Tuesday, May 09, 2006

More on Mercenaries

Thanks to Matthew Yglesias over at TPM for talking about my "out of the box" ideas on humanitarian interventions, as well as to The Postmodern Conservative for his thoughts and comments.

What was so interesting about the reaction to the Sudan/Darfur peace deal was how quickly statesmen wanted to proclaim "problem solved" and avoid the question of further deployments beyond monitors and AU peacekeepers.

But the questions are still on the table.

I think that the criticisms made that having a world where private groups can conduct "humanitarian operations" of choice without reference to the international system are quite valid; concerns about the track records of specific PMCs are also important to keep in mind. But what I found frustrated in some of the critiques is an unwillingness to acknowledge the "democracy paradox" at all--that in democratic states with volunteer militaries it is usually very difficult to muster popular support for "wars of choice" if direct national interests aren't involved, and the "shame" approach--very much on display in the recent issue of The New Republic--has a limited trajectory. And the second frustration--those who still hold out, a la the Simpsons, for the line, "can't someone else do it"--the faceless military personnel of this or another country.

I'm glad that Nick is raising this important "out of the box" idea, because it's a concept whose time has come, as my co-author Michael Krauss and I observed last week with respect to Darfur(http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=050306G). And I would venture to predict that it is only a matter of time before what was once unthinkable - that sending in PMCs will become the "default setting" for many complex humanitarian emergencies - becomes the conventional wisdom. This will happen for several reasons:

First, as Nick points out, in areas of the globe where, realistically speaking, no major power's national interests are directly at stake, calls for sending in the troops will have little traction. Unfortunately, more often than not, it is these isolated corners where the humanitarian crises tend to crop up.

Second, increasing exposure of the ineffectiveness - to say nothing of abuse and corruption - of UN military operations will take its toll on the presumptive preferability of the "blue helmets." In some cases, the "rescued" are arguably rendered worse off by their international "rescuers."

Third, PMCs increasingly have a rapid deployment capability that exceeds those of many nation-states. In humanitarian crises, time is of the essence; some things can't wait for the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations to pull it together.

Fourth, today's PMCs are not the mercenaries of yesteryear. Many belong to professional associations like the International Peace Operations Association with codes of conduct that put many third world armies (who more often than not supply the UN peacekeepers) to shame.

Finally, tremendous progress is being made in developing the new juridical and eventually political frameworks to encompass the potential of PMCs. The old schema under which there existed national armies and everything else was at best irregular no longer reflects current reality.

Consequently, rather than engaging in wishful thinking - which saves not one life - policymakers and thinkers would be better employed trying to creatively engage these new realities and potentialities.
Are you people mad? How can you seriously suggest uleashing a mercenary military force against colored people of the world? I cannot believe the cavalier attitude that you are displaying tworads the so-called humanitarian military interventions in non-white areas of the world by both state and non-state "white" actors.
Try to clean up your own act in places like New Orleans, Camden, Detroit, etc.
Anonymous, so you prefer people continue to be slaughtered and killed because of their skin color (like in Sudan) and because you object to the skin color of those who might be deployed? Do you think anyone in Sierra Leone cared that the private peacekeepers were white when they had elections and a chance at putting their country back together?

If only a few wealthy African-American celebrities put together funds and recruited retired African-American military personnel, they could put together a volunteer force that could end the atrocities in Africa. The Jews did this prior to creating Israel, the Albanians did it and helped to liberate their brothers in Kosova.
It seems most of the posturing about Darfur by politicians is designed 1) to keep us from actually having to go and 2) to find a way to make it someone else's responsibility.
Then what is the answer?— Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one's own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will not be fulfilled.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.

Robinson Jeffers
I haven't seen racial objections to the intervention of outsiders in emergency situations. The complaint has been that the outsiders have been ineffective. There have been objections to white mercenaries overthrowing African governments, but my understanding is that the discussion here is about rescuing people from imminent genocide, not about using PMCs to force regime change.

I agree with Nikolas that the use of private military contractors could make sense as a short-term expedient at the present time in situations where humanitarian action will not otherwise occur. I would add, however, that there are five objections to a longer-term reliance on mercenaries. In order of increasing seriousness, these are:

1. Veterans status. Commercial airlines in the United States benefit from the fact that the military provides the overhead cost of training pilots, and I don't think the recruiting of private mercenaries from the military should be held against private military contractors whose activities serve the national interest. But PMCs will burden taxpayers if veterans benefits are required to cover injuries sustained in private warfare, and veterans who are truly freelance would raise questions about their relation to regular forces.

