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Posts from the ‘Africa’ Category

Why Didn’t Gadhafi Go Into Exile?, Con’t.

By Taylor Marvin

It appears that Gadhafi’s* son Seif is in contact with the ICC, apparently to negotiate a possible surrender on the condition that he won’t be returned to Libya if he’s found innocent. At The Monkey CageEmily Ritter of the University of Alabama and Scott Wolford of University of Texas-Austin believe this is evidence that autocrats value trial at the ICC as preferable to death, but only if comfortable exile is off the table:

“One could argue that, by seeking terms better than remaining at large—-which seems to involve taking shelter with a nomadic tribe, accompanying mercenaries to Zimbabwe, and running a permanent risk of violent death or capture—-the younger Gadhafi is trying to win just such an assurance from the ICC: jail time or, should he prove his innocence, a return to a country other than Libya. Of course, the ICC can be a better option for suspects than the relatively poor outcome of death under a collapsed regime, but only if the ICC represents a better prospect than any outside option, such as asylum.”

This is further evidence that, while trial at the ICC is far from idea for deposed autocrats, it’s preferable to a brutal death or imprisonment within their home countries under a hostile successor regime. This supports the theory that increased NATO lethality and willingness to remotely intervene in civil wars against dictators could increase the efficacy of the ICC by making trial a better alternative to fighting to the end, which NATO’s increasing ability to target individuals makes more likely to result in death rather than eventual victory.

The authors raise an interesting point — an ICC willingness to negotiate surrender under favorable terms for suspects could encourage future war crimes:

“If leaders expect that they can negotiate marginally better deals for themselves prior to surrender (which, in this case, may mean living out one’s twilight years in a country where one isn’t likely to be prosecuted again or killed), then they’ll also be marginally more willing to commit war crimes or crimes against humanity in the first place.

So, as the world debates the best approach to dealing with the remnants of the Gadhafi regime, it’s important to keep this tradeoff in mind: war criminals can be enticed to surrender by making the terms of their prosecution better than remaining at large—-enabling prosecution and preventing whatever mischief Seif al-Islam might otherwise engage in as a fugitive—-but granting leniency may undermine deterrence in future cases if the ICC appears too willing to bargain with its suspects.”

This gives us an interesting hypothesized incentive scheme: because international asylum is no longer an option for deposed autocrats, threatened dictators have an incentive to violently resist opposition movements in the hopes of retaining power, rather than fleeing into comfortable exile. Here the existence of the ICC makes damaging wars more likely.

But Dr. Ritter and Dr. Wolford argue, if the ICC establishes a tradition of negotiating favorable terms with deposed dictators, autocrats have an incentive to fight until defeat is inevitable and only then surrender, maximizing their chances of remaining in power or, failing that, surviving. But here dictators’ incentive scheme gets more complicated. The existence of the ICC gives dictators an incentive to fight until the very end to avoid prosecution. A history of leniency at the ICC increases this incentive, by making prosecution in The Hague marginally more attractive than fighting until the end, which will likely result in death. But ICC leniency is also a moderating influence on threatened dictators — if dictators are willing to leave the option of flight to the ICC open, they’re also more likely to avoid high levels of brutality that will guarantee them a harsher sentence even if the ICC bargains down the terms of their trial in an effort to negotiate their surrender, a balancing act that’s likely very much on Seif Gadhafi’s mind. Importantly, Seif’s terms only apply after his trial, meaning that, drawing from this example, future dictators considering similar surrender deals have an incentive to moderate their brutality and minimize the sentence served before enjoying the benefits they negotiated from the ICC. Ritter and Wolford are right to note that ICC bargaining can incentivize crime, but they miss that a willingness to bargain likely also moderates criminal behavior. While international courts’ inability to apprehend suspects alone gives then an incentive to bargain down fugitives’ trial terms, it’s implausible that the possibility of punishment would be bargained completely away. Dictators that wish to leave the possibility of fleeing to ICC custody open have reason to attempt to moderate their verdict by limiting their use of violence, even if they can expect an ICC bargain in return for their surrender.

