Monday, August 26, 2013

Luttwak on Syria

Via TBA, this E. Luttwak piece argues that stalemate is the only outcome in Syria that serves U.S. interests. The case may seem logical. However, as the refugee population, already around one million, grows and places more strains on the host countries (Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey), the political situation in the latter may become more tense and in some cases violent, as is already happening in Lebanon and Iraq. The U.S. has a humanitarian and possibly also strategic interest in seeing that the refugee problem does not become even worse than it is now, and that in turn makes an indefinite civil war an undesirable prospect (not to mention the suffering in Syria itself).

It's instructive to compare Luttwak's line with McCain's. For the latter, "our interests are our values." For the former, the 'realist' calculus is all that matters: both A and B are hostile to the U.S., therefore A and B should be encouraged to weaken each other by fighting each other indefinitely. Luttwak and McCain are both wrong. Values are one basic component of interests; the trick is to find a way to accommodate the entire package, so to speak, of interests, without claiming (a la McCain) that values exhaust interests because interests and values are identical, or (a la Luttwak) that values are essentially irrelevant to interests. Easier said than done? Yes.

Added later: And if there are no policy options that accommodate the whole 'package,' which there probably won't be (see previous decisions on Afghanistan, Libya, etc.), then that should be acknowledged, without pretending that the chosen option is better than it is.


Anonymous said...

I seem to bump into stuff by Luttwak all the time right now, I don't know if it is related to the disintegration of order in the Middle East or just observational selection bias on my part...

I think Luttwak is too glib about the consequences of prolonged civil war for the people of Syria.

LFC said...


Ronan said...

I dont really get Luttwaks argument, which seems to be 'an Assad win *will* be terrible for the US' and ' a win for Syrian Islamists *could* be terrible for US interests', and just ignores any number of possible outcomes short of Assad / Al Qaeda taking control
But even taking his perspective on face value, how does that even play itself out? You have a prolonged civil war (say ten years on average) in which the rebels control some parts of the country and the regime others, theres no reason some of those regions wont become lawless or controlled by Islamists where groups can plan/carry out attacks against western interests/Israel (if thats the fear) You have the potential spread to Lebanon, perhaps Iraq. As you say, you have the refugee crisis which will undermine stability in a number of western allies (Jordan especially) for the forseeable future. And you have all the other knock on effects regionally and globally from sustained violence.
Then you have the fact that any arming of the opposition that the US et al could potentially carry out will be nothing compared to what the Gulf States are doing at the minute. They wont, as Luttwak seems to imply, be able to influence the outcome of the conflict one way or the other. And for that opportunity of making some marginal (if at all) diference in the conflict the US will allow itself be painted as interferring cynically in a conflict in the Middle East again
This seems to be the great lie at the heart of policy orientated realists, that they see the world more clearly than the rest of us, when in reality their analysis are just caricatures, poorly thought through grandstanding
Remember the most famous recent example of this, the 'Iran - Iraq war - we hope they both lose'? Well both could be said to have lost, I guess,( whereas in reality neither did), and 20 years later the problem with Iraq was still there, 30 years later it encouraged the US to invade the country, the issue with Iran gets more volatile every year, and the (relatively) minor role the US played in that conflict caused controversy at home and l/t resentment in the region
Thats not to say theres anything that *can* be done (i dont know if there is) but Luttwaks position strikes me as the worst option available, and not a l/t solution in any meaningful sense

LFC said...

Thanks for the comment, and I agree Luttwak doesn't consider the range of possible consequences of a decades-long civil war (he had limited space in this piece, but still). A decades-long civil war in this particular region is arguably a different matter, strategically speaking, than a decades-long civil war in, eg, the DRC (which was of course a humanitarian calamity, and is not over). An instructive case here might be the long Lebanese civil war, which I don't know very much about -- or rather, I used to know something about it but have forgotten the details. (Of course Syria is a different and much bigger country, and Assad's father's regime was heavily involved in the Lebanese conflict.)

I wonder whether Assad's use of chemical weapons (assuming, as seems to be the case, that it was the regime that used them) will prove to have been a long-term mistake, not b.c it will result in a retaliatory strike (which it will) but because it will solidify the view in the U.S. and Europe and the Gulf that Assad can't be allowed to remain in power.

Anonymous said...

All of these are valid objections, but Luttwak does I think capture the lack of a good plan here. If there were a good plan, we would've carried it out by now.

It is much easier to identify bad things on the ground than it is to demonstrate a good way of dealing with them.

(What do you think of his diagnosis of Turkey's staying aloof? Would a Turkey willing & able to intervene have wrapped this up already?)

LFC said...

I found his discussion of Turkey v. interesting, b/c I hadn't fully realized the extent to which Turkey has been passive. On the other hand, I rather doubt that Turkish intervention could have ended the war, but I just don't know.

I read the Luttwak piece through once; to be fair to him prob shd have given it a second reading. Though I think my reaction wd be pretty much the same.

I agree there are prob. no esp. good policy options. That seems pretty clear. There are only bad ones and possibly worse ones. I actually don't know what I would suggest if I were a policymaker, beyond trying to ameliorate the refugee problem w more humanitarian and etc aid. I guess it's just as well that I'm not a policymaker.

