The Social Science of Military Intervention

Stephen Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, has an older, but still incredibly relevant article in Foreign Policy on the social science of military interventions. “Before France, Britain, and the United States stumbled into its current attempt to dislodge Muammar al-Qaddafi from power in Libya,” asks Walt,

…did anyone bother to ask what recent social science tells us about the likely results of our intervention?

I doubt it, because recent research suggests that we are likely to be disappointed by the outcome. A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) “has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945.” Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to “significant declines in democracy.” Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two “foreign imposed regime changes” since 1920 and finds that when interventions “damage state infrastructural power” they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.

Drawing on then unpublished work by political scientist Alexander Downes, Walt explains “that foreign intervention tends to promote stability when the intervening powers are seeking to restore a previously deposed ruler. But when foreign interveners oust an existing ruler and impose a wholly new government (which is what we are trying to do in Libya), the likelihood of civil war more than triples.” The regime change “disrupts state power and foments grievances and resentments” and increases the probability of civil war. Another paper by Downes found that “states that have their governments removed by a democracy gain no significant democratic benefit compared to similar states that do not experience intervention.”

With Clinton owning Libya–as even leftist outlets have acknowledged–this information becomes all the more timely and important. Something both conservatives and liberals should take into account.

US Military Leadership: Treasonous or just Corrupt and Incompetent?

866 - Ford Carrier

So, my take on this issue is actually more extreme than the headline of the article that inspired it, which is pretty rare for me. The article in question is The U.S. Navy’s Big Mistake — Building Tons of Supercarriers, and the case it makes is pretty simple.

First, aircraft carriers are really, really easy to sink.

Soviet Adm. Sergei Gorchakov reportedly held the view that the U.S. had made a strategic miscalculation by relying on large and increasingly vulnerable aircraft carriers. The influential U.S. Adm. Hyman Rickover shared this view. In a 1982 congressional hearing, legislators asked him how long American carriers would survive in an actual war.

Rickover’s response? “Forty-eight hours,” he said.

Things have gotten much, much worse since 1982, by the way. Long-distance, very-fast, relatively cheap, shore-based anti-ship missiles are a problem. So are diesel-powered submarines, which are actually quieter than nuclear subs. But the US military has been deliberately hiding the vulnerability of their prized carriers.

Now let’s take a look at the unofficial record derived from war games. In 2002, the U.S. Navy held a large simulated war game, the Millennium Challenge, to test scenarios of attacks on the fleet by a hypothetical Gulf state — Iraq or possibly Iran.

The leader of the red team employed brilliant asymmetric tactics resulting in 16 U.S. ships, including two supercarriers, going to the bottom in a very short span of time. The Navy stopped the war game, prohibited the red team from using these tactics and then reran the exercise declaring victory on the second day.

When I shared this quote in a Skype chat with some friends, one responded instantly with “that is f—ing treason.” And I was just getting started with the juicy quotes.

One carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, used up three of its nine lives having been run into by an undetected Soviet sub in 1984, overflown by two undetected Russian planes — an Su-24 and an Su-27 — in 2000, and surprised by a Chinese Song-class attack submarine that surfaced undetected inside its perimeter and within torpedo range in 2006.

What that tells you is that the only reason that no one has sunk an air craft carrier of ours since World War II is that nobody has tried. I should say, “sunk in real life,” of course. The simulated sinkings are apparently not few nor far between.

In March of this year, the French Navy reported that it had sunk the USS Theodore Roosevelt and half of its escorts in a war game, but hurriedly removed that information from its website.

And yet, despite this dismal track record and the even gloomier future prospects, we’re sacrificing other, more capable ships to keep building super-carriers.

The reason the article irritated me so much is that it’s just one of a ton of examples. Consider, for example, the asinine efforts of the Air Force to kill the A-10 Warthog. Cheap, slow, and ugly, the A-10 continues to be one of the most important aircraft in our inventory because of it’s incredible prowess at close-air support. The Air Force wants to get rid of it to fund shiny new toys like the F-35, despite the fact that the F-35 doesn’t offer any genuine opportunity to fill the role the A-10 fills.Things got so bad that an Air Force general told officers if any of them praised the A-10 to lawmakers it was “treason.”

Then there’s the F-35 itself, which is a late, overbudget, maintenance queen that can’t even replicate the dog fighting abilities of the 40-year old F-16. The sad thing? That’s not even the worst of it. The fact that we’re investing this much in manned aircarft at all shows that we’re not thinking seriously about the future. Putting a human in the cockpit means taking up space and weight and–more importantly–means limiting the aircraft’s performance to what the human body can withstand. The day of manned aircraft is over. We need to catch up with that reality.

Here’s the thing: maybe you think the US spends too much on military. That’s fine. Maybe you think the US should continue to maintain military dominance. That’s fine, too. But regardless of how much we spend, the money should be spent efficiently. There’s no excuse for what is happening now. It’s a disgrace.

The Peshmerga Vs. ISIS: A Military Appraisal

This is a fascinating article by Kenneth Pollack on what likely occurred when ISIS attacked the Kurds this summer, and is well worth a read.