This suggests that the ICC should prefer a moderate propensity to bargain with fugitives — enough to entice them to surrender, while ensuring that their eventual sentence will be harsh enough to deter future criminals from unlimited violence. Ritter and Wolford reach a similar conclusion, though without considering the moderating influence of a perceived ICC moderate propensity to bargain:

“Courts should consider bargaining as a possible solution to the problem of warrant execution in the international setting, as it may enable courts to build legitimacy through adjudication and become sovereign, powerful institutions, overcoming the obstacles to enforcement even if states are unwilling or unable to cooperate with the institutions’ rules.”

However, the increasing lethality of NATO air power means that dictators have an even greater incentive to avoid a NATO intervention, which is increasingly likely to result in their death at the wrong end of a drone-fired Hellfire missile. This leaves embattled dictators a thin rope to walk: utilize sufficient force to crush a opposition movement, while avoiding the threshold of brutality required to attract a NATO intervention. Of course, this threshold varies from country to country — most dictators will never suffer a Western intervention, for any number of reasons. Libya was an exception. It’s open geography was well suited to effective air-to-ground warfare, the Libyan rebels had had already managed to field an organized armed opposition force that NATO could tactically support, and Gadhafi’s continued rule had no real utility to Western powers. As we’ve seen, few nations fill this criteria: Syria’s opposition has (for the most part) declined to openly fight government forces and Syria’s urban geography makes airpower much less tactically useful than in the Libyan desert and Bahrain’s hospitality to the US Fifth Fleet make both countries secure from the threat of NATO intervention, no matter how brutally their governments crush democratic protest movements. However, it’s also worth noting that sometimes NATO members will militarily intervene in conflicts where they have few apparent interests, as the Obama Administration’s recent deployment of troops to central Africa to combat the LRA demonstrates. As the costs and efficacy of drone warfare increase, there is good reason to suspect that the criteria for triggering NATO assassination missions will shrink, potentially giving vulnerable dictators in rural, open countries greater incentive to avoid extremely brutal responses to domestic unrest, however lenient the ICC elects to be.

*Astute readers will notice that I spelled “Gadhafi” this time. I don’t have a convention for the confusingly-translated dictator’s name, and just use whatever my source material prefers. Apologies for any confusion.

Update: Slightly altered for clarity, added paragraph.

Why Didn’t Qaddafi Go Into Exile?

By Taylor Marvin

Over at The Monkey Cage,  UCSD School of International Relations and Pacific Studies* professor Barbara Walter has a short piece on how the ICC motivates threatened dictators to fight rather than risk prosecution. It’s worth quoting in full:

“One of the many puzzles surrounding Muammar Qaddafi was his refusal to go into exile. Once NATO intervened on behalf of the rebels and Tripoli fell, Qaddafi must have known that he would eventually lose the war and that this would mean death. Instead of leaving the country, he decided to stay.

Why? One surprising answer has to do with the International Criminal Court. It used to be that exile was an attractive long-term option for dictators to take. Rather than stay and fight, they could live their lives in wealth and comfort in beautiful and stable places such as Paris or the Bahamas.

This changed as more and more countries ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. Now seeking asylum is no longer easy or particularly attractive. Dictators can try to convince countries such as France, Britain, Venezuela, Mexico or Spain to let them settle in their capital cities or along their coastlines. But since all have ratified Rome, moving there is tantamount to turning oneself in to be prosecuted for war crimes. Qaddafi could seek refuge in countries that have not yet ratified Rome, such as the United States or Cuba or Zimbabwe or Sudan or Saudi Arabia. But those countries are either unwilling to accept him (the U.S. and Saudi Arabia) or unable to credibly commit to protecting him over time (Cuba, Zimbabwe, Sudan). How long could Qaddafi trust that the current regime in Cuba or Zimbabwe will remain in power to protect him?

There is evidence that Qaddafi considered different exile options as early as March of this year. And yet he stayed until his death last week. We will never know exactly what went through Qaddafi’s head in the last year of his life. Part of what drove him to fight to the end was almost certainly an exaggerated love of power and risk. But part of what drove him was also likely to be careful calculations about his alternatives. What Qaddafi’s behavior reveals is a potentially unexpected and unfortunate side-effect of an increasingly successful ICC. By limiting the options nasty dictators have to seek exile, it is increasingly forcing them to stay. And by forcing them to stay, it could, inadvertently, be encouraging war.”

