America should think long and hard about escalating the war on ISIS

Here is a snippet from Quitting ISIS: Why Syrians are Abandoning the Group. 

Tarek, a former ISIS fighter from Deir Ezzor, estimated that when he deserted his unit in Deir Ezzor, 60 percent of his fellow combatants were under the age of 18. One former ISIS child soldier from al-Hasakah, Sami, was 14 years old when he first joined in 2014. He initially kept his enlistment a secret from his family and abruptly disappeared for three months. His mother became alarmed when he returned home one day with new clothes and a Kalashnikov. Realizing that her son had been brainwashed, she asked Sami’s older brother to take him to Turkey. They have been there for a few months, working in a factory; they’re among the lucky few who have been able to find civilian jobs after leaving ISIS. Sami cried as he recounted the deaths of several of his oldest childhood friends who had joined ISIS with him and were recently killed in a battle against the regime in Deir Ezzor. ISIS had been using these children as cannon fodder on the frontlines because they lacked the training and experience to be useful in other roles.

America needs to ask itself if this is the sort of fight we want to be involved in. Do we seriously want to drop bombs on battalions made up of children?

I honestly can’t think of any better propaganda for ISIS than being able to point to dead Muslim children resulting from American airstrikes.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

The authors are  and .

A Less Than Splendid Little War.

That is the title of a 2014 Wilson Quarterly piece by Andrew J. Bacevich in which he discusses the impact of the Gulf War on the public views towards the military and the role the military should play in the world.

Here is one instructive section.

But perhaps the most important aspect of the legacy is the war’s powerful influence on how Americans now view both the immediate past and the immediate future. When it occurred near the tail end of the 20th century, just as the Cold War’s final chapter was unfolding, the victory in the desert seemed to confirm that the years since the United States bounded on to the world stage in 1898 had been the “American Century” after all. Operation Desert Storm was interpreted as an indisputable demonstration of American superiority and made it plausible to believe once again that the rise of the United States to global dominance and the triumph of American values were the central themes of the century then at its close.

 

In the collective public consciousness, the Persian Gulf War and the favorable conclusion of the Cold War were evidence that, despite two world wars, multiple episodes of genocide, and the mind-boggling criminality of totalitarianism, the 20th century had turned out basically all right. The war let Americans see contemporary history not as a chronicle of hubris, miscalculation, and tragedy, but as a march of progress, its arc ever upward. And that perspective — however much at odds with the postmodernism that pervades fashionable intellectual circles — fuels the grand expectations that Americans have carried into the new millennium.

Bill Clinton has declared the United States “the indispensable nation.” According to Madeleine Albright, America has become the “organizing principal” of the global order. “If we have to use force,” said Albright, “it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further than other countries into the future.” Such sentiments invite derision in sophisticated precincts. But they play well in Peoria, and accord precisely with what most Americans want to believe.

You can read the ungated version here.

 

Abe to visit Pearl Habor

Very good news from Japan. As reported in the NYT,

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday that he would visit Pearl Harbor, becoming the first sitting Japanese leader to go to the site of Japan’s attack 75 years ago that pulled a stunned United States into World War II.”

Japan has always been an odd country in regards to its post WWII history. Unlike Germany, it has stubbornly refused to fully and remorsefully acknowledge its past war crimes. As well, unlike any other “normal” country, it has never really demonstrated any real interest of returning to a position of regional leadership commensurate with its economic ability. Most international relations scholars assume that economic growth is soon followed with some attempt by the state at reasserting itself on the world stage. This is the historical norm, but Japan doesn’t seem interested in shaping the far east in its image.

This is opposite of Germany which cannot apologize enough for its Nazi past and is the regional leader for economic and political integration.

So whereas Europe looks to Germany to lead, Asia looks to Japan with suspicion. This is one of the reasons why I don’t think the United States should withdrawal its troops from Asia but can from Europe.

I’m speculating but I think a lot of the contrast between regional perceptions of Germany and Japan has to do with how Germany has made great efforts to address its past behaviour while Japan has not. Although the situation is much more nuanced, I think a good amount of tension in the region could be reduced if Japan were to attempt to more genuinely apologize for its past. In fact, as a way to put pressure on Japan towards this direction, I’ve often thought it would be good American policy to apologize for using atomic weapons on Japan. Obviously President Obama is not the best person to do this. Too much of my country doesn’t even think he is an American citizen for him to be the one who offers the apology. Even more obviously, President Trump is not the one either. He is more likely to demand the U.S. get reimbursed for the materials used in making the bomb then apologize for dropping them. But either way, the trip to Pearl Harbour is good news as it is the first step in the direction of Japan reconciling with its past and helping reduce the burden of America maintaining regional peace.

Our new Secretary of Defense will be James Mattis

It is official. President Elect Trump has confirmed that former General James Mattis will be his Secretary of Defense.

As a libertarian, I’m pretty skeptical of stocking any administration with so many former generals. I prefer civilian control of the government and some of these picks, like Mattis, are not very far removed from their military service.

Who knows what Trump is up to. He campaigned on disparaging our military leadership so I’m not sure what to make of all these reports of him courting so much former brass. But Mattis isn undoubtably a hawk.

