Monthly Archives: March 2012

Is War Becoming Obsolete?

Are current conflicts, such as the internal war in Somalia, simply the "remnants of war"?

A new book by Scientific American writer John Horgan has sparked debate with its central thesis that war is not an inevitable feature of human nature but is a cultural invention that can be overcome.  In an interview Corgan compares war to a virus: “Imagine your neighbor is a violent psychopath who is out for blood and land. You, on the other hand, are person who wants peace. You would have few options but to embrace the ways of war for defense. So essentially your neighbor has infected you with war.”  This scenario has much in common with the security dilemma, in which even defensively motivated arms buildups and alliance formation (assume the violent neighbor only wants to protect himself) will provoke “counterbalancing,” raise tensions, and ultimately leave both sides less secure than they were before this spiral began.  This logic of “one bad apple ruining the whole bunch” has also been used by democratic peace theorists to explain how democracies can behave so peacefully toward each other but, when facing an autocratic (and presumably more aggressive) state, their fear of being exploited or “suckered” leads them to act violently and perhaps even preemptively.

As noted realist scholar Stephen Walt points out, Horgan’s argument follows in the tradition of idealist thinkers such as John Mueller, who famously penned a book in 1989 called Retreat from Doomsday: the Obsolescence of Major War.  Mueller’s argument in that book and its sequel, The Remnants of War, is that “major war” (war among the great powers) has very likely come to an end.  This has occurred because the populations of the great powers have rejected war as a means of settling disputes, just as they earlier rejected institutions such as dueling and slavery when these practices came to be seen as uncivilized and reprehensible.  What we are today witnessing, Mueller argues, is the remnants, or the “dregs” of warfare–war not among professional armies controlled by legitimate governments but among thugs frequently running loose in failed states and seeking self-enrichment.

What do you think?  Is war an inevitable feature of human society or is it just an invention that can be overcome?  If it can be overcome, what can policymakers and ordinary citizens do to make this dream a reality?

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Is It Time for a Draft?

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was serving on his fourth extended deployment in a war zone when he allegedly murdered 17 Afghan civilians. Could such tragedies be prevented by enacting the draft?

The revelation that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who has been charged with murder in the deaths of 17 Afghan civilians, had served in Iraq and Afghanistan on four extended deployments and may have buckled under the strain has rekindled a debate about the need for compulsory military service in the United States.  The New York Times on March 20 featured a debate among six experts on the topic “Would a Draft Reduce the Number of Post-Traumatic Stress Cases?”  You can read the full arguments of the six debaters here, but some of the highlights are as follows.

(1) Reviving the Draft would Bring Relief to an Overburdened Military.  Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb argues that America’s current all-volunteer force was never intended to serve as a warfighting force: “The all-volunteer force is, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Ronald Reagan in 1981 when he was on the verge of reversing President Carter’s decision to reinstitute draft registration, a peacetime force.  When this nation gets involved in extended conflicts, Selective Service must be activated or else the strain on the all-volunteer force will be too great.”   Former Army Officer M. David Rudd agrees that a tiny segment of the population is bearing an unsustainably heavy burden: “During World War II approximately 9 percent of Americans served. That number shrank to less than 2 percent during Korea and Vietnam,  and less than 1 percent during the Gulf War.  In this post 9/11 era, it’s remarkable that less than one half of one percent of Americans serve.”

(2) A Draft Would Produce a Military More Representative of All Americans, Which Would Close the Growing Gap Between the Military and Civilians.  Former Marine Corps Captain Anu Bhagwati points to the socioeconomic and racial divide between those who serve in today’s military and those who opt out: “The era of conscription has been replaced by today’s ‘economic draft,’ leading to a disproportionate share of working-class families bearing the burden of military service. It’s a dangerous thing for a democracy to impose military service on the least advantaged members of its society. It means that the 99 percent of Americans who don’t wear the uniform today are disconnected from the service.”

(3) A Draft Forcing the Sons and Daughters of Prominent Officials and a Broader Cross-Section of the Public to Serve Will Induce Greater Caution About Involvement in Wars.  Lawrence Korb argues: “Calling up some of the 20 million men who are registered with Selective Service would also have forced the American people to ask questions about the necessity for, or potential costs of, the wars, and likely would have prevented the killings of which Sergeant Bales is accused.”  And M. David Rudd notes that the current situation leaves too many leaders woefully ignorant of military life: “Perhaps most important, though, leaders across both parties in Washington with little exposure to military life can result in unrealistic expectations and policies that leave commanders with little if any choice but to continue to stretch an increasingly vulnerable fighting force, with tragic consequences.”

