Thursday, May 11, 2017

Your daily "hmmm..." (Middle East edition)

Fred Kaplan over at Slate has a take on the endgame playing out in Mosul, and how a lot of it revolves around not military strategy but political strategy:
"This is the biggest thing that Trump doesn’t understand and that few Western leaders grasp until they look at this conflict up close. “To everybody but us,” one senior military officer told me, “the defeat of ISIS is the least important goal.”

This is why, as the defeat of ISIS draws near, the lack of a coherent U.S. strategy — or, more precisely, Trump’s hesitation or refusal to accept, adapt, or do something with Mattis’ plan — is such a source of anxiety."
I wish I thought that this was another Tangerine-Toddler-specific problem. But IMO the entire history of the U.S. involvement in the Middle East, going practically all the way back to the hasty recognition of Israel in '48, is a litany of "what the fuck are we doing and why..?"

Back when he used to post and comment here Seydlitz used to insist that the U.S. political establishment doesn't really "do" geopolitical strategy, that there's no actual strategy or strategic thinking involved. This seems to be just a piece with everything else we've seen, all the way back to 2002 and beyond.

Mind you...given the unique incompetence of the Trump Griftministration I wouldn't be surprised to see things get MORE effed up!

But I see this not so much as a Trump Bug but as a U.S. Middle East Policy Feature.


  1. Seydlitz was correct. Where is he now anyway? He better than many would be able to decipher Trumpian foreign policy. If there actually is any that is - besides hotels. That and the Oilman in charge of Foggy Bottom is the extent of my ken.

    1. Dunno. I seem to remember that he mentioned hanging out at Zenpundit's site, but the discussion there is usually too abstract for a sergeant. Just way above my pay grade.

      And I'm not sure if ANYone can figure out what these goofballs are doing, largely because I don't think THEY know, and "they" are all at odds. Trump is, so far as I can tell, only in this for the grift and to be The Boss - he honestly thinks of the U.S. presidency the way Idi Amin thought about Uganda. There are people on his staff like Miller and Bannon and Gorka who are bonafide looney tunes, genuine neo-Nazi nuts and millenial clash-of-civilization whackadoodles. Then there's the Congressional GOP, whose reason for existing seems to be knuckling the poors and sprinkling largesse on the Richie Riches. The extent to which each of these influences Trumpkin policy - to the extent they DO - is really hard to figure out.

  2. The mistake is in thinking that the top levels of the policy establishment in the USA are working for the USA. This is simply wrong. They are working for themselves or their factions. Checks and balances baby! Any coherence arising from this system is purely by accident.

    1. I disagree, not that many of the people and institutions that influence foreign policy in general ( and Middle East policy in particular) aren't working for goals that aren't in the interests of most Americans, but that they're not working for what THEY see as the "good of the US". The fact that we may disagree on whether that IS the overall good is another story.

      My points are that 1) the political system we've given ourselves is geared towards short-term thinking and 2) such thinking is almost designed to produce short-sighted, nonstrategic "planning". Hence Sven's observation below that modern, civilian-controlled militaries have similar problems with long-term thinking...

    2. Read this blog post about the FBI and tell yourself that J.Edgar Hoover was a true American patriot who always placed his country above his personal ambition. Oh, and also his planning horizon was dominated by short term thinking (and him dying in office was sheer accident).

  3. In civilian project management we do a stakeholder analysis. A stakeholder is everyone involved in or affected by a project or even only thinks that (she) will be affected.
    First you recognise these parties, then you look at how powerful they are and how likely they will cause trouble. Then you devise a plan how to handle them, execute the plan, do controlling on the execution.

    The armed forces were the leaders in organisations, management, personnel affairs, technology development and many other areas in some of the leading armed forces (especially 1880's to 1933 Germany) - these times are long gone.
    Today, they can't even get simplistic 101 management type things right.

