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Category: Robert Farley

What Was Obama’s Syria Strategy?

[ 92 ] May 27, 2016 |
Kieseritzky Cubic Chess board.png

“Kieseritzky Cubic Chess board” by Ihardlythinkso – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons.

On support for the Assad regime:

Yeah, there’s this really disconcerting tendency to portray “people who belong to Assad’s religious sect” as “card-carrying members of Assad’s military apparatus”. The portion of the American foreign policy establishment who was dead set on marketing the idea of a definitively identifiable group of “moderate rebels” had a field day trying to spin Sunni rebel massacres of Alawite civilians as military engagement with Assad himself – if only to avoid admitting that the people they wanted to arm against Assad also wanted to wipe his entire tribe out of existence.

Even now, no one seems to be able to admit that “Assad is a complete monster” and “innocent people who belong to his tribe are being massacred by sectarian bigots” are not mutually exclusive.

Via Freddie.

The (very real) interventionist portion of the American foreign policy establishment notwithstanding, I believe that the concern described above (massacre of Christian and Alawite civilians) has dominated Obama administration thinking on Syria. The Obama administration has pursued, I think, a fairly consistent and coherent strategy that it has not been able to describe rhetorically; it has sought to force the Assad regime to a coalition government with “moderate” rebels (one that would involve the resignation of Assad himself), but has resisted taking any steps that would inevitably result in the collapse of that regime.

This has meant supporting the rebels (and looking the other way when the Gulf states support the rebels), but stopping short of steps that would ensure rebel military victory on the ground. It has meant keeping an open back-channel with the Assad regime (through coordination of activity against ISIS, and through Russia). It has meant resisting airstrikes targeted against the regime that would necessarily escalate into a campaign to destroy the regime.

And the reason for this is that, from the experience of Libya and Iraq, the administration well understands the potential for brutality and genocide in aftermath of a clear rebel military victory. In particular, I suspect that no one in the Obama administration wishes to preside over the potential extinction of the Syrian Orthodox Christian community. It also appreciates the inevitability of chaos as various rebel groups struggle to pick up the pieces of a shattered regime. And it understands that a collapse of the Syrian state is good for no one in the neighborhood; Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon would all suffer.

The administration has failed to describe this strategy for reasons that should be obvious.  It doesn’t want to describe allies in the rebel movement as potential (or real) butchers; it doesn’t want to admit publicly that the butchers in the Assad regime may be a practical necessity. It has looked like dithering, but the administration has held to a core idea of what it wants, and has used various means to get there.

And of course, this strategy has failed. We are as far as ever from a coalition government; while the Russians might eventually push Assad aside, any kind of reconciliation will happen on their terms, and it’s a struggle to see the remaining rebels accept any kind of restored sovereignty by the Damascus government. We barely have any idea of who or what could replace ISIS, beyond “some group that’s marginally less horrible than ISIS.” And the destruction and dislocation produced by the civil war has become nearly incalculable, and is destabilizing established political institutions as far away as the United Kingdom.

This doesn’t quite mean that the administration erred in pursuing this strategy, as whatever costs the people of the world are paying in the Syrian civil war, the US has paid very little.  And to be vulgar, that matters a great deal in political terms; Syria will barely register as a an issue in the 2016 election.  If the United States had helped sweep a rebel coalition to power in 2011, with attendant massacres of Assad supporters, throngs of refugees generated by disorder and bad governance, and fitful civil war leading to gruesome casualties on both sides, the issue would probably loom larger, especially if some group of American citizens found themselves on the wrong side of a fight. And of course it does no good to say that the alternative would have generated twice as many dead, and twice as many refugees (although at this point it’s surely possible that either US intervention or direct US support for Assad would have resulted in less destruction than what we’ve actually seen), because we don’t get to live in counter-factual worlds.