Ronan said...

From my (admittedly limited) reading I dont think Turkey have been as passive as Luttwak implies (ie they have given the rebels more or less free reign to move about the country, seek refuge, meet with foreign intel agencies etc; also theyve given them a good deal of diplomatic support - and of course opened the borders to people fleeing the conflict)Thats been done in the context of public opinion in Turkey being quite hostile towards supporting the rebels, and a variety of political, social,ethnic cleavages that reduce the amount of space Erdogan has to operate in (theyve also supplied weapons to the rebels and kept open and expanded smuggling routes)
Im not sure if they ever had the opportunity to intervene militarily (although I dont know) particularly unilateraly and with the possibility of being dragged into a l/t civil war

I dont so much mind Luttwaks point that there are no good options, which is true I think,but rather his selling his option as the best choice (which I dont think it is - genuinely doing nothing militarily is probably better than trying to extend the conflict indefinetly)

I think, politically, the US providing arms to the rebels was probably inevitable, but its one thing to acknowledge that inevitability and another to (as realists tend to do) sell it as some sort of optimal policy response

LFC said...

As a practical matter, how likely is it that the Obama admin. is going to follow Luttwak's preferred option, namely: help the rebels if Assad makes gains, then turn around and help Assad (or at least stop helping the rebels) if it looks like the rebels are gaining too much?

Practically speaking, the chances of this policy being implemented seem to be nil. Logistically it sounds v. difficult indeed, and while it's the sort of thing that a Kissinger might have tried to pull off I don't see this foreign-policy team doing it. So I don't think it's going to happen. "Doing nothing" is much closer to what the Obama admin's policy has actually been. They've said they're going to send certain kinds of nonlethal mil. aid to the rebels but apparently, from what I gather, not a whole lot of that has been delivered. As I said, I don't know exactly what I wd suggest if I were a policymaker.

Obama really doesn't need this problem right now. From his standpoint, it's just an enormous additional distraction from domestic issues and from the other ongoing foreign-policy issues. One thing that's certain, ISTM, is that he will do everything possible to keep the overt U.S. military role as minimal as possible. McCain and a few other voices may urge it, but there's no support in public opinion, ISTM, for any kind of robust intervention.

Ronan said...

Imo I could have seen US policy developing in that direction until the last few weeks.. not to the extent of a Luttwakian controlled conflict (which as you say seems impossible to manage) but settling for arming the rebels without being able to make any significant difference to the conflict. So I think its just a difference of emphasis (Drezner for example has been arguing that this will end up being US policy, and that it has been to some extent already ..only they were happy for the Gulf States/Turkey/Jordan to do it)
I dont think it needs to be explicit, or even well thought through, just a policy they settle upon or walk into bureaucratically

I agree that I dont think Obama wants this, or that his options are great. If he could stay out I agree that I think he would. Ideally
My only real problem was with Luttwaks conception of US 'interests' and how to protect them, which I dont see as being particularly convincing

hank_F_M said...


The first thing I read by Lutwick was a book on the Israeli army. A very competent summery of the armies press package and guided tour. Nothing new, no analysis or insight. (His book on Roman Strategy deserves it's high acclaim.)

Israel's strategic problems can be seen at three levels, from most probable and least dangerous to least probable and most dangerous . The first is terrorist actions, which are a royal pain in the posterior, but manageable and not a threat to Israel's existence. The second is a conventional war with it's neighbors, which if they got their acts together and cooperated they could be a real threat to Israel's existence. The third level is the Iranian bomb, if it exists.

A stalemate is in Israel's interest, it will be a very long time before Syria can engage in a conventional war against anybody. Without Syria a viable coalition is impossible. The longer the stalemate the better. Israel can if it chooses use the space to deal with one of the other levels of threat.

I suspect he conflating Israel's interest the ours.


What ever US interests might be we can do little to accomplish them. Yes we can throw a few bombs and missiles, but if we are not willing to take over the country ala Iraq and fight a longer and more costly war, there is no way we can fundamentally change the situation. I doubt that there is little we can do to help the refugees, at least without creating bigger problems for them.

Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

On the refugees: The agencies (UN and NGOs) that are providing basic services in the refugee camps are stretched to the limit and need more money. Apparently not all that's been pledged by various countries has been forthcoming. That's mainly what I was referring to. There was interview on the NewsHour the other night w a UNICEF official, which is what I'm going by here.

Re Israel: Seems to me the best thing Israel can do for its long-term security is strike a peace agreement w the Palestinians that creates a viable Palestinian state, entails Israeli withdrawal from the large majority of the West Bank, elevates the stature of the PA and concomitantly marginalizes Hamas and similar groups.

LFC said...

P.s. Off topic but speaking of books, I picked up not long ago a copy of Gerald Linderman's The World Within War: America's Combat Experience in WW2 (Free Press, 1997). Draws on an impressively large number of memoirs -- some of them published by small out-of-the-way presses -- as well as letters, diaries, and novels of the war by veterans. It's not military history per se, more social/psychological history. Might find it interesting, though some of the ground is prob. already familiar. I've been dipping into it here and there; very well written.