This is a strong argument — obviously it doesn’t invalidate the idea of the ICC, but the possibility that the increasing risk of prosecution abroad could motivate threatened dictators to remain and fight is important. If the ICC matures into a durable criminal court that can promptly prosecute war criminals, we can expect future dictators to be less and less likely to surrender power voluntarily.

However, there’s another aspect of dictators’ evolving incentive scheme to consider. Let’s assume that threatened autocrats face four broad possible outcomes, which they value in the following order:

Stay, remain in power > Flee, comfortable exile > Flee, prosecution by the ICC >
Stay, imprisonment in home country/death

While most dictators would probably prefer to remain in power, whiling away your days as an exile in Paris is pretty good alternative. But if the threat of ICC prosecution (and, nearly as importantly, confiscation of the funds you’ve stashed in foreign bank accounts) makes a comfortable exile impossible, embattled dictators have a strong incentive to stay and attempt to outlast their opponents. However, this preference only makes sense if an autocrat battling a domestic opposition has some chance of winning.

Trial by the ICC isn’t that bad. It’s certainly humiliating, and the prospect of a lifetime jail sentence isn’t pleasant, but for most dictators it’s likely preferable to a violent death. Slobodan Milošević’s trial by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia dragged on for five years before his death in 2006, Charles Tayor’s trial at the ICC has been ongoing since 2007 and even a guilty verdict at the ICC is at worst a lifetime prison sentence, rather than execution. Of course, history is full of rulers who preferred death to the humiliation of being thrown out of power. But this is rare — while nearly all rulers would prefer to remain in office, for most dictators a trial in The Hauge is preferable to brutal imprisonment or death at the hands of their countrymen. As Dr. Walters points out, Qaddafi declined to flee Libya to avoid a criminal trial. But it’s important to note that he likely elected to stay because he believed that he had at least a chance of outlasting NATO’s will to fight and defeat the rebels, making resistance preferable to fleeing.

However, if threatened autocrats judge themselves to have little to no chance of even surviving an uprising, much less remaining in power, they’re more likely to flee even with the expectation that exile will end in a cell in The Hauge rather than a Spanish beach. Improving US military capabilities have made this least favorable outcome — death — more likely.

In the last few years the US military and intelligence establishment has become very proficient at targeting and killing specific individuals. 1986’s Operation El Dorado Canyon strike mission against Libya missed Qaddafi, and President Clinton’s 1998 cruise missile strike against Osama bin Laden failed to kill the terrorist leader. Similarly, the Bush Administration’s failure to promptly kill or capture Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein demonstrated that despite the formidable combat capabilities of the US military, individuals could count on being able to evade US. This perception has likely changed. In the last year the United States has publicly killed bin Laden, Qaddafi and Anwar al-Awlaki and successfully targeted countless al-Qaeda leadership figures in Pakistan, demonstrating that improved US intelligence gathering and the widespread use of armed drones has significantly raised the United States’ ability to kill specific individuals.

This increased US lethality likely alters dictators’ incentives — yes, outlasting your opponents and staying in power would be nice, but a long trial in The Hauge looks a lot nicer when the alternative is being on the wrong end of a US drone strike. Of course, this logic only applies when an embattled dictator antagonized the US to the point that a military intervention is on the table; as Syria’s brutal repression of protestors has shown, this remains a high threshold. But as drone lethality continues to advance, the barriers to US targeted strikes against autocrats tempted to brutally repress democratic opposition could become less rigid. While the US government appears to be no longer interested in committing ground forces to foreign wars an appetite for targeted airstrikes remains, as America’s shadow wars in Yemen and Somalia demonstrate. If hanging on to power requires an autocrat to repress domestic opposition with sufficient brutality as to attract a US or NATO intervention effort, exile and subsequent prosecution is likely the more attractive choice for most dictators. While we can expect the emergence of the ICC as an effective prosecuting force to give dictators less incentive to flee into comfortable retirements rather than fight, in rare cases this incentive could be countered by the falling tactical barriers to targeted assassination.

*Full disclosure: I am employed by IR/PS.

Obama Administration Deploys Combat Troops to Central Africa

By Taylor Marvin

President Obama has authorized the deployment of approximately 100 combat troops to central Africa to aid in the capture of Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony.

