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How to Lose a War: A Primer

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. “zen“]

Since Pakistan is now attempting to get its victory over the United States in Afghanistan formally ratified, now seemed to be a good time to reflect on the performance of American statesmen, politicians and senior generals.

It has occurred to me that we have many books and papers outlining how to win wars. Certainly the great classics of The Art of War, The History of the Peloponnesian War and On War are the foremost examples, but there are also other useful classics in the strategic canon, whole libraries of military histories, memoirs of great commanders and an infinite number of PDFs and powerpoint briefs from think tanks and consultants. Strangely, none of these have helped us much. Perhaps it is because before running this war so few of this generation’s “deciders” read them en route to their law degrees and MBAs

We should engage in some counterintuitive thinking:  for our next war, instead of trying to win, let’s try to openly seek defeat. At a minimum, we will be no worse off with that policy than we are now and if we happen to fail, we will actually be moving closer to victory.

HOW TO LOSE A WAR

While one of these principles may not be sufficient cause for losing an armed conflict, following all of them is the surest road to defeat.

1. War is the Continuation of Domestic Politics:

The point of politics is to acquire, hold and enjoy using power. When we lose sight of this fact due to romantic notions of “national interest” or “duty” and spend too much attention prosecuting a war against foreign armies then our real enemies – the political opposition – can take advantage. What good is overseeing a global victory over an epochal tyranny if the result is you get immediately voted out of office like some hapless loser? While on the surface, it might seem wise during a war to staff a government with able statesmen, experienced generals, capable diplomats and other experts, the truth is that if you do so you will have very few plum jobs left with which to reward the cronies, ideologues, campaign consultants, activists, wealthy grafters and partisan hacks who got you into power in the first place. Without their continued support, you will not be long for political office.

The fact is that the nation can survive many lost wars far longer than your career will survive lost elections.  Once you view the war solely through the prism of how any action might impact your fortune in domestic politics, you will have a marvelous clarity that the war is the best pretext upon which to expand your power at the expense of the opposition and the people.

2. Policy is the True Fog of War:

Having a clearly defined, coherently articulated policy based upon vital interests and empirical facts that sets a few realistic objectives in a way that makes possible shared understanding and broad political support is no way to go about losing wars.

Keeping in mind #1, the point of war policy is to generate a set of politically compelling slogans that remain ill-defined enough to serve as an umbrella  under which many contradictory and competing agendas can cohabit until some of them can be opportunistically realized. These agendas may not be realistic – in fact, it is easier to put them forward as attractive fantasies for the public if your administration is unburdened with officials with genuine expertise in warfare, economics, foreign cultures, history and other inconvenient information that the media and the political opposition will only be too happy to seize upon. The more abstractly and arcanely expressed the policy the harder it is for critics to demolish and the  better it is for losing wars. “Unconditional surrender” for example, is bad because it is too concrete and easily evaluated – either an enemy is totally defeated and in your power or he is not. “Make the world safe for Democracy” by contrast,  is better as it is more ill-defined and subjective, permitting a larger range of politically tolerable bad outcomes.  “Responsibility to Protect” and “War on Terror” are even more abstract, being essentially unlimited, open-ended, process goals that do not have any point of “victory” whatsoever and can thus not only potentially bring about losing wars but very long ones.

3.  Strategy is a Constraint to be Avoided:

Strategy is about lining up Ends-Ways-Means to construct a theory of victory. While that might give us hope of prevailing over an enemy in an armed conflict, forging a strategy – any strategy -comes with a severe cost: namely the discipline of the government adhering to a strategy requires choices be made about the use of limited resources rather than keeping “all options open” to react  to transient and trivial political concerns on a moment’s notice. Strategy for the nation equates with diminished political flexibility and mobility for the politician.

In other words, having a strategy might require elected officials expend their precious political capital in order to pursue it without getting anything in return that might expand their powers or further their personal careers.  Doing strategy would mean prioritizing winning the war over other possible objectives and putting key decision-makers in the uncomfortable position of having to say “No” or “Not now” to powerful and influential people or factions. Worse, having a strategy also implies that the results can be quantified and evaluated for success, costs, failure and ultimately, personal accountability for leaders.

Obviously locking ourselves into a strategy is something to be avoided if we wish to stay in power, so “strategy” is only invoked rhetorically to mean a wide and confusing array of other non-strategy things – tactics, goals, operational art, planning,  public relations, nation-building,  diplomacy, policy, routine procedures, withdrawal dates, theories, fantastical pipe dreams and so on.  When “strategy” means anything and everything it ultimately means nothing.

