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Some More CI Thoughts

[ 0 ] July 4, 2007 |

A bunch of people ask some really interesting questions in these two threads, questions that I think are deserving on their own post.

lemuel pitkin writes:

I think if you reframe the question away from preparing for the wars we are likely to fight to wars we have any business fighting, the brass may be right on this one.

Most counterinsurgencies are like Iraq — brutal unwinnable wars that kill huge numbers of civilians and don’t advance our national interest in any way.

In principle you can separate the decision about what kind of military the US should have from the decision about when it gets used. But in the real world, the wars we prepare for tend to be the wars we end up fighting.

What’s wrong with a citizen army? Seriously, Rob, why shouldn’t we cut the standing professional military down to a tenth its current size?


The more the US prepares for counterinsurgency, the more likely it is to attempt to engage in immoral, illegal, and/or counterproductive efforts to impose its preferred regimes on other people by force.

The funny thing is Rob has described this exact same dynamic with respect to the air force — the pressure to use your weapons and training regardless of whether it’s justified in a particular case — and yet he doesn’t seem worried about the same thing happening with counterinsurgency.

I’m not sure what lemuel means by “citizen army”, but the point about reducing the size of the force is well taken; I certainly think that the size of the US military establishment can be significantly reduced, given that US defense spending currently reaches about half the world total and that most of the other major military powers are close US allies.

On the more specific questions about counter-insurgency, I would have to disagree. Others, including Brad Plumer, have also argued that the United States should resist counter-insurgency training because such training might incline us to engage in more counter-insurgency conflicts. I think this is wrong on two counts. First, proper counter-insurgency doctrine does not (as Air Force EBO or “shock and awe” doctrine does) promise cheap, easy, and quick victories; indeed, it promises precisely the opposite. To the extent that we have a military establishment and civilian political leadership educated in the requirements of counter-insurgency, I’d say we’re less, not more, likely to engage in unwise military interventions. While it’s true at the extremes that lacking the tools for war reduces the likelihood of war, I tend to resist such arguments for the same reasons that I’m a progressive and not a libertarian; I believe that, given the right tools, the state can solve important problems that we face. I also don’t think that LP’s charge that “we get involved in the wars we prepare for” is empirically defensible; of the four most destructive conflicts the US has engaged in since World War II, two have been primarily counter-insurgency (Vietnam and Iraq), and one has been against a conventional opponent that tried very hard to fight as an insurgency (Korea), in spite of the fact that we have made every effort to avoid planning for counter-insurgency operations. Finally, I think there’s a big difference between Air Force parochialism (promising cheap, easy victories) and a CI capability (promising long, expensive productions) such that the latter doesn’t carry the same negative implications as the former.

I also disagree with the notion that counter-insurgency efforts are necessary brutal, imperialistic, and unwise. Certainly, counter-insurgency efforts conducted by military organizations that don’t have the faintest idea about how to go about such operations can be brutal. To my mind, however, that’s rather a reason to develop more competent capabilities, instead of less. I would also argue that not all US CI interventions have been imperialistic and unjust. I believed at the time that it was correct to invade Afghanistan, still believe it, and think that victory there is possible. There are also conditions that might have justified an invasion of Iraq, in spite of all the practical problems with that project. If, for example, Laurie Mylorie had been right about Saddam Hussein, and all of the folks on the jets on 9/11 had been Iraqis, or if Iraq had decided to try to grab Kuwait again, then the use of military force and even the deposition of the regime would probably have been sensible. These eventualities may sound absurd, but they are absurd in part because of overwhelming US military superiority. CI would have been necessary to the operation, even if the justification had been one that was largely agreeable to everyone.

ajay writes:

[What about a] purely defensive war, of the kind justified by the UN convention as a response to aggression. The Falklands War involved no counter-insurgency, for exactly that reason. Nor did the 1991 Gulf War. Nor, presumably, would a future war against a North Korean invasion of South Korea.
If you don’t go around imposing your rule on people, then you won’t have to fight against insurgencies.

Fair enough to a point, but the UN convention also justifies military action that is agreed upon by the Security Council as necessary to solve some particular problem in the international system. Such interventions can directly involve counter-insurgency warfare (Afghanistan) or more often can involve stability operations, which are not exactly the same as CI but that operate by similar principles, and certainly share more with CI than with conventional uses of military force. As Matt Sledge noted here, the uniformed services have been as reluctant to engage in planning for stability operations as they have for CI. This isn’t surprising, given the characteristics that CI and peacekeeping share. ajay is right that this betrays an particular attitude on my part; I do think that the United States have an active role to play in the international system, and that this role will involve the deployment of uniformed military forces around the world in various capacities. I don’t think of this as a particularly imperialist project, because I don’t see it as differing in anything but scope from the actions of many European countries. The Scandinavian countries, for example, deploy military personnel all over the world, as do France, the Netherlands, and others. If a defensive war is all we’re interested in, then ajay is right that we can focus on conventional operations, but I think that there is an opportunity (and, indeed, a responsibility) to do more than that.

