Book Teaser: The Global Village Myth

January 28, 2014 - Comments Off

Though I’m not posting much these days, War on The Rocks have been kind enough to post this, the argument of the book in nutshell form.


What Times, What Customs

November 25, 2013 - Comments Off

Twitter is a phenomenon that attracts superficial, lightweight, gossipy commentary on the few days we have on this earth.

So I thought I’d join in.

I suspect it will be mostly a little newsagency for collecting the best feeds on the things that obsess the Offshore Balancer, plus some occasional sports journalism thrown in.

If you can bear this cultural decline, here it is.


The Great War of…1990

November 6, 2013 - Comments Off

The year 2014 is nearly on us, and reflections on World War One are already weighing down bookshop shelves. In my own research, I’ve stumbled across an odd tendency: that whereas in Britain the cause of World War One, if not its conduct, attracts strong supporters as well as critics, the first Gulf War is remembered as a bit of a disappointment.

Consider the difference with one of history’s archetypal ‘limited’ wars, which few seem keen to defend.

In early 1991, having defeated the fourth largest army in the world after a bombing campaign and 100 hours of ground war, President Bush I called a halt to operations and stopped US forces at the Iraqi border. Despite majorities in polls supporting the overthrow of the defeated but surviving enemy Saddam Hussein, despite the belief of commander General Schwarzkopf that the US could drive on to Baghdad with virtually no resistance, despite the apparent opportunity to finish the job, Bush held back.

Ever since, observers have debated whether this consciously limited war was worth it. A rough consensus emerged in the literature – both journalistic and historiographical -that this was a hollow victory. It achieved its central declared aim, of expelling the Iraqi invader from Kuwait whose sovereignty was restored. But it failed to achieve the aim that gathered force as the war proceeded – more of a hope than an aim – that defeat would lead to Saddam’s demise at the hands of a palace revolution or popular uprising.

This unsatisfying outcome led to a decade of drift, a containment regime that was breaking down and serial breaches of UN resolutions. Critics also complained that the defiant Saddam used the opportunity to arm himself with apocalyptic weapons, but that line of critique has fallen out of fashion. So too has the loose counterfactual, that America could just have occupied the country and overseen a transition to democracy at minimal cost. That also is heard less often these days. But for critics, it was, allegedly, a ‘triumph without a victory.’

Speaking of which, that is the verdict British historian Brian Bond in his account of the pursuit of victory in the modern world. For Bond:  ‘The ironic result of the Gulf War seems to be either Saddam Hussein will be left in power to build up his forces for renewed aggression or, by some means short of another great coalition war, he will have to be deposed. There can rarely have been a case in history where the chasm between a decisive military victory and an unsatisfactory political outcome has been so wide. It was a “triumph without victory.’

Bond and I would have to agree to disagree on this one. The Gulf War was fought primarily to expel an invader from a territory, prevent Saddam’s regime from threatening the wider balance of power, keep his foot off the West’s windpipe, and shackle a predatory state. That American diplomacy (and indeed Arab diplomacy) had helped to generate this problem does not remove the question that Bush’s war addressed: was the invasion to be tolerated or not?  To judge wars only worthwhile if they achieve far more, if they destroy regimes or transform regions, is to ask too much. Most conflicts, even the ‘good’ ones, leave other tragic legacies in their wake. Just try telling Poles about the moral triumph of World War Two, or Serb minorities about the justice of the Balkans interventions.

Unless we fall prey to that ahistorical, utopian standard, its fair to say that whatever else happened, the 1990 war achieved a negative gain: a recession-fatigued, Vietnam-haunted America under a UN mandate with a broad coalition turned back an invasion and annexation of a small state. What’s more, Bush did try to convert this momentum into a settlement of sorts over Palestine, having just thwarted the main rejectionist regime in the region. But that is another story.

Regardless of all this, here is what’s truly odd. Having judged Bush’s war in the Gulf to be an extreme case of battlefield victory and political failure, Bond a few years later had this to say about Britain’s Great War of 1914-1918:

“It was, for Britain,a necessary and successful war, and an outstanding achievement for a democratic nation in arms.”

