Saturday, February 4, 2012

Syria, R2P, and the Real World

For more on this back and forth see this post.

I annoyed several people today on Twitter when I mused as to whether those who were touting our responsibility to protect (so glibly abbreviated by people who want this to be a "thing" as R2P) the people of Syria were going to be heading down to recruiting offices to join in the effort.  This was a rhetorical jab and one that some took umbrage to, saying that people who aren't in the military have a right to an opinion, as well, and that such questions are too important to be left to generals.  The sensitivity of these Ivy Tower champions of the utility of force to such jabs drives me to distraction, but it also misses my point.  I do think such issues are too important for generals.  They are also too important for people who have neatly packaged conceptions of the world, designed to fit through the narrow funnel of academic theory and confirmed through "research trips" consisting of friendly conversations sitting cross-legged on a dirt floor or in a coffee house or university, plus maybe a few years working to churn out policies that practitioners shake their heads at from the bowels of the Pentagon or Foggy Bottom.  One need not have served to have an opinion, but I do think that people signing others up to "protect" with glib assumptions of easy and limited interventions and quick success deserve the rhetorical jab.  And this is not a jab at all who inhabit the ivory towers of academia and rarified policy, because some understand the sordid reality of the world just from others' accounts of them.  The ones I aim at, however, have missed them in their quest for elegant theories and policies.  Finally, even for those who vow to "understand the sacrifice" involved in such interventions and have "counted the cost," this is a sterile, abstract, and academic accounting that I think would be far different if they were rallying to the gunfire as idealists once did in a different age, as volunteers in World War I and II or the Spanish Civil War, to take examples in which the U.S. was not involved (initially in the first cases).

One tweeter lamented that, if nothing is done in Syria, then R2P is just an idea.  What he and others like him do not understand, clearly, is that R2P is just an idea.  It is an idea that is attractive to me as an idea. The depths of the barbarity in Syria are sickening and I would ideally very much like to see it stop.  I do think that the world has a responsibility to protect human life to the extent possible.  However, the facile assumptions that the R2P crowd is making about a way ahead in Syria betray the unreality of their understanding of the world writ large and the region in particular.  First, they talk about making "buffer zones" or "cordons" around specific cities, stating that this is a limited intervention.  Supposing that this would be neat and limited is the height of foolishness.  This calls for a full-fledged invasion of a sovereign nation and the taking, holding, and ultimately administration of its territory.  In using the term sovereign, I am not as concerned about the concept of sovereignty and whether the Assad regime deserves to have its sovereignty respected as I am concerned with the fact that the Syrian military still has  the capability to resist such an invasion of the country's territory.  It cannot stop an invasion lead by first rate powers, but it can inflict significant casualties.  Additionally, even airstrikes, the darling of liberal interventionists, will have to be extremely robust and wide-reaching just to defend limited cordons due to the fact that Syria's air defense system is much more significant than that found in Libya, or even in Iraq in 2003, due to a decade of strikes.  Setting that aside, once in, what does one do if the Syrian military is harrying the defenders of these cordons from beyond?  Do we sit under the barrage or will we be obligated to strike out farther and farther in self-defense?  I could go on, but the idea that this will be limited quickly falls to pieces upon further thought.

Note that I said that the Syrian army cannot stop an invasion by a first rate power.  Here, we must note the second gaping flaw in the R2Pers construct for Syria.  They promise that no U.S. troops will be committed.  We all know that means no Europeans will be signing up either.  That leaves an Arab League intervention.  Students of the region will note that the Arab states have had some troubles, to say the least, in pulling together to conduct any sort of coordinated policy, much less a military intervention.  The members of the Arab League have very different interests in Syria and seek very different outcomes.  Even if a coordinated intervention in Syria could be put together, which is doubtful, the end result may be even greater tensions across the region than currently exists.

This is before we consider the very real possibility of a Syrian regime "death blossom."  Some of my readers know what I mean with this term, but for those who don't, a death blossom is what someone with little control of himself does when faced with the threat of death from small arms or other fire.  Generally, this someone is the holder of an AK-47 with the trigger mashed down through gross motor control and pirouettes through at least 360 degrees of motion, spraying death at everyone around.  The Syrian regime holds far more significant weapons than AK-47s.  What is more, this isn't crazy Muammar out in the middle of the desert, this is a regime in a very densely packed region bordered by a lot of dry kindling:  Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.  Syria has threatened to reach out and touch all who may be seen as interfering in its affairs, and it has the means to do so.  Let's not forget, too, the alliance between Syria, Iran, and all of their nefarious proxies.  An intervention in Syria, no matter how limited it is in intention, could spiral very, very rapidly out of control, spreading conflict across the region and making good of all the glib buzz phrases people have come up with since 9/11.

