“What’s wrong with the US military?”, an interview with Winslow Wheeler

I recommend reading in full this interview with one of our top defense analysts.  Winslow Wheeler is Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information (see his bio).

Supporting information:

  1. America’s Defense Meltdown, Click here to download (2.6 MB PDF).
  2. A brief description of the book.
  3. The Long-Term Implications of Current Defense Plans: Detailed Update for Fiscal Year 2008“, Congressional Budget Office, March 2008 — Essential reading for anyone interested in the condition of our military

What’s Wrong with the U.S. Military“, interview of Winslow Wheeler by Andrew Cockburn, Counterpunch, 3 December 2008 — Bold are Cockburn’s questions.  Excerpt:

Coinciding with the arrival of Obama and his deputies in Washington, the Center for Defense Information is releasing America’s Defense Meltdown — Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress, a primer on what is wrong with our defense system written by men with long and honorable experience in the bowels of the military services and Pentagon bureaucracy. The book’s editor, Winslow Wheeler is familiar to readers of this site for his acrid and knowledgeable commentaries on the defense establishment. CounterPuncher Andrew Cockburn interviews him about the book and its message.

AC: You say in your preface that “the vast majority, perhaps even all, of Congress, the general officer corps of the armed forces, top management of American defense manufacturers, prominent members of Washington’s think tank community and nationally recognized ‘defense journalists’ will hate this book.” Why is that?

WW: The conventional wisdom amongst the elite in Washington is that they have done a pretty good job of taking care of our national defense, that things may be a little expensive but we have the best armed forces in the world, perhaps even in history, and we do the best for our troops by giving them the world’s most sophisticated equipment which is, of course, the most effective. We have, so the elite asserts, demonstrated our ability by knocking off Saddam Hussein’s forces twice and are in general a model to the rest of the world on how to build equipment and provide for forces.

That’s all crap. None of it is true. None of it stands up to scrutiny. Let’s tick through it.

First of all, we now have the largest defense budget in inflation-adjusted dollars since the end of World War Two. That has bought the smallest military establishment we have had since the end of World War Two. We now have fewer navy combat ships and submarines, fewer combat aircraft and fewer army fighting units than we have had at any point since the end of World War Two. Our major items of equipment are on average older than at any time during this period. Key elements of our fighting forces are badly trained. In other words we’re getting less for more. People point to the two wars against Saddam Hussein. His armed forces were pitifully incompetent and even against them in both the 1991 and 2003 gulf wars we demonstrated serious deficiencies while overestimating how good we were.

{FM Note:  see the CBO study above for supporting evidence}

AC: But is the U.S. likely to be facing anyone better in the near future?

WW: Apparently we are right now. …

AC: What brought the U.S. to this sorry state of affairs?

WW: The fundamental reason, I believe, is that we are not interested in what works best in combat. Instead, our defense structure in Washington is interested in other things. In Congress they’re interested in jobs and campaign contributions. In the Pentagon they’re interested in various political and bureaucratic agendas. They’re not paying attention to the lessons of combat history. A bloated, declining military structure is the result. …

AC: Given the sort of people he’s selecting for defense position, it looks as though Obama is not necessarily going to follow the course of action you urge in your book. What is your opinion of the Obama defense team as currently formulated?

WW: He campaigned on “Change We Can Believe in” and his transition almost immediately switched to “Continuity We Can Believe In.” The people so far selected, especially Robert Gates, have a track record, and that track record is basically to keep things the way they are. Gates will do what he’s told on issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s already made it clear that as far as managing the Pentagon is concerned he thinks he’s been doing a competent job. But during his tenure things have only gotten worse. The budget’s going up faster than ever before in recent history; the size of our forces is going south; the equipment continues to get older. We have a new report from the Congressional Budget Office that tracks the size of our weapons inventory and its age. This study shows that if everything goes perfectly according to Gates’ plans as revealed in his Pentagon budget, our forces will continue to shrink and the equipment will continue to get older. …

AC: Realistically, do you think there’s any possibility that you could meaningful reform in the Pentagon?

