"Should I stay or should I go" (The Clash)

Somewhere near Sirte in October 2011, dictator Muammar Gaddafi met his fate. That event seemed to make an end to a successful western-led and UN-endorsed intervention which had aimed to protect the Libyan from a brutal repression and eventually toppled a decades-long authoritarian regime.

To some, it appeared as a good news: from now on, it would be possible to rely on military force to enforce the liberal order and, in a somewhat romanticism way, wage war for the salvation of innocent civilians. For others, that success triggered concerns that western power (and maybe others) would use Libya as a precedent in order to legitimate any intervention.

But neither occurred. On the contrary, the messy civil war in Syria and the brutal repression exerted on the population by Bacher Al Assad have not seen yet a western intervention. Proponents and opponents of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have then argued that that situation of "double standards" is another proof of western states’ cynicism.

Underlying this assumption is a fundamentally flawed perception of what is intervention in the strategic realm and, moreover, what is its meaning in today’s international relations.

R2P and "just war": a case for intervention

As Jean-Baptiste Jengène-Vilmer argued in an insightful article in July, R2P is frequently misled as a legitimating tool to intervene. In fact, R2P is neither a duty nor a free-hand given to a particular state in order to violate the norm of sovereignty upon which the international political system rests. More accurately, it could be depicted both as a condition for sovereign states to be recognized as such and as a right given to external actors, under certain circumstances, to act under UN mandate to interfere in the internal affairs of another state in order to protect its civilians.

In short, R2P functions more like the "just war" doctrine as a set of criteria to discern when and how going to war. It is worth remembering that "just war" is not only about a "just cause" but also about consequences: war is deemed "just" when its expected consequences is not to add more harm or to aggravate the conflict. Put otherwise, that implies intervention is neither a tool of last resort nor a task to be performed in every situation where civilian population is put at risk by a specific government.

Values and interests:

States, and especially great powers, are thus more prone to intervene when there’s a strong consensus among them to do so (in the case of "humanitarian intervention") or when they have both the power and high perceived stakes to act (in the case of "regime change"). Put simply, intervention is function of a particular actor’s logic. That logic rests upon a balance between perceived interests and perceived values. Both matter: values are often framing the way a particular conflict is inscribed into that actor’s interests, and interests are of course what drive the actor to include intervention in its strategic opportunities.  It is critical to make that point because values and interests are more often than not perceived as opposed and sometimes conflicting categories. In most cases, there’s a necessity to balance between them rather than to oppose them. In the case of France in Libya, values and interests are melted to a point that is nearly impossible to really separate them. Indeed, France was willing to assert its role as both a Mediterranean power and a promoter of Democracy. On the domestic stage, intervening was also seen as an opportunity driven by the perceived necessity to act in order to restore the president’s image.

But if either values and interests shape the stakes in a particular situation, they have to be balanced with obstacles and potential costs in a strategic calculus. In a sense, Libya presented only a few obstacles: for France, the necessity to frame public opinion and international audience to present intervention as neither a post-colonial move nor a casualties-creating conflict. Those obstacles (mainly internal) drove the way France chose to intervene. That’s not to say that public opinion really mattered as an objective obstacle. On the contrary, it is worth saying that public opinion was seen by political and military elites at the time as either a potential multiplier of legitimacy or a potential constraint in case France would suffer casualties.

In the case of Syria, obstacles are much more important and constraining. First, there are those constraints emanating from the international stage (i.e. the opposition of both China and Russia at the UNSC). Second, political elites are not willing to rely on direct military force and subsequent occupation to deal with Syria. That may be explained by either the interpretation of the last decade’s interventions or by political elites’ perceptions of costs overcoming benefits. Put another way: stakes and interests are not seen as sufficient to risk military or political backlash on either the domestic or the international stage. Third of course, military operations would prove much more difficult in Syria than in Libya, for a great range of reasons.

Moreover, consequences matter: there are growing concerns that an intervention in Syria, while desirable in the light of many interests or values, would lead to unintended and unwanted aftermaths.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 seems to prove that when stakes are high enough, political elites in the world’s most powerful actor can overcome perceived obstacles. On the international stage, the US was able to do it because of its unchallenged capabilities. On the domestic stage, the aftermath of 9/11 allowed the administration to secure a large support in favor of the intervention.

In short, interventions are much likely to occur when stakes and capabilities are higher than dealing with both external and internal constraints. That’s obvious, but that has two implications. First, context matters of course. But second, the way political elites perceive the desirability of a particular course of action seems to be more important than objective constraints.

Beyond intervention:

Those points highlight the fact that Libya has not become the precedent some feared (or hoped) to be. Political elites in most western countries seem to perceive much higher costs and difficulties to intervene in Syria.

