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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

El Greco, The Vision of Saint John, 1608-1614. Via Wikimedia.

El Greco, The Vision of Saint John, 1608-1614. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

An interview with Barry Buzan.

Legitimacy revisited… and still found wanting.

The lost logic of deterrence.

A new direction for US space policy.

If Russia and China are revisionist states, they’re terrible at it.

Bargaining, capabilities, and crisis outcomes.

Does Putin mistake Syria for Chechnya?

Manu Chao – Bongo Bongo Je Ne T’Aime.

Why No Mediterranean Buddhism?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by Classical Numismatic Group, via Wikimedia

Image by Classical Numismatic Group, via Wikimedia

I’m currently reading International Systems in World Historywhose authors Barry Buzan and Richard Little raise a fascinating question: why did Buddhism, which originated in northern India but was successfully exported through South and East Asia, never take root in the West?

Buddhism was spread throughout Eastern Asia through Indian trade networks. However, these networks were never able to expand westward, because overland trade routes through the Iranian plateau and seaborne trade through the adjacent Persian Gulf were blocked by the Parthian empire, and its post-3rd century Sassanid successor. The Parthians’ strategic position south of the Caspian Sea allowed them to extract rents from trade between the rich Chinese and Roman empires that bookended Eurasia. Conscious of the profitability of this position, the Parthians deliberately preserved their valuable middleman status by keeping Roman and Eastern traders from ever directly interacting — going so far as to once mislead a Chinese expedition aiming to make contact with the Romans — which would allow them to realize how costly the Parthian intermediary was. This policy blocked direct trade between the Mediterranean and East Asia, as well as the cultural diffusion inherent to direct trade networks.

The Romans were aware of this costly impediment to direct trade. Concerned about their trade deficit with China, the Romans tried but failed to bypass the Parthian intermediary. Overland trade routes north of Parthian control were far outside of the Roman sphere of influence. The Emperor Trajan’s short-lived conquest of Mesopotamia may have been partially motivated by the desire to secure a Persian Gulf seaport that would allow traders to bypass the Parthian empire and lower trade costs. However, the Romans were unable to hold Trajan’s overextending conquests, though they periodically contested western Mesopotamia for the next two centuries.

This is particularly interesting because Buddhism would likely have found a receptive audience in the West. Rome was famously receptive to Eastern religions — with the exception of Judaism and later Christianity, whose strict monotheism Roman authorities perceived as a threat to the civic responsibility of the emperor cult — and it isn’t unreasonable to speculate that Romans would have adopted Buddhist teachings with the same enthusiasm as the Cybele or Isis cults. This isn’t to say that the spread of Buddhism into the Mediterranean basin would have prevented the eventual dominance of Christianity — which, after all, outcompeted numerous other religious systems — but the spread of Buddhist culture into the Roman world would have certainly had led to a fascinatingly different Europe.

Alternative history writers, take note.

Correction: I later edited this post to clarify that the economic motivation for Trajan’s invasion is a theory, and added additional links.

The Wrong Lessons from Iraq

By Taylor Marvin

The tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq continues to draw revealing reflections on the lessons of the war. Ezra Klein attributes his (admittedly, college-age) support for the invasion to the influence of Ken Pollack’s The Gathering Storm and warns against trusting what “everyone knows”, while failing to mention that numerous IR academics presciently warned against the invasion.

Elsewhere, Daniel Larison fears that many Americans have failed to learn from the war, and still view preemptive invasions as a “legitimate form of self-defense.” Stephen Walt voices similar concerns over policymakers’ continuing failure to consider tangible American interests when proposing foreign military interventions, a clear rejection of both neoconservative and liberal interventionist policy. Both Larison and Walt make valid points — while the abject failure of the Iraq War seems to have conditioned many Americans to reject boots-on-the-ground military adventurism, it doesn’t appear to have sparked a popular rethink of the purpose and limitations of US foreign policy as a whole.