There’s something very wrong here. By what standard should we define and measure victory?  The Gulf War was hardly a picnic. It cost the US four casualties but killed thousands of Iraqis, and smashed up a good deal of infrastructure, and led to sanctions that ravaged Iraqi society. But compare it to the big one: to the first day of the battle of the Somme, or just about any day of Ypres, or the crippling naval blockade on Germany, or the atrocious occupation of Belgium, or  the disastrous aftermath and legacy of Leninism, economic dislocation, hypernationalism…by what standard, exactly, do Haig and Lloyd George get commended while Bush and Schwarzkopf are condemned?

Heavy costs and tragic unanticipated consequences came with both causes, the cause of preventing the Kaiserreich from crushing Europe, and the cause of preventing Saddam Hussein swallowing up Kuwait.  Whether one or both were worth it comes down to difficult value judgments that political change over time can alter. But as 2014 looms and poses the question of what standards to hold up to these questions, some proportion might be in order.

The Offshore Balancer in Space

October 18, 2013 - Comments Off

After Britain fended off Nazi Germany’s assault in 1940 and Washington was persuaded that it was a horse worth backing,  the United States acted as an offshore balancer. Styling itself the arsenal of democracy and the guardian of the oceans, it gave material assistance to the British empire, began protecting Atlantic shipping lanes, expanded its defence perimeter, and by throwing its weight into the struggle, helped ensure that Britain could hold on as a vital base and counterweight to the growing Reich.  By the time it entered the struggle as a belligerent, it had had time to mobilise, rearm and plan.

For the review of all this and more, I was lucky enough recently to play a minor role in the retelling of the history of America’s world war two on the History Channel. ‘World War Two’ from space combined very cool digital graphics with historians like Richard Overy to produce an unusually worthwhile television event. Its now on Youtube – and here is the episode where yours truly chipped in with a few sentences.

Its just won an Emmy too – for graphic design, so congrats to all the team! That award for aesthetic achievement was won despite the face below.

The Offshore Balancer in Space

October 18, 2013 - Comments Off

After Britain fended off Nazi Germany’s assault in 1940 and Washington was persuaded that it was a horse worth backing,  the United States acted as an offshore balancer. Styling itself the arsenal of democracy and the guardian of the oceans, it have material assistance to the British empire.

I was lucky enough recently to play a minor role in the retelling of the history of America’s world war two on the History Channel. ‘World War Two’ from space combined very cool digital graphics with historians like Richard Overy to produce an unusually worthwhile television event. Its now on Youtube – and here is the episode where yours truly chipped in with a few sentences. Its just won an Emmy too – for graphic design, so congrats to all the team!

That award for aesthetic achievement was won despite the face below.



Hitting Assad is unwise. But if done, it should be a punch, not a slap

September 2, 2013 - Comments Off

It would be unwise to attack Syria. But it would be more unwise to believe that a one-off slap will succeed.

President Obama now seeks Congressional support for an air-strike against the monstrous regime of Assad after it allegedly used poison gas against civilians. The purpose is twofold: it is punitive, to punish the regime for violating a long-standing international norm against the use of chemical weapons. And it is preventative, intended to disrupt the regime’s capability for doing it again.

In brief, this exercise in missile diplomacy strikes me as imprudent.

Firstly, the evidence is not in, not to a satisfactory standard at any rate. The same President that rose to prominence condemning the unilateralism and illegality of Bush’s war in Iraq is now pushing for a resolution in favour of bombing a country in defiance of the UN Security Council vetoes it would get, and weeks before the UN’s own deliberation about what happened is due. Personally I don’t regard UNSC agreements as morally compelling as some commentators seem to , given that it is made up of states that all carry out unilateral war when it suits them. But if war is to be waged – and that is what this is – surely the threshold should be sufficiently high for the evidence to be properly assessed. If it is so painfully clear that Damascus is the culpable party, then the evidence will reveal this. The bad faith and misrepresentation of evidence in building the case for Iraq haunts us still, and that is one reason the House of Commons has rejected Prime Minister Cameron’s plea for support for war against Syria. Now is no time to be cavalier about matters of proof.