The long and short of it is that the Peshmerga is still a good force, but it is not quite what it used to be.

For one, the manpower has changed. Between the 60s and 80s, most of the Peshmerga recruits grew up in the harsh, rugged environment of the mountains. Being able to handle a rifle was necessary for survival (wolves still preyed on flocks and the various tribes settled scores with each other and with the government) so it is no surprise that the Kurds were “uncanny marksmen” in the words of an Israeli military advisor who trained them in the 60s. In recent years, Kurdish society has become increasingly urban. The recruits are “not terribly different from young city-dwellers across the world… more likely to have played “Call of Duty” than to have hunted or fired an actual weapon in anger.”

Second, the Peshmerga hasn’t seen significant action since 1996, and that was a civil war amongst similarly-armed Kurdish factions.

Third, they have rested on their laurels a bit, and have let training and discipline slip. “In that respect, they were probably unprepared to take on the highly-motivated ISIS troops they were suddenly forced to fight.”

Fourth, they suffer from a deficiency of heavy weapons like artillery and armoured vehicles, and what they have got is very dated, being at least 30-40 years old, if not older.

ISIS took the Kurds by surprise, but they fought back, managing to negate some of ISIS’s advantages. Still, as Pollack notes, “ISIS’s modus operandi is that when it is thwarted on one axis of advance, it simply turns and attacks in another direction,” and the article helps explain what is going on right now

ISIS has advanced to the Kurdish town of Kobane in northern Syria, triggering a massive flight of Kurds. The situation in Kobane is desperate, and despite its valiant efforts, the YPG, the Kurdish militia, suffers from many of the same disadvantages that gave ISIS its initial victories against the Peshmerga. The YPG is less than ten years old (and has been fighting for only three), is formed of Urban youths, and has no heavy weaponry at all. ISIS, on the other hand, has deployed its newly acquired tanks. The Kurds of the YPG are literally fighting with their backs to the wall, but due to these weaknesses they cannot hold out against ISIS if they receive no outside help on the ground.

“Son, Men Don’t Get Raped”

The documentary The Invisible War made waves a couple years ago by tackling the subject of sexual assault within the U.S. military, largely focusing on female victims. A recent issue of GQ has a disturbing and heartbreaking article focused solely on male victims:

Sexual assault is alarmingly common in the U.S. military, and more than half of the victims are men. According to the Pentagon, thirty-eight military men are sexually assaulted every single day. These are the stories you never hear–because the culprits almost always go free, the survivors rarely speak, and no one in the military or Congress has done enough to stop it.

…The moment a man enlists in the United States armed forces, his chances of being sexually assaulted increase by a factor of ten. Women, of course, are much more likely to be victims of military sexual trauma (MST), but far fewer of them enlist. In fact, more military men are assaulted than women—nearly 14,000 in 2012 alone. Prior to the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011, male-on-male-rape victims could actually be discharged for having engaged in homosexual conduct. That’s no longer the case—but the numbers show that men are still afraid to report being sexually assaulted.

Military culture is built upon a tenuous balance of aggression and obedience. The potential for sexual violence exists whenever there is too much of either. New recruits, stripped of their free will, cannot question authority. A certain kind of officer demands sex from underlings in the same way he demands they pick up his laundry. A certain kind of recruit rapes his peer in a sick mimicry of the power structure: I own you totally.“One of the myths is that the perpetrators identify as gay, which is by and large not the case,” says James Asbrand, a psychologist with the Salt Lake City VA’s PTSD clinical team. “It’s not about the sex. It’s about power and control.”

The title of the article captures this brutal reality: “Son, Men Don’t Get Raped.”

The Real Story Behind the Prisoner Exchange

2014-06-03 Bergdahl Parents Press Conference
Bergdahl’s parents at a White House press conference.

As I understand it, the news cycle has gone something like this:

  1. Five detainees from Guantanamo were traded for the only American POW in Afghanistan, Bowe Robert Bergdahl.
  2. Republicans cry foul, making a variety of allegations about why the exchange was a bad idea, or at least not something to celebrate without reservation.
  3. Democrats mock Republicans for being willing to criticize everything they do, even when it’s the return of a POW.
  4. News stories from mainstream outlets start to validate some (but not all) of what Republicans were complaining about.

Let me give you two examples. The first comes from The Daily Beast and the headline says it all: We Lost Soldiers in the Hunt for Bergdahl, a Guy Who Walked Off in the Dead of Night. According to the story, Bergdahl deserted his post of his own volition (bad enough), which led to a vast manhunt that resulted in American soldiers dying while looking for him (worse) and culminated in strict orders that the American soldiers not speak of the incident at all (worse still). The article, written by one of the soldiers who was out risking his life and jeopardizing the greater counterinsurgency operations looking for Bergdahl, concludes by saying:

And Bergdahl, all I can say is this: Welcome back. I’m glad it’s over. There was a spot reserved for you on the return flight, but we had to leave without you, man. You’re probably going to have to find your own way home.