4. All Lost Wars are based on Self-Deception: 

It is not enough to avoid strategy, there must also be a collective political determination to avoid reality enforced from the inception until the bitter end.

Wars have real and physically destructive consequences for the people who fight them, but unless you are engaged in a desperate struggle to repel a foreign invader, chances are the battlefield is far away from your home territory. This gives political leaders wiggle room to manipulate perceptions – most importantly their own – to political advantage by controlling information about the war and shaping the ideological boundaries of acceptable public discourse. This will eventually lead to a vicious cycle of bad decisions as misinformation and deceit corrupts the OODA Loop, but political leaders will maintain their political advantage over their critics, at least until the day of reckoning arrives.

Here we must begin with an insistence of a position of firmly held ignorance regarding the prospective enemy, their military capabilities, economic resources, the geographic characteristics, their cultural attitudes toward conflict and their history as a people. Should such information become widely known, it might result in popular skepticism about the wisdom of the entire enterprise, the difficulties that might be encountered and the prospects for success. If you wish to lose a war ignominiously, the less you know the better.

Likewise, once war has begun, the initial jingoistic overconfidence that greeted the war will quickly fade unless actively sustained by preventing an honest analysis of  events and providing a steady stream of rationalizations for the gullible public. It would be a good idea to ban discussion that accurately characterizes the form of warfare  or the nature of the enemy, though these things alone will not be sufficient. The intelligence process itself should be corrupted when possible to provide the “right” answers and censored or circumvented when it is not; while public assessments should use irrelevant metrics divorced from their  context so that they will not have to be gamed later.  Critics, truth-tellers, whistleblowers and those not towing the party-line should be retired, fired, demonized and punished.

5. Isolate the War and those Fighting it from the People: 

A war forgotten by the folks at home is a war that is much easier to quietly lose.

At the outset of the war, ask no sacrifice of the people because that will give them too much of a stake in a victorious outcome and raise expectations about your own leadership. Neither raise their taxes (at least not for the war at any rate) nor conscript their sons. Do not even issue a national call to the colors for volunteers, instead encourage people to be at ease and go about their business. Supplement your small regular army that increasingly feels itself a caste apart with highly paid mercenaries and foreign paramilitaries while neglecting the needs of your own troops. Speaking of the troops, always lavish the soldiers with superficial public pieties about service, sacrifice and heroism, but cynically break faith when it comes to your obligations to look after their interests.

6.  Complexity= Opacity and Micromanagement= Power

Most things in war are simple, but they are not easy. By deliberately making everything incredibly complicated, war can also become impossible too

While adding superfluous complexity does not help win wars, it does offer a number of immediate benefits for the political class. First, in real life the consequence of increasing complexity in any governmental endeavor (not just war) is that you will have more jobs and contracts to hand out to followers as bureaucracy and regulations require new inspectors, secretaries, managers, clerks, lawyers, advisers and in a military context, also new commands, staff officers, promotions, headquarters, increased budgets and so on. Chances are, most of these new jobs will continue on, if not forever, for a very long time.

Secondly the sheer complexity and number of offices, bureaus, agencies, departments, teams, commands, commissions and committees offer excellent “cover” for carrying out unpopular or illegal actions “under the radar” and with diffusion of responsibility, should these antics come to light.  If everyone is in charge, then no one is.  So if your military, intelligence agencies, diplomats, cultural advisers, aid and development people and senior administration officials talk and behave as if they are all hailing from different planets, you are well on your way to losing the war.

Third, the control of people at the top is reinforced by excessive complexity because the initiative of lower levels is strangled by micromanagement. If every idea from the field ( or even basic actions) requires two, three or more levels of command approval with consultation with lawyers at each step the answer is always going to be “No” or a very delayed “Yes” long past the point of being useful. This, plus making examples of those who exercise initiative and act without orders, teaches everyone in the system to eschew risk, value passivity, play it safe and wait for higher-ups to spoon-feed them instructions. With modern, networked online communications every colonel, brigadier to three-star can play company commander while the President of the United States can ride virtual shotgun on SEAL team raids.

7.  Enormous Tail, Tiny Tooth: the Worse the ROI the Better

When you regularly use hundred million or billion dollar platforms to kill illiterate tribesmen with AK-47s and RPGs and build food courts in the Hindu Kush, something is eventually going to give.

