Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Conventional Wisdom

Violence, we are often told, is not the answer. It never works, and only leads to endless cycles of destruction. OK, that’s the argument from the hyper-pacifists, and [grit teeth] not really representative the mainstream Left. Lest I be accused of setting up straw men, here’s Kevin Drum making the case that conventional war is futile:

I believe that our fight against Islamic jihadism is analogous on a global scale to a counterinsurgency. To use the hoary phrase, we'll succeed by "winning hearts and minds," and conventional warfare just can't do that. In fact, it's mostly counterproductive: it won't succeed in killing the guerrillas and it will lose us the support of the local citizenry, which in turn will make the insurgency even more formidable. Lebanon is serving as a pretty good case study of this right now.

So conventional war is a bit of a drag, assuming you accept the part about it not killing guerrillas. What’s the alternative?

I believe it's fundamentally nonmilitary and revolves around engagement: trade agreements, security pacts, genuine support for grassroots democracy, a willingness to practice the same international rules we preach, etc. The idea is to slowly but steadily promote democratic rule, liberal institutions, education of women, and international commerce...

Well now, that sounds promising. Let’s see if we can put it into practice with a few test cases. Here’s Hussein Massawi, a former Hizbollah leader:

We are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.

Not exactly the most inviting opening remarks, but I have every confidence that a Howard Dean would have worked day after day to find some common ground there. Perhaps they could trade notes on battle cry technique. Yeeeeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!

Let’s move on to Iran. Here’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on nuclear proliferation:

Our answer to those who are angry about Iran achieving the full nuclear fuel cycle is just one phrase. We say: Be angry at us and die of this anger," because "We won't hold talks with anyone about the right of the Iranian nation to enrich uranium.

No doubt John Kerry would have built a coalition (Iraq) to determine that multi-lateral talks (North Korea) don’t work, and then gone on to convey that the he was now for being against the vote in which he might have been against being for Iran’s right to a nuclear program. You know, nuance.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that something gets lost in translation and Hizbollah continues to attack Israel. What then?

When military responses are necessary, they should be short, highly targeted, and designed to piss off the surrounding citizenry as little as possible. This will, needless to say, take a very long time and a lot of self restraint, but it won't succeed at all if every few years we set things back a decade with a conventional war.

Highly targeted sounds good, make ‘em pay a price for their transgressions, right? But what exactly do you target? You’re dealing with people who live for nothing other than the furtherance of their ideology. They literally have nothing to lose. Meanwhile, whose citizenry are you not “pissing off” with this approach anyway? Are Israeli civilians supposed to accept a never-ending stream of rocket attacks, bombs and kidnappings?

As much as we might like to tell ourselves otherwise, there is nothing to entice or compel Hizbollah to halt their attacks other than a shut off from their sponsors or the utter annihilation of their forces. They have calculated that the West is not willing (or maybe even able) to impose either option. Say what you will about these religious fanatics, but they understand the conventional wisdom.

20 comments:

Tlaloc said...

"here’s Kevin Drum making the case that conventional war is futile"

No what he's saying is that attacking an INSURGENCY with conventional warfare is futile. That's true, it has been true since the dawn of mankind and it will continue to be true so long as our species exists.



"As much as we might like to tell ourselves otherwise, there is nothing to entice or compel Hizbollah to halt their attacks other than a shut off from their sponsors or the utter annihilation of their forces."

Enticements aren't for your enemies- they are for the people who might otherwise support your enemy. You entice their potential recruits not to join them. WW2 didn't end nazi ideals, what it ended was the huge potential recruiting pool that that ideology had to draw upon. Nazis continue to exist but as a minor criminal nuisance instead of a deadly military threat.

Francis W. Porretto said...

I'd say our efforts in Iraq have been quite successful: at liberating the Iraqis from a brutal, blood-drenched dictator; at winning Iraqis' trust in American benevolence; and in implementing a flypaper-strategy that's deflected much terrorist effort from our own backs. If Drum regards these things as failures, one must ask what he'd take as a success.

Granted that America must learn some new tricks for the new ways of war. But that doesn't invalidate the use of properly focused and calibrated violence. No, not at all.

Tlaloc said...

"I'd say our efforts in Iraq have been quite successful"

Do you get the paper by any chance?



"at liberating the Iraqis from a brutal, blood-drenched dictator"

And replacing him with several more bloody dictators. This is a good thing how? At least Hussein was old and hated and his power base was narrow. He could have been overthrown by a local revolution much easier than the new bosses.



