Author Archives: caidid

Fun with additional SNAFU context

Earlier today, Rue illustrated the horror of the Army’s $900,000,000 ‘accounting error’ by calculating what that much money could have bought in terms of various weapons systems, and by comparing it to the total defense expenditures of other whole countries.

I posted a link to Rue’s piece on Facebook, and my friend Kristin commented, “Kind of puts that whole “cut PBS funding because every little bit counts” red herring into perspective.” Which got me thinking: just for funsies, what if we take that number outside the completely-overblown-and-disproportionate-to-all-other-facets-of-reality context of the Defense budget? How much would $900,000,000 get us in other parts of our own federal budget? I took a peek through various other Departments’ budgets to see, sampling from a wide range of programs. (Estimates are based on the White House’s FY13 budget).

I’m totally not an accountant, so some of my calculations might be off, but from what I could figure here is a sampling of what other departments/agencies could fund with the amount of money Defense essentially loses in its couch cushions:

Agency/Program How Far $900,000,000 Would Go There
Head Start 6 weeks
NASA Exploration 3 months
Secret Service 6 months
USAID Operations 7 months
Fish & Wildlife Service 8 months
ATF 9 months
Federal Marshal Service 9 months
Dept. of Education Race to the Top Program 11 months
Federal Work Study Program 11 months
Small Business Administration 1 year
Millennium Challenge Corporation 1 year
Dept. of State Non-proliferation, Anti-terrorist, Demining Programs 17 months
Smithsonian Institution 17 months
VA Prosthetic Research 18 months
Bureau of Labor Statistics 18 months
OSHA 19 months
NASA Aeronautics 20 months
Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Housing for the Elderly 2 years
Peace Corps 29 months
Dept. of Justice Juvenile Justice & Child Safety Programs 3 years
Dept. of Labor Veterans Employment & Training Program 3.5 years
Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS) 4 years
Dept. of Commerce Economic Development Administration 4 years
National Endowment for the Arts 6 years
National Endowment for the Humanities 6 years
Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Housing for People with Disabilities 6 years
Dept. of Labor Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs 7 years
National Galleries of Art 7.5 years
Dept. of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights 23 years

Nah, but unusable Stryker parts are cool, too.

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Welcome to Book Group

Gunpowder & Lead is sponsoring a book group! Here’s the idea: every 3-4 months, one person in the group (of 6-7 people) will choose the book that everyone will be reading. It can be any book, on any subject, fiction or non-fiction. The idea is that if the books are generally chosen by individuals rather than by consensus, we are more likely to read something we wouldn’t necessarily choose for ourselves. It’s a way of expanding our viewpoints. Additionally, it will mean that the responses to each book will be from people with a wide range of expertise on the topic of the selected book, which will give us a variety of perspectives.

Once the book is chosen, we’ll announce it here so that anyone who wants to read along and participate in the discussion can do so, and we’ll leave the comment thread of the announcement post open for anyone who wants to discuss anything about the book before the deadline. At the end of the allotted time, everyone in the main book group will write a short response/review which will be posted here on G&L. Following that post, we will host a discussion on Twitter for everyone who has read along.

For our first book group selection, we have chosen Steve Inskeep‘s Instant City, one of the most frequently mentioned books in our #bestbooks 2012 discussion.

The confirmed readers for this round are me, Diana, and Daveed from G&L, along with Sina Kashefipour – who first suggested a book group – Rebecca Johnson, and Nathan Finney. We plan to post our reviews and host the discussion on Instant City during the week of February 18-22. I’m looking forward to a great conversation, and I hope many will take part!

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Sunk Costs

General David Barno writes in Foreign Policy about the choices facing the Obama administration in Afghanistan going forward in light of the frequency of ‘green on blue’ attacks and the recent suspension of joint operations resulting from them. In the post, he frames two possible paths the administration could take, and makes his case for the one he prefers. What I want to tease out here is a subject somewhat tangential to the point of Barno’s post. He describes his first option as follows:

“[The administration] could resume lower-level partnering after several weeks, using the pause to enhance security measures and set new rules to protect U.S. and other NATO forces. U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan are almost sure to recommend this option, since they are deeply committed to the current approach and have invested years in developing its structural underpinnings.”

