Tag: Strategy

Is it possible to be a realist?

Some weeks ago, Stephen Walt lamented the absence of realist commentators in the American media space. What was striking to me at the time was Walt’s claim that realism is a ‘well-known approach to foreign policy.’ That claim—that realism is a foreign policy approach—makes sense in the context of Walt’s dirge, which focuses on the role of policy makers and media in shaping state behavior. But putting realism into a foreign policy context does not come without theoretical costs. Indeed, the grandee of modern realism in IR Kenneth Waltz rejected the idea that realism was a foreign policy framework.

By taking analysis down to the policymaker level, Walt (and others) introduce a tension into analysis that is irreconcilable. The problem lies in the objectivist foundations of realism. For Waltz, the strictures of the system were independent of human perception, beliefs, or ideas. Waltz is never quite clear how systemic forces actually produce state behavior—he discusses socialization, but who is socialized, how that socialization is carried through time, and how it translates into actual policy outcomes is never very clear (in modern parlance, his microfoundations needed work). But, for the objectivist ontology and epistemology that formed the lynchpin of a now ‘scientific’ realism (e.g. balance of power as a timeless law governing international politics), Waltz’s neglect of microfoundations was useful for reasons that I hope are clear by the end of this post.

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The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of High Tech War


In fall of 2014, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his plan to maintain US superiority against rising powers (i.e. Russia and China). His claim was that the US cannot lose its technological edge – and thus superiority – against a modernizing Russia and a rapidly militarizing China. To ensure this edge, he called for the “third Offset Strategy.”

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It’s the Biggest National Threat and We Can’t Help You

The Department of Defense’s (DoD) new Cyber Strategy is a refinement of past attempts at codifying and understanding the “new terrain” of cybersecurity threats to the United States.   While I actually applaud many of the acknowledgements in the new Strategy, I am still highly skeptical of the DoD’s ability to translate words to deeds. In particular, I am so because the entire Strategy is premised on the fact that the “DoD cannot defend every network and system against every kind of intrusion” because the “total network attack surface is too large to defend against all threats and too vast to close all vulnerabilities (13).

Juxtapose this fact to the statement that “from 2013-2015, the Director of National Intelligence named the cyber threat as the number one strategic threat to the United States, placing it ahead of terrorism for the first time since the attacks of September 11, 2001.” (9).   What we have, then, is the admission that the cyber threat is the top “strategic” –not private, individual or criminal—threat to the United States, and it cannot defend against it. The Strategy thus requires partnerships with the private sector and key allies to aid in the DoD’s fight. Here is the rub though: private industry is skeptical of the US government’s attempt to court it and many of the US’s key allies do not trust much of what Washington says. Moreover, my skepticism is furthered by the simple fact that one cannot read the Strategy in isolation. Rather, one must take it in conjunction with other policies and measures, in particular Presidential Policy Directive 20 (PPD 20), H.R. 1560 “Protecting Cyber Networks Act”, and the sometimes forgotten Patriot Act.

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Obama’s ISIS Strategy: A Clausewitzian Perspective

Much ink has been spilled over the last few days concerning President Obama’s speech on Wednesday evening regarding ISIS, as well as how his strategy will face many challenges going forward. Some cite that he does not go far enough, others that he has not fully laid out what to do in Syria when he has to face a potential deal with Assad. I, however, would like to pause and ask about the motivations on each side of this conflict, and whether we have any indications about how the asymmetry of motivations may affect the efficacy of Obama’s campaign. Moreover, we ought to also look to how this strategy is designed to reach the end goal (whatever that may be).

Clausewitz’s famous “trinity” is helpful here, and it is worth quoting him in full:

“War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity–composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.

The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.”

While Clausewitz is here looking only to one side of the equation, ignoring the same trinity at work on the adversary’s side, it is helpful for us today. In particular, Clausewitz’s focus on the people – the passions of the people – to wage war are a key component of the discussion about US involvement in Iraq and Syria. Without such a will to fight, the war effort will be hampered. Indeed we can see evidence of this when one looks to the scholarly work on coercive diplomacy.