Secondly, it places undue moral and political weight on one method of atrocity over others.  Regimes kill civilians often and with much simpler methods that usually kill at a faster clip. Tyrants do not need poison gas to terrorise civilians, even if they think they do. A well-organised political machine, radio broadcasting and machetes killed people fast and on a great scale in Rwanda in 1994. As the wolfish assassin played by Tom Cruise in Collateral quipped, no-one has killed that many people that quickly since Hiroshima.

For some reason we attribute chemical weapons with exceptional barbarity, possibly because they are linked to the scientific genocide carried out by Nazi Germany in World War Two. But most slaughters, such as at Srebrenica, are done with cruder methods. And Assad’s assault on a neighborhood with poison gas seems to have been less murderous than his use of munitions, as hundreds of thousands of Syrians could attest if they were alive to tell it.

Either we say that chemical weapons use deserves more severe punishment than other methods, in which case an argument should be made as to why, precisely. Or we say that all outrages against civilians must be punished, which will put the weary, debt-laden, divided United States on a course Obama claims to oppose, a path of endless war.

Thirdly, Obama’s case for a limited bombing conducted to defend and consolidate a norm and prevent an aggressor carrying out one kind of atrocity places too great a faith in the effectiveness of a one-off act of war. Obama presents America as a judge dispensing justice to an offender in the dock, to teach it and everyone else a lesson, and prevent them doing it again.

But if America bombs Syria, it will not be handing down a verdict in a civilian court. Objectively, whether it likes it or not, it will be joining one side in a brutal and very messy civil war. The opposition knows it. The Syrian regime knows it. Onlooking states know it – Turkey, Russia, Iran -backing one side or the other. And Assad will likely conclude that the cruise missiles fired at him from the sea are not the instruments of international justice, but a declaration of war by a superpower joining the other side.

This will likely have consequences that Obama’s arguments have hardly addressed.  The Tomahawk missiles will probably not topple Assad quickly, given the poor success rate of strategic bombing for regime change. They will, however, elicit open hostility and hostile retaliations from the regime and its backers. Assad will promise revenge, via cyber assaults on terrorist strikes against any American base, or American, he can get his hands on. Hezbollah and Iran will vow likewise and possibly also vow to punish Israel, America’s main ally in the region. And, distressingly, Russia’s hostility can be reliably expected across the board. America will find itself in an intensifying conflict where a coalition of enemies directly threaten it.

And herein is the problem: Obama wants a limited, punitive, one-off airstrike to make a point. But what he will get is something far more fraught: the opening shots in a new round of a war which will become more internationalised. Assad will likely survive and look defiant. This will make Americans, with little appetite for more war, feel humiliated, angry and/or frightened. For Obama, the downstream pressure to escalate will be strong.

And the slaughter of civilians will continue.

So, if America is to do this, let it not be a foolish slap conducted to avoid embarrassment. It should know that by stepping into this fight, it is joining a side, making fresh enemies and raising the stakes for itself. In which case, it must punch Assad with great force, not just slap him in a pinprick measure that is enough to kill bystanders and escalate the conflict, but not enough to succeed.

Given that public opinion and war weariness will circumscribe any military action to standoff strikes, they must be targeted at the regime’s capability to wage war across the board: its airpower, its cyber-capabilities, its command and control centres, its radar systems, its ships and its army on the ground. If America is determined to impress upon the world the extent of its presence and its power, and if it really does believe that this regime should be stopped in its tracks effectively, if it really does identify its security interests with the success of the Syrian rebels, then this is what is required.

