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Making Historical Analogies about 1914

Friday, January 10th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

The Independent has a short, quasi-sensationalist, article featuring historian Margaret MacMillan discussing what is likely to become the first pop academic cottage industry of 2014….making historical analogies about 1914 and World War I! MacMillan is a senior scholar of international relations and administrator at Oxford ( where she is Warden of St Antony’s College)  with a wide range of research interests, including the First World War on which she has published two books.  I am just going to excerpt and comment on the historical analogies MacMillan made – or at least the ones filtered by the reporter and editor – she’s more eloquent in her own writing where each of these points are treated at greater length:

Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian 

Professor Margaret MacMillan, of the University of Cambridge, argues that the Middle East could be viewed as the modern-day equivalent of this turbulent region. A nuclear arms race that would be likely to start if Iran developed a bomb “would make for a very dangerous world indeed, which could lead to a recreation of the kind of tinderbox that exploded in the Balkans 100 years ago – only this time with mushroom clouds,”

…..While history does not repeat itself precisely, the Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then,” she says. “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients. 

Several comments here. There is a similarity in that like the unstable Balkan states of the early 20th century, many of the Mideastern countries are young, autocratic, states with ancient cultures that are relatively weak  and measure their full independence from imperial rule only in decades.  The Mideast is also like the Balkans, divided internally along ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian and linguistic lines.

The differences though, are substantial. The world may be more polycentric now than in 1954 or 1994 but the relative and absolute preponderance of American power versus all possible rivals, even while war-weary and economically dolorous, is not comparable to Great Britain’s position in 1914.  The outside great powers MacMillan points to are far from co-equal and there is no alliance system today that would guarantee escalation of a local conflict to a general war. Unlike Russia facing Austria-Hungary over Serbia there is no chance that Iran or Russia would court a full-scale war with the United States over Syria.

On the negative side of the ledger, the real problem  is not possible imperial conquest but the danger of regional collapse. “Toxic nationalism” is less the problem than the fact that the scale of a Mideastern Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict is so enormous, as are the implications . Nothing in the Balkans after the turn of the century compares to Syria, then Iraq and then other states sliding into a Muslim version of the Thirty Year’s War. An arc of failed states from Beirut to Islamabad is likelier than, say, a new Persian empire run by Tehran’s mullahs.

Modern-day Islamist terrorists mirror the revolutionary communists and anarchists who carried out a string of assassinations in the name of a philosophy that sanctioned murder to achieve their vision of a better world

Agree here. The analogy between 21st revolutionary Islamists and the 19th century revolutionary anarchists is sound.

And in 1914, Germany was a rising force that sought to challenge the pre-eminent power of the time, the UK. Today, the growing power of China is perceived as a threat by some in the US.

Transitions from one world power to another are always seen as dangerous times. In the late 1920s, the US drew up plans for a war with the British Empire that would have seen the invasion of Canada, partly because it was assumed conflict would break out as America took over as the world’s main superpower.

Imperial Germany’s growing power was less troublesome to Edwardian British statesmen than the strategic error of the Kaiser and von Tirpitz to pursue a naval arms race with Great Britain that did not give Germany’even the ability to break a naval blockade but needlessly antagonized the British with an existential threat that pushed London into the French camp.

As to military plans for invading Canada (or anywhere else), the job of military planning staffs are to create war plans to cover hypothetical contingencies so that if a crisis breaks out, there is at least a feasible starting point on the drawing board from which to begin organizing a campaign. This is what staff officers do be they American, French, Russian, German, Chinese and even British. This is not to be taken as serious evidence that the Coolidge or Hoover administrations were hatching schemes to occupy Quebec.

More importantly, nuclear weapons create an impediment to Sino-American rivalry ending in an “August 1914″ moment ( though not, arguably, an accidental or peripheral clash at sea or a nasty proxy conflict). Even bullying Japan ultimately carries a risk that at a certain point, the Japanese will get fed-up with Beijing, decide they need parity with China, and become a nuclear weapons state.

Professor MacMillan, whose book The War That Ended Peace was published last year, said right-wing and nationalist sentiments were rising across the world and had also been a factor before the First World War

In China and Japan, patriotic passions have been inflamed by the dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. “Increased Chinese military spending and the build-up of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the US as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the two countries in that region,” she writes in her essay. “The Wall Street Journal has authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China – just in case.” 

“It is tempting – and sobering –to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and England a century ago,” Professor MacMillan writes. She points to the growing disquiet in the US over Chinese investment in America while “the Chinese complain that the US treats them as a second-rate power”.

The “dispute” of the Senkakus has been intentionally and wholly created by Beijing in much the same way Chinese leaders had PLA troops provocatively infringe on Indian territory, claim the South China Sea as sovereign territory and bully ships of all nearby nations other than Russia in international or foreign national waters. This is, as Edward Luttwak recently pointed out, not an especially smart execution of strategy. China’s recent burst of nationalistic bluffing, intimidation and paranoia about encirclement are working along the path of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another similarity highlighted by the historian is the belief that a full-scale war between the major powers is unthinkable after such a prolonged period of peace. “Now, as then, the march of globalisation has lulled us into a false sense of safety,” she says. “The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.

