Thursday, March 7, 2013

Strategic analysis that asks the wrong question

In a post written in late February, Dan Trombly raised a number of practical, logistical, and strategic issues which, at a minimum, would severely complicate any effort on the part of the U.S. to arm the Syrian rebels in a way that ensures that the weapons reach the non-jihadist sectors of the opposition and in a way that contributes to the emergence of a post-war situation in which the U.S. would have any influence even over the factions it had armed.

Though characteristically sharp in its analysis, Trombly's post does not mention explicitly what should be the single most pressing issue for all countries, including the U.S. and Britain (both of which have recently said they will send non-lethal military aid to the rebels): namely, how best to reduce the total amount of suffering? More than a million refugees, and that counts only those who have registered with the UN, have fled Syria for Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Humanitarian aid has been pledged but most of it has not yet been delivered. The refugee situation is threatening to become a full-scale catastrophe. (See, e.g., the report contained in this segment.) Moreover, the civil war has already taken roughly 70,000 lives and as both sides cast away whatever minimal restraints they have hitherto observed and as the Assad regime uses missiles indiscriminately, one can expect the casualties to continue mounting.

In this context, the right question is not how the U.S. can best protect and advance its narrowly defined geopolitical and strategic interests. Rather, the right question is how the U.S. can best help minimize the duration and the total amount of human suffering that the current situation has produced and seems very likely to continue to produce. I don't know the answer to that question. But even the most sophisticated strategic analysis, if it focuses solely on the narrow question of 'interest', will end up being less helpful and illuminating than it could be. 


hank_F_M said...


I think Dan Trombly, as usual, has a pretty good analysis.

Trombly raised a number of practical, logistical, and strategic issues which, at a minimum, would severely complicate any effort on the part of the U.S. to arm the Syrian rebels My emphasis.

I think the conditional would misses the point. They do in fact complicate the issue, perhaps to the point of making any choice of goals or action irrelevant.

It would perhaps have been better if Trombly had mentioned alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people, but I think a reasonable conclusion from his analysis is that it is highly unlikely that we have the knowledge or means to this with reasonaoble probability of achieving "do no harm" let alone any actual success.

Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

Yes, that probably is a reasonable conclusion to draw from his analysis (which I read, btw, when I was rather tired and had had some wine to boot, so no doubt some of the nuances and details in his post escaped me).

Anyway, if that is a reasonable inference to draw from his analysis, it would have been good, I think, if he had made it explicit and written something like this at the end:
"Based on this discussion, what can the U.S. do to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people? Apart from sending humanitarian aid to help Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon deal with the refugees, not much."

But he didn't write that; he left the reader to draw that inference on his or her own.

LFC said...

By the way, I am not entirely persuaded that that conclusion is correct, but that's a separate issue. W the US and Britain both starting to provide non-lethal mil. aid (eg body armor etc) to the rebels or some factions thereof, it remains to be seen whether that will have any effect on the conflict.

I think I understand why the Obama admin has been esp. cautious on the Syria front. Whereas Dan Trombly seems opposed to all such interventions as a general thing: he was opposed to intervening in Libya, he is opposed to intervening (arming) in Syria, and it's an interesting question whether he wd have seen the '95 Srebenica massacre as regrettable but no compelling reason to intervene in Bosnia. (I don't know the answer to that question -- the question about his views.) Or Kosovo, Rwanda, Haiti, Somalia, E. Timor, etc etc.

hank_F_M said...


You bring up a problem which I sometimes ponder.

Rwanda is clear cut case where a decisive and timely intervention could have saved many lives.

Many of the others are more doubtful.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Bosnian intervention which seems to have frozen the military status quo for two years. When the military situation changed against the Bosnian Serbs they then settled for an agreement that was pretty much what would resulted without the intervention. It seems the fruit of the intervention was extending the killing and suffering for two years.

How do you tell in advance?

The second point of the Classic Just War doctrine is a reasonable possibility of success. I would think that some of hard headed analysis should be perquisite for any intervention. It will save lives and suffering in the long run.

Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

One of these days I should review the history of the Bosnian conflict. (I mean well beyond Wikipedia. Like, a book or two. What a novel idea. Ok, bad joke.) I'm ashamed to say I'm fuzzy on it: I remember certain events fairly well but I'm weak on the overall chronology.

A 20-second glace at Wikipedia suggests that NATO was held indirectly responsible, by some at any rate, for the Srebenica massacre b.c it failed to use air power more forcefully before the massacre. After Srebenica NATO went in a with a stronger bombing campaign and the Dayton agreement followed. So I'm not sure I agree w what you've said
about Bosnia,
but also I'm not in a position to have an informed debate on it.

W these bombing campaigns, of course, maybe incl Libya and perhaps esp the one in Kosovo in '99, there are serious questions about the legality/propriety of of bombing from such a high altitude that civilian casualties can't be minimized.

As Nina Tannenwald wrote about the Kosovo campaign (in a 2007 review of Theo Farrell's book Norms of War):
"NATO had zero combat deaths — which was possible only because greater risk was pushed onto civilians... [An Amnesty Int'l] report charge[d] NATO with 'serious violations of the laws of war leading in a number of cases to the unlawful killing of civilians' (Amnesty International 2000:2). Human Rights Watch was also quite critical of the conduct of the war. As [Theo] Farrell notes, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia declined to prosecute the NATO case on the basis of insufficient evidence for war crimes, but surely one must at least mention the role of power in influencing the prosecutor's decision."

So the way some of these campaigns has been carried out is certainly open to criticism, as a separate issue from whether they were/are justified at all.