Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 2, 2009

A New Way Forward: Right Makes Might

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on December 2, 2009

Last night President Obama outlined his administration’s strategy and plans for a troop build-up and eventual draw down of forces in Afghanistan during a 35-minute nationally-televised speech from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Two points stood out for me: One from the speech itself and one from the context.\n\nAt several points during the second half of the speech, the president reiterated his view that our national security and our homeland security are deeply intertwined. In particular, he emphasized connections between the cost of the war and the parlous state of our economy.\n\nThe president made a point of identifying how important it is for the American people to support the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In doing so he drew a connection between our efforts there and efforts over the past 60 years starting in Europe to build a wide range of international institutions that have enabled security and prosperity not only for the United States but for other nations as well.\n\nIn making this connection, the president explicitly directed our attention away from analogies with Vietnam and subtly encouraged us to consider our efforts in central Asia an extension of the policies that successfully ended the Cold War and led to the spread of liberal democracy across much of Eastern Europe. By connecting his agenda in the region with his nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agenda as well, he made it clear that the connection is literal as well as rhetorical.\n\nHe mentioned the United Nations, the NATO alliance, and the World Bank as evidence of our success promoting economic as well as political liberalization without resorting to force or occupation. In doing so, however, he overlooked the menacing presence these institutions represent to some of our allies as well as a few of our own countrymen, some of whom fear globalization almost as much as than they fear Muslim extremists.\n\nRecognizing that security in Afghanistan depends on development there and in neighboring Pakistan, the President committed the United States to a military engagement with a limited time horizon. At the same time, he clearly committed us to a more open-ended engagement to develop civil and economic institutions there conditioned only on accountability and continued cooperation.\n\nThe President acknowledged in his remarks that United States policy with respect to Pakistan, in particular, has interpreted cooperation and United States’ interests too narrowly. How he intends to broaden this perspective there while remaining true to his goal of disarmament remains unclear.\n\nWhat is clear and was openly acknowledged by the President during the first half of his remarks is that the troop build-up will place a heavy burden on the nation’s already stretched armed forces and the young men and women who serve. Acknowledging this reality, the President spoke directly to the cadets seated before him: “As your commander in chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined and worthy of your service.”\n\nAccording to the President, the nation’s interest and goals in Afghanistan and the region remain unchanged from the start of our intervention:\n


Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

\n\nTo meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

\nThe commitment of forces represents only one part of the President’s three-pronged strategy for achieving these objectives. Breaking the back of al Qaeda, the President insisted, depends upon reversing the momentum of the resurgent Taliban and creating a stable environment for Afghans who want to govern themselves peacefully to do so. This proscribed role for United States military forces may be achievable, but only with great difficulty and more bloodshed on both sides.\n\nThe President’s proposal recognizes that building civil capacity in Afghanistan and forging a durable partnership with Pakistan cannot be accomplished through the use of sticks. But it remains to be seen how effective the President’s carrots will be in a region where democracy is viewed not so much as a robust ideal as a fragile idea that requires constant care and attention so it can adapt to the harsh climate and conditions present there.\n\nAs the President addressed the sacrifices that lie ahead, the television cameras panned the room. As they did, I was struck by the fresh faces of some of America’s best and brightest seated before him in the auditorium and on display before the entire nation. Besides their obvious youth, something else was evident in their faces. Our armed forces and those we select and train to lead our all-volunteer force represent both America’s diversity and its promise. The ideal of democracy was reflected in their eyes.\n\nIf we succeed in Afghanistan, it will be because, as the President himself suggested, “right makes might” not the other way around. The young men and women of our armed forces are not just the right people to lead in the use of force against our enemies, they are a brilliant example of what our country can still do better than anyone else: Encourage service by promoting success in proportion to one’s commitment to cooperation and self-sacrifice.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