If this sounds horrifically unacceptable, and if it sounds like the kind of thing Americans will not shoulder, then America’s policymakers should not delude themselves that a few cruise missiles will be a sensible substitute. Because stepping in to this war will very likely lead to mutual escalation. It is not just a matter of ‘knowing the enemy’, it is a matter of ‘knowing oneself.’ Knowing itself, Washington should realise that it itself will not tolerate the blowback from a bombing slap.

So, its go hard or go home.


Questions about Syria

August 27, 2013 - Comments Off

I’ve posted some questions about the looming air strikes against Syria over at the Duck of Minerva

A fresh article on its way in Infinity, stay tuned!

Ham Omelettes and Taiwan’s Defence

August 23, 2013 - Comments Off

In the old old question of why the weak occasionally beat the strong, my favourite metaphor is the Ham Omelette. In a Ham Omelette, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.

In a clash over the Taiwan Strait, who would be the pig, who the chicken? This matters, because in the end predicting the outcome of a China-Taiwan clash would not be about the absolutes of military victory narrowly conceived, but about the issue of cost tolerance and the fear of a Pyrrhic result.

Relations between Taiwan and Beijing have eased in the latest ‘detente.’ But some worry that their mutual aims regarding Taiwan’s ultimate sovereignty are still irreconcilable and that they could still deteriorate. One thing driving this anxiety is the shifting military balance between the two, moving in China’s favour. But assessments of the clash are still predominantly quantitative. The debate should focus primarily not just on China’s superior mass and technology, but on whether it would be willing to absorb the costs of an invasion compared to the Taiwanese’ willingness to tough it out.

Some of the most prominent studies of the cross-strait military balance pay little heed to the question of relative will. Which side would be more cost-tolerant? Would the prospect of a Pyrrhic victory deter China? Conversely, would the Taiwanese have the stomach for an all-out clash after a saturation bombing and massed invasion?

The annual ‘Military Balance‘ produced by the International Institute of Strategic Studies is an example. At a mere £300 or so ($467) it is surely a bargain at twice the price (!). But its assessment is overshadowed by the issue of who has the biggest and strongest battalions.

In 2012, it had this to say about Taiwan’s defences:

the ability of such a small military to withstand a concerted invasion from across the Taiwan Strait is doubtful. Moreover, a growing reluctance on the part of the US to furnish Taiwan with advanced military equipment means that China is closing the technology gap with Taiwan. Taipei is currently emphasising the procurement of early warning systems and missile defence to enable the island to withstand an assault for as long as possible, with the goal of buying time for US intervention.

In 2013, here was the verdict, revised only semantically:

the capacity of such a small armed forces [sic] to withstand a concerted Chinese offensive from across the Taiwan Strait is doubtful. Moreover, a growing reluctance on the part of the US to furnish Taiwan with the most advanced military equipment means that China is rapidly closing the technology gap. Taipei is currently emphasising the procurement of early-warning and missile-defence systems to enable the island to withstand an assault for as long as possible, with the goal of buying time for US intervention.

Its not surprising that the MB focuses on weapons and defence budgets, rather than second-guessing the calculus of regimes and speculating on mass psychology. And it does have a point on the narrow ‘capabilities’ question. Measured pound for pound for combat power in any straight two-sided fight, China probably could seize back control of the island if both sides went to the matt. It seemingly, increasingly, has the ‘physical’ capability edge, particularly in the air and missile competition. It has strengthened its arsenal of short range ballistic missiles, for example, and though both sides are modernising their forces, observers fear that Taiwan will suffer in the ‘fighter gap’ with its failure so far to acquire F-16C/Ds.

This is not just a dyadic issue given America’s interests in the question. With its strengthening access and area denial capabilities that might seriously raise the costs of any US intervention, Beijing could plausibly threaten to fight a localised war against an isolated and overmatched Taipei.

Realistically, China’s exploitation of the military gap could take several forms short of outright war. Beijing might hope to deter Taiwan from unilaterally declaring independence and/or to coerce Taiwan to settle on its terms. But in the remote but severe worse case scenario, China might be emboldened by its military strength and doubts about the credibility of America’s commitment to strike.

