-all number of Operations Directorate officers, rather than a shift of human resources to new targets. Instead, there took place a shift of resources from gathering human intelligence to gathering signals intelligence and remote observation. To compensate for the loss of case officers, the Directorate of Operations shifted to relying upon liaison relationships with foreign intelligence services. (pp. 76-77.)

Later, in 1995, the public revelation that the CIA had employed a Guatemalan involved with the death squads as an informant led to an order that “assets” who might be considered to have criminal or humans rights problems in their records could only be recruited with prior approval of CIA headquarters in Langley. Hundreds of existing agents all around the globe were simply dumped and new ones rarely recruited. (pp. 79-81.) One case officer of the time fumed to Seymour Hersch that “Look, we recruited assholes. I handled bad guys. But we don’t recruit people from the Little Sisters of the Poor—they don’t know anything.” Bob Baer recalled that “It did make the workday a lot easier. I just watched CNN.” (Hersh, p. 81.)

By 9/11 the C.I.A. lacked the personnel to respond effectively. In summer 2001–before the 9/11 attacks–former Middle Eastern case officer Reuel Marc Gerecht warned of the dangers in an article in The Atlantic Monthly. He quoted officers saying things like “For Christ’s sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia….Operations that include diarrhea as a way of life don’t happen.” (Quoted, p. 77.) As one now-retired clandestine service officer put it to Hersh, the decision-making was dominated by people who “wouldn’t drive to a D.C. restaurant at night because they were afraid of the crime problem.” (Quoted, p. 81.) So, that’s concerning.

[1] D’un: the highly-educated child of Jewish immigrant parents living in Chicago. Gene McCarthy’s press secretary in 1968.

[2] Seymour Hersh, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (HarperCollins, 2004) based on a series of New Yorker pieces.