On September 11th, President Vladimir Putin of Russia published an opinion piece
in The New York Times
. My goal with this post is to provide first an outline of Putin's argument followed with a short analysis from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective.
Let's start out with my assumptions here. Given the political context I assume that President Putin is honestly attempting to communicate with not only the American people but also with our reigning political elite. Second, this is all about international relations which goes far beyond simply Syria and what happens to Assad, so in that sense he is correct when he says Russia is "not protecting the Syrian government, but international law". Essentially the stakes go far beyond Syria and this is clearly recognized by Russia. Finally, there is a lot of room for honest negotiation regarding the Syrian crisis and success here would "open the door to cooperation on other critical issues".
Vladimir Putin makes a very clear and compelling argument in this article. He starts in the first paragraph of the piece stating what his intention is as well as mentioning "insufficient communication". This is interesting from a strategic theory perspective, since as the great Russian Clausewitzian theorist Alexander Svechin notes that while tactics can be examined outside of communications, it is precisely communications which makes strategy possible. So Putin's intent is clearly stated as communicating to the American people regarding the Syrian crisis.
A short history of the UN follows, which as Putin points out was a product of US and Soviet Russian determination not to allow countries to simply go to war based on their own political choices, it "should happen only by consensus" which in turn has "underpinned the stability of international relations for decades". While this has withstood crises in the past, the current US move against Syria threatens to "throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance". Putin devotes an entire additional paragraph to expanding this argument, boldly stating that Russia is "not protecting the Syrian government, but international law" and "the law is the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not."
Along with Putin's UN/international law argument he weaves the current situation in Syria and the greater Middle East. The conclusion a reader draws from this description is that overt US military involvement not only faces strong international opposition, but is difficult to see as being in the US national interest or even strategically coherent in terms of the forces our military actions would support. The implication is that this aggressive Syrian policy operates counter to the strategic narrative of the Global War on Terror which has dominated US foreign policy for over a decade.
Putin is quick to follow up by questioning the US government's version of the August 21st attacks. This in line with what Russia had communicated to the UN and foreign governments not only prior to, but subsequent to those attacks. His view is simply that there exists a substantial amount of contradictory information to the US official version and that this information "cannot be ignored".
This specific crisis is then placed within the larger context of the US foreign policy emphasis on the use of force which has proved "ineffective and pointless". Not only that, this proclivity has had the opposite effect on nuclear proliferation, since "if you have the bomb, no one will touch you". So with this context in mind, Putin is inviting the US to "return to the past of civilized diplomatic and political settlement", a past which the US was fundamental in building and maintaining.
The Russian president concludes with the hope that the Syrian dialogue that has started will continue and that President Obama is someone with whom he can deal. The final related point which has drawn a good bit of attention addresses US notions of exceptionalism directly:
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
This of course is a repeat of the "law is the law" point, applicable to all recognized states, not the US on the one hand and everyone else on the other. Notions of exceptionalism can actually lead to disaster, as a former KGB officer would certainly know given the history of the former USSR. Foreign aggression itself stems often from a notion of exceptionalism, the exact phenomenon the UN was established to thwart.
So now we come to the strategic theory analysis. The obvious question is what would make this specifically a Clausewitzian strategic theory analysis? Here I consider some specific Clausewitzian concepts which are part of Clausewitz's general theory of war and what I have identified as his theory of politics
. First, Clausewitz speaks about a balance of power that exists among states. An aggressor who upsets this balance will likely have to deal with resistance from other interested states that see this aggression as being against their interests. The tendency is for the status quo to be maintained, although there are situations where a political balance is so unstable that maintaining it could require force. Second Clausewitz assumes that the political relations of a given country including their levels of moral and material cohesion are going to influence how they conduct wars. Third, we have the distinction between objective politics (especially domestic political considerations) and subjective policy (which is the political purpose of the war in question). Thus "politics" can play an irrational role in strategy and war making. Fourth, the character of the political leadership has a fundamental influence on not only strategy but in how the war is fought/presented/seen. Fifth, and finally, Clausewitz is along with Max Weber, what we could describe as a "mentalist" in that it is ideas, social action and meaning that defines how we see the world. This is the basis of the Weberian concept of legitimacy which fits well with the general theory. I have been considering this for several days now and have decided on four interrelated points I wish to make.