WW: I’m not at all optimistic. The second tier of appointments that they’re talking about in the press for the Obama team are mostly holdovers from the Clinton era, when things were almost as bad as they were during the Bush era. Most of the major hardware programs that are now coming a cropper as major cost and performance disasters were conceived during the Clinton era. …

AC: What about Obama’s National Security Adviser, General Jim Jones? He looks like a fine upstanding Marine.

WW: He is a man of great stature, physically and figuratively, in Washington. He is a Washington ‘heavy’ but if you look at his record, nothing much ever happened. Things went south in Afghanistan pretty rapidly when he was supreme commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan. When he was Commandant of the Marine Corps, a lot of the marines’ overpriced underperforming hardware programs, such as the V-22 [vertical takeoff troop transport plane] and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle were endorsed and continued happily along. He seems to have been mostly a placeholder when he had these very senior and important positions.

Afterword

If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Some posts on the FM site about our military appartus:

  1. Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral, 30 January 2008
  2. DoD Death Spiral – the US Navy version, 31 January 2008
  3. Update to the “Navy Death Spiral”, 22 April 2008
  4. A neverending story: DoD’s attempts to stop cooking the books, 2 May 2008
  5. Secretary Gates would be a hero – if speeches could reform DoD, 6 May 2008
  6. I was wrong about SecDef Gates – here is a more accurate view of him, 7 May 2008
  7. The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it, 3 July 2008
  8. A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief”, 8 July 2008
  9. A step towards building a Navy we can afford, 16 July 2008 
  10. Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus, 11 August 2008
  11. The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world, 8 September 2008
  12. No coins, no COIN, 6 October 2008
  13. How can America adapt to a new world? A conference about national security lights the way., 18 October 2008

25 thoughts on ““What’s wrong with the US military?”, an interview with Winslow Wheeler

  1. Read the parts of the book that interested me, and found the section that discussed the Navy quite amateurish and bordering on nutty.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That is nice, but this comment tells us nothing. Some details about your objections to the Navy section would be useful and interesting!

  2. Continuing my comments at Fabius’s request, the author of the naval section, Mr. Lind, appears to have strong credentials to comment on the evolution and future of land warfare. Based on his assumptions and conclusions, however, I have serious doubts about his skills as a naval analyst.

    While I agree with Mr. Lind that people are more important than platforms, his conclusions leave me perplexed. For instance, here are Mr. Lind’s main assumptions and proposals:

    (1) The second reality from which reform of the Navy must proceed is that unlike the U.S. Army and Air Force, the U.S. Navy today is not designed for a Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. That sounds like better news than it is. The U.S. Navy is not designed to fight the Soviet navy because it never was. The Soviets recognized that the submarine is the modern capital ship, and throughout the Cold War the Soviet navy outnumbered the U.S. Navy in submarines by a ratio of about 3-1. Rather, the U.S. Navy was, and is, structured to fight the Imperial Japanese Navy.

    While it’s an easy mistake to make if you don’t know your history, the U.S. Navy from the end of the Korean War through the present is primarily designed to project power inland. Whether in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (both times) or Afghanistan, the primary combat employment of the U.S. has been striking targets in the near-coastal regions and supporting land forces ashore.

    (2) Submarines are today’s capital ships, and the U.S. Navy must remain a dominant submarine force while exploring alternative submarine designs.

    Mr. Lind’s support for a robust fleet of submarines is admirable, but he overestimates their utility. More on this in a following point on surface craft.

    (3) Aircraft carriers remain useful “big boxes.” However, they should be decoupled from standardized air wings and thought of as general purpose carriers, transporting whatever is useful in a specific crisis or conflict.

    I haven’t lost all faith in Mr. Lind yet.