Generally, a reasonably well governed country at war can afford to employ either a massive military force for a short campaign or a small, “light footprint“, force for the long haul. What few nations in history can afford, unless it is Persia under Xerxes, is to field a massive force disproportionately composed of rear echelon support troops and what used to be called “camp followers” and “auxiliaries” for years on end. There are two ways this can bring you to defeat.

First, obviously, fielding an enormous army for too long can lead to bankruptcy as costs of the war exceed tax revenues and the state begins to rely on various forms of credit, foreign bankers and debasing the currency to carry on. This does not guarantee an economic collapse or hyperinflation as war can also greatly stimulate production and other variables are always in play, but the risk of dire negative economic effects is significantly increased.

The second issue is that if you are moving your armed host into a desperately poor region to wage war against an impoverished enemy, the passage and encampment of your own military introduces the economic surplus to the local economy the enemy needs to afford to wage war. You are like a red hot iron in a bucket of ice water. Through bribery, extortion and theft the enemy will siphon from you money, arms and contraband and eventually, corrupt your own officials and officers.

 8. Cultivate Hatred and Contempt:

If you wish to lose a war, be hated but not feared.

While most principles of losing a war  are political, strategic or operational in nature and therefore the province of incompetent politicians and generals, cultivating contempt and hatred in all observers can be done at anytime by anyone regardless of rank, experience or status. Technology has revolutionized this sphere of losing warfare: where once undermining an entire war effort could only be done by an arrogant national blowhard, today any grinning idiot on a battlefield with a smart phone is only a tweet away from an international media firestorm.

It is import in cultivating hatred to remember that mere violence, an inevitable part of all wars, is not sufficient. One can respect and admire an honorable but fierce opponent. Conveying a bullying attitude of casual cruelty to all onlookers by mistreating prisoners and civilians, especially if you humiliate and abuse them is a surefire goad to hatred while also alienating allies and neutrals, especially when doing so contradicts the nation’s deeply held values.  Hatred can also be stirred in less dramatic ways, from posing with Nazi flags to widespread ignorance of and expressions of disdain for local customs and mores. Disrespect has legs.

Contempt by contrast, is earned more by exhibiting moral weakness and truckling appeasement of the enemy and his sympathizers. For example, have your own PA and diplomatic organs in speaking to the media, repeat enemy propaganda against your own soldiers and abuse the military justice system to prosecute soldiers for splitsecond combat decisions in order to appease these critics. Loudly trumpet the “culturally appropriate meals” to the guys you are going to waterboard and appoint enemy sympathizers as “cultural advisers” and “liaisons” to government security and law enforcement agencies. Do nothing as your own heavily infiltrated host nation “ally” repeatedly frags your soldiers.

9. Protect that Which is Most Unimportant:

Organizations signal what they really value not by what they say, but what they spend time and money on.

Make sure that as the war is steadily being lost that top brass and their civilian overseers frantically emphasize politicized trivialities and institutional martinet nonsense. Reflector belt mania, giving everyone and their brother breathalyzer tests, cultural sensitivity training, counterproductive regs for MEDEVAC helicopters, promoting the gender equality of foreign societies and gender-neutrality of our own should bump out boring, old training exercises for future combat deployment in terms of priority. Remember, the military is not really there to win wars – it is a captive social engineering project for things the wackier members of Congress wish they could impose on their constituents were it not for those damned free elections.

10. Level the Playing Field: Paralyze Your Own Tactical Advantages.

While a war is often lost by having a bad strategy or no strategy at all, the power of crapping away your tactical advantages to no purpose ought not be underestimated. There are thousands of ways to do this but if you are cutting the enemy repeated breaks you can’t go wrong.

First and foremost, you wish to avoid bringing all of your combat power to bear on the enemy’s weakest point in a combined arms assault because he very well may break and then where the hell will you be? You can hardly lose a war if the enemy dies or surrenders first.

Treat your combat arms, services and host nation military as separate, autonomous and almost unrelated units, each with their own objectives and set of ROE guidance more restrictive than required by the Laws of War (while mixing in allied and host nation forces of varying levels of capability and different ROE). Make it difficult for fire support, armor and air to work with your infantry commanders dealing with unforseen circumstances, who you should also spread thin over remote operational areas the size of, say, Iowa to maximize their vulnerability. If a battalion is needed, send a company. If a company is called for, send a squad. Allow the enemy to have safe havens in adjacent countries whose military power is dwarfed by your own by many orders of magnitude. Make sure that your intelligence and public diplomacy services are shorthanded on personnel  fluent in the languages used by the enemy, whom you allow to practice perfidy without punishment.

