Somalia and “Post-COIN”

Looking at strategic analogies and Somalia at RTJ.


Israel and Persistent Conflict

One of the phrases that you hear often in DoD doctrinal publications is that the current (and coming) era is one of “persistent conflict” or, in its more family-friendly iteration, “persistent engagement.” What does “persistent conflict,” however, look like? Ariel Siegelman argues in an article for the US Army Combined Arms Center’s COIN Colloquium that Israel’s experience in Gaza provides a view of the future. It is a thoroughly interesting read, mostly because it upends what we would traditionally understand as “victory” and “defeat;”

“There is no such thing as winning in this new kind of war. The war is ongoing, with periods of more violence and periods of less violence, during which the enemy regroups and plans his next attack. When we feel that the enemy is getting strong, we must be prepared to make pre-emptive strikes, hard and fast at key targets, with viciousness, as the enemy would do to us. Only then can we acquire, not peace, but sustained periods of calm.”

There are, however, multiple problems with this view. The first is theoretical—it takes Israel’s strategic situation and extrapolates it to a supposedly new kind of war. The larger question that Siegelman raises is this: are we doomed to an era of persistent conflict, attacked at every turn by irregular forces whom we can only hope to ward off, or is something resembling “victory” possible? If so, is John Nagl’s idea of a global counterinsurgency viable? Or, to take the argument of Andrew Bacevich, is such a situation of “persistent conflict” a consequence of inept interventionist grand strategy?

These questions are at the heart of today’s grand strategic debate–and the divide is much more complex than the simplistic duality of “crusaders vs. conservatives.”


Interesting NYT article on withdrawal process:

“No doubt, many Iraqi military and police units are competent enough to operate on their own, but most military analysts who have studied the matter will concede that many if not most still are not. ‘We need to extend the SOFA’ — the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and America — ‘to 2020, 2025,’ said Qassim Daoud, an independent Shiite legislator and former national security adviser.

He said he believed that the current deadline for total withdrawal, the end of 2011, is unattainable, even though Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki insisted on it when the agreement was negotiated with President George W. Bush last year. ‘I just hope the prime minister realizes we don’t have competent security forces yet.'”

As a famous American once said, you make do with what you have. As usual, there is the dodgy historical analogy (Vietnamization) inserted in. It would seem based on past precedent that the risk is not so much a Vietcong-style takeover (no one is able to play the role of North Vietnam, something that those making the analogy to seem to forget) but a protracted low-grade sectarian and factional struggle among competing power centers. In such contests influence over security forces is an important objective, perhaps equal to more so than control over oil revenues.
Among the security forces, the Iraqi government does have an important ace in the hole: specialized units absolutely loyal to the executive branch that could be quickly operationalized for dirty war.

Media Spectacles, Michael Jackson, and Iran

There is a lot of talk about how Michael Jackson’s death has apparently doomed the Iranian dissent. This kind of commentary is pretty shallow for a couple of reasons.

  • While global media attention certainly played a role in driving the crisis and motivating the demonstrators, dissident mobilization does not depend on whether or not Americans (and I have seen little evidence to suggest that the media glut about Jackson was going on anywhere except the US) are paying attention. This is an Iranian struggle that is going to be determined largely by Iranian and regional dynamics. The notion that the Iranians are doomed because Americans apparently don’t care about them anymore reminds me of this classic post by Julian Sanchez on the “Care Bear theory of foreign policy.”
  • Twitter is not central to the movement as a mobilization tool. Word of mouth and classic street organizing techniques as described here by Al Giordano play a more important role. So the service shutting down under the weight of Jacko-related tweets is not exactly the body blow to the Iranian protestors that is commonly portrayed.

I can certainly sympathize with people who feel angry about the shallowness of celebrity-focused news. I loathe it too. But is it very realistic to expect that we’re all going to put down our People magazine and close the screen and limit our news consumption to the BBC and CNN? That’s simply not how it works, especially when it comes to events happening in far-away lands that most domestic news consumers will never have the opportunity to visit or substantially influence.

We also have to face up to the fact the media spectacle has become dominant. UCLA Professor Douglas Kellner defines media spectacles massive dramas that puts societal values, fantasies, and fears on public display. Jackson’s death is a textbook example of this, as his life and death is a compelling narrative that lays bare social pieties and anxieties about the role of the entertainer, race, sexuality, and the modern media. While the financial interest of media organizations in satisfying the lowest common denominator and the increasingly infantile mentality of many “infotainment” journalists is also at fault, the public is attracted to media spectacles precisely because they are larger-than-life stories with the narrative sweep of cinema.

If people are planning information campaigns in the future (and the Iranian uprising has no dedicated media planners, only a mass of media producers), they are simply going to have to take into account the risk of media spectacles (which occur in a manner very similar to that of Black Swans) in their campaign planning.

Do You Know Your Enemy?

Last month Tim Hsia argued that the common perception that “North Korea is destitute and frightened of us and that Kim Jong-il blusters when he wants money or concessions” could very well be a case of mirror-imaging. Now, DefenseTech continues with an alternative analysis of North Korean motivations. One hypothetical:

“It’s possible, at least as a hypothetical case study worth a little thinking about, that Kim II would be perfectly happy for his North Korea to continue on forever as some sort of Magical Kingdom, lost in a hidden valley of his own creation like a latter-day Red Shangri La. If so, then the multinational carrot-and-stick strategy combining diplomacy with sanctions needs enough flexibility to give Dear Leader and Brilliant Comrade what they desire. If the U.S. wants to continue a leadership role in applying ‘talk therapy’ to solve the problem of the Kims, then the Obama Administration might do well to view North Korea as some sort of evil but negotiable Camelot.”

Of course, with a few edits to this paragraph you could easily be talking about Neverland Ranch.

Anti-Explanations and Symbolism

I have a short hit at RTJ on Charles Kurzman's research and the current Iranian political crisis. Kurzman wrote by far the most interesting book on the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and his insights about the nature of revolutionary change deserve wide dissemination.

On the subject of Iran, I really recommend HG's post on Neda Agha-Soltan's death. I'd also add that Neda's tragedy–and the uprising as a whole–may play an important role in the diplomatic exchange to come with Iran. Afgha-Soltan is very different from the scowling, fanatical Iran that Americans are used to seeing on TV–and has humanized the Iranian people in the eyes of even the most parochial among us. If Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett are right (a very big IF) about the potential for a "Nixon goes to China" movement in Tehran, then the humanization of the adversary in the eyes of the domestic public opens up more leeway for the policymaker that must make the difficult decision to engage.

However, analogies are often misleading. There are equally compelling reasons why whatever leadership that emerges from the power struggle may refuse such an entreaty. Many Iran experts also see the continuation of Iran's nuclear problem and proxy wars as a given even with a reformist leader. Additionally, Neda could just as easily will become a symbol of the regime's ruthlessness and inhumanity, a face that urges us to embrace further confrontation.