December 2, 2009 @ 6:07 am

Well “Iliactus Sunt” or some version thereof of the “Die are (is) Cast” as Caeser reportedly stated when crossing the Rubicon to seize effective dictatorship of Rome. There is no going back from this speech. Ignore all domestic analysis because its impact on the other nation-states of the world and non-nation-state actors and their threats will be stupendous. Unfortunately, not how the impact and outcome was envisaged by the speaker. This speech will be parsed over and over for its content and implications.
Okay so where do we go from here?
The premises, history and rationale and conclusions of this speech are not just tragically flawed but fatally flawed. Analogies to the War in Viet Nam and attempts to show how different this war is are somewhat in error but for reasons other than those stated. In Viet Nam a unique culture that had resisted the Chinese Empires for over 1200 years again was successful in resisting the American Empire although clearly cultural inroads of western society and business style were eventual winners. It will always be of interest to me that we DID NOT give major foreign assitance to the unified Communist Viet Nam when we so clearly have given foreign assistance to other dictatorships or adopted favorable policies.
I would argue for ignoring the impact of the speech on the Islamic world and focusing instead on its impact politically and culturally on what I view as the Chinese Condominium. Specifically, China, Japan, Tawain, the Koreas, Indonesia, and Viet Nam and Maylasia. With the addition of India and Bangladesh and Pakistan as maybes in the Chinese Condo this is where the playing out of the Nation-State model that has existed since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and which left organized violence largely to the nation-state actors will be played out. By 2048 the dominance of the Western Nation-states and their collective cultural and political impact on the world will have ended. Perhaps a good thing to some but not for me. The European Enlightenment that led to the American Revolution and its founding fathers long since appears to have been abandoned by letting religion dictate foreign policy largely through a Christian view. WE (the US) have sowed and we will now reap the bitter harvest of that religion and militarism that will have ended American role as a world leader!
No history has NOT ended and the American Century dominated by the events of 1945 will now end tragically IMO for an American people that felt safe in their continental isolation, free to ignore the rest of humanity while consuming a prodigious share of its resources.
Again just to restate there is no effective government anywhere in Afghanistan. Karzai cannot even get a cabinent in place. The officialdom of that country is corrupt. There is little likelihood of creation of any kind of successful national armed forces or policing force for many reasons including religion and ethnic and tribal rivalries. But what will be will be!
Oh and by the way China has no interest in having powerful nation-states on its borders. Beware India and Japan as you cede your political and economic future to China. The CHINESE CO-PROSPERITY SPHERE is rapidly becoming reality. 10 million Chinese have some English fluency. Less than 10,000 in US have some Mandarin fluency much less other Chinese dialects. Actual statistics reveal that even the INTERNET is largely a Chinese communications portal. Too bad no strategic vision anywhere in US leadership and betting former Secretary Paulsen back making money off his Chinese expertise and contacts. Hey no conflict right? And please notice that in CHINA homeland security is a largely military function. Yes, the Rubicon was crossed on Tuesday December 1st, 2009 for the US. Wars and militarism are the key enemy of the notions of democracy, republics and of course the spirit of the “Enlightenment”!

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 2, 2009 @ 6:13 am

Correction: Ilia Iactus Sunt!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 2, 2009 @ 8:44 am

Iacta alea est” (the die is cast) is what Suetonius claims Julius said in crossing the Rubicon. Based on what I see in the President’s speech I would instead argue, “the die is broken.”

Since at least the time of U.S. (Unconditional Surrender) Grant, it has been the political and military doctrine of the United States to seek total military victory. Senator McCain explains, “The way that you win wars is to break the enemy’s will, not to announce dates that you are leaving.”

We now face an adversary and context where such triumphalism can be self-deluding. President Obama has embraced this new reality with a courage to do what we can and the discipline to, “refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means,or our interests.” This is ambivalent. It need not be ambiguous.

Neither history nor reason — nor even the competence and courage of our military — offer any guarantees regarding the outcome of war. Julius Caesar also wrote, “Fortune, which has a great deal of power in other matters but especially in war, can bring about great changes in a situation through very slight forces.” (De Bello Civi)

But given the attack suffered on 9/11, several attacks on our allies since then, the continuing and even increasing threats from AQ and their allies, and the predictably horrific results of either a rapid withdrawal or a continuing muddle, I support the President’s intention, “to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict — not just how we wage wars. We’ll have to be nimble and precise in our use of military power.” He is seeking to cast a new — considerably more flexible — die.

By the way, Plutarch disagrees with Seutonius. He writes that as Caesar crossed the Rubicon he pronounced loudly, in Greek “Let the dice be cast!” Even if right is might, war can be a crapshoot.

Comment by Mark Chubb

December 2, 2009 @ 11:23 am

For some reason, another aphorism always come to my mind when I ponder the west’s predicament in Afghanistan: “You break it, you buy it.” Although I realize the situation there has been unstable for centuries, we chose to engage this mess in recent decades to counter larger forces that we never really tried to understand properly.

The Afghans for their part have never tried all that hard to understand or align themselves consistently with any one side or another’s agenda. They and their ancestors learned over the centuries that it just doesn’t pay. By the same token, they seem perfectly content to make others who try to impose their will on the region pay a dear price for intervening.

Although I see where both of you are coming from, I tend to lean toward Phil’s perspective. I detected a strong sense of realpolitik in the President’s remarks. I think he has come to realize that whether he wants to own this problem or not, it’s his now. It seems to me he would rather try and fail than get blamed for not trying at all. That said, he clearly has low expectations for continued military intervention there despite the big job he has given our men and women in uniform.

Phil’s insight that American military policy has become too preoccupied not only with winning and losing but with achieving the unconditional surrender of its enemies is particularly salient to me. When I interrupted regular programming to post on the President’s speech, I was considering analogies to little ol’ New Zealand’s role in the world.