"at winning Iraqis' trust in American benevolence"

You actually made me so a spit take with that one. I guess you missed the repeated allegation of abuse at the hands of our troops and contractors. I'll give you some highlights that have really played well in the arab press: abu ghraib, the rape of a girl who may have been 14, the murder of the girl and her family, many incidents of shooting up families at checkpoints, at least two other cases where american soldiers have been charged with murder, a nice video of some american contractors shooting at Iraqi's for fun... should I go on?



"and in implementing a flypaper-strategy that's deflected much terrorist effort from our own backs."

Quick question... how many americans have been killed by this fly paper strategy? we're getting on toward 3000 now right? And that's in just 3 years. In the last two hundred years before this how many american deaths to terrorism were there? less than 5 thousand.

Congrastulations! Your flypaper has, in three years, almost doubled our total casualties from terrorism! Go team!



"If Drum regards these things as failures, one must ask what he'd take as a success."

Mr. Drum doesn't seem to occupy the same strange "black is white" universe you live in.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Tlaloc, if you want to convince me of something, you shouldn't parrot so many discredited allegations and trivial left-wing talking points. (You might also try not insulting me or my intelligence.) As for convincing others...well, I don't hang out in your preferred circles, so I'll refrain from comment. But it would seem that annoying those who differ is more important to you than actually arguing for your convictions.

Matt Huisman said...

Granted that America must learn some new tricks for the new ways of war.

Undoubtedly so, Mr. Porretto. It might be suggested to the Israelis as well. Air power is a wonderful thing, but its effectiveness is diminished against an enemy with limited assets. Shock and awe has about run its course; it’s the return of the ground war.

My essential point with respect to conventional warfare is that we excel at (relatively) swift, offensive battles rather than tactical retaliations and policing efforts. The nature of insurgencies is that while their resistance ideology is somewhat attractive, it doesn’t transform into success (recruits, support) without victories. Victory, as defined recently by Hassan Nasrallah, can be claimed by as little as the continued existence of Hizbollah in the face of Israeli attacks. In this model, limited responses embolden – not deter – the insurgents.

Matt Huisman said...

No what he's saying is that attacking an INSURGENCY with conventional warfare is futile.

If you mean that blowing up everything in sight is futile, then yes. But insurgencies get put down all the time. The first step is to crush any hope that violence may lead to victory. Once that illusion has been stripped away, it then becomes imperative to present an attractive alternative reality.

But you need both steps. Human nature is such that it takes a major setback before we’ll even consider the alternatives. The determination that is so key to success is also the biggest stumbling block on the road to truth. In the end, the limited, nickel and dime response, is the cruelest thing we could do.

Tlaloc said...

"Tlaloc, if you want to convince me of something, you shouldn't parrot so many discredited allegations and trivial left-wing talking points."

Discredited? Like?

Abu Ghraib didn't happen?
70 some people didn't die yesterday in the Iraqi civil war?
Marines aren't getting charged by court martials for murders of Iraqi civilians?

Help me out here...



"(You might also try not insulting me or my intelligence.)"

To be frank your the one who insulted your intelligence by trying to pretend Iraq is sailing along just fine.



"But it would seem that annoying those who differ is more important to you than actually arguing for your convictions."

Most of us don't find the truth "annoying" unless we are deeply invested in personal delusions. But, hey, que sera sera.

Tlaloc said...

"My essential point with respect to conventional warfare is that we excel at (relatively) swift, offensive battles rather than tactical retaliations and policing efforts."

True.



"The nature of insurgencies is that while their resistance ideology is somewhat attractive, it doesn’t transform into success (recruits, support) without victories."

Sort of true but merely standing up to the US can be passably claimed as a victory. The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan haven't been able to claim any real battlefied vicories but they have had no problem getting recruits and support.



"Victory, as defined recently by Hassan Nasrallah, can be claimed by as little as the continued existence of Hizbollah in the face of Israeli attacks. In this model, limited responses embolden – not deter – the insurgents."

No, because a larger response still cannot destroy hizbullah. Barring mass genocide there is no military action Israel can take that will kill that organization.

Larger military actions just mean more dead civilians and a huge boost to Hizbullah's position.

Tlaloc said...

"But insurgencies get put down all the time."

Really? Can you name a few for me?

