Posts Tagged ‘Historical analysis’


Fighting over Crumbs

In Economics on August 5, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , , ,

The world has not recently experienced the sort of cutthroat national competition for natural resources that was a relatively common source of conflict during the long first era of industrialization from the mid-19th to the mid-20th Centuries. As Europe and the United States developed into industrial economies, their governments quickly recognized that secure supplies of those resources vital to maintaining growth had to be found. For the U.S., this was not a problem: the vast and barely-tapped resources of the young country kept industry well-supplied with virtually all it needed to continue production. European states, however, did not generally have the luxury of ample supplies of the raw material of industry within their borders; the result was a major impetus behind late-19th Century imperialism. European governments raced each other to secure every unclaimed corner of the globe, whether or not they knew what economic value it held. The competition for Southeast Asian rubber and West African palm oil, Egyptian cotton and Arabian oil to feed the machines became a race between states whose governments believed that they must continue to grow if they were to survive in the face of their ever-expanding rivals. The European imperial powers were moving toward a collective corner of industrial demand outstripping supply by the early decades of the 20th Century.

One might be inclined to wonder if the European leaders had ever heard of simply trading for what they required rather than going to such extravagant lengths to gather it themselves. Indeed, the years preceding the First World War saw global trade rapidly expanding, as ever-larger numbers of steamships moved cargoes around the world to the massive factories of Europe and the teeming markets of Asia, Africa, and South America. Yet even as trade was providing for unprecedented economic expansion, governments worried increasingly about the potential disaster that loomed over every industrialized state: What if our supplies are cut off? Scattered pessimists argued that nothing short of an economic cataclysm would befall them, while even the more numerous optimists understood that the increasingly perilous international diplomatic situation could erupt into war, though many of the latter argued that such a conflict would be short enough that shipping would not be seriously disrupted.

Rising international tension and increasing concern for economic security among the industrial powers were two sides of the same coin, and each fed into the other. While Britain considered the merits of “imperial preference,” a system designed to create a great interlocking economic network in an era of increasing pressure for autonomy among its various imperial holdings, Germany argued that it must be allowed to pursue its rightful “place in the sun” among the world’s great empires, as befitted such an economically powerful and dynamic state. But for each, along with France and Japan, and even the free-trading United States, there was the growing realization that the existing order could only survive as long as the sources of economic stability – natural resources and access to markets – remained secure. In order to do that, military and especially naval strength had to be maintained, strategically important territories acquired, and every effort made to render trade uninterruptible in the event of war or shortage.

As it happened, the privations of the First World War were largely the result of the war itself, not the cause of its outbreak. Yet the effects were clear long before they began to tell. The Allies imposed a naval blockade on the Central Powers design to deprive both their war machine and their industries of the things they needed to survive and triumph. The Central Powers sought to isolate the European Allies from the American market that increasingly kept them supplied with the raw materials and manufactured goods that allowed them to continue the struggle. The British North Sea blockade and the German submarine offensives were the most prominent of these efforts, and the former was far more successful than the latter; the result was economic disaster for Germany, leading to the end of the Kaiser’s regime in 1918, civil disorder, insurrection, and more than a decade of political and economic instability, with complete collapse only forestalled by infusions of American cash to keep the Weimar government afloat.

The lessons were clear: those states that were able to keep open their lines of supply to those things that allowed their economies to continue functioning during war were victorious; those that could not were destined for isolation and eventual defeat. It should have come as no surprise then that when the cycle repeated itself several decades later, the new rising powers of Germany and Japan felt they had little choice but to claw their way into the first rank of Powers by force if they were not to remain forever economically, and thus politically, inferior. There would be little point in developing their economies if they could not ensure that they could be protected; another British blockade of Germany, a reduction in American supplies to Japan would be all that was needed to render them immediately vulnerable. The First World War had shown that these threats were not idle speculation; industry and trade would be targeted directly, and total economic warfare was now something with which every industrial power had to reckon. The onset of the Depression in 1929 and the tariff war that broke out soon thereafter did nothing to assuage concern.

Securing the economic basis of the nation’s prosperity and power was among the foremost considerations of the interwar period for the rising powers. The status quo Powers were focused on maintaining the system as it existed; Britain had worked to focus on securing their overseas trade (though “imperial preference” did not materialize as state doctrine) and the United States was able to thrive for years with only domestic supplies of raw materials and an ever-expanding domestic marketplace (though this slowed considerably with the closing of the frontier in 1890). While not entirely self-sufficient, American and British (and to a lesser extent French) dominance of the global economy meant that their industries were relatively safe from international disruption. For the totalitarian states of the 1930s, however, the status quo meant perpetual weakness. Without directly challenging the Powers that controlled the world’s trade, there was little hope that they too could ensure their economic survival when it came under threat. They saw security in autarky, building empires that were beyond the reach of their rivals, empires that would stand the test of war.