Setting aside any the question of which is the best path and why to look at this one comment, this is terrible reasoning. I don’t doubt what Barno is saying. I don’t doubt that many would make their recommendations on this basis. If you have put a lot of time and effort and energy and sacrifice into something, it is understandable that you’d want to see it through, but there comes a point when it might become clear that your approach isn’t working, and at that point it is irresponsible not to consider changing it. Sunk costs are not a reason to do anything.

Any important decision – of which the decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan is certainly one – should be based on what is in our best interests going forward, and what is going to help us be the most successful in achieving our objectives. Unfortunately, I think we often give undue weight to what we have done in the past, and not enough to clear thinking about what we need for the future.

Part of this simple inertia: it’s a lot easier to continue doing what you’re doing than it is to start something new. The challenge of conceiving and fully implementing a new strategy is daunting to say the least.

Part of it is a desire to save face: we think we’d look dumb or indecisive if we put all this work/time/money/life into an approach only to abandon it midstream. (Or, heaven forfend, like we’re admitting we were wrong).

Part of it is a very human tendency to overvalue past investment. In this interesting piece from a while back in which he illustrates the sunk cost logical fallacy through a discussion of Farmville, David McRaney describes this phenomenon like so:

Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.

We’ve invested years of our time, billions of dollars, and thousands of lives in Afghanistan at this point. If we’re going to get trapped in this kind of thinking about anything, it will be about this. We think: we can’t have done all this for nothing. We can’t have let so many people give their lives in vain. This is an extremely emotional argument. It is also logically bankrupt.

Taking more time, spending more money, risking more lives doesn’t undo what has already happened, doesn’t fix what has gone wrong, and doesn’t justify what we have spent in the past. We need to acknowledge and set aside these emotional drivers in our decision-making so that we can make policy decisions based on what choices give us the best chance of success in achieving our objectives. The psychological and emotional trap of money spent, time wasted, and – hardest of all – lives lost, can’t be permitted to dominate these decisions.

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Green on Blue

Nathan Finney has a piece up at the Kabul Cable right now on advisors. It’s a good read and he gets at some important ideas. One of his main arguments is that policy should drive everything, which might seem obvious to the wonks, but policy – and the stomach/political will to do what it actually takes to achieve policy goals – has been changeable and often lacking. At this point, it seems clear that when we went into Afghanistan, we either didn’t really think about what our long term objective for Afghanistan itself was – as opposed to our objective for al Qaeda, or the Taliban, which was pretty clear – or that we were not realistic at all as to what it would take to achieve it.

The increased use of, and emphasis on, advisors did not really come up until we were looking for a way out. See, once we had gone in and knocked the Taliban out of power and chased most of what was left of al Qaeda in the country into the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, we started that other war, that ill-conceived, ill-fated adventure in Iraq. And we just sort of bumped along in Afghanistan. We set up a government. We fought occasional pockets of resistance that got less and less occasional, but we didn’t pay a whole lot of attention, as a country. Because Iraq, Iraq got so damn ugly, it took all of our attention and in the end, drained us of our will to persevere. When things had gotten bad enough in Afghanistan that we had to pay attention, even as they were finally winding down in Iraq, we just wanted out. Though the President made the decision to ‘surge’ the troops in Afghanistan in 2009, it was basically too little, too late.

So before long the objective had to change again. We would no longer concern ourselves with the whole of Afghanistan, with a democratic government, elected freely and able to provide necessary services to all its people. We would no longer be as worried about trying to do the right thing, or even about cleaning up the messes we had made ourselves. But we didn’t leave. Because if we just left, we were cowards, we were cutters and runners, we were admitting defeat. So where did this leave us? Determined to persevere, largely if not entirely just to save face, but with the only real objective to get the hell out.

