Friday, May 18, 2012

A Foreign Affair

According to the reportage of the New York Times, bombing and strafing Libya has, shockingly, failed to weed the garden of Liberty and let freedom reign.

All of this post-intervention militia-fueled chaos had, also shockingly, failed to make so much as a blip on the national geopolitical "discussion". The same people who advocated bombing the Gaddafi regime have been, shockingly, silent about the mess that followed or the very poor prospects for the former dictatorship to go anywhere but down into failed-statedom. Their adversaries - who were fine with bombing so long as it was in Iraq or Afghanistan - are likewise mute. Nobody seems to want to talk about this outside Libya and there, they're too busy shooting the place up to bother.

So we have, on the one side, the neocons and their coterie that advocated "more rubble, less trouble" as an excuse for ginning up a war in southwest Asia that turned a marginally pesky dictatorship into an all-but-Iranian ally and turbulent mess, have not been rebuked, are not repentent, and appear to have suffered no significant consequences for being oh-so-wrong.

And on the other, the liberal interventionists that argued that "helping" the Libyan rebels by flying overhead bombing and strafing their enemies was the functional equivalent of Treaty of Alliance of 1778 and, likewise, appear neither abashed nor upbraided for the mess they have, if not made, at least done little or nothing to solve and may have, in fact, contributed to.

All of this suggests that regardless of which faction rules in Washington the Washington Rules will continue to apply. The U.S. will continue to send its military into foreign disorders, rebellions, and civil wars.

So, as a private citizen I would ask; what should I hope for, at least, in a future foreign intervention to assist my country in spending it's treasure and (perhaps) it's blood wisely. If we're going to play the Game of Thrones, how and where should we play?

To think about how do this, let's look at the history of just major U.S. interventions since WW2 and see if we can find any common threads of success and failure - just the U.S. examples to keep it simple.

Here's the interventions I'd like to look at, starting in 1945. We won't count the occupations of Germany and Japan (though those were extremely successful interventions) as being, in effect, continuations of WW2.

Korea 1950-1953: Success (U.S. objective to deter capture of ROK by DPRK, attained and maintained at present)
Vietnam 1955-1975: Failure (U.S. objective to establish separate RVN not attained)
Lebanon 1958: Success (U.S. objective to back Lebanese government of President Camille Chamoun attained, status quo maintained for 18 years until civil war of 1975)
Dominican Republic 1965: Success (U.S. objective to "stabilize" DomRep post-Trujillo attained by "election" of caudillo President Joaquín Balaguer, 22 years of one-man rule)
El Salvador 1980-1992: Success (U.S. objective to bolster existing Salvadorian government attained, rebellion defeated)
Grenada 1983: Success (U.S. objective to remove remnants of New Jewel Movement and cut ties between Grenada and Cuba attained)
Lebanon 1983: Failure (U.S. objective of supporting the Lebanese government in the ongoing civil war not attained)
Panama 1989-1990: Success (U.S. objective to remove remnants of Torrijos regime and install U.S.-friendly government - recently led by, ironically, the son of Omar Torrijos!)
Kuwait 1991-1992: Success (U.S. objective of restoring territorial integrity of Kuwait attained)
Bosnia 1992-today: Success (U.S. objective of containing Serbia and stabilizing Bosnia/Croatia attained and maintained to present time)
Somalia 1992-1993: Failure (U.S. objective of stabilizing Somalia/Mogadishu not attained)
Kosovo 1999: Success (U.S. objective of functionally supporting Kosovar independence from Serbia attained)
Afghanistan 2002-today: Undetermined, initial Success, but probably long-term Failure (U.S. initial objective of dispersing Al Qaeda and AQ-friendly Taliban regime attained, long-term stability of successor Afghan government in doubt)
Iraq 2003-today: Undetermined, but largely Failure (U.S. initial objective of replacing Hussein regime with compliant pro-U.S. government only partially attained, long-term stability of successor Iraqi government in doubt)
Libya 2011: Undetermined, initial Success, possible, even probable long-term Failure (U.S. objective of removing Gaddafi dictatorship attained, long-term stability of successor regime in doubt)

Where are the successes, and what do they have in common?