Off the top of my head I think of the IRA, the Chechynan rebels, the Basque and Corsican separatists, the Tamil Tigers, the Zapatistas, and so on. All of who have been going for some time now. Well except the IRa but it's worth pointing out that that was a negotiated end not a military one. The Brits made concessions, the IRA made concessions and it's been rocky but working.

Gosh, maybe there is something to that whole talking thing...

James Elliott said...

“So conventional war is a bit of a drag, assuming you accept the part about it not killing guerrillas.”

Well, this bit is true: Typically counterinsurgency campaigns that use conventional means must use them ruthlessly, eliminating whole swaths of the population in order to also effectively engage guerrillas. If you recall, we’ve had this discussion before: Guerrilla warfare is movement warfare unconventionally applied; movement warfare is unparalleled in success, especially against large and entrenched forces (such as occupying or invading forces). Movement warfare is why we have airborne units, Marines, cavalry, and special forces. Movement warfare is also how resistance units (like the Finns, Norwegians, Serbs, and French in WWII; the Viet Cong in Vietnam; the mujahadeen in Afghanistan; or pretty much any African or Middle Eastern conflict group today) function. While a military response may be necessary, conventional military tactics, such as Israel’s interdiction campaign in Lebanon, historically fail to defeat guerrillas without “burning the village to save it.”

“I believe it's fundamentally nonmilitary and revolves around engagement: trade agreements, security pacts, genuine support for grassroots democracy, a willingness to practice the same international rules we preach, etc.”

Well, here I have to disagree, in part, with Mr. Drum. A military response that combines with these other prescriptions is far more likely to succeed.

“Meanwhile, whose citizenry are you not “pissing off” with this approach anyway?”

Um, the same people whom the more you disaffect them the more they are drawn to the ranks of the organization you’re trying to marginalize? It’s not rocket science. Negotiation with Hezbollah? Most likely impossible, I agree. Enticing the Shia of South Lebanon into something new and different? Decidedly otherwise. While it may be ideologically satisfying to conflate all these Shia with Hezbollah, it’s not particularly helpful in forwarding Israel’s security. Successful counterinsurgency and anti-guerrilla warfare takes decades and fail when one does not win the support of the population the guerrillas draw from. The British learned this lesson. So did the French. It’s really quite astonishing that the U.S. and Israel remain obstinately bullheaded.

“...there is nothing to entice or compel Hizbollah to halt their attacks other than a shut off from their sponsors or the utter annihilation of their forces...”

Well, one way to do that would have been propping up the shaky limbs of the Cedar Revolution rather than completely decimating it. But then, that’s something a realist might think of, and not an idealogue. Only a fool chooses total war when it is unlikely to fulfill ones goals. Ehud Olmert has acted the fool.

Tlaloc said...

"Typically counterinsurgency campaigns that use conventional means must use them ruthlessly, eliminating whole swaths of the population in order to also effectively engage guerrillas."

And it's worth pointing out that even then it only works if the population that is supporting the insurgency is small enough for you to make a sizable dent. Barring a massive nuclear attack there is no way that either the shiite or Sunni populations count in that category.



"It’s really quite astonishing that the U.S. and Israel remain obstinately bullheaded."

They aren't stubborn, they are just served by having a constant series of emergencies. The creation and promotion of a boogeyman is a hoary old political tactic after all.

tbmbuzz said...

Well, one way to do that would have been propping up the shaky limbs of the Cedar Revolution rather than completely decimating it. But then, that’s something a realist might think of, and not an idealogue. Only a fool chooses total war when it is unlikely to fulfill ones goals. Ehud Olmert has acted the fool.

Yup. I was discussing this with a Lebanese expatriate (Christian) friend of mine, who is still in touch with relatives and friends back in Lebanon. He thinks it would have been much better for the Israelis to ally themselves with the Christians and Druze in Lebanon and overtly provide military and security assistance to these groups to disarm Hezbollah and strengthen the central government. Whatever good will Israel had among these groups has now largely dissipated, as Israel knowingly or unknowingly has also dropped bombs on non-Muslim areas of Lebanon.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's my observation of history that military and political alliances are seldom created by good will, but by necessity.

The Druze and Lebanese Christians had their chance, if they were so inclined.

After Israel's 20-year occupation of southern Lebanon, this is a hiccup.

Tlaloc said...

"The Druze and Lebanese Christians had their chance, if they were so inclined.
After Israel's 20-year occupation of southern Lebanon, this is a hiccup."

Um, so Israel had twenty years and couldn't get the job done. Now if the Christians and Druze can't pull it off in in a fortnight you want to tae Israel back in?