As for the argument that a civil war may cause a bigger conflagration than an intervention, a question just posed by @SlaughterAM, a full-fledged civil war is no likelier to be avoided by an intervention than to be caused by it, in addition to the complications of the third-party and second/third-order effects mentioned above.  What is more, it will be easier to contain a civil war, if it does come, from outside than it will be to extricate ourselves from the middle of one.

In sum, I absolutely believe that in an ideal, linear, and rose colored world, we have a responsibility to stop the horrific loss of life in Syria.  However, in the real world, the dimensions of what is required to conduct even the "limited" intervention suggested by R2P fans is far greater than what they imagine.  This is because many of these advocates have not though through the problem in any detail because they are more concerned with the idea of R2P than with the reality of the use of force, its costs, and its limitations.  This is what my tweets were getting at today.  For all who think we can do things better this time, I beg that you read my article at Foreign Policy and this extremely resonant article from the April 1968 edition of The Atlantic.  We all want peace, but it has eluded us since the dawn of time.  If we truly want to intervene, we must make an informed decision that counts the likely costs, rather than relying on facile assumptions and acronym imperatives to drive policy.  If an intervention is to be successful, it must be based on realistic assumptions and get a realistic investment from the get-go.

From the Atlantic article:

Long before I went into government, I was told a story about Henry L. Stimson that seemed to me pertinent during the years that I watched the Vietnam tragedy unfold—and participated in that tragedy. It seems to me more pertinent than ever as we move toward the election of 1968. 
In his waning years Stimson was asked by an anxious questioner, "Mr. Secretary, how on earth can we ever bring peace to the world?" Stimson is said to have answered: "You begin by bringing to Washington a small handful of able men who believe that the achievement of peace is possible. 
"You work them to the bone until they no longer believe that it is possible.
"And then you throw them out—and bring in a new bunch who believe that it is possible."


  1. Funny to read your post today. I was thinking about commenting on your prior post, in re the hospice nurse, but figured I had little to add - not that my experiences with mortality are inconsequential, but neither have been they particularly extensive or noteworthy, and I doubt my insights on the life well-lived are particularly compelling.

    Well, in the last 24 hours or so, I found out a local man I knew/know barely, but who struck me as a very nice guy the few times we made small talk, had a son who was just KIA Afghanistan. And so I sent an email to a few friends who served in Iraq, and I also referenced someone I knew (not terribly well, but not casually either) who served in Afghanistan and was grievously, terribly, irrevocably maimed there.

    I'm not going to get into much of your post - the pros/cons of the policy debate, narrowly construed, of "intervening" in Syria. (For the record, I'm against it, too, and welcome your derision of R2P as just an idea - because indeed, that is all it is.)

    What I will get into, because I don't know the right answer, regards this:

    "One need not have served to have an opinion, but I do think that people signing others up to "protect" with glib assumptions of easy and limited interventions and quick success deserve the rhetorical jab."

    A couple thoughts. First, perhaps it makes sense to acknowledge that the rhetorical jab is just that, a rhetorical jab and no more, and one's service or lack thereof does not, ultimately, yield any prima facie insight into their ability to dissect political-military problems? Or should one take a different tack and say that, yes, indeed, service is necessary, for any number of reasons: better insight into policy, sense of citizenship and shared sacrifice, etc.? I can't articulate why particularly well, but I question if you're trying too hard to thread the needle on this one, and wonder if it would just be better (in what ways, I can't specify) if you just said something like, "Everyone should serve; service should be mandatory." I really don't know if I agree with that or not, but I would be willing to accept that as a legitimate viewpoint.

    At the risk of sounding self-pitying, hard times to be a civilian who has never served with an interest in military affairs. I often relate my interest in the military by talking about my grandfather and his service in WW II - his relating it to me is what, I think, probably sparked my interest - but having a grandfather who served in war, or a father and uncle who served during but not in war (VN), doesn't mean that *I* served.

    I'm not sure what to think, about myself, or peoples' obligation to serve (if one exists).