R. Stanton Scott (who does some, but not nearly enough, outstanding blogging at Foggy Bottom Line; encourage him, people) writes:

It probably makes sense to develop some counterinsurgency capability within our military forces, though I am not convinced that conventional war–perhaps against a rogue state that really *does* have WMDs–is so unlikely that it is safe to allow our traditional combat power to atrophy any more than it has. History has shown that real war sometimes breaks out just when it seems least likely.

Having conventional military capability and not needing it is better than needing it and not having it–within the constraints on what capabilities we can sustain simultaneously. I think we need both traditional combat forces and counterinsurgent specialists, but today we have neither. Instead of hiring a plumber and an electrician, we told the electrician to fix the pipes after he wired the outlets. Now the crapper overflows, and if we get a short in the wiring he may not remember how to fix it.

I would substantially agree with this, except that I don’t think we’ve lost, or are really in any danger of losing, our conventional expertise and predominance. I should have been more clear about this in my initial post; US conventional capability is important, but we’re so far ahead of the curve that we really, really don’t need to start worrying about losing that capability while we’re engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. I certainly don’t advocate dismantling that capability in favor of CI; I’m just worried that over-concentration on conventional capabilities is now and has in the past severely limited our CI capability.

Last but not least, Mojo points out that I’m being unfair to the Air Force. True enough on some level, but I’m sure they can handle it.

And Now, The Punchline

[ 1 ] July 4, 2007 |

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post.

The Washington Post sums up the sharp rightward turn made inevitable by the judicial nominees whose confirmation they endorsed: “the outcome was simultaneously unsurprising and disappointing.” I must admit I’m not sure why you would be “disappointed” by something that’s “unsurprising”, but hopefully they’ve learned a lesson about basing one’s evaluation of judicial nominees on meaningless confirmation-hearings banalities (and pure wishful thinking) rather than a focus on the relevant aspects of their actual record. I suspect, however, that this lesson will last exactly until the next Republican Supreme Court appointment.

But what about the "O" in "Obama?"

[ 0 ] July 4, 2007 |

Somebody’s been reading Maureen Dowd today:

Yes, did you see those photos of Bill and Hillary in Iowa, with him in that bright yellow shirt? We all know yellow is the color of hope, and Bill is the man from Hope, and Hillary’s name begins with H but her image is not so much one of hope but of grim resignation. Obama is the candidate who embodies hope. (It’s the main thing he does!) So, naturally they put a bright yellow shirt on Bill.

With that out of the way, AA moves on to ponder the most important question surrounding Hillary Clinton’s campaign: whether her husband will get his bone smooched in the White House. And all of this a mere hour after posting an irony-free photo of the Washington Monument, towering over us all like a gigantic carrot.

I think some of those cat scratches have gone septic.

The Emosogynist

[ 0 ] July 4, 2007 |

Sara, pointing to this emailer warning his long-suffering ex-girlfriend that she’ll never find anyone who’s just so darn nice about “jokingly” threatening physical abuse and sending pictures of his dick to Craig’s List, suggests that the term “emosogynist” replace “Nice Guy (TM).” However, I think the latter term is too useful to be abandoned; rather, the emosogynist could perhaps by an additional subcategory within the classic typology.

John McClane

[ 0 ] July 4, 2007 |

Against my best judgment, saw Live Free or Die Hard last week. It’s…. action packed.

I’m a big fan of the first and third films in the Die Hard series, especially the first. Willis’ McClane is an accidental action hero, which is a bit different than the reluctant action hero that dominates most other films; McClane ends up at One Nakatomi Plaza for random reasons, and ends up saving the day through luck and accident as much as skill. In the third film McClane is similarly thrown into a situation not of his own choosing, and Willis does a fine job of depicting, for the first half of the movie, a guy who would love nothing more than to simply go home and sleep off his hangover. Moroever, the first movie has, as Eric Lichtenfeld has ably noted, the single greatest one-liner in the history of action cinema. Finally, both the first and the third films have appropriately classy, sinister Euro-trash villains, and some genuinely surprising plot twists.

