Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Spock wouldn't have been confused. The Spaceship Enterprise would have heard his words ring through the control room.

"It's war Jim, but not as we know it", Spock would have said.

Hence the following meditation in the Canberra Times . . .


Don’t be confused: Barack Obama is very much a wartime leader who’s prepared to ignore international boundaries and conventions to pursue US objectives. He’s now authorised two aggressive covert offensives. Both risk spreading to engulf Central Asia in a disastrous new conventional conflict; one America would lose. The President is dramatically stepping-up operations falling just short of actual war against Iran, while continuing to strike targets in Pakistan despite that country’s vehement protests. The world is moving dangerously close to the brink of another war.

When the flame finally touches a flashpoint there will come an explosion. If this occurs it will make George Bush’s invasion of Iraq look like a model of sensible, rational decision-making.

Yet America’s increasing bellicosity towards Iran and Pakistan hasn’t yet been extensively reported. That’s because US operations have been largely, until now, cloaked in secrecy. Extraordinarily, Obama himself took the decision to publicise his covert war. Opponents say he released the information to look ‘tough’ before the impending presidential campaign. Supporters claim it was to inform Americans about the operations – including a policy of deliberately targeted assassinations directed from the Oval Office itself – taking place in their name.

The key point is that any distinction between war and peace has become so blurred it’s becoming virtually impossible to distinguish between the two. Obama’s decision to ignore borders as he accomplishes his objectives is throwing a new, destabilising military dynamic into the already tumbling cycle of international diplomacy. This is now spinning differently. Only someone without imagination could confidently predict where it will end up.

The turmoil in Iran and Afghanistan forced US strategists to recognise the limitation of conventional military force. Despite a dramatic superiority in firepower, NATO forces have failed to halt the insurgency in Afghanistan. America has also failed to convince Iran to cease developing nuclear weapons.

So Washington is turning to other means of imposing its will on a reluctant region. Doing so requires striking across the previously inviolate red lines that stretched across maps marking international borders to achieve military objectives. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee our enemies won’t strike back.

Firstly the bombing campaign. The drone attacks that are ‘taking out’ insurgent leaders operating from Pakistan is, in part, working. But it will never ‘succeed’. There will always be more to kill. Nevertheless, Obama has dramatically stepped up the campaign in an effort to hit the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda’s leadership. The idea is appealing and there have been successes. But the low hanging fruit has been harvested and the bombs are landing in complex terrain. The results aren’t clear-cut. Sometimes an explosion can create more people with lasting grudges against America than it eliminates.

Pakistan has been unable to do little more than protest while the assault from the skies has continued. But there’s been a cost. The relationship between the two, nuclear-armed states has plunged to a new nadir. It’s a tinderbox, only a spark away from ignition.

Secondly, and concurrently, Washington is pursuing a radical, new cyber-campaign against Iran. This has achieved its goal by dramatically setting back Teheran’s attempt to develop the bomb. Again, the order to release a virus that would destroy the centrifuges creating fissile material for the bombs came directly from the White House itself. Success has been stunning and it’s avoided the probability of an Israeli bombing attack on the reactors. This is good.

But the US is stretching the boundaries of military action. Fortunately Iran cannot retaliate. Yet. But what will happen if it succeeds in developing a computer virus that does target the American cyber-sphere? Tactical victory is confused for strategic success. Washington’s provocation of Islamabad is arguably, working – but this doesn’t mean it will be able to secure a lasting peace in the region. Pakistan has made it clear it expects to have a say. Ignoring that country’s concerns is a recipe for prolonging instability.

These activities have a name. They’re Operations Other than War (OOTW) and they’re discussed in Chapter 9 of the US Army’s Field Manual 100-15. Doctrine insists that a vital principle of such action is legitimacy. Obama has not bothered to explain how these covert executive actions are either authorised or proper.

The President is the most powerful man on the planet. He possesses more power than an absolute monarch. It doesn’t make him right.

The aim of war is to influence your opponent. Convincing enemies to act as you wish. This can be achieved through violence. If the enemy forces are destroyed there is nothing they can do to harm you. That’s the proper aim of military action. But not everything can be resolved by might.

The last President to attempt directing similar covert operations to re-make the world was also a Democrat. John Kennedy similarly decided not to be bound by the established conventions for the use of military force. He thought it would be a good idea to arm Cuban émigrés so they could destroy Fidel Castro’s communist government in Cuba. At the same time he deployed troops, authorised defoliants, and backed a coup in South Vietnam. He approved of assassination as long as there was “plausible deniability”. These were all OOTW; all were authorised solely by the President; all were disasters.

Obama’s not building on a solid record. Instead he’s single-handedly overthrowing established conventions simply because he can. In doing so he’s tearing down our own protection. The US has a decisive advantage over any other power when it comes to using armed force. Since September 11th it’s become apparent that this alone is not enough to guarantee the stability of the current international arrangements. The answer to this volatility is not to further undermine conventions for the use of force.

The destruction that can be visited on society has increased exponentially since the Second World War. At the same time power has been diffused in ways that could not – can not – be predicted. Currently, America is still able to choose the terrain on which it will fight. It won’t be long before other actors will make use of similar weapons to carry the battle forward in ways that can’t be predicted. 

1 comment:

  1. Good call Nic, but a minor correction, its Starship Enterprise, not spaceship. Perhaps an interesting corollary to your story is the manner in which the US is influenced by the strangest stimulae when making foreign policy - for example the escalation of the VietNam war was partially caused by the film 'Patton' which influenced the White House by encouraging the then President to commit more military assets to the conflict (in the hope of achieving 'victory'). Cross border operations have large risks - as the escalation in Cambodia showed over 35 years ago.