Like Larison, my fear is that future observers will attribute Iraq War’s failures to factors specific to the conflict itself, rather than general limitations on the United States’ ability to successfully use force to remove and replace foreign regimes. These implicated determinants can be specific to Iraq — the country’s sectarian and tribal divides, for instance — or the incompetence of the Bush administration. It’s this incompetence that has the potential to be truly blinding. While the decision to pursue war with Iraq itself was misguided, the Bush administration’s initial missteps were so mistaken that they draw the analytical spotlight:

  • Invading with a post-Revolution in Military Affairs force that was ultimately too small to provide security after the overthrow of the Hussein government and secure the weapons depots that would later provided insurgents and IED makers with armaments.
  • The decision to base the astoundingly lightly-sketched visions of post-Hussein governance around Ahmed Chalabi, an exile who enjoyed no legitimacy within Iraq. Chalabi had every incentive to mislead Bush administration officials, and it should have been extremely obvious that he would not be a viable leader of post-Hussein Iraq.
  • Paul Bremer’s disastrous order to the disband the Iraqi Army, which — to the horror of US military officials — dumped thousands of unemployed and angry armed men into already unstable Iraqi society. “There was simply no upside to firing hundreds of thousands of young men who knew where the guns, ammunition, and explosives were kept,” Steve Saideman recently wrote, terming it, not the decision to invade overall, the single worst US foreign policy decision ever.
  • Bremer’s similarly-misguided policy of de-Ba’athification, which removed Hussein-era Iraqi elites from civil society and demolished state governing capacity.
  • The Bush administration’s tragically comic policy of turning the Coalition Provisional Authority administration over to young American graduates, nearly all of which had zero relevant administrative or cultural experience.

All of these decisions were indefensible at the time, and reveal both arrogance and astounding general incompetence on the part of the officials responsible.  But the scope of these errors has the potential to obscure the Iraq War’s real lessons. David Ignatius explicitly qualifies his condemnation of the invasion with this logic, remarking that “we’ll never know whether the story might have been different if better planning had been done for ‘the day after,’ or the Iraqi army hadn’t been disbanded, or several other ‘ifs.'” But this qualification misses the general point. The invasion wasn’t “risky”, because it had little hope of meeting its stated goals in and of itself — even if none of these decisions had been made it’s still difficult to imagine the invasion’s aftermath proceeding according to plan.

The reality is that there never was a plausible case that invading Iraq would lead to the at least-nominal goal of installing a stable democratic government. The 2003 US military was entirely unprepared to fight a counterinsurgency, and no matter how much administration and military leaders pretended otherwise there was never justification for the assumption that Iraqis would go along with the administration’s post-war plans.

Instead, the clear lesson of the Iraq War is that US strategy should not be benchmarked around predicting the behavior of an indigenous population. Every initial, binding mistake of the war comes back to this assumption. Sufficient troops to secure and guard weapons depots would not be necessary, because post-invasion resistance would be limited to regime dead-enders. Troop numbers necessary for the high counterinsurgency threshold were excessive, because ethnic conflict was not expected. The CPA’s counterproductive policy of de-Ba’athification would not be problematic, because the Ba’ath party was a hated, tiny minority.

But the problems inherent to human behavior-assumptions don’t appear to have been incorporated into today’s interventionist theory. Most advocates of US or Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities base their proposals on the ludicrous assumption that an unprovoked attack on Iran will not permanently damage perceptions of the US among Iranians and empower Iranian hardliners at the expense of moderates, or, most fantastically, strikes will cause Iranians to rise up against the regime. This dumbfoundingly optimistic assumption grimly echoes Jeffrey Goldberg’s pre-war assertion that “people with limited experience in the Middle East” wrongly believe “the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.” Americans may, as Dan Drezner recently argued, have internalize a more realist post-Iraq outlook. But this really only extends to boots on the ground interventions. Given US policymakers’ perpetual temptation to leverage airpower and unconventional forces into low-commitment military interventions, this argument is almost peripheral to the general debate.

What’s a Interstellar Humanity Look Like?, Cont.

tdos_coverBy Taylor Marvin

John J. Lumpkin has released the sequel to his hard scifi novel Through Struggle, the Stars, which I reviewed last year. I greatly recommend his debut novel, and am enjoying The Desert of Stars. Lumpkin is a talented writer, and offers an original look at plausible conventional warfare in a space colonization-context.

Check it out, if you’re interested.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Antonio Herrera Toro, "La Muerte del Libertador", 1889. Via Wikimedia.

Antonio Herrera Toro, “La Muerte del Libertador”, 1889. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

What was the neoconservative theory behind the Iraq war?

Stephen Walt on how the world would respond to an Iranian nuclear weapon – in short, more of the same.

The day after Assad falls.

Mid-course BMD is simply crowd pleasing corporate welfare.

Reflections on the effects of Turkey’s military coups.

Why human rights treaties are like virginity pledges.

Global Swing States and the Non-Proliferation Order (via Jeffrey Lewis).