Remember, there are no guarantees in war. No matter how badly you screw up, the enemy might still be more poorly led and less adaptive than are you. That said, if you practice these ten principles you can become a master of the art of defeat.

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Honor, Shame, Scandal and Integrity

Friday, March 8th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — reflecting on the anthropology of honor – shame, its relevance to cover ups of many kinds, and its potential for impact in our search for a more peaceable modus vivendi ]
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Cardinal O'Brien & Lord Lennard, their images as juxtaposed on the Cranmer blog


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Recent political news in the United Kingdom, from The Telegraph:

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has been forced to admit that his office knew for years of claims that a senior party figure might be sexually molesting volunteers and staff.

The Deputy Prime Minister changed tack in a statement on Sunday evening over the sex scandal which is engulfing his party.

He broke into the end of his holiday to admit for the first time that his office had been aware of the allegations surrounding his former chief executive Lord Rennard since 2008. But he said he was personally unaware of the claims.

Nick Clegg admits his office knew of Lord Rennard rumours for five years

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In today’s Wired, concerning a cover-up in the US Air Force:

A military jury found Lt. Col. James Wilkerson guilty of groping a sleeping woman’s breasts and vagina. But the Air Force wasn’t done with the “superstar” F-16 pilot. It reinstated Wilkerson to active duty and wiped away his conviction — but, to save face, is pledging not to promote him to full colonel.

[ … ]

Now the embarrassed Air Force is looking for a face saving way out of its institutional mess. Its answer thus far, reports Stars & Stripes, is to remove Wilkerson’s name from its promotions list. There’s an opportunity for Wilkerson to appeal the decision.

Air Force Accountability for Sexual Assault: Not Promoting Convicted Officer

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And concerning Lockheed and China, a short while back from emptywheel:

I’m just wondering out loud here: what if China did more than just steal data on the F-35 when it hacked various contractors, and instead sabotaged the program, inserting engineering flaws into the plane in the same way we inserted flaws in Iran’s centrifuge development via StuxNet?

[ … ]

I don’t know that we would ever know if this clusterfuck was caused with the assistance of China. It’s not like Lockheed would publicize such information, just as it asked for another $100 billion. And I don’t want to underestimate the defense industry’s ability to screw up all by themselves.

What if China Not Just Hacked — But Sabotaged — the F-35?

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I think one of the least appreciated parts of our human make-up is what anthros call the honor-shame system. It considers the honor of a larger group — the family, the regiment, the city, the nation, the corporation, the church — as of overriding importance, with personal considerations clearly secondary. And by honor I mean the respect with which the rest of society views it.

That’s the system that gives us “honor killings” in a swathe of countries, and in modified western form it’s also at the root of every cover-up, every attempt by hacks and flacks to put a good face on things — and it’s very much something that investigative journalism exists to uncover, just as PR attempts to cover it up.

To my mind, this is one of the big battlefronts in the world today, comparable perhaps to the battle post-Descartes between “enlightenment” and “superstition”. And when there’s murky business to cover up or admit to, corporations are often slower than individuals to ‘fess up — if only because the stock market favors appearances rather than realities. Until the bubble bursts.

And much the same is true for politicians and the electoral market, and for churches and the market in faith.

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My mentor Richard Landes believes honor-shame is a large part of the battlefront between “the Israelis” and “the Arab world” — he quotes these two definitions:

Politeness is not saying certain things lest there be violence; civility is being able to say those certain things and there won’t be violence.

and writes:

In an honour culture, it is legitimate, expected, even required to shed blood for the sake of honour, to save face, to redeem the dishonoured face. Public criticism is an assault on the very “face” of the person criticised. Thus, people in such cultures are careful to be “polite”; and a genuinely free press is impossible, no matter what the laws proclaim.

Modernity, however, is based on a free public discussion, on civility rather than politeness, but the benefits of this public self-criticism – sharp learning curves, advances in science and technology, economic development, democracy – make that pain worthwhile.

Leaving aside their applicability to the Israeli-Arab issue, are those fair distinctions between two modes of being? How much of the battle between those forces can be found in the world around us, in our politics, our economics situation, and so on?

How much impact did the differences between honor cultures and modernity have, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Where else might this kind of conflict of values confront our leaders and ourselves?

How can we best handle interfaces between these two ways of experiencing, evaluating and acting in our shared world?

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The White Paper and its Critics

Monday, February 11th, 2013

Someone for reasons unknown last week leaked the classified Department of JusticeWhite Paper” on targeting with drone attacks the numerically tiny number of US citizens overseas who have joined al Qaida or affiliated groups. The leak set off an outburst of public debate, much of it ill-informed by people who did not bother to read the white paper and some of it intentionally misleading by those who had and, frankly, know better.