  2. Really, my jab isn't about service, nor do I feel that everyone should serve. The reason why that comes up is because I tweeted "I want to know when all the R2P people are heading down to the military recruiting office." That provoked several retorts that I was closing out others' opinions, etc. The thing that makes me angry isn't that people haven't served, it is the glib way in which they sign other people up for sacrifice when they've never left the campus. That wouldn't be that big a deal if these people didn't have a pretty strong voice in shaping policy because they've got all day to sit around and write papers and briefs and go to conferences and such, and eventually take their complete lack of experience to the State Department, NSC, DoD, etc, and make policy. I get and welcome civilian control of the military and I don't think that generals should be left in charge of all things military, but neither should a college professor whose whole world is rarified to theoretical principles and very direct causal chains. Academia, think tanks, and government are growing closer, with the former two being more and more special interest groups than objective arbiters of "knowledge."

    As for service, the higher ideal of service is great, but really most people go into "service" for adventure, a job, college money, etc. What matters to me is practical experience. For people who want to drive policy, I'd like to see them as a soldier, officer, foreign service officer, Peace Corps volunteer, cop, USAID worker, NGO worker, international business person, etc, etc, etc in order to get a little bit of the murk in their minds before they climb the ivory tower where everything is so clear. And when people who haven't done these things propose unrealistic policies, they should expect to be attacked for not putting their money where their mouth is.

  3. Once again, your post strikes me as funny in a way: I know someone who came out of (an extremely prominent) college, with literally probably unlimited options, and opted to work as a police officer in a notoriously rough city for five years precisely out of a very well-defined sense of service. As it so happens, he is now inclined toward another profession (medicine) in large part (I suspect) because it offers the chance for service. Actually, the fun facts continue: this person and I share a mutual acquaintance whose career path is frighteningly similar to yours: USMC aviator/FAO (or, at least, FAO career-path). Last fun fact: I interview prospective students who seek admission to my undergraduate alma mater, and resolved to take it easy on the one student I interviewed this admission season. Since she is a prospective political science major, one of the questions I asked her was whether we should intervene in Syria. Her answer was a fairly adamant "No" (while, as noted above, I agree with her - and you - I also like nuance and "on-the-one-hand-but-at-the-same-time" weighing in my interview replies.) I wonder if it's regional, or generational (the student I interviewed a few year ago of whom I asked a similar question provided a fairly similar answer), or something else, or purely random.

    Anyways, to my main point: I would simply ask: is it that you want people who've been exposed to "the murk" because knowing about the murk is useful for evaluating policy, or because on some level it's only fair that someone who asks others to risk their necks have risked his or her own? Your use of the term "the murk" implies the former, I think, but to me, even though I'm not sure whether I agree with the idea or not, it seems reasonable to assert that only those who have experienced the murk are entitled to ask others to do the same. As possibly an aside, for me it's been interesting over the last decade or so to see my father - Vietnam-era veteran who did not actually serve in Vietnam - become increasingly adamant that a draft should be mandatory.

    In closing, I'll perhaps revert to form, and be pesky: evidence that "Academia, think tanks, and government are growing closer, with the former two being more and more special interest groups than objective arbiters of "knowledge."?" As an aside, you might want to check out Mark A. Smith, "The Right Talk," for a discussion of (the evolution of) (conservative) think tanks.


  4. Whoops - the particular chapter in Smith, "The Right Talk," you'd want to check out is Chapter Four.


  5. As for the murk, the willingness to risk your neck before asking others to do so may make for better policy, but it is not necessary and the civil-military implications (which another blogger is now trying to call me out on) would be disastrous: i.e. only military veterans could hold key offices. That isn't realistic or right. But the murk learned in the real world, i.e. that firms, countries, institutions, etc, are not black boxes or billiard balls, is important in making intelligent policy. Some people get this murk just from being able to listen to/read others, but some people need to experience the murk to understand it. Some are so idealistic that they'll never get it.

  6. Your response makes me think of the former CO of PT 109's behavior during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At one point (I forget where or when or in the Crisis - I think it was rather late in it, and related to a weather plane straying off course), when somebody acted counter to some order which had been given, and JFK said something like, "There's always some [jerk] who doesn't get the word."

    Perhaps that's a good example of knowledge gained about institutional or organizational behavior that served its owner (and the nation) well - i.e., he understood organizations are imperfect and screwups are to be expected, as opposed to simplistic expectations of robotic behavior by the military, failure to conform to which leads to Tuchmann-like inadvertent escalation based on wrong assumptions.