Hitler saw both the strength and weakness of Germany in its continental position. In order to fulfill his vision of a secure Third Reich, he looked to establish a contiguous Eurasian empire, safe from the maritime dominance of the Royal Navy and the distant United States. The vast reaches of Soviet Russia held the key to Germany’s long-term economic security; Hitler viewed it as analogous to the way that the British looked to India as the cornerstone of their global empire (in Hitler’s own words, “Russia will be our India”), and drew heavily on American westward expansion in his conception as well. He knew that Germany must be able to feed its people, supply its factories and arm its soldiers if it were to resist the challenges that lay before it. Before colonization and settlement could occur, however, Germany’s continental rivals had to be eliminated as threats, and more vital resources secured. Only then could the building of a secure empire begin in earnest.

Japan, as an island state, held its naval strength as the first precondition of securing an empire that could feed its industry, but that introduced challenges of its own: a modern navy needed steel and oil in regular supply and prodigious quantities, neither of which Japan had. The push in to mainland Asia began early, with the Sino-Japanese War at the end of the 19th Century and the Russo-Japanese War in the first years of the 20th establishing Japan as the dominant regional power. But these were merely strategic maneuvers that facilitated acquisition of the the real prizes: the mineral and agricultural wealth of China. Beginning with the Manchuria Incident in 1931, and the invasion of China in 1937, Japan moved to actively secure access to the commodities increasingly vital to its industrial growth. The attack on the United States and Britain in December of 1941 was intended primarily to cover the drive to the south to secure the petroleum supplies of the Dutch East Indies, made all the more urgent by the disruption of oil supplies from America caused by the Roosevelt Administration’s increasing concern over Japan’s activities in China.

In both cases the conundrum is obvious: rising Powers must secure the resources they need to continue to grow, but in doing so they are very likely to threaten the interests of the existing Powers. This is particularly problematic in times of global economic difficulty, as well as when shortages of particularly important commodities loom. The Cold War saw very limited competition for most resources, and the peculiarity of the bipolar power structure rendered what competition there was relatively one-sided; for all the Western conflict with the Middle East during the Cold War, there was never any serious question as to which side was the more powerful, or that oil must continue to flow to Western markets. The self-imposed exclusion of the Soviet Union from much of the global economic system rendered inappropriate the experiences of traditional competitive relationships between Great Powers.

All that has changed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the rise of China and India, the resurgence of Russia, and even the (ponderous) movement toward an actually unified European Union, the competitive nature of the international system looks poised to return with a vengeance. The only truly status quo Power remaining is the United States, and it is far less economically secure than it once was. Meanwhile, China is acquiring huge mining concerns in Australia and investing in African oil and Russia is leveraging its ample energy supplies for political advantage. Conflicts over the mineral wealth of such obscure places as the Spratly Islands (claimed by several Southeast Asian states as well as China, and thought to have significant oil deposits) are beginning to emerge as points of tension. Rising middle classes in developing states will demand greater access to manufactured goods, increasing economic pressures on their own governments as well as demand for production, and thus raw materials. Global economic development is not without risk; indeed, history suggests that the movement of states toward economic parity with the leading Powers will invariably lead to conflict. In difficult times, when there are more parties competing for limited supplies and limited markets, the pressure for success may escalate quickly and dramatically, as the alternative is not seen as anything short of existential national defeat.



Leaks vs. Leaks

In Politics on July 26, 2010 by AEG 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.


We’re Not Here to be Liked…

In Warfare on July 5, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

As General Petraeus takes command in Afghanistan, it is perhaps worth considering the lessons offered by historical example in trying to envision the end-state of the conflict in that benighted country. The outlook is not encouraging.

The strategy put into place by the outgoing General McChrystal, which will evidently continue under Petraeus, revolves around the idea of conducting a counterinsurgency campaign, which in short entails employing a set of highly restrictive rules of engagement and a minimum of force in order to maximize opportunities for building support for a new local civilian government among the populace; the rather more destructive approach employed during much of the Vietnam War, best summed up in the convoluted logic of the famous statement by a soldier that “(w)e had to burn the village in order to save it,” has not proven to win much backing. This sort of approach is usually applied in a limited area first, and when it has been pacified, efforts are shifted to adjacent areas; this is known as an “inkspot” strategy, as single drops slowly spread across the map, eventually joining to create a singular secure state. Needless to say, building trust among the people, sufficiently weakening the enemy and strengthening the local government, all with limited resort to force, is an expensive and time-consuming process that depends at least as much on perception and belief as it does on material resources.

There is an inherent tension in this sort of conflict for the Great Power involved. How does one address a military escalation by one’s opponent if a commensurate increase in violence will only serve to further isolate the population upon which success ultimately depends? Is the only approach to “kill them with kindness (and development aid)?” If so, how can such a program be carried out if the civil administration is incapable of supporting such an effort? For soldiers trained to fight, as all soldiers must be, this sort of conflict presents one of the most frustrating and difficult challenges of service. For commanders and policy-makers, the problems present a similar (if not greater) conundrum.