How about giving a fledgling democracy more than a year to deal with the issue, or barring that not advocating the same failed policy that CREATED hizbollah in the first place as the way to destroy Hizbollah?

Matt Huisman said...
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Matt Huisman said...

What happened to the calls for realism around here?

While it’s a beautiful thought that the Cedars would have somehow picked up the cause of Israel, that day has always been at least ten years away. It takes a very confident government to partner with Israel on anything (let alone the dismantling of Hizbollah), and even then the relations are dicey. Aoun, Hariri & Jumblatt are still (in some cases literally) miles away from any real authority, and Hizbollah holds all the cards militarily.

In order to believe that Hizbollah was going to willingly give up its “defensive” positions to the Lebanese government, you have to believe that they had no hostile intentions towards Israel. Events have shown that this was never the case.

Tlaloc said...

"While it’s a beautiful thought that the Cedars would have somehow picked up the cause of Israel, that day has always been at least ten years away. It takes a very confident government to partner with Israel on anything (let alone the dismantling of Hizbollah), and even then the relations are dicey."

What are you talking about? Who said anything about the cedar revolution leading to cooperation with Israel. You have to stop thinking of things in terms of problems to be overcome with force and enemy of my enemy is my friend kinds of relationships.

What the cedar revolution might have done is to give Lebanon a stable home brewed government that was fairly free and participatory. Why does that matter? Because Hizbollah only survives so long as it has a ready pool of very angry people to use as recruits.

A truly liberal democracy would have slowly eaten away at Hizbollah's support structures (assuming it managed to last which of course was by no means guaranteed). It didn't have anything to do with Lebanon wanting to work with Israel, it had to do with helping Lebanon not be a hellhole.

That is realism, Matt.

Matt Huisman said...

And we're supposed to believe Hizbollah would just sort of let that happen, right? Remember, the reason the Syrians could swallow a pull out of Lebanon was that Hizbollah was so firmly entrenched that they knew they could always get it back.

We keep running into the same problem around here...Hizbollah is not content with things the way they are. They don't want mere Blue Line enforcement. And they are not going to let themselves be stopped.

James Elliott said...

“While it’s a beautiful thought that the Cedars would have somehow picked up the cause of Israel, that day has always been at least ten years away.”


Clearly you missed the realist point here. The Cedar Revolution was never and would never be about “picked up the cause of Israel.” But propping it up would have served to marginalize Hezbollah, the Syrian proxy in Lebanon. Remember Syria, the whole reason for the Cedar Revolution in the first place? By encouraging Lebanon in it’s quest for true self-determination, you get the useful side-effect of reducing Hezbollah’s “legitimacy” as its ties to Syria (and Iran) would become more of a liability if they wanted to retain an ounce of political power. That tension within Hezbollah gives democratically-minded supporters the chance to begin playing Syria against Iran - the more radicalized Hezbollah would become, it would be with a fundamentalist focus that Syria has worked long and hard to co-opt in its own people. The more stable and supported Lebanon was, the more it could move in to supplant Hezbollah’s facetious social service network among the southern Shia with real services (the kind that don’t have ammo dumps and bunkers beneath schools and hospitals), thus pulling the Shia away from Hezbollah.

You have to play the long-game here. The more Lebanon had grown (just look at the growth of Beirut in the last decade alone!), the better off its people would be. The better off, the less likely to become disaffected and susceptible to radicalization. Hezbollah, eventually, would need to moderate or risk a loss of power. A legitimate Lebanese government, democratically supported, could then move, with international support (say NATO), to finally take the step of disarming the Hezbollah militia in the south.

Israel is indeed fighting for its very survival. Sometimes this requires taking hits to land that killer punch. By all means, don’t take the rockets lying down; but don’t sacrifice your future for immediate gains either.

Tlaloc said...

"And we're supposed to believe Hizbollah would just sort of let that happen, right?"

Not necessarily, but if Hizbollah moves in and sidetracks the progress made by the rest of the lebanese does that help or hurt their position? It hurts it. They alienate themselve even more from the non-shia populous and even from some shia.

On the other hand does it hurt or help Hizbollah if Israel comes in guns blazing and kills tons of civilians? Helps it. Immensely.



"And they are not going to let themselves be stopped."

They are far from omnipotent, matt. Don't be silly. Hizbollah can't simply decide that it won;t be stopped. They are only unstoppable to the extent that our idiotic choices make them unstoppable.