As Alexander George argues, “what is demanded of the opponent, and his motivation to resist are closely related […] there is often an important strategic dimension to the choice of the objective.” Indeed, he goes on to argue that coercive diplomacy is most likely to successful when there is an “asymmetry of interests,” where the coercing power has more motivation to fight and back up his threat to fight than the target. Even then, there is a poor success rate (32%).

While it is certainly true that the “fight” against ISIS is not really a classic case of coercive diplomacy, at this point it does not feel like a Clausewitzian conventional war either. President Obama’s reluctance to engage in ground combat, and his restriction of US military force to training and air power is a signal that his interests, while strong enough to engage, are not strong enough for more than “limited” war. That he will rely on Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as well as the disparate patchwork of “moderate” Syrian rebels to do the ground fighting is case in point. The asymmetry of interests, as it stands now, favors ISIS and not the US.

This leads us to the second part of the trinity: chance, probability and the commander. While Clausewitz does speak of the genius of a commander, one with a coup d’œil, this presupposes that the commander (or general) truly understands the adversary, the forces – his own, his allies and the adversary’s – and is able to augur the adversary’s strategies and tactics. John Allen, retired four-star Marine general, has been tapped to lead the fight against ISIS.  While Allen is certainly talented and experienced with coalition actions and counterinsurgency strategies (COIN), fighting against ISIS is a different game. First, the coalition in Afghanistan was a NATO-led one, meaning that the soldiers Allen had to oversee where professional soldiers who have for decades engaged in mutual training exercises together. They train together to ensure interoperability. The coalition in Iraq/Syria will not look even remotely like this. Second, fighting a counterterrorism campaign requires different tactics than regular warfare. ISIS is not wholly one or the other. In other words, the US military, in conjunction with its allies can attack the ISIS combatants and materiel, but this will not “defeat” ISIS. ISIS is an ideology as much as it is a group of brutal extremists. Allen, for all his experience in Afghanistan cannot rely on this as a heuristic when facing ISIS, for any strategy going forward will have to blend COIN, conventional and unconventional war.

Finally, if we are to learn from the Prussian strategist, we must look back to President Obama and his Joint Chiefs. The political goals must be clearly defined. Strategies without a clear objective are useless to the commanders, the warfighters, and all those who suffer under hostilities.   President Obama declared: “Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” There are two problems with this perspective.   First, the only “interest” that the US has here is that ISIS (or ISIL) is a distant but potential threat to the US. It is unclear how probable this threat is, let alone how imminent. Prudence, law and morality dictate that one ought only to respond to imminent – that is temporally impending – threats. We are left wondering when it comes to this one. Thus the strategic goal is not to protect the US (this is a secondary or side-effect of the Obama’s objective). Rather, the goal is to degrade and destroy.

This brings us to the second point: there is a fair bit of daylight between degrading an adversary’s ability to act and destroying it.   The first involves a denial strategy, whereby the US and its allies would undermine or make it increasingly difficult ISIS’ ability to achieve its military (and presumably political) objectives. But denial strategies do not involve eliminating an entire force. While ISIS is certainly liable to attack, and any fighter within its ranks is a legitimate target, there are still some rules that would prohibit wholesale slaughter. What if the US begins its campaign, and deals significant blows to ISIS? What if the ISIS fighters start surrendering? They have combatant rights: they wear insignia, carry their arms openly, and are in a hierarchical command structure. Thus, the US and its allies are obligated to give them prisoner of war status. But here is the rub: destroying ISIS, because it is an ideology, would require the wholesale slaughter of all ISIS fighters. But this is clearly immoral and impermissible, not to mention it would not be a full guarantee that the symbol of killing them would generate only more fighters taking up the black flag. Thus one can never wholly destroy ISIS in the way President Obama lays out. I wrote before that one can only destroy ISIS when one takes away the need for it. What this means is that even if the US and its coalition are able to stop this atrocious group militarily, it will require post-conflict reconstruction, jobs, education, healthcare, and rebuilding the rule of law. This is a fact – if the US wants to “destroy” ISIS. The other uncomfortable truth is that post-conflict strategies are going to be increasingly difficult when Assad is still in power and a civil war still rages on. Thus if the US holds tightly to its “strategy,” it should be very careful about expanding its war aims beyond ISIS to the Assad regime, for otherwise the US and many others will end up tumbling down the rabbit hole (again).

