Can Limited Wars Still be Won?

In Warfare on June 25, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

Limited wars, and in particular such conflicts where one of the belligerents is a Great Power, have been the most common form of interstate conflict for more than a century, arguably first developing their modern form during the Age of Imperialism, and evolving further during the post-colonial period. These conflicts have always posed a particular challenge to the Great Power involved, as they specifically demand successful resolution without the employment of all available resources, whether because of greater threats that must be guarded against or political pressures from a variety of sources that compel moderation of effort. Striking this balance has become increasingly difficult, to the point that we must question whether these conflicts can still be won. Victory is of course defined, here as elsewhere, by achieving the political object of the effort; military success alone is not sufficient.

The nature of strategy and the options available to nations in developing their own strategic approaches in any conflict are bound by a directly proportional relationship between the means available and potential negative outcomes; the greater the potential for damage to the national interest in the event of failure, the more unrestricted the means that are considered justified. A conflict in which there is no existential threat to nation, government or population must always be confined at least to the limits of what is considered reasonable in terms of cost and risk. In other words, the costs of success – financial as well as political and military – must not outweigh the value of the object of the war.

From the mid-19th Century to the early 20th, the heyday of the European imperial powers, this equation was usually fairly easy to balance. The ability of industrialized European nations to employ limited yet sufficient means to overwhelm virtually any non-European opponent was almost a given; the costs of such efforts were generally small, with proprietary technology offering tremendous economy of force. Though it is admittedly an extreme example, the 1898 Battle of Omdurman, the culmination of the British expedition to avenge the death of General Gordon and crush the Mahdi Army in the Sudan, gives an indication of what was possible: after an exhausting journey up the Nile, a force of some 8,000 British soldiers and 17,000 local auxiliaries supported by artillery and gunboats was assaulted by over 50,000 poorly-armed and ill-trained dervishes. When the battle ended after roughly six hours, approximately 10,000 dervishes lay dead, and another 13,000 were wounded, many of whom did not survive. The British lost 48 dead and fewer than 400 wounded. Omdurman represents the pinnacle of industrial warfare against a non-industrialized foe, and was rightly lauded as a great triumph of British arms.

The Sudan Expedition represents very well the easy strategic calculus of the period. Even though the obstacles to be overcome were significant (the problems of travel up the Nile were far more difficult than those posed by the enemy), there was relatively little concern that the British-led force would come to grief. Modern rifles, machine guns, and artillery had proven their worth in battle, and the force was large enough that that chances of it being overwhelmed were almost nil. With more than twice their number of local allied troops, the British force was large enough to be militarily effective, yet small enough not to represent a major political risk even if more significant casualties had been incurred (the casualties taken by local allies had almost no negative political value for the British). The financial cost of the expedition, while not insubstantial, was far outweighed by the control of territory achieved by success (reinforced only days later at Fashoda, where the advantage of the British position checked a French challenge from the west), not to mention avenging the death of the unfortunate Gordon.

In considering the situation in the Sudan, the British concluded that the potential of success afforded by modern technology and organization outstripped the relatively remote risks of failure, measured in casualties and objectives unattained. To both the British government and people, the losses inflicted on the Mahdi Army were of generally little concern, and the use of technology in doing so was a triumph of industrialized civilization over barbarism. There was thus very little potential political cost to the expedition provided that it achieved its primary object, an entirely attainable goal; means and methods played almost no part in the equation, as the level of commitment required to succeed was far below the political tipping point established by the value of the object.

Yet the calculation was not always so simple; immediately following the success of Omdurman, the British were forced to confront a far more difficult challenge in South Africa – the Boer War. Here the enemy was well-armed with European rifles and refused to fight the British in a manner that emphasized British strengths; instead, they fought a guerrilla war, never allowing the British forces to employ their advantages of organization and technology to good effect. Unable to win a quick and decisive victory, the British were compelled to invest more troops, more money, and more political capital in an effort to break the Boers. When this failed, more drastic measures were taken: huge swaths of countryside were sectioned off with barbed wire and blockhouses to restrict movement, and many Boers were moved into the first concentration camps in history.