Equally, as some incisive commentaries argue, it is probable that even a Taiwan being defeated in the air and on the ground would inflict some serious stings that make the question of political will vital. When it had the greater qualitative military edge, Taiwan defined victory in offensive terms – to win in a direct clash for control of seas and skies, overpowering China’s larger but less advanced forces. It designed its defences accordingly, around capital ships and advanced planes and matching its adversaries’ investments. Judging by its own published doctrine, the National Defence Report of 2011, Taiwan recognises that victory in these terms is no longer realistic and it is switching accordingly. Taiwan now defines victory as ensuring the survival of enough forces and preventing land forces establishing a foothold on Taiwan. The same logic that enables China with today’s tools to raise the costs of US intervention into its maritime space to unpalatable levels, also enables Taiwan to do the same at a price more suited to its limited GDP expenditure on defence.

Taiwan could carry out a range of active defence measures to make any invasion attempt a bloody proposition. To turn the nautical approaches to the island into contested zones, it could exploit ‘swarming’ methods by using small-attack craft armed with anti-ship cruise missiles as light guerrillas at sea. To turn the point of amphibious landing into a shooting gallery, it could use entrenched anti-ship and anti-air missile sites. To make both the approach and the beachhead more perilous, it could use sea and land mines. All of these would need to be coordinated by surviving command-and-control and C4ISTAR network. To resist further incursions by Chinese forces, Taiwan could stress small-unit tactics and prepare for urban combat by civilian militias as well as professionals. And through passive defensive measures, Taiwan would aim to keep its forces survivable: through mobility, redundancy, and the hardening and camouflage of its assets, as well as the stockpiling of food and fuel. These would not prevent large-scale damage to Taiwan’s military and civilian property but could preserve enough combat power to keep material costs on following-on invading force high. Once it takes delivery of and stands up its expanded Anti-Ballistic missile system, this could also shield it further, though there seems to be a wide array of opinion about how effective this would be against a saturation missile attack. Anyway, this doctrine properly applied would help it raise costs on amphibious force as it approached and as it reached the shore in the following phases.

Now that Taiwan shows signs of adopting a more achievable doctrine of raising costs on the invader by giving its forces greater survivability (through hardened underground shelters, for example) and dispersing them to hit back after the initial onslaught, China might have to reckon, amongst other things, with grievous losses of transport ships packed with troops and equipment. It would probably seize some kind of air superiority, but not enough to prevent mobile artillery and infantry turning the landing beaches into a deadly zone, or to prevent even a few air assets like Apache helicopters and planes being shifted from air bases and being able to land some heavy blows.

And then there is the preparation/surprise dilemma. For China to hit Taiwan with a surprising knockout blow from the air, it would not be able to conduct a large-scale preparation of invading forces beforehand to give the game away. The interval between the first strike and the follow-on invasion attempt would give Taiwan time to recover and prepare to defend its ground. On the other hand, were China to prepare an invasion force for days before, this would give Taiwan time to prepare, disperse its forces, and hunker down. No amount of technological advancement can eliminate this tradeoff, and if anything, advances in surveillance technology give defenders a wider and deeper ‘gaze’ if they are paying attention. Taiwan also has the geographic advantage of knowing roughly where troops would have to land, given the small amount of shoreline hospitable to invasion, and could prepare to concentrate its forces there.

But even given optimum diplomatic circumstances for China – having enough strategic ‘sealift’ to transport troops, a localised war, a growing technological edge, a devastating first strike giving it command of the skies, and everything going ‘right’ militarily on the night, there are good reasons to expect that Taiwan could make it expensive. What costs would the assailant willingly bear? What about the Taiwanese population, even after the PLA marched on Taipei? Curiously, in the sophisticated treatments of the issue, the prospect of an insurgency after the end of the conventional war hardly comes up. As Michael Cole argues, there are good reasons to suppose that Taiwanese nationalism would prove robust in a war. If so, there would be an excellent chance of resistance and some heavy urban fighting around one of the questions that Taiwanese national life and politics revolves around:

