October 23, 2012
Mixed Signals on Overwhelming Military Force out of Washington
by Bunn Nagara(10-21-12)@http://www.thestar.com.my
And yet in the real world some principles apply across the board, regardless of a country’s wealth, power or size. A problem for big powers is the ever-present temptation to rely on (greater) force when a more advised and nuanced diplomatic strategy can work much better.
On September 11, scores of militants attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
There was little information on the attackers or their motives, but the initial assumption was that it was a terrorist attack. Libyan President Mohamed Yousef El-Magariaf himself said there was no doubt it was a planned terrorist attack.
Yet within days, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice contradicted that view, repeatedly saying that the attack was spontaneous mob violence rather than premeditated terrorism. That statement placed the attack in the context of Muslim protests in Cairo against an anti-Islam film in the United States.
It would have the effect of distancing local uprisings in northern African communities against covert US military actions from the hostile US role there. It would have afforded a sense of deniability to those covert operations.
From that point on, US attempts to spin those issues its way started to get messy. It is after all (re-)election campaign time, and so this was to be no “ordinary” attack on a US embassy.
The larger picture has the Obama administration enlarging an undeclared war against alleged Islamist militants into Mali and northern Africa generally. However, this unofficial war has been hampered by Congressional cuts in defence expenditure.
Some weeks before the consulate attack, the State Department withdrew several security posts, possibly to reassign them to covert operations elsewhere. This was despite US diplomats warning that security had to be heightened instead.
For Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney and his team, this was a low-hanging fruit just ripe for plucking in election season. They hammered the Obama team for incompetence, disorganisation and a lack of transparency on the issues.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then took sole responsibility for the security lapse, seemingly a sacrificial lamb for Obama’s re-election campaign. Still, the State Department is responsible for foreign diplomatic missions as well as the specific decision to reduce consulate security in Benghazi.
It then attributed its view of the Benghazi attack to unnamed intelligence reports. By then, the Obama White House had swung around to present its understanding of the attack as a premeditated terrorist incursion after all.
The bigger issue concerns Obama’s pursuit of more military force as a solution to perceived threats in northern Africa. Washington’s information on those presumed threats is still hazy, its posture somewhat fuzzy and its finances restricted, but its policies are nonetheless surging towards more armed might.
In response to the Benghazi attack, the White House has prepared special “strike forces and drones” to hit back, but as Associated Press reported it during the week, the US “first has to find a target”. The “solution” of military force is set to define the problem, rather than the other way round.
Romney’s position is different only insofar as making no bones about taking the war route, and doing so even more forcefully. The Republican candidate’s chief foreign policy adviser is the neo-conservative John Bolton, senior architect of George W. Bush’s disastrous wars in Muslim lands.
With such keen competition at election time, no party has time to finesse the issues or properly understand the challenges, let alone consider the nuances of any situation. Since violence only begets more violence in the action-reaction sequence of international relations, inappropriate responses can produce ever more disasters.
Reactions to Benghazi centred on a doctrine of greater force is typical, and typically bipartisan in Washington. The inappropriate application of this doctrine as a panacea is evident elsewhere.
Special forces teams and batches of unmanned drones have been raining death on local communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Protests from community and national leaders make no impact in Washington and New York.
With Iran, the differences that Israel has with it are ideological and personal. The ideological issues are largely within Iran and Israel respectively disguised as bilateral ones, and the personal issues arise from the grossly incompatible personalities of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
For the US, however, the differences with Iran are political and diplomatic. They concern the nature of the system in Teheran, and more immediately, how to wean Iran off its dicey nuclear energy programme.
The challenges the US faces with Russia are diplomatic, such as in soliciting Moscow’s support at the UN Security Council. They are also to a degree personal, given the strong independent streak of President Vladimir Putin, who first served as president throughout all the George W. Bush years.
And yet the doctrine of greater military force is again sought. Controversial Bush-era “missile defence” complexes were to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic, officially to protect against incoming missiles from Iran.
These complexes were to be located on the doorstep of Russia. The Slovak Republic was critical of the plans and Moscow saw them as attempts to hem in Russia.
By 2007, the US already knew Iran had stopped any nuclear weapons programme in 2003, and that Iranian missiles could not reach most of Europe anyway. And since Iran had no issues with the eastern fringe of Europe, the Obama administration scrapped the missile defence idea in 2009.
However, Romney tried to revive the issue by criticising the White House for “abandoning” Poland and the Czech Republic. That was until Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak’s visit to Washington last July, when he slammed Romney for trying to raise a dead issue.
Since then, the Obama White House has decided to “pivot” 60% of all US military forces to East Asia. This would include placing at least two “missile shield” complexes, one in Japan and the other probably in the Philippines.
Running from north to south, the US has allies in Japan, Australia and the Philippines in East Asia, with a developing strategic relationship with Vietnam. Its only strategic rival or competitor in the region is China.
However, any challenge from China is economic, and to a degree diplomatic at the UN Security Council. The US is still far and away the dominant military power in the region and the world, with an annual defence budget the size of the rest of the planet’s combined.
Yet the response in East Asia is again military; the US Navy has plans for a range of high-tech battleships, including the super-expensive DDG-1000 stealth destroyer to “contain a rising China”. There is still no arms race in East Asia despite larger expenditures, but one can always be started.
Political analysts predict the US pivot will not succeed because it costs too much for restricted Pentagon budgets to afford. If the plans ever materialise, they can come only from more extended borrowings from abroad – notably from China.
That about sums up the sense and prospects of inappropriate responses, such as a knee-jerk strategy of overwhelming military force.