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Posts from the ‘Africa’ Category

“Kinetic Military Action” and Hypocrisy

By Taylor Marvin

The USS Stout launches a Tomahawk missile against a Libyan target.

The USS Stout launches a Tomahawk missile against a Libyan target.

Mark LeVine and Reza Aslan get the motives behind the intervention in Libya spectacularly wrong:

“Yet it is impossible not to recognize the rank hypocrisy in supporting the rights of anti-government protesters in Libya, while turning a blind eye to the same in Bahrain, where government troops have massacred dozens of unarmed civilians; in Yemen, where the regime of president Ali Abdullah Saleh has been firing live ammunition into peaceful crowds; in Saudi Arabia, whose military has been sent into neighboring countries to brutally suppress people’s demand for the most basic rights and freedoms; in the Palestinian territories, where non-violent demonstrations for an end to Israeli settlements have been completely ignored by an American administration who, until recently, vowed that a settlement freeze would form the basis of its Middle East policy.”

This isn’t hypocrisy; this is the US intervening when it’s in its interests and abilities to do so. Despite credible humanitarian justifications for US actions in Bahrain and Yemen, hypothetical interventions in these countries fail any reasonable benefit-cost analysis. Bahrain is the home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and Yemen is an increasingly ungovernable state with deep ethnic divisions and a strong al Qaeda presence. Wars, or in the administration’s terms a “time-limited, scope-limited kinetic military action,” aren’t required to be morally consistent- just because one humanitarian crisis meets the administration’s benefit-cost threshold for military action doesn’t make it hypocrisy if others do not. This criticism also ignores that fact that the humanitarian situation in Libya is much worse than in Yemen or Bahrain — while these governments have killed hundreds of their own citizens, Qaddafi credibly threatened the death tens of thousands. The US didn’t intervene in Libya just because of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe, it did because, in addition to moral concerns, the continued existence of the Qaddafi regime was undesirable to the US. The stability of Yemen and Bahrain, on the other hand, is highly valuable to US interests. This may be immoral, but that doesn’t make it false. Believing the US acts, or should act, for any other motivation is hopelessly naive.

Of course, LeVine and Aslan refrain from advocating US military actions against the governing despots in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. But how much diplomatic influence does the US actually have over these rulers? While the US is a large source of funding for the Yemen’s government, it’s not clear if the US could diplomatically deter crackdowns against protesters. Attempting to would incur diplomatic costs for the US, for uncertain gains. Criticizing the administration for “inconsistency” in its response to crackdowns against protesters across the Arab world isn’t just unrealistic, but spectacularly bad policy. Military interventions aren’t an all or nothing choice — the US intervenes when its cost-effective, in its interests, and has a reasonable chance of a desirable outcome. Demanding that the US ignore the vastly different political and military environments in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain in pursuit of a different moral position is a recipe for unintended adverse involvement in very dangerous situations, and is much more reminiscent of the type of magical thinking that led to the Iraq war than LeVine and Aslan are prepared to admit. There are very good reasons to criticize President Obama’s decision making on Libya — it’s an open ended conflict that’s most likely end-state is a costly stalemate, the intervention seems to fail any reasonable cost-benefit test for the US, and the administration’s decision makers seems to have grossly overestimated the military capabilities of the rebels and strategic effectiveness of aerial strikes. But criticizing Obama for hypocrisy ignores the reality of international politics and limited US influence in the region, and is a poor argument.

A No-Fly Zone Over Libya?

By Taylor Marvin

Art by Mohammed Shamma.

Art by Mohammed Shamma.

An amphibious assault ship with a 400 strong Marine contingent is steaming towards Libya. Does this mean that the US is preparing to intervene in the increasingly bloody conflict between Qaddafi and his own people? Probably not- the carrier USS Enterprise, currently stationed in the Red Sea, isn’t going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean that the US doesn’t have the capabilities to quickly demolish Libya’s air force and extensive air defense network. US Navy aviation assets outclass any potential Libyan resistance, and Air Force F-22s already stationed in North Africa would likely be completely undetectable by Libya’s network of ancient anti-air radar stations. So why isn’t the US intervening?

A growing chorus of voices in the West are calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, in an attempt to quickly stop atrocities by pro-government forces and weaken Qaddafi’s rule. Secretary Clinton says the option is “under active consideration.” Marc Lynch sums up the argument:

“By acting, I mean a response sufficiently forceful and direct to deter or prevent the Libyan regime from using its military resources to butcher its opponents. I have already seen reports that NATO has sternly warned Libya against further violence against its people. Making that credible could mean the declaration and enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, presumably by NATO, to prevent the use of military aircraft against the protestors”

To advocates of a no-fly zone, Qaddafi’s ongoing atrocities create a moral imperative for the US to stop. Daniel Larison doesn’t agree:

“It is a standard interventionist tactic to try to rush a policy decision so that intervention seems to be the only appropriate choice. ‘There is no time to think through what we’re doing! We have to start doing it immediately!’ This is all the more strange when it seems as if Gaddafi’s hold on the country seems to be getting weaker every day.”