2. Although PMCs may subscribe to a code of conduct, this code clearly was not enforced at the Bagram prison center in the last few years if reports of detainee abuse by private contractors there are true. If the behavior of contractors falls into a legal gray area, or cannot be adequately regulated, their use will backfire.

3. Private military contractors, as has been mentioned in comments here and elsewhere, can only succeed if the scale of intervention remains small. If violence escalates, eg. if for example a genocidal government calls on friendly regimes to provide regular and irregular military support against private mercenaries, the latter will fail if their own numbers cannot rise in response. A related problem would be the use of private mercenaries on both sides. It will be much easier for China to retail troops to support the Sudanese government and guard oil installations if the United States and the United Kingdom allow PMCs from their countries to intervene on behalf of Darfur.

4. Private military interventions are a patch. If the country's government doesn't fall and doesn't win outside support, PMCs would simply hold at bay a dysfunctional sovereignty or would in effect dismember the state. National sovereignty would enter a very dangerous gray area if private filibustering to this effect becomes more of a norm.

5. Finally, and most seriously, the use of private mercenaries would begin to undermine the idea of citizen service in the United States.

On balance, the use of private mercenaries may be justified in certain situations given the circumstances that exist right now, but as a general or long-term principle their use is I think problematical. They should not be a substitute for tackling larger problems of world order and civil-military relations at home.
I stand by what I said.

Darfur is a red-herring.

Any intervention means choosing winners and loosers in a war.

I do not have any objection if individuals want to take sides in these wars; there are always fools in this world.

I object to US or any other country being party to this sort of thing.

What would your response have been if a coalition of the willing had intervened in the US Civil War ("Help save the poor Southern farmers from that terrible war lord called General William Tecumseh Sherman.")?
People, we have to decide--either we are a world of sovereign nation states--self determination means taking responsibility for success and failure--or we want to return to pre-1648 world where universal empires claim right to rule because they know best. Humanitarian intervention is uncomfortable middle ground. Empire or republic are the choices.
Anonymous No. 1 - I agree that intervention does mean choosing winners and losers in a war. The question is whether the cost to us of intervening in a given situation, or the cost of not intervening, exceeds the benefit to us and to the world. A position of allowing or disallowing intervention can be a matter of principle only if there can be no exceptions.

Anonymous No. 2 - You have defined the choice exactly, although I think a democratic world government could be a third alternative someday to empire or republics.

The problem in the twenty-first century is what to do if national sovereignty becomes dysfunctional in a wider sense, ie. a threat to everyone and not just to its own people. This is the future we may be facing if mass destruction weapons become cheap and available to more states or to private groups.

The problem won't be addressed until the costs of doing nothing exceed those of trying to prevent what is still a hypothetical threat. But the future of world governance needs to be debated if the technological environment is going to make a world of traditional national sovereignty and current degrees of international cooperation less and less functional.
Mr. Billington:

As Anonymous No. 1 I am not unsympathetic to the points that you have raised. However some times you have to give war a chance. Areas such as Somalia, Darfur/Sudan, Kosovo, Bosnia etc. should be left alone to find their own way. If you want to help, open your borders to (possibly permanent) refugees from these areas.

Moreover, Anonymous No. 2 is wrong. The Western countries cannot afford an Empire; they cannot be military powers, economic powers, and social-welfare states simultaneously. Something has to give. Empire is a pipe-dream; specially if these states exclude the usual attractions of the Empire project to their citizen-soldiers: rape, theft, gratuitous violence and so on

WMD is a red herring. Not only one needs a WMD but also the means to deliver it to the Western countries. I would be much more concerned about Brazil than Iran, if I were you.

Yes, you are correct, ultimately all these action or non-actions have costs (intervention or non-intervention). But currently I do not see any costs to US in ignoring the civil wars of Africa. Nor do I see any reason for US to be involved in any way, shape or form with the Israel- Palestinians War: “We have no dog in that fight!”.

What others in this forum have suggested only serves to dissipate the might and wealth of the United States in godforsaken parts of the world to the advantage of China, Russia, India, etc.
Anonymous No. 1 - It is likely that failed states will find their own way if only because outside actions so rarely rise to the level of outside rhetorical concern. Your position that we should just be honest about this has much to commend it.

In cases where the cost of intervention is as low as the cost of not intervening, though, I would be inclined to say why not rather than why, unless there is some larger adverse consequence to low-cost intervention farther down the road. The danger is that easy interventions could encourage the United States to undertake larger ones that turn out to be difficult and costly, as happened when we switched from Afghanistan to Iraq. But I don't think it necessarily follows that all future interventions that look easy should be avoided because the last one was such a miscalculation. Each situation needs to be evaluated in terms of its unique circumstances. That said, I would certainly look at the longer-term effects of any proposed intervention before even thinking about taking action.

