A Gaddafi Theory of International Relations

I laugh at Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi quite frequently. It’s easy to see why the mercurial tyrant is an object of humor, with his troop of female bodyguards, his (now apparently cancelled) call for jihad against Switzerland, his hilariously over-inflated self-cultivated cult of personality, and the fact that his outfits make him look like a sad parody of Purple Rain-era Prince. I suppose this is a good time to link to the classic Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories episode that is perpetually at the back of my mind when I see a news story about Gadaffi (“Charlie Murphy! Assemble your crew!”)

There are many other world leaders who are difficult to take seriously, many of which are now painfully familiar to my friends and blogging colleagues–I am a compulsive link emailer.

But to some degree the buffoonish appearance and actions of individuals like Gaddafi can be a distraction. Idi Amin, as The Last King of Scotland as well as Barbet Schroeder’s proto-reality TV style documentary Idi Amin Dada (which features a harmonica score contributed by the dictator himself) observed, was a clown of the first order. There’s a guffaw-inducing scene in the documentary where Amin, striding around with a rather puny little force in the middle of nowhere, proclaims he is carrying out large-unit exercises for the retaking of the Golan Heights. Other scenes, such as the numerous Amin-organized parties and his own nonsensical ramblings, are brilliantly absurd.

But Amin was still a horrifying tyrant and mass murderer who inflicted great suffering on the nation of Uganda. There was a time as well when Adolf Hitler was regarded in America as a kind of comic opera buffoon, best encapsulated in the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator. Sometimes the comic and erratic sides of dictators can lead us to overlook the very real darkness beneath the clowning. At times, dictators can purposefully put out a comic image for outsiders as a kind of deception measure.

We can still laugh at the absurdity of a self-aggrandizing tyrant. But like the most recent Joker (as well as the older one) demonstrated we have to keep in mind that there is a darker and more disturbing side to even the most cartoonish dictator.


COIN: The Book

Like Zenpundit, I was sent a copy of Luke S. Larson‘s novel Senator’s Son , a new novel taking place in the Iraq War. Zenpundit’s review has some of the basic background behind the writing of the book and Larson’s page has plenty of info on his own interesting story, neither of which I’ll rehash here. My review will focus on the strategic themes of the novel–which are stated with an explicitness that is rare for most stories of the type.

Senator’s Son is not likely to be found on a COINtra’s bookshelf– it is suffused with the spirit of the counterinsurgency wave of the last ten years. The characters are seen discussing the works of Kilcullen and Galula, and thumb through the now-famous FM 3-24. The characters gain the upper hand because of a shift in strategy to engage the population. Yet the novel does not portray this process as simple nor touchy-feely. There is violence, and lots of it. Resources are always lacking. The trust, cooperation, and reliability of the Iraqis is always contingent. In short, the characters are not living out a Lawrence of Arabia fantasy (or, in the modern day context, Avatar).

While Clausewitz is never referenced, the characters are explicitly aware that they are carrying out “politics by other means.” As the great Prussian noted, politics is hardly ever “rational” in the stereotypical understanding nor are its irrationalities always tamed by rational policy, and the characters understand this well. They do not achieve perfect understanding of the situation through ethnographic intelligence , although the understanding they develop is sufficient for their purposes. On a similar note, their friendships with Iraqis, while genuine, are part of an overall alliance of convenience.

If Senator’s Son is an argument, its strongest point is that the characters’ experiences are part of the larger sweep of history. The soldiers read Victor Krulak’s history of the Marine Corps and learn to contextualize their struggle as a chapter in the United States’ long-running experience with unconventional warfare. The continuity of this centuries-old history to the present day, although unpleasant, cannot be wished away.

The novel is, like many of the nonfiction books published so far, is a “first draft” of history. In time, other understandings are likely to emerge as the multiplicity of experiences from the conflict (Iraqi and Coalition as well) become part of the public record or become, like Larson’s book, part of fiction. But it is a rare and powerful “first draft” because it reminds us that the abstract (and sometimes rather circular) discussions of strategy and policy that tend to dominate the blogosphere are not over some child’s game of Risk writ large.