Generally, I’m a harsh critic of the Holder DOJ, but their white paper, though not without some minor flaws of reasoning and one point of policy, is – unlike some of the critics – solidly in compliance with the laws of war, broader questions of international law and the major SCOTUS decisions on war powers. It was a political error to classify this document in the first place rather than properly share it with the relevant Congressional committees conducting oversight

Here it is and I encourage you to read it for yourself:

Lawfulness of Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qa’ida

Much of this white paper debate has been over a legitimate policy dispute (“Is it a good idea if we use drones to kill AQ terrorists, including American ones?”) intentionally being mischaracterized by opponents of the policy (or the war) as a legal or constitutional question. It is not. The law is fairly settled as is the question if the conflict with AQ rises to a state of armed conflict, which SCOTUS dealt with as recently as Hamdi and for which there are ample precedents from previous wars and prior SCOTUS decisions to build upon. At best, framed as a legal dispute, the opponents of the drone policy would have a very long uphill climb with the Supreme Court. So why do it?

The reason, as I discern it, is substituting a legalistic argument and judicial process (“FISA court to decide drone killings”) to conceal what is really a debate over American war policy   and the President’s war powers in order to accrue domestic political advantage or at least avoid paying the costs of advocating a potentially unpopular position. Otherwise, opponents have to argue on the merits that the US should not as a matter of policy kill al Qaida terrorists sheltered by Pakistan or beyond the reach of government control in Yemen. Or that we are not “really” at war or that Federal judges are better suited for picking bombing targets than Air Force and CIA analysts and that “due process” should apply to enemy combatants on the battlefield. Many of these arguments are valid ones to raise and debate but are unlikely to be persuasive to the public or Congress; if they were, they would have prevailed in 2010 (drones) or 2001 (“are we at war?).

A straightforward legal analysis begins and stops with ascertaining whether or not we are in a state of armed conflict with al Qaida. The white paper used a “kitchen sink” approach to try and cover all legal bases, perhaps to create a basis for a later freewheeling peacetime use of armed drones – which incidentally, I am not in favor of – but it is not required here and actually distracts from the strongest legal argument – the administration is lawfully fighting an enemy in an armed conflict declared by Congress.
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If we are in an armed conflict under international law with al Qaida – and the evidence appears here in fact, legislative action, context, historical and legal precedent to be overwhelming – renders most of the other justifications cited in the white paper for the policy regarding due process as well as nearly all of the criticisms of it moot, at least in terms of legality. Wartime enemy combatants are in a qualitatively different legal status vis-a-vis the United States government acting as a belligerent than are non-combatants or are civilians in peacetime (even civilians who commit criminal acts). No American citizen has a right to pick up arms and join an enemy army or armed group during a war, period. Or a subsequent right to be treated as anything but a combatant if they do. Combatant status is not determined by nationality under international law but by behavior and adherence to a belligerent party’s military forces and their physical disposition ( hors d’ combat, in the act of surrender etc.).
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American citizens fought in enemy armies, notably the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS, against the United States in WWII and a handful defected to the enemy in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. While some of these men were tried for treason after these wars ended, others were treated as enemy POWs or simply allowed to come home at a later date, but none were accorded judicial due process *during* the conflict as potential targets of an American military attack. Only after capture, as with the saboteurs in the Ex Parte Quirin case, did judicial review and due process come in to play.. We see a similar phenomena with the Civil War where, even under the Lincolnian theory that the Confederacy merely represented “Combinations too powerful to be suppressed” (i.e. a private insurrectionist conspiracy and not the states themselves as corporate, legal, sovereign entities in rebellion), we do not see SCOTUS insisting on normal, civilian, judicial due process in Ex Parte Milligan except where “civil courts are in operation” (i.e. away from the battlefield). This was to prevent the application of martial law in civilian areas in the North, not to stop martial law in theater or occupational zones.
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Had this issue of due process for active enemy combatants been raised during WWII or even Vietnam, it would have been likely (and properly) regarded by US officials as ludicrous; if true, the logic would imply that enemy units could immunize themselves from attack (or substantially delay them)  by recruiting American citizens into their ranks. It would also beg the question why the US could lawfully bomb enemy targets and risk killing American POWs via collateral damage, but not directly target enemy fighters who happened to be American citizens. It would further beg the question why it would be lawful to indirectly target an American citizen in a group of enemy fighters with, say, artillery or gravity bombs from 52,000 feet but be an unlawful violation of due process to aim at him directly with a drone missile or a sniper rifle. Is a Marine rifleman who happens upon Adam Gadahn in Afghanistan and kills him therefore an “assassin” (to use Glenn Greenwald’s description of targeted killings) to be charged with murder?
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Even as a matter of “due process” (!) – never mind fighting a war – how could this legal argument possibly make any sense? What precedent under military law or international law from prior conflicts supports it?
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How would inserting judicial review – even SCOTUS – over operational planning and target selection as a step in the President’s exercise of his Constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief likely to affect the Separation of Powers? This is not a trivial question – in military terms it is analogous to the judiciary usurping the position of the Rules Committee in the House of Representatives over legislative matters. How would this innovation impact our ability to fight our next war or wars?
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Much like the white paper’s lengthy, but entirely irrelevant discourse into the nature of threat “imminence” and “breadth”, this argument is sheer invention if a state of armed conflict with al Qaida exists. Most criticisms and not a few of the white paper’s own legal justifications consist of novel restraints alien to the historical practice of states prosecuting an armed conflict that we would be extremely unwise to adopt and sanctify as precedents for waging future wars.
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Let us take one of the more intellectually serious and responsible expert critics as an example, Steve Vladeck of American University. Not everything he has to say in his lengthy post is wrong and I even agree with some of his points, but things like this strike me as specious, or at least a very weak reed upon which to rest an argument that alters the constitutional balance:
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….First, many of us who argue for at least some judicial review in this context specifically don’t argue for ex ante review for the precise reasons the white paper suggests. Instead, we argue for ex postreview–in the form of damages actions after the fact, in which liability would only attach if the government both (1) exceeded its authority; and (2) did so in a way that violated clearly established law. Whatever else might be said about such damages suits, they simply don’t raise the interference concerns articulated in the white paper, and so one would have expected some distinct explanation for why that kind of judicial review shouldn’t be available in this context. All the white paper offers, though, is its more general allusion to the political question doctrine. Which brings me to…