It is more likely that, in the near future, western states will choose another course of action, absent the very conditions that allowed the intervention in Libya to be  decided, waged and successfully put to an end. In reality, the alternative is not a binary one: between intervening or doing nothing.

States could choose to manage conflicts, humanitarian catastrophes or so-called "rogue states" instead. That’s not to say that we are returning back to the 9/11 era. In many ways, western elites have learnt many lessons from that period. On the other hand, they’ve also drawn wrong lessons from the last decade, especially with regards to which effects military force may and can achieve.

Managing those situations would mean that states would rely on other means to deal with them. First, states could use sanctions or other tools in order to persuade. They could also use proxies or a light footprint approach in order to avoid being entangled in these situations. More probably, great powers would choose to intervene indirectly in order to contain potentially threatening consequences for a particular areas or for themselves.

Conclusion: France in Mali

That’s why France would certainly choose not to intervene directly in Mali. More accurately, one would not expect France to rely on the same assets and on the same course of action than in Libya. First, political elites are willing to avoid any accusation of attempting to reassert control in a previous colony. Second, external threats are seen as less important than domestic issues. Third, further cuts in the defense budget would weigh on capabilities to act. Fourth, France’s political leaders are unwilling to use force by fear of potential reprisals on French hostages. It seems that we forgot the very necessity of deterrence in that particular case. If France intends to remain a global power (albeit with reduced capabilities), it would be critical to remember the political message the use of force may send to both adversaries and partners. Because force means determination, it would be regrettable to lock ourselves in the binary alternative of fear vs. posture.

"Survivre, c’est vaincre" (R. Aron)

In his seminal book, Paix et guerres entre les nations, Raymond Aron chose  to take a particular stance vis à vis the Cold War: he stated that, in order to survive, the West had to win. By that, he did not mean achieving a clear victory in the traditional sense, that is by compelling the Soviet bloc to accept a peace that would end the global confrontation of his time. On the contrary, that sentence, widely discussed and debated at the time, meant that the West had to manage the threat. Put otherwise, he thought that winning could be equated to not losing or, more accurately, to preventing the adversary to achieve a decisive victory. Of course, during the Cold War, any confrontation would certainly have led to a global nuclear struggle, with no winner in sight.

That assessment remains true today, where western countries and the international liberal order they managed to build is put at risk by extremists movements threatening to either destabilize a given area or to wage a campaign of attacks against western or western-supported societies. Furthermore, the rise of the "rest" – while not a threat – is giving birth to a world in which we have to recognize the plurality of cultures, norms and values.

An important caution is needed before outlining my main argument. I was raised in a country mostly secure in the sense that no external state threatens it (to be fair, I remember having been scared by the risk of a nuclear armaggedon when I was a child). I’m aware of the fact that today’s threats are also a matter of perception. But I would not discard them, since the actors behind those threats are real, and have the capabilities to strike. But, make no mistakes: I’m not an alarmist and I despise those so-called "pundits" who raise the specter of catastrophic attacks in order to gain more audience. I despise them just as those who demonstrate constant blindness and indulgence toward the risk of real attacks.

Deterrence: Managing threats

In the April issue of Contemporary Security Policy, Thomas Rid wrote a highly scholarly and insightful piece about the way deterrence functions in Israel’s security strategy. Basically, deterrence is a way for Israel to manage "current security" threats, i.e. bomb attacks or rockets lobbed by the Hezbollah, Hamas or other non-state organizations. Thomas explains that Israel is experiencing for a long time a kind of ‘postmodern’ deterrence, relying on punishment and reprisals designed to enforce several norms. By making its action both more predictable and more unreasonable (or, more accurately, by shaping perceptions toward those conclusions), Israel is able to establish and enforce "rules of the game" which guarantee that threats to its security remain relatively low and manageable. Of course, that strategy is not free from contradictions. But the whole strategic realm is made of contradictions which strategists and policymakers  alike are tasked to balance.

The main problem of that particular approach is its interference with the mainstream western strategic culture which values decisive victory and a subsequent strategy of annihilation. There are many reasons which could explain that preference. I do not aim to explore here its many historical, societal, cultural and political roots. Suffice to say that it is deeply internalized and plays a great role in shaping strategic choices.

Nevertheless, the US is experiencing a shift toward a more coherent and comprehensive approach to deal with "extremists" threat. The very notion of deterrence itself has been used by strategists and policymakers since 9/11. In the war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, a strategy of attrition has been progressively adopted and implemented. In a sense, the so-called "shadow wars", their other political opportunities notwithstanding, are a first step toward the perception that threats can only be managed and not totally and decisively defeated.