It’s a really poignant, fair, eye-opening piece. Read it. And then there’s this piece, published by conservative Mormon and Islamic scholar Daniel Peterson about some of the conservative complaints that are decidedly less reasonable. Peterson shoots down the theory that Bergdahl’s father “sanctified the White House for Islam” when he said, upon entering that building, “Bi ism Allah al-rahman al-rahim whih” meaning (in Arabic): “in the name of Allah the most gracious and most merciful.” Sounds ominous (if you have no idea what you’re talking about), but Peterson explains that the phrase “is routinely used at the beginning of formal statements and speeches in Islamic societies.” Bergdahl’s next words, apparently in Pashto instead of Arabic, were “I am your father.” Why speak Arabic and Pashto to a returning American POW? Because he spent the last 5 years speaking only Arabic and Pashto and is having trouble adjusting back to English, that’s why. 

In short: this is another one of those stories where everyone who is convinced that the other side is ripe for ridicule ends up looking rather ridiculous themselves. Whether it’s Mother Jones embarrassing itself by attributing the (entirely factual) notion that Bergdahl was  a deserter to “a few fringe types” (thus making The Daily Beast, USA Today, etc. all out to be right-wing nutjobs) or conservatives with zero comprehension of Arabic language or culture concocting weird fantasies about the White House being baptized into Islam, people ought to settle down and just do a little bit of digging. And maybe a little bit of waiting.

As far as I can tell the reason that conservatives were ahead of the main stream media on this story is partially paranoia but also because conservatives are much, much more tied in to the US military and therefore knew early that something was up. I knew because I follow Michael Yon, and he issued an early warning on this story, saying:

Mixed Reaction on Bergdahl release from Taliban
Be careful with this. He needs to be welcomed home, given a full physical and time with his family, and then charges against Bergdahl should be considered.
A piece of information you likely never will see in the news: Taliban and al Qaeda shared joint custody of Bergdahl. He converted to a hardcore strain of Islam, according to reliable sources.

Yon linked to an Army Times piece citing “mixed” reaction from the military community. (He added information in further updates like this one and this one.) So the military community, which is no fan of Obama, was out early with suspicion about holding a press conference for the return of someone who had, by his own derelection of duty, ensured that other Americans never made it home. Now the Pentagon will review claims US soldiers killed during search for Bergdahl. Looks like there was at least some fire to go with all this smoke.


Michael Yon Photos and Article on Modern Artillery

2013-10-10 Spitting Cobra

As you can tell, this article has some incredible photographs. It’s an older article–from back in 2010–but I hadn’t seen it until now. It’s worth reading not only for the excellent images (there are a ton), but also because it’s such an informative piece of writing about modern artillery. Yon opens with “Artillery is called “The King of Battle.”  When it comes to the delivery of force, probably nothing outside of nuclear weapons can outmatch the sustained delivery of extreme brutality,” and then it just gets better from there.

Miyazaki’s Newest Film Angers Japanese Nationalists

I’ve been a fan of Miyazaki’s work ever since I saw a butchered version of Nausicaa in school as a kid. I rediscovered the movie as an adult, and then the rest of his work. I’m excited to see his most recent film The Wind Rises, but apparently a lot of Miyazaki’s fellow Japanese aren’t as enthusiastic.

2013-08-16 The Wind Rises

Miyazaki said this about the film:

My wife and staff would ask me, ‘Why make a story about a man who made weapons of war? And I thought they were right. But one day, I heard that Horikoshi [designer of the WWII fighter named the Zero] had once murmured, ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.’ And then I knew I’d found my subject… Horikoshi was the most gifted man of his time in Japan. He wasn’t thinking about weapons… Really all he desired was to make exquisite planes.

That’s why the film is unpopular with some: it casts Japanese history in a negative light as the beautiful dreams of Horikoshi are warped by militarism. Which, you know, is exactly why I’m so excited to see it. It’s good to have the right enemies, I suppose.

The Man Who Killed UBL

2013 02 12 The Shooter's Gear

Esquire has a really, really long and really, really good article about a man they call simply “The Shooter”. He is the Navy SEAL, since retired, who killed Osama bin Laden. Now, after 16 years of service, he has retired with no pension, no health care, no job, and no protection for himself or his family against retatliation. Read this fascinating story about the raid that killed the #1 terrorist, the men who went even though they were sure it was a suicide mission, and how our nation is now letting them down.

To Save Even One Child…

There’s an old signature that I remember seeing from the days when I spent too much time debating on Slashdot that went something like:

I found the root password to the Constitution: “Think of the children”.

I’ve always felt ambiguous about that sentiment because I’m not comfortable with the increasingly diminishing gap between libertarianism and libertinism. The idea that laws can be amoral (e.g. based on some purely rational system of utilitarian morality based solely on the concept of harm) is misleading and dangerous.

While it’s true that you can’t “legislate morality”, you also can’t legislate without morality. The belief that we should have laws at all is a moral statement. Even if you try to assume that it’s a purely objective statement about how to maximize happiness (or economic output, or standards of living, or whatever) that is, itself, a moral position. Furthermore, “harm”-based legislation offers us a flimsy shadow of the real concerns with which a society must be concerned in establishing its rules. 

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