Live Free or Die Hard really isn’t a sequel to those movies. Rather, it’s a movie in which Bruce Willis plays a character named John McClane, a character loosely based on a character also named John McClane that Bruce Willis has played in previous films. This is quite fitting, because Live Free or Die Hard is, unashamedly, a Frankenstein’s monster of action films. The villain is lifted from a combination of Swordfish and Charlie’s Angels. The F-35 sequence is borrowed directly from True Lies. The “damsel in distress” is lifted from the first Die Hard, as well as any number of other action films from Commando on down. The annoying sidekick is so familiar that I began to wonder how Vincent Chase would have done in the role, and then started to think about where I could find a place in the movie for Johnny Drama (maybe replacing Kevin Smith?) Oh yeah, Kevin Smith is in the movie, for some reason. The villainess is borrowed from the second X-Men movie. The plot has something to do with the internet (“Hey, let’s make an action movie!” “What about?” “I don’t know; the internet? Lots of people talking about the internet these days.”) and proceeds in an utterly predictable manner. Willis and the script writers have abandoned any effort to make McClane human, and we actually get a “man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” type speech.

Here’s the kicker, though; they actually manage to pull it off, or better than could be reasonably expected, anyway. The derivativeness doesn’t matter, because the film works on two levels. First, the action sequences are genuinely impressive. Utterly unbelievable, but genuinely impressive. The unbelievability is a feature, though, not a bug, because the film works best as parody. Parody demands liberal borrowing from other films, and LFODH works well as a respectful parody of the action-hero genre.

Anyway, while I can’t bring myself to actually recommend it to anyone (especially given how much I liked the previous films), it was certainly better than I expected.

Happy Fourth of July!

A Genuinely Terrifying Thought

[ 0 ] July 4, 2007 |

Movies by the two worst directors regularly given major American studio projects who aren’t Joel Schumacher have recently opened. And yet, I think I would sit through either of their movies 10 times before sitting through the new unspeakably appalling-looking Robin Williams showcase once. (It’s a heatwarming ode to moralistic busybody conformism! With an exceptionally annoying priest played by a beyond-washed-up indiscriminate-script-approving comedian! Whose 60 second preview is painfully interminable!) Tony Scott argues that it’s even worse that the previews make it look, and I believe him. (Shudder.)

…speaking of Shadyac a commenter points us to this list of “10 Directors You Didn’t Know You Hated.”

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The (Almost) Pardon

[ 0 ] July 3, 2007 |

A lot of ink (or e-ink) has been spilled today about Bush’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence. Scott touched on Bush’s consistency when it comes to pardons — loyalty is the get out of jail free card.

But what I’m interested in is his inconsistency. From the President’s statement regarding the commutation:

I respect the jury’s verdict. But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby’s sentence that required him to spend thirty months in prison.

My decision to commute his prison sentence leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby. The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged. His wife and young children have also suffered immensely. He will remain on probation. The significant fines imposed by the judge will remain in effect. The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant, and private citizen will be long-lasting.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent CBS news article about the Bush administration’s stance on sentencing gudelines:

The Bush administration is trying to roll back a Supreme Court decision by pushing legislation that would require prison time for nearly all criminals. [...]

In a speech June 1 to announce the bill, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales urged Congress to re-impose mandatory minimum prison sentences against federal convicts — and not let judges consider such penalties “merely a suggestion.”

Hm. So in commuting Libby’s sentence, Bush touted exactly the same arguments that have been used to oppose the sentencing schemes he and his administration support. The NY Times’s Adam Liptak, who consistently writes thoughtfully about criminal justice stuff, puts it better than I could:

Critics of the system have a long list of complaints. Sentences, they say, are too harsh. Judges are allowed to take account of facts not proven to the jury. The defendant’s positive contributions are ignored, as is the collateral damage that imprisonment causes the families involved.

On Monday, Mr. Bush made use of every element of that critique in a detailed statement setting out his reasons for commuting Mr. Libby’s sentence — handing an unexpected gift to defense lawyers around the country, who scrambled to make use of the president’s arguments in their own cases.

Given the administration’s tough stand on sentencing, the president’s arguments left experts in sentencing law scratching their heads.

In doing so, Bush might have been too clever by half. Wouldn’t be the first time. Here’s why: Bush’s proclamation that Libby’s sentence was too severe based the claim on Libby’s personal and professional history, on family, on all the things that Bush thinks judges should NOT take into account. funny that. As a result, Bush has given defense lawyers a powerful tool. In the words of the lawyer defending Alabama’s former governor, who received 88 months for obstructing justice, “It’s far more important than if he’d just pardoned Libby,” Ms. James [the lawyer] said, as forgiving a given offense as an act of executive grace would have had only political repercussions. “What you’re going to see is people like me quoting President Bush in every pleading that comes across every federal judge’s desk.”

