Friday, June 20, 2014

Roger Cohen's Fantasy of Air Power and Influence

Come on, Roger -- you know better than this.
There was a moment in the Syrian conflict when decisive military aid to the opposition could have changed Assad’s calculation. President Obama mouthed vague promises of arms and allowed Assad to regroup.
First, you're awfully mealy-mouthed in your claim.... "decisive military aid" (whatever that is) could have (but might not have) changed Assad's "calculation" (presumably not to sue for peace, and broker some sort of imagined, long-term peace deal that made nice with some of the dissident groups, disarmed other factions like ISIS and stabilized his country). The conceit here seems to be that there's a magical point that the U.S. could have caused the warring parties to reach where the opposition factions would not have been quite strong enough to topple Assad, but where he would have been sufficiently weakened to be convinced to give them enough of what they wanted to lay down their arms and unite behind his reformed government. It's an interesting fantasy, but not one I think could have been turned into reality. Assad and his military would not want to relinquish power to their blood enemies, nor would those enemies happily again subject themselves to his rule (or that of his hand-picked successor, if part of the fantasy is that he agrees to step down).

Cohen buys very strongly into the notion that, as a bombing campaign appears to have tipped the balance in the Bosnian conflict, it's a tool that can magically change the balance favorably to U.S. interests in pretty much any conflict. Drop enough bombs from a safe altitude and the facts on the ground inexorably change in your favor. Cohen is apparently unaware of the basic facts of the conflict in Bosnia. That was not a conflict that ended based on air strikes alone, no boots on the ground, but was a conflict that involved a significant deployment of ground forces to cement and maintain the peace. The initial troops were NATO forces, and those troops were eventually replaced by E.U. forces. Where does Cohen believe that the troops will come from to secure a post-bombing peace accord in Syria, even if we assume that the fantasy scenario would be achievable? Is there a single western nation that is interested in committing troops to such a venture?

Further, even during the bombing campaign, it was key that Bosnian and Croatian ground forces were able to go on the offensive. While Cohen seems to believe that various Syrian opposition groups might fill that role, he doesn't identify which ones or how we could be sure that the ones who ended up in the leadership of a theoretical alliance of opposition groups would be the factions we would want to prevail. You don't have to look past what is presently happening in Iraq to recognize that some of the groups operating out of Syria are hostile to U.S. interests, nor what happens when you arm a weak group and a stronger, anti-western faction steamrolls them and takes their U.S.-provided arms. The lesson of Bosnia may be that a western air campaign can help achieve balance between two armed factions fighting on the ground below, but it should be recalled that victory still required the two warring sides on the ground to be roughly equivalent in strength.

More than that, we have a fantasy of finding huge numbers of trustworthy, U.S.-friendly factions that the U.S. can arm, that can be trusted to work together against the government, to hold onto those arms, and to ultimately either so threaten the Assad government as to force it to become more inclusive and progressive (and friendly to the west) or to topple it and impose a more progressive, pro-west government. I'm reminded of G.W. Bush's joke, where he pretended to search for Iraqi WMDs in the Oval Office -- where are we supposed to find these factions, and in those numbers?

And that's not where the silliness ends,
Force in the absence of a sustained political and diplomatic strategy leads nowhere. This has been Obama’s failure in Afghanistan, where the United States never invested much capital in a diplomatic solution involving negotiation with the Taliban; and in Iraq, where the president allowed American forces to withdraw without leveraging the massive U.S. investment there into ensuring that the sectarian Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki reached out to the Sunnis and Kurds.
What does Cohen believe would happen if the Obama Administration openly declared that it was in negotiations with the Taliban, and hoped to integrate the Taliban into the Iraqi government? Was Cohen asleep during the Bowe Bergdahl foofaraw, in which Republicans couldn't shove themselves before cameras quickly enough to declare that the Taliban is a terrorist organization with which we should have no dealings at all? Did he miss the dire warnings that five Talibani prisoners, having been released, were going to pose a grave and continuing threat to the safety of the United States? Did he miss that, behind the release of Bergdahl, it is inescapable that negotiations did involve the Taliban? We should be able to infer from those facts that, at least at some level, the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban and that the negotiations likely do involve trying to keep it from attempting to destabilize or overthrow the Afghan government, but that it would be ridiculously stupid for the Obama Administration to publicly announce that any such negotiations are occurring.

As for the president "allowing" U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq, Cohen seems to have scrubbed from his memory banks the fact that George W. Bush negotiated the withdrawal date for combat forces, and that the Iraqi government was not willing to enter into a new status of forces agreement with the immunity clauses required by the United States for a continued military presence. What would Cohen have had Obama do? Disregard the concerns of the military, ignore the wishes of the sovereign government of Iraq, and keep the forces in place? I'm also reminded of Tom Ricks' concession that, although he initially wished that the U.S. could have kept forces in Iraq, in hindsight it's a good thing that the U.S. did not as it would presently be in the position of having to massively reinforce that deployment or withdrawing -- neither of which are good outcomes. Cohen seems to disagree -- so he would have us send tens of thousands of combat troops into Iraq to secure the Sunni areas were ISIS operates, even as Iraq's own army chooses to turn and run?
The past months have constituted a low point in American foreign policy: the rampage by the Sunni fanatics of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria through wide swathes of Iraq; President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and successful troublemaking in eastern Ukraine; Syria’s descent into ever further horror; China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea; the failure of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Sure, but it's a bit much to imagine that the president could have done much on any of those fronts. The problems in Iraq are borne of the final status of forces agreement, negotiated by G.W. Bush, and the poor governance of the Shiite leadership of Iraq, the leadership of a government that formed and came to power under G.W. Bush. It was entirely predictable that Maliki's actions would eventually create a crisis -- it was much less a question of "if" than "when". As for Putin's actions in Crimea, what use of forced does Cohen imagine would have deterred him? The same sort of chest-thumping machismo that didn't deter Putin from taking military action in Georgia when G.W. Bush was President? Does Cohen believe that the U.S. can credibly threaten China with military reprisals? Does Cohen believe that the "Israeli-Palestinian talks" had any chance of success under Prime Minister Netanyahu, or that there was some magical reason to believe that this was the one time that doing the same thing over and over again would achieve a different outcome? And if it's a show of military force that makes the difference, how did G.W. Bush's "roadmap" work out, back when he was eagerly starting wars in the Middle East?

Even leaving aside the fact that Cohen's imagined outcome of a bombing campaign is fantastical, the notion that all of these events can be pinned on Obama because he didn't bomb Syria is absurd. One could make a similar list of bad events under G.W. Bush -- North Korea and Pakistan going nuclear, the abject failure of his Israel-Palestine peace initiative, the catastrophic failure of his policies in Libya, China's actions in the South China Sea to assert sovereignty over those waters (no, they're not new), Putin carving territories out of Georgia.... Should we mention the incompetence that led Iraq into civil war, or the failure to stabilize Afghanistan? The list goes on.

Fundamentally, Cohen seems to have lost track both of history and of the limits of what happens when you apply force (particularly when you do so in a half-hearted manner, such as "Let's do airstrikes and see what happens, but make abundantly clear we're never going to have boots on the ground") in parts of the world -- in this case, parts of the world that are not exactly sympathetic to U.S. foreign policy interests. He falls into a long line of armchair commentators who seem to believe that people on the ground don't mind being bombed, as long as those bombs are delivered by the U.S. Air Force or NATO. Were he to pay better attention to his history, it's difficult to believe that he would have written that column.

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