The new version of victory would be to stand up the Afghan military and police forces, to act as advisors to build their capacity. It’s not that advisory missions can’t be effective – Finney’s piece touches on some of the ways in which they can - but forgive me if in this case it looked to me like another way to redefine victory, a grasping at one last straw that might let us tell ourselves that no we weren’t leaving because we’d lost, no it wasn’t all for nothing, all the damage and death and ugliness, that we achieved this thing, and that’s why we’re leaving, because we’re done and Afghanistan is better off.

We weren’t going to put in the years and years and billions and billions and time and energy on the day-to-day details of civil-society-building and education and capacity-building and infrastructure creation that this whole war-tired country needed. We want the answer to be easier, cheaper, simpler than it is. Victory, making things better, leaving a stable and friendly nation would have been a long, expensive, and expansive project had we really taken it on. No iteration in a continuing series of half-assed initiatives will change any of that. It’s uncomfortable to admit, because we want to be good, we want to be the people who do the right thing, because we want to always be a success, but the truth is we don’t care about Afghanistan. Not enough to do what it would really take. And this is why we fail.

This is why the advisory mission is a shambles too, with so-called ‘green on blue’ attacks – a pretty term for an ugly thing, that always evokes in my mind high grassy hills and wide summer skies, swirls of cool soothing color, not the heat and betrayal and blood it’s really meant to mean – occurring with alarming frequency, and I can’t help but think that it’s because all it ever was was a cover for our exit, a half-assed attempt to save face on our way out the door, and that deep down, we know it, and so do the Afghans.

Note: It should go without saying – but I’ll say it anyway since sometimes it doesn’t – that when I speak of what we have and haven’t done, I mean collectively as a nation. I know that there are many individuals who have served nobly, who care deeply, who have done what they can, and that there have been good programs and small areas of success. I am referring to our time in Afghanistan writ large. 

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I had the opportunity to see an advance screening of Ben Affleck’s new movie Argo last night, followed by a Q & A with Affleck, and the subject matter as well as some of how it was handled I think will make this film of some interest to readers of this blog. Argo‘s story is so outlandish that it would make a totally implausible movie plot if it didn’t happen to be true. Six Americans escaped the U.S. Embassy in Tehran as it was overrun in 1979, and hid for months in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The film is about how they were rescued: the CIA created a fake film company to work on a fake science fiction film for which they faked a Canadian crew scouting potential film locations in Tehran. A dummy production company, press events, storyboards, a real script, and many other details went into building the background for this film, all designed to provide cover for taking the six Americans right out the front door, as it were. The operation remained classified until 1997.

The first thing about the film I really liked is that it opens with context. It would have been easy to start with the fall of the Embassy, to make or allow the Iranians to be simple villains, standard action-movie ‘bad guys,’ but Affleck chose to open with a brief summary of the years before the revolution: Mossadegh’s time as the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran; the U.S. led coup that overthrew him and installed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Shah; the years after that when the shah tried to westernize, protests grew, and the shah’s infamous SAVAK (secret police/domestic security) arrested and tortured more and more people as the U.S. continued to support his regime; the U.S. asylum given to the shah after his regime fell. The presentation is simple, brief, there is no analysis, but as a lens through which to view the film that follows, it’s important and it’s presented objectively. Although Argo does not shy away from moments of cruelty and brutality, it also shows from the start that there were legitimate grievances driving what happened.

It is tempting to critique the film for the absence of any major, fully fleshed out, Iranian characters – the largest role is that of Sahar, a housekeeper for the Canadian Ambassador who knows about the Americans hiding out in the Ambassador’s home and faces pressure to give away their secret – but the story is about the rescue mission, about the rescuers and the rescued, so it is also tempting to forgive the omission. There are certainly depictions of angry mobs and harsh Revolutionary Guards, of street executions and bodies hanging from cranes in Tehran, but – and I know this is not the highest bar to clear – the depiction is not as flat as in your standard Hollywood movie. The context provided by the opening sequence, as well as by subtle choices in background dialogue and images, keeps it from straying into ‘America Good, Iran Evil’ territory. In one scene, a man chases down one of the American women in a rage in the bazaar, terrifying her. He appears at first as just an angry face shouting in a foreign language, but what he is shouting is that the shah murdered his son with an American gun.