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Foreign Entanglements: Taiwan

[ 0 ] May 25, 2016 |

On the latest episode of Foreign Entanglements, Natalie speaks with Lauren Dickey about Taiwan and China policy:

Things that Shouldn’t Be Confusing

[ 392 ] May 24, 2016 |

Apparently some clarity regarding the LGM editorial process is necessary:

As should surprised no one, Erik has no control whatsoever over what Paul posts. To the extent that any contributors have the right to prod or quash or edit a post, that power lies with Scott and myself, and we exercise extraordinary discretion in practicing it. Thus, Erik is clearly under no way responsible for either maintaining or violating a “respectful silence.” And with respect to this claim:


It is again obvious to me that the situation that Erik faced in 2012 and the situation that Matt Bruenig faces now are sufficiently different that there may be any number of reasons why someone would decide to comment on one, and not the other. It may also be the case that Erik (and anyone else here at LGM) simply desires to stay out of what is becoming an increasingly fratricidal discussion. That’s not just their right; it’s likely a damn good idea. I am flummoxed, however, regarding how Corey and Connor and Glenn and Doug think that publicly haranguing someone who has remained on the sidelines (intentionally or no) is somehow a sensible thing to do.

The Northrup Grumman B-21 Ultimatum

[ 51 ] May 24, 2016 |
Artist Rendering B21 Bomber Air Force Official.jpg

By U.S. Air Force Graphic – This Image was released by the United States Air Force. Public Domain.

 

Jennifer Hlad just happened on a heck of an idea for naming the Air Force’s new bomber:Screenshot 2016-05-24 10.21.58
I like it; kind of scary, but has a strategic feel to it that coincides with the basic purpose of the aircraft.

Midrats on Jutland!

[ 2 ] May 22, 2016 |
SMS Ostfriesland(2).jpg

SMS Ostfriesland. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia.

 

I’ll be sitting in on Midrats 5pm EDT to talk about the Jutland Centenary. We’ll also be discussing all things battleship…

 

Jutland Revisited

[ 50 ] May 20, 2016 |
InvincibleWrecksp2470.jpg

HMS Invincible in Distress.  Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

 

My latest at the National Interests revisits the Battle of Jutland:

A century ago, the two greatest fleets of the industrial age fought an inconclusive battle in the North Sea. The British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet fielded a total of fifty-eight dreadnought battleships and battle cruisers, ships over the twice the size of most modern surface combatants. Including smaller ships, the battle included 250 vessels in total.

The two fleets fought to a draw, with the Germans inflicting more casualties, but still being lucky to escape alive. The Grand Fleet could very easily have annihilated the Germans, an outcome which, however tragic, would not have moved the needle on the rest of the war. But what if the Germans had won?

More Planes!

[ 25 ] May 19, 2016 |
Mitsubishi F-2 at Guam (Cropped).jpg

Mitsubishi F-2, By Marine Cpl. Ashleigh Bryant. Public Domain

 

Some more ruminations about air forces at the Diplomat:

Let’s take the United States as a baseline (although the U.S. arrangement is one of the most unusual in the world, most people are familiar with the basic dynamics). As of December 2015, the United States operated 13,655 aircraft; 5,062 in the Air Force, 4,759 in the Army, 1,249 in the Marine Corps, and 2,585 in the Navy. Between the USAF, USMC, and USN, the United States flies 2,838 combat aircraft (fighters, bombers, and attack aircraft), constituting 21 percent of the total fleet. The rest of the U.S. air forces consist of helicopters and a wide array of support aircraft, including the transport and tanker aircraft necessary to deploying and maintaining vast overseas operations.

 

Foreign Entanglements: 1968!

[ 0 ] May 18, 2016 |

On the latest episode of Foreign Entanglements, Michael Cohen and I talk about his new book, American Maelstrom:


American Maelstrom tracks the 1968 election, with a focus on each of the major candidates. Very interesting stuff, although I’m sure that some would quibble with Cohen’s characterizations. Worth a read.

Naval History: Battleship Book Review

[ 19 ] May 18, 2016 |

The following review (below the fold) was written by Paul Stillwell, who served in the crew of the USS New Jersey in 1969. He is the author of several books about battleships. This text is reprinted from Naval History with permission; Copyright © 2016 U.S. Naval Institute.

Read more…

A Brief, Personal Meditation on the 2016 Democratic Primary

[ 257 ] May 18, 2016 |
"Avoid fatigue - Eat a lunch that packs a punch" - NARA - 513896.jpg

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain.

I did not vote in yesterday’s Presidential primary in Kentucky.  The differences between Sanders and Clinton are real, but marginal; I have some appreciation for each, but not so much that it’s worth committing my support.  I appreciate that sounds strange coming from an LGM blogger, but I think this genuinely is a case in which “not a dime’s bit of difference” is true enough.  They’re both fine, and I would have enthusiastically supported Sanders in the general election, just as I’ll enthusiastically support Clinton.