What do you think?  Is a draft a good idea?  Which of the above arguments (if any) seems convincing, and why?  Or would America be better off scaling back its sweeping foreign policy ambitions, as some critics contend, so that achieving its goals no longer requires huge numbers of men and women to be deployed abroad?

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live in MyPoliSciKit. Good luck!

After the First Verdict: Why So Much Skepticism of the ICC?

Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord, became the first person ever to be convicted by the International Criminal Court on March 14, 2012.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued its first verdict on Wednesday, convicting Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord, of war crimes for recruiting child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While some have hailed this verdict as a major victory for the court, skeptics continue to doubt the effectiveness of the ICC.

The ICC is an international governmental organization (IGO)–an organization whose members are states–that was created by the 1998 Rome Treaty and today has 120 members. Its purpose is to prosecute individuals accused of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  But a major weakness of the ICC is that while it can issue indictments and arrest warrants it has no enforcement power to actually bring fugitives to justice.  Instead, it relies on states to deliver war criminals to the Hague (where the ICC is headquartered) for trial–a serious limitation since many states lack either the resources or the inclination to assist the ICC.  See this blog entry from last summer for a review of these weaknesses in the context of the Qaddafi indictment.  (In contrast, a success story emerged yesterday from Mauritania, where Moammar Qaddafi’s former intelligence chief–indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity along with Qaddafi–was captured.  It remains unclear whether he will be tried in Libya, in France, or at the ICC).

Another concern is that the ICC is frequently unable to gather sufficient evidence to prosecute the most severe crimes.  This problem reared its head in the Lubanga trial, as highlighted by the Kenyan newspaper The Standard:

“One conspicuous aspect of the Lubanga trial is that he was solely charged with forcibly conscripting and using child soldiers in war. This is despite the fact that rebels under his command have been accused of massive human rights violations, including ethnic massacres, murder, torture, rape, and mutilation…[An expert suggests that the ICC prosecutor] may have opted to only prosecute the lesser crime because he probably did not have tangible evidence on other atrocities.”

Shadow Government, a blog written by conservative opponents of the Obama administration, recently blasted the ICC over its failure to apprehend Joseph Kony, the indicted war criminal who is the subject of the most viral video in history:

“…The Kony YouTube producers have put their full faith in the International Criminal Court. The chief prosecutor of the ICC is, predictably, reveling in the media attention. How pathetic. Has anyone missed the fact that the ICC indictment was issued seven years ago? The ICC has not been the solution, the ICC has been the excuse — since 2005 — for inaction. In the misguided thinking of the ICC’s supporters, no government or military needs to do anything about stopping Kony because once he is captured he will be put on trial. One problem: Who is going to catch him? Just like its predecessor, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the ICC has proven to be an exercise in non-interventionist self indulgence. By focusing exclusively on the eventual prosecution, non interventionists (generally a collection of cowardly governments, conservative realists, and left-leaning peace activists) can wrap themselves in the moral satisfaction of appearing to take action while avoiding the unpleasant reality that someone has to step up and do something about it. As predicted by the ICC’s critics at the time of its founding, it is all law and no law enforcement. ”

What do you think?  Are the ICC’s myriad critics correct or do they exaggerate the deficiencies of this IGO?  These critics usually don’t discuss the alternative: if the ICC did not exist, would the world be better or worse off?

Poll: Is the War in Afghanistan a Lost Cause?

With President Obama’s controversial decision to end the combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013, rising tensions between the U.S. and the Karzai government, and public relations victories for the Taliban in the form of Koran burnings by U.S. soldiers and NATO airstrikes killing Afghan civilians, the situation in Afghanistan has been growing more and more tenuous.  In this context, last week’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier could be seen as the last straw that decisively breaks the back of the counterinsurgency effort and makes it impossible to achieve NATO’s goals in the region (including the defeat of the Taliban and the creation of a stable government).  Take the poll below and let us know what you think.

The Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare, Part 2

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales (left) is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians.

