Tag Archives: war

The Peace President

And another bus heaves into view…

I think that the first time I came across James Mattis was when reading Chris Mackey’s 2004 memoir The Interrogators, in which Mackey (a sergeant in the US army) described his experiences interrogating Al Qaeda and Taleban prisoners in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. According to Mackey, at one point, then Marine Corps Major General James Mattis turned up at his interrogation centre near Kandahar one day and made a speech which went roughly like this:

You are helping us to kill the enemy. Let’s not make any mistakes about this. Let’s not try to sugarcoat it. You are assisting my marines to kill evil. To bayonet it, to grenade it, to shoot, it with machine guns, to cut its eyes out and shit in the sockets. And you can take pride in that. You can take pride in knowing that you had a hand in gouging out the eyes and cutting out the tongue of evil.

As somebody who was trained as a military interrogator, I found this more than a little disturbing. This isn’t the sort of language you want to use if you want your interrogators to treat their prisoners with the respect required by the laws of war. Suffice it to say that after reading this, subsequent scandals such as Abu Ghraib didn’t come as a big surprise.

No doubt Mattis is a formidable soldier. But I’ve never understood why people think that generals are suitable political leaders. Leading men in combat and making judgments about the nature of the international order, threats to national security, national strategy, and the like are entire separate things, and to be frank Mattis never showed himself to have particularly good judgement on any of the latter. Instead he stood out as a proponent of ever expanding defence expenditure and the prolongation of wars for which he offered no obvious path to victory. Quite how America benefited from the policies he supported, I cannot fathom.

So it is that I can’t share the general belief that his resignation yesterday is a severe loss for the United States. Moreover, I think that the reaction to his resignation and to the event which provoked it reveals something rather disturbing about the American attitude to war and peace.

As a candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump took a lot of provocative positions. There were very few of them which a good Western liberal like myself could support. But two did make sense: that it was in America’s interests to improve its relations with Russia; and that America’s endless wars in the Middle East and Central Asia were harming the United States without bringing any benefits, and so ought to be ended. To my mind, both of these propositions are blindingly obvious, but in the odd atmosphere of American politics, they were viewed as downright dangerous. Trump’s support of better relations with Russia has resulted in him being denounced as a traitor, a paid agent of the Kremlin. And his idea that America ought to bring its wars to an end has seen him being condemned as foolish and irresponsible.

Once elected, Trump rapidly turned his back on these views. His government imposed more and more sanctions on Russia, and Trump filled his cabinet with hawks like Mattis, Pompeo, and Bolton, and then proceeded to pursue reckless policies such as ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran. Those who hoped that Trump would bring peace were cruelly disappointed.

Until this week, when Trump suddenly declared victory in Syria and announced that he was ordering American troops to leave that country and return home. One might imagine that this would be a cause for celebration. American interference in Syria has had catastrophic consequences. On the assumption that the government of Bashar al-Assad was doomed, the United States funnelled weapons and money to a range of opposition groups who in some cases ended up fighting themselves, and in other cases defected to join ISIS, taking their American weapons with them. They failed to overthrow Assad, but did weaken him enough to open the way for ISIS to spread across a large part of Syria. Only after the Russian intervention in Syria began in late 2015 did ISIS finally begin to retreat. Now with ISIS largely defeated, any pretence that there is a legitimate reason for American troops to be in Syria has disappeared. Trump’s decision to get out is entirely warranted.

Yet it has led to howls of protest. Leading Republicans responded to the announcements of the troop withdrawal and Mattis’s resignation by saying that, ‘we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation,’ and that they were ‘legitimately frightened for the country’, as if ISIS were now going to be suddenly landing its troops on Roanoke Island. But it isn’t only Republicans who have been complaining. The reaction among Democrats has been equally outraged. Democratic Senator Mark Warner, for instance, described the situation as ‘scary’, while CNN (not noted for its love of the Republican Party) declared that Washington was ‘shaken, saddened, scared’, and the New York Times ran headlines such as ‘US Exit (from Syria) Seen as Betrayal of the Kurds, and a Boon for ISIS.’

There was a time when going to war was seen as a measure to be taken only in extremis. Unfortunately, lacking serious military competitors following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western powers decided to use the ‘unipolar moment’ to flex their muscles, with the result that they got mired in a series of apparently never-ending wars. Instead of discrediting the idea of war, these had the opposite effect – they habituated the political classes to it, so that now waging war has become normal and making peace is seen as ‘scary’. Conventional judgements about the national interest, international law, and the ethics of war have been turned on their head.