    I believe them when they claim to have a plan, but almost every time I look at the execution of plans I see lots of ignorance, lack of self-discipline, arrogance, inefficiency, lack of daring, excessive career protection - what I don't ever see is a very smart strategy or a stroke of genius in operational art.

  4. Hmmm. Perhaps it is time to explore examples of countries that did long term planning - and survived long term?

    1. I'd be interested in discussing that in the context of the Middle East and Levant in particular. You'd probably have to start no earlier than the Eighth Century due to the immense divide between the pre- and post-Muslim periods.

      Even with that limitation you'd have a lot to work with. Byzantines, Mongols, Mamlukes, the Crusader states (and the late medieval European Levantine powers like Venice and Genoa and the Papacy...), Ottomans, British, and French. Lots there to think on.

    2. Finland refused to attack Leningrad in 1941-1944 because it didn't want Russians to think of Finland as a threat to Leningrad.
      That's why Finland existed during the Cold War at all.

      The Habsburg Dynasty ran its grand strategy for about 400 years with great success.

      Von Bismarck ran a short series of victorious wars leading to a small German unification (Germany "unified" under Prussian leadership, Austrians excluded). Later on he was successful at keeping Germany out of war (in Europe) for two decades with his complicated alliance politics. This peace lasted a total 43 years, half of this period even after his departure. (You know, that was the time when the Germans were terribly aggressive, threatening and militaristic according to the Englishmen.)

      Imperial Japan had a decades-long modernisation and Westernisation after 1864.

      PR China has enjoyed a hugely successful grand strategy of economic development with market economy while keeping the one-party system. This lasted almost four decades already.

      The Taleban have reportedly recovered from their defeat in 2001 through persistence and avoiding a Tet Offensive-type overreach. Year after year they made progress politically and (para)militarily with little if any perceivable change in their strategy in Afghanistan.

      The Byzantine Empire lasted for over a thousand years, resting on the strong foundation of its "Byzantine" bureaucracy that allowed it to survive great blows with little permanent damage (except the one time they lost the Levant because they were too busy defending against the Sassanids).

      I'd like to add that Cuba is an interesting case, too. Its stability and mere survival were certainly unlikely back in 1960. They even survived the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    3. All good examples, Sven. Finland is definitely a great example of a little nation that has seemed to have to run a very smart foreign policy to survive next to the Colossus of the North.

      And Bismarck! There was a brilliant politician. I'll always give him props for slapping the Kaiser down on His Obstinacy's naval obsession; Otto knew better than to get all up in this "overseas empire" nonsense. That it took a pigheaded autocrat almost twenty years to undo his policies says something about how tightly he locked up his sensible approach to Germany's policy.

      I'd also suggest looking at the Venetian Republic in the early Rennaissance, a polity that seemed to punch above it's weight in the Mediterranean and I wonder how much of that was sagacious policymaking?

      What about the counterexamples, though? One that springs to mind is the Ayyubids. They had a pretty short run for all that the historical consensus seems to be that they did good things for the Muslim Middle East; after Saladin, tho, they seem to have run out of ideas.

      Austria-Hungary? Definitely a long-running project, but one that always seemed just one big mistake away from falling to pieces. How DID the Vienna Hapsburgs manage to schlamperi their way through central Europe for so long?

    4. The Sassanids were very stupid. They exhausted themselves so much in wars with Byzantium that were hardly ever profitable that eventually they were overrun by the Arabs. They were also responsible for Byzantium losing the Levant.

      The Moghul Empire did many, self-destructive mistakes even though it had a chance to abolish the terrible caste system from India.

      Spain's emphasis on colonial silver and neglect of the homeland's economy (silver-induced inflation, forced emigration of many high-skilled Muslims) was a terrible grand strategy.

      Portugal's refusal to let go an oversized and useless colonial empire in the 1960's was beyond stupid.

      Daesh's ability to make enemies while attracting only marginal allies exceeds the enemy-making habits of Hitler, Napoleon and the Central Asian steppe people (the only ones regularly to get away with it) by far.