Via CNN, here’s the text of the authorization:

“In furtherance of the Congress’s stated policy, I have authorized a small number of combat-equipped U.S. forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield. I believe that deploying these U.S. Armed Forces furthers U.S. national security interests and foreign policy and will be a significant contribution toward counter-LRA efforts in central Africa.

On October 12, the initial team of U.S. military personnel with appropriate combat equipment deployed to Uganda. During the next month, additional forces will deploy, including a second combat-equipped team and associated headquarters, communications, and logistics personnel. The total number of U.S. military personnel deploying for this mission is approximately 100. These forces will act as advisors to partner forces that have the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA. Our forces will provide information, advice, and assistance to select partner nation forces. Subject to the approval of each respective host nation, elements of these U.S. forces will deploy into Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The support provided by U.S. forces will enhance regional efforts against the LRA. However, although the U.S. forces are combat-equipped, they will only be providing information, advice,
and assistance to partner nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense. All appropriate precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of U.S. military personnel during their deployment.”

This is a major development. While the proposed troop deployment is small, it’s a major change in the way US foreign policy operates in sub-Saharan Africa. Aside from the US’s long-running shadow war in the Horn of Africa, the United States military has generally disengaged from most of the African continent — though the Pentagon consolidated US military activities on the continent in 2008 with the activation of AFRICOM, most of sub-Saharan Africa, along with Latin America, has been implicitly established by a series of administrations as peripheral to US interests.

AFRICOM emblem. It is unclear if deployed forces will fall under AFRICOM command.

AFRICOM emblem. It is unclear if deployed forces will fall under AFRICOM command.

The Obama Administration’s troop deployment to central Africa appears to have little escalation potential. Unlike past US advisory deployments that escalated to heavy combat commitments, the LRA does not appear to have the military capabilities to inflict severe enough casualties among deployed advisory forces to motivate greater US involvement in the region. However, that doesn’t mean that this deployment is not potentially problematic. I addressed this issue last year (slightly edited for clarity):

“The LRA isn’t motivated by ideological beliefs; because it’s basically a criminal gang that that doesn’t credibly claim to represent anyone, it doesn’t enjoy any meaningful support among the local population. [Proponents of US operations against the LRA] claims that an American led intervention against the LRA could be fought with a small commitment of Special Forces soldiers over a short time frame. The problem with these arguments is that we’ve heard them before — they are at their core the same we heard in the lead up to the war in Iraq. Certainly this is a different situation; an intervention against a small violent organization with the approval of the local government is obviously much simpler than an full-scale invasion and installation of a democratic government where one has never existed before, so the claim that an American war in north Congo would be simpler is much more credible. But [war proponents] seem to discount all we’ve learned about small wars in the last decade. Any counterinsurgency effort is bound to be both more complex and more costly than planned. And counterinsurgency is the correct term for a US intervention in Congo — despite its lack of local support and militarily experienced leadership, the LRA is an entrenched fighting force with deep knowledge of their environment, probably making any attempt to kill the LRA’s leadership a much bloodier and more costly effort than [anti-LRA advocates’] best-case-scenario proposal.”

Of course, the Obama Administration’s proposed deployment falls far short of a CT operation. However, even advisory missions are investments in the outcome of a foreign conflict. This makes them vulnerable to an escalation dynamic: because advisory deployments publicly invest the US in a successful conflict outcome while often falling short of the force threshold needed to actually influence it, they create the potential for a frustratingly unsuccessful mission that encourages US leaders to ‘raise the stakes’ of their investment. This is exactly the dynamic that encouraged the gradual escalation of US combat commitment in Vietnam — few in the Kennedy and later Johnson administrations intended the US to fight a full scale ground war in southeast Asia. But advisory, and later limited combat, missions in South Vietnam invested US credibility in the outcome of the conflict, a credibility problem that effectively committed the US to future escalation in the absence of immediate success. Restricting the publicity of limited deployments can reduce this future commitment problem; it appears that this is what the Obama administration is attempting to do with its limited and gradual deployment of troops to central Africa. But administration and military officials should be aware of this commitment dynamic, and be prepared to disengage and accept the reputation costs of public failure if the mission appears unable to achieve success.