Andrew Exum echos this caution:

“I have been working under the suspicion that most of the good-natured people clamoring for a no-fly zone in Libya have not thought very hard about what, exactly, that might entail. Most of the people insisting the United States DO SOMETHING are either ignorant about the risks and complexities of contemporary military operations or gloss over those risks and complexities.”

He’s right- establishing a no-fly zone is a complicated, expensive military operation, and one that has the potential to easily slide into an open-ended commitment of significant military resources. Consider the example of the US/European effort to enforce a no-fly zone over Northern and Southern Iraq from the Gulf War to the Invasion of Iraq in 2003. Operation Provide Comfort and its successors Operations Northern and Southern Watch involved thousands of US and European airmen and soldiers, and dozens of aircraft. American aircraft were regularly fired upon by the Iraqis, and a friendly fire incident between US fighter jets and US Army transport helicopters killed 26 allied soldiers. There’s no reason to think a no-fly zone over Libya would be any less costly. Initially, any sustained US or NATO air presence over Libya would require the destruction of Libya’s air defense network, the second most extensive in Africa. While this is easily within the capabilities of the US military, it would probably be the largest US Air Force operation since the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, with a real possibility of lost US planes. Given the relatively large numerical size of the Libyan air force, it’s also likely that enforcing a no-fly zone would tie up a significant portion of US military resources, potentially for a long time. If the developing civil war in Libya evolves into a stalemate between the opposition-held east of the country and government-controlled Tripoli the US commitment to protect the opposition government could stretch for years, much like the decade long no-fly zone over Iraq. This doesn’t mean a no-fly zone isn’t justified, but it isn’t a decision that should be advocated lightly.

Nearly all of America’s wars of the past half century have been accidental. In Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq tragedies appealed to our most noble sentiments- America, with its unparalleled military power and public morality, could stop horrible conflicts. It’s hard to ignore this urge, especially under the constant assurances of pundits and analysts claiming how simple a humanitarian operation will be, and how it can’t be compared to the last quagmire America stumbled into. Maybe they’re right, and Libya is different- maybe the US can stop a madman from burning his own country quickly and easily. But history suggests that simple operations quickly become less simple once they’re actually begun. Anyone who can’t appreciate this is living in a fantasy world. That’s why the seductive reasoning of idealists like Christopher Hitchens can be so dangerous:

“Unless the administration seriously envisages a future that includes the continued private ownership of Libya and its people by Qaddafi and his terrible offspring, it’s a sheer matter of prudence and realpolitik, to say nothing of principle, to adopt a policy that makes the opposite assumption. Libya is—in point of population and geography—mainly a coastline. The United States, with or without allies, has unchallengeable power in the air and on the adjacent waters. It can produce great air lifts and sea lifts of humanitarian and medical aid, which will soon be needed anyway along the Egyptian and Tunisian borders, and which would purchase undreamed-of goodwill. It has the chance to make up for its pointless, discredited tardiness with respect to events in Cairo and Tunis. It also has a president who has shown at least the capacity to deliver great speeches on grand themes. Instead, and in the crucial and formative days in which revolutions are decided, we have had to endure the futile squawkings of a cuckoo clock.”

This optimism is a dream. That doesn’t make it false, but Hitchens’ assurances that a unilateral US intervention in Libya (and unilateral is what it would be) would “purchase undreamed-of goodwill” is based on the West’s own desires, not a clear-headed assessment of history and the tangled politics of warfare. No ones suggesting a ground invasion of Libya. But the last time I heard such a bipartisan call for war- and that’s the only term for military operations that kill people- and assurances of grateful thanks from the oppressed was 2003. The overarching lesson of the last half century of American foreign policy is that conflicts, especially civil wars, are easy to enter but hard to leave. Maybe Libya is different, but caution is rarely overrated.

The Wisdom of Potential Presidential Nominees, Cont.

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by David Ball.

Photo by David Ball.

Former governor Mike Huckabee, who is almost certainly planning on running for president, thinks President Obama grew up in Kenya:

“What I know is troubling enough. And one thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, very different than the average American… But then if you think about it, his perspective as growing up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather, their view of the Mau Mau Revolution in Kenya is very different than ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.”

This isn’t true, and Huckabee should be ashamed of peddling false information. But let’s pretend that Obama did grow up in Kenya. Wouldn’t his supposed anti-British attitude be justified?  If Obama had lived in Kenya in the late 1960s he would have experienced life in an impoverished country that had just endured a brutal war of liberation from nearly 80 years of European colonial rule. After all, wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s notorious anti-British attitude justified? Or were his views of anti-colonial revolution just “very different than the average American?”