      Yet speaking of good grand strategies; one has to mention Switzerland. It has had ridiculous success for almost 500 years, only Napoleon created a major disturbance.

      The Ottoman Empire's ability to survive from the 17th century to early 20th century was a result not of military prowess, but of exploitation of disunity between Russians and West Europeans. They used the Dardanelles issue for their own survival. Maybe Egypt may learn a long term lesson here.

      And then there's some of the huge ones:
      (1) the idea that India is a country, not a continent as diverse as Europe. They did split in 3 parts, but that's nothing compared to how divided India really is, especially between North and South.
      (2) China being able to sustain the idea of it being one country (the Han tribe convincing the other East Asians that they're all Chinese). The EU is a flimsy union by comparison. Chinese unity was paid for with many, many wars, though. It's extremely ignorant of Europeans and Americans to think of Taiwan as separate in the long term. Such a division can only be temporary to the Chinese.

  5. My understanding of the traditional historical take on the two is that the Byzantine and Sassanid empires focused on each other for so long that they missed the forces that overwhelmed them after exhausting themselves...

    Han China, about long term projects!

  6. Having just returned from the land between the rivers for yet another adventure, here is my perspective. I've been a part of these discussions at some very high levels (AMB, 2 and 3 Star). What Trump, or Obama, didn't understand (and most even in our military don't) is how surrogate warfare works.

    Just like Coalition warfare is warfare by committee, it is hard to get the surrogate (in this case the Iraqi security forces of many different flavors) to accomplish OUR goals in their country. It is very hard to stick to a strategy when your partners keep changing the conditions and creating more obstacles that your strategy didn't anticipate. The Iraqis have been looking past ISIL for over an year, they are more concerned with what will replace ISIL, less so with our goals of eliminating ISIL in its current form.

    Sidebar: Truth be told, Iraq did NOT want to go to Mosul last year. The only reason Mosul happened when it did was because of tremendous pressure by the Obama administration who wanted to wrap this thing up under their watch. The Iraqis had a more sound strategy for isolating Mosul over time, by finishing the Euphrates valley first and denying ISIL the Jazeera desert rat lines. Fact. Example of personal (not even political) goals about legacy trumping your own strategy.

    The Iraqis knew what a struggle Mosul would be, both militarily and politically. We have yet to even see the political consequences of this fight, just wait.... I will be surprised if the "one country" policy survives. (The one country policy is an entirely different sidebar I am happy to discuss if any wants to hear more, that is in effect, the only true strategic goal that we've had in Iraq).

    Let's not even talk about Syria... wow. When you have an ally like Turkey, who needs enemies? If you ever needed evidence to support an argument of the the importance of understanding and appreciating history when developing geo-pol strategy, here is your vignette. Erdogan sees northern Syria and northern Iraq and historical Turkey, stolen from them by unfair treaties in the 1920s. But I digress.

    Like Colombia, for surrogate warfare to work, for your strategy to work, your partners' goals must align with yours, and you must be willing to commit decades to the problem. In Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, our partners (plural, host name government and allies, and quasi allies such as the Russians) have to all be aligned. In Iraq and Syria, we are fighting ISIL, but are competing with the Turks, Russians and Iranians for influence post ISIL. Any strategy that we have had, and we've had several, has failed to survive game changers by our surrogates or "allies" that were not anticipated.

    Poor stake holder analysis? Check. Failing to appreciate history. Check. Hubris. Big Check. The One Country strategic goal is probably part of the problem. It fails to appreciate the reality of Iraq doesn't really exist, it is a made up concept drawn together by western powers in an effort to made an orderly, tidy world.

    I am not confident that you can have a grand strategy in the middle east. Just too many variables, too many interested parties. I think we need more of a global strategy that defines what role we want to have in this world, and we should apply that to this region. Because we can't figure that out, I think we struggle in this messy arena.

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