Rhye – The Fall.

More Problems with Arming Syrian Rebels

By Taylor Marvin

Image via .

Image via Wikimedia.

As detailed by Robert S. Ford in recent testimony, the United States is already providing considerable non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. However, the Obama administration has so far remained wary of directly supplying the rebels with weapons, a proposal supported by the French and British governments. But this non-lethal assistance hasn’t stopped proposals for the US to begin supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition, calls supported by the rebels themselves. This, of course, is an attractive compromise for Western governments: barring a major shift in the two year old conflict the Syrian rebels appear unable to militarily defeat Assad’s forces, but Western governments have been reasonably hesitant to directly enter the conflict.

In Foreign Policy John Hudson recently listed the weapons systems that could “change the game” if supplied to the rebels. The arguments Hudson makes are true, in a limited sense. If widely proliferated to the opposition weapons supplies would, as Hudson argues, increase their combat capabilities. Supplying modern MANPADS to the rebels would restrict the operational freedom of Assad’s air assets, and anti-armor weapons systems would allow rebels to better destroy regime armor and restrict regime mobility. But importantly, even if these weapons systems were supplied to the Syrian rebels they would only represent potential marginal gains in their ability to contest territory with the regime, and wouldn’t necessarily ‘turn the tide in their favor’. Western governments’ assurances that weapons would be kept out of the hands of jihadi-influenced rebel groups, reportedly more capable, dedicated, and experienced than their less-radicalized compatriots, casts doubt over the optimistic assertions of arms supplies’ proponents, even if there was any way to reasonably assure donor governments could control whose hands their weapons actually ended up in. A clear-sighted of arming the Syrian rebels should conclude that it’s unlikely the marginally increased combat capability granted by increasing weapons flows to the rebels would meaningfully increase their potential to end — or, more accurately, win — the war.

Organizational and logistic assets, not weapons, are the greatest determinant of a fighting force’s practical capabilities. Even if Western militaries could train elite rebel units, as Hudson suggests, it is unclear if the intensity of the ongoing conflict allows opposition forces leeway to build these capabilities. Ultimately international observers probably suggest shipping arms to rebel fighting’s simply because it is one of the few options available to practically oppose the regime while still low-commitment enough to remain acceptable to intervention-wary domestic audiences, not because of any reasonable expectation that arming the rebels will significantly increase the prospect of an Assad military defeat.

Indeed, the greatest problem with arming the rebels is that while it is a low-commitment option, it isn’t commitment free. Arming the Syrian rebels necessarily ties international credibility to the possibility of an opposition military victory, while falling short of the commitment necessary to tangibly increase the chances of said victory. This is a (much) milder problem of the commitment problem Western militaries encountered in Libya. Committing NATO airpower to the conflict invested Western prestige in its outcome, while for months rebel fighters aided by Western air and UK special operations forces assets appeared unable to bring the conflict to a close. Because arming Syria’s rebels avoids direct international involvement this policy avoids much of the commitment problem that plagued the intervention in Libya. But it still is a potential problem. Arming the rebels will — eventually — publicly invest outside governments into the conflict’s outcome to a much greater degree than the are now. But arming the rebels falls even farther below the commitment threshold necessary to end the conflict than Western airpower’s entry into the Libyan conflict did. Outside governments should be wary of committing themselves to a conflict they are not prepared to directly win.

Messaging, Not Cost

By Taylor Marvin

At the American Conservative, Daniel Larison refutes the notion — argued by the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson* — that cuts in US military spending will significantly restrain American leaders’ interventionist tendencies. ” The decision to intervene in other countries’ conflicts and internal affairs is not necessarily prevented by a relative lack of resources,” Larison writes, noting that “the [US] military interventions of the last twenty years have been almost entirely optional.”

I agree with Larison, and think the entire question is largely irrelevant. US military resources will never be a constraint on potential military interventions, because the advocates of strategically-unnecessary wars have every incentive to downplay their expected force requirements and costs. Interventions are inevitably framed by their proponents as low-cost ventures and wars’ expected costs, when they are offered at all, are equally inevitably reliant on optimistic best-case assumptions. The invasion and initial occupation of Iraq was benchmarked around Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks belief, passed on to the wider Bush administration, that small numbers of highly-mobile troops were sufficient to occupy the country and nation-building would be unnecessary; a fantastic assumption. In turn this expected light-footprint informed — or, for the cynical, was mandated by — Dick Cheney’s assertion that Iraq’s oil wealth would pay for the war. Even if the United States spent significantly less on defense war advocates still would have been capable of justifying the invasion on their best-case assumptions.