Even though the British did successfully conclude the war in 1902 after three years of constant struggle, the political costs were substantial, making the victory far less clear-cut. The treatment of the Boers, who were of course of Christian farmers of European origin, was considered an outrage by some. The inability of the vaunted British Army to see off a relatively small force of poorly trained irregulars seemed inexplicable, especially since that same army had just enjoyed such success in the Sudan. The difficulties of fighting a limited war against an enemy that was far less willing to cooperate by fighting in the manner the British expected them to, and that did not occupy a distinctly lower place in the racial and social hierarchy generally accepted at the time (it was difficult to classify the Boers as “barbarians”), were made clear. The lessons were promptly forgotten with the advent of Great Power conflict that dominated the world until 1945, only to be rediscovered during the waves of post-colonial struggles for independence, which occurred in a vastly different political climate.

Modern limited wars look far more like the Boer War than the Sudan Campaign, but the limitations are becoming ever more restrictive. No longer can labels of “barbarian” lessen the political impact of losses inflicted on an opponent; no longer can the latest technology be employed without consideration of the consequences. Yet the threshold for failure has continued to fall; even limited numbers of casualties in an all-volunteer force or failure to achieve success in a short span of time can be enough to significantly weaken political resolve and popular support. For the Great Powers, limited war presents a paradox: for all the power they possess, the means that can be employed in limited wars are increasingly restricted by the political costs of using them. The technological disparity between the leading powers and their lesser opponents remains significant, but the costs involved in using that technology have increased. Thus the political costs of committing manpower and time to a limited war effort cannot be offset by victory ensured by technology as they were at Omdurman. At the same time, those opposing the Great Powers are often fighting for a far more valuable political object, and are thus willing to commit far more of their available means, and with fewer regards for the political costs, as failure in the conflict could be fatal to the regime. The end result is that limited ends are increasingly difficult to achieve at acceptable cost to the Great Powers. Has limited war become too limited to win?



Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere Redux? (Part Two)

In Economics on June 22, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , , , ,

As noted in Part One of this topic, the rise of China as well as other powers in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans has sufficiently compelling parallels to the rise of Imperial Japan in the first half of the 20th Century that it may be instructive to revisit Japan’s ascent to power, culminating in its drive toward a regional maritime empire it euphemistically called the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. This entity did not simply spring from the minds of Japan’s leadership, but was in fact heavily influenced by outside thought and experience, especially of and with the two predominant maritime powers of the era: Great Britain and the United States. In particular, the work of U.S. naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan is known to have provided much of inspiration behind the Japanese strategy underpinning its rise to power. That Mahan’s ideas are gaining traction with the strategic planners of today’s rising Asian powers lends further credence to the relevance of Japan’s example.

Japan was introduced to Mahan’s seminal work with its translation into Japanese in 1896; many of his later works were translated as well. Mahan’s book was viewed as a blueprint for national greatness through naval expansion, with a battleship fleet providing the means to secure the colonies, bases, and lines of communication necessary to achieve this triumph. Indeed, this is largely what Mahan had intended, though his intended audience clearly was not Japan; the United States had begun to look outward for a variety of reasons – the closing of the frontier, domestic overproduction, concerns over European imperialism – and Mahan felt it must not merely look, but take a sufficiently active position as to be able to develop its commercial interests, and to create a fleet strong enough to protect them. The Japanese were impressed by arguments that seemed to apply as much to their own situation as to America’s, even though Mahan would have argued against this assertion. Key officers in the Japanese Navy were sent to Britain and the United States to study the new ideas underpinning what came to be known as navalism, and they returned to Japan to instruct their fellow officers through lectures and books of their own. These officers thus spread the gospel of Mahan not only to much of the naval officer corps, but to members of the government, industry and other influential citizens, inexorably intertwining Mahan with the general arguments in favor of expansion and naval procurement.

The First World War brought another important lesson that dovetailed nicely with the Japanese interpretation of Mahan’s teachings. In a long war, economic warfare could prove vital; the experiences of Great Britain and Germany showed that naval blockades, whether using traditional methods of boarding and inspecting merchant vessels for contraband or attacking them directly using a combination of open-sea raiders and the highly effective new technology of the submarine, could have a significant, if not decisive, impact on the outcome. Germany’s severe shortages of warmaking material, consumer commodities and foodstuffs by 1918, and Britain and France’s utter reliance on support from the U.S. as the war dragged on, demonstrated beyond a doubt to Japanese planners that only self-sufficient nations could hope to survive in the worst case scenario of a long war without proximate allies. Autarky became a vital element of Japanese industrial policy, but it was acknowledged that Japan – a nation hopelessly poor in most industrial commodities – could not achieve this without an overseas empire.

It is unsurprising then that the growth of the Japanese economy based on its industrial strength and its exports was concurrent with greater calls for measures to ensure continued economic development and security. What was needed to attain this seemed to be clear: acquiring productive resource-rich colonies, gaining control of key strategic positions to protect them, and building a navy strong enough to secure both. The 1922 Five-Power Naval Treaty that emerged from the Washington Conference, with its restrictions on Japan’s fleet building, was acquiesced to in no small part because the United States agreed to a nonfortification clause that gave Japan de facto control of the western Pacific. Despite concerns among some in Japan that the restrictions on fleet building would compromise her security, the Five-Power Treaty must be considered far more beneficial to Japan’s security interests than those of the United States, her principal rival in the Pacific. This may be evidenced by the fact that U.S. naval officers denounced the treaty as having undermined their service’s global mission (as defined by Mahan); U.S. Navy planners spent the rest of the decade working on ways to resolve the problem of war with Japan (considered a strong possibility since the beginning of the century) in light of the new limitations.

The ability to act as the dominant regional power in the western Pacific gave Japan the chance to begin the process of imperial acquisition. Beginning with the taking of Manchuria in 1931, and already controlling the important Korean peninsula and numerous islands in the southwestern Pacific (gained at Germany’s expense during the First World War, and tellingly identified by Mahan at that time as posing a serious concern to U.S. Pacific interests), Japanese policymakers, increasingly influenced by the competing leadership of the Army and the Navy, moved toward what they believed to be the Mahanian-dictated path to national greatness.

Yet it failed; Japan did not develop the increasingly stable, prosperous and defensible empire that it sought. Instead, the problem of securing resources sufficient to meet both industrial demands and the construction and operational requirements of the increasingly large naval contingent meant that Japan became increasingly desperate as its leaders realized that gaining the territory required to attain self-sufficiency would generate active opposition from Japan’s main trading partner and rival, the United States. The embargoes and financial measures taken by the U.S. in the years before Pearl Harbor reinforced the perceived requirement for creating an autarkic Japanese empire while making it harder to achieve, as the needs of the navy for steel and oil continued to increase as the U.S. threat loomed larger. American restrictions on petroleum and steel exports – put in place to protest Japanese actions in China – pushed the Japanese toward a point at which supplies of these vital commodities would run out, long before imperial territory could be extended and exploited to make up the shortfall. Rather than wait for the inevitable, the Japanese struck out for oil reserves of the Dutch East Indies, while following Mahan’s doctrine of decisive battle by concurrently attempting to knock out the only forces that could stop them, and the bases from which they would operate: the Royal Navy at Singapore, the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” and the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, along with U.S. bases in the Philippines.

What went wrong? Simply put, Japan’s reading of Mahan was flawed. Japan’s devotees of Mahan’s ideas believed that a maritime empire and a strong navy were the keys to survival because they allowed the imperial power to control the resources it needed to succeed; they saw the global dominance of the British Empire demonstrated in The Influence of Sea Power upon History as an irrefutable example of this. Yet Mahan’s argument was as much about British success as it was about French failure; failure to concentrate on a maritime policy, failure to recognize the meaning of British commercial and naval strength, failure to see the dangers inherent in concentrating on the Continent. The Japanese would have done well to consider this.

While Britain was forced to be a maritime power by geography, France had a choice; in Mahan’s view, it was so indecisive in this as to give Britain de facto control over the vital seas while rendering itself unnecessarily vulnerable to commercial isolation and military impotence against its primary rival. Where Britain’s empire was remote and diffuse and her main rival close, Japan sought a regional empire and faced a distant rival; while this might seem to offer greater security, in fact the inability to restrain the United States by bottling up its merchant shipping and naval forces as Britain had those of France meant that Japan would face a far greater challenge, as Britain did in those instances where France’s navy was met in open seas rather than confined to its ports.

Britain’s maritime power was based on a large and active commercial fleet that provided what Mahan considered a necessary pre-condition for naval power; both Mahan’s France and Imperial Japan had far smaller commercial fleets, a condition that would contribute to the precariousness of their respective strategic positions rather than provide support for the navies needed to protect them. An array of sources for imports and markets for exports, within the Empire and without, gave Britain a commercial advantage that neither France nor Japan came close to matching. American sanctions against Japan further reduced her already limited commercial potential, further weakening the foundation on which her navy was being constructed, as no viable imperial alternative to this trade existed.

The considerably reduced material and technical requirements for the construction of wooden sailing ships when compared with 20th vessels meant that neither France nor Britain faced the severe problems encountered by the Japanese navy in constructing their fleet. While it is true that Mahan’s turn of the century American audience also had to meet the needs of modern technology, the U.S. had more than adequate supplies of the industrial commodities necessary, rendering the earlier conditions of the two European powers far more relevant than they were to Japan, to which fleet construction became a strategic objective itself, reversing Mahan’s order and perverting his logic.

Britain needed to commit few resources to her army, as the presence of the Royal Navy, the “wooden walls of Britain,” rendered Britain secure regardless of the size of the armies of her Great Power rivals, while France was forced to face them on the Continent; by the time Japan sought her empire, she too was forced to face the Great Powers not only at sea but on land, as well as the comparatively limitless manpower of Great Power-supported China, if she hoped to gain the territory she needed.

In short, despite outward appearances and the perceived universality of the doctrines espoused in The Influence of Sea Power upon History, Japan met few of the criteria set out by Mahan. Thus when it set out to construct a maritime empire, an act which would necessarily challenge the United States – a nation far better suited to succeed in attaining Mahan’s vision of global strength – it did so with a deeply flawed strategy that misunderstood the tenets of one of its primary influences. In light of this, the outcome was hardly surprising.

The objective of the final part of this discussion will be to identify the relevance of Mahan’s ideas to the situation in East Asia today, and specifically to determine if the rising powers there – primarily China, but also India – are similarly misinterpreting these ideas, and what this in turn means for the United States and other powers that will be forced to accommodate or confront these powers.


Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Gaza Blockade

In Politics on June 17, 2010 by AEG 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 AEG 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.


Ottoman Redux

In Diplomacy on June 11, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

Recent events suggest that Turkey’s government has determined that the country’s future lies not with Europe, but in the Middle East. This is a major change in strategic direction, one which marks a return to the nation’s traditional orientation after an interlude of almost a century begun by the Western-leaning Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922. When one considers how much the political geography surrounding Turkey has changed in those years, and the conditions it currently faces, this change is perhaps less the result of obvious popular pressures than it is a tacit acknowledgment that the nation now has more to gain from a return to a traditional eastward policy focus.

Consider the situation facing Turkey at the time of the formation of the modern republic: after over a century as the “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire had been slowly shedding the territory accumulated in the wake of its explosive 15th and 16th Century growth. Pressured from all sides, the Ottomans had surrendered control of Egypt to the British, Libya to the Italians, and much of the Balkans to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and numerous smaller claimants. It was very much an empire in the final throes of its decline; the disastrous experience of the First World War simply hastened its demise. The end of the war brought further turmoil, as Turkey itself was invaded by nations seeking to expand their reach into the eastern Mediterranean at her expense, most notably Greece. It was not until 1922, and not without significant foreign intervention, that Turkey proper was once again under its own control.

Yet the war also fundamentally altered the strategic situation in which Turkey found itself. Prior to the war, the Ottoman government was unable to focus on any one strategic direction, as it was pressed on all sides: the Russian Czar was her traditional rival to the north, always pushing toward the vital straits; to the east and south, the needs of empire demanded constant attention as the Sultan tried to maintain control of his crumbling domains; to the west, small states motivated to conquest by the rising tide of nationalism in Europe only added to the threat posed by the powerful empires that pressed incessantly against Ottoman borders.

While defeat in the war caused the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the new state that rose from its ashes found itself the beneficiary of circumstances that facilitated a new, far more focused political direction. Gone were many of the traditional concerns that plagued sultan after sultan: the empire, much of which was both indefensible and unprofitable, had been forcibly taken by the war’s victors; the Middle East was divided up by the British and the French, while the Balkan territories of both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were cobbled together into a new state – Yugoslavia. Russia was convulsed by revolution and civil war beginning in 1917, with the Bolsheviks only consolidating power fully in 1922, and even then commanding a backward and broken state that would take decades to regain its influence beyond its own borders. In other words, Turkey was free to choose her political and strategic orientation for the first time since the Ottomans conquered the unconquerable city of Constantinople in 1453.

Under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the new state looked west. It was perfectly logical in light of the circumstances: Who had won the war? The British, and the French, and the Americans. Which powers were able to control their own vast empires in ways the Ottomans could only have dreamed about, and to project their influence anywhere they chose? The empires that had at their hearts great industrial strength. Even before the war, the Turks had looked enviously west – they brought in first French and later German military advisors, and purchased rifles and artillery from the Germans and battleships from the British – but saddled with the baggage of empire, they were forced to look from afar. With this crushing weight removed decisively, the new Turkish state would be able to reform itself using the most successful of the Great Powers as her models.

The problem inherent in this conception was simple: even as the Turks sought to embrace the West, the West looked askance at the upstart Turks, thinking it virtually impossible that a nation born of an empire that could be argued to have had decline as its single most defining characteristic was now going to become a modern state. Further, regardless of Ataturk’s secularizing efforts, Turkey remained a Muslim nation, and in a world still dominated by self-consciously Christian powers, Turkey would always be too exotic, too foreign, and too archaic to be considered a part of the modern world by those who defined it.

This conception of Turkey is little changed today. Turkish efforts to join the European Union have been stalled for years as Europe tries to reconcile its public pronouncements on the value of diversity with the idea of including a state that is, perhaps, a bit “too diverse” for European tastes. Recent controversies over the wearing of Islamic headscarves (France) and the building of minarets (Switzerland) further illustrate that Europe’s willingness to accept Muslim influences into its ostensibly open society is still far from absolute (politically correct protestations notwithstanding).

After banging its collective head into the proverbial wall presented by European intransigence, it should come as no surprise that the Turks have begun to have second thoughts about whether they should be putting all their efforts into joining the West while continuing to turn their backs on the other regions surrounding them. The recent change in Turkish policy focus is not simply based on frustration, however; it is in fact a clear acknowledgement of something the Europeans themselves are not quite ready to accept: the dominance of Europe and the West is ebbing, and Turkey has more strategic options of economic and political alignment than ever before. The end of the Cold War and the relative decline of naval power as the primary measure of national power has reduced the Russian threat to the Straits while opening up the Turkic states of Central Asia to Turkish influence and significantly reducing the need for a Western alliance. The decline in direct Western influence in the Middle East offers Turkey a chance to once again become a dominant force in the region. Even the rise of distant regional powers like China, India, and Brazil creates possibilities for strategic maneuver that would have been utterly unthinkable when the republic was born.

Combined with useful side-effect of reducing domestic Islamist tensions, Turkish leaders have determined that opposing the West may be a more lucrative path that continuing to stand around waiting for it to finally open the gate. Recent events have shown that the Turkish government is becoming more vocal in its attempts to extend its influence in the region. While diminished, Turkey geographic position is still strategically vital with respect to the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. While it is not at all likely that Turkey will be able to challenge for regional hegemony (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are each too strong and willing to resist such a move), its influence will probably continue to increase, while the influence of the West on it will decline. The Ottoman Empire was for at least the last 150 years of its existence reduced to being a small fish in the big pond of the Great Powers; the 20th Century forced the new Turkish state to continue on in this relationship with the West. Now, however, Turkey is recalling fondly that it was once a big fish in a smaller, regional pond, a situation to which – for the first time in several hundred years – it is now poised to return.


New Sanctions on Iran. Again.

In Economics on June 9, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , , , ,

With yet another round of U.S.-backed sanctions adopted by the U.N., the fiction that something meaningful is being done to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions continues. The loud protestations of Iranian president Ahmadinejad further enhance the illusion that these sanctions might actually have an effect. Despite the outward appearance of action, it is not the United Nations nor the United States that is determining the pace and course of events; it is the Iranians who hold the strategic initiative and are able to manipulate the situation to their best advantage. The Iranians have learned a lot about how to effectively oppose the United States by evaluating the experiences of those that have done so before. There are four vital concepts they have learned from history, and, in combination with a clear set of strategic objectives, they are applying these to good effect in the current situation. The West, by contrast, has not developed the sort of sophisticated appreciation of the strategic situation in the Persian Gulf that is necessary to effectively counter Iran’s efforts to dominate the region, nor does it appear to have considered how the Iranian leadership might view the lessons of recent history.

First, Iran’s government understands that the biggest ally they have when dealing with a hostile Western government is time; simply hold out for a few years and the people will lose interest, or grow tired of the effort, or the leaders will change. Even if the new leadership appears overtly hostile, the shift buys time for opponents to maneuver, and public hostility serves to reinforce the raison d’etre of the regime. North Vietnam played this game with the U.S. and the French and won. If the new Western leadership offers an olive branch, the opportunities to gain expand, as the typical form of such an offer involves financial or material support in exchange for promises to desist from certain behaviors. Of course, no mechanism actually capable of enforcing these promises can be included, but this is easily avoided by insisting that trust must be demonstrated by both parties. North Korea has managed to manipulate several American administrations this way, accepting aid while breaking the unenforceable agreements made in exchange for it. Each new U.N. secretary general and U.S. president seems to believe that they can make the North Koreans comply; it has not happened yet, for the simple reason that the leaders of the North are far better off in their current circumstances.

This raises a second important point that Western leaders (and the U.N. leadership in included in this, as the organization is fundamentally Western in its objectives) have failed to understand, but of which the Iranians are very much cognizant: peace is not an end in and of itself. The West does not appear grasp that the sort of settlement they propose would badly weaken the Iranian government; after all, why would the Iranian people support an oppressive regime unless it was the only thing keeping their enemies at bay? Totalitarian governments learned long ago that external enemies are vital to maintaining their hold on power (see George Kennan’s “Sources of Soviet Conduct” for a highly cogent discussion of this). More disturbingly, it is possible that some Western leaders actually do realize that their proposals would undermine the Iranian leadership, but somehow think that the Iranians will accept them anyway. Given that the U.S., the rest of the major Western democracies, and the U.N. are collectively the least Machiavellian political entities in the world, it is entirely possible that such delusion exists at the highest levels. This sort of misapprehension suggests that utopian optimism, expressed in the assumption that all the world seeks free markets, openness and democracy, is still the predominant characteristic in Western strategy. The Iranians would likely reject this assertion.

More recent history has demonstrated to Iran a third simple truth: nations without nuclear weapons may be attacked with relative impunity; those with nuclear weapons can survive indefinitely. This is an oversimplification of the strategic value of limited nuclear capability, but the positive example of North Korea is once again in the forefront, along with the counterpoints starkly provided by Iraq and Afghanistan (both of which of course border Iran). Here Iran has gone to great lengths to avoid the enforcement of non-proliferation as applied to Iraq and Syria in 1981 and 2007 respectively by the Israeli Air Force, burying its facilities in hardened underground complexes and dispersing them widely. The result is a more survivable program, one which is likely to be more survivable than any military weapons it might produce (surreptitiously-delivered weapons are another matter). The value of these weapons is strictly as a deterrent, but this raises obvious questions about first-use, particularly against countries like Israel or the United States, both of which have large nuclear arsenals. In the end, the deterrent value of nuclear weapons to Iran is likely to be considerably less than its leaders think – nonetheless, any factor that complicates the strategic calculations of its opponents is viewed positively, and nuclear capability certainly accomplishes that goal.

Finally, there is the question of sanctions themselves. The current Iranian regime has been subject to international sanctions of various sorts virtually since its inception in 1979. The fact that the government not only still exists, but has in fact consolidated its hold on power in the intervening years suggests that the sanctions have not achieved their purposes, whatever they might be. The watered-down nature of sanctions regimes developed as the result of a collective process certainly does not help to create real pressure. The fact remains, however, that there have always been countries willing to trade with Iran despite the sanctions, and the unwillingness of those applying the sanctions to unilaterally enforce them (when this is even possible) has been one of the few consistent elements in the Western effort.

The problems underlying Western sanctions efforts are easy to explain: the sanctions applied against Iran (and most other nations that have been subjected to similar treatment) have often been without specific purpose, and even when they have had a direction (as in the case of nuclear technology), they have been too weak to actually compel changes in behavior and have not been effectively enforced. Here again Western understanding is at odds with the strategic realities of history. Sanctions have historically worked (i.e., forced a change in behavior on the part of the country subject to them) only when they have caused consequences so damaging that to continue to exist under them was even more distasteful than complying with the wishes of those who implemented them. There are very few examples of sanctions working in that fashion; the fall of South Africa’s apartheid regime (which, it should be noted, had and voluntarily gave up indigenously-produced nuclear weapons) might be one of the best recent examples, and certainly the one that offers hope to proponents of sanctions as a peaceful means to alter an undesirable situation.

History offers another, considerably less desirable example, however: it was in large part the effectiveness of American sanctions against Japan in 1940-1 that led that government to conclude that it had to act decisively to protect its national interest or surrender to the will of its opponent. It is the potential of a similar outcome in the Middle East that strikes fear in the hearts of Western leaders; ironically, it is knowledge of this fear that the Iranians have used so successfully to avoid becoming the target of more direct action. Franklin Roosevelt’s government recognized that Japan had to be stopped before it became a regional hegemon in East Asia, too entrenched and too powerful to stop without enormous cost, if it could be stopped at all. The current governments of the West do not seem to appreciate that the rise of Iran to similar hegemonic status in the Persian Gulf would be every bit as dangerous to their strategic interests, if not moreso.


What a long, strange trip it’s been…

In Politics on June 3, 2010 by AEG 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.