It’s not heavy-handed, and I’ll allow that my interpretation may be colored by my own knowledge of the history, but I did not get the sense that Iran was being villainized. What Argo shows is a bad, ugly situation, a terrifying one for the Americans in Tehran, but one we were not blameless in bringing about. I also really appreciated the resolution of the housekeeper’s story. She survives, but a brief glimpse of her near the end of the film quietly shows the cost to her of protecting the Americans and the Canadians for whom she worked. It is not showy – little of what Affleck does is showy – but enough to provoke thought in an observant viewer.

As a movie, Argo is part caper, part political thriller, part deadpan farce. The pieces balance nicely. There are moments of comedy, and a well-built and extended suspense when the operation finally goes down. There are elements for the political wonks, for the Hollywood wonks, and for Canadians everywhere. The depiction of government agencies is subtly tongue-in-cheek and provides much of the dark humor of the movie. It includes peeks at the CIA, the White House, and the State Department (including one meeting before which Mendez’s boss – played by the always excellent Bryan Cranston – warns him to expect to feel like he’s dealing with Waldorf and Statler). The image of Hollywood is less subtle and more overtly funny, with John Goodman and Alan Arkin providing most of the real levity. Bits of Canadiana are peppered throughout the movie, appropriately as the whole operation was enabled by Canada in several important ways, starting with the Canadian Ambassador’s decision to hide the Americans at great personal risk, and going right through the aftermath, in which Canada had to take full credit for the rescue so that the CIA’s involvement could be kept quiet for the protection of the hostages still in Tehran at the time.

Affleck is understated and quietly expressive as Tony Mendez (if perhaps a bit too tall and handsome to be fully believable as the blend-in-anywhere ‘gray man’) and he is surrounded by a stellar lineup of character actors, with notable performances from, in addition to Cranston, Arkin, and Goodman, Zelko Ivanic, Titus Welliver, Clea DuVall, Kyle Chandler, and Victor Garber, among many others. The setting – sets, set dressing, costumes, props, hair, etc – is meticulously arranged. It feels real, and lived in, and not ostentatious or gimmicky. (The eyeglasses and hair and mustaches almost seem ostentatious until you look at actual photos from 1979-80 and realize whoa, nope, they actually looked like that. The glasses really were that big, the hair that unflattering, the mustaches that bushy…)

During the Q&A, Affleck alluded to some of the liberties taken with the story, some falling under the category of ‘minor alterations for the purposes of narrative clarity,’ some clearly meant to build drama. I do think some of the changes might not have been necessary – for example, a more boilerplate chase scene was substituted for a mechanical problem in one place where I think the true story could have been used to create greater psychic tension – but changes to the story are inevitable and inoffensive. This is, after all, a film built to please a large audience, not a documentary about the operation, and creative license goes with the territory.

In a nutshell, I thought the movie was well done and enjoyable, and I would urge viewers to pay attention to the subtle details – they contribute much to the experience, and I do worry that many of them might be lost on a lot of audiences. Having summed that up, there is one last point I want to discuss, which is more about art writ large than this film in particular.

Mr. Affleck noted in the Q&A that he wanted to keep his own politics, his own views, out of the film, and just tell the story. I think that was likely the right move for this particular story, but I hope in the future, he allows more of his own point of view to color his films. Argo is entertaining, but for art to be truly great, it must challenge us, give us new ways of looking at problems, pose questions, make arguments. An informed argument intelligently presented can spark debate, or make your audience think, as great books or articles can do. A strong point of view in a painting or a piece of music or a poem can have an effect on the broader debate in society. Great films can do the same, although it’s only rare filmmakers who have the capacity.