While the Iran-Iraq War is an imperfect analogy for the situation in Taiwan, it nevertheless forces us to revisit the assumption that Taiwanese — especially those who identify as Nationalists or “mainlanders” — would not fight Chinese invaders. With few exceptions, almost every member of the armed forces today was born in Taiwan. The effect of one’s identification with land and nation cannot be ignored, even among those who are direct descendants of Chinese who fled across the Taiwan Strait in 1949. All, regardless of their “ethnic” identification, are the result of, and were shaped by, the idiosyncratic social forces that prevail in Taiwan, such as its culture and democratic way of life. Consequently, few are those who, when the abstracts of hostility are replaced by the harsh realities of war, would willingly abandon Taiwan, let alone refuse to fight for what makes it their home. In the end, there is little doubt that once bombs and missiles, however precise, began raining down on Taiwan, killing family members, friends, and neighbors, most Taiwanese would rally round the flag. And that flag bears one white sun, not five yellow stars.

Its understandable that debate in Washington is largely about how much material assistance and commitment Washington should provide. Hence the focus on measurable physical capabilities (though there are some very good treatments of the ‘skill’ gap between PLAAF and ROCAF pilots) and on the cause-and-effect questions of alliances, deterrence and security dilemmas. Unlike the in-depth and sophisticated debate about US casualty tolerance and aversion, there is little in the way of recent data to draw on about the populations’ political will in a China-Taiwan clash, because both sides have hardly fought any wars for some time, let alone fighting each other.

But for obvious recent historical reasons, it is worth considering the possibility of ‘post-conflict’ resistance and the greater cost tolerance of local insurgents versus foreign fighters. The prospect of combating a bloody uprising, on top of taking the steep costs of an amphibious invasion, should play against China’s hope that if it did strike, it could be quick and cheap.

This also should reassure US policymakers: that Taiwan can present an ominous defence to an invader without America going to the trouble of ramping up its security assistance and arms trade with Taiwan, and the escalation and deterioration of relations with China that this would probably create. If America is to persist in its dubious ‘Asian pivot’, trying to contain and deter a rising China and getting it to peacefully accept Washington’s hegemony without things kicking off, it would be wise not to exaggerate Taiwan’s vulnerability.

Sorry General, War is a Choice

June 14, 2013 - Comments Off

General David Petraeus advises Americans and their allies to be coldly realistic about what force can achieve. Oddly, he also advises them to prepare for a future where small wars are pretty much inevitable, where America must intervene early to prevent worse things happening later on, and where ‘stabilisation’ is a core part of war itself. Because, ultimately we sometimes have no choice.

Looking back on the ‘lessons’ that have been ‘written in blood’ in America’s wars since 9/11, Petraeus thinks he can see the greatest lesson, but repeats a common fallacy:

Our enemies will typically attack us asymmetrically, avoiding the conventional strengths that we bring to bear. Clearly, the continuation of so-called “small wars” cannot be discounted. And we should never forget that we don’t always get to choose the wars we fight.

To the contrary,  countries like the United States almost always  do get to choose. Not only the wars they fight, but how they fight them. That’s the thing about being an offshore superpower with a nuclear arsenal, friendly neighbours, overwhelming naval and air power shields and a strong army and marine corps to boot. If ever a state existed that usually, emphatically, does not have to accept war being imposed by others, it is this one. ‘Vital’ interests should mean just that – interests that are necessary for life.

Societies also choose how to commemorate wars and what lessons to divine in them.   If there are lessons to be detected in others’ blood, if we are going down the dark path of claiming to speak for the dead, maybe the best response is that once again, its time to put an end to liberal crusading.

There is a mythology at the heart of the COIN movement, not only that small wars are a decent idea if only we get our tactics right, but that we have no choice in the matter. Following the words of those who argue for war in Afghanistan or Iraq, or Libya, that mythology carries with it the facile distinction between ‘good wars of need’ or ‘necessity’, and ‘bad wars of choice.’ World War Two, a war in which and about which America made conscious choice after conscious choice, is trotted out as the gold standard in terms of war being inflicted upon America, while Iraq for Bush’s critics becomes the wicked elective war.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it takes two to tango. War is a political act and a political choice, not a state of being that one power can inflict on another. Short of another state directly trying to annihilate you, there is always a calculus. Britain did not have to make guarantees to Poland in 1939, nor did it have to choose to resist Hitler in May 1940 at the great expense to its economic strength and its empire. Franklin Roosevelt, as Marc Trachtenberg shows, knew very well that getting into an escalating struggle with Imperial Japan in the late 1930’s with crippling sanctions might well draw it into hostilities, while at the same time, he wanted a clash with Nazi Germany if only opinion could turn and America could be prepared, and he took steps to extend America’s defensive perimeter across the Atlantic and draw the country in. The virtue and wisdom of these and all decisions can be debated. What cannot be is the role that at each turn, belligerents decide for themselves what is at stake and what is worth bleeding for. To deny this is to sidestep the difficult and ancient question, and ultimately to deny responsibility.

The small wars that Petraeus found himself taking command of were not foisted on Washington. 9/11 did not speak for itself. It had to be interpreted. And in response, the President with the support of Congress elected to invade countries, overthrow and install regimes, and then stay in the face of violent resistance, to embark on an ambitious project to spread liberalism at the point of a bayonet. The whole point of the Bush Doctrine and its embrace of anticipatory war was to choose conflict supposedly on America’s terms, and wage preventive wars instead of postponing struggles Bush’s team presumed were inevitable. Obama chose to rededicate America in the short term to Afghanistan, and four years, billions of dollars and many deaths afterwards, that ‘necessary’ commitment has not broken the Taliban nor tilted the balance.

Neither does the folly end there. Petraeus argues that America should get into the habit of prevention. He thinks he is making the case for a sober and restrained concept of force. But in fact he embraces a very presumptuous confidence about American power and foreknowledge. Picking dangerous places that should be ‘fixed’ in advance, with advisors and experts and investment…commitments that can have perverse results, unintended consequences and deepen entanglement. Petraeus counsels caution, but his policy agenda is one where the West still casually interferes and thinks it knows best.

There is in fact an alternative. One marker for it is the decision of President Ronald Reagan in October 1983, after the US Marine Barracks was bombed in Beirut, killing 241 people, one of the bloodiest days for America’s military forces since World War Two. Reagan denounced the attack, pledged to stay, ordered retaliatory bombings but only months afterwards withdrew US Marines offshore. In response to Islamists using asymmetric methods, Reagan did not decide that America had no choice but to get into an ambitious land war of regime change and armed nationbuilding. He pulled his forces out. A disciplined and prudent choice was available and Washington took it. We can only imagine the pleas of the small wars faction to act differently under similar circumstances.

Begging to differ with the clique of coindanistas that build their careers around the movement to turn America’s armed forces into an imperial constabulary, a truly ‘coldly realistic’ prudent appraisal of political violence should turn America away from peripheral wars and towards a far tighter and more restrained strategic vision.  In other words, America and its allies really don’t have to go abroad in search of soup to eat with a knife.

PS: Thanks to my colleague Andreas Behnke for pointing out the important distinction between ‘coldly realistic’ and ‘prudent’ – for what its worth, this post wasn’t intended to strike a false pose of amoral Realpolitik.

Between Niebuhr and Luce: The contradictions of Obama’s statecraft

June 4, 2013 - Comments Off



What, if anything, does President Barack Obama believe about America’s role in the world? Beyond taking boots off the ground, being more polite and the Asia Pivot?

Does he believe in American exceptionalism? Does he believe America’s power is limited or limitless?

Its just not clear, nor would an amateur psychological appraisal be very useful. But we can see in his statements about the world two conflicting traditions.