See his suggested “blue print” for America.

He claims that the instability of the world is a consequence “…of 20 years of the United States operating unguided by strategy.” He also adds “The international system as we know it — and as we created it — is under assault from the forces of entropy that fill vacuums and corrode order when the United States is not actively engaged.”

Nothing can be further from the truth. The American strategy of the past 20 years has been some version of “engagement and expansion” which was the Clinton Doctrine of actively engaging the world and expanding democracy and markets. All three post cold war presidents had some version of this.

Mattis notes that a lack of American strategy has resulted in world where “Russia invades Ukraine, shaking the post-World War II European order. China chips away at others’ sovereignty in Asia.” I have no idea what he is talking about. In the far east we have the pivot. In eastern Europe NATO has grown, not shrunk. The recent revanchism of China and Russia are not desirable but the west has done something similar by invading Somalia (91), the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan and engaging in military operations in Yemen, Somalia (2016), Pakistan, and Syria, among others.

As well, the west proudly chips away at others sovereignty with the defense of Responsibility to Protect and such institutions such as the ICC.

All of this western preoccupation with the internal politics of other countries represents a direct threat such illiberal regimes survival. I’m not defending these systems, and I certainly think that they are inferior to what we in the west offer, but exerting pressure on these regimes to liberalize results in a less stable world and a less secure America. If all this instability is the cost of making an omelet, where is the omelet?

I disagree with most of the next Secretary of Defense policy stances. He wants to tear up the Iran deal and bomb ISIS, among other hawkish policies. But the more I read about his personal narrative, the more impressed I become. The “warrior monk” apparently owns 6,000 books and doesn’t deploy without them. Despite his erudition, he still connects with his troops at a personal level. Yet, he will do more damage to American security if he continues to frame China and Russia as a threat to the American “way of life”. Instead, the biggest threat to American democracy was just elected.

 

Trump will be a hawk (probably)

Over at War on the Rocks, Benjamin Friedman of the CATO institute has presented a very good argument for why we should expect Trump to be a hawk. Among other good points he writes

I bet that the power of the status quo will make Trump into more of an establishment hawk. Keep in mind that something similar occurred with Presidents Bush and Obama. As a candidate, George W. Bush was skeptical about nation-building. After the September 11 attacks generated broad support for wars and subsequent nation-building efforts, he became their champion. Obama campaigned on his opposition to the Iraq War before retaining most of Bush’s security policies, including the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, while expanding the war in Afghanistan and drone strikes. Though Obama became a critic of the foreign policy establishment’s “playbook,” he struggled to escape its conventions.

I agree with everything he says but want to add that the most convincing reason I expect Trump to be a hawk is because of the “power problem“. This is the irony that the more military hardware a country has at it disposal, the more tempted the leadership will be to use it, including for non-strategic reasons. This can paradoxically result in less security. As Benjamin notes, both President Bush and Obama entered office skeptics of nation building. Yet both ended up doing just that. The power problem is especially problematic if the one given the options to use hard power has no clear foreign policy orientation prior to office. This included both President Bush and Obama. This would also include Trump.

Madeline Albright demonstrated the power problem succinctly when she asked Colin Powell “What’s the point of you saving  this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?”

To answer the former Secretary of State I would suggest Iraq.

But we didn’t learn our lessons in Iraq, apparently. The United States had no strategic reason to invest in the Libyan uprising yet still engaged in one of the most juvenile uses of force since 2003. In an attempt to prevent war crimes against civilians, the United States and its NATO allies ended up creating a failed state. Not only does this create typical security problems associated with a failed state, it also erodes any credibility the United States will have when dealing with future hostile regimes and their weapon programs.

So we have a President-elect who is famous for his thinskin assuming command of a military tool box that is both quantitatively and qualitatively superior to anything else. For example, the United States has roughly 13,000 military aircraft. China and Russia have 2 to 3 thousand each.  The US 7th fleet’s principle aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, was christened in 2001. The only Chinese aircraft carrier is a refurbished former Soviet vessel. These sorts of lopsided comparisons could continue all day, and even those who lament the reduction in military spending acknowledge

The United States has the best military in the world today, by far. U.S. forces have few, if any, weaknesses, and in many areas—from naval warfare to precision-strike capabilities, to airpower, to intelligence and reconnaissance, to special operations—they play in a totally different league from the militaries of other countries.

Donald Trump campaigned, at times, as someone skeptical of foreign adventurism. But I would expect that after he has been instructed on the vast array of military tools at his command, he will be tempted to use them in ways that are not clearly linked to defending American sovereignty. Keep in mind that the use of force in Libya wasn’t our first choice. It was unfortunately a situation without any real good response from the United States so when all other tools failed and the opportunity presented itself, the United States resorted to employing hard power to address internal governing problems of a foreign state with a tribal culture.

In 1966, Abraham Maslow observed that “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”  I don’t want to suggest that the only tool the President has is a hammer. But I do think that when problems with no good solutions arise, like 2011 Libya, and other options fail, like diplomacy, sanctions, or soft power, the easy access to so much military power makes resisting it too difficult.