For those who are counting, the US has been involved in combat operations in 10 countries in the past three months: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and now Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the DRC.

Update: Of course, Rush Limbaugh is not happy about the Obama Administration’s decision. Via Kevin Drum:

“Is that right? The Lord’s Resistance Army is being accused of really bad stuff? Child kidnapping, torture, murder, that kind of stuff? Well, we just found out about this today. We’re gonna do, of course, our due diligence research on it. But nevertheless we got a hundred troops being sent over there to fight these guys — and they claim to be Christians.”

This argument is disgusting. There are many reasons to oppose deploying combat troops to aid central African governments’ efforts to decapitate the LRA. The fact the the LRA claims to be Christian is not one of them. Of course, the majority of US wars have been fought against Christians, but that isn’t important. Limbaugh and other American conservatives are invested in a narrative of Obama as an outside “other”. An integral part of that narrative is Obama’s status as a foreigner, a status that requires him to fall outside of what many conservatives see as America’s explicitly Christian normal. For this narrative to be persuasive it must be be universal — in the religious clash of civilizations, Obama’s with them, not us.

Justice vs. Peace

By Taylor Marvin

ICC Logo.

ICC Logo.

An ICC prosecutor has requested an arrest warrant for Qadaffi. This is unlikely to have any tangible change on the conflict in Libya — the ICC has a poor track record of actually apprehending wanted national leaders, and it is unlikely the ICC warrant will encourage any Libyans still loyal to Qadaffi to abandon him. However, the ICC’s decision could perversly prolong the Libyan civil war by discouraging the defection of senior Libyan government officials. Being a leader in the midst of a civil war is a miserable experience — it’s hugely stressful and personally uncomfortable, and Qadaffi’s lost family members and presumably lives in constant fear of a NATO airstrike finally finding him. In many dictatorships government officials hold their positions more for personal gain rather than ideological devotion and if their comfortable lifestyles seem threatened there’s a huge incentive to flee the country and go into exile, as many former dictators have done. However, now that the ICC has committed to prosecuting Qadaffi’s the option to defect is closed — many senior civil Libyan officials are unlikely to survive surrender to the rebels, and there’s a strong possibility of facing ICC prosecution if they flee abroad. At this point, the Qadaffi government’s only option is to fight until the end, and he has every incentive to try and outlast the patience of NATO-member states’ domestic constituencies.

ICC prosecution of national leaders, even war criminals, sets a bad precedent because it discourages threatened dictators from fleeing uprisings and likely prolongs civil wars. Ironically, it would likely be better from the standpoint of encouraging democratic uprisings to offer immunity to dictators and even guaranteeing them an income once they’re deposed. Given that the international community doesn’t have many other options to influence the actions of dictators like Qadaffi or Bashar al-Assad, recognizing that even ideologically motivated dictators place some value on their personal comfort is a valuable tool in encouraging compliance.

Do Successful Wars Create Moral Hazard?

By Taylor Marvin

Glenn Greenwald has a typically unpopular position on the death of Bin Laden:

“Whenever America uses violence in a way that makes its citizens cheer, beam with nationalistic pride, and rally around their leader, more violence is typically guaranteed. Futile decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may temporarily dampen the nationalistic enthusiasm for war, but two shots to the head of Osama bin Laden — and the We are Great and Good proclamations it engenders — can easily rejuvenate that war love. One can already detect the stench of that in how Pakistan is being talked about: did they harbor bin Laden as it seems and, if so, what price should they pay? We’re feeling good and strong about ourselves again — and righteous — and that’s often the fertile ground for more, not less, aggression.”

There is a valid point here. Citizens must consent to war in democracies, and they are much likely to condone strictly unnecessary military actions if they have reason to believe that conflicts will be cheap and easy. This dynamic is visible in Clinton’s 1993 intervention in Somalia. The internal power struggle in Somalia had no immediate effect on the security of the United States, yet the decision to dispatch troops to Somalia was largely uncontroversial. While most US voters likely held unrealistic expectations about the probable costs of this mission, it’s more likely that the victory in the Gulf War had unrealistically convinced Americans that all future interventions would be as quick and victory so total. This view is dangerous because the Gulf War and the killing of Bin Laden are so far from the actual reality of most of the foreign conflicts the US has chosen to involve itself in. Elements of the US military- notably JSOC- are extremely good at the very practical task of finding and killing individuals. However, this capability has little relevance to what’s required to actually succeed in low intensity conflicts like Somalia, Afghanistan or Libya. That’s something American’s should remember when forming their expectations of success in future wars.