Funnier still: Libby’s sentence of 30 months is not actually all that severe compared to analogous convictions. So Bush has doubly shot himself in the foot: he undercut his administration’s own stance on sentencing. And he blew it on a sentence that wasn’t even so bad.*

The wonders of the Bush administration really do never cease.

* Again, comparatively speaking. I wouldn’t support incarceration for nonviolent offenses more generally. But given that we do live in a society that counsels the prison industrial complex.

Worst American Birthdays, vol. 19

[ 0 ] July 3, 2007 |

To nearly everyone’s unreckoned misfortune, I was born 37 years ago today. My parents — who probably expected that I would make them rich one day by earning a living as a professional athlete or by inventing some kind of delicious cheese-based product — were no doubt crushed to realize in due time that they had given birth to an incorrigible freeloader who in fact still owes them considerable sums of money that I have no intention of ever repaying. My three beleaguered younger siblings — who certainly could have used the wise, guiding hand of an older brother — instead received nearly two decades of relentless physical and psychological torment before I decided simply to ignore them. (Also, I stole a lot of their petty cash when they were sleeping or playing with other kids who pretended to be their friends. And no, I won’t be paying those debts back, either.)

As for my other personal relationships, the less said the better. Nearly everyone else who has ever known me has apparently lived to regret it. The lucky ones have forgotten about the months or years I devoted to their annoyance; the unlucky ones still have to delete e-mail from me about once a year. I congratulate all of my former girlfriends for marrying or otherwise settling down with other people, and I ask only that you please not tell my wife how happy and financially secure you all are. She’s inexplicably tolerant of me, and — quite crucially — all of the furniture in our house is hers. As for my daughter, she seems to enjoy my company for the time being, but she’s only 14 months old and hasn’t figured out that a good bit of her DNA comes from me, the weird, hobo-looking fellow who lives upstairs. In one of the more remarkable tributes to capitalism’s failure, mature adults have actually chosen to hire me over the years, entrusting me with cash registers, office keys, and the fragile minds of America’s youth. This never ceases to blow my mind. Seriously, what the fuck were you people thinking?

Socially and politically, I’m probably worse than Roy Cohn, John Wayne Gacy, and Jewel Kilcher combined. Although I was a registered Democrat, I voted for Bob Dole in Virginia’s Republican primary in 1987 because he seemed like a cranky old man. To my enduring shame, I actually voted for Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000 — a fact that I deliberately witheld from my co-bloggers during the four days of interviews, personality tests, drunken hazing and feats of strength that preceded my arrival here last fall. For about two weeks in the fall of 1990, I believed that Saddam Hussein was the next Hitler. And on 12 December 2000 I actually spoke these words to a friend: “Maybe a Bush presidency won’t be too terribly awful.”

Anyhow, like America — whose own birthday I assume we’re to celebrate tomorrow — Dave Noon has squandered another year of precious existence. If you’re reading this, it probably means you don’t have to watch me drink all your beer tonight. I’m happy to say the poor folks I mentioned in the first paragraph aren’t quite so fortunate.

The Frontrunner

[ 0 ] July 3, 2007 |

Romney ahead in New Hampshire. This reinforces my belief that the GOP race is basically between Romney and Thompson, and I’m not ready to hand things over to the latter yet.

A Last Word on Affirmative Action and Originalism

[ 0 ] July 3, 2007 |

On the issue of affirmative action and the alleged principled “originalism” of the Court’s conservatives, Simon Lazurus has a very good summary:

On the contrary, as legal and historical scholars — 60 of whom signed an amicus curiae brief to the Court — have exhaustively demonstrated in scores of books and scholarly articles, Reconstruction Congresses, in addition to adopting the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, aggressively promoted racial integration as a goal and deployed race-conscious measures to achieve it. They provided for special payments to “colored” soldiers to ensure they were compensated for service to the Union; established a bank to provide financial services to “freedmen and their descendants;” passed numerous race-conscious anti-poverty measures; and, most important, created the Freedman’s Bureaus to fund school construction and other education programs specifically for blacks. All these measures were enacted over objections, including vetoes from President Andrew Johnson, that marshaled precisely the arguments made today by opponents of school integration programs like those deployed in Seattle and Louisville.