Consider two of his speeches. At the Air Force Academy in May 2012, he announced:

I see an American Century because of the character of our country-the spirit that has always made us exceptional. It’s that simple yet revolutionary idea-there at our Founding and in our hearts ever since-that we have it in our power to make the world anew; to make the future what we will. It’s that fundamental faith-that American optimism-which says no challenge is too great, no mission is too hard. It’s the spirit that guides your class-“never falter, never fail.”

But about a year later, he struck a different chord at the National Defence University:

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.’

In May 2012, nothing was beyond Americans, who were exceptional and whose transformational power is limitless, and Obama invoked Thomas Paine to drive the point home. In May 2013, the world is one of tragic limits. America cannot alter the fallen nature of humankind. There are limits to its power, and it had to learn to live with insecurity.

Its tempting to regard these words purely as the opportunistic rhetorical shifts of a man who wanted to get re-elected by ramping up exceptionalist and nationalist rhetoric, and then dialled it down to justify bringing the war on terror to a close in favour of a leaner, quieter, and cheaper programme of counter-terrorism.

But Obama’s different rhetoric reflects something deeper – the combination in his world view of the spirit of Henry Luce, the magazine magnate and early visionary of the Pax Americana, and the Christian pessimist Rheinhold Niebuhr.

In a Life Magazine article in 1941, Henry Luce prophecied that the coming era would be an American Century, and that the struggle against the Axis was also a struggle for liberal democratic values worldwide, one that knew no frontiers.

In spirit, Obama has echoed that logic of a world state with an unbounded domain. At times, he has talked about the expansive extent of America’s security interests. He is, after all, a ruler who authorises assassinations at a record scale. He escalated a war in Afghanistan. He bombed Libya. And he invites emerging powers of the future to play by American rules and accept American leadership. Rhetorically, he defies pessimists never to bet against America. He spoke of ‘red lines’ in Syria that the American-led world would not tolerate tyrants like Assad crossing. More on that in a minute.

But Rheinhold Niebuhr is also an important intellectual and moral influence on Obama. For the anti-utopian Niebuhr, American exceptionalism was flawed because it lost sight of the fallen nature of creation, the tragic and imperfect nature of international relations, and the ironic patterns of unintended consequences to be found in history.

In this vein, Obama talks of prudence, the elusive quality that recognises the conflicted nature of political problems and the need to negotiate and trade off between competing things – a far cry from the sense of unlimited power of the indispensable nation. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he dwelt in an almost Augustinian way on the dilemmas and agonies of making policy in a world fallen from grace.

In practice, Obama was conspicuously restrained in his handling of the Iranian uprisings of 2009 and the Arab Spring revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond, and at a time when the Wilsonian family of liberal hawks and neoconservatives was calling for a full-throated Reaganesque embrace of the democratic movements. They were deeply disappointed with Obama’s caution. As for red lines, it seems he won’t enforce them after all, and the Syrian rebels with beheaders and chemical weapons users in their ranks might also be crossing them.

He twists and turns. Note his awkward dealing with the question of whether the republic is truly ‘special’, a sentiment that at times he embraces, but at other times dilutes and parses.

Obama feels entitled to talk of limits, prudence and humility…just don’t use the word ‘decline’, in which case you ‘don’t know what you’re talking about’, even in an era of astronomic debt.

Instead of looking for the true Obama essence, we should recognise that the age of financial crisis and the brutal exposure of the limits of American power have reintroduced an alternative American tradition of pessimism and self-doubt, to sit uneasily alongside the bright talk of American moments, centuries and new revolutions.

Who could better reflect the clash of the visions of Luce and Niebuhr than the part-idealist, part-cold pragmatist, part assassin-in-chief, part preacher of norms and laws, part messianic agent of change, part bank-bailouting defender of the status quo, part bomber and part boots-off-the-ground, part man of the Harvard educated establishment, part community organiser and outsider?

It ultimately reflects the gap between a persistent rhetoric about America being the guardian of world order that will always rise again – a standard vocabulary that presidential candidates must nod to- and the bleak material condition of a superpower that it seems will struggle more and more to pay the bills.


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