Here’s the trailer for the new climate film Disruption, which came out earlier this month. As Upworthy summarise, “he sat down in a cold, grey room and proceeded to scare the hell out of me”. You can watch the full film for free here.
With all the atrocities that ISIS has visited on the people living in the territories it’s overrun in recent months, the humanitarian basis for military intervention in Iraq and Syria looks clear cut. What’s much less clear is whether the West’s strategy of airstrikes has any prospect of achieving its aims – especially given the risk that it will end up being actively counterproductive.
Start with the West’s stated objectives, listed by President Obama on 7 September on Meet the Press as (i) blunting ISIS’s momentum, (ii) degrading its capabilities, (iii) shrinking the territory it controls, and (iv) ultimately defeating them. What are the prospects for airstrikes achieving these aims? Here’s counter-insurgency writer William Lind:
Physically, the president’s strategy relies on air power. The reasons air power alone will fail, as it always has, are many. The enemy quickly finds ways to conceal and protect himself from air attack. It’s harder in desert country, but by no means impossible. Irregular light cavalry forces such as ISIS are difficult to distinguish from civilians from the air, and they will quickly intermingle their columns with traveling civilians so the air strikes kill women and kids. They will lose any specialized military equipment, but they don’t depend on that.
For an air campaign to be effective, it must act in cooperation with competent ground forces. In Kurdistan, those exist. They do not exist elsewhere in Iraq, as the disintegration of the Iraqi army demonstrated. Shiite militias will fight, but are usually poorly trained and bring moral baggage, as noted below. There could be an effective ground force working with our air power in Syria, in the form of the Syrian Arny of President Bashar al Assad and its highly competent ally, Hezbollah, but President Obama has ruled that out for ideological reasons. The “moderate Syrian opposition” he wants to rely on consists of twelve men living outside Syria in luxury hotels. It is a chimera.
But while it’s hard to see how the West’s airstrikes strategy will achieve its stated aims, it’s much easier to see how it could work to ISIS’s own advantage. As Lind continues later in the same article (emphasis added),
By attacking ISIS, a force with few air defenses, from the air, we will fall once again into the doomed role of Goliath endlessly stomping David. That will strengthen ISIS‘s moral appeal and serve as a highly effective recruiting tool for them … As air attack has its usual effect of pushing those under bombardment closer together while giving them a burning desire for revenge against enemies they cannot reach, ISIS’s power at the moral level of war will grow by leaps and bounds.
This concept of the moral level of warfare – first described by US military theorist John Boyd – is crucially important, and for hard-edged military reasons. As Lind put it in another piece back in 2003 (again, emphasis added):
To the traditional levels of war—tactical, operational, and strategic—Boyd added three new ones: physical, mental, and moral. It is useful to think of these as forming a nine-box grid, with tactical, operational, and strategic on one axis and physical, mental, and moral on the other.
Our armed forces focus on the single box defined by tactical and physical, where we are vastly superior. But non-state forces focus on the strategic and the moral, where they are often stronger, in part because they represent David confronting Goliath. In war, a higher level trumps a lower, so our repeated victories at the tactical, physical level are negated by our enemies’ successes on the strategic and moral levels, and we lose.
I’m a passionate supporter of the principle of humanitarian intervention. Back when I was a special adviser at the UK’s Department for International Development, I pushed as hard as I could for the UK to come out in support of formal UN recognition of the Responsibility to Protect.
But knowing why we should intervene in a conflict is not enough. We also need to know what we propose to do and how that will achieve the desired results. (It’s not as if there’s any shortage of examples of how badly things can go wrong when our intervention plan doesn’t extend much beyond “something must be done”.)
So when someone asks me “well, what would you do?”, I’d have to say: Nothing, militarily, at this stage. Not because I don’t see the humanitarian basis for intervention, but because I struggle to see military options that have a realistic chance of creating the effects we say we want to see – whereas I can easily see how they might make things very much worse, by winning physical battles but losing the moral level of the war.
