World at war: US force projection and the hybridity of global threats15 December 2016
The judgement of a US president can serve not only to shape the character of a military deployment by US or allied forces, but also its consequences for the entire world. Defence & Security Systems International talks to Dr Eliot Cohen, Robert E Osgood professor of strategic studies at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, about how the lessons of force projection under the Obama administration should inform the next decade of activity for US forces overseas.
When the soldiers arrived in Sevastopol in the spring, nobody knew what to call them. They were plainly Russian; each carried a Russian weapon, and they drove Russian vehicles with Russian number plates. They spoke Russian, which wasn’t especially surprising in Ukraine, but did so with Russian accents. The local residents, and thereafter the world’s media, would eventually settle on calling the soldiers the ‘little green men.’ They carried no dog-tags; no giveaway tricolour was stitched upon their uniforms. Often, even their faces were masked.
Russia’s annexing of Crimea in 2014 ushered in a new type of asymmetric warfare, wherein the terms of reference made in justifying conflict mattered almost as much as the power to prosecute it. Aside from inaugurating a new era in which Moscow exercised an interest in upholding the rights – as it defined them – of minority Russian-speaking populations scattered throughout Eastern Europe, by invading the peninsula with an officially unidentifiable force it had foisted a crude trap upon the new government in Kiev. They could have attacked this army, which, given the size and experience of its own military forces, would almost certainly have resulted in a swift defeat and an excuse on the part of the Russians to attack all of Ukraine with impunity. The other option was to do nothing. And so, Crimea became a de-facto province of the Russian Federation.
The Middle East is not like Las Vegas: what happens there does not stay there… You end up being interested in the region because, if nothing else, the region is interested in you.
I think any president that’s elected after 9/11 really has to understand that they are a war president. And they have to accept everything that goes along with that.
Currently, the great worry among NATO military planners and foreign policy analysts alike is that what happened in 2014 in Crimea will occur in Latvia, one of its own member states and itself a host to a Russian-speaking minority. A provocation of this type occurring there, or anywhere in the Baltic states, would constitute the greatest test the alliance has yet faced.
Recognising the invasion for what it is, Latvia would probably invoke Article 5, the treaty instrument by which all NATO members are obliged to come to the aid of the signatory that has called for it.
The alliance would then have to define what, precisely, that instrument meant under the circumstances under which it was invoked. If NATO does decide such a provocation warrants a counterattack, it risks total war with the world’s second-greatest nuclear power. If it decides otherwise, the Alliance becomes meaningless.
For Dr Eliot Cohen, the only solution as this point is to ensure that NATO’s willingness to strike is indisputable. “If the next bit of pressure is on the Baltic states, then you’ll need ground forces to be present there from the beginning, so that the Russians know that an invasion of Latvia or Estonia means that you’re at war with NATO,” he explains. “You want to have substantial conventional forces to do that. You can’t operate in the Baltic unless you have serious air or naval power, given the Russian assets there.”
Hybridity of threats
As the Robert E Osgood professor of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University, Cohen has been at the forefront of US foreign and military policy formulation for the past two decades. After serving as an assistant professor of government at Harvard University, in 1985 the professor joined the strategy department of the US Naval War College. During the second term of George W Bush he served as a counsellor at the State Department.
Since then, he has been a pointed critic of how the Obama administration’s foreign policy priorities across the globe, believing that it has set a poor example for subsequent administrations in how to deploy military force or deter undesirable actions by foreign powers in an effective way. In a withering summation of the Crimean crisis for the Washington Post in 2014, Cohen condemned Putin as a “brutal, Great Russian nationalist” given an opening for a territorial land-grab by Ukraine’s history, but stated it he was ultimately given permission to act by “President Obama’s history of issuing warnings and, when they are ignored, moving on smartly to the next topic”.
Cohen is also unconvinced that the Obama administration’s attempts to extend US interests in Asia, while drawing back in the Middle East, was altogether productive. The first, he believes, effectively took credit for a slow shift in the country’s foreign policy that had been taking place over the past few decades anyway. The second simply wasn’t possible, given the intentions of the primary actors in the region. “The Middle East is not like Las Vegas: what happens there does not stay there,” says Cohen. “So, willy-nilly, you end up being interested in the region because, if nothing else, the region is interested in you.”
It is an assertion that has struck at the heart of a debate in US foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. Since the Korean War, many of the campaigns that the US military has undertaken have proved much more open-ended than
they appeared at their inception, often evolving into campaigns defined by counterinsurgency operations. The examples of Vietnam and Iraq in particular have not only been taken as warnings from history against large-scale occupations of faraway lands given the human cost involved on both sides, but as case studies for subtler questions about how to balance the military costs against the political in maintaining a commitment to countries of that type, lest the end result be a destructive political vacuum.
For Cohen, it comes down to a question of attitude. “I think any president that’s elected after 9/11 really has to understand that they are a war president,” he explains. “And they have to accept everything that goes along with that. I think, instead, Obama tried to convince himself that that was not going to be an essential part of his role.”
This is true, to a certain extent: President Obama has repeatedly stated that, while the gravity of the threat that the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS pose should not be underestimated, such groups do not pose an existential threat towards the US. Nevertheless, the determination of the current administration in attempting to eradicate the two cannot be doubted. Osama bin Laden is dead, and hundreds of his comrades-in-arms across Pakistan and Afghanistan have been successfully assassinated via drone strike. And in northern Iraq, while Cohen argues that the administration’s withdrawal of US forces was premature and thereby invited the initial successes enjoyed by ISIS, the Iraqi Army is now, with American help, restored and poised to retake the city of Mosul under the cover of US air power and that of its allies.
The latter is a strategy that Cohen is more or less comfortable with, albeit with lingering concerns about the leverage future administrations will be able to exert over the Iraq that eventually emerges from the ordeal. “For me, the issue is actually less the ideas than the competence and the persistence of the people that have to execute it,” he explains. “It really does come down very much to what the nature of the [national security] team is that gets put together and how they deal with all the different vagaries of what life then throws at you.”
At the time of our interview, this statement came in answer to a question posed about the unity of the US foreign policy establishment behind the Democratic nominee for the presidency, Hilary Clinton. It has proven all the more prescient since the victory of her Republican opponent. At the time, Cohen was less charitable about the prospects for future military deployments against ISIS under a future Trump administration: “He hasn’t actually thought about it, he doesn’t know anything about it. He blathers, and it’s sort of belligerent blather, but I wouldn’t dignify it all with the term ‘ideas’.”
The subject of how civilian institutions can best shape the character of a military deployment is one that Cohen has written extensively about in the past, and something he returned to an editorial for the Wall Street Journal in November. The piece ended with a set of lessons that the president-elect should bear in mind when deploying US troops overseas: that wars should be confronted for what they are, not for what the president wishes them to be; the importance of planning while remaining adaptable to changing circumstances; that a president has the authority to start a war, but rarely wins them without enlisting popular support.
“We don’t have a Lincoln or a Clemenceau on offer, unfortunately, but that doesn’t excuse less capable politicians from being engaged,” he says. “That doesn’t mean pistol-whipping your generals, or saying, as Trump has, that ‘I’m much smarter than all the generals’, which is ludicrous. It does mean that they have to remain engaged, and that they have to accept their responsibilities in the chain of command.”