Small Wars Journal

The Responsibilities of Civilian Policy Advocates

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 11:05am

My views on the responsibility to protect concept and its advocates cavalier promotion of their cavalierly acronymed (R2P) construct previously boiled over into a debate on civil-military relations.  When I rhetorically asked on Twitter if they were ready to head down to the recruiting station to back up their convictions, I was accused of stepping afoul of the dictates of civilian control of the military.  I had no such intentions, as I subsequently stated.  Instead, I was asserting that R2Pers' moral certitudes were not backed up by a sufficient and sober counting of the costs.  Thinking of the "sacrifice" in the sterile terms that have accompanied a decade's worth of airport thank-yous and sporting events kickoffs is not the same as the heart-rending, gut-wrenching feeling of losing someone close to you; the flesh-tearing, life-changing pain of being maimed or killed by war; or the numbing, mind-altering experience of searching for parts of bodies, pulling dead children from rubble, and the like.  These are not a prerequisite for policy prescription, however the very terrible realities of war should not be glossed over in an attempt to sell lethal policy.  The advocates will state that these things are on-going in Syria, that they have contemplated them, and that we have a responsibility to stop it.  They will also state that the military has signed up for such things and that it must stand ready to make such sacrifices.

They also believe, against the weight of recent experience and longer historical example, that this will somehow be different.  That nifty technology will somehow make it easier, cleaner.  That aseptic corridors will be acceded to by a dictator determined not to find his end in a roadside ditch under the blows of his once-subjects, a gunshot, and the slow bleed, in great pain, during which he knows he is dying.  This image is undoubtedly seared into Assad's mind and that of his coterie.  But, surely, he will play fair with us.

All the more reason to take him out, they will say.  He is craven and cannot be allowed to continue this crime of epic proportions.  They do not see that their desire for a limited and humane intervention faces the vote of a determined enemy that will want to draw us into the quagmire, will want our precision-guided munitions to fall into the ambiguous targets of war, where cameras capture the wreckage of children, bright clothes smeared with blood and dusted with the gray remnants of a home collapsed upon them.  A father with tears in his eyes stands, hands pointing to the body, palms outward in helplessness.  Why, he asks, why do the Americans keep doing this?  Suicide bombers, IEDs, or missiles will cross lines on maps in op-eds and journal articles and we will call them cowards.  Meanwhile, drones or manned aircraft will loiter tens of thousands of feet above in impunity after the destruction of Syria's integrated air defense system with a bombing campaign that shocks all of the interventionists in its ferocity and breadth.  As the map lines blur, the bombs will fall silently, following the invisible beam of a laser.  They will fall into the ambiguity on the other side of the line and our moral certitude will shake, shudder, and eventually crumble as a civil war spreads in the murk.  We will look at the lines, now covered in dust, and bicker over what to do and how to do it.

Actors in Syria and in the region will tell us that they never wanted us there in the first place.  People scarred by war, their earliest memories marked by the smell of seared hair and flesh, burning plastic and rubber, the wails of mothers and sisters, a father, a grandfather, a brother transformed forever into a wrecked corpse, will march to the charge of another invasion, another occupation.  These will be the ones that survived by the lessons learned in a decade of war.  We will stand, the lines now vanished, trampled by the movement of patrols into the ambiguity, not wanting to press beyond our conception of a limited intervention, but unable to leave.  The R2Pers will not be in the midst of this.  They will be writing from their study, incredulous that military and civilian officials could have botched such a simple mission once again.  Wondering why we hadn't learned all the lessons of the better wars we could throw.

Surely, it cannot be as bad as all that, you might say.  True.  It may not be as bad as I say, but it will surely be more messy than the glib op-ed that Anne-Marie Slaughter threw together for the New York Times last week.  CNN reports that the military is looking at using as many as 75,000 troops just to secure potential Syrian chemical weapons sites.  The realities of a Syrian intervention are far messy than Dr. Slaughter is willing to countenance in her infantile fantasy masquerading as policy prescription.  Therein lies the rub.  Dr. Slaughter is a respected policy elite and people take her ideas seriously.  Therefore, she has a responsibility to be honest and open in her advocacy with regard to the risks and complexities of her proposal.  Dr. Slaughter tweeted a few weeks ago that those outside of government could partake in one-sided advocacy, leaving policy-makers in government to sort out the details.  This is the height of irresponsibility.  Essentially, she is saying that people like her are free to sell the American people on a policy in NYT op-eds without fully disclosing the costs and complexities, leaving the unhappy recipients in government with the task of dealing with the unstated costs and risks, while public debate shaped by dishonest people like her has closed off some of their policy options.

Slaughter states that simply arming the opposition would lead to destabilizing civil war. However, arming the Free Syrian Army to create "no-kill zones," that is enabling the FSA to control swathes of territory just within the sovereign borders of Syria would somehow bring an end to the butchery.  Not mentioned is how the FSA would take or hold this territory against the likely violent disagreement of the regime.  We are talking about battle here.  Not potshots against regime forces, but the taking and holding of territory.  This is not just glossed over in the Slaughter plan, but completely ignored.  She speaks blithely of the use of special forces to enable the FSA, and how they could enable the FSA to cordon population centers and rid them of snipers.  What you don't see here is the bloody battle and likely airstrikes needed to push the bulk of the regime forces away from these population centers to be cordoned.  Nor does it discuss the brutal and psychologically exhausting game of counter-sniper operations.

Slaughter next discusses locating tank and artillery units.  What she does not discuss is what is to be done once they are located.  Will they be showered with leaflets?  Or will she expect us to neutralize them?  That is a clean term.  It involves using aircraft, which means destroying an extremely capable integrated air defense system (IADS).  While there has been commentary to the contrary, this is much different than slipping through once or twice on raids as the Israelis have done.  Rest assured, any use of air in Syria will require an elaborate take-down of the IADS that will shock the bleeding hearts in our midst.  Even with the use of new technology to electronically disable the system temporarily, any attacker will use bombs to take them out permanently.  Also, no matter how precise the weapons, whether used against IADS, tanks, or artillery, the amount of explosive and shards of metal required to destroy such targets creates a deadly bloom that extends well beyond their intended target.  When missiles, artillery pieces, or tanks are located in and amongst civilian structures, collateral damage (as described above far more messily) will occur.

Slaughter asserts that all of this will be done only defensively and only against those that "dare" to attack the haughtily termed no kill zones.  Defensively is not defined here.  Does defense include taking out the IADS?  Does defense include taking out artillery in range of the no-kill zones?  Does defense include taking territory inside Syria to establish no-kill zones?  Does defense include counterattacking against Syrian forces that mass in preparation to push these "foreign fighters" (as they will be termed) out of their territory?  Does defense include pushing farther into Syrian territory when these no-kill zones fail to stop the killing beyond their neat lines?

Slaughter then goes completely off the rails of credibility when she states that Turkey and the Arab League should help the opposition more actively through the use of remotely piloted helicopters, both for logistical missions and to "attack" Syrian air defenses and mortars (she leaves out artillery here, not sure why) that can range the no-kill zones.  First, we see here that even Slaughter cannot sort out her charade of a purely defensive operation.  How is an attack purely defensive?  Second, if Slaughter was informed to an extent just one step above dangerous ignorance of military affairs, she would realize that her call for the Turks and Arab League to use remotely piloted helicopters for logistical and attack missions is roughly equivalent to a call to use sharks with lasers on their heads to do the same.  She cites American use of remotely piloted helicopters in Afghanistan.  True.  The U.S. has used two prototype remotely piloted helicopters to perform logistical missions in Afghanistan.  These are prototypes, however.  They have not been used in an attack role.  Using drone helicopters in an attack role against sophisticated air defenses or artillery positions is so far off even for America right now that she may as well have advocated using teleporters and phaser guns.  To imagine that the Arab League and Turkey can obtain and use such technology operationally in any meaningful numbers is so ludicrous as to be a lie.  I don't expect Slaughter to be a military expert, but stepping back from the technological aspects I do expect her to understand that concerted action by the Arab League, even in the most circumscribed situation, is not immediately forthcoming.  Advanced military operations using breakthrough technology is completely out of the realm of credible policy prescription.

Thus, the last few paragraphs of Slaughter's vapid essay indicate that it is completely out of touch with reality.  She states that it is up to the Arab League and Turkey to adopt a plan of action.  That simply is not going to happen in any form similar to what she advocates.  The only way that such a plan will be implemented is if the U.S. twists arms and stands ready to do all the heavy lifting.  In reality, then, Slaughter's neat plan will degenerate into the U.S. sticking its nose into yet another quagmire.

I do not believe that only those with military experience are qualified to advocate military intervention.  Nor do I object to the primacy of civilian control over the military.  I do object to policy advocation so simplistic and incorrect as to be deliberately misleading.  War and military force is a brutal and imprecise instrument.  It is ugly, destructive, wasteful, and stupid.  It makes no clean cuts, creates no neat solutions.  Sometimes it is the only option and sometimes the terrible horrors of war are required to prevent catastrophe.  We must be brutally honest and circumspect, however, in our advocacy of policy.  If the benefits truly outweigh the costs, let us discuss and air the best estimates and make an informed decision.  Advocacy like that of Anne-Marie Slaughter, however, is so disingenuous and so powerful with the pulpit that she commands as to be its own sort of evil.  It is an evil that I hope she corrects.

Categories: Syria - r2p - Libya


Stan Wiechnik

Tue, 03/06/2012 - 9:52am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson


I applaud your cynicism about our profession. You are absolutely right that self-interest often overrides the moral obligation and the duty that we in the military are oath-bound to. I guess I just find it curious that you believe those in academia who are not oath-bound are somehow more morally obligated or less self-interested.

I think we can agree that in a liberal democracy public opinion matters. I would submit that these types of calls (i.e. inaccurate ones) by Dr. Slaughter and others for humanitarian intervention are not going away. How the military deals with public opinion on such matters I cannot answer (despite my inept attempt at offering some suggestions). It certainly does not seem that what we have been doing up until now is a resounding success.


Mon, 03/05/2012 - 10:10pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

"As for the supposed superiority of the military's values system, I roll my eyes. We can keep telling ourselves that, but we all know that lying is all but demanded when bad news meets resistance in flowing uphill."

Peter, that is the most important thing anybody has said on this site in a long time. That practice will poison every single thing we try, big war small war, high tech or low tech. Unless what you describe can be changed, we will fail at everything and every single word or idea written and expressed on this site since its beginning is so much whistling into a hurricane.

Peter J. Munson

Mon, 03/05/2012 - 7:02pm

In reply to by Stan Wiechnik

I fully recognize and support Dr. Slaughter's right to free speech. As for duty, I'm not sure what the right terminology is, but I think that as a prominent intellectual, as a professor, as a former public servant, as an academic professional, Dr. Slaughter and others have an obligation to be honest and properly rigorous in their policy advocation. If I just made a bunch of assumptions that were wildly incorrect about Princeton's tenure and personnel policies, I would be pilloried. I have an obligation to inform myself before spouting off about it. This, in most cases, is not a legal obligation, but it is a professional and moral one. I don't think academics who fall foul of this should be muzzled, but neither they nor their peers should be surprised when their position is attacked.

As for the supposed superiority of the military's values system, I roll my eyes. We can keep telling ourselves that, but we all know that lying is all but demanded when bad news meets resistance in flowing uphill. Senior leaders have been clearly out of touch with reality in their attempt to "strategically message." They have more or less lied to the American people in the past. And as for our retired GO lobbying corps, they are happy to take CEO and board positions on defense contractors but are sadly silent (for the most part) except when it comes to cheerleading and vapid analytical roles on TV. There are exceptions, of course.

The sad thing about all of this is that the public ends up being disastrously mislead when academics and pundits don't understand or deliberately mislead, while generals do the same. It may seem that I have a personal axe to grind with Dr. Slaughter. I don't. I have an axe to grind with the people who have a responsibility, though not a legal obligation, to play a vital role in informing the public. If Dr. Slaughter wants to advocate intervention in Syria, so be it. I just feel that she should be more realistic in her premises when offering a plan - and it was offered as a plan. While this might not sell as easily, it would actually increase the chances of an intervention achieving the ends she desires.

Stan Wiechnik

Mon, 03/05/2012 - 2:58pm

Before the inevitable attacks that will follow this comment, I want to be clear that I am not advocating American Soldiers become involved in Syria unless and until a competent Syrian official invites us in, and even then there are other Armies in the world who are better suited culturally to be on the ground. Our direct involvement must be based on a direct national interest and some common sense about what is really possible. However…

… we live in a liberal democracy. As such any citizen can state any opinion on policy they want without any duty to be honest. They can advocate any position they want without any requirement to reveal their true intentions. America is changing. Responsibility by those not directly in elected or in appointed positions of authority is not really part of liberal democratic theory. This fact seems to not sink in with the military. Many in the military tend to assume that everyone has a moral responsibility to mimic the values we live by. Not the case.

What does this mean? I wish I had an answer. I would submit that having more realistic answers to the problem at hand that get out through the press, like it is going to take 75,000 troops just to secure chemical sites, is a good start. It means that we need our retired general lobbying corps to write some OPEDs of their own. It means we need to have our own experts and not rely on others all the time. It means that as we move closer to a political system that is growing more and more reactive to opinion polls gleaned from a public that is less and less personally invested in the military, subject to the demagoguery of any number of ‘experts’ with their own agendas, we will need to get better at getting accurate information out. This is the nature of the beast. We have known this or some time. We are getting better at dealing with it but we are not there yet.

As a postscript I feel compelled to point out that America is changing. In the past fifty years it has liberalized fairly dramatically. It was only 1965 when the Supreme Court ruled that a state could not bar married couples from using contraception; 1972 before non-married couples were extended the same benefits. Now we argue about whether employers must provide it in insurance plans free of charge. It was 1993 when the last state dropped the spousal rape exception removing the last vestiges of a legal system that saw a wife as property. It was 2003 when laws against sodomy between consenting adults was struck down; one of the last hurdles to removing DADT. We are finding new 'rights' everywhere. Along with this change portions of America feel evangelical about these new found rights. They feel the need to spread them to a longing world, whether that world wants them or not. We in the military are going to have to learn how to deal with that compulsion.

Likewise, over the same time period America has become a more compassionate nation when it comes to others in need. The first US chapter of Amnesty International opened in 1966 and Greenpeace in 1971. We feel compelled to save others at peril to ourselves. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, no other nation had ever asserted that humane concerns matter so much that not only American treasure but American lives must be risked to vindicate them ( Again, when things happen in places the UN dare not tread, you know who the American public will expect to act.

What does this mean? It means that our nation is going to expect us to do something whether we like it or not. We had better figure out how to deal with this both in the court of public opinion and in an operational theater. Sometimes, it sucks to be us.


Sun, 03/04/2012 - 10:55pm

I fully agree with the assessment of Ms Slaughter's comments, but she pales in comparison to the likes of, say, Michael Ledeen, who has been advocating war on somebody or another, usually both, almost continuously for several decades. Being wrong apparently doesn't bother him: you'd think anyone who once advocated installing Ahmed Chalabi as leader of Iraq would have the grace to retire from punditry in shame, but he persists.

There is of course no way to impose accountability or persuade anyone to consider the potential costs of what they advocate, short of constraining freedom of speech. One can, however, ignore them, and urge others to do the same. A bit of ridicule, when commentary strays into the ridiculous, is also not out of place at times.

Bill M.

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 10:49pm


I may be off base, but I object to another government employee/servant identifying themselves as our civilian leadership. I heard that too many times from State Department political officers and others who were no more my civilian leadership than Joe six pack. Our civilian leaders are our elected officials. Of course within DOD channels its leaders are civilians appointed by our elected leaders, so they are in fact our civilian leaders.

For those in the know does a policy wonk in the State Department really qualify as a civilian leader that can tell a military person not to question their wisdom? Where is that in writing? In countries where we're not at war the AMB normally has some degree of authority over us, but again a person that has put in place by elected officials, just as our Generals and Admirals are vetted by our elected officials for command positions. Who vets the policy wonks in State?

I agree with your argument. If a general or commanding officer implements policy and it fails or results in calamity, the consequences for that person are immense. When a highly influential commentator, policy maker or think-tank such the Nagl's Centre for A New American Security, has a powerful infuence on that policy, there are zero consequences for them. Zero accountability. Most of the time people like Dr Slaughter never have to implement, nor have they ever had to implement, the very policies they advocate for so strongly. Like Friedman, it is then onto the next pop-theory.

Move Forward

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 12:00pm

You make many great points in the argument to make Syrian R2P RIP.

The IADS of Syria today is far more capable than that of Iraq in 2003 or Iran today. The presumed Israeli strike on the Syrian nuclear site occurred in uninhabited desert areas, at least according to past google earth scans. Your point about artillery's influence on "safe areas" is spot on. The only countersniper "weapon" I'm aware of is acoustic in nature which implies troops on the ground with capability to use the system to find and retaliate in kind with direct/indirect fire or bombs in urban areas.

As for rotary or fixed wing UAS, she may be acknowledging the reality that any UAS would need to originate from allied territory not politically-forthcoming. Do we take-off from Israel? She may be alluding to the necessity for ship-origin UAS off Syria. But rotary UAS of the type currently used in Afghanistan have far less endurance than the fixed wing variety. Much of that endurance would be expended going to and from shore with adequate ship standoff. And as Peter points out, neither rotary wing or Global Hawk/Reaper/Predator/Gray Eagle UAS would survive without first addressing Syrian IADS and fighter occurred against the far weaker Libyan capabilities. Even then, a Fire Scout rotary wing UAS was alleged to have been shot down.

The latter points are no argument to spend wildly on an all-stealth UAS and/or LRS-B bomber fleet. Obviously non-stealthy UAS and U-2s/JSTARS/P-8 are far less costly for the deterrent/"indications and warnings"/post SEAD phases. And since war against the most advertised A2AD foe is far more hype than happening any time soon, current airpower and UAS when coupled with the F-22 and coming F-35, is more than adequate...especially against Iran. 20 B-2s and standoff weapons fired from B-52 and B-1B are still more than enough to deal with realistic threats between now and 2050. Even the Air Force Association makes the argument in this month's issue that such systems can be upgraded and kept viable for the foreseeable future.