By contrast, if airstrikes will just bolster ISIS’s legitimacy, its history and its recent actions give good reason to suppose that it’s perfectly capable of destroying its own legitimacy. Remember, after all, that ISIS is to a large extent the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – a group that counter-insurgency theorist David Kilcullen uses as a case study of a group that was ineffective at retaining control over its populations. As he writes in his book Out of the Mountains,
AQI is an excellent example of the brittleness that can result from too narrow a spectrum of capabilities. AQI established a terrifyingly effective ascendancy over the Sunni population, but because this dominance was based entirely on fear and coercion, it had no resilience. As soon as the [US] surge created a minimal assurance for people that they would survive the attempt to turn against AQI, and as soon as coalition forces in Anbar demonstrated that they could kill or capture members of AQI cells, the myth of AQI’s invincibility was shattered and the people turned on AQI in a flash and swept it away. And because the terrorist group had little to offer but fear and intimidation, it had no way to counteract or bounce back from its loss of control.
ISIS appears set to make similar mistakes this time around – look, for example, at reactions (like this) from even ultra-conservative Salafist imams to its threat to kill British hostage Alan Henning. But the West looks set to make a lot of the same mistakes as it did during the Iraq war, too.
I’d like to think that our actions on the ground were based on a clear theory of influence, above all recognition of the need to win legitimacy among Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria. But it’s hard to have much confidence in that given how little Western governments did about either repeated chemical warfare attacks by the Assad regime in Syria – a situation where airstrikes might actually have been able to achieve something – or the venality and vicious sectarianism of the Shiite regime in Baghdad.
Similarly, I’d like to think that smart minds in the Home Office are working on a sophisticated influencing strategy to engage with British kids who’ve seen YouTubes of horrific atrocities against their fellow Sunnis and want to do something about it. Again, though, it’s hard to be hopeful of that while David Cameron is strutting around characterising those kids as “psychopathic terrorists who are trying to kill us”.
Back in 2008, David Steven and I wrote an essay entitled Towards a theory of influence for 21st century foreign policy, in which we quoted Osama bin Laden’s mischievous assertion that “it seems as if we and the White House are on the same team shooting at the United States’ own goal”. Here’s hoping the West plays a smarter – and subtler – game this time around.
The post-2015 agenda is at a turning point, with the intense discussions of the last year about Goals and targets giving way to a new focus on how the world will achieve the high ambitions set out in the draft Sustainable Development Goals.
Over the next eighteen months, we’ll see a veritable blizzard of summitry, including a critical OECD meeting looking at the definition of aid this December, a major summit on financing for development in Addis Ababa next July, the key final decision moment on the shape of the new Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015, a make-or-break climate summit and a WTO trade ministerial in December 2015, and high-potential summits of the G7/G8 in Germany, and the G20 in Turkey.
All of these moments have the potential to yield elements of a global political deal on ‘means of implementation’ for the post-2015 agenda. But what are the options for those elements – and which of them offer the highest potential in terms of development impact and political achievability?
These are the questions I address in a new paper, commissioned by the UN Foundation, and published today as a working draft ahead of next week’s UN General Assembly and climate summit, and in advance of a final version in October.
It includes both a 10 point ‘straw man’ package of measures on means of implementation that ranges from ODA, domestic resource mobilisation, and the role of the private sector through to trade, sustainability, and transparency; and a long-list of potential outcomes and asks – in each case with a brief discussion of the political and developmental pros and cons.
The UK Parliament’s Select Committee on International Development is running an interesting inquiry at the moment on the future of Britain’s Department for International Development, in particular in light of the ‘beyond aid’ agenda (terms of reference here). Owen Barder and I submitted a note to the inquiry last week, which you can download here.
We argue that if the world is serious about ‘getting to zero’ on poverty by 2030, then three key front lines for development will be fragile states (and parts of states), inclusive growth in middle income countries, and transboundary risks (especially those to do with unsustainable consumption patterns).
These three challenges have a lot in common. None of them was well covered in the MDGs; all will be crucial for eradicating the second half of poverty; all are about messy, long-term processes of structural change; none of them has an established playbook for how to address them; and while there are important roles for international spending in each case, none of them is primarily about aid.
Instead, we suggest, DFID will increasingly need to focus on beyond aid agendas both in country – where it will need to undertake significant changes to its existing skills profile – and across Whitehall, so as to influence UK policy on areas from arms sales, tax havens, drug prohibition policies, and anti-corruption, through to trade, subsidies, migration, financial regulation, and above all the global impact of British citizens’ consumption patterns.