There’s not much to like about Trump, but the one (actually very significant) thing in his favour is that he professes a desire to put a stop to all this. It would be wrong to say that Trump has been a ‘peace president’. He has, after all, continued American involvement in wars such as that in Yemen. But, to date he has yet to start a new one. This is actually quite remarkable. Barack Obama launched a war against Libya and got American involved in the wars in Yemen and Syria. His predecessor, George W. Bush, invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Before Bush, Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia, and before him George H.W. Bush fought the first Gulf War. And of course, Bush Senior’s predecessor Ronald Reagan invaded Panama and Grenada. One has go to back 40 years to Jimmy Carter to find a president who didn’t start a war. So, despite what I said above, by American standards Trump is indeed a peace president and, if he keeps it up, far more deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize than Obama ever was.  The fact that so many find this worrisome indicates that something has gone seriously wrong not only with our understanding of the world but also with our moral compass.

Rush to judgement

Going to war is generally a bad idea. I’ve long been interested, therefore, in analyses which provide some clues as to why political leaders make the almost certainly stupid decision to do so. For that reason, I’m grateful to RT for bringing to wider attention a report commissioned by the Norwegian government entitled ‘Evaluation of Norway’s Participation in the Operations in Libya in 2011’. RT gets a lot of abuse for publishing ‘fake news’, but it does provide a public service in producing stories which otherwise don’t get any attention in the English-speaking media. This is a good example.

Norway played a leading role in NATO’s 2011 campaign to topple Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The Norwegian Air Force contributed six jets to the NATO mission, and dropped around 600 bombs on Libya, accounting for about 15% of the NATO total. At the time, the military campaign had almost unanimous support among Norwegian politicians, but by 2017 some of them had developed doubts, and so the Norwegian parliament instructed the government to conduct an inquiry into the operation. The report of the committee of inquiry has just been issued (unfortunately only in Norwegian), and can be downloaded here.

Outside of Norway, the press has almost entirely ignored the report, but RT picked it up, publishing an article entitled ‘Norway didn’t know much about Libya yet helped bomb it into chaos, state report finds.’ The article goes on to tell us that:

A Norwegian state report says the officials “had very limited knowledge” of what was going on in Libya, but promptly decided to join the US-led intervention, turning the once thriving North African nation into a terrorist hotbed. Norway rushed to help its NATO allies to pound Libya with airstrikes in 2011, without understanding what was actually happening on the ground or the dire consequences the intervention might lead to, a new state report has concluded. The commission, chaired by former Foreign Minister Jan Petersen, found that politicians in Oslo “had very limited knowledge of Libya” when they dragged the nation into the US-led bombing campaign against the Libyan government. “In such situations, decision-makers often rely on information from media and other countries,” the report says.

This perked my interest, so with the help of Google Translate, I’ve given the report a read. In fact, it says a lot more than the RT article suggests, and covers matters such as the legality and constitutionality of Norway’s war against Libya, the conduct of Norwegian military operations, and the humanitarian and political aspects of Norway’s involvement in Libya. What interests me most, however, are the findings concerning the decision-making process, so I will concentrate here on those.

As RT says, the report notes that Norwegian politicians knew very little about Libya or the conflict which erupted there in 2011. This is stated several times: ‘When the uprising started in February 2011, the knowledge about Libya among Norwegian decision makers was very limited’; ‘The Norwegian authorities had limited Libya expertise’; and so on. To compensate for this, the Norwegians relied on two sources: their allies, and the media. The former painted a very negative picture of the situation in Libya. According to the report, once Norway’s French and British allies had persuaded the UN Security Council to authorize military action, ‘the Norwegian authorities did not find it necessary to verify the Security Council’s understanding of the situation.’ As for the media, its reporting was one-sided and pressured the Norwegian government to act forcefully. Consequently, the report concludes, the evidence

suggests that warnings from, among others, Libyan opposition groups in exile, some regional actors, and human rights activists were accepted without any kind of critical examination.

In these circumstances, Norwegian leaders assumed the worst. Fearing that a massacre of the people of Benghazi was imminent, they felt that they needed to act immediately. According to the report, ‘The decision was taken in a very small circle’, and was ‘taken very quickly.’ The smaller parties in the ruling coalition were then ‘exposed to relatively large pressure’ to fall in line.

The speed of the decision-making left no time to adequately consider not only the evidence, but also the pros of cons of action and inaction. What becomes clear from the report is that Norwegian leaders considered only the possible negative consequences of failing to act without considering the possible negative consequences of acting. In particular, the report notes that the Norwegian government feared that if nothing was done, ‘there was a real danger that the country would be divided into two … the conflict would lead to government collapse and further fragmentation of what was already considered a dysfunctional state.’ It was feared that this might lead to a flood of refugees from Libya into Europe. What’s ironic about this is that exactly the things the Norwegians feared would happen if they didn’t act are what did happen because they did!