I think Affleck has it. His work on this film, as well as his prior features Gone Baby Gone and the The Town have shown him to be quite capable with the structural and psychological aspects of filmmaking, with pacing and tone as clear strengths of his work as a director. He paces the action in his films adeptly: the North End chase scene in The Town is taut to the point of nail-biting, one of the great chase scenes for my money, and the climax of Argo has a more (appropriately) slow-burning edge-of-your-seat kind of tension. He also has a deft hand at establishing tone: the sadness and frustration of the decay of the working class community in Gone Baby Gone, the way class juxtaposition in The Town inspires a tension of mixed rage and aspiration, the very current-feeling sense of fear of being American in a hostile place in Argo (all the more evocative for being a milieu we at least helped to create for ourselves, in Iran then as in more places than I’d like to think about now). He works with his actors to create very believable emotions. He is clearly skilled at coordinating all the many details of script and cast and location and costumes and all those thousand things that go into making a movie. From what I saw tonight, he also seems to possess the intelligence and the thoughtfulness required to make him one of the great directors.

Affleck spoke intelligently about both filmmaking and geopolitics. As concerns this film in particular, he clearly has great admiration for people like Mendez who dedicate (and risk) their lives in service to this country, and has thought a lot about what they do and how it affects them and their families. He was a Middle East Studies major in college, and maintains an interest in the region and a more-than-casual grasp of current affairs – he touched on the situation in Syria and the 2009 protests in Iran, among other things, during the discussion. He does his homework: his aid work in the Democratic Republic of Congo – counter to the trend of well-meaning but misdirected celebrity charity projects – is well-thought-out, evidence-based, and focused on supporting and expanding the capacity of good local programs and initiatives. In short, he seems to be smart, well-informed, and socially and politically conscious; Argo is a great story and a good film, but my main takeaway from seeing it is that I hope that in the future, Affleck lets more of his own ideas and argument into his work, because I think he has it in him to make a great film.

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Meditation on Memorial Day

I have been lucky. Many of my friends and family members – and I know many of those who are kind enough to read Gunpowder & Lead – have people close to them who have given their lives in service. I have never lost anyone like that. I know I don’t carry the kind of raw personal connection to Memorial Day that, to name one, Alex Horton writes about so achingly beautifully. I do try to honor it each year, though, because the sacrifice these people and their families have made – and the fact that it has ever been, and continues to be, necessary – matters to all of us.

For the last few years, I have spent a little time each Memorial Day at the flag garden planted on Boston Common by the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund. There are 33,000 flags this year, one for each MA service member who has died in service from the Civil War to today.

There are a lot of stories that stick with me through the year, and the one I found myself thinking about most today as I looked at the field of flags fluttering across the hill was that of Sgt. Dennis Weichel. I didn’t know Sgt. Weichel, but I know what kind of man he was by how he died.

This past March, Sgt. Weichel’s unit was traveling in a convoy in Laghman Province, Afghanistan, when they came on a group of children in the road. Sgt. Weichel was one of the men who got out of their vehicles to clear the road. As the MRAP started to move again, he saw that one little girl had run back into its path.

That is a split-second kind of moment. There isn’t time to consider whether an attempt to save her might be fatal, to weigh the value of your own life against that of a small Afghan girl. What you do in that moment is not about being a man, or a soldier, or an American. It is not about training, or calculation, or decision-making. It is built into who you are.

Sgt. Weichel jumped into the street. He pushed the little girl to safety. She was unhurt. He died. That’s hero stuff. A huge vehicle was about to hit a little girl. He made sure it didn’t. I didn’t know Sgt. Weichel, but he’s who I’m remembering this Memorial Day.

The flag garden is a beautiful and somber reminder of the sacrifice made by these service men and women, and their loved ones. Even more than that, to me, it is a reminder of how much we should all passionately want peace, and work to nurture it, and build it, so that in the future we won’t have to lose so many of the best of us this way.