    That said, couldn't one, first, as you admittedly allude, obtain such knowledge through pretty much any role in life (I think of The Wire, actually, and its comparison of police department and school districts)? Second, could one not arguably obtain such an understanding simply by reading, say, Graham Allison, Charles Perrow, James March, etc. (or, for that matter, the last few hundred pages of Clancy's "Sum of All Fears?") (I suspect reading alone absent real-world experience would be fruitless, though, and besides, the fact that any such student would by necessity have to be earning a living and/or a participant in an educational institution renders it a mere thought experiment.)

    (I did have a professor once note casually that natural science Nobelists do their path-breaking work at an earlier age than their social science or humanities counterparts, because the knowledge about human behavior required for the latter takes longer to accumulate. I wonder if he's right, but it sounds plausible, at least.)

    It's also interesting about JFK's (and McNamara's, or Rumsfeld's, now that I think about it - both/all veterans) perceptions of the military leadership - not necessarily respectful. Perhaps someone who thinks s/he has the moral authority not to kowtow to the military simply by virtue of not having served is a good thing, and perhaps skepticism about senior military leadership is a good thing as well. (I was told quite adamantly by an Army O-3 - actually, perhaps more than one Army officer of about that rank, now that I think about it, has said the same thing to me - that there are no such things as non-political generals. For that matter, I think in a Woodward book, Colin Powell is quoted or paraphrased as, "They say Powell is a political general. Well, yeah, I am. You have to be." To be sure, though, the argument Powell may be making - uniformed leadership must be able to interact well with elected leadership - may not be the same as that of the O-3 - uniformed leadership become such because they're good bureaucratic politicians.)

    What's interesting about JFK, though, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, is the degree and depth of skepticism and fear (paranoia?) he brought (again, IIRC): fear of coup, etc. Along those lines, I'll close with recalling (veteran) Paul Fussell (in "Doing Battle," I think) coming home from work (university, in his case) on November 22, 1963, fully expecting to see military checkpoints and roadblocks and the like, thinking the JCS had either engineered a plot or taken advantage of an opportunity.


  7. I find myself agreeing with the majority of what you've written, yet at the same time find myself very irritated with your (seemingly) glib twitter comment. I agree with the premise that people arguing for military intervention for any reason would be well served to have had some deep understanding (ideally acquired first hand) of trying to make change happen in cultures very foreign to our own. And yet ...

    Your tweet reminds me that not very many people with military backgrounds were willing to make this same sort of point to the various neocons with limited "in the murk" experience who committed us to 10 years of deficit-busting war in the Middle East. And I remember lots of people with military backgrounds willing to make the same sort of point as your tweet when R2Per's demanded action in Bosnia in the 90's.

    Restating this another way: While I agree with your blog post, it is frustrating that people with military backgrounds are more willing to speak out vocally against idealistic R2P than they are against realpolitik neocon adventurism using the argument of "if they want it so bad, they should put their mouth where there money is."

    Based on your previous writing, I believe that you have the intellectual integrity to tweet a similar point in response to ivory-tower realpolitik adventurism, but think that such a tweet would receive much less support from the rest of the milblogosphere.

  8. Hexsaw,
    Point well taken. The comment I made was not so much meant as a "only the military can make decisions as" an "are you really, truly willing to put your body where your mouth is sort of thing." And more so, "have you really put yourself into the situation and completely thought through the implications of what you are saying?" I guess having been immersed in the military for 15 years, I didn't realize how divisive the comment would be. I'm angry that people are suggesting intervention EMPHASIS seemingly without fully thinking through the implications, risks, and costs. I'm not trying to shut down debate, I'm saying go beyond the theoretical and wrap your head around what the actual messy reality may look like once it kicks off. To that end, I've been in contact with Steven A. Cook and tried to come to a better mutual understanding on the issue and look forward to Anne Marie Slaughter's FT piece to see what she has to say.

    As for the neocon adventurism, honestly I was too young and stupid to really understand what was going on in 2002/3 and just wanted to be part of "the big game." Nearly a decade later, I would surely speak out against neocon adventurism just as I have against R2P adventurism. I'm still in the military and cannot really speak out completely to shape policy, so all I want is an accounting of the costs from the policy elite before the impetus to do something has reached a tipping point without thinking about these things.

    I'm fed up with the realpolitik adventurism, the liberal interventionism, and the diseased bureaucratic outlook of the military. It is time to walk on...