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Second, and in any event, the suggestion that lawsuits arising out of targeted killing operations against U.S. citizens raise a nonjusticiable political question is almost laughable–and is the one part of this white paper that really does hearken back to the good ole’ days of the Bush Administration (I’m less sold on any analogy based upon the rest of the paper). Even before last Term’s Zivotofsky decision, in which the Supreme Court went out of its way to remind everyone (especially the D.C. Circuit) of just how limited the political question doctrine really should be, it should’ve followed that uses of military force against U.S. citizens neither “turn on standards that defy the judicial application,” nor “involve the exercise of a discretion demonstrably committed to the executive or legislature.” Indeed, in the context of the Guantánamo habeas litigation, courts routinely inquire into the very questions that might well arise in such a damages suit, e.g., whether there is sufficient evidence to support the government’s conclusion that the target is/was a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or one of its affiliates…

My first criticism would be that Vladeck’s premise that the question of a targeting decision of an American citizen who is a senior leader of al Qaida during a state of armed conflict who is active outside the territory of the United States is a matter for adjudication by US courts is incorrect. He is essentially arguing that the political question doctrine does not cover the exercise of the Constitutionally specified war-making powers of the executive and legislative branches during a war. I am highly skeptical this is an argument any Supreme Court would entertain lightly, much less the Roberts Court.
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My second criticism is more practical – that Vladeck in seeking judicial review of the decision process by which an American citizen is determined to be senior or not senior leader in al Qaida leadership is a distinction without a difference from a court having a priori judicial review of the larger military operation in wartime but with the added detriment of exposing the intelligence process, to discovery. Targeting decisions involve assessment of intel about the target from a variety of perspectives – confidence, effect, probability of success/costs and the “fusion” of (usually) USAF and IC in a targeteering shop. Why  judicial scrutiny should apply only to drone strikes targeting a specific US citizen among other al Qaida operatives in wartime vice simply bombing an al Qaida safe house in which a US citizen might be employs a legal reasoning that is obscure to me. If a US citizen being a potential casualty is the critical constitutional variable here, then not also judicial review of a bayonet charge?
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The proposal for judicial review of potential attacks during an armed conflict (not peacetime) is rife with a host of counterproductive second and third order constitutional and military effects. It represents a sweeping change in our political order by a technical legal fiat. It would also be an exceedingly dumb way to run a war. It might test our powers of imagination, but somehow, we faced down Hitler and the Imperial Japanese without Federal judges running our strategic bombing campaigns.
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This preference for legalistic arguments is partly a product of over representation of lawyers among the American political elite. Highly competent attorneys are very skilled at framing arguments on behalf of clients so that they begin litigation not only from a favorable explicitly stated position but, where possible, with several layers of one-sided implicit premises built in that you accept uncritically only at your peril. When a lawyer comes into a public policy debate saying that a political question is a legal question, he is making a political argument to remove a political dispute in a democratic polity to the courts where the matter will be decided under very different procedures and will remain as a legal question thereafter.
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Sometimes, this is the constitutionally correct thing to do; more often, it is simply an expedient thing to do that diminishes democratic accountability while rendering policy and process needlessly more complex and adversarial than even open public debate. It is also a self-aggrandizing feedback loop for lawyers as a class – when all political questions are legal questions, then should we not all defer to their superior expertise and training? It is the road to technocracy and the rule of law becoming “rule by lawyers”.