It is easy to get angry and look to attack, to get impatient with diplomacy, or even to get overwhelmed by heartbreak when something terrible happens in the world, but looking at those rows upon rows of flags, or the rows upon rows of white tombstones at Arlington, it seems to me that the best way to honor their sacrifice is to do all we can to try to make future such sacrifices unnecessary.

Forget anger and blame toward the many people, institutions, situations, cultural features, interests, and social mores that might lead us into war. Forget outrage and pique at those who question the circumstances that lead to these sacrifices. Forget semantic battles over what it means to be a hero. Blame doesn’t make it better. Outrage doesn’t satisfy anyone. Semantics are meaningless. Let’s take all that energy that is so often spent on blame and outrage and use it to connect and build, to take tiny steps to nurture peace in whatever ways we can.

No one wants the fields of little flags to grow.

Posted in Uncategorized, War | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Sistani succession question

Up on Foreign Affairs right now is a piece by Paul McGeough, the latest in a series of stories to appear in the media over the last couple of months about the succession of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the pre-eminent Shiite religious leader in the world. Like previous stories on this subject, it primarily focuses on Iran’s efforts to influence – or co-opt – the succession through its candidate Ayatollah Shahroudi, who has set up offices in Najaf and has been busy buying influence among junior clerics with Iranian money and meeting with the likes of Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki, who would love to have more influence with Sistani’s successor than he does with the independent-minded Sistani. 

I’ve written about this before, but there are some things worth addressing in this piece. I didn’t have a lot of quibbles with it overall, but there are a few places where it misses or comes up short. 

First, the article gives the impression that Sistani’s succession is an all-or-nothing proposition, that whoever succeeds him will be the spiritual leader for all Shia everywhere. 

As many as 100 junior ayatollahs will have a role in selecting the next spiritual leader. Loosely the equivalent of the Christian rank of bishops, they command a following among the faithful that translates into lobbying power.

However, the way it’s described is misleading. A Shiite marja is not like the Catholic Pope. Many people will of course follow the guidance of clerics, but each individual may choose his or her own marja from among all qualified and willing individuals. Sistani is certainly the most widely influential marja, but he is not the only one and it is not a given that in the event of his death, all of his followers would go to one successor. In fact, with the lack of a clear successor in Najaf, and the controversial nature of Shahroudi’s position on velayat-e faqih (the Iranian system of governance by jurisprudent), it is a distinct possibility that there would be a split, with a portion of Sistani’s followers going to Shahroudi and a portion going to someone else, such as al-Hakim.

McGeough also stops short while delving into the question of financial influence in the succession. He discusses the Iranian money Shahroudi has been throwing around – and that can certainly provide the chosen candidate with a significant boost – but there are other wealthy and influential organizations that can have a say in the succession.

Part of the job of a marja is to collect funds from his followers (sometimes both the khums and zakat, which amount roughly to a tithe and alms respectively and can add up to quite a significant amount of money) and distribute them to the needy. An influential marja generally has a large foundation that oversees clinics, schools, orphanages, community centers, hospitals – a range of charitable institutions. He will also have a network of junior clerics who are empowered to collect on his behalf and who serve as his agents (wakils) in different areas where he holds or seeks to hold influence. I know this is getting a little into the nerdy details, but here’s the point. When a marja dies, his network and foundation don’t just go away; and when a major internationally influential marja dies, he can leave behind a pretty large and wealthy network; and when that marja is greatly respected, even revered, people will pay attention to what his foundation does. 

Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, Sistani’s teacher and predecessor, left behind a very large and influential foundation, which supported Sistani according to al-Khoei’s explicitly stated wishes. This foundation, still large, wealthy, and respected, will be in a position to give a boost to its chosen candidate, as will Sistani’s own foundation, just to name a few other possible players. 

Historically the Najaf hawza has preferred to stay out of politics and has preferred that politics stay out of it. Even if Iran and Maliki’s government in Iraq throw their weight behind Shahroudi, it doesn’t mean he will come out on top in the succession contest. It might just be that no one does.

h/t to Sina Kashefipour, also known as @rejectionking, for linking me to this piece, and for many interesting conversations on this subject.

