Tag Archives: Obama administration

The Politics of Multilateral Peacekeeping

French Soldiers Deployed in Mali

French Soldiers Deployed in Mali

The French government last week called on West African leaders to “pick up the baton” and support military operations against Islamic insurgents in Mali. France has already deployed more than 2,000 soldiers and is currently conducting air and ground operations authorized by a United Nations Security Council resolution. Other governments, including Chad, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, Benin, Ghana, and Guinea have committed to sending soldiers, and Britain, Denmark, and Belgium are providing material support. The United States has offered to provide communications support, but has declined so far to commit soldiers or air support.

It is clear that France has already moved beyond the original UN-backed strategy, which called for Western governments to provide training and material in support of an African-led military intervention. Rather, French forces appear to be taking the lead in operations, with other governments in the region responding more slowly.

The politics of military coalitions are always interesting. Basic behavioral economics suggest that there is little incentive for a government to pay for something it can get for free. In game theory, this is referred to as the free-rider dilemma. In global politics, more powerful countries (often the hegemon) pay a disproportionate cost. The United States, for example, has borne the lion’s share of the costs associated with interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But recent developments in Libya and Mali suggest a slightly different strategy at play. In both cases, the United States appeared willing to let others—France in the case of Mali, and the European Union in the case of Libya—take the leading role.

Does this represent a shift in American military thinking? Likely, the answer is no. While the Obama administration expresses a stronger commitment to multilateralism than the Bush administration did, it has already shown a willingness to undertake unilateral action when it perceives the national interest is at stake. The ongoing drone strikes in Pakistan are case in point.

However, where it sees the US national interest is less at play, the Obama administration appears far more willing to let other states pursue policies that align with US interests abroad.

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21st Century Warfare and Just War Theory

The use of cyberwarfare and predator drones (above) raise questions about the ethics of war in the 21st century.

Recent leaks of classified information on drone strikes, cyberwarfare, and terror plots have prompted U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint two prosecutors to investigate these leaks.  Much of the secret information has appeared in a series of New York Times articles dealing with the president’s national security decision-making.  While the leaks themselves are an important story, the content of the classified information paints a picture of a president and his advisers grappling with questions of ethics in an age of unconventional warfare.

Just War Theory refers to a body of thought developed over centuries by philosophers, theologians, and other scholars.  It seeks to define conditions under which war is just, or ethically defensible.  There is wide agreement on principles such as discrimination (the need to distinguish between combatants and civilians–one can target the former but should avoid attacking the latter).  But applying this principle in a war zone can become very difficult.  What if you are fighting against insurgents who don’t wear uniforms and use the civilian population as cover?  And what if the enemy puts a tank (a legitimate military target) next to a hospital or school?  Can the tank be attacked with an airstrike?

Advances in technology (e.g., nuclear weapons in the 20th century and cyberweapons/drones in the 21st century) can further complicate the application of Just War Theory to real-world cases.  Recent leaks describe President Obama personally ordering drone strikes against targets on a “kill list” and also ordering cyberwarfare to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.  But they also show a president grappling with the ethical issues raised by such technology.  One New York Times article claims that the principle of discrimination plays a key role in decision-making on cyberwarfare:

“…Precisely because the United States refuses to talk about its new cyberarsenal, there has never been a real debate in the United States about when and how to use cyberweapons.  President Obama raised many of the issues in the closed sanctum of the Situation Room, participants in the conversation say, pressing aides to make sure that the attacks were narrowly focused so that they did not take out Iranian hospitals or power plants and were directed only at the country’s nuclear infrastructure. ‘He was enormously focused on avoiding collateral damage,’ one official said, comparing the arguments over using cyberwar to the debates about when to use drones.”

What do you think?  Has the U.S. been sufficiently careful to avoid civilian casualties in its use of drones and other weapons in Iraq, Aghanistan, and elsewhere?  Are some civilian casualties unavoidable and thus acceptable in warfare?  What are the limits of discrimination as a requirement for a just war?

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.