There are real (and devastating) consequences to strategic failure. As much as we can talk about structural factors and incentives and deride a “Great Man” version of history, we cannot deny that war and peace often comes down to decisions made by imperfect men and women in government buildings with far-reaching consequences. Hence the importance of making sure, as does the aged Senator-protagonist throughout the book’s many flash forwards–that the right decision is made.


Patrick Porter’s Offshore Balancer blog is one of my favorite reads, and I’ve never missed an update since he branched off from Kings of War. His recent comment on credibility is important. While credibility can be important in deterrence of states and even some non-state groups it’s wider application to a global insurgency or distributed terrorist group full of “accidental guerrillas” is dodgy. These individuals are unlikely to be deterred by anything except purely functional costs of carrying out an attack in a certain geographic environment. And that is not necessarily deterrence in the classic sense but the mundane hardening of security and homeland security systems.

The application of the classic “Munich” model of credibility to terrorism is something more seen in domestic political debates than in either theory or practice. But it’s unlikely to die because it is familiar (the state-centric context) and it also transposes individual issues of reputation to the world stage. If a school bully beats you up because you seem weak, an argument about credibility abroad may resonate you because it seems consistent with your experience.

Bottom line: view claims about strategic credibility with a grain of salt, but do not abandon them altogether.

Strategic Culture: Do’s and Don’ts

Commentary on Pakistani Major (and Army Command and General Staff College student) Mehar Omar Khan’s excellent SWJ article attacking the fallacious concept of an “Islamic Way of War” has got me thinking about the use and limitations of the concept of Strategic Culture.

As Patrick Porter noted in his book, the idea of culture-based analysis of supposed “Eastern” martial traditions is a very old conceit. It’s explanatory value, however, is quite limited. The military culture of the Imperial Japanese Army from the late 19th century to 1945 has little in common with Pakistani guerrillas today. Moreover, many aspects of “Eastern” warfare are not so unique. Infiltration tactics, for example, have been widely practiced by Western infantry forces of all stripes for the past hundred years. We either use the Orientalist concept of the exotic Easterner either as a kind of projection of ideas we have about foreign cultures or a forcing mechanism for our militaries to adopt certain “Eastern” practices.

Additionally, some figures who wish for their own reasons to adopt a monolithic view of their own culture are very happy to echo such essentialism. The idea of a genuinely Islamic way of war was first coined by Pakistani Brigadier General S.K Malik. Bin Laden and co. are also very comfortable with such concepts, as it allows them to favorably present themselves in the propaganda war. We should strive to avoid playing into the trap of legitimizing their ideas.

The concept of Strategic Culture is much more refined than the kind of crude essentialist concept of a primordial cultural “way of war” ascribed to certain ethnic groups or regions, as it encompasses a combination of essentially sociological factors that interact with each other in a complex and dynamic manner. Moreover, Strategic Culture isn’t unitary. Brian McAllister Linn’s work on the respective intellectual traditions of the Army show that even a single institution has multiple contrasting perspectives. The COIN era, in particular, proved to be a boom time for analysis of military institutions as COINdinistas and COINtras debated over the idea of adaptation (or lack thereof) under fire.

Strategic Culture is a useful analytical concept for avoiding mirror-imaging. It’s also a useful tool for historical analysis and policy analysis. But its predictive power is rather limited. As we can see from our own debates, there is usually no unitary opinion within a nation or institution about strategy. As our understanding of jihadist ideology deepens, for example, we learn through analysts such as Thomas Hedgehammer about the often rich debate within terrorist circles over strategy and tactics. Ideas we had about al-Qaeda and the global jihadist network in the past now seem simplistic and even misleading—something policymakers should consider when formulating courses of action for counterterrorism.