    (4) The Navy should acquire an aircraft similar to the Air Force’s A-10 so it can begin to effectively support troops on the ground.

    As a consequence of the debacle with respect to air support at Guadalcanal, the Marines took sole ownership of the close air support role. They procure and operate their own aircraft for that purpose. So, for this point, I say to Mr. Lind, “Tell it to the Marines!”

    (5) Cruisers, destroyers and frigates are obsolescent as warship types and should be retired; their functions assumed by small carriers or converted merchant ships.

    Here’s where Mr. Lind loses me completely. Retiring ships that perform anti-submarine warfare, air and ballistic missile defense, anti-surface warfare and strike missions and building a replacement fleet of ships that perform the same missions makes no sense to me. Perhaps Mr. Lind is advocating integrating these capabilities into the “big boxes”, which will inevitably reduce their utility as “big boxes”.

    (6) The Navy should build a new flotilla of small warships suited to green and brown waters and deployable as self-sustaining “packages” in Fourth Generation conflicts. (The Navy’s current “Littoral Combat Ship” is an apparently failed attempt at this design.)

    First, while the LCS has had acquisition problems, it’s far too early to characterize it as “failed”. The mission modules haven’t even been fielded or tested and no doctrine has been written to guide their employment. Otherwise, I support this point.

    In conclusion, on the points I agree with Mr. Lind, the Navy is already making efforts to do exactly what Mr. Lind proposes (though in some cases we’re not doing it very well). On the points with which I disagree, it’s panfully obvious Mr. Lind has a thin understanding of the threats to large, lightly defended platforms at sea.
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    Fabuis Maximus replies: Thank you for this analysis; I found it valuable and interesting! I inserted numbers for easier discussion.

  3. All terror roads lead to Pakistan, says US report“, Times of India, 10 Dec 2008 — Excerpt:

    Pakistan’s danger quotient in the world is rising exponentially. A new report on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation and terrorism by the United States says, “Pakistan is an ally, but there is a grave danger it could also be an unwitting source of a terrorist attack on the US, possibly using WMDs.”

    The report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, called `World at Risk’, says, “If one has to map terrorism and WMDs today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan.”

    The commission recommends that the US should secure Pakistan’s nuclear and biological weapons sector. “The President must make securing biological and nuclear materials and weapons in Pakistan a priority.”

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    Fabius Maximus replies: As this is copyrighted material, I have edited it down — and inserted a link to the full article.

    The full report is here: “World at Risk“, Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, 2 December 2008.

    Thank you for posting this! Tomorrow’s post will discuss this important report!

  4. The Navy and Air Force are relics of a bygone era. They were designed to fight a mammoth Cold War enemy that withered on the vine two decades ago. With the current collapse of the American economy, it is quite possible that the discretionary spending programs (of which Defense is the most robust) will be under a great deal of scrutiny and subject to cuts.

    Gates has already fired many salvos at the Air Force, trying to get them to pull their collective heads out of their asses. He’s fired the USAF Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Air Force, and has placed a transporter/Special Ops as the new Chief. There is hope here.

    The Navy remains ossified. There are literally no blue water opponents for the Navy. Instead of buying additional large surface ships, an investment in anti-submarine aircraft (the Navy has all but scuttled that program since the end of the Cold War despite world wide growth in deisel subs), minesweeping ships, and brown water capacities (the Littoral Combat Ship has become a standing joke because of the cost overruns) as most of America’s naval threats are going to lay within that low-intensity band of non-state and failed state actors. See Somali piracy for example #1.

    I hope Gates turns his guns on the Navy soon.

  5. Jabez: the US has many ways to influence Pakistan, short of military invasion, as noted in the report you cite. Zadari just didn’t happen to win the presidency, though how exactly the US intervened there I dont know. The CIA certainly has strong connections with ISI. All of these however may not be enough to counter the ethnic fault lines and economic weakness of Pakistan, nor its strategic vulnerability in the larger global clash between India and China, on which US elites may not completely have made up their mind yet.

    In my view, the US wont perceive its true strategic interests in this area until it rids itself of its fetish of and obsession with “terrorism”. Terrorism is a shadow enemy, an effect not a cause. We can buy a country’s government, but not its people.

  6. “The Navy should acquire an aircraft similar to the Air Force’s A-10 so it can begin to effectively support troops on the ground.”

    Only if they would actually use them. The Air Force had to be forced by General Schwarzkopf to deploy A-10s to the war theater in the 1991 Gulf War. Prior to General Schwarzkopf’s direct intervention in the situation the Air Force had the crazy idea of using F-16s for close ground support.

  7. There are literally no blue water opponents for the Navy.

    Not exactly true. While they would be hard pressed to oppose the U.S. on the open oceans today, the Chinese are pushing out into blue water fast and are working towards building carriers, and the Russians are back in the blue water game and have announced a desire to build six carriers–though they’ll be hard pressed to make that happen and it won’t be any time soon.

    I’d say Ski is half right. We could cut back our fleet of supercarriers from twelve to perhaps six, and lighten up and expand the rest of the fleet with four to six light carriers–perhaps even ships that are somewhere inbetween an aircraft carrier and an amphibious assault ship. This would make the fleet considerably more flexible.

  8. The US Navy makes the current US economy possible. Free trade and open markets operate under an assumption of safety and predictability. There is nothing less safe or predictable than relying upon a supplier who can’t get raw materials through interdicted logistical channels.

    Nothing I’ve seen written yet here takes into account what exactly the US Navy provides. It has been the ultimate strategic stability force in the world since WWII. Our entire way of life would look a whole lot different if the seas were in anarchy, or dominated by someone else’s fleets.

  9. One tidbit that stood out is Wheeler’s answer to the “sorry state of affairs” question in that what he described is nothing new. This Defense Structure/Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex/pork spending cabal has been in place for nearly a half century and yet for Wheeler the very institution is what is to blame for our current woes. This answer is a convenient cop out that he inevitably uses as a basis for the kind of issues and reforms he brings up throughout not only this interview but in his chapter in America’s Defense Meltdown. A more profound and accurate answer to the aforementioned question would be any of the following:

    The procurement personnel bleed from the Peace Dividend of the 90s creating the incredible lack of oversight we’ve had over the last decade

    The misalignment of strategic and spending priorities in the GWOT

    The handover of lead system integration responsibilities from the DOD to Industry

    DOD management of big contract awards through unfair and unreasonable criteria judgments (Especially considering the GAO’s scolding of the USAF over recent contracts)

    This is not to say his points are invalid because of this, but it does show how myopic his views are.

    Another point to consider in terms of the future is how Industry will be much worse off in 10 years than it is now, regardless of spending trends, because a majority of the Defense Industry workforce will be within retirement age. This will invariably create a brain drain and an engineering gap within the industry. Unlike decades in the past, engineers have much greater job choice outside of defense, especially in tech. Absent of Aerospace, working for Lockmart or Boeing does not have the same kind of appeal it did 20 years ago.

  10. Comment #8 by Knight of the Mind:

    The US Navy makes the current US economy possible. Free trade and open markets operate under an assumption of safety and predictability. There is nothing less safe or predictable than relying upon a supplier who can’t get raw materials through interdicted logistical channels. Nothing I’ve seen written yet here takes into account what exactly the US Navy provides. It has been the ultimate strategic stability force in the world since WWII. Our entire way of life would look a whole lot different if the seas were in anarchy, or dominated by someone else’s fleets.

    Well, for another viewpoint on the maestria with which the US Navy ensures that seas are not mired in anarchy, especially those East of Africa, see the following opinion article:

    Millions for Defense…”, Jerry Salyer, AntiWar.com, 10 December 2008 — Former U.S. Navy officer Jerry Salyer has been deployed to the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

  11. Senor Thomas, you are half-right. Remember that in Aug 90 the problem was getting enough combat power into theater as quickly as possible, since there was real concern that Saddam would consolidate Kuwait and then quickly move south. War plan said F-16s, and why not? Saddam still had an air force, and F-16 is multi-role — not optimized for air-to-air or air-to-ground combat, but very capable of both.

    Once the second, offensive build-up in Nov 90 began, many more options began to open up. The cliche that airmen only care about the air war is ridiculous on its face — otherwise, why is the USAF planning to keep the A-10 until the very end of F-35 production (when they’ll have the option to build a new CAS replacement)?

    CAS is actually more dependent on the right C2 arrangements (e.g., having a controller with eyes-on and connectivity) rather than a specific weapons platform, although the Hog is of course optimized for the mission. Also that C2 infrastructure, in which the USAF has invested heavily, is quite robust but seldom noticed because it’s not an airplane.

    But airmen are aware that if you lose in the air, you lose everything, so they are a little sensitive about it. (yes, I know Al Qaida doesn’t have Air Superiority, and there is debate about its added value to a force with the home field advantage. Certainly the Brits found that the RAF was crucial in 1940.

    On the other hand, AS is undeniably useful in COIN, e.g., freedom of action for helicopters to quickly move troops and police around is hugely important.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Control of the air is vital. As is control of the sea, and control of the land. As in this joke from the Cold War:

    Two Red Army generals are exchanging toasts to their glorious victory in the finest restaurant of Paris. After a few rounds of dom perion champaign, one asks the other “By the way, who won the air war?”

  12. To what extent has the Navy been ordered to cambat the situation? Also, what aspect of our economy withers, in the absence of safe passage through the waters near Somalia or Eritria?

    Besides, once the author went into his crying jag over Georgia’s blitzkrieg into S. Ossetia, I kind of expected him to blame the Navy for 9-11 right afterwards. The man has, shall we say, a unique view of reality. The global war on Piracy as an excuse to invade Iran also made me think he need to be more generous and pass his houka to the left.

    I assume the grand conclusion of this sort of reasoning would be a demonstrated inability of the US Navy to snuff out one particular nest of pirates, on particular sea lane obviously invalidates the gravaman of the project.

  13. Comment #8 by Knight of the Mind:

    The US Navy makes the current US economy possible. Free trade and open markets operate under an assumption of safety and predictability. There is nothing less safe or predictable than relying upon a supplier who can’t get raw materials through interdicted logistical channels.

    For a perspective on what is really going on out there, read The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, William Langewiesche (2005).

    As I stated on this blog several months ago, one aspect of naval warfare, at least as old as Sir Francis Drake, is commerce raiding. And, as the Somali pirates are now demonstrating, commerce raiding remains a real issue to which, apparently, current navies cannot or will not adequately respond.

  14. D. Kinder, please take a look at this link: “Quick Math For Anti-Piracy Operations [Update 2]“, Information Dissemination, 10 December 2008.

    In short, it will likely cost the European Union 150 million plus to send a naval task force to directly combat Horn of Africa piracy – which has collected ransoms of maybe 30 million dollars so far in 2008. There’s also the Indians, Russians and apparently the Iranians sending ships and bodies down that way.

    Why not attack the problem at the source – regional governmental instability? Piracy is a symptom.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The reason we don’t attack the problem of regional government instability is that we have zero idea how to combat any government instability — and even more so in that region.

  15. Tree Frog.

    Using your calculus, it would be cost-effective simply to bribe the Somali pirates, say, $100 million to stop. But the real cost of Somali piracy is not the ransoms they are now gaining. Nor even the higher insurance and shipping costs cited in your link.

    Rather, it is the expertise the pirates are now gaining.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: And your evidence of this? That theory — that the expertise they gain will allow them to become a substantially greater pest in the future — seems unlikely, IMO.

  16. “commerce raiding remains a real issue to which, apparently, current navies cannot or will not adequately respond.”

    As for navies in general, rules of engagement would have to be changed to allow pre-emptive strikes at the pirates before they seize a commercial vessel. As for the United States Navy in particular, I agrre with William S. Lind that they would have to let go of their fantasy of still wanting to fight the Japanese at the Battle of Midway.

  17. Re: Fabius Maximus replies: And your evidence of this? That theory — that the expertise they gain will allow them to become a substantially greater pest in the future — seems unlikely, IMO.

    Recent innovation: Pirates have expanded their scope to Tanzania, UPI, 7 December 2008:

    A high seas chase in which a container ship outran pirates shows the hijackers are extending their reach further out from Somalia, mariners say.

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    Fabius Maximus replies: First, this is just slight geographical expansion of a successful business model. No sign of “innovation” or greater “expertise.” There are a small number of areas that combine failed states in close proximity to shipping lanes. If no action is taken, we can expect piracy to flourish — as it has during most of history.

    Second, it is bizarre beyond belief that we (the US and the few other nations with a “blue water” navy) spend so many billions on our Navy and it seems unable to respond.

  18. The Defense and the National Interest site has the following comment re the US Navy’s actual capability to repel the Somali pirates: “Reductio Ad Absurdum, Navy Style“, Chuck Spinney, 10 December 2008:

    In January, it is my understanding that the Pentagon will request a budget of about $581 billion for its core budget, i.e., not including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of the Navy’s share of this budget should be something on the order of $150-160 billion a year, yet Admiral Gortney is telling us that securing the Horn of Africa from a gang of rag tag Somali pirates will take every cruiser and destroyer in the Navy plus 3 or its Frigates. This means the Navy would not enough surface warships left over to configure the normal defense screen for even one carrier battle group. Since the United States is spending about as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, Gortney’s confession raises a basic question about about the Pentagon’s competence to do its job.

  19. I disagree with FM about regional stability. We *DO* know how to get stable governments:
    (from the Korean model).

    1) put in a US friendly general/ dictator who supports market oriented growth, capitalism, and limited freedom;
    2) allow that country free trade access to US markets (‘most favored nation’ status) and support their growing trade surplus;
    3) accept the human rights violations of our dictator ally used to keep in power.

    It’s step 3 which we have decided to no longer follow, so that we allowed the Shah to be ousted (’78-’79), and in Pakistan our ally Gen. Mussaref was restricted in the internal rights abuse that the US would tolerate. And then voted out.

    The stupid use of ‘aid’ rather than local production low-return investment has, unfortunately, increased corrpution wherever it is used and made democracy development even more difficult.

    One main reason the Iraq war has continued so long is the US choice to NOT have strongman replacement for Saddam. Part of my support for the Iraq war was to help create a new ‘nation building’ success model.

    It looks like that model might be only 5-10 years away from being ready … but it was needed years ago. And it is HUGELY expensive (an invasion/ occupation-police force to train locals).

    Plus, lots of intelligent folks prefer to use the costs of the Iraq war as a blanket condemnation of any democractic nation-building at the point of a gun, rather than accept it as the fairly tolerable success it might be turning into. Such blanket condemnation results in sterile ‘Iraq war bad bad bah bah bah’ vs. “no it’s not, no it’s not, no no no”.

    One of the huge benefits of an increasingly realistic coming Obama Administration will be better constructive criticism of the Bush Admin goals and results. (I won’t be surprised that Obama fails to shut down Guantanomo in the first 100 days, or even the first year, as he fails to answer the question about what is to be done with dangerous terrorists.)

    But even if Iraq-style invasion/ occupation/ nation building is what can lead, in 5-15 years, to local governmental stability — it’s still hugely costly. Like going to the moon. The US knows how, and has even done it, but is it worth it? For Somalia now, it’s probably not yet worth it.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The failure of almost every colonial war since WWII shows that this model no longer reliably works, even had we the money to pursue it.

  20. The Iraq war is pretty obviously not a ‘colonial war’ — I’d call it a ‘nation building war’. Many similar characteristics, and also subject to local opposition. It’s clear the world doesn’t yet know how to do it. But if Obama is going to support war, or some use of violence, to stop genocide (i.e. in Darfur), it’s pretty important to look at whatever lessons are available.

    Bush always planned on both Iraq and Afghanistan becoming democracies. Thus, claims by skeptics that ‘it is not possible’ or somesuch are not constructive, although ‘it is too expensive’ seems the far more honest, reasonable, but previously less used argument.

    Who wants to claim that the US can’t stop genocide because ‘it is too expensive’? Even if this is true, few politicians will want to speak such words. But if it IS true, I’d prefer an America that is honest about allowing genocide, or piracy, or Pakistan anarchy / new military coup, because ‘democracy based nation building is too expensive.’
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    Fabius Maximus replies: As if anyone cares what it’s called. Call it a potatoe, if you like. The point is that western military adventures in less-developed regions have almost always failed since WWII. Nor is it clear at this point what — if any — benefits the US will get from its intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s too early to tell.

    Please spare us another round of telling us your confident forecasts. We all know the current condition. We we eventually read the newspapers and see the results.

  21. Re: Fabius Maximus replies: First, this is just slight geographical expansion of a successful business model. No sign of “innovation” or greater “expertise.” There are a small number of areas that combine failed states in close proximity to shipping lanes. If no action is taken, we can expect piracy to flourish — as it has during most of history.

    OK, here we go.

    DEBKA-Net-Weekly 373, revealed on Nov. 21, information turned up by the US Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet intelligence that the Somali pirates had organized their traffic on business lines by establishing a sort of “back office” in Abu Dhabi.

    It is run by money changers earning a rake-off on ransom payments as the pirates’ agents. They have since established similar “agencies” in Mombasa, Kenya; Piraeus, Greece; Naples, Italy; and Rotterdam, Netherlands, which work through spies at shipping and marine insurance firms.

    Here is how the system works, according to DEBKAfile’s exclusive sources: The pirates’ undercover agents gather information from their shipping contacts in Gulf, East African and European ports on the merchant vessels heading for the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and the cargoes. They brief the pirates on the presence of security guards and weapons available for the crew aboard the vessel.

    The pirates are always on the lookout for “special cargoes”, meaning smuggled goods or merchandise exported illegally or contrary to international law, such as clandestine weapons shipments.

    Such consignments, like that of the Ukrainian MV Faina, which carried a large unregistered cargo of 33 T-72 tanks and other armaments – and is still held – increase the ransom value of the vessel and pay more than routine freights.

    The pirates also use their proxies to negotiate ransoms and terms for releasing the hijacked vessels, rather than exposing themselves and their locations. These front men also go shopping for the latest word in speed boats, navigation equipment, GPS, communications gear, food, fuel and other supplies.

    DEBKAfile’s counter-terror sources report that the pirates’ logistics and intelligence are far superior to that of the European counter-terror operation. This gap seriously detracts from the international patrol fleet’s prospects of getting to grips with the pirates, who have attacked more than 90 vessels this year and successfully seized more than 36 on the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

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    Fabius Maximus replies: All this sounds reasonable. Still, this is a trivial factor in the global economy. Pirates have existed during most of history, and are just another cost of business for global trade. It’s just a quirk of our thought process that every tiny thing is “the end of life as we know it.”

    A post going up tommow will discuss this in more detail.

  22. FM: We all know the current condition. We [will] eventually read the newspapers and see the results.

    It looks to me like quite a double standard here. For months, years?, you’ve been calling Iraq a loss. Already. Yet the pro-Iraqi Freedom folk would be saying we need more time. Nation building is slow.