It is quite obvious from the report, however, that nobody thought of this. The report is written in the sort of bureaucratic style which doesn’t directly criticize policy. Instead, it hints, making suggestions which if you read between the lines point out that something went badly wrong. It concludes:

Norwegian authorities should work systematically in order to ensure the widest possible decision-making basis, including building up an organizational culture which facilitates a more systematic analysis of different scenarios and unknown variables. Possible measures are:

  • The establishment of so-called red teams, who have a mission to point out the challenges and consequences of an intervention.

  • Use of checklists in connection with the preparation of decisions. Such lists can be of great use in crisis situations, where a one-sided interpretation based on incomplete facts can weaken the understanding of the situation.

The fact that the committee of inquiry felt it necessary to make such recommendations is revealing. It indicates in a subtle way that the Norwegian government did not carry out a ‘systematic analysis of different scenarios and unknown variables’, and did not consider ‘the challenges and consequences of an intervention’, but did follow ‘a one-sided interpretation based on incomplete facts.’ It’s well-hidden, but it’s a pretty damning conclusion. Simply put, the government didn’t consider alternative possible outcomes of their actions, let alone weigh the pros and cons of different options, but just chose one option on the basis of inaccurate information which it didn’t bother properly to check.

To be fair, the report does take pains to point out that the Norwegian government was operating under intense pressure in what appeared to be an emergency situation which required a rapid decision, and that it did so in an atmosphere of great uncertainty. For this reason, it doesn’t criticize what was done but treats it as understandable in the circumstances. I have some sympathy with this perspective – it’s quite easy to criticize from a distance when one isn’t under the same sort of pressure and when, with the benefit of hindsight, one has the relevant information at one’s disposal. But, while I have some sympathy, I can’t ultimately accept the argument. In the first place, time pressure isn’t a reason not to consider the possible consequences of what one is planning to do. And second, neither the Norwegian government nor any of its NATO allies acted as if they were in a situation of uncertainty. Rather, the problem was that they seemed all too certain that their analysis was right and said as much in the most categorical terms.

In short, there was a rush to judgement. Alas, this wasn’t a one off. It’s a story we’ve seen repeated in many countries on numerous occasions in recent years. I wish I could say that it is shocking. Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise.

War: what’s in a word?

A few years back, one of the big discussion topics among international relations professors was the idea of ‘securitization’ devised by the ‘Copenhagen School’ of security studies. Securitization theory suggested that security was ‘an essentially contested concept’ – i.e. that there isn’t an objective definition of ‘security’; it is what you say it is. Security is a ‘speech act’. By labelling something as a matter of ‘security’, you make a claim that it is of special importance, requiring a special response, including additional state resources.

Following this logic, various scholars then argued in favour of ‘securitizing’ certain policy issues – e.g. climate change, poverty, inequality, etc. They argued that they could push these up the policy agenda by relabelling them as matters of national security. People thus began speaking about ‘environmental security’, ‘human security’, and so forth.

Critics raised a couple of objections to the concept of securitization.

First, it’s questionable whether security really is a postmodernist ‘essentially contested concept’. Believing that one definition is as good as another is a form of moral relativism which denies us the ability to make valid judgments. Some things physically threaten life and property in a way that others don’t, and we have to have some word which helps us separate the one from the other. Some things are matters of security; others aren’t. It’s more than a ‘speech act’.

Second, labelling things as security issues when they aren’t produces bad policy. The security label tends to create a certain mentality which encourages a specific form of policy response –aggressive, secretive, heedless of people’s liberties, and so on. If you call AIDS a security threat, then AIDS victims become security threats also. The victims become social outcasts, they don’t come forward for treatment, and the disease spreads further. Securitization is not generally a good idea.