New Zealand has deployed troops to Afghanistan on several occasions over the past eight years. At present, they have Special Air Service commandoes deployed (most probably, although not certainly, alongside British forces in Helmand). Their troops, like many of our other allies, see no conflict between combat duties and development (what we have come to call nation building). In the early stages of the current war and for years afterward, New Zealand troops were deployed building schools, medical facilities, and other infrastructure in Bamyan province.

What I saw in the cadets listening intently to the President’s speech is a clear capacity, if not an opportunity, to demonstrate American leadership by deploying our best and brightest on a mission that makes no hard and fast distinction between hard and soft power. Much of our success in post-war Europe came from repurposing our military capability there from destruction to development. If we are to draw an analogy between that time and this one, I see a strong role for American military forces in regional development as well as regional security.

If we turn our backs on the problem, it will get worse. We can disagree about whether we broke Afghanistan, but we all seem to agree that our past policies there were defective. Buying our way out of this mess requires a significant investment of leadership. Such leadership is not ambivalent about the future, but it certainly derives any stability it might achieve to acceptance of ambiguity, especially that which accompanies the absence of winning and losing strategies.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 2, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

Mark’s comments help me see that my comments — too quickly pounded out before starting an 0900 meeting — might be seen as debating Bill Cumming’s concerns. That was not my intent. Bill’s predictions are reasonable. I also think he would agree they are something less than inevitable.

It can be helpful to spin out future scenarios. The process exposes threats, vulnerabilities, consequences, options, and more that might otherwise be missed. But I try to avoid building a strategy or a policy around such projections. They are usually wrong, if not in substance, then in some crucial detail of time, place, etc.

It is difficult enough to get a handle on present reality and then choose what is right and effective in the present. My main point was meant to be that once the dogs of war are unleashed, it is very, very difficult to tame them. What I see in the President’s decision is a reasonable take on our present reality and a principled response to that reality. There are no guarantees of success, nor assurance of failure.

(Pedantic point: After running off to my meeting I vaguely recalled a Latin class of nearly 40 years ago where the definition of alea (die) was discussed at some length. It can certainly mean a single dice. I recall it can also mean a hollow form for making something, as in my first use of die from Seutonius. But I have not been able to confirm this second meaning and am once again out of time.)

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 2, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

First thanks Phil for again proving Latin NOT a DEAD language. How important Latin was to running the Roman Empire might be worthy of a great deal of research and discussion. Amazing how Julius C. fascinates US all even now.

Nothing is inevitable but after almost 24 hours of reflection have a whole new take on the speech. Not really about Afghanistan but mostly about Pakistan and our approach to that troubled “Nation-state.” IMO the more important in long run because of its nuclear weapons capability. Am also following the progress of the Naxalites in their pursuit of power by various means in INDIA and wonder about their ethnicity and tribal orientation. It has always seemed to me that there is an element of GRAND STRATEGY in the thinking of AQ and even possibly the Taliban in both sides of AF-PAK border. First destabilize Afghanistan and make a comeback there and then the same recipe for Pakistan. And then of course India. I think a key issue for future developments is how the Han Chinese treat their minorities and religion. Tom Clancy wrote at least one novel about revolutionary potential of state ordered abortion in China. Perhaps of interest, in the WEST of China the one-child per family policy was not strictly enforced until after 1978 and I continue to meet American citizens of Chinese background from Western China born before 1978 with siblings. Why do I mention this? Because I don’;t recall any real discussion anywhere about why the Islamic world seems not to have indulged in family planning! Perhaps completely off-base but demographics seems to be crucial to our success in AF-PAK and wonder what the Muslims make of US family planning efforts or lack thereof. I believe we are about to hit the 7 Billion mark and will be at 9 Billion by mid-century but could be very wrong. Perhaps that is end of the century. I do know that many mail-order brides (an awful terminology no matter how apt) are now leaving Viet Nam for S.Korea. Apparently as in Japan many S.Korean women refuse to marry because that means having children and becoming shut-ions with those children from birth until formal education stops. The one good thing IMO about the President’s speech is many in US now realize the pain will not stop. Interesting that Rep. Obey has introduced a share the pain tax bill so the well off can participate in our foregn adventures other than vicariously as just cheerleaders. Suetonius does seem somewhat reliable in his reporting from what I know. Did I mention that no conjuring up 30,000 troops trained in COIN in less than 2-5 years?

Comment by christopher tingus

December 3, 2009 @ 8:01 am

Enroll your kids and Grandkids in Chinese….the reality of fact clearly shows that China has outplayed all!

Kudos to the winner for this great Republic preferred arrogant demeanor and a self agenda riddled with utter disregard for the Constitution and dishonoring our forefathers!

To the Middle East, your destiny has already been determined by your void in genuine leadership, your hatred, your drug warlords and dastardly deeds upon innocents – it will not be virgins before you, but the wrath of hell!

God Bless America…let’s hope the Chinese make favorable note in the history books….

Christopher Tingus

*Buy gold….

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