I read Anonymous No. 2 to be defining empire as one of two alternatives, not as arguing in favor of empire. My question in response was what to do if we accept traditional national sovereignty instead of empire, only to see national sovereignty used to increase the numbers of WMDs in the hands of states that may not be responsible in what they do with them. This is the concern driving US foreign policy right now.

WMDs are a red herring at the immediate present time but almost nobody believes that they won't be more of a threat two or three decades from now as nuclear technology spreads to new countries. You are right about the direction of spread, and once Iran gets nukes, the entire Middle East and North Africa will follow, and Latin America (Brazil, Venezuela) will be next. But I don't think an ad hoc approach to stop this spread will work any better with Brazil than with Iran, which is why I think the entire system of traditional national sovereignty is heading for trouble.

The responses of policy thinkers have been either to urge preventive wars everywhere or to assume that deterrence will work with religious and nationalist fanatics as well as it did with communist bureaucrats. I don't think either response is prudent. (The danger is not that other states will use nukes against us but that they will nuke each other. A large enough nuclear war in the eastern hemisphere would rain fallout all over the planet.)

What I would term "normal" foreign policy, with its habits of sub-optimizing (looking for efficiencies within an inefficient framework) and managing rather than anticipating trouble, is well-suited to a world in which the basic framework is imperfect but stable. The question is whether the present level of stability will continue. A world of true multipolarity (ie. real US relative decline) will force other powers to accept greater responsibility, but if they do not or cannot do so, then we will return to a situation not unlike the era before World War I or World War II.

I think we could offer an alternative of shared military power that could reduce this danger, but we would have to be willing to give up some of our freedom of action if we are to expect others to give up some of theirs. I hope this long-term choice is what we debate in the next couple of presidencies, and not squabble over ad hoc responses here and there to the symptoms of deeper trends that continue unimpeded.
David is providing some very thoughtful comments but I fear that the U.S. foreign policy establishment cannot handle what he recommends--a policy based on nuance, case-by-case applications, and willingness to experiment and take some risks (why do that if your career is on the line?) Always safer to have the memos which excuse your failure than to be proactive and defuse a potential threat.
Mr. Billington:

Thank you for your response.

In international relations, just like insurance, you do not know the real costs until 25 years have passed. In my judgment, the best sentiment here is to do nothing-in most cases.

You pose the question of WMD in the hands of "states that are not responsible in what they do with them". I submit to you that the Western Alliance is not responsible either-capricious and whimsical is a better description.

The Western Alliance gave WMD to Iraq in its war against Iran. That is the seminal (irresponsible) event, in my opinion, in the international arena, in the past 30 years. That, followed by the military intervention in Kosovo against an un-official member of NATO, and the US War against Iraq have shredded the notion of responsible behavior. You have to define what that means.

WMDs have kept the peace in Europe over the past 60 years. The knowledge of how to construct them is widely available. It is foolish to expect state actors not to consider building them in case of attack by a superior power. In fact, the use of tactical nuclear weapons within a state’s own territory, against an invading country’s troops, make a lot of sense.

Moreover, to engage in war which defines victory as unconditional surrender, one has to be ready, capable, and willing to kill between 5 to 7 % of the enemy state’s population. In most cases these kill ratios translate into several million people. Without the use of nuclear weapons, such a war cannot be won (as Iraq quite clearly demonstrates.)

If the United States were serious about non-proliferation, it would not have tried to be selective. Brazil, with its military-initiated enrichment program, its rocket forces, and its proximity to US is much more of a danger to US than countries half-way across the world. US policy is not non-proliferation, it is choosing nuclear good guys and nuclear bad guys. It assumes a static arrangement of state actors in their policies towards US. It is foolish and dangerous.

The policy makers are wrong. The best approach to stability, in human relations, it to build inertia; culturally and institutionally, in my opinion. Therefore, one would have to work on strengthening NPT rather than shredding it. Moreover, the current WMDs are soon to be joined by newer class of weapons; the fuel air explosives that can also destroy hundreds of thousands. What is the response of these policy makers then?

The states in the Eastern Hemisphere still have a pre-dominantly rural population composition (between 40-60 % if not more). These states, in fact, can sustain a limited nuclear war in which their major cities are destroyed or massively damaged. Their societies and polity can actually continue to function. The radioactive fall-out is certainly a problem for their neighbors but not for the United States.

The world has always been unstable. One has to be ready for it. The European world before WWI was stable for almost a 100 years excluding the short wars of France-Germany and the Crimean War. The statesmen of Europe, in my opinion, liked war because their image of war was formed by those short wars. WWII was only the continuation of WWI.

