Shadow wars and shoddy policy

As the government begins the painful process of paring down the bloated defense establishment, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and its best known component, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), is likely to continue its rise in prominence – and in deployments. As with many of the transitions in U.S. defense policies, this has not come without controversy.

The rise of JSOC in the War on Terror has been due in large part to the military difficulties and political costs stemming from the use of large conventional formations. However, the rapid expansion of covert operations as conventional ground forces reduce their presence in budgets and battlefields alike, its activities in areas not officially declared war zones, and its seeming lack of Congressional accountability, have all raised significant consternation from foreign policy and defense commentators.

Marc Ambinder recently highlighted many of these concerns in his excellent recent work with D.B. Grady, The Command, and reiterated them in an interview with Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room. JSOC’s processes of review are internal to the organization, and Congress has little bearing on JSOC’s actions. Already commentators suspicious of American military power or foreign policy have decried the rise of JSOC for eroding Congressional checks on war-making power or for enabling America to embark on a path of perpetual conflict.

Inexplicably, some American commentators worry over the decline of Congressional authority over war-making power. However, this fear is both somewhat ahistorical and very optimistic in its assessment of Congress today. Congressional authority for war does not require a formal declaration of war, nor is the approval of Congress necessary for a state of war to exist. Congressional authority is merely required to initiate a state of war that was not already brought about by hostile action. So long as Congress continues to fund and approve the war, the war is essentially retroactively legalized by Congressional action.

Regardless of how legal JSOC’s activities are abroad though, relying on Congress to hold JSOC accountable assumes that Congress actually cares to do so. There is an unexamined belief about the pacific inclinations of legislative bodies that absolutely does not reflect modern realities. As should be obvious, the current Congress is not interested in restraining the war powers of the executive, nor is it interested in undermining JSOC.

And really, since when has Congress been a reliable dovish influence on American military power? Since never – Congress has been supported wide-ranging, undeclared wars since the beginning of American history. In the Quasi-War with France , Congress approved and funded an undeclared war across the world’s oceans against France – a geopolitically risky activity considering the relative power of France to the young United States. This war was not merely limited to commerce – it also involved naval landings against France’s ally Spain (specifically its colony in what is now the Dominican Republic), despite the United States not being at war with Spain .

Congress  has displayed no qualms about declaring offensive wars either – the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War, both officially declared wars, were also two of the most nakedly territorially aggrandizing wars in U.S. history. Members of Congress have even tried to push the executive into wars it did not desire, or forced it to take hawkish positions that it might have preferred to avoid. In American relations with China, for example, Congress has generally been the more belligerent of the branches, while the presidency has generally sought to preserve the diplomatic entente Nixon forged. Even before the existence of the People’s Republic of China, a strong China lobby enabled funding of the Republic of China’s war-making effort against Japan. During the Cold War that lobby continued to militate for action to defend the Republican Chinese government in Taiwan. Eisenhower and the military did not want to become engaged in a war to defend Taiwan during the Quemoy and Matsu crisis, which they thought would require using nuclear weapons against the Chinese mainland and compromise America’s other diplomatic prerogatives. Yet many of the so-called isolationists in Congress vigorously pushed the President towards a more confrontational stance. Even today, it is still Congress where the most ardent defenders of Taiwan push for legislation that may antagonize China – not the executive.

Regardless, the ugly truth about JSOC is that Congress will not hold it accountable not because it cannot, but because Congress has absolutely no incentive to do so. There is no reward to Congress in trying to hold JSOC accountable or reduce the role of special operations forces in U.S. policy. Congress has demonstrated its support for a wide-ranging war on terror through the Authorization for Use of Military Force and the subsequent National Defense Authorization Acts. Congress, not the executive, will not initiate massive cuts SOCOM even as other branches receive potentially deep reductions in funding.

JSOC, or at least the elements that the American public identifies with JSOC, are extremely popular. Are Americans worried about secret assassination campaigns? No – a significant majority of Americans support the use of drones in targeted killings, and most even support the use of drones against American members of terrorist organizations abroad.  And really, Americans identify JSOC with elite operators, not killer robots. Nobody doesn’t love a Navy SEAL, right? Congress, on the other hand, is less popular than the Internal Revenue Service. Act of Valor, starring active U.S. special operations forces, is set to be a blockbuster. Nobody would watch a movie billing active Congressmen as its main characters unless it was a remake of Home Alone with the legislators as the thieves. JSOC has produced some of the most public and stunning successes in the War on Terror – even if a few Members want to increase Congressional oversight, there is no political incentive for the majority to rein in JSOC.  Voters won’t reward Congress for meddling in JSOC’s business.