Values?: 

In that context, it is important and critical to emphasize the discrepancy between values and actions in France’s strategy to counter "extremists" in the Sahel (and mostly  in Mali). Values are certainly a good point of departure to make political choices. Unfortunately, they often conceal the lack of political will or, worse, poor strategic thinking. Of course, I consider France to have a particular ability to pursue its own national interests on the international stage. But I’d like to underline the importance of the way we perceive threats and the way to manage them. In a sense, we are still locked to an old fashion view of deterrence as mainly a characteristic of the nuclear threat. We conceive the use of force in a sophisticated way, but we avoid to consider that coercion still plays a role in order to prevent further threat. Put otherwise: we consider that, if force is used, deterrence failed.

Of course, context and the way it is perceived matters: neither France nor the US have stakes higher than those raised by the Israeli government. But that doesn’t invalidate the opportunities set up by deterrence. On the contrary, given our perceived interests to remain an influential actor in West Africa, and given our means, such a strategy would be well suited.

 

In short, Aron remains relevant precisely because he underlines the importance to recognize that a realist alternative is not between winning and losing, but between winning and preventing the other to achieve its political goals (when those goals are opposed to ours). Maybe it is worth remembering that being aware of that is not cynicism. On the contrary, Aron never gave up his hope in a more peaceful world. But that world could not emerge either through the temptation of Empire or through complete abdication. That’s why deterrence, either through attrition, reprisal or interdiction has still a future. Aron once wrote that one of the main way to demonstrate power and to remain in peace is for an actor to honor his bill or to keep his promises.

Israel and Hamas: a strategic analysis

The recent military operations between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas at Gaza triggered a flow of comments and analysis. Of course, given the fact that that conflict is highly politicized even in western audiences, many skirmishes between pros- and cons- occured, sometimes leading to  blur the question even further.

Whereas many could argue about what they think is "objective reality" (is Hamas an existential threat to Israel? Is Israel a colonial state willing to oppress the Palestinian people?), I deem it more enlightening to focus on a more nuanced approach that could take into account actors’ logic and perceptions. In addition to be more accurate in dealing with the strategic and political issues, it is also more relevant as it is really analytic and neither descriptive nor normative. Furthermore, such an analysis would have to gain a better understanding of the way those logic act in a dialectical way toward each other.

Hamas:

After "Cast Lead", it is highly plausible that the Hamas leadership understood that is was in its own interest to avoid any provocation toward Israel. Since it has become the ruling party in Gaza after the 2006 elections, Hamas had to navigate a very narrow line. On the one hand, avoiding any reprisal from Israel, fearing that the latter would be able to devastate the strip and endanger Hamas’ capability to provide public services and to act as an effective government. That explains why the number of rockets fired on Israel decreased significantly. At the same time, Hamas struggled to prevent the rise of more extremist groups (like the Islamic Jihad) and even cracked down on Salafis. On the other hand, those groups openly challenged Hamas whose legitimacy relies on its status as the representative of the Palestinian people’s resistance to Israel.

In the wake of the Arab uprisings, the hypothesis would be that Hamas attempted to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in neighboring Egypt. In addition, the demise of ruling powers in that very area meant that it became a path for funneling weapons and cash to Gazan Salafis. Thus, they were able to strike Israel and put Hamas in front of an alternative: relying on coercion in order to suppress the rising and competing Salafis groups (but with the risk of losing its credibility as a "resistance movement"), or tolerating the attacks in the hope that Israel would not retaliate (but with the risk of being held accountable by the latter).

Thus when Israel zeroed in on Hamas, the rank and file in the organization pressured the leadership to give up restraint and to resume attacks. If president Morsi officially condemned and criticized Israel, his support to Hamas did not go further. At the end of the day, the changing internal and regional environment was perceived by Hamas leadership as an incentive to act. Internal contest and regional changes seemed to provide the organization with new opportunities to exploit in order to gain a better position in the confrontation with Israel. The goal was not to break the siege of Gaza, since in many ways that siege is useful for the organization’s political aims and financial interests. But it was certainly to force regional actors to act in order to demonstrate to the Israeli leadership that it would not be able to break Hamas’ rule on Gaza.

Israel

To some political elites, Hamas’ political goals pose an existential threat. In addition, if the size of Gaza makes it vulnerable, that is also true for Israel, whose territory can be hit by rockets launched from the coastal strip.

Facing such a threat, strategic calculus coupled with strategic culture led to a strategy of attrition. That strategy aimed to further pressure Hamas as well as more radical groups in order to disrupt those groups’ capabilities to hit Israel with medium-to-short range missiles. At the same time, that strategy was coupled with an information campaign designed to frame the narrative of the conflict for both domestic and international audiences. Showing its willingness and its determination to act, Netenyahu’s government proved able to manage the threat posed by Hamas. Lastly, even if that system is not totally perfect, the Iron Dome deflected the threats posed by rockets and missiles on the Israeli population.