Could it be that the United States also likes and prefers war as an instrument of policy? Most of its wars have been concluded successfully and brought large rewards (colonial war against England, Indian Wars, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII).

Yes, I agree with you that fundamentally, to reach stability, all state actors have to give up some degree of sovereignty. In fact, my suggestion is to try to build peace interest rather war interest but that is neither glamorous, nor guaranteed of success, nor short-term.
Anonymous (No. 2, I think),

"The best approach to stability, in human relations, it to build inertia; culturally and institutionally, in my opinion. Therefore, one would have to work on strengthening NPT rather than shredding it."

If there is a consensus to strengthen the treaty, then yes. The difficulty right now seems to be that the principal signatories are not all willing to enforce the treaty in its present form, and important states are not signatories at all. If this situation doesn't change, then the only alternative to the spread of nuclear weapons would seem to be a world in which there are a shrinking number of states.

"The states in the Eastern Hemisphere still have a pre-dominantly rural population composition (between 40-60 % if not more). These states, in fact, can sustain a limited nuclear war in which their major cities are destroyed or massively damaged. Their societies and polity can actually continue to function. The radioactive fall-out is certainly a problem for their neighbors but not for the United States."

The problem, as your argument implicitly acknowledges, is that nuclear exchanges might not be limited. Even a limited nuclear war would affect the United States, and large-scale nuclear war would transform the political situation overnight.

A Chinese surface nuclear test in 1966, in the 300 kiloton range, produced fallout that crossed the Pacific Ocean and reached most of North America. This is the scale on which an Israeli-Iranian, Saudi-Iranian, or Indo-Pakistani nuclear war would probably occur. The blasts at this level would reach the upper troposphere, quickly circulate the northern hemisphere, and rain down. The amounts of fallout in 1966 were not a serious threat (the main problem was the uptake of iodine 131 into the dairy food chain, raising the danger of thyroid injury). The Chernobyl explosion in 1986 was more serious locally but was also limited in its wider effects on us.

The fallout from a limited nuclear exchange would provoke a run on potassium iodide tablets in North America to counteract the iodine but might not do any further damage. It would, however, cause an enormous scare. Detonations in the high hundred kiloton or megaton range would be much more dramatic in impact. The detonations would propel fallout to higher altitudes that would take longer to rain down but would pose a high risk of gamma radiation when it does. While as a practical matter this might only triple the peacetime cancer rate, it would trigger panic and would be the kind of event that public opinion might be willing to make serious geopolitical changes to prevent from happening on an even larger scale again.

"The world has always been unstable. One has to be ready for it. The European world before WWI was stable for almost a 100 years excluding the short wars of France-Germany and the Crimean War. The statesmen of Europe, in my opinion, liked war because their image of war was formed by those short wars. WWII was only the continuation of WWI."

Until 1945, we lived in a world in which military power was directly proportional to the size and complexity of the nation-state. We are now entering a military environment in which the middle is being temporarily hollowed out, in the sense that military trends favor the rich and the poor. Over the next five decades, trends in aerospace defense will make it impossible for more than one state to be secure in outer space unless all of its rivals are effectively eliminated. Over the same time period, the ability of smaller states and private groups to acquire weapons of mass destruction will increase, endangering large states and complex societies from below.

The end to which I think this points is (1) the monopolization of outer space and related technology by a single power or group of closely integrated powers and (2) the downward intensification of control over the planet to squeeze out the freedom created by rogue sovereignty, or by the absence of effective sovereignty, from which small states and private groups can threaten civilization. The only question is whether these two developments will occur before catastrophic events make them inevitable, and if so, whether there will be consent.

"Yes, I agree with you that fundamentally, to reach stability, all state actors have to give up some degree of sovereignty. In fact, my suggestion is to try to build peace interest rather than war interest but that is neither glamorous, nor guaranteed of success, nor short-term."

I agree. The question peace activists have to answer is whether politics is a struggle of timeless absolutes or a matter of choices that did not exist in earlier decades. More mainstream policy thinkers have a similar question to answer in the extent to which they are willing to defend the use of social science notions of synchronic time and ideal-type actors to define their frame of reference. The future needs to be seen in terms of its unique dangers and possibilities, and not so much in terms of recurring or unchanging ones, and engineering trends are probably the best way to measure what is unique. Assuming that technology won't change anything of importance guarantees that it will.
Mr. Billington:

I cannot see how the number of states can be reduced without resort to nuclear attacks against their population centers (as outlined in my previous posting as to what is required to accomplish that task.) Mutual defence alliances are possible (such as NATO) but the diminution of the political centers of decision making, in my opinion, is not in the cards.