Koran Burnings, Air Strikes, and the Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare

Afghans protesting against the United States after American soldiers burned Korans as part of a garbage pile at Bagram Air Field.

President Obama has apologized for U.S. soldiers’ “mistakenly insulting the Koran” by burning copies of the Muslim holy book, but anger and violence against U.S. troops has escalated over the past several days.  This comes on the heels of a NATO airstrike that killed eight young Afghans, for which NATO offered its condolences.

These developments would be “bad public relations” for NATO and the U.S. in any war, but they take on added strategic significance in the context of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare–the type of campaign NATO is pursuing in Afghanistan.  Whereas in conventional warfare the objective is to crush the enemy quickly and decisively, COIN warfare is less about military victory and more about “winning the hearts and minds” of the civilian population.  Specifically, the goal is to provide security and basic services to the civilian population so they will support the government and stop supporting the insurgents.  As the U.S. discovered in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, when the government is corrupt, autocratic, or incompetent or military force is used in a heavy-handed way–especially if civilians are killed–the population will tend to turn against the government and into the arms of the insurgents.

American and allied military leaders understand the imperatives of COIN warfare, but these requirements are easier to describe in theoretical terms than to implement in a war zone.  Two key “paradoxes of counterinsurgency” from Chapter 1 of the Counterinsurgency manual written by General David Petraeus seem particularly relevant to the current difficulties in Afghanistan:

Paradox #2: “Sometimes, the More Force Is Used, the Less Effective It Is.  Any use of force produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen. The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal. In contrast, using force precisely and discriminately strengthens the rule of law that needs to be established.”

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.”

Are the U.S. and its NATO allies on the verge of losing the war in Afghanistan?  With the Obama administration’s decision to end U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan by the middle of next year, is it inevitable that the population will turn back to the Taliban out of fear or necessity?  What, if anything, can be done to turn the tide in favor of the Karzai government and its external supporters?

Poll: Nuclear Disarmament

The Obama administration is reportedly considering dramatic cuts in America’s nuclear arsenal. Read the below blog post and then vote on whether or not this is a good idea.

Is Nuclear Disarmament a Good Idea?

The atomic explosion over Nagasaki, August 9, 1945.

The Obama administration is reportedly considering nuclear disarmament options that would include reducing the U.S. arsenal to as few as 300 strategic nuclear weapons, an 80% reduction from current levels.  A policy of deep cuts would be consistent with President Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world.  It would also be consistent with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls not only for non-nuclear states to refrain from obtaining nuclear weapons (a well known provision) but for existing nuclear states to eventually eliminate these weapons (a lesser known provision).  Article VI of the NPT states:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Some analysts believe that a 300-weapon nuclear force would be sufficient for deterring adversaries and would help to convince countries such as Iran and North Korea to forgo nuclear weapons development.  But critics, including Republican members of Congress, have denounced such ideas as “reckless lunacy” that would undermine American security and do nothing to dissuade rogue states from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The Associated Press story that broke the news of these plans notes the revolutionary nature of the changes:

“New U.S. cuts could open the prospect for a historic reshaping of the American nuclear arsenal, which for decades has stood on three legs: submarine-launched ballistic missiles, ground-based ballistic missiles and weapons launched from big bombers like the B-52 and the stealthy B-2. The traditional rationale for this “triad” of weaponry is that it is essential to surviving any nuclear exchange.”

Indeed, during the Cold War the impetus for building thousands of nuclear weapons and dispersing them across multiple types of delivery vehicles and geographical locales was that if all of a country’s nuclear weapons could be destroyed in a first strike, retaliation could not be assured and there would be nothing to deter the enemy from striking first.  (The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, was built from these premises).

What do you think?  Are dramatic cuts in America’s nuclear arsenal a good idea or a dangerous one?  Take the poll and let us know your views.

Poll: The U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

As noted in the previous post, the Obama administration’s new timetable for the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan is controversial. We want to hear your views. Answer the poll question below and feel free to post a comment to explain your answer.