Three weeks ago in this blog we considered the implications, for the Afghanistan War, of the Koran burnings by U.S. soldiers and NATO airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties.  The main theme of that blog post was that Counterinsurgency (COIN) Warfare requires a very different strategy than conventional warfare, and that events which would not matter greatly in conventional war may become pivotal events in a COIN campaign.  Since COIN requires “winning hearts and minds” and convincing civilians to support the government rather than the insurgents, the government (and any external forces–such as NATO–seeking to prop it up) must avoid civilian casualties and heavy-handed tactics, must be seen to be on the side of the people–by providing services and security–and must carefully guard their reputation and public image.

These requirements explain why the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier last week–an event of minimal strategic importance (harsh as it may sound) in the context of conventional warfare–threatens to derail the entire U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan. An article in yesterday’s New York Times makes these risks clear:

“The killings have severely undermined longstanding NATO efforts to win support from villages in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and have shaken relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai, who this week told Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who was on a visit to Afghanistan, that he wanted American forces out of villages by next year.”

It is worth quoting again one of the paradoxes of COIN (as written by General David Petraeus in the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual):

Paradox #9: “Many Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals. Successful COIN operations require competence and judgment by Soldiers and Marines at all levels. Indeed, young leaders—so-called “strategic corporals”—often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing. Preparation for tactical-level leaders requires more than just mastering Service doctrine; they must also be trained and educated to adapt to their local situations, understand the legal and ethical implications of their actions, and exercise initiative and sound judgment in accordance with their senior commanders’ intent.”

It appears the soldier responsible for this massacre was not merely exhibiting poor judgment or training but may have been suffering from mental illness, perhaps triggered by the extreme stress of war and multiple deployments.  But that doesn’t matter in COIN warfare: perceptions become reality, and if this attack looks like an intentional, cold-blooded attack on the Afghan people by an overbearing foreign occupying power (an army of infidels, the Taliban would argue) then that is what it is, for all intents and purposes.  It is sobering to think of how much lies outside the control of the generals in COIN warfare, and how the actions of a single disturbed soldier can undermine the efforts of so many others.

After a decade of U.S. and allied blood and treasure expended in Afghanistan, is this how the war ends?  With an unceremonious NATO retreat, the collapse of the Karzai government, and the return of the Taliban?   Or can the U.S. and its allies still salvage this war?

Joseph Kony, People Power, and the Inverted Pyramid

Indicted war criminal Joseph Kony is the subject of the viral video "Kony 2012," part of an effort to bring him to justice.

The Kony 2012 video has created enormous buzz on the internet over the past week–first as the video went viral, then as a heated debate ensued about the accuracy, effectiveness, and transparency of the Kony 2012 campaign and its creator, the NGO Invisible Children. Even in Uganda, among the victims of Kony’s LRA, the video has provoked harsh criticism.

Like the Arab Spring (which was driven in part by social media technology like Facebook and Twitter), the Kony 2012 phenomenon relies on this new technology to bypass traditional modes of communication, mobilize large numbers of people, and (the organizers hope) put pressure on very powerful people in top government positions to change their policies.  In fact, the Kony 2012 video claims that in this “new world” of social media and individual empowerment the traditional power pyramid (with a small group of wealthy, powerful elites on top) is becoming inverted.  That is, the masses are finally becoming empowered and claiming their place at the top of the power structure, with the growing ability to bend the elites to their will.  The Kony 2012 creators suggest in the film that these techniques led to President Obama’s decision last October to send 100 U.S. troops to Uganda in pursuit of Kony and his henchmen. 

This empowerment of the individual and the ability to bypass or influence traditional power structures such as state governments, big media outlets, and big corporations is viewed by many political scientists as an important outgrowth of globalization.  But these elite structures are not going quietly, and in places like Syria, Iran, and Egypt, the backlash has been fierce.

What do you think?  Are the creators of the Kony 2012 campaign correct that the power pyramid is becoming inverted, or does a small group of elites really still hold the reins?  If you have watched the Kony 2012 video, do you think the filmmakers’ proposed strategy to capture Kony is going to work, or is it naive?  If the critics are correct that the film stretches the truth and seriously oversimplifies the issues, does this make the effort any less worthwhile?  Is shading the truth justified in the pursuit of a righteous cause?