Agree that globalization is no guarantee against human folly, ambition or the caprice of chance.

What are your thoughts?

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Octavian Manea Interviews General David Petraeus

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. "zen"]

Octavian Manea has had an excellent series of COIN  interviews at SWJ and this is one of the more important ones:

Reflections on the “Counterinsurgency Decade”: Small Wars Journal Interview with General David H. Petraeus

SWJ: In his recent op-ed published in the New York Times, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War”, General H.R. McMaster warned against the fantasy of “a new era of war”, and especially about the dangers in the blind faith in the transformative effects that technology promises to have on war. He argued that over the past counterinsurgency (COIN) decade we relearned a few lessons that we really should keep in mind as we head into the future: “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments”. His warning reminds me of an article you wrote in 1986 with General John Galvin about “uncomfortable wars”. You warned to take into consideration “the societal dimension of warfare”. To what extent do you see that prophecy still holding true post Iraq and post Afghanistan?

General Petraeus: I think the essence of the article back in 1986 with General Galvin was frankly the importance of the human terrain in each particular situation, and the importance of understanding the terrain, having a very nuanced, detailed feel for the context of each situation, not just nationally, but sub-nationally and literally all the way down to each valley and each village. That kind of knowledge was achieved in Iraq and helped us enormously during the Surge. We had a greater understanding there, earlier than we did in Afghanistan, just because we had so many more forces on the ground, 165,000 American military alone at the height of the surge. In Afghanistan at the height of our deployment, we had 100,000 US troopers and about 50,000 coalitional forces, and we maintained that level for a relatively brief period of time. As I noted on a number of occasions, we never really got the inputs close to right in Afghanistan until late 2010.

So, noting the importance of human terrain, I believe, is a fundamental aspect of crafting a counterinsurgency campaign. In fact, it was the biggest of the big ideas when we launched the Surge in Iraq, and we knew that since the human terrain was the decisive terrain, we would had to secure it as our principal focus – and to do so by living with the people, locating forward operating bases/joint security stations in the neighborhoods and villages, and specifically right on the sectarian fault-lines across which the heaviest fighting was ongoing in the capital. We ultimately established 77 additional locations just in the Baghdad area of operations alone, and many dozens more elsewhere throughout the country. There were other big ideas to be sure:  e.g., that you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency, such as we faced, therefore you need to reconcile with as many of the insurgents as was possible, seeking to maximize the number of the reconcilables; correspondingly, we also needed to intensify our campaign of targeted operations against the irreconcilables. But I think, fundamentally, it comes back to this issue, that it is all about people, counterinsurgency operations are wars in, among, and, in essence, for the people. And the first task of any counterinsurgency campaign has to be to secure those people.

Read the rest here.

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A Brief Note on the Benghazi Hearings

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

There is legitimate room for debate if there could have been an effective military reaction to the attack in Libya by al Qaida terrorists that killed Ambassador Stevens and other US personnel.  One was apparently never seriously entertained  by senior White House, State Department and Pentagon officials. I think there ought to have been an effort to move heaven and earth and far, far greater willingness to inflict massive casualties on an attacking Libyan mob than existed, but in fairness to the Obama administration, a seat-of-the-pants, unsupported, undermanned response could also have been a replay of Blackhawk Down or Desert One. It’s a tough judgment call for any President.

That’s not why the Obama administration is in trouble today.

Poorly supported security and inept decision making by the State Department in Libya was likewise, disappointing but politically survivable and sadly, unsurprising.. We have seen similar bungling before and after 9/11 by most of our major national security departments and agencies at one time or another. It is a bipartisan phenomenon, albeit one we take far too lightly.

No, as damning testimony today made clear, the Obama administration is in trouble because their poor but not remarkably so handling of Benghazi was shielded by a ridiculous lie told entirely for partisan gain and to protect the overrated reputations and overweening egos of various administration bigwigs, most notably the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Is there anyone today – anyone at all – who still believes that Benghazi occurred because of an obscure crackpot’s video on youtube?

Had the administration manfully said “This attack is a terrible tragedy and we dropped the ball but you can believe we won’t make a similar mistake tracking down the people who did this and make them pay” most Americans would have accepted that. No, not rabid partisan Republicans, but most Americans would have wanted to back the President, any President, in the wake of such terrorism which is directed, in the last analysis, at all of us.

They did not – and much of the rest of their reaction indicates that the real concern at State and the White House was and still is with the temerity of their political opponents in daring to demand they account for their actions as if we lived in a Republic or something.