The desire to fight terrorism, combined with a dissatisfaction with the expensive and bloody military campaigns that began as a consequence, have enabled JSOC and the drone program to continue with so little accountability. JSOC has been tasked with leading the way in the new iteration of the Global War on Terror, and every request it sends for increased operating capabilities is a reflection of its attempt to enact popular policies that ideally lead to smaller footprints and more contained violence. Indeed, the wide-ranging Operational Preparation of the Environment actions JSOC undertakes are to avoid becoming embroiled in the larger, more serious conflicts that non-JSOC military-led counterterrorism campaigns might require. The desire not to be sent in blind or become embroiled in another Iraq or Afghanistan is one of the crucial factors behind JSOC’s global strategic moves.

Indeed, rather than militating for more war, a serious concern might be that JSOC would frustrate or resist the executive’s desires for another “big war.” General McChrystal, for example, has made critical remarks about the Iraq war’s effect on the overall war on terror and also negatively assessed American preparation and assessment of the environment in Afghanistan. If anything, JSOC could become an obstacle to wider military action. A powerful and more influential JSOC would be better able to resist executive desires for expanding U.S. military presence in some theaters beyond their preferred levels. This would be a civil-military problem in its own right, but it is not automatically safe to assume that JSOC wants to use its status to militate for high-tempo combat campaigns everywhere. Because JSOC is not a massed force, it indeed cannot take on the burden of conducting all-out wars.

Some commentators are concerned that an increased reliance on an elite force for waging covert or small wars necessarily means the US will lose its ability to conduct large, nation-building type wars. If that ability is lost, however, it’s not because of SOCOM – it’s because the military and policy establishment has largely rejected this approach to warfare. It is certainly true that SOCOM cannot do everything, but general purpose forces do not exist to make the costs of bad policies more politically bearable. Massive investments in nation-building capabilities and a large land-based force have led to the exhaustion of those forces – and have challenged the government’s ability to finance their operations. If SOCOM is expanding in operations, it is because the policies advocated by Boot and many others were tried on the battlefield and were found wanting.

The truth is that the biggest problems with SOCOM generally, JSOC in particular, and American foreign policy lie in exactly that – American foreign policy. Take, for example, Jeremy Scahill’s excellent new piece on Yemen, which describes a litany of failed counterterrorism efforts resulting in massive blowback in the country. Scahill essentially describes an incoherent strategy that used, but was not driven by, the tools at hand. American policymakers sought to kill terrorists until those aiding and abetting them decided instead to throw their lot in with an admittedly noxious government that we nevertheless chose to support because we depended on Saleh’s people for a permissive environment and targeting intelligence. Yet much of that intelligence was faulty or deliberately manipulated by the regime itself to support its own political needs. As a result, the capabilities the U.S. built up have been expended to defend the regime’s existence – not to fulfill U.S. counterterrorism priorities.

What might policymakers have done to prevent this? As in Pakistan, one uncomfortable answer is that building up a large human intelligence network independent of a potentially uncooperative host government, perhaps even using stay-behind networks of assets posing as civilian contractors, businessmen, or other ostensible non-combatants  or maybe arming militias answering primarily to the U.S. rather than the Yemeni government, could have provided more accurate intelligence and avoided the consequences inherent in supporting Saleh’s regime. Incidentally, such a task would have been the responsibility of JSOC and the CIA. The failures of Yemen are failures of policy, not of JSOC or drones.

One might even further note that a counterterrorism campaign in Yemen that relied on apprehending rather than killing  terrorists would have required JSOC’s capabilities to be used more aggressively in Yemen, or else let captured suspects rot in Saleh’s brutal prisons. A campaign of capturing terrorists and rendering them to the U.S. would have required far more direct action assets, forward operating locations, and airbases for local air support. Capturing Awlaki, for example, probably would have involved hundreds of soldiers, pilots, and support personnel deploy to Yemen, and likely would have resulted in either his death or those of American operators. Even less lethal counterterrorism campaigns could well entail the continuing expansion of JSOC or CIA covert forces.

No kind of capability is a magic bullet, and no combination of capabilities is a magic bullet either. SOCOM is an instrument of policy, and policy is, even in JSOC, still made by politicians and policymakers, not military officers. If they become proconsuls, it will be because of willful abdication by their civilian superiors, not praetorian machinations by those in uniform. Disentangling instruments from policies is a vital task if the United States is to correct course on the War on Terror. While not all tools are appropriate for all policies, pursuing a bad policy is going to result in undesirable outcomes. Accountability is worthless if those supposed to be designing policy cannot develop realistic standards or are not interested in developing any standards at all for anyone to be held accountable to.

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One Response to Shadow wars and shoddy policy

  1. Good piece. I would only note that the question is not so much whether Congress is pacifist or belligerent but serious about oversight. That is, oversight is about making sure policy is implemented well, that waste does not occur, that abuses do not happen. Sure, Congress is not always attentive, but the more stuff is covered with secret sauce, the less inhibited folks are and the more likely it is that people will shirk in the classic principal-agent meaning–not doing what the principals want (doing too much or too little).

    Part of the problem is not so much the military but the executive that might be seeking SOF of various flavors doing more to minimize Congressional oversight. Rumsfeld pretty much made this explict.

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