Saturday, October 14, 2006

Why Pseudo-Conservatives Can't Do Foreign Policy, Part 2

Pseudo-conservative's most frequently recommended tool of foreign policy is military threat or military action. In a recent post I listed some recent modest proposals of the radical right: "Let's bomb Iran." "Let's call North Korea names and wait to see what happens." "Let's rattle our sabres at China." "Let's invade Iraq and transform the whole Middle East." Sometimes it seems to me that almost no one ever examines the bases for these extremely intransigent, bullying proposals. However, Robert Pape wrote a book called Bombing to Win in which he examined under what conditions bombing campaigns have been successful. Thus, he studied (p. 1-2), "why some states decide to change their behavior when threatened with military consequences and other states do not.... This book seeks to determine the conditions under which coercion has succeeded and failed in the past in order to predict when it is likely to succeed and fail in the future.... States involved in serious international disputes commonly engage in passionate debate over the utility of military (and nonmilitary) instruments of coercion. Leaders are often drawn to military coercion because it is perceived as a quick and cheap solution to otherwise difficult and expensive international problems."

This last point is crucial. Many leaders fool themselves and the public into thinking military coercion will be "quick and cheap." Certainly this was the expectation of the George W. Bush administration regarding Saddam in 2003. In a recent NPR discussion of his book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, Frank Rich expressed some bewilderment about precisely why the Bush II administration chose war against Iraq. But he did say that one reason was because they thought it would be "easy." Apparently they failed to seriously consider who would govern in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam was accomplished. Pape observed (p. 2): "As the American public's willingness to bear military costs declines, the role of air power in overseas conflicts is increasing because it can project force more rapidly and with less risk than manpower and more formidably than naval power."

After a characteristically careful empirical study of the 40 cases of "coercive air campaigns" between 1917 and 1991 (see table 2, p. 52) Pape drew some conclusions (p. 314): "Can air power alone do the job? The answer is no. First, coercion is very hard. It hardly ever succeeds by raising costs and risks to civilians. When coercion does work, it is by denying the opponent the ability to achieve its goals on the battlefield. However, even denial does not always work. Sometimes states can succeed only by decisively defeating their opponents." And the latter is usually neither quick or cheap. Pape continued (p. 315): "The cases studied in this book show that the requirements for successful coercion are very high. Even when coercion succeeds, moreover, it rarely gains very much.... Although planners often excuse the failure of coercive programs by citing political constraints and operational problems (e.g., weather), in fact, these seldom crippled the effectiveness of coercive air campaigns." In other words, despite the frequently heard complaint that it was because of political constraints that we lost in Vietnam, this is not the case. One wonders what the excuse will be in Iraq.

Pape (p. 318) also examined the belief following the Gulf War that "strategic bombing was the decisive factor." This has received a big boost from the belief that precision guided missiles have the ability "to destroy strategic targets more easily and more rapidly than nonprecision weapons." (Shades of Don Rumsfeld and his Revolution in Military Affairs?) Pape claimed that "this enhanced efficiency makes little difference to the coercive effectiveness of any of these strategies."

Pape asked (p. 326-9): "If strategic bombing doesn't work why does it persist...? First, it serves the bureaucratic interests of air forces. Second, both civilian and military leaders want cheap and easy solutions to difficult international confrontations. Third, ignorance allows strategic bombing enthusiasts to sway policy decisions with unsupported assertions. Fourth, deliberate obfuscation of the brutality of strategic-bombing campaigns to shield them from criticism also impedes evaluation.... Reviewing literally thousands of planning documents for the preparation of this book, I found innumerable studies of how forces would be applied to destroy a given target set but no document, at any level of government, of more than a page to explain how destroying the target was supposed to activate mechanisms (popular revolt, coup, social disintegration, strategic paralysis, or even thwarting enemy military strategy) which would lead to the desired political change.... The key problem in coercion is the validity of the mechanisms that are supposed to translate particular military effects into political outcomes."

In other words, Pape found that when it came to coercive air bombing campaigns and their putative ability to actually coerce opponents to make the political changes we might seek, the emperor had no clothes. Not only are these military strategies emphatically not "cheap" and "easy"--and who could doubt this after the 2003 Iraq war--they are quite frequently ineffective. Moreover, apparently little energy has been expended explaining precisely how destroying specific enemy assets could lead to the kinds of political capitulation our "coercive" strategy is seeking. As Pape concluded (p. 331): "Finally, both publics and policy makers should stop thinking of coercion as a silver bullet to solve intractable foreign policy dilemmas. Coercion is no easier, only sometimes cheaper, and never much cheaper, than imposing demands by military victory." Sounds like if we don't want to go to the lengths we did in defeating Germany and Japan perhaps we should start to give more attention to those more complicated foreign policy strategies that require resources, wisdom and patience. Since Pape published this study in 1996 I can only imagine his reaction while witnessing the "debate" that led to the Iraq war.

However, it must be acknowledged that the pseudo-conservative party of fear has very substantial psychological advantages because it is hawking (pun intended) a simplistic and highly emotional message, as opposed to a complex, nuanced message requiring much patience. One wonders if there is no end to the utility of the fear tactics the pseudo-conservative right has been effectively using since the late 1940s: "The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!" Or, substitute "terrorists" for "Russians" as needed. In a future post I will elaborate on the pseudo-conservative use of the "Hit Them and They'll Stop Misbehaving Theory."

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