In American politics, it is the self-inflicted wounds that fester and turn gangrenous

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The End and Ends

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

The End by Sir Ian Kershaw

I am currently reading The End, about the last year of the Third Reich and the Nazi death spiral toward Germany’s absolute destruction. It is a fascinating, mass suicidal, political dynamic that was mirrored to an even greater degree of fanaticism by Nazi Germany’s Axis partner, the Imperial Japanese. Facing the prospect of certain defeat, the Germans with very few exceptions, collectively refused every opportunity to shorten the agony or lighten the consequences of defeat and stubbornly followed their Fuhrer to the uttermost doom. It made no sense then and still does not now, seven decades later.

Adolf Hitler’s personal authority over the life and death of every soul in Germany did not end until his last breath. When surrounded by Soviet armies, trapped in his Fuhrerbunker in the ruin of Berlin, all it took for Hitler to depose his most powerful paladins, Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler was a word. They still commanded vast military and paramilitary security forces – Himmler had been put in charge of the Home Army as well as the SS, Gestapo and German police – but when Hitler withdrew his support and condemned them, their power crumbled. Goering, the glittering Nazi Reichsmarchal and second man in the state, was ignominiously arrested.

Even in Gotterdammerung, the Germans remained spellbound, like a man in a trance placing a noose around his own neck.

Currently, the chattering classes of the United States are uneasily working their way toward a possible war with Iran, or at least a confrontation with Teheran over their illegal nuclear weapons program (some people will object that, technically, we are not certain that Iran has a weapons program. This is true. It is also irrelevant to the diplomatic dynamic created by Iran’s nuclear activities which the regime uses to signal regularly to all observers that they could have one).  There is much debate over the rationality of Iran’s rulers and the likely consequences if Iran is permitted to become a nuclear weapons state. There is danger and risk in any potential course of action and predictions are being made, in my humble opinion, far too breezily.

In the run-up to war or negotiation, in dealing with the Iranians and making our strategic calculations, it might be useful to recall the behavior of the Germans.

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Book Review: A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab al-Suri’s Islamic Jihad Manifesto by Jim Lacey (Ed.)

Previously, I read and reviewed Brynjar Lia’s Architect of Global Jihad, about Islamist terrorist and strategist Abu Musab al-Suri. A sometime collaborator with Osama bin Laden and the AQ inner circle, a trainer of terrorists in military tactics in Afghanistan and an advocate of jihadi IO, al-Suri was one of the few minds produced by the radical Islamist movement who thought and wrote about conflict with the West on a strategic level. Before falling into the hands of Pakistani security and eventually, Syria, where al-Suri was wanted by the Assad regime, al-Suri produced a massive 1600 page tome on conducting a terror insurgency,  The Global Islamic Resistance Call, which al-Suri released on to the jihadi darknet.

Jim Lacey has produced an English digest version of al-Suri’s influential magnum opus comprising approximately 10 % of the original  Arabic version, by focusing on the tactical and strategic subjects and excising the rhetorical/ritualistic redundancies common to Islamist discourse and the interminable theological disputation. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach.

First, Lacey has produced a concise and readable book from a large mass of sometimes convoluted and repetitive theorizing that al-Suri strung together piecemeal, sometimes on the run or in hiding. For those interested in getting to the heart of al-Suri’s nizam la tanzim strategic philosophy, A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad is an invaluable resource for strategists, counter-terrorism specialists, tactical operators,  law enforcement and laymen. Secondly, it is also a useful reference for policy people to see through al-Suri’s eyes the internal political and philosophical divisions within the radical jihadi community. al-Suri himself writes very ambivalently about 9/11 as a great blow against America and yet a complete calamity in it’s effects for the “jihadi current” that destroyed everything the Islamist revolutionaries had so painstakingly built, including the Taliban Emirate. Thus a climate was created by the American counter-attack where old methods of struggle were no longer useful and jihadis must adopt radically decentralized operations ( what John Robb terms Open-Source Warfare; indeed it is clear to an informed reader that al-Suri, a wide-ranging intellectual rather than a narrow religious ideologue, was influenced by Western literature on asymmetric warfare, 4GW, Three Block War  and COIN).

The drawback to this approach is more for scholars looking at the deeper psychological and ideological drivers of jihadi policies, strategy and movement politics. The religious questions and obscure Quranic justifications cited by Islamist extremists that are so tedious and repetitive to the Western mind are to the jihadis themselves, of paramount importance in establishing both the credentials of the person making an argument but also the moral certainty of the course of action proposed. al-Suri himself had some exasperation with the degree to which primarily armchair ideologues, by virtue of clever religious rhetoric, could have more influence over the operational decisions of fighting jihadis than men with field experience like himself. By removing these citations, an important piece of the puzzle is missing.

The Musab al-Suri whose voice appears in A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad is consistent with the one seen in Lia’s book, dry, sardonic, coldly hateful toward the West and highly critical of the jihadis own mistakes, laden with overtones of pessimism and gloom. al-Suri did not envision a quick victory over the West and wrote his manifesto as a legacy for future generations of Islamist radicals because the current one was nearly spent after the American onslaught and poorly educated in comparison with predecessors like the generation of Sayid Qutb.

Strongly recommended.

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