“Made in USA”

 Source: The Atlantic/tumbler

Source: The Atlantic/ Tumbler

By Taylor Marvin

As a reminder, Egypt receives nearly $2 billion in US aid a year, making it one of the highest recipients of American funds in the world. It’s also worth remembering that the United States has preferred that Middle Eastern countries remain under the administration of dictators rather than risk democratic revolutions that could end in Islamist governments for decades. While the Obama administration has good reason to stay out of Egypt’s internal political discourse, the day may be coming when the President can’t refuse to pick sides.

Should the US intervene in Congo?

By Taylor Marvin

Wired’s David Axe proposes that the long-running conflict in the north of the Congo calls for a US intervention, one that could be done quickly, successfully, and cheaply:

So why not get involved where it can really help? That’s what advocates of U.S. action in Congo are asking. After all, this is a mineral-rich country that takes millions and millions in foreign donations, mostly from America. So find the LRA, and kill or capture the chiefs before they make an already desperate country even worse.

But do it the Africom way. No massive troop deployment. No occupation. No drawn-out conflict. No headline news in the U.S. Just a few spooks, a few commandos, some airplanes and choppers and the permission of Congolese president Joseph Kabila. By American military standards, it wouldn’t take much. But it would make life a lot safer for millions of people in Central Africa — and might help reduce the cost to the world of keeping Congo on life support. Plus, it could show the way forward for a smarter, less expensive American way of war.”

Axe does have a point: if there’s one unresolved conflict on Earth where an American military intervention could do good, it’s in Central Africa. There soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have spent the last two decades terrorizing civilian populations and combating already unstable governments. Also, on the surface this kind of intervention does seem fairly simple. The LRA isn’t motivated by ideological beliefs; because it’s basically a criminal gang who operates to increase its own power without credibly represent anyone it doesn’t enjoy any meaningful support among the local population. Axe claims that an American led intervention against the LRA could be fought with a small commitment of Special Forces soldiers over a short timeframe. The problem with these arguments is that we’ve heard them before — they’re 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 Axe seems 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 Axe’s best-case-scenario proposal.

This case points to one of the deepest questions facing American foreign policy — when is the US morally obligated to intervene in foreign conflicts? It’s true that with enough time and effort the United States could probably destroy the LRA in Central Africa, just as the US has the capability to force an end to most conflicts around the world. What the United States does not have is any real ability to end the underlying causes of these civil wars and episodes of ethnic violence, a failing that casts deep doubts on our ability to really resolve any of the world’s violent confrontations. However, this doesn’t change one of the core facts of American strength — if the US wants to end a genocide or destroy a sadistic rebel group like the LRA we probably can, though at great cost to ourselves. Deciding whether these costs are worth the gains of military humanitarian interventions is our great dilemma. This calculus varies from conflict to conflict, but the apparent low cost of an intervention in the Congo is what makes it an interesting test case: if a humanitarian mission to destroy the LRA isn’t worth its cost in Central Africa any other foreign intervention probably isn’t either.

This gets to the fundamental contradiction in the message of Americans who call for America to prevent murder and atrocities around the world. Most American advocates of US peacekeeping efforts don’t hesitate to call for American efforts to solve some of the world’s most intractable conflicts yet angrily denounce our occupation of Afghanistan. This doesn’t make sense — they’re one and the same.

What many American liberal activists fail to understand is just what calling for America to “do something” about bloody and complex conflicts in foreign countries actually entails. Calling for an American intervention to end genocide in Darfur is popular, but few activists have the courage to say what they are actually advocating: an American military action to kill or capture the President of Sudan, and a long peacekeeping occupation of a rugged and violent area the size of France that would require thousands of US troops and would guarantee American deaths. When Invisible Children calls for a effort to “remove (LRA leader) Joseph Kony from the battlefield” they either don’t chose to say or realize what they actually mean. Removing the leader of a vicious rebel army boils down to one thing — sending American Special Operations Forces soldiers to hunt him down and kill him, and lots of regular Army troops to pacify the rest of his forces. Activists don’t like to say this truth out loud for good reason. Americans like to believe that the US can pursue humanitarian missions to end conflict while avoiding foreign wars and counterinsurgency stalemates. This is a dream — all too often the two are one and the same, and a decade of war in Afghanistan should have taught us otherwise. In a perfect world the US would be able to cleanly and cheaply remove the leaders of the LRA, rehabilitate their abused and damaged child soldiers and usher in a new era of stability in Central Africa. This is the fantasy world that President Bush and his advisors chose to inhabit when planning the invasion of Iraq, and the same where President Clinton dreamed of intervention in Somalia’s civil war. As much as Americans would like to save the suffering peoples of the world and punish their oppressors these types of interventions have real costs, ones that are almost always much, much greater than planned. Like everything else, here there are no easy answers.

Note: Axe’s blog, Danger Room, is excellent. If you’re interested in the American military or foreign policy check it out.