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Does that mean the critics have no point whatsoever regarding the use of drones in “targeted killings”? No. The idea that targeting American citizens is bad *policy* because it might, for example, be poorly employed against innocent people by mistake or, in slippery slope fashion, lead to a normalization and extension of the practice of targeted killing outside of an officially recognized armed conflict is a completely valid *political* argument. It is even, in my view, a very wise caution. It just does not hold water as a legal argument on behalf American citizens who go overseas and pick up arms and wage war against the US by joining al Qaida.
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More importantly, there are better, simpler remedies to a “slippery slope” with drone attacks that can be employed legislatively and through vigorous oversight that can be enacted that will strengthen rather than undermine and confuse our constitutional system of governance. First, the Obama administration, for it’s part, should allay critics fears by removing “targeted killings” from the arbitrary hands of unnamed “senior officials” (code for the President? The National Security Adviser? A random White House lawyer?) and either return to a more traditional Pentagon target assessment procedure or use the NSC process with a PDD/NSDD and a properly and timely “finding” being presented to Congress.
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Secondly, the proper body to review the judgement of the administration in tactics, operations, and strategy is not the judicial branch, but the legislative, which has done so in prior conflicts and holds the power of the purse to control the extent of campaigns and the raising of armies. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was the oversight mechanism the Congress employed during the Civil War to review and influence the actions of the Lincoln administration. I would argue that the US Congress is more than sufficient to do the same task today with a far less existential conflict, if it chose to do so. Congress could, if it wished, forbid these operations or cease funding them. Quite pointedly, they have done neither.
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If Congress does not engage in rigorous oversight, it does not follow that a Federal Court is the appropriate constitutional substitute for Congress abdicating it’s wartime responsibilities. Targeted killings of enemy combatants during a declared armed conflict is a question of war policy, not due process, and is the purview of the political branches, not the judiciary
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Thirdly, the “slippery slope” danger is genuine and should be interdicted with legislation prohibiting or severely restricting the use of armed drones at home or forbidding their use against civilians resident in the territory of the United States entirely. A definition from Congress of under which circumstances that terrorism is a matter for law enforcement or military action is something that is likewise years overdue.
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Congress should be taking up it’s weighty responsibilities in war policy and not punting them to the executive or the judiciary, so that the actions of the US government in a matter of extreme gravity like a war are constitutionally clothed in democratic consent.
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Foust on “False Fears of Autonomous Weapons”

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Hat tip for a strong recommendation from Adam Elkus:

Josh Foust has a very sensible piece up about the seemingly endless furor about “killer drones” (we never called our warplanes “Killer F-16’s” or guided weapons “killer cruise missiles”).

The false fear of autonomous weapons 

….Many of the processes that go into making lethal decisions are already automated. The intelligence community (IC) generates around 50,000 pages of analysis each year, culled from hundreds of thousands of messages. Every day analysts reviewing targeting intelligence populate lists for the military and CIA via hundreds of pages of documents selected by computer filters and automated databases that discriminate for certain keywords.

In war zones, too, many decisions to kill are at least partly automated. Software programs such as Panatir collect massive amounts of information about IEDs, analyze without human input, and spit out lists of likely targets. No human could possibly read, understand, analyze, and output so much information in such a short period of time.

Automated systems already decide to fire at targets without human input, as well. The U.S. Army fields advanced counter-mortar systems that track incoming mortar rounds, swat them out of the sky, and fire a return volley of mortars in response without any direct human input. In fact, the U.S. has employed similar (though less advanced) automated defensive systems for decades aboard its navy vessels. Additionally, heat-seeking missiles don’t require human input once they’re fired – on their own, they seek out and destroy the nearest intense heat source regardless of identity.