Korea, Lebanon 1958, the Dom Rep, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, and the Balkans all had one or more of the following:

- a relatively stable society and economy, and, often, an extended period of of stability prior unrest and U.S. intervention (even if the stability was dictatorial, or transient; even the Balkans, chaotic as it was in 1992, had been quiescent under Tito showing that civil society was possible again after the shells stopped falling and the Croats and Bosnians were able to use the USAF as their air force to beat the Serbs. The exceptions to this I can think of - El Salvador and the Dom Rep - were not genuinely sound economies, being tilted strongly towards an elite governing class at the expense of the majority that provided one of the central causes of their rebellions. The former has made some land and economic reforms while the latter has not, but in both cases the underlying economic grievances weren't really "solved". Also in both cases it didn't matter - the strong central government and the army aided by U.S. largesse made continued rebellion untenable.)

- a coherent and functional local government for the U.S. to ally with (i.e. someone on the ground to seize and/or hold power once U.S. forces had completed their operations. In the case of Grenada this had to be more-or-less created, but the NJM had not scorched the earth and local politicians were in place to take over.)

The failures are also similar in lacking these elements;

South Vietnamese society was deeply divided between the Francophone/Catholic elites and the Buddhist/Vietnamese populace, and it's economy was similarly imbalanced. Lebanon was well on it's way to being a failed state by 1982, and Somalia was a failed state in 1992. The "economy" of Afghanistan appears to be a huge and largely unaddressed problem with the long-term stability of that mess, and in both Iraq and Libya we see the problems with a petroeconomy in a weak or failing state in that most if not all the benefits are typically hijacked by corrupt, kleptocratic elites.

The failures - especially Lebanon, Somalia, and Libya - are also typically pre-Westphalian (tribal or immediately post-tribal) societies. Strong tribal and sectarian divisions are present in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Similar problems were present in the Balkans, but I think a large part of the difference is that by the time of the U.S. intervention in 1992 an extended period of ethnic cleansing allowed rough homogeneity to coalesce into the Bosnian/Serbian/Croat territories once U.S. airpower helped defeat the irredentist Serbs. A similar process allowed a similar success in Kosovo, and has allowed what success has been attained in Iraq - the end of the insurgency owes as much to the fact that there are no more Shiite and Sunni enclaves for rival militias to make war on as it is the Baghdad government gaining control.

In terms of governments, well, Somalia and Libya just don't have any and never did after their respective dictators were overthrown. South Vietnam had a real problem in that it's government was largely the relict of the French colonial elite. Lebanon in '83 had no groups strong enough to securely hold political power until the Syrians intervened. We established a Shia-majority government in Baghdad but the country has effectively fragmented into a Kurdish mini-state in the north and a south whose relations with the Sunni minority are still problematic. Similarly, the Northern Alliance-based government of Afghanistan is troubled with internal divisions and fundamental kleptocratic dysfunction.

So what do I think should the take-home lesson for our future U.S. global policeman be?

Obviously, the initial calculation should be, as it always should be, is the gain worth the risk? Is there a benefit on the ground to be had from the commitment of U.S. lives, wealth, and political standing?

But, second, I would opine that there are two fundamental conditions to be assayed.

Is the locale fundamentally stable, is there a real, or at least potential, underlying social and political cohesion, and is there a competent local ally available NOW to work with?

If so, then the chances are that the problem really is some sort of transient issue, and that the application of force is capable of destroying divisive or chaotic factions - people and organizations - that are producing the instability and producing an outcome favorable to U.S. geopolics. And once those factions are attacked, the rebels killed or imprisoned, their organizations degraded or destroyed, the local ally is capable of imposing itself on the polity and continuing that favorable outcome at least in the medium-term.

This is likely to be ugly and brutal for the locals, but, remember; we're thinking not like human beings but like a Great Power here. What matters is "results", not human lives.

But...if those conditions are NOT present...