There’s an important point here: that strategy is not aimed to win "decisively’ against the Palestinian organization. That is nearly impossible, since there’s only two courses of action that could lead to that outcome: either Israel would prove capable to cut Hamas’ support among the Gazans (which would necessitate an "hearts and minds" campaign directed toward the Palestinians , which doesn’t seem possible given the growing gap and cleavage between the IDF and the population and which is also not deemed desirable nor achievable by the Israeli government), or Israel would decide to cut a deal with the organization (which is highly improbable given the fact that the latter’s legitimacy relies on its rejection of any long-term deal with Israel). Put otherwise: there’s little hope for Israel to achieve any decisive political objective against  Hamas, or at least this is the main perception.

In short, Israel’s strategy consists in dealing with Hamas thus opening the question of what to do on the long run. There’s a lesson to draw from that short (and sometimes questionable) analysis. The alternative in war is not necessarily between winning and losing. Sometimes, it is more reasonable and more rational to deal with a threat or with an adversary by preventing him to reach his political objectives. Attrition is particularly well suited for that kind of strategic attitude. It can either lead to the adversary’s exhaustion (or isolation) or to its complete annihilation. More probably, it is able to maintain a high level of pressure against him, thus preventing him to hit and to harm. It is also truer when combined with deterrence, both by reprisals and by interdiction. Of course, that cannot replace a long-term reflection on how to put an end to the conflict. In that particular case, and given the role played by mutual perceptions, it is unlikely to see that outcome before minds are able to change in a deep way.

Stéphane Taillat

Perils and promises of drones: a strategic appraisal

A short post to outline several ideas and thoughts about the use of drones in the US strategy against Al Qaeda.

1) we have to grasp the political significance of Obama’s choice to rely on drones and SOF in order to "disrupt, dismantle" Al Qaeda:

The president narrowed its political goals: fighting Al Qaeda and its allies or affiliates without relying on state building, and without committing too much troops on the ground in a comprehensive counterinsurgency approach. Instead, Obama understood his role as fighting the jihadist organization in order to deter further attacks against the US.

2) that goal led to a new strategy:

Using drones strikes as well as SOF raids (or other more conventional assets) is done through an attrition strategy. The main mechanism through which attrition is supposed to work is to inflict casualties to the enemy organization faster than it can replace it. It is not primarily intended to exhaust the adversary, but to raise its costs to pursue the war. In other words, exhaustion is only one possible outcome. At the other end of the spectrum, complete annihilation is another one.

3) physical and psychological effects of drone strikes:

Drones are not used only to inflict physical casualties, thus undermining the operational capabilities of AQ/its affiliates to control effectively a territory, to keep safe havens or to prepare further attacks. They also have psychological impacts, mostly on the networks, and especially on its weaker nodes, that is those actors amenable to leave the fight, or to hide in order to escape the strikes. As such, the strategy which relies on drones is not only an attrition strategy, but also a part of a more comprehensive deterrence strategy. That’s what "disrupting" means: inflicting systemic blows that undermine the operational capabilities of a given network as a whole.

On the material side of the effects, drones have proven highly effective as a decapitation tool. On the psychological one, it’s difficult to really assess the effects, but it seems that drones, used in addition to other tools, may have produced subversive effects.

4) Pressuring Al Qaeda?

The problem is the relevance of such a strategy on the long run. A "pure" attrition strategy would likely lead to a slaughter, since AQ and its affiliates have been able to reinforce or to replace the losses. What could be the threshold that would trigger an annihilation, or exhaustion of AQ? The "search and destroy" experience in Vietnam should remember us that relying only on measurable metrics (especially in terms of "body count") is fraught with cognitive biases.

On the other hand, a "pure" deterrence strategy is difficult to wage against non-state actors, and especially "irregular" organizations. It is thus possible to limit AQ’s capabilities to wage a campaign of attacks, but up to a point. Zero-risk is not really a realist option.

That’s why using drones strikes – both more precise and less costly than conventional counterinsurgency i.e. as much efficient as a strategy can be – should prove more relevant on the long run if used as a way to sustain the pressure against AQ and its affiliates. The goal would not be to dismantle or to disrupt (not to speak of neutralize), but instead to compel AQ to stay on a defensive stance (or, at least, a less offensive one).

In addition, relying on drones and SOF raids, while highlighting other potential costs (in diplomatic terms since it is necessary to achieve an agreement with the host nation, with the very exception of failed states maybe; in terms of domestic support since both the military institutions and the public opinion could raised several political obstacles, in terms of local support since drones may have a negative impact on the local population), should not be thought as a silver bullet. Furthermore, relying on such an indirect way to deal with AQ should not let the military institutions to forget its institutional experience from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In short, that strategy has to adapt to the evolving character of the war, which is both conditioned by internal calculus and political bargaining and of course, by the adversary’s strategy.

Stéphane TAILLAT

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