This logic extends to other aspect of warmaking as well. While the costs of actually fighting wars have risen constantly in the last thousand years, the US government has spent the last four decades inventing ways to lower the costs of war the average voter is asked to pay. During Vietnam, the draft was a huge forced mobilization of American society that strained it to the breaking point, and ruined the political careers of the politicians who orchestrated it. A war that requires such huge public sacrifices, even a justified one like Afghanistan, isn’t possible in contemporary America. The US military is increasingly drawn from a shrinking portion of the population, and the debt financing of war means that voters aren’t asked to pay for the wars fought in their name and ostensibly for their benefit. The risk of this trend is that it makes strictly unnecessary wars, like Libya, more likely by lowering their domestic costs. Wars are fought if their expected benefits exceed their expected costs. Lowering the costs of war mean that rich technological countries with volunteer armies and powerful militaries are more likely to choose to fight even in pursuit of shrinking benefits. David Rothkopf recently phrased this idea well when discussing the emergence of armed aerial drone warfare:

“The first hazard is that if war can be waged without apparent human cost to the attacker, it is clearly more likely to be undertaken. That such a strategy is really one that is primarily available to rich nations attacking poor ones only compounds the problem. But another moral hazard is that such attacks could easily become the first option of indecisive leaders, exactly as cruise missiles have also been in the recent past.  It allows such leaders to appear strong, to flex their muscles but to have very limited downside. That such approaches are really only good for limited purposes — assassinations, destroying specific targets, adding a pyrotechnic flourish to a rhetorical argument — is likely to be ignored or downplayed, as is already the case in Libya. The risk is that unlike nuclear weapons which actually are less likely to be used because the costs of unleashing them are so high, unmanned, over-the-horizon weapons are far more likely to be used because the costs are so low — even when they are not likely to be terribly effective.”

Even if the US and NATO are completely successful in Libya the actual benefits to the victors will be small, even if the benefits to oppressed Libyans and humanity overall are much greater. However, even if these prospective benefits are insignificant the immediate costs of the war are smaller still, giving policymakers and incentive to fight. I, like the vast majority of Americans and Europeans, don’t know anyone actually asked to fight over Libya. If the costs are so small, then why not fight for ill-defined humanitarian goals? As Somalia and Iraq showed, this is a dangerous line of thinking, though a very attractive one.

However, even if inexpensive successful military actions create the potential for subsequent public moral hazard this really doesn’t change anything. Even if the death of Bin Laden is insignificant compared to the Arab revolts, it is a cathartic and just achievement, and makes Americans safer. It sends a clear and valuable message: if you order an attack on the United States, you will die. It’s not wrong to celebrate this success. The death of Bin Laden is a type of closure, even if an incomplete one, and is as close to VE Day as my generation is going to get. The competence and lethality of US special forces are something to be proud of.

So say it with me: Osama’s fate was SEALed.

European NATO Defense Spending- Worst of Both Worlds?

By Taylor Marvin

French Dassault Rafale aircraft on the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. Photo by Pascal Subtil.

French Dassault Rafale aircraft on the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. Photo by Pascal Subtil.

European NATO members in combat over Libya are rapidly depleting  their armament stocks and are tactically hampered by their small number of available strike aircraft. From The Washington Post:

“Less than a month into the Libyan conflict, NATO is running short of precision bombs, highlighting the limitations of Britain, France and other European countries in sustaining even a relatively small military action over an extended period of time, according to senior NATO and U.S. officials.”

This is really just another reminder that European NATO member defense budgets are essentially optimized for nothing. If NATO is a pure defense pact tasked with defending the European continent then the UK, France, Germany and other member states all overspend on their defense budgets and could better use the money somewhere else. But if NATO is a global peacekeeping force that intervenes in foreign humanitarian crises with no direct impact on European security member states’ military spending is insufficient, because their defense budgets don’t support the requirements of fighting expeditionary wars or projecting power internationally. In many ways, major European NATO members’ preference for high but not expeditionary levels of military spending minimizes the practical returns on their defense budgets.