We argue that in order for DFID to be able to influence this much broader range of policies, it is essential that it remain an independent Cabinet department, and not be re-merged back into the Foreign Office. (Doing that would just make a future Minister of State for Development within the Foreign Office comparable to the Administrator of USAID: running an aid programme, but excluded from most of the key decisions affecting development.)
But we also think that, since 2010, it is hard to make out much evidence of DFID playing this cross-Whitehall influencing role. Instead, it has focused mainly on securing and defending a substantial increase in the aid budget. This has potentially eroded the case for DFID to be a separate department – despite the fact that the Department’s voice is needed in Whitehall and internationally.
So, we conclude, policymakers and other influencers – in government, in Parliament, and in the wider policy community – should be pushing for DFID to play a bigger role in development policy. Conversely, the last thing they should be doing is caving in to the temptation to retreat to a less controversial space centred on aid administration.
This is a piece I wrote 11 years ago for this crappy financial magazine I used to work for. The piece is good though. It’s about Bruce Jackson, an American spy-banker-arms-dealer-policy-wonk, who helped lobby for the eastern expansion of NATO in the 90s and Noughties. I thought I’d post it here considering this week’s NATO conference on further eastern expansion and Russia’s response. The piece was written in 2003, in the middle of the second war in Iraq.
IT WAS THE deal of the year in central and eastern Europe – not a sovereign Eurobond, a corporate high-yield issue or an IPO, but a transaction that emerged from the heart of the military-industry complex. It was the biggest debt financing of the year – a $5.5 billion off-balance-sheet deal arranged by JPMorgan and guaranteed by the US government. You haven’t read about it, because it was to finance Poland’s acquisition of 48 F-16 military aircraft from Lockheed Martin.
That deal was signed in March 2003. The same month it went through, Poland agreed to send about 3,000 troops to Iraq. Euromoney spoke to a banker involved in the syndication of the financing. “We understood what the deal was,” he said. “The US government finances the deal at good rates. In return, Poland supports the US in Iraq.”
Every other eastern European country that has either recently joined or is waiting to join the Nato military alliance also supports the US campaign in Iraq, leading US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to praise the birth of “new Europe” and French president Jacques Chirac to tell these countries to shut up.
Man of influence
The figure at the centre of all these events is someone you probably haven’t heard of, but who wields extraordinary political influence in the region – Bruce Jackson. He is a Washington neo-conservative, a member of the Project for the New American Century, and friend and colleague of other prominent neo-conservatives such as deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century.
A former investment banker, he’s also president of a private NGO called the US Committee on Nato, one of the most influential in eastern Europe. He has also headed a neo-conservative think-tank called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. And he’s a former vice-president at Lockheed. Is he the military-industrial complex conspiracy figure par excellence?
Jackson, through his work for the NGO, has done more that anyone else to get eastern European countries into Nato. First, he lobbied hard in Washington to get the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland invited in 1999. He advised the heads of these states on how to reform their military forces and civil societies so as to get the invitation, and testified in their support to the US Senate committee on foreign affairs.
In the past two years, he has been equally active in getting most of the other eastern European countries invited to Nato. He has travelled relentlessly, meeting heads of state and foreign ministers in every eastern European country, advising them on how to reform, and helping, this year, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to get invitations to join Nato.
None of the accessions was by any means inevitable. It took vision, will and hard work. Jackson recalls: “When we started in 1995, around 70% of editorial boards and 80% of think-tanks were on the record as being opposed to Nato expansion. There was concern Russia would go ballistic if we did expand Nato east. So effectively people were suggesting we do another Yalta, and sacrifice the region to Russia’s interests. So it took us considerable amounts of work. We organized well over 1,000 meetings with senators and Congress. By 1999, we won 89% of the vote. With the second round, almost all the effort came from the countries themselves, trying to accelerate their own reforms and not be left out.”
The fact that in 1995 so many in the west were against Nato expansion makes it all the more remarkable that one man, apparently operating in a private capacity at an NGO he set up, should have had such an influence. As one diplomat in the region says: “All these countries getting into Nato – this was Bruce’s work. He’s a real player in this process.” Continue reading