Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Responsibility of Civilian Policy Advocates: Syria and R2P

My views on the responsibility to protect concept and its advocates cavalier promotion of their cavalierly acronymed (R2P) construct previously boiled over into a debate on civil-military relations.  When I rhetorically asked on Twitter if they were ready to head down to the recruiting station to back up their convictions, I was accused of stepping afoul of the dictates of civilian control of the military.  I had no such intentions, as I subsequently stated.  Instead, I was asserting that R2Pers' moral certitudes were not backed up by a sufficient and sober counting of the costs.  Thinking of the "sacrifice" in the sterile terms that have accompanied a decade's worth of airport thank-yous and sporting events kickoffs is not the same as the heart-rending, gut-wrenching feeling of losing someone close to you; the flesh-tearing, life-changing pain of being maimed or killed by war; or the numbing, mind-altering experience of searching for parts of bodies, pulling dead children from rubble, and the like.  These are not a prerequisite for policy prescription, however the very terrible realities of war should not be glossed over in an attempt to sell lethal policy.  The advocates will state that these things are on-going in Syria, that they have contemplated them, and that we have a responsibility to stop it.  They will also state that the military has signed up for such things and that it must stand ready to make such sacrifices.      They also believe, against the weight of recent experience and longer historical example, that this will somehow be different.  That nifty technology will somehow make it easier, cleaner.  That aseptic corridors will be acceded to by a dictator determined not to find his end in a roadside ditch under the blows of his once-subjects, a gunshot, and the slow bleed, in great pain, during which he knows he is dying.  This image is undoubtedly seared into Assad's mind and that of his coterie.  But, surely, he will play fair with us.
All the more reason to take him out, they will say.  He is craven and cannot be allowed to continue this crime of epic proportions.  They do not see that their desire for a limited and humane intervention faces the vote of a determined enemy that will want to draw us into the quagmire, will want our precision-guided munitions to fall into the ambiguous targets of war, where cameras capture the wreckage of children, bright clothes smeared with blood and dusted with the gray remnants of a home collapsed upon them.  A father with tears in his eyes stands, hands pointing to the body, palms outward in helplessness.  Why, he asks, why do the Americans keep doing this?  Suicide bombers, IEDs, or missiles will cross lines on maps in op-eds and journal articles and we will call them cowards.  Meanwhile, drones or manned aircraft will loiter tens of thousands of feet above in impunity after the destruction of Syria's integrated air defense system with a bombing campaign that shocks all of the interventionists in its ferocity and breadth.  As the map lines blur, the bombs will fall silently, following the invisible beam of a laser.  They will fall into the ambiguity on the other side of the line and our moral certitude will shake, shudder, and eventually crumble as a civil war spreads in the murk.  We will look at the lines, now covered in dust, and bicker over what to do and how to do it.  

Actors in Syria and in the region will tell us that they never wanted us there in the first place.  People scarred by war, their earliest memories marked by the smell of seared hair and flesh, burning plastic and rubber, the wails of mothers and sisters, a father, a grandfather, a brother transformed forever into a wrecked corpse, will march to the charge of another invasion, another occupation.  These will be the ones that survived by the lessons learned in a decade of war.  We will stand, the lines now vanished, trampled by the movement of patrols into the ambiguity, not wanting to press beyond our conception of a limited intervention, but unable to leave.  The R2Pers will not be in the midst of this.  They will be writing from their study, incredulous that military and civilian officials could have botched such a simple mission once again.  Wondering why we hadn't learned all the lessons of the better wars we could throw.  

Surely, it cannot be as bad as all that, you might say.  True.  It may not be as bad as I say, but it will surely be more messy than the glib op-ed that Anne-Marie Slaughter threw together for the New York Times last week.  CNN reports that the military is looking at using as many as 75,000 troops just to secure potential Syrian chemical weapons sites.  The realities of a Syrian intervention are far messy than Dr. Slaughter is willing to countenance in her infantile fantasy masquerading as policy prescription.  Therein lies the rub.  Dr. Slaughter is a respected policy elite and people take her ideas seriously.  Therefore, she has a responsibility to be honest and open in her advocacy with regard to the risks and complexities of her proposal.  Dr. Slaughter tweeted a few weeks ago that those outside of government could partake in one-sided advocacy, leaving policy-makers in government to sort out the details.  This is the height of irresponsibility.  Essentially, she is saying that people like her are free to sell the American people on a policy in NYT op-eds without fully disclosing the costs and complexities, leaving the unhappy recipients in government with the task of dealing with the unstated costs and risks, while public debate shaped by dishonest people like her has closed off some of their policy options.