It’s hard to see how, in that context, a drone (or rather the computer system operating the drone) that automatically selects a target for possible strike is morally or legally any different than weapons the U.S. already employs.

Yep.

Most of the anti-drone arguments are a third hand form of opposition to US foreign policy or Counterterrorism policy for a variety of reasons, sometimes tactical and strategic, but mostly just political. Saying you are against inhuman drone strikes sounds a hell of a lot better than honestly saying that you would be against any kind of effective use of military force by the US against al Qaida and the Taliban in any and all circumstances. I can’t imagine Human Rights Watch would be happier if the US were using F-16’s and B-52’s instead.

Or commandos with small arms for that matter.

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Lang, Francona et socii on an Israeli strike

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — a quick recap of Col. Lang & Lt. Col. Francona on the realities of an Israeli strike on Iranian facilities, 2006-2012 — and the recent WaPo trilogy ]
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Nuclear and missile sites, 2008, credit: Stratfor

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I posted here a while ago about what happens when “religious leaders talk of wiping nations off the map” — quoting the Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei and the Shas Rabbi Ovaida Yosef — and unobtrusively included the question:

Do the logistics back the rhetoric up?

Or so I thought.

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Srikanth R of the Takshashila Cyber Strategy Studies team picked up on that supposedly unobtrusive question, though, so maybe it wasn’t so unobtrusive.

The thing is, it’s a solid, material, practical, down to earth realist’s question… and behind it, behind my dropping it into that post, is a memory of Col. Pat Lang, the blogger at Sic Semper Tyrannis, pointing his readers to that question quite a while back, in the form of a post by his one-time DIA deputy, Rick Francona back in 2006. Any “intelligence” in my question is strictly theirs.

I thought then, and I think now, that logistical considerations are as important as potential messianic-mahdist echo-chambers or statements by Israeli intelligence figures or American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to bear in mind when considering the potential for an Israeli attack on Iran.

This is not an area that I consider myself informed about, so I thought I’d check back and see what Lang and Francona have had to say on the issue over the intervening years…

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Rick Francona: flight routes, 2006

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Here are a bunch of other places where Lang, Francona et socii discuss such matters, in what I believe is a sequence by date:

http://francona.blogspot.com/2006/03/iran-israels-air-strike-options.html
http://francona.blogspot.com/2008/06/iran-israels-air-strike-options-update.html
http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2008/06/overflight-clea.html
http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2008/09/ask-the-iraqi-g.html
http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2009/05/sounds-like-a-plan-iranisrael.html
http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2009/05/haaretz-article-on-iranian-realities.html
http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2010/11/israeli-planning-considerations-harper.html
http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2012/02/can_israel_stri.html
http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2012/04/an-israeli-iran-war-what-would-it-look-like-by-richard-sale.html
http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2012/08/yaalon.html

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From that last URL, here’s the most recent map in the series:

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And is that all?

Over the last few days the Washington Post has published a three-part “essay” on an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. I’ve already quoted from David Ignatius‘ contribution in a comment on ZP, but that was about a different aspect of the thing. Here are links to the three parts:

Azadeh Moaveni, What if Israel bombed Iran? The view from Tehran
Anat Berko, If Israel bombed Iran, what would life in Tel Aviv be like?
David Ignatius, Lessons from an Iranian war game

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Again, let me emphasize that I don’t know about logistics, but that I suspect Col. Lang does. You might think three points of view was enough to get a decent overview of the situation. You might believe that a war game conducted by a cluster of intelligent specialists would be enough…

Just for the record, Col. Lang obviously still thinks we’re missing the point. This is from his Sic Semper Tyrannis blog, today:

A general defect of the thing is the complete ignorance reflected of the actual limitations of distances, weapons, numbers of aircraft and missiles, Iranian air defenses, the lack of any recovery air fields between Israeli bases and the targets or SAR capability for the attacking Israeli force. Basic military knowledge of the situation is ignored in the manner common in politico-military strategic war games. In these “games” any reference to actual limitations are airily waved off as not germane. In this essay it is suggested that one option is for the US to “shoot down’ the attacking Israeli force before it passes beyond Iraq. The Joe Biden character angrily says that this is not an option. He is correct but not for the reason implied. In fact, since the completion of the US withdrawal from Iraq the US has no ability to do such a thing and neither do the Iraqis. The nearest USAF assets are in the Gulf or Turkey and the nearest US Navy assets are where the carriers may be. Look at the distances.

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