Posted in Middle East, Shiism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

We’ve got drones and SOF teams. Who should we go after?

‘We’ve got drones and SOF teams. Who should we go after?’

This is how the target selection process sounds to me when I read about it. My semi-secret fear is that this might be quite close to how this process actually works. The Global War on Terror, the shadow war, the overseas contingency operation – whatever you want to call it, I’ve long worried that its reach and the place of importance it is given are out of proportion to any threat posed by Al Qaeda or any similar group, and I’ve long feared that the way we go about ‘countering’ terrorism may in fact cause more problems than it solves, possibly by orders of magnitude. I am no insider. I don’t see the process. I would like to think that more care is put into these decisions than it seems from the outside. But from here, from the outside, it seems like no matter how many times – through decades of experience – we see the second and third order effects, the collateral damage, the side effects of our actions, the people making the decisions are not really concerning themselves with taking time to consider how the benefits balance out against the potential unintended consequences and long-term effects. And it’s not just about doing things we maybe shouldn’t be doing; it’s also about failing to do things we maybe should be doing.

Then when I read an article like this one by Kimberly Dozier (and I strongly recommend reading that), it reads very cart-before-horse to me, like ‘Who are we going after with these drones and SOF guys?’ and not ‘This AQ leader is a terrible threat. What are we going to do about that?’ I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have contingency plans in place for how to deal with potential real threats to U.S. security, but it seems like more than that. I fear that maybe we use these tactics just because we can, that because we have drones and incredibly skilled and versatile SOF teams and such, we just look for people to use them on. That scares me because it implies a casual attitude toward the many forms of potential collateral damage, scant consideration of long term effects (and therefore the absence of a robust long term guiding strategy), meaning finally, an approach to national security that is not actually optimized to keep our nation secure.

The drones aren’t the issue any more than any other tool or tactic is – they are a tool, and can be a very valuable one – but if we’re looking around for people to kill with them rather than using them only in service of a true strategy or to counter a clear threat that has arisen, then we’re doing it wrong, and if we’re doing it wrong – and this is true even if you are concerned only with American interests and are fully indifferent to the collateral damage done to and within local populations in the areas of operation – we risk having to pay a harsh price in five years, or ten, or twenty, when the right things we didn’t do and the collateral effects of the things we did do comes back to haunt us. 

But please tell me I’m wrong. I’ll feel a lot better if I am.

Bonus reading: h/t to Rob Caruso for linking up three great recommendations for current reading on operations (which yes, very much do consist of more than just drones): “Offshoring CT: Towards a Dissection” – Dan Trombly for Abu Muqawama; “The Vickers Doctrine” – Robert Caruso at Rocky Shoals; and “U.S. Foreign Policy and Contested Sovereignty” – Micah Zenko for CFR. All good reads that bear on various aspects of this subject, none quite addresses the question of what kind of big-picture, long-term strategy guides these operations, although Caruso comes closest to getting into this in that his (very interesting) post offers guidance on structure and prioritization in operations going forward.

Posted in Military, Strategery, Terrorism, Uncategorized, War | 9 Comments

What’s good for King Abdullah is not necessarily good for everyone

Yesterday, on Foreign Policy, Robert Haddick argued that the Persian Gulf – sorry, the Gulf That Must Not Be Named - needs its own NATO, and that the U.S. needs to be a part of it. Essentially, he argues that the current situation in the Gulf, as Saudi Arabia tries to coax the GCC into a closer union, is similar to that in western Europe at the time NATO was founded:

In 1949, Western European and U.S. leaders saw an expansionist Soviet Union that maintained a menacing army and was simultaneously instigating internal subversion in Greece, central Europe, Italy, and elsewhere. Abdullah and his fellow Sunni royals worry about Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for proxy forces in Lebanon and Syria and provocateurs in Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The solution for Western leaders in 1949 was a military alliance based on the principle of collective security. Abdullah apparently wants something similar.

