Weekend Reading: November 14-16

November 14, 2014

Hello, War on the Rocks readers. A more focused (slow) week in foreign and military affairs from the American perspective? Maybe. Below are the three themes that have captured headlines and earned international attention over the past several days.

This week’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit reached or passed several promising milestones in the evolving US-China relationship, including overcoming technology and visa hurdles, committing to lowering CO2 emissions and identifying means of avoiding military confrontations. The American Enterprise Institute argues, however, that the meetings “failed to reduce tensions over larger economic and security issues that have plagued US-China bilateral relations for over a decade.” Lawfare’s Jack Goldsmith continues this argument by suggesting the signature climate change announcement is likely more aspirational than reported by most major media sources. Although these statements are true, both the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elizabeth Economy and The Atlantic’s Matt Schiavenza believe the meeting signified Beijing’s commitment to the “liberal international order”; China will no longer take a “back seat in global diplomacy.” Writing this week for The New Yorker, Vauhini Vara notes both the United States and China “[…] are going to be geopolitical competitors—[they] have a lot of disagreements geopolitically—but [they] could also have economic cooperation.” Rare as it may seem, the positive takeaways outweigh the negatives for this week’s top issue.

The United States approaches a critical juncture in its campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Several important questions are unresolved, strategies remain ambiguous and military objectives are still undefined. Let’s take a closer look at the issues facing the U.S. national security team:

  • National Journal’s James Oliphant and Alex Brown write that although the White House has invited Congress to formally authorize strikes in Iraq and Syria, Speaker Boehner wants specific language from the administration before the House acts. A decision by the lame duck Congress is unlikely.
  • What’s the coalition’s counter-narrative? In The National Interest’s “Beware the Siren Song of ISIS”, Geneive Abdo and Lulwa Rizkallah identify the five tenets of ISIL’s strategic messaging narrative. Understanding the underlying themes of Arab isolation and marginalization will be much harder, and potentially more effective at containing the group, than launching airstrikes.
  • The so-called “Sunni Arc of Instability” that stretches from North Africa to the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt demands a federalist approach, according to Brahma Chellaney in an article for Project Syndicate. The eventual solution to current conflicts in Syria and Iraq must start with Sunni leaders’ recognition of this reality.
  • Finally, Joyce Karam writes a compelling piece for al-Arabiya on the enigmatic leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Although Islamist extremist organizations have proven themselves resilient at replacing key leaders over the past decade, the symbolic importance and strategic influence of Baghdadi cannot be overstated. His death would significantly affect the operational momentum of ISIL across the Middle East.

As Russian convoys travel back-and-forth across the Eastern Ukraine border, questions about Russia’s strategic objectives remain an important (or, just interesting) topic of the international conversation. In New Republic’s “Now That Russia Has Invaded Ukraine Again, Let’s Stop Pretending a Ceasefire Ever Existed,” Julie Ioffe and Linda Kinstler explain that the West is tired and bored with Ukraine, while Europe is reluctant to extend its embrace to a penniless, conflict-ridden country. Meanwhile in the Land Down Under, news sources warn the Kremlin is sending long-range strategic bombers “around the world from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico” (reference graphic of recent Russian reconnaissance activity in Europe and the Arctic). But is it all our fault, you ask? Foreign Affairs is wondering the same thing, and polls its panel of experts to determine if the West provoked Russia’s actions in its near abroad by expanding NATO and the EU after the Cold War. Maybe we did, maybe we did not or “Maybe Putin just wants a hug,” as Leonid Bershidsky writes this week in the National Post.

Attention to detail(s)

The apparent successes of Secretary of State Kerry’s trip to Beijing did not extend to all parts of the world, as the U.S. diplomatic mission in Yemen remains under threat of attack by tribal militias and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) extremists. Earlier this week, the U.S. imposed trade sanctions on former President Abdullah Saleh and two Houthi rebel leaders for threatening the tenuous security situation in Sana’a. In related news, the U.S. Embassy Yemen staff initiated an ordered departure for the second time in three months, the Diplopundit reports.

Despite another abhorrent act of terrorism in northeastern Nigeria this week (Nov. 10 bomb attack on school assembly), President Goodluck Jonathan announced his intent to pursue a second four-year term in office. His re-election would undoubtedly roil northerners who expected the leader to pass authority to a politician outside of Jonathan’s home, the oil-rich Niger Delta. The news comes during a period of continuing violence from Boko Haram, but also during a surge of piracy, sea robbery and maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea. 

Wondering when you’ll finally see the “innovation initiative” you’ve been waiting for all these years? Secretary of Defense Hagel says that a new “offset strategy” could be ready for public dissemination this week. In the meantime, reference the growing body of collaborative work from WOTR and the Center for a New American Security in understanding this critical national security issue.

Most military officers, strategists and historians regard Carl von Clausewitz’s On War as a touchstone of modern war theory. In this week’s “Everything you know about Clausewitz is wrong,” occasional WOTR contributor James R. Holmes explains in The Diplomat that outdated and faulty ideas can bear sweeping real-world consequences.

Designated the world’s “premier forum” for international economic cooperation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the Group of 20 (G20) Summit will hold its annual meeting this weekend in Canberra, Australia. For a preview of the key agenda items, read Stewart M. Patrick and Daniel Chardell’s “On the Line in Brisbane: Global Growth and G20 Credibility” published this week in the Council on Foreign Relations.

It was a big week for military veterans, as Rihanna and Bruce Springsteen headlined the first-of-its-kind Concert for Valor in Washington, D.C. Veterans’ employment after military service was one of many issues the stars promoted during the event. According to Rand study sponsored by JP Morgan Chase and Company, participating businesses cited several advantages – leadership ability, flexibility and experience working in culturally diverse environments, among many others – to hiring post-transition military veterans. Below are a few more notes from distinguished veterans who’ve recently published original material related to their experiences at war:

  • Retired Army officer and leading counterinsurgency expert Dr. John Nagl answers 20 questions from Medium about his new book, Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice.
  • Retired Army 3-star general Daniel Bolger reminds us that “insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” His new book, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, was published on Veterans’ Day.
  • “You know, if you want to be successful here (in Afghanistan), you have to keep hate in your heart.” Read more of Mike Denny’s Kings of War article, “Forgetting Hate: A quick lesson on battlefield conduct from the Légion Étrangère.”

In their own words…

“In other words, a strong, cooperative relationship with China is at the heart of our pivot to Asia. And if the United States is going to continue to lead the world in addressing global challenges, then we have to have the second-largest economy and the most populous nation on Earth as our partner.”

President Obama at a joint press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing

In this new world and new age that we’re living in, foreign policy is economic policy, and economic policy is foreign policy. And I say this all the time. I want every officer in the State Department to be an economic officer because that’s the world we’re living in.”

Secretary of State Kerry at the announcement of a new U.S.-China visa agreement in Beijing

“I’ve always remembered that Veterans Day in 1969, because it reminded me of the one constant throughout the Vietnam War – the uncommon valor of common Americans from every corner of our country,” he said. “They were the quiet heroes of our time. Some of these veterans are here today, and the names of many more are memorialized on the Wall behind us.”

— Secretary of Defense Hagel at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army