Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category


Leaks vs. Leaks

In Politics on July 26, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: ,

The recent release of thousands of pages of classified material on the Afghan War by WikiLeaks has prompted the inevitable comparison with the Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times in 1971. While both incidents encompassed the unauthorized release of secret papers to a journalistic source, the comparisons should end there.

Even a cursory examination of the WikiLeaks material shows that it is basically unprocessed data documenting the day-to-day activities of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. These reports are only of value once placed in context by analysts who understand both the intentions of the forces involved and that of the commanders running the show. Civilian readers will likely be somewhat confused by much of the material, and probably bored as well. For example, the narrative of Ref. ID AFG20040101n2 reads:


Ref. ID AFG20040309n11 is similarly scintillating:


There are some 91,000 such reports. This is not to say that there is no relevant information to be gleaned from these, but simply to note that they provide only the raw data of an ongoing conflict. Readers who wish to actually understand them need to have enough background in military operations to grasp what is relevant and what is not, and more importantly to be able to identify trends and correlate data with the bigger picture of strategy and operations.

By contrast, the Pentagon Papers was the popular name given to a single report entitled “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.” This 4,100 page document presented the polar opposite of the WikiLeaks Afghan reports: a cohesive study of a twenty-two year period incorporating analysis with reports from both the military and civilian leadership, providing as comprehensive a picture of the situation between the two countries as had ever existed to that time. Consider a brief excerpt from Volume 4, Chapter 2: Section C of Part I. PHASE II, JULY 1965-MAY 1966:


1. Concept for Vietnam

By late August 1965, the JCS had developed and coordinated a Concept for Vietnam which was set out in JCSM 652-65 dated 27 August. The heart of the concept is summarized as follows:

a. The objective in Vietnam, as stated by NSAM 288, dated 17 March 1964, is a stable and independent noncommunist government.

b. The major problems to be dealt with in the conduct of the war are:

(1) The continued direction and support of Viet Cong operations by the DRV, infiltration from the north, and the apparent attendant Viet Cong capability to provide materiel support and to replace heavy personnel losses.
(2) The continued existence of a major Viet Cong infrastructure, both political and military, in the RVN.
(3) The greater growth rate of Viet Cong strength as compared to that of the South Vietnamese ground forces.
(4) The continued loss of LOCs, food-producing areas, and population to Viet Cong control.
(5) The lack of a viable politico/economic structure in the RVN.
(6) The threat of CHICOM intervention or aggression in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the Western Pacific.

c. The basic military tasks, of equal priority, are:

(1) To cause the DRV to cease its direction and support of the Viet Cong insurgency.
(2) To defeat the Viet Cong and to extend GVN control over all of the RVN.
(3) To deter Communist China from direct intervention and to defeat such intervention if it occurs.

d. The US basic strategy for accomplishing the above tasks should be:
to intensify military pressure on the DRV by air and naval power; to destroy significant DRV military targets, including the base of supplies; to interdict supporting LOCs in the DRV; to interdict the infiltration and supply routes into the RVN; to improve the combat effectiveness of the RVNAF; to build and protect bases; to reduce enemy reinforcements; to defeat the Viet Cong, in concert with RVN and third country forces; and to maintain adequate forces in the Western Pacific and elsewhere in readiness to deter and to deal with CHICOM aggression. By aggressive and sustained exploitation of superior military force, the United States/Government of Vietnam would seize and hold the initiative in both the DRV and RVN, keeping the DRV, the Viet Cong, and the PL/VM at a disadvantage, progressively destroying the DRV war-supporting power and defeating the Viet Cong. The physical capability of the DRV to move men and supplies through the Lao Corridor, down the coastline, across the DMZ, and through Cambodia must be reduced to the maximum practical extent by land, naval, and air actions in these areas and against infiltration-connected targets. Finally, included within the basic US military strategy must be a buildup in Thailand to ensure attainment of the proper US-Thai posture to deter CHICOM aggression and to facilitate placing US forces in an advantageous logistic position if such aggression occurs.

Or this from Volume 2, Chapter 1, Section I:

Summary and Analysis

When Kennedy took office, the prospect of an eventual crisis in Vietnam had been widely recognized in the government, although nothing much had yet been done about it. Our Ambassador in Saigon had been sending worried cables for a year, and twice in recent months [in September 1960 and again in December] had ended an appraisal of the situation by cautiously raising the question of whether the U.S. would not sooner or later have to move to replace Diem. Barely a week after taking office, Kennedy received and approved a Counter-Insurgency Plan (CIP) which, at what seems to have been a rather leisurely pace, had been going through drafting and staffing for the previous eight months.

The CIP was a most modest program by the standard we have become accustomed to in Vietnam. It offered Diem financial support for a 20,000 man increase in his army, which then stood at 150,000; plus support for about half of the counter-guerrilla auxiliary force known as the Civil Guard. In return, it asked Diem for a number of reforms which appeared to the American side as merely common sense–such as straightening out command arrangements for the army under which 42 different officials directly responsible to Diem (38 province chiefs, 3 regional commanders, and a Chief of Staff) shared operational command.

The CIP was superseded in May by an enlarged version of the same program, and the only longer term significance the original program held was that it presumably offered the Administration a lesson in dealing with Diem (and perhaps, although it was not foreseen then, a lesson in dealing with Vietnamese governments generally). The negotiations dragged on and on; the U.S. military and eventually most of the civilians both in Saigon and Washington grew impatient for getting on with the war; Diem promised action on some of the American points, and finally even issued some decrees, none of which were really followed up. For practical purposes, the list of “essential reforms” proposed as part of the CIP, including those Diem had given the impression he agreed to, could have been substituted unchanged for the list of reforms the U.S. requested at the end of the year, with equal effect, as the quid pro quo demanded for the much enlarged U.S. aid offer that followed the Taylor Mission.

These are merely small pieces of a thorough analytical examination of American policy in Vietnam, including extensive use of high-level reports written by those responsible for running the war. While it may not be considered a great page-turner by many readers, anyone willing to read it would certainly be able grasp the both overarching principles U.S. leaders employed in dealing with Vietnam and the results of their policies.

While neither represents a complete picture, it should be understood that not all leaks are created equal. The WikiLeaks material is most notable for the controversial method of its release, while the information contained therein is fairly mundane and offers little insight into the conflict. The Pentagon Papers, by contrast, were most noteworthy for the contents of the report itself, which suggested that what was being publicly reported in America was at odds with what the government knew to be true. In short, then, reports of the sort put forward by WikiLeaks would at best constitute nothing more than an appendix to an analysis of the type leaked by Ellsberg. Anyone who is inclined to read both will quickly discover that their understanding of the war in Vietnam is likely to have been expanded considerably more than that of the Afghan conflict.



Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Gaza Blockade

In Politics on June 17, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

Israel has announced that they will loosen the blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza, allowing in more civilian goods via land checkpoints, while the naval blockade will remain in force. Although the updated list of allowed items includes a range of household items, the real change is that Israel will now allow the delivery of construction materials such as cement and steel, which had previously been prohibited as dual-use commodities that could be utilized for the construction of fortifications as well as more mundane civilian projects. The caveat that these items will only be allowed in “for civilian projects that are under international supervision” is rather weak, as the power of the international entities in Gaza to prevent Hamas from appropriating such supplies for its own purposes is virtually nil.

The obvious reason for this shift is an attempt to limit the long-term international consequences of the “Freedom Flotilla” debacle last month. By very publicly opening Gaza to increased goods traffic, Israel is trying to assure the international community that it is merely providing for its own security, not imposing a sort of collective punishment on the 1.4 million people living in the Gaza Strip. It is unlikely that such an approach will work broadly; only Israel’s staunchest allies will accept this action as sufficient cause to let their public outrage slip quietly away and move as quickly as possible toward forgetting the whole incident. For everyone else, Israel’s blockade will still be characterized as inhumane and arbitrary, with public pressure for continued isolation of the Jewish state remaining firm. This, in turn, will only serve to confirm Israel’s sense of isolation, which will compel its government to maintain strong security measures.

The more interesting question raised here regards the blockade itself; precisely what is its objective? Historically, blockades have been employed for a variety of purposes, in peace and war, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. The Israel effort represents what is in practice a very limited peace-time, or pacific, blockade, with the declared intention of preventing military supplies from reaching Hamas. The problem, of course, is that the inclusion of dual-use items like construction materials means that many Gazans are inadvertently caught in the effects of the blockade, and the overall economic effect severely limits Gaza’s already extremely limited potential.

What is not entirely clear is what Israel expects to achieve by maintaining the blockade. Past peacetime economic warfare efforts have been effective, to an extent, only when they have imposed sufficiently severe economic harm to compel a rival to resolve a situation expeditiously, and even these efforts take a significant amount of time to have any hope of success, though this is far from assured; the Israeli blockade of Gaza certainly does not fit this classification in any case, and time is on the side of Hamas. In its current form (both before and after the recent modifications), it is clearly a political compromise between doing nothing and allowing Hamas to become better-armed than it already is and perhaps forcing yet another politically costly military incursion, and imposing far greater restrictions in the hope of causing the Hamas administration to collapse under the weight of its inability to cope with public demands before Israel succumbs to what would obviously be greatly increased international pressure. Both of these represent high-risk approaches; the current implementation of the blockade is lower-risk, but also has little chance of accomplishing anything beyond maintaining what is a rather unfavorable status quo. Israel’s strategic position is very poor, as are its options for changing it, so it is limited to rearranging the furniture while Hamas waits for the boat to sink.


The Real Dangers of the BP Oil Spill

In Politics on June 16, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: ,

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the sinking of the BP offshore drilling platform Deepwater Horizon has proven to be a very difficult problem to address. The short- and medium-term effects of the spill are likely to encompass not only the environmental issues associated with the clean-up, but the changed regulatory climate is likely to impose new limitations on drilling, backed by a very vocal public. Corporate costs will rise due to increased risk exposure, not only because of new equipment and procedures, but also the need to prepare funds to deal with potential contingencies.

The immediate consequences notwithstanding, the situation in the Gulf points up the extreme vulnerability of the United States in the energy sector. With widespread calls for increased regulation and oversight, it is very likely that offshore drilling, especially in deep water, will be slowed well beyond the six-month moratorium recently imposed. Opponents of drilling in areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, long a controversial proposal, will certainly receive a boost, as will alternative energy advocates. Without a doubt, there are risks involved in oil drilling, particularly as the reserves become more remote and difficult to tap, and their locations increasingly coincide with both sensitive ecological areas and human habitation.

What remains unmentioned here is the strategic vulnerability of the U.S. economy to interruptions in oil supplies, and the longer term problem of dependency on petroleum imports. While a case can certainly be made for reducing dependency on oil, potential implementation of any such solution is so far in the future as to render any shift in the strategic situation so distant as to be almost irrelevant. In March of 2010 (the latest figures available), the U.S. imported 288 million barrels of crude oil while producing 150 million barrels (U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Crude Oil Supply & Disposition), with a significant proportion arriving from countries whose governments have rather unfavorable views of America; Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, for example, was responsible for delivering almost one million barrels per day. Other locations are beset by domestic volatility; Mexico, Nigeria, Angola, and Iraq all ranked within the top ten exporters of crude to the U.S. in that month (US EIA, Crude Oil and Total Petroleum Imports Top 15 Countries). The disruption of supply from any of these sources would create significant problems for the U.S., with price spikes and uncertainty fed by disproportionate public fear as well as real reduction in supply. With domestic supplies of just over one billion barrels (of which two-thirds is held in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the remainder in commercial storage) representing almost four months worth of imports, the time available to resolve a worst-case supply crisis is frighteningly brief, and even lesser crises pose a real challenge.

The oil business is extremely complicated, and the above figures represent a single very simplified measure of U.S. dependence on foreign petroleum. Once the problems of refining, shipping, storage, as well as ongoing research and exploration costs and market fluctuations are considered, it quickly becomes clear that American vulnerability is extremely high, higher even that these numbers suggest. Alternative energy sources will be developed, and as they become economically viable they will eventually supplant petroleum, much as petroleum replaced coal; government subsidies cannot sustainably offset the currently increased cost of these options. Simply put, however, for now and the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to be utterly dependent on importation of foreign petroleum for its survival. This means that American foreign policy must continue to focus of securing these supplies, and that it is very much in the strategic interest of the nation to develop such domestic resources as are available to at least provide a hedge against turbulence in markets and foreign supplies. Leadership in this instance must recognize that, public outcry notwithstanding, it is in the interest of the country’s security to minimize its exposure to disruptions in supply of oil, which remains the single most vital commodity to its economic and strategic well-being.


What a long, strange trip it’s been…

In Politics on June 3, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

The kabuki dance of the Freedom Flotilla and the Israeli government has played out largely as expected, with Israel taking the hard line that the pro-Palestinian activists behind the attempted breach of the blockade of Gaza counted on. In fact, the killing of nine of the activists following a confrontation aboard the Mavi Marmara ferry gave the activists greater results that they could have hoped for; only sinking the ship would have done more to diplomatically isolate the Israelis.

One must question the events that occurred aboard the ferry as the Israelis boarded it. The video thus far released is inconclusive as to how and when escalation began and who was initially responsible, but it is clear that it was not a one-sided affair. Activists were directly engaged in close fighting with Israeli commandos until such time as the latter gained control of the situation. Pro-Palestinian claims that the Israelis began firing from helicopters before they landed on the ship are difficult to accept inasmuch as such action was not duplicated on the other ships in the flotilla, all of which were boarded peacefully. If we thus operate on the premise that the confrontation began after the boarding operation began, it seems quite reasonable to suggest that the activists were responsible for its outbreak once we consider the nature of the goals of both sides. Knowing that any outcome which would draw international attention would serve their opponents’ aims, the Israelis would have wanted to resolve the situation in as low-key a manner as possible; initiating combat makes little sense, especially in such an ambiguous set of circumstances where it would be difficult to prove necessity. For the activists, however, efforts to provoke a violent Israeli response are completely consistent with their intended purpose. Outnumbered commandos rappelling from helicopters and set upon from all sides would have had very few options: defend themselves or surrender. Withdrawal was not an option, due to the nature of the insertion, nor was passive defense. Once attacked by a multitude of activists, even if armed only with improvised weapons like clubs and chairs, the commandos were placed in a situation that made the use of deadly force a very likely outcome.

Reports that the Israelis did not expect such resistance suggest that planning for this operation failed to consider the dominance of strategic versus tactical success in assessing results. Suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding, the Israelis appear to have attempted to use minimal tactical force (small patrol craft, helicopters, commandos) rather than a full-scale effort employing major naval units in direct boarding operations. This makes a degree of sense if one assumes there will be no violence; if the activists had remained entirely peaceful before the full array of Israeli naval might, Israel would have given the impression of enormous overkill. Given that it already has a reputation of military heavy-handedness, this is something its government would seek to avoid. However, this sort of best-case tactical assumption takes little account of the strategic goals of the activists.

Rather than offer them an opportunity to exploit the situation further, Israel would have been far better served by taking the initiative away from the activists by bringing to bear so much potential force in the boarding operation that any sort of active resistance would have been both suicidal and easily halted. Consider the possibilities offered in such an alternative scenario: boarding from ships, the Israelis would have employed larger numbers of troops more quickly and with better options, including less than deadly force support from naval vessels (water cannon, tear gas, stun grenades) and the possibility of egress if the situation became uncontrollable. Had the activists attempted the only possible effective counter to such an operation – ramming – the Israelis would be able to point to this act of aggression as reasonable justification for their subsequent actions.

In situations where force may be expected to come into play, it is almost never a good idea to prepare only the minimum considered necessary, particularly in circumstances where failure might result in consequences far beyond the immediate tactical situation. This is not to say that such force should necessarily be employed, but the possibility of doing so is critically important if the widest array of options for controlling the situation is to be maintained. For as often as Israel has been criticized for using excessive force, in this case the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. The odyssey of the Freedom Flotilla demonstrated that Israel still has not developed a clear understanding of the strategic consequences of tactical operations.


Freedom Flotilla Imprisoned

In Politics on May 31, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

The overnight storming by Israeli forces of the of the Mavi Marmara passenger ferry, which was leading a six ship flotilla loaded with peace activists and aid supplies, and with the announced intention of running the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza, has provoked widespread condemnation of the Israeli action, which resulted in at last report sixteen deaths and the impounding of all the ships in the flotilla. This is very likely precisely what the backers of this rather transparent attempt to provoke Israel were hoping would occur.

Israel as a regional power has time and again proven itself too strong to confront successfully in open warfare. From the War of Independence in 1947-8 to the conflicts with its neighbors in 1956, 1967, 1973, 1978, 1982, and 2006, Israel’s military has shown itself to be highly effective. It outclasses its rivals in virtually every measurable category of military competence. So its enemies have done what those who find themselves overmatched usually do: they have changed their approach to minimize the strengths of the their rival while maximizing their own ability to act. This is a typical strategy of insurgencies: create conditions that weaken the stronger power over time by seizing the initiative and presenting a set of choices that leave the dominant power no good options. Inevitably, when pushed, the stronger power must act or surrender its position, but the consequences of even the best option serve to weaken it indirectly, usually in the eyes of the international community. As noted by Sun Tzu, “(t)hose skilled at making the enemy move do so by creating a situation to which he must conform.”

The Free Gaza Movement, which organized the so-called “Freedom Flotilla”, has taken measures to ensure maximum international discomfort for the Israelis. Not only has it placed Israel in the difficult position of either abrogating its own blockade, which would undermine its claims of legitimacy, or using force to halt ostensibly peaceful protest, which seems like substantial overreaction. Further, two of the ships it has employed in this effort are U.S.-registered and -flagged, which, as the FGM press release of 30 May 2010 notes, “means they are U.S. territory.” Clearly trying to deepen the already significant rift between the United States and Israel, the document goes on to state that “we expect the U.S. government to intervene if U.S. property is wrongly confiscated by Israeli authorities as they have threatened” and encourages readers to contact the U.S. State Department.

Strategically, FGM has succeeded in further isolating Israel and minimizing the value of those measures of power that make it dominant in the region. What remains unclear, however, is what other groups or powers may have had a hand in this. The most compelling question is to what extent Turkey was involved. Relations between Turkey and Israel have been in rapid decline of late, and it is worth noting that FGM is based on Cyprus, from where the ships sailed, and that most of the activists aboard were reportedly Turks (the originally planned point of departure was the Greek side of the island, where Greek members of parliament were scheduled to embark but prevented from doing so by their government). Even if the Turkish government had no direct involvement whatsoever, its relations with Israel will likely be among the most directly and negatively affected by this confrontation.

For all of its tactical and operational dominance, Israel’s hands are strategically tied by the ease with which its opponents can employ a far greater array of non-military options to force Israel to respond militarily or to acquiesce politically. Targeted terrorism and indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah serve a similar function, though with neither the finesse nor the effectiveness of ostensibly peaceful political resistance.