The long Democratic primary season, drawn out by the endless proportional division of delegates, may not end up hurting Clinton in the end.  It certainly didn’t hurt Obama in 2008.  It is good, however, at two things; emotional exhaustion, and generating bad arguments.

With respect to the former, the memory of 2008 is, for me, so scarring that I declined to endorse either Sanders or Clinton this time around, or really engage with any seriousness in the policy debate between them.  You may recollect the endless, bitter comment threads here at LGM in 2008, waged between Clinton and Obama supporters.  I wasted far, far too much time with that nonsense, and I’m simply not at a place in my life when I can do that again.  And if anything, the greater prominence of social media (in my life, and in general) has made it clear that engagement this time around would have been even more exhausting.  I did serve briefly, and in an extremely small capacity, as part of a group that advised Sanders on foreign policy, but more out of a commitment to the idea that any Democratic presidential candidate should have access to expertise than out of specific enthusiasm for his candidacy.

That said, friends have been lost.  “Bernie or bust” advocates are making no meaningful contribution to the Democratic primary race; they’re simply helping to elect Donald Trump.  And I struggle to remain friends, or continue cordial relations, with any progressive who thinks that electing Donald Trump would be a good idea.  On this point I’ve been vicious on social media, and the nastiness has been returned twofold.  But no great loss.

With respect to the latter, it’s not clear to me that the arguments that have emerged from the Sanders camp (and more broadly, from his supporters) are any worse than the arguments that came from Clinton supporters in 2008.  Never forget the Whitey Tape, the Eeyores, the Pumas, and every other bit of nonsense that came out of the waning days of that campaign; it was truly dreadful, and probably, on balance, stupider that what’s coming out of the Sanders camp now.  That said, the Clintonistas from 2008 had a better case in purely electoral terms than the Sanders folks do now; Clinton probably won the popular vote, and did not rely on caucus results to pad her delegate totals.

And the problem with both of these is that it just goes on.  And on.  And on.  Every system for nominating a Presidential candidate sucks in its own way, but I’m hard pressed to think of a way to generate bad arguments and create emotional exhaustion that the one that the Democrats have settled on.  In the last two contested cycles, we’ve effectively known who the nominee would be about a third of the way in; everything after that point is just bitter recrimination, and pundits needing to imagine ways in which the inevitable might not happen.  From a political perspective there doesn’t appear to be anything particular destructive about this (at least from 2008; we’ll see about 2016), but from a personal perspective it’s just… very… difficult.

And so yeah.  I just want it to be over.  I don’t think Sanders needs to drop out (the Jesse Jackson 1988 campaign seems instructive here) but I agree with Paul that Bernie needs to start prepping his camp for the inevitable.

 

Airplanes!

[ 8 ] May 17, 2016 |
J-7I fighter at the Beijing Military Museum from above.jpg

“J-7I fighter at the Beijing Military Museum from above” by Max Smith – Own work (Own photo). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Some thoughts on plane-counting in the Asia Pacific:

One of the more headline-grabbing takeaways of the 2016 Defense Department report on Chinese military strength involves the size of the Chinese air forces, which now approach 3,000 aircraft.  This number puts China ahead of any country in the world, other than the United States and Russia. However, the numbers bear more scrutiny.

Flight Global 2016 puts overall Chinese strength at 2,942 aircraft, including the PLAAF (1977) PLA ground forces (556) and the PLAN (409). U.S. overall strength, by contrast, sits at 13,717 aircraft across the four services (including the U.S. Marine Corps). U.S. numbers are weighted less heavily towards the Air Force, as the Army and Navy (including the USMC) have nearly as many planes as the USAF.

Cooperate!

[ 8 ] May 16, 2016 |
USS America (LHA-6) off Rio de Janeiro in August 2014.JPG

“USS America (LHA-6) off Rio de Janeiro in August 2014” by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class John Scorza. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

 

Breaking Defense graciously invited me to contribute a piece on the future of maritime challenges:

Since the 1980s, the tasks that the United States has asked of its Navy have changed radically. Shifts in technology and in the strategic landscape drove much of this change. But these shifts have revealed a confusion about why a navy should exist and what it should prepare to do. Political, bureaucratic, and industrial imperatives have further complicated the effort to sort through the Navy’s purpose. Fundamentally, however, the purpose of the U.S. Navy is to ensure the ability of America, its allies, and its trading partners to enjoy use of the oceans.

 

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