As he sees it,  the U.S. could play a similar role in a Gulf NATO:

As an outsider that had no claims in Europe and was largely neutral regarding the internal squabbles among the other members, the United States was seen as a partner all the European leaders could trust and the sole force that could hold the alliance together against its self-defeating instincts. The U.S. claim to leadership was certainly aided by its overwhelming economic and military strength after the war. But Europeans also trusted the United States to lead the alliance because an ocean separated it from Europe.

Without even getting into the logistical feasibility of such an alliance – read Stephen Saideman for what it really means to be like NATO – this argument is problematic at best. In making his case for this treaty, Mr. Haddick declines to address some very major assumptions underlying the whole issue.

For starters, the primary driver of Saudi Arabia’s current bid for closer union – particularly with Bahrain – is internal, not external. It is about quashing internal dissent from the Shia populace in Bahrain, and in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. However much the Kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain may try to frame these internal problems as the work of Iranian agitators, they have much more to do with domestic inequalities and repression than with any ties to Iran. And in fact, the security concerns of gulf states generally tend to be internal more than external. Many people already see a U.S. hand in the crackdowns in Bahrain. A formal alliance on the order of NATO would not help this perception in the slightest.

Mr. Haddick mentions the other Gulf states’ concerns about Saudi – “Although the leaders undoubtedly fear revolution and Iran, for the moment they fear the House of Saud even more” – but he doesn’t take the extra step to consider whether or not those fears might be well founded. The other Gulf rulers certainly want to ensure their own sovereignty, and it’s perfectly understandable that when entering into a union with other nations, led by a dominant regional power, they would want “details, and the details of the details” as the Saudi Foreign Minister put it.

Related to that and also not addressed is the possibility that what’s good for Saudi Arabia is not necessarily good for everyone, and this goes for both the other Gulf states and the U.S. Just because King Abdullah wants closer security cooperation doesn’t mean that is in everyone’s best interests. All that tells you is that it is in King Abdullah’s best interests.

Consideration should also be given to the people of the states in question. Do we want to be part of a formal security alliance that, for example, is supported by the Bahraini regime but opposed by the majority of its people? The U.S. has quite clearly been willing to put certain national interests above human rights to a degree in Bahrain and elsewhere, but where should the line be drawn?

I’ve argued before that U.S. support for repressive regimes is not only awkward in terms of our attempts to promote democracy and human rights, but also a potential longterm strategic disaster. Binding ourselves more tightly to these regimes in a security agreement similar to NATO would make later negative repercussions more assured and potentially much worse. And then there’s this:


Scary thought.

Posted in Middle East, NATO, Saudi Arabia, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Well played, Marine Corps

Last week it was announced that the USMC will be allowing women to attend its infantry training programs, beginning with the Infantry Officers’ Course and later expanding to training opportunities for enlisted women. While this doesn’t mean that female Marines who complete the training would now be allowed into combat roles, it is still a big step, and a smart move by the Marine Corps.

Many people feel at this point that it is inevitable that our military will have full equality of opportunity. This step seems to be an indication that the Marine Corps certainly thinks so. By starting to filter women into infantry training now, the Corps is putting itself in position to be able to implement immediately when that time comes.

More importantly in the short term, it allows the Marines to take the next step in the exploration of lifting the ban on women in combat that has been going on for more than a year. A close look at standards, an assessment of what is truly required in order for combat units to be effective, will be an important step. The Marine Corps Times reports that “new functional fitness tests are being developed to help Marine Corps leaders determine how women and men perform in, and cope with, various combat tasks. The goal is to establish “gender-neutral” physical fitness standards.” Incorporating women into infantry training programs allows the Corps to test and refine these standards in a hands on manner with real men and women, and doing so now, before there is any directive requiring women to be allowed in combat units, gives them time to do this the right way.

I have stated before that I think women should have the same opportunities as men to serve in our military, provided they can meet the necessary standards to ensure the maximum possible safety and effectiveness of our combat forces. It’s great to see the USMC taking serious and responsible steps toward this.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments