Tag Archives: United States

Selection and maintenance of the aim

Strategy, Clausewitz said, is about applying means to achieve ends. It follows that good strategy requires one first to select sensible and achievable ends, and second to ensure that one actually apply one’s resources in such a way as to advance towards those ends. This is what one might call ‘instrumental rationality’. Selecting objectives which don’t benefit you, or deliberately acting in a way which undermines your own objectives, is not instrumentally rational.

For good reason, therefore, the first ‘principle of war’ as taught to British and Canadian military officers is ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’. Pick a bad aim, or fail to maintain a good aim and instead get sidetracked into pursuing something else, and failure will almost certainly ensue.

This is pretty obvious stuff, but what is remarkable is how bad Western leaders are at putting it into practice.

Take, for instance, the so-called ‘War on Terror’. This began in 2001 with an invasion of Afghanistan designed to destroy Al-Qaeda. Having occupied Afghanistan, however, the Americans and their allies decided to shift focus to rebuilding the country, and so became involved in the longest war in American history, fighting an enemy (the Taleban) who don’t pose an obvious threat to the American homeland.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in 2003, the UK and USA got further distracted and decided to invade Iraq, on the dubious grounds that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein might provide Al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction. Once Iraq had been defeated, the Anglo-American alliance found itself fighting yet another insurgency. This involved not just Iraq’s Sunni minority, but also its Shia majority, which received support from Iran. Attention therefore now shifted yet again, with Iran being seen as the enemy no. 1. Commentators began stirring up fears of the ‘Shia Crescent’, stretching from Iran through Iraq and into Syria. American security was now associated with defeating those who made up this crescent. This meant undermining Iran and toppling the Assad regime in Syria. In this way, a war on terror originally designed to fight Sunni terrorists morphed into a war against Shia states.

The Arab Spring in 2011 then added yet another objective – democratizing the Middle East. Now the aim became toppling dictatorial regimes wherever they might be, in order to give a boost to the wave of democracy allegedly sweeping the region. Thus, NATO bombed Libya to ensure the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi. This, of course, then enabled Al-Qaeda to spread its influence in north Africa, most notably in Mali.

In short, Western states, especially the USA and UK, have changed the aims of their policies in the ‘war on terror’ multiple times over the past 16 years. And they are changing them backwards and forwards as I write. One day, their focus is on toppling Assad in Syria; the next, it’s defeating ISIS; then it’s back to toppling Assad again. It is no wonder that the Brits and the Americans have made such a hash of things. They are incapable of keeping their eye on the ball. They have no strategy worthy of the name.

The problem derives from their inability to choose achievable objectives in the first place. As they fail to reach each objective, they feel obliged to change their target in an effort to avoid admitting defeat.

This fundamental lack of realism can be seen in the Anglo-American approach to Russia, which is based on the assumption that Russia can be coerced into changing its policies in Ukraine and Syria. Boris Johnson’s efforts this week to drum up support for additional sanctions against Russia are a case in point. Yet to date, the policy of coercion has achieved no success, and there is no reason to believe that it will be any more successful in the future. Russia just isn’t going to abandon Donbass or Assad. It’s not going to happen. Wishing it won’t make it so. Boris can demand regime change in Syria all he wants, but he’s not going to achieve it. Regardless of whether it is desirable, by selecting this goal, he is dooming himself to failure.

So why do Western states persist in selecting unachievable objectives, in putting so much stock in what they would desire as opposed to what they can actually do? The answer, I think, is that they seem to be unwilling to admit that the days of their hegemony are over and that they are not the bearers of universal moral truth. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that they are not able to mould the world to their wishes, they fear the consequences of admitting this more than they fear the consequences of trying and failing. That is because the costs of the latter are borne by their publics and by the people at the receiving end of their interventions, but the former are borne by the politicians in the form of a humiliating reduction in prestige. Unsurprisingly, the politicians choose to transfer the costs onto others, aided and abetted by the media and the military-industrial complex, which have similarly invested in current policies and wish to avoid the backlash which an admission of failure would involve.

Things will only get better when our leaders start selecting sensible aims. When they do so, they will find that they can actually maintain these aims, and so achieve success. But that will only happen when the illusions of military hegemony and moral superiority vanish. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon, due to the psychological distress and political damage it would cause. Alas, therefore, I see no obvious way out of this mess for some time to come.

Radio interview

I was interviewed this morning on CBC Radio on the subject of the Russia-related scandal engulfing America. You can listen to it at the link here. I first appear at the 12.27 minute point, then there’s someone else, then me again.

—- If you have problems with the link I have given, go to

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent

then click on where it says ‘listen to full episode’.

 

the lower depths

I returned from a week away without internet, newspapers, or email, to discover that Russian-US relations had plunged to a new low following the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the United States. The only positive element of the whole affair is Vladimir Putin’s refusal to play the game of tit-for-tat. Overall, the event does not strike an encouraging note on which to end the year. Nevertheless, I think that there are some grounds for thinking that Russian-Western relations have now reached rock bottom, and might start getting at least a little better.

Reports in the past couple of months have suggested a growing sense of frustration in Moscow as a result of its inability to get an agreement with the US government about Syria. In the end, Moscow bypassed Washington and reached a deal with the Turks and Iranians. Now, Putin has elected not to respond to the American decision to expel Russia’s diplomats. Together, these acts suggest that the Kremlin has given up on the Obama administration and has decided more or less to ignore it.

This has not gone unnoticed in Washington, where the growing impotence of the United States has caused great angst among the hawks in the American foreign policy establishment. These are accusing Obama of making their country ‘irrelevant’ by failing to take a sufficiently robust line against Russia. In reality, the cases above suggest that America’s increasing irrelevance is more a product of Obama’s refusal to cooperate with countries such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Fed up with Washington’s behaviour, others have decided to go it alone.

Obama’s critics are thus in some ways correct, but for the wrong reasons. What is clear is that his years in office have not been good for Russian-Western relations. This is not entirely Obama’s fault. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent civil war in Ukraine would have been bound to aggravate relations no matter who had been in the White House. But the United States could have played its cards better. It didn’t have to push forward with plans for missile defence in Europe, encourage revolution in Ukraine and Syria, refuse to collaborate with Russia in the latter, and so on. Obama and his advisors underestimated Russian power and resolve and consequently failed to pay Russia due respect. In the pursuit of what are fairly minor US interests (such as its objectives in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya), the White House lost sight of the far more important interest of maintaining good relations with the world’s largest country.

That may, however, be about to change. The election of Donald Trump has generated a huge amount of anxiety among the chattering classes in the Western world. But it does provide at least a glimmer of hope that Russian-Western relations may begin to improve. It may be no more than a glimmer, but any ray of light which penetrates the lower depths is to be thoroughly welcomed. Obama began his reign using the slogans ‘change’ and ‘hope’. In reality he provided precious little of either. The arrival of a new administration, therefore, makes this new year more hopeful than most.

The title of Maxim Gorky’s play ‘Na Dne’ is often translated as ‘The Lower Depths’ but a more accurate translation is ‘On the Bottom’. That is where we find ourselves today. But the good thing about being on the bottom is that one can only go up.

Happy New Year!

 

‘Pro-Russian’ wins election

No, not Donald Trump, although I’ll mention him later. On Monday, Bulgaria held the first round of its presidential election. In an effort to scare voters into supporting the government’s preferred candidate, Tsetska Tsacheva, outgoing president Rosen Plevneliev warned that Russia is trying ‘to weaken Europe, to divide Europe, and to make us dependent’. Unsaid but implied in Plevneliev’s statement was the idea that a vote for the ‘pro-Russian’ Socialist Party candidate, and former air force general, Rumen Radev, would be a vote for Putin and a vote to turn Bulgaria into a Russian satrap. As Tsacheva has said, ‘There are two options – to allow Bulgaria slide back into its dark past of ideological lies and submission to foreign interests or … to make sure that Bulgaria stays where it belongs, among free European countries’.

Unfortunately for Plevneliev and Tsacheva, Bulgarian voters viewed things differently. Radev came out on top in Monday’s election, winning 25.7% of the vote, compared with 22% for Tsacheva. The two now go face to face in a run-off, which the ‘Red General’ is expected to win.

The dominoes are falling. On 31 October, ‘pro-Russian’ candidate Igor Dodon won 48.2% of the vote in the first round of the Moldovan presidential election, beating ‘pro-European’ Maia Sandu, who garnered only 38.4%. Next to fall was Bulgaria. Now America. Who’s next? France and Marine Le Pen six months from now? No doubt, they’re beginning to panic in the editorial offices of The Economist and The Interpreter. The ‘pro-Russians’ are on the march.

Or, maybe not. I don’t doubt that Dodon, Radev, and Trump are less hostile to Russia than their opponents, but the ‘pro-Russian’ label is misplaced. People who cast their vote on the basis of foreign policy are relatively rare. Most people’s concerns are thoroughly domestic. They don’t vote for Dodon, Radev, Trump, Le Pen, or anybody else because they are ‘pro-Russian.’ They vote for them because they think that their policies better suit their own personal interests as well as the interests of Moldova, Bulgaria, America, or wherever. Dividing the domestic politics of these countries into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ Russian is not a useful way of framing events.

Moreover, when elected, the ‘pro-Russian’ candidate often turns out not to be so ‘pro-Russian’ after all. Take, for example, Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich. The Russians didn’t regard him as ‘pro-Russian’ in the slightest, and actually preferred the ‘pro-European’ Yulia Timoshenko. There is no telling whether Trump, Dodon, and Radev will actually be ‘pro-Russian’ once in office. What they will be is pro-American, pro-Moldovan, and pro-Bulgarian. If their own country’s interests clash with those of Russia, they will pursue the former at the expense of the latter. They will also be constrained by their countries’ membership in multilateral institutions (most notably NATO and the EU in the case of the Bulgaria), by their countries’ economic and financial ties with other states, by the pro-NATO, pro-EU, anti-Russian attitudes of their bureaucracies, and so on.

Simply put, the media’s obsession with viewing other countries’ elections in terms of the candidates’ relationship to Russia does a disservice to those countries’ politics and to our understanding of the world.

Trading insults

This week, American and Russian diplomats have been trading insults, accusing each other of barbaric behaviour. Referring to the fighting in Aleppo, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers, said that, ‘what Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism.’ In reply, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mariia Zakharova stated that, ‘the world has seen nothing more barbaric in modern history than Iraq and Libya done the Washington way.’

The two diplomats were speaking past each other. Powers was commenting on alleged breaches of the laws dictating what people can do during a war – jus in bello. Zakharova was complaining about alleged breaches of the laws dictating when people can wage war – jus ad bellum.

The moral posturing concerning the war in Syria is entirely unwarranted. Neither side is in the clear, although for different reasons.

When it comes to jus in bello, the Americans on the whole behave fairly well. They make mistakes – intelligence is wrong and they strike the wrong target, or missiles go astray and kill civilians. But a lot of effort is put into avoiding civilian casualties, and military lawyers are normally consulted before any major targeting decision is made.  By contrast, judging by its behaviour during the battle for Grozny in the second Chechen war and during the current fighting in Aleppo, the Russian military seems somewhat less restrained in the use of force in bello. This may be a matter of culture and ethics, or it may simply be a question of potential (Russian military technology and the particular nature of the battles Russia fights may not allow for as much restraint). Nevertheless, from an American perspective, the Russian way of war seems relatively indiscriminate.

On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the Americans have consistently broken the rules of jus ad bellum. The bombings of Yugoslavia and Libya, the invasion of Iraq, and the support given to Syrian rebels, as well as other examples, indicate an unhealthy willingness to start wars. And in recent years, the Americans have definitely started far more wars than have the Russians. Regardless of how well its troops have obeyed the rules of jus in bello, the United States has thus ended up causing far more destruction than Russia.

The words of Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremburg Tribunal come to mind:To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’

You can’t make this stuff up

On Monday, the former Acting Director of the CIA, Michael Morrell, complained on American television about Russian actions in Syria. He remarked ‘We need to make the Russians pay a price.’ ‘Pay a price by killing Russians?’, asked TV  host Charlie Rose. ‘Yes’, replied Morrell.

Morrell isn’t the only senior ex-US official to have said such a thing. In early 2015, retired General Robert H. Scales commented that the only way the United States could affect the outcome of the war in Ukraine was to ‘start killing Russians. … Killing so many Russians that even Putin’s media can’t hide the fact that Russians are returning to their motherland in body bags.’ ‘Sadly, that’s not likely to happen’, Scales added.

 

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some blowhard like Vladimir Zhirinovsky hasn’t said something similar about Americans on Russian television, but there is a big difference between the ex-chief of the CIA and someone who has never held government office. If, say, a former chief of the FSB publicly suggested killing Americans, one would imagine that the outrage would be enormous. Perhaps some Russian officials do think in the same way, but at least they have the wit to keep quiet about it.

The main enemy

Back in the Cold War, the Soviets used to refer to the United States as the ‘glavnyi protivnik’ (‘main enemy’). When presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared in 2012 that Russia was America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’, he was roundly condemned for hyperbole. Now, his point of view seems mainstream. Today, the nominee for America’s top military post (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), General Joseph F. Dunford, told a Congressional hearing that, ‘My assessment today, Senator, is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security’. He went on to say ‘If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia. And if you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.’

In terms purely of capability, Dunford isn’t wrong that Russia ‘could’ pose an existential threat to the United States. Russia owns the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal, and there is no other power on earth able to cause as much destruction to America as Russia. But threat is more than a question of capability. It is also a matter of intent. The United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons could destroy numerous American cities; so could those of France. America does not consider those countries threats because there is obviously no intent to attack. Why is Russia any different?

Even during the Cold War, there was good reason to doubt that the Soviets had any real wish to wage war against America. However, an argument could at least be made that Soviet ideology was incompatible with that of the United States. Communist theory predicted the collapse of the capitalist order, and communist leaders sought to hasten that day. There was some hostile intent.

That simply isn’t the case today. Russia is a trading nation, thoroughly linked into international markets, dependent upon the ups and downs of the world economy. Seeking the collapse or destruction of the United States and its associated global order would be suicidal. That does not mean that Russia will not react to defend its interests against what it considers (rightly or wrongly) American encroachments, but that is not at all the same as having aggressive intent.

The Soviet Union didn’t destroy the United States. The idea that contemporary Russia, which is much weaker, much less ambitious, and actually much less hostile, might ever wish to do so, is absurd. That does not mean, however, that Dunford doesn’t believe what he says and that Russians can lightly dismiss it. As I have written elsewhere, perceptions frequently matter far more than reality. It is important for political leaders to correctly understand how others perceive them, and choose their behaviour accordingly. In Ukraine and elsewhere, Russians may believe that they are acting defensively, but they need to be aware that others perceive their actions very differently.