All of this is by way of an introduction to Mark Galeotti’s new report entitled Hybrid War or Gibridnaia Voina: Getting Russia’s Non-Linear Challenge Right, which was published today. In his Executive summary, Galeotti says:

The West is at war. It is not a war of the old sort, fought with the thunder of guns, but a new sort, fought with the rustle of money, the shrill mantras of propagandists, and the stealthy whispers of spies. This is often described as ‘hybrid war,’ a blend of the military and the political, but in fact there are two separate issues, two separate kinds of non-linear war, which have become unhelpfully intertwined. The first is the way—as the Russians have been quick to spot—that modern technologies and modern societies mean that a shooting war will likely be preceded by and maybe even almost, but not quite, replaced by a phase of political destabilization. The second, though, is the political war that Moscow is waging against the West, in the hope not of preparing the ground for an invasion, but rather of dividing, demoralizing and distracting it enough that it cannot resist … The two overlap heavily, and maybe they could usefully be regarded as the two sides of a wider form of ‘non-linear war.’ The instruments which make up ‘political war’ are also crucial to the earlier phases of ‘hybrid war.’ … What has emerged, if not wholly new, is certainly a distinctive way of war.

My objections to this are very similar to those made against the securitization theory:

First, Galeotti, in essence, is attempting to engage in a ‘speech act’ – trying to make a claim that the Russian threat is of special importance because it is ‘war’, and that it therefore requires a special policy response. But war is a very specific thing, involving large-scale organized violence. It has its own laws, its own ethics, its own particular nature and dynamics. What happens when two armies fire multiple rocket launchers at one another is not in any reasonable way comparable to what happens when journalists in two countries fire accusations at one another.

Second, labelling the current tensions between Russia and the West as ‘war’ creates an unproductive, even dangerous, security mentality, and results in undesirable policies. One can see this process at work in the discussions about ‘Russian propaganda’ and Russian ‘information war’. Framing this as a security issue, or even worse as a matter of war, has resulted in proposals to restrict freedom of speech and blacken the reputations of those who have unwelcome views. More generally, saying that ‘The West is at war’ with Russia encourages policies which raise tensions even higher, and make it increasingly difficult to engage in the sort of constructive dialogue which is required to overcome our mutual problems.

Certainly, Russia and parts of the West are engaged in political competition. Definitely, each side is trying to influence the population of the other. Absolutely, they have different ideas of how the world should be organized. But competition is not war. Labelling it as such is not helpful.

Fighting for nothing

Since February, some of the most intense and continuous fighting in Ukraine has been around the village of Shirokino, just east of Mariupol. Now, the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, General Viktor Muzhenko, has declared that the village has ‘no military value whatsoever’.

Muzhenko’s statement drew howls of protests from Ukrainian soldiers and political activists, angry at the suggestion that blood had been shed for no purpose, but he is probably right. And Shirokino is hardly an isolated example. It is a sad fact that war often descends into bloody struggles for territory which has no tactical or strategic value, only symbolic importance. War is not a very rational endeavour, if one measures rationality in terms of material costs and benefits. Rather, as I examined in my book Military Honour and the Conduct of War, it is about honour as much as anything else. Why else keep attacking Passchendaele? Why else throw the Sixth Army deeper and deeper into Stalingrad? Why else keep on fighting the Taliban long after it has become obvious that you’re never going to defeat them? The answer is that honour, under whatever name you choose to give it – face, prestige, credibility, reputation, self-respect, pride – is at stake, and so you keep on at it, however unsuccessful it may be.

According to Clausewitz, war is a means of achieving a political objective. The tactics chosen will thus reflect the objective in question, which may change as the war develops. At the start of the war in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government’s object was to recapture its lost territories. It therefore focused its attention on capturing land and on strategic manoeuvres designed to destroy the enemy occupying that land. Now, though, it is quite obvious that recapturing the entirety of Donbass by military means is impossible. The objective, therefore, has changed. After the humiliating defeats at Ilovaisk in August 2014 and Debaltsevo in February 2015, restoring lost pride is the only objective achievable. And so, the Ukrainian Army fights over villages which have ‘no military value whatsoever’ because they come to symbolize that pride. It is, in a way, rather more logical than it initially seems.

This, then, is what the war in Ukraine has come down to: restoring Kiev’s damaged pride. Ever since the Minsk-2 agreement in February this year, both sides have been shelling each other daily, probing each other’s lines, and exchanging small arms fire, without gaining more than a few yards here and there. From a military point of view it doesn’t make sense. But from a political point of view, abiding strictly by the terms of Minsk-2 would have meant that Kiev would have had to accept a political settlement forced upon it by a victorious enemy. The current small-scale fighting doesn’t bring Ukraine any closer to a military victory, but it prevents that humiliation. If the warring parties in Ukraine weren’t fighting over Shirokino, they would have just have to fight over something else. In essence, fighting itself has become the aim. Muzhenko’s comment suggests that the General Staff don’t like this very much, and as a former army staff officer, I thoroughly sympathize. But given the prevailing political mood, I fear that there is very little that the General Staff can do about it, and the struggles over useless objectives will continue for some time yet.