I mentioned NPT as an example. The Chemical Weapons Treaty was shredded by the Western Alliance in Iran-Iraq War; "they are willing to do anything to advance their interests." I am suggesting here that West cannot have it both ways; rules must apply to everyone or they do not apply to any one specially, since as you pointed out, military power is devolving to other parts of the world (it is following the flow of industrialization)

My point about a limited nuclear war in the Eastern Hemisphere was that US can live with its consequences; I am sorry that I did not make that clear.

I cannot see how control of (near Earth) space could defend against a large number of cruise misslies carrying real and decoy payloads.

Could you please explain what you meant by "military environment in which the middle is being temporarily hollowed out"? I am afraid I do not follow you.

As for "the monopolization of outer space and related technology by a single power or group of closely integrated powers" this essentially means the emergence of a global hegemon. I suspect that such a trend will be opposed by every other center of power. And its emrgence, in my opinion, is tantamount to a global government that is extremely undesirable (An extremist group of idelogues take over this government and decide to get rid of all Anglosaxons; where could then one flee-off the planet?) Would it not be nmore useful, in lieu of this dangerous development, for the declared nuclear states, to begin fulfilling their obligations under NPT?

I do not believe that we are that far apart regarding our understanding. I am just more sanguine; "every thing that can go wrong will go wrong."

And you have not answered 2 questions that I posed: What does responsible behavior mean for a state actor? and Does US prefer war as an istrument of policy to diplomacy?
Mr. Billington:

Politics is a struggle for power not for timeless values (unless one defines the acquisition, maintenance, and exercise of power as a value).

The exercise of that power, from a moral point of view, can be to manage the existence of human beings with a modicum of comfort between their birth until their death (hopefully of natural causes).

We are no talking here about some sort of Liberal, Coservative, Christian, Muslin, etc. utopia.
Anonymous No. 2 - I would reduce the number of states that threaten each other by forming a closer and wider alliance of Western nations and by providing outside nations with a path to full inclusion. I've outlined this on the second page of the essay that begins here:


Of course, there are excellent reasons why this may not be practical (which I try to acknowledge).

To address your last two questions: Either we will have a world in which U.S. power is more accountable to the world over which it is exercised or it will be resisted and will eventually go away. Responsible behavior for America today is to work toward a sharing of power with other states that have its basic political values, as long as other countries don't interpret this to mean all give on America's part and no give on theirs.

Regarding war vs. diplomacy, I do not think the United States prefers war if it can get what it wants by diplomacy, but I do think it is obvious that 9/11 removed an inhibition against the U.S. use of force that existed previously. I do not think enough election cycles have elapsed to say that this change is permanent. If it is, I don't think it can be sustained unilaterally.

Regarding the military environment please understand that my speculation is about the middle twenty-first century, not the present. Military trends all point to outer space as an increasingly decisive component of security by then, and the militarization of outer space will be immensely destabilizing. If the world is still multipolar, the risk of conflict will be greater than it is today. In the very long run, I don't think multipolarity is the permanent future of the planet. The only question is how it gets resolved.

Over the next half century, small states and private groups will also be more dangerous if mass destruction weapons are easier to obtain. This fact could counteract the tendency of the great powers to clash by driving them together in self-defense. I see competition at the top for supremacy, a challenge from the bottom to reassert a more anarchical world, and as the outcome a world that is either devastated or unified.

It would be best if the signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty fulfill their obligations. But if they don't, then we need an alternative. My solution may be unworkable, especially the part about shared strategic defense, but the choice I see is for an increasingly tense multipolarity or for the current Western alliance to become closer and larger. In the latter case, the United States will have to accept new limits on its freedom of action, but so will other large and medium-sized countries that join.
This is to the last Anonymous post above about timeless values.

The unusual characteristic of politics and international relations is I think the extent to which religion has become a force, and social science is not well-fitted to understand and deal with this phenomenon. There is a real tension between those who feel that they are in some sort of timeless context and those who feel that they are a part of a historical process that is not divinely foreordained (at least not in the near future). We need to find a way to circumvent this chasm.
None of this is really being addressed by the DC think-tank community, which is a group that doesn't really think. Especially when you have so many people who seem anxious to turn the clock back to the good old days of the 1980s.
I think the points about the changing military environment of the mid-21st century are spot on.
How much of this may fuel a new isolationism at home and an approach of sending out forces only to control key "nodes" of the global infrastructure while leaving everything else to chaos? Take Angola. Civil war could rage there as long as people had access to offshore oil fields and some diamond mines.
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