Principled conservatives acknowledge that the Reconstruction generation “originally” understood the Fourteenth Amendment to promote equality for blacks and posed no ‘absolute,” across-the-board bar to race-based classifications. Chief Judge Michael Boudin of the First Circuit Court of Appeals, a widely respected Bush I appointee, observed in a 2005 case that a Lynn, Massachusetts integration plan similar to those in Seattle and Louisville “is far from the original evils at which the Fourteenth Amendment was addressed . . . [which were] the oppression of one race by another.” In the Seattle case itself, in the Ninth Circuit decision under review by the Supreme Court, Judge Boudin’s approach was endorsed by prominent conservative and Reagan appointee Alex Kozinski.

It’s simply overwhelmingly clear that the 14th Amendment was understood as permitting race-conscious policies far beyond the extremely narrow of category of policies Thomas and Scalia would consider “remedial,” and at any rate accepting the policies of Reconstruction makes it abundantly clear that we’re not debating about a “color blind Constitution” (cf. also Scalia and Thomas’s belief in the constitutionality of racial segregation in prisons.) Scalia and Thomas have never bothered to even try to mount an “originalist” defense of their position on affirmative action and to defend their vacuous soundbites about a “color-blind Constitution” because you can’t.

On Pardons

[ 0 ] July 3, 2007 |

Thers makes a comparison.

As I’ve mentioned before, I actually think that the narrow issue of not granting a pardon to Karla Faye Tucker (as opposed to his conduct afterward and his general attitude towards the death penalty) constitutes one of the few times that Bush has acted with any integrity. The pro-death penalty conservatives who wanted Tucker pardoned were advancing a truly indefensible and indeed disgusting position; if people don’t feel comfortable with executing attractive Christian white women, the only acceptable solution is to abolish the death penalty, not to reserve it for poor black men. As Matt says, the Libby pardon presents an excellent example of why use of the arbitrary pardoning/commutation power is generally a bad idea, and the fact that its use has declined is a good thing in general. Connections and publicity end up mattering more than the merits, and if we’re not willing to apply draconian punishments to certain individuals we shouldn’t apply them to anybody. How often has Bush used this power to exempt anyone who isn’t a political ally from punishment?

Speaking of the Air Force…

[ 0 ] July 3, 2007 |

I’m pretty much in agreement with Matt on the Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan:

As William S. Lind observed on June 11, the rise in strikes is indicative of the ongoing failure of the “surge” on the ground. After all, “calling in air is the last, desperate and usually futile action of an army that is losing” its ground-based counterinsurgency efforts. “Worse,” he writes, “the growing number of air strikes shows that, despite what the Marines have accomplished in Anbar province and General Petraeus’s best efforts, our high command remains as incapable as ever of grasping ‘fourth generation’ war.”

As far as Iraq goes, I’d just as soon see the United States give up as try to further perfect our techniques. Afghanistan, however, is still worth getting right. And who knows what will come up in the future. But if anything, things are moving in the wrong direction. Afraid of being left out of the counterinsurgency game, the US Air Force is writing its own manual, and we can bet it’ll find plenty of room for air power. And when that air power gets used, you can bet we’ll make two new enemies for every one we kill.

It’s worth making a couple comments. As much as I blame Air Force parochialism for this kind of nonsense, the USAF is not the only organization at fault. Many of the Coalition partners in Afghanistan are employing ground forces that are legally restricted from engaging in combat. I think these restrictions are nonsense, but they have had the effect of making an airpower contribution more attractive to some countries than a ground force contribution. The same dynamic that works in favor of the use of airpower in the US (no casualties, quick and easy, flashy) works in other countries, as well.

That said, USAF parochialism is a real problem. Having envisioned itself as the primary instrument for the projection of US military power, the USAF must be frustrated by the argument that its mission is counter-productive in the two wars the US is currently fighting. Having to justify the F-22 in the context of Iraq hasn’t helped, either. This situation seems to have spurred two reactions. On the one hand, we have Major General Charles Dunlap denouncing “boots on the ground zealots”, and attacking the idea that the war in Iraq is any different than any other war. On the other, the USAF continues to insist that its platforms are multitask capable, such that they can hunt IEDs, dispense candy, feed puppies, etc. As Matt points out, the USAF is also developing its own counter-insurgency manual, which will presumably not include the bit about airstrikes being counter-productive in a good counter-insurgency campaign.

All that said, there certainly is room for the use of air power in irregular and counter-insurgency warfare. A USAF counter-insurgency manual would be a good thing if I trusted the Air Force to use theoretical rather than parochial justifications for the use of air power in particular situations. But I don’t; I really don’t. Hopefully before too long, I’ll visit the question of whether the United States really needs a military branch dedicated to the use of air power, or whether we’d be better served by a re-integration of the Air Force into the two older branches.

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