Slaughter states that simply arming the opposition would lead to destabilizing civil war.  However, arming the Free Syrian Army to create "no-kill zones," that is enabling the FSA to control swathes of territory just within the sovereign borders of Syria would somehow bring an end to the butchery.  Not mentioned is how the FSA would take or hold this territory against the likely violent disagreement of the regime.  We are talking about battle here.  Not potshots against regime forces, but the taking and holding of territory.  This is not just glossed over in the Slaughter plan, but completely ignored.  She speaks blithely of the use of special forces to enable the FSA, and how they could enable the FSA to cordon population centers and rid them of snipers.  What you don't see here is the bloody battle and likely airstrikes needed to push the bulk of the regime forces away from these population centers to be cordoned.  Nor does it discuss the brutal and psychologically exhausting game of counter-sniper operations.

Slaughter next discusses locating tank and artillery units.  What she does not discuss is what is to be done once they are located.  Will they be showered with leaflets?  Or will she expect us to neutralize them?  That is a clean term.  It involves using aircraft, which means destroying an extremely capable integrated air defense system (IADS).  While there has been commentary to the contrary, this is much different than slipping through once or twice on raids as the Israelis have done.  Rest assured, any use of air in Syria will require an elaborate take-down of the IADS that will shock the bleeding hearts in our midst.  Even with the use of new technology to electronically disable the system temporarily, any attacker will use bombs to take them out permanently.  Also, no matter how precise the weapons, whether used against IADS, tanks, or artillery, the amount of explosive and shards of metal required to destroy such targets creates a deadly bloom that extends well beyond their intended target.  When missiles, artillery pieces, or tanks are located in and amongst civilian structures, collateral damage (as described above far more messily) will occur.

Slaughter asserts that all of this will be done only defensively and only against those that "dare" to attack the haughtily termed no kill zones.  Defensively is not defined here.  Does defense include taking out the IADS?  Does defense include taking out artillery in range of the no-kill zones?  Does defense include taking territory inside Syria to establish no-kill zones?  Does defense include counterattacking against Syrian forces that mass in preparation to push these "foreign fighters" (as they will be termed) out of their territory?  Does defense include pushing farther into Syrian territory when these no-kill zones fail to stop the killing beyond their neat lines?  

Slaughter then goes completely off the rails of credibility when she states that Turkey and the Arab League should help the opposition more actively through the use of remotely piloted helicopters, both for logistical missions and to "attack" Syrian air defenses and mortars (she leaves out artillery here, not sure why) that can range the no-kill zones.  First, we see here that even Slaughter cannot sort out her charade of a purely defensive operation.  How is an attack purely defensive?  Second, if Slaughter was informed to an extent just one step above dangerous ignorance of military affairs, she would realize that her call for the Turks and Arab League to use remotely piloted helicopters for logistical and attack missions is roughly equivalent to a call to use sharks with lasers on their heads to do the same.  She cites American use of remotely piloted helicopters in Afghanistan.  True.  The U.S. has used two prototype remotely piloted helicopters to perform logistical missions in Afghanistan.  These are prototypes, however.  They have not been used in an attack role.  Using drone helicopters in an attack role against sophisticated air defenses or artillery positions is so far off even for America right now that she may as well have advocated using teleporters and phaser guns.  To imagine that the Arab League and Turkey can obtain and use such technology operationally in any meaningful numbers is so ludicrous as to be a lie.  I don't expect Slaughter to be a military expert, but stepping back from the technological aspects I do expect her to understand that concerted action by the Arab League, even in the most circumscribed situation, is not immediately forthcoming.  Advanced military operations using breakthrough technology is completely out of the realm of credible policy prescription.

Thus, the last few paragraphs of Slaughter's vapid essay indicate that it is completely out of touch with reality.  She states that it is up to the Arab League and Turkey to adopt a plan of action.  That simply is not going to happen in any form similar to what she advocates.  The only way that such a plan will be implemented is if the U.S. twists arms and stands ready to do all the heavy lifting.  In reality, then, Slaughter's neat plan will degenerate into the U.S. sticking its nose into yet another quagmire.  

I do not believe that only those with military experience are qualified to advocate military intervention.  Nor do I object to the primacy of civilian control over the military.  I do object to policy advocation so simplistic and incorrect as to be deliberately misleading.  War and military force is a brutal and imprecise instrument.  It is ugly, destructive, wasteful, and stupid.  It makes no clean cuts, creates no neat solutions.  Sometimes it is the only option and sometimes the terrible horrors of war are required to prevent catastrophe.  We must be brutally honest and circumspect, however, in our advocacy of policy.  If the benefits truly outweigh the costs, let us discuss and air the best estimates and make an informed decision.  Advocacy like that of Anne-Marie Slaughter, however, is so disingenuous and so powerful with the pulpit that she commands as to be its own sort of evil.  It is an evil that I hope she corrects.