Obama’s ‘Strategic Patience’ on North Korea is more Responsible than yet another Impossible ‘Vision’ to Solve NK

Newsweek Korea cover 2Newsweek Korea asked me to participate in a debate on Obama’s strategic patience. A friend of mine wrote against it; I wrote in defense. Here is the Korean language text at the NWK website. Below is my original English language version.

In brief I argue that North Korea is so hard to pin down, that big strategies never work with it, provoke it into lashing out, and raise impossible expectations on democratic decision-makers. So Obama is acting responsibly, IMO, by not promising more than he can deliver and by not giving a reason for NK to act out.

After 20+ years of negotiating on more or less the same topics, it should be pretty obvious that NK is insistent on not being placed in some box by outsiders. It will not be treated as some technocratic ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ by a conference of experts, like global warming or something. And it will lash out if necessary to remind us of that. Hence, I argue for ‘muddling through,’ and that we should stop expecting our policy-makers to have some great NK strategy that will fix the issue. That’s not gonna happen. We all know that. We just have to wait for China to stop paying NK’s bills. Until then, all the sweeping declarations (‘agreed framework,’ ‘sunshine’,’ the ‘axis of evil,’ the current big idea du jour of ‘trust’) are rather pointless and raise impossible expectations among voters in SK, the US, and Japan. Let’s be a little more honest about what we can expect from North Korea.

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5 Biggest Strategic Errors of the Emperor: a Contribution to the ‘Battle of Hoth’ Debate

You can’t win a counter-insurgency with a military like this


The Duck has gotten into an excellent debate with Ackerman on the Empire’s blown opportunity to stamp out the Space Vietcong Rebellion at Hoth. Westmoreland spent 5 years trying to nail down the VC in set-piece battles where US firepower could be brought decisively to bear and end the war. Here was the Emperor’s similar chance, but Vader and Admiral Ozzel blew it (mostly because the Empire’s officer corps was filled with grandstanding self-promoters, as Ackerman rightly points out).

But as the respondents noted, the larger context does a better job explaining why the Empire’s massive advantages seem to fail again (Yavin 4, Hoth, Bespin, Endor), beyond just the poor tactical leadership at Hoth. The larger strategic context is counterinsurgency, and obviously the Emperor spent too much time cackling in the Senate to watch The Battle of Algiers. So here are the five big structural problems in the background:

1. Trusting the Bloated, Showboating Navy to do Counterinsurgency

Navies are big, blunt instruments with hugely expensive platforms vulnerable to swarming, as at Yavin and Endor, and useful for large, ‘target-rich’ enemies. They scream national vanity, and they’re terrible for hunting rebels. Why does the Empire need a massive, and massively expensive, fleet after the Clone Wars? Probably because the army was staffed by mentally-hamstrung clones who couldn’t push their bureaucratic interest, while the navy had lots of fully human, showboating egos like Tarkin’s Death Star council.

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Pakistani Taliban Leader Threatens Attack on Washington

Compellence in its purest form: a threat to inflict pain if an adversary does not alter their current behavior. Is the threat credible? It’s unclear at this time, although US officials are publicly dismissing it. Other threats of late seem more credible–although the FedEx strategy is an example of deterrence, not compellence.

And no, I am not morally equating FedEx and Mehsud–just pointing out examples of strategy.

I haven’t actually seen a study which looks at the success rate of terrorist or non-state deterrent/compellent threats against states (then again, I haven’t looked through the literature for a while). Would be interesting to see…

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