    Now it looks like the surge has worked, much more than less (see Michael Yon or Michael Totten). So you’ve switched to saying, on win/loss, it’s too early to tell.

    While I agree it’s too early to be definitive, the stories I read indicate a signifcant success coming in Iraq. Fairly democratic, perhaps not much more corrupt than Obaman’s Chicago, and perhaps with enough peaceful development opportunities to actually do re-building. If we don’t leave too soon and allow terrorists to come back, I can imagine, now, that Op. Iraqi Freedom will be considered a success.
    For the surviving Iraqis.

    Then you adjust the goalposts: what — if any — benefits the US will get from its intervention

    Perhaps you should link to benefits Pres. Bush has promised for America? (Not merely those various neo-cons have offered.) I always thought the main beneficiaries would be the freed Iraqis.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps you should quote specifics, as I don’t believe your representation of my position is accurate.

    (1) I have said about Iraq…

    (a) That Iraq will fragment, to some degree (Kurdistan is already operationally seperate). The first explicit statement was in March 2007: “The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace.”

    (b) that the benefits to the US will be minimal (at best). In what respect does that look inaccurate at this point?

    (2) Then you adjust the goalposts: what — if any — benefits the US will get from its intervention … So you’ve switched to saying, on win/loss…

    Benefits to America has ALWAYS been my “goalposts.” And, I suspect, that of most Americans.

    (3) “the stories I read indicate a signifcant success coming ”

    Perhaps, but you have tended to present highly selective evidence, usually from sources with a long record of failed predictions. Most of the expert sources I read say that it is too difficult to forecast outcomes in Iraq. That includes most US government reports.

    (4) “Perhaps you should link to benefits Pres. Bush has promised for America?”

    Perhaps you should more closely read my posts. I frequently link to the FM reference page ‘Iraq War – Goals and Benchmarks.” And it is always on the right side menu bar, for all to see.

  23. Debka is generally regarded by anyone who works within or for intelligence agencies as being the equiviliant to the Weekly World News. They have zero credibility what so ever.

    As for nation-building, this too will pass as the global economy sputters into the void. The economh may be global, but all politics is local, and democracies are going to vote for their best interests at home first.

  24. Re: “Debka is generally regarded by anyone who works within or for intelligence agencies as being the equiviliant to the Weekly World News. They have zero credibility what so ever.”

    OK, for non-Debka tainted info, see, eg: “Somali pirates seize supertanker“, The Australian, 19 November 2008 — Excerpt:

    The pirates are trained fighters, often dressed in military fatigues, using speedboats equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, rocket-launchers and grenades.

    Google generally “navigation equipment, GPS, somali pirates”

    Somali piracy backed by international network“, AP, 10 December 2008 — Excerpt:

    The dramatic spike in piracy in African waters this year is backed by an international network mostly of Somali expatriates from the Horn of Africa to as far as North America, who offer funds, equipment and information in exchange for a cut of the ransoms, according to researchers, officials and members of the racket. With help from the network, Somali pirates have brought in at least $30 million in ransom so far this year.

    Google generally “network Europe somali pirates”

    This is getting pretty silly. Do any of you folks have evidence that this network, GPS use, etc. does not exist?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Not at all. I agree on all points. It’s just that this is a dot on the finances of global commerce. It can be stopped with an effort not significantly different than the International Ice Patrol.

  25. Fabius Maximus replies: “First, this is just slight geographical expansion of a successful business model.”

    Everything is relative, of course, but still. Most Somali pirates are found in Somaliland and Puntland — the Northern and North-Eastern parts of Somalia. From the harbour of Eil, one of their favourite launching bases at the Southern border of Puntland, to the Tanzanian waters a trip of about 1700km is needed, one way. That is like sailing from New York all the way to Florida. The logistical and tactical issues must be interesting.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: It’s a long trip, unless they are locals. Borrowing a successful business model from their neighbors. In that case, it is a short trip.

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