  1. Nice job taking Ms. Slaughter's morally superior fantasy apart.

  2. It is possible for serving military personnel with substantive credentials to explain how bloody and horrible R2P is when persons outside the administration are advocating it, yet no serving military person will make those same arguments when the administration is recommending some form of military action.

    This makes sense assuming that you believe in subordination of the military to civilian oversight (I do).

    So what serving military member is available to explain to the public how bloody a campaign will required for our next administration-sponsored military adventure?

    It's easy for you to argue against R2P. And you have a powerful bully pulpit as a result of your military rank and experience.

    Who's an equally respected counterbalance to our next administration-led attack?

  3. Hexsaw,
    I'm not sure I follow you completely. Are you saying I shouldn't be saying this as a military officer? Or I shouldn't be saying this if the administration switches to a policy of intervention? I'd agree with the latter.

    I don't think I have a powerful bully pulpit. I guess I could submit this as a NYT op-ed to counter AMS's, but posting it here, or even at SWJ will garner nowhere near the attention AMS has with her access to NYT, FT, etc, and her recognized name.

    I'm not so much arguing against R2P here, although I don't agree with R2P, as I am arguing against the simplistic and I think deliberately misleading line that its advocates take. If you want to advocate R2P, fine. But do it with an honesty that will inform decision and won't leave us scratching our heads at yet another massive adventure sold as a couple month cakewalk. If you really believe in the R2P, then you need to be honest in your advocacy so that we make an investment that has some chance of succeeding.

  4. I went off on a bit of a tangent, taking out my irritation with how hard it is to get a sane voice heard when military intervention is being considered. I'm not disagreeing with your argument (it sounds compelling to me), nor saying you shouldn't be saying this as a military officer.

    I'm curious what is the equivalent to your voice (serving, published, reasonably well-known milblogger, midgrade officer with combat experience) when the administration decides to advocate for military action here or someplace else in the future?

    When the administration pushes for war, even with unreasonable expectations, there's no appropriate way a civilian-led military can publicly point out the flaws in the plan without undercutting civilian leadership.

    So that means your voice only can be used to undercut a call for R2P (or other military intervention) when it benefits the administration.

    In theory, our press could be the counterbalance, but they (for the most part) are a little short of mid-grade officers with military planning experience. And the senior military talking heads associated with the press are, well, biased and lacking in recent planning experience, is the kindest way I can put it.

    It's a structural flaw found in a military which properly defers to civilian leadership: our (the military's) bully pulpit, and the strength of our reputation, can only properly be employed in support of the administration's position.

    I agree with your post, by the way, but am curious if you have any ideas about how to employ similar arguments the next time the civilian leadership pushes for war with similarly flawed reasoning. Is there a way? Or are we always stuck arguing against stupidity when it's convenient for the administration?

  5. Peter:

    I'll pose this question simply, even if the question is, at least on its face, naive.

    Your post is articulate and knowledgeable about the issue it addresses. It speaks directly to an already-published piece, and thus would create a dialogue that journalism should seek to foster.

    I concur that to people who, unlike myself, do not follow SWJ, this blog, Abu M, etc., you do not have much stature or much of a bully pulpit.

    But so what? Why assume the NYT or WP wouldn't publish your op-ed* on the basis of its intrinsic merit? I recall the NYT published an op-ed by 12 (I think) members of the 82nd Airborne during OIF. You're a military officer with experience in and knowledge of the region. You're arguably more qualified than Slaughter to offer an opinion, and, once more, without sounding sycophantic, the intrinsic merits of your post are more than adequate.

    I realize there are issues of civil-military relations, as well as potential repercussions for you professionally (although I think you've seen you blog or tweet that you're done when your commission ends).

    So, once more, if you care to dwell on it - and I can certainly understand if you don't - why not submit it and see what happens?


    *Needless to say, I'd call for editing both with respect to "toning it down" a bit as well as making it more concise, but the underlying quality is more than sufficient.

  6. Kosovo was a disaster and was basically undertaken on R2P grounds. Bush used similar rhetoric to support Iraq. The absence of WMDs deep-sixed Iraq, but the absence of mass graves has done little to delegitimize Kosovo. Indeed, in the age of the professional military, there seems little our forces can't do that will escape public wrath.

    I hope some day all of these idiotic adventures--Kosovo, Libya, possibly Syria--go down as disreputably as the Banana Wars.

    What's missing today, of course, is our Smedley Butler. The military leadership is bought and paid for and can't even hold the line on something like DADT. Back in the day officers have some family wealth, but now they're middle class, in debt like everyone else, and kept in line by the promise of a pension. Yank that and God knows what would happen in this country. And exactly that is what happened 20 years ago in Russia.

  7. Teaching civilian responsibility should always be prioritized.