The same is true for other potential US interventions. Advocates for military interventions will never offer reasonable and measured assessments of conflicts’ likely costs and benefits. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate bias: while advocates of intervention are obviously informed by the need for good public relations, Iraq hawks seemed to genuinely believed that a lengthy occupation was unlikely. Drawing the wrong conclusions from the Gulf War and 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and their own post-Vietnam distaste for counterinsurgency, these advocates refused to consider the possibility that the coming war wouldn’t conform to their neatly drawn assumptions.

This remains true today. When Senator Lindsey Graham claims he “doesn’t care what it takes” to contain Syrian chemical weapons, he likely isn’t referencing the assessment that it would take over 75,000 troops to secure Syrian chemical sites. Instead, he’s simply following the Iraq playbook, offering a worst-case take on the costs of inaction and nebulous-at-best consideration for potential costs. Of course Graham’s enthusiasm for intervention in Syria has little practical effect on US policy, which remains unlikely to turn towards entry into the conflict. But Graham’s attitude does illustrate this dynamic. The practical constraints that govern US entry into overseas conflicts isn’t practical resource or cost concerns. Instead, it’s simply the ability of war advocates to message their cause in the most urgent and least objectionable terms possible.

*Gerson uses the phrase “Shiite bomb” as a self-evident explanation for why the Iranian nuclear program is unacceptable, which is pretty damn unconvincing.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Sani ol-Molk, 1849 - 1856. Via Wikimedia.

Sani ol-Molk, 1849 – 1856. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Daniel Altman reexamines the conventional wisdom on Hugo Chávez’s economic record.

What the US invasion felt like to Iraqis.

The Sauds oil war on Iran.

The jostling fight over which practitioners escape the post-Afghanistan blame game: Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, both in Foreign Policy.

Relatedly, C. Christine Fair’s furious attack on COIN’s advocates.

Is the US pivot to Asia sustainable?

Colin M. Snider on the new Pope’s troubling past.

How seriously should the international community take Kim Jong Un’s sabre rattling? Fred Kaplan argues the leader’s inexperience is worrying. Relatedly, Andrew Kydd warns that South Korea’s musing over decapitation strikes is useless.

Efterklang – Hollow Mountain.

Artificial Boundaries and Durable Borders

By Taylor Marvin

T.E. Lawrence's proposed redrawing of the Middle East, via NPR.

T.E. Lawrence’s proposed redrawing of the Middle East, via NPR.

In his reflection on the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, Slate’s Fred Kaplan makes the interesting claim that the Iraq War has accelerated the eventual reordering of the Middle East’s artificial states. The borders of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and others, Kaplan argues, are only relics of the arbitrary divisions imposed by European colonialists after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. These boundaries ignore the ethnic and cultural geography they overlay, and have only survived for so long because autocratic rulers, mostly supported by outsiders, have successfully suppressed independence movements. These are all familiar arguments, and extend to so-called “artificial states” outside of the Middle East. In a recent paper Alberto Alesina, William Easterly, and Janina Matuszeski identified a number of the world’s most artificial national boundaries: of Middle Eastern states only Jordan ranked among the most artificial. But Kaplan expands the argument that artificial boundaries encourage conflict into the prediction that not only are the Middle East’s divisions unstable, the Iraq War’s Shiite-Sunni infighting has precipitated its wider reorganization:

“The question is how far this unraveling goes. Will civil wars erupt in one artificial state after another? That is, will the path of Syria be followed by Lebanon, then Jordan, then (hard as it may be to imagine) Saudi Arabia? Will Sunnis or Shiites, or both, take their sectarian fights across the borders to the point where the borders themselves collapse? If so, will new borders be drawn up at some point, conforming either to some historically ‘natural’ sectarian divisions?”

Kaplan is a perceptive analyst, and his reflections on the Bush administration’s criminal lack of foresight —  “if our leaders are going to intervene in another country’s fate, they should have some understanding of the country’s politics, history, and culture… ahead of time” — are insightful. But predicting a general reordering of Middle Eastern borders is something else entirely. Despite the artificiality of the region’s borders, their broad reorganization doesn’t seem particularly likely in the near-term, for a number of reasons.*

First, established states are often inherently durable entities. Redrawing the region’s borders to reflect sectarian and ethnic divisions would imply nearly all states losing territory, or being subsumed by larger bodies. It is difficult to imagine this process actually occurring, even violently — artificially conceived borders do not mandate failed states unable to retain their territory. As Steve Saideman recently remarked, “secession is damned hard” because “countries resist losing pieces of themselves.” For example, incorporating Iran’s Arab-majority southwestern border region into Arab-dominated Iraq would be sensible from an apolitical bird’s-eye view, sure. But there’s no reason to think Iran’s leaders would willingly sacrifice their territory, or that Iraqi Arabs would successfully take and hold it (as indeed, they failed to do during the Iran-Iraq War). Even accepting the argument that the Arab Spring has weakened state capacity throughout the Arab Middle East, national leaders still have strong incentives to keep their states together, and retain their ability to threaten or cajole potential secessionists.

Secondly, timing. Despite decades of predictions that their inherent instability makes reorganization imminent, colonial-imposed divisions in the Middle East and Africa have (mostly) endured for a half century. Given this durability it’s unlikely that these national boundaries will collapse in the near future. If the primarily Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict the American invasion of Iraq became is the spark that leads to a general unraveling of the region’s borders, why didn’t this unraveling occur after the Iran-Iraq War? Though the majority of the war’s Iraqi combatants were Shiite, the conflict was framed by both sides’ leaderships as a general Shiite-Sunni conflict, and one that was significantly more intense than the Iraqi civil war. Despite the destabilizing effect of the Arab Spring, it’s difficult to imagine a reason why the region is significantly more vulnerable to conflict-driven reorganization today than any other moment in the last half-century.

Third, it’s similarly difficult to imagine a path from presumed widespread sectarian conflict to reorganized state borders. Kaplan simply questions whether reorganized borders would be the result of “new battles”, but who exactly would fight these border-redrawing battles, and why? Majority Shiite Iran and Iraq against other, Sunni-dominated states? Why would the internal sectarian struggles Kaplan imagines lead to the kind of state-on-state conventional warfare that has been largely absent from the region for the last two decades? How would this warfare result in new borders, especially when successful territorial conquests have been extremely rare in the postwar era?

Also notable is the absence of the word “Kurd” from Kaplan’s piece. As Saideman again noted, the Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the region, but it is similarly difficult to imagine a pathway to an independent Kurdish state outside of Iraqi Kurdistan — if a Kurdistan incorporating Turkish territory is currently unfeasible, doesn’t this imply that the region’s other borders could be more durable than Kaplan supposes?

Again, it’s possible that the colonial-imposed borders of the Middle East are so inherently unstable that they will someday be broadly reordered. But this reorganization process would entail an extremely bloody conventional state-on-state conflict more comparable to one of the many European World Wars than the Iraqi civil war. Thankfully, there’s little reason to expect that this process has already begun.

*Kaplan bases his argument on David Fromkin’s 1989 book A Peace to End All Peacewhich I have not read.

Hugo Chávez Post-Mortem

By Taylor Marvin

I have a Hugo Chávez post-mortem up at UC San Diego’s Prospect Journal, where I wrote while in school. In the piece I argue that the most damaging aspect of Chávez’s legacy isn’t his frequently-decried leftist politics, which he never pursued in a systematic or ideologically consistant way. Instead, Chávez’s enduring legacy is his deliberate dismantling of Venezuela’s civil institutions:

“Of course, subsuming the institutions of the state into a single man is fundamentally unsustainable, because all men die. Now that Chávez is gone, his populistic legacy leaves neither a durable autocratic state or the public institutions necessary for a return to full democracy or economic growth beyond the petroleum sector. Chávez’s political allies and anointed heir appear set on continuing the brand of charismatic populism he perfected. No matter the direction Venezuelan politics goes, the post-Chávez era’s legacy of institutional decay will likely negatively shape Venezuela for years to come.”

Ultimately Hugo Chávez’s tenure can’t be understood through the liberal vs. conservative framework many American commentators insist on applying. American conservatives should admit that their threat-inflating insistance on denouncing Hugo Chávez and his Cuban ally as a hemispheric threat politically empowered Chávez, because his appropriation of disparate Latin American left-leaning governments into an imagined Bolivarian Revolution required a similarly-imagined American threat to define itself against. On the other hand, American liberals should recognize that there is nothing contradictory about admitting that while Chávez’s celebrated social programs aided the neglected poor, they were by design political tools that failed to engage the poor in a sustainable or empowering manner.