Then the only reason I can see for intervening is if the potential for continued local troubles has a high probability of causing larger, regional or global trouble for the U.S. in the short- or medium-term, or the effort involved will be utterly trivial, and the likely bad outcome will be likewise insignificant. The alternative is that any U.S. intervention will need to be a genuinely massive one; an occupation-of-Germany sort of thing. And even if we try that, as we did in Vietnam, the outcome is still pretty dicey if the local conditions are as poor as they are, say, in Somalia, Libya, Liberia, or the Congo.

So I'd argue that under this rubric the interventions in Lebanon 1983, Iraq, Somalia and Libya would probably not have happened, and the intervention in Afghanistan would have likely been confined to a punitive expedition in 2002. Or all the above would have been expanded to full-on post-WW2-style long-term occupations (and I'll carry your ruck from here to the Halls of Montezuma if you think the U.S. public would have gone all-in for that...).

Do I think this will happen?

No - as I said at the top; nobody who supported or supports the present system, the one that has produced this hit-or-miss pattern of interventions since 1990, has paid a political price for the lack of geopolitical rigor involved in picking our fights.

But...should it?

What is the appropriate process, and policy, for a Great Power - especially a supposedly-republican Great Power - to do in an increasingly multipolar world? How do you go about re-writing the Washington Rules?


  1. A good first step would be to reduce the "defense" budget by at least a half. A smaller military leaves less scope for adventurism.

  2. Chief,
    I consider Korea a loss.
    It started the trend to hip pocket wars etc..and all it accomplished was to kill a bunch of Chicom soldiers that were expendable to their gov't.
    I don't care that there was a independent ROK since it was far far from free or democratic.
    We really needed the competition from Korean industry -didn't we? Well throw in the Chicoms too.
    If you look at it strategically we bit the big one.
    Chicom like AQ proved that we were paper tigers.

  3. Ael: But we had a much smaller force pre-1945 and did quite a bit of farkling about; Banana Wars, various little wars in places like Haiti, Cuba, the PI, China...

    Here's the thing; the U.S. 2012 is a de facto empire. A "soft" empire, but, still, we share a lot of similarities with the imperial Great Powers of history. So I think to just assume that we will NEVER intervene in places around the world where our "leaders" believe that U.S. interests demand or will benefit from military intervention is unrealistic.

    But ISTM that our rationales for many of our more recent interventions has been increasingly iffy. Libya baffles me - what was the point there? Even a "successful" intervention, as it was organized, wasn't going to do anything but decapitate one side of a civil war. How we figured that would end well - when the OTHER side was a mixture of shambolic, vicious, and Islamic - completely eludes me.

    I understand that there will always be mistakes - the government of the RVN probably looked no worse in 1965 than the government of Lebanon looked in 1958. But some situations are clearly impossible; look at 1983.

    One the one hand you had a "perfect case"; Grenada was tiny, isolated, and weak. It was an irritant, no more, but an opportunity to remove that irritant with minimal cost, and it worked as planned.

    On the other hand, Lebanon was clearly a mess; open intervention from untouchable foreign powers (Syria and Israel), an utterly incompetent "government", a multi-sided civil war that we were somehow going to "stabilize"...who the hell COULD have thought that was a good idea?

    And ISTM that our recent run; A-stan, Iraq, and Libya - share a lot more with Lebanon than Grenada. Just seems like we've lost the ability to think coherently about how to parse these out, lately...

  4. jim: In context of the time it "held the line" established at the end of WW2, and allowed the ROK to become the more-democratic nation it is today. Sure, Rhee was a despotic bastard, but how would the south have done better under the goofy Northern rulers?

    Bottom line is I was looking at the stated objectives of U.S. policy at the time and whether these interventions attained them - whether those policies were beneficial or not, well, that's another argument entirely...

  5. Chief,
    we fulfilled Chicom objectives just as well.
    We secured their flank since 53.
    I understand your point and i agree that we thought that we did good- hell whats 35 thousand plus dead Amies?

  6. Nice article, thaks for the information.