First, this is an appeal from Russia to the US to start acting once again as a great power. What we see today in US Syrian policy is a policy of strategic incoherence, of a power acting not in it's own interests but in those of other powers which attempt to utilize US military force for their own ends. We have degenerated in terms of strategic effect to the point where the US acts as a "tool" of other powers. In the case of a US attack on Syria, the interested powers include Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. It is thus not at all surprising that certain Arab countries have offered to pay the cost
of US military action regarding an attack on Syria. Nor is it surprising that AIPAC is lobbying Congress hard to support war
What has been totally lacking is any coherent argument as to what US interests are in Syria, let alone how military action or even overthrowing Assad's government is in US interests. Instead Americans have been bombarded with the worst sort of jingoism and chestthumping that saturated US airwaves in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. We should be profoundly embarrassed by this, especially given our experiences post 2003.
For the US to start operating once again as a great power would not only be in Russia's interest, but in providing balance to international relations in general, a plus all around.
Second, the US is operating with an incoherent strategic narrative regarding the Global War on Terror. That narrative is a threadbare collection of myth, half-truths, double-think and memory loss that is truly astonishing. Let's start with "Terror". Terror is a method of political conflict, it is not a target or something that can be effectively dealt with by means of force. Political groups use terror (violence used to communicate a message) as a method for a variety of reasons and most instances of terror have historically been conducted by states. So a war against "terror" makes about as much sense as a war against "submarines" or "Psyops". Now "Al Qaida" . . . given what we know about this entity, it should be obvious that it operates with state support, would not be able to effectively survive without state support. Ossama bin Laden was living for years in a compound in a Pakistani city which is also home to their military academy. He could not have survived without state support and would be probably still alive today had the US not raided his compound and killed him. The Al Qaida affiliates in Syria enjoy the support of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states and would not exist to any significant extent without the support of these states as well as Turkey. Al Qaida is thus a tool of foreign state interests to which we are now expected to offer military support, essentially acting as some have claimed as "Al Qaida's air force"
. Thus the narrative on which our foreign policy has been based is incoherent and pointing this out gets mostly hysterical responses from "true believers" who in many cases have made a career of selling this ludicrous war on terror. In many ways the US finds itself today in the horrible situation of a mentally ill person who after years of treatment must face the choice of accepting the reality of their mental condition, along with all the lost time, resources, opportunities and self-defeating behavior, or fall back into the psychosis and avoid having to deal with that reality.
Third, and related to the second, much of what passes for "debate" in the US today is more the nature of domestic information operations (IO). A policy move is made, a set of associated propaganda themes are decided upon and then ceaselessly projected in the media, which acts essentially as a "ministry of truth". Information which goes against the imposed narrative is dismissed or simply ignored
. Anything ignored is labelled as "unsubstantiated" or from "unreliable sources" upon questioning, but any information supporting the propaganda themes is passed on without hesitation regardless of the accuracy or source. Watching US TV regarding Syria it has been difficult recently to get much of any argument against military action at all. This extensive us of IO has also perverted
the way our intelligence services are expected to operate, becoming instead sources of propaganda to support political decisions which have already been made. The use of domestic IO regarding the Iraq war has been thoroughly documented
Fourth and finally, these all fit together to indicate the international political situation of the US today. What is important to remember though is that this process has been going on for some time with the result that the US today has little or no credibility with foreign audiences. This reflects a more general trend in Western liberal states of decreasing credibility but is particularly acute in the US due to our bellicose foreign policy which is seen as self-defeating in terms of US interests. This political situation of not being master of our own house reflects accurately our current political relations where the US government is seen as a "milk cow" for various domestic and foreign interests. Our inability to formulate coherent strategy is due to the dysfunctions of our political relations. The same interests clamoring for war have little sense of the danger of escalation that direct US involvement in Syria could usher forth. Some would see this possible escalation involving Iran as desirable, but how could that even remotely be in US interests?
Thus President Putin's appeal is not only in Russia's interests but in the interests of the American people, as opposed to the current US political elite who seemingly find nothing amiss, as well as in the interest of the international community. A long and at times painful dialogue with Russia is an offer that the American people should respond to approvingly with the intention of cleaning the Augean stables of what has become of US political relations . . .