Update: I amended the title of this piece soon after it was posted.

Knife to a Gunfight

By Taylor Marvin

Libyan rebels. Source: Voice of America.

Libyan rebels. Source: Voice of America.

From the New York Times:

“With only weeks of fighting experience, they lack an understanding of the fundamentals of offensive and defensive combat, or how to organize fire support. They fire recklessly and sometimes accidentally. Most of them have yet to learn how to hold seized ground, or to protect themselves from their battlefield’s persistent rocket and mortar fire, which might be done by simply digging in.

Prone to panic, they often answer to little more than their mood, which changes in a flash. When their morale spikes upward, their attacks tend to be painfully and bloodily frontal — little more than racing columns down the highway, through a gantlet of the Qaddafi forces’ rocket and mortar fire, face forward into the loyalists’ machine guns

And their numbers are small. Officials in the rebels’ transitional government have provided many different figures, sometimes saying 10,000 or men are under arms in their ranks.

But a small fraction actually appear at the front each day — often only a few hundred. And some of the men appear without guns, or with aged guns that have no magazines or ammunition.”

Any NATO strategy that relies on the rebels to militarily break the stalemate isn’t going to succeed. Qaddafi’s forces are proving themselves to be much better organized and more ingenuitive than the rebels, and are apparently adopting unconventional tactics in a successful attempt to avoid NATO close air support assets. Despite their enormous personal bravery, the rebels’ lack of a command structure seems to have prevented them from adopting even rudimentary military tactics and adapting to their tactical situation, despite having been in combat for over a month. If NATO sticks to its commitment to avoid boots on the ground, the rebels are likely not going to be able to take advantage of coalition air support and win decisive victories to force an end the civil war. This is troubling. It’s an open question how long domestic politics are going to allow France, the UK, and US air power to remain committed in Libya, and any war of attrition longer than a few months will favor Qaddafi’s forces, who are more disciplined, better equipped, and more numerous. Given the rebels’ lack of formal command and volatile moral, it’s not impossible that if the war lasts much longer individual fighters will begin to reconsider their chances of victory and go home, potentially fatally weakening rebel defensive capabilities. Until NATO is willing to be realistic about the capability discrepancy in Libya it doesn’t have an exit strategy.

Being President

By Taylor Marvin

“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

Barack Obama, 2007

Let’s keep one thing clear. Whether military action to stop a impending massacre in Libya was justified or not, the fate of Libyan civilians is clearly not an imminent threat to the United States. It’s true that the NATO decision to intervene had to be made on short notice if it was to happen at all, because by the time Congress had debated the issue the rebels would have been militarily defeated. But that doesn’t change the core question here. Either the President is constitutionally permitted to unilaterally lead the country into foreign wars or not — there’s no allowance for the urgency of the situation. If candidate Obama had claimed a president shouldn’t unilaterally authorize military actions not in response to an imminent threat to the US, naivety could reconcile this claim with President Obama’s later actions. But the belief that US presidents are not constitutionally permitted to unilaterally authorize wars doesn’t enjoy the same flexibility. The real lesson here is that the world looks very different to a Senator and to the President of the United States. It’s not as if President Obama suddenly forgot or maliciously abandoned his earlier views; I’m sure he’s painfully aware of them. But it’s much easier to reduce difficult, endlessly complex decisions to absolutes when your inaction doesn’t condemn thousands of people to violent deaths. But this doesn’t change the issue — if President Obama truly believed that he was legally bound to stand by and accept tragedy in Libya, then inaction was his only acceptable choice. Of course, this knowledge would have done little for his consequence, but regret is the nature of the presidency.

How to Remember

By Taylor Marvin

Yesterday I attended a press conference by President Clinton. Interesting: Clinton referred to the 1993 US intervention in Somalia as “Black Hawk Down.” We live in a culture where presidents refer to military operations they ordered by the title of the movie made about it.


By Taylor Marvin

On second thought, I’m warming up to the administration’s awkward euphemisms. I’m going to try to use the same kind of creative phrasing in my life: “Baby, we weren’t in a relationship, it was just a time-limited scope-limited kinetic interpersonal action.”