Vietnam is naturally the most common example used in comparison to the current Afghan conflict. American strategy in Vietnam was famously confused, when it was in fact present at all. General Westmoreland’s approach in Vietnam represented what is termed the “ tacticization of strategy,” wherein the tactical objective is erroneously applied to the strategic level; in other words, Westmoreland viewed battlefield defeat of the enemy as an end in itself, but this tactical success led not to victory, but down a strategic cul-de-sac. Westmoreland is only partly to blame, as his civilian superiors gave him precious little strategic guidance, having no idea how to frame the conditions of victory except to identify ending the war as the primary objective.

American leadership largely attempted to ignore the asymmetry of the conflict, assuming or pretending that the Vietnamese people wanted to be free and democratic, that there was no tension between Western ideas and religion (American backed the Catholic Diem regime, to which the majority Buddhist population was generally opposed, if not openly hostile, until Diem’s assassination in 1963) and those native to the region,  and that the Communist opposition could be swayed from its primary purpose by carrots or sticks. Fighting the war on with a strategy based on these premises was a recipe for disaster, as no evidence supported the assumptions that underpinned this approach, while the Vietnamese communists had both a sound strategy and the means to effect it, as well as a far greater commitment to an object that was fundamental to their survival as a state.

Yet the greatest error of America’s war in Vietnam may be that it attempted to build the South Vietnamese state into a self-governing entity even as much of its territory was still contested, if not strongly held by the enemy. Further, the insistence that the South Vietnamese assume the Western form of government, with democratic elections and Enlightenment concepts and ethics lending it legitimacy, only weakened the real power of the South Vietnamese to build a viable nation from a people wholly unfamiliar with these concepts. The desire for rapid success (defined by the American people and government as getting out, presumably without the Communists winning control over all of Vietnam) created tremendous pressure to quickly stabilize the South Vietnamese state; the blind faith in the universal desire for democracy and freedom, combined with the rush to promote self-rule, severely undermined the ability of successive South Vietnamese governments to assume the burden of the war and to build a government that was ultimately sustainable.

In his landmark book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Lt. Col. John Nagl (USA, Ret.) compares the U.S. experience in Vietnam with that of the British in Malaya during the Emergency, 1948-57. Both situations saw Communist insurgencies pitted against Western forces that had to deal not only with the immediate problem but with the broader circumstances of the Cold War as well. After confronting the insurgency for several years without success, the British turned to General Sir Gerald Templar, who was, to paraphrase Field Marshall Montgomery, “the man with the plan.” Templar was instructed that a self-governing unified non-Communist Malaya as the object of British efforts. With this in mind, the British government gave him “exceptional civil and military powers to defeat the insurgency,” appointing him not only High Commissioner (the highest civilian representative of the British government) but also commander of all armed forces in Malaya. Thus Templar was given full control over all assets, civil and military, that could be applied to defeating the insurgency in a singular unified effort prior to establishing a Malayan government, rather than trying to accomplish two difficult tasks at once. He used them to good effect; only when the Communists had been badly weakened did he begin to relinquish control to the nascent Malayan government.

Templar admittedly did not have to face the same bewildering array of political problems that the Americans did in Vietnam – Malaya having been a British colony for some time – but the fundamentals were similar. Securing the civilian population, isolating the insurgents, minimizing casualties and costs, and resolving the conflict expeditiously were all part of Templar’s brief. Without the problem of managing both the war effort and relations with a new and inexperienced local administration with no experience of the government model into which they have been thrust, Templar was free to apply techniques that would have prompted strong local resistance, such as strictly controlling the food supply and limiting movement.

This unified command approach was not pioneered by the British in Malaya, however; indeed, Americans had come to similar conclusions years before, as evidenced in the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual of 1940. This book, the culmination of decades of experience in fighting small wars, was forgotten in the wake of the Second World War, reentered the military’s consciousness as a result of the failure in Vietnam, and has been claimed to be influential in developing post-Cold War policy, yet its lessons have been applied haphazardly and piecemeal. The Small Wars Manual makes quite clear that there must be an effective administration in place while the military objectives are in question: “Military government…is sanctioned because the powers of sovereignty have passed into the hands of the commander of the occupying forces and the local authority is unable to maintain order and protect life and property in the immediate theater of military operations” (emphasis added). The latter state is quite clearly present in Afghanistan today.

The American effort in Afghanistan is badly weakened by the presence of the Afghan government. Corruption, infiltration by supporters of the Taliban insurgents, and general ineffectiveness all undermine popular support, which is critically important to create legitimacy, not least because of the insistence that the government be elected. If the counter-insurgency strategy is to succeed beyond simply allowing the United States to extricate itself from the conflict, the American commander should be invested with overarching civil powers as well as military command. This would clearly be a temporary condition, and may prove unpopular among the Afghan people, but it is necessary if the first precondition of a successful counterinsurgency effort – security of the populace – is to be established. As noted by the Marine authors of the Small Wars Manual seventy years ago, “(i)t should be remembered that the inhabitants do not owe the military government allegiance; but they do owe it obedience.” The American-led coalition of forces in Afghanistan are the only power sufficient to have even a hope of compelling the latter condition, which by our own doctrine is a necessary prerequisite for the former.


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.


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.