Weekend Reading: November 21-23

November 21, 2014

Many interesting stories to cover this week. The pieces we’ve gathered for this edition of our Weekend Reading list address issues that touch six continents and include several that transcend geography. Despite the disparity in subjects, we find that most journalists, military thinkers and decision-makers keep referring to one factor more than others (hint: it has something to do with ‘strategy’). Let’s take a closer look.

Of the 17,958 people who died in terrorist attacks in 2013, 82 percent were in one of five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria. The opening to Kathy Gilsinan’s article in The Atlantic, entitled “The Geography of Terrorism,” is based on this year’s Global Terrorism Index, published by the Institute for Economics and Peace. That war, conflict and violence breed localized terrorism is a fact all too familiar to Jerusalem Post writer Dan Illouz. In his article “A Fresh Perspective: Defeating Neo-Terrorism,” Illouz asserts that the emergence of ‘neo-terrorism’ – spontaneous acts of violence by individuals often unaffiliated with a formal network – demands a creative approach from governments in affected countries. Calling for a dramatic revision to our ‘counter-terrorism strategy’ is becoming a popular theme among writers and former military officers. In “What the War Classics Teach Us About Fighting Terrorists,” former Army Colonel Philip Lisagor uses classic texts to argue that policy mistakes committed by the Persians, Greeks and French are re-emerging in the United States’ strategy against trans-national Islamist extremists. “It is indeed time to set aside Sun Tzu and his tactics and pick up Clausewitz and his strategy,” writes Lisagor in Cicero Magazine.

“After 13 years of war fought by an all-volunteer force, we are reshaping our defense enterprise to adapt for a fiscal environment plagued by perpetual uncertainty and shrinking resources, and to contend with an historic realignment of interests and influences around the world.” Secretary of Defense Hagel outlined the broad-scope intent of his innovation initiative this week – enter the “Third Offset Strategy.” Vice’s Ryan Faith wonders if we are attempting to ‘offset’ the numerical superiority of China, or the continued curtailment of defense funding in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan drawdown era. With the “velocity of instability” increasing and U.S. military personnel participating in named operations across five continents, the defense industry has every reason to pursue new, creative means to ensure its battlefield superiority in the years ahead. Writing in the U.S. Army War College’s fall edition of Parameters, Brig. Gen. Kimberly Field wonders if this pursuit of innovation should include, at minimum, a civil-military conversation about the ‘viability of the all-volunteer force.’

If you haven’t yet checked out Beyond Offset, you’re missing out on great commentary, analysis, and insights on this new strategy. From this week, read Adam Harrison’s look at the past and future role of technology in U.S. military strategy, and Robert Tomes’ explanation of how the Cold War-era offset strategy launched a revolution in reconnaissance and surveillance.

Crisis management initiatives, one-off political engagements and discussion of domestic immigration reform does not constitute a U.S. strategy in Latin America. Writing this week for Folha de São Paulo, Julia E. Sweig laments the “Death of Strategy” in the region, attributing at least some of the blame to Washington bureaucrats who lack the “basic tools of discernment and analysis.” As President Obama announces an initiative to protect five million illegal immigrants from deportation, Mexico experiences a surge in drug cartel violence, government corruption and widespread public protests. In The Atlantic’s “Good Mexico vs. Bad Mexico,” Moises Naim wonders if President Peña Nieto is up to the task of leading his country through increasing instability following the suspected abduction and murder of 43 students in Iguala. The continued growth of drug cartels creates security vacuums across much of Mexico and Central America – a strategy to manage these issues has yet to materialize.

An increased Western focus on strategy formulation and implementation may be necessary to counter the kind of strategic behavior Russia demonstrated in Crimea. This is one of many insightful points written by Kristin Ven Bruusgaard in her article “Crimea and Russia’s Strategic Overhaul,” published this week in Parameters. The confrontation between Russia and Europe seems to have reached a new level, as evidenced by Putin’s abrupt departure from last weekend’s G20 Summit in Brisbane. And although Mr. Putin departed the conference, his warships stuck around as six Russian warships conducted exercises in the Philippine Sea, according to Vice’s Alec Luhn. The point of these demonstrations, according to some analysts, is to drive a wedge between Europe and the United states and to shift focus away from Ukraine. The credibility of the latter is bolstered by Paul Richard Huard’s War is Boring article, “The War in Ukraine is Killing Lots of Russians.” Although his collection methodologies lack sophistication (e.g. this figure was generated by filing through posts on a facebook page), some 4,000 Russians are estimated to have died in Ukraine. But what is the geopolitical payoff for Russia in perpetuating this conflict? Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev propose a few answers in their article “Putin on Ice,” published this week in Project Syndicate.

Attention to detail(s)

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)….let’s cut to the chase:

  • The connection between Ansar al-Sharia (AAS) in Libya and al-Qaeda, specifically al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has long been established. However, Der Spiegel writes this week of ISIL’s recent expansion to Derna, Libya in “The Caliphate’s Colonies: [ISIL’s] gradual expansion into North Africa.”
  • Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Nov. 13 audio message is an indicator that ISIL feels threatened by the possibility of popular revolt among Sunnis. This is the opinion of The Soufan Group as expressed in its article, “The Islamic State’s Fear of History.”

Important events and commentary in the broader Middle East are often overshadowed by news about ISIL. Let’s turn our attention to a couple of compelling regional topics discussed in this week’s reading:

  • The most surprising comments in response to Tuesday’s deadly attack on Jewish worshippers at a Jerusalem synagogue came from the Bahraini foreign minister, he said: “It is forbidden to react to the crimes of the Israeli occupation against our brothers in Palestine by killing innocents in a house of prayer.” Writer Evelyn Gordon asserts that pragmatic Arab states don’t want another Israeli-Palestinian conflict diverting attention from more pressing concerns, such as ISIL and Iran.

A nuclear deal with Iran is unlikely to materialize in time for the Nov. 24 deadline. But does this mean Iran will promptly withdraw from the negotiations to develop nuclear weapons? Writing this week for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, scholar Ariane Tabatabai suggests that the Iranian regime generally follows a much more practical course of action in pursuing its real-world interests.

  • For Ariane’s thoughts on Russia’s role in the U.S.-Iran negotiations, listen to her conversation with NPR’s Robert Siegel.

Nearly 30,000 Japanese military troops and 10,000 American personnel participated in Exercise Keen Sword this week in the Western Pacific. Japan’s near-term military objectives may be affected by the upcoming prime minister snap election in December. John Cassidy writes more on the implications of this political issue in The New Yorker article, “Why The World Should Hope Shinzo Abe Wins Re-election.”

Integrating women into combat arms specialties is a civil rights concern? As 31 women were selected for a potential Ranger School experiment, Secretary of Defense Hagel stated that he views lifting gender-based exclusions as a civil rights issue.

  • For more, check out Anna Simons provocative article, “Here’s why women in combat units is a bad idea,” published this week in War on the Rocks. Disagree? These IDFblog photos show Israel Defense Force (IDF) women completing search and rescue training. Women comprise approximately five percent of all combat soldiers in the IDF.

President Obama’s foreign policy. In a Boston Globe editorial, Harvard professor Nicholas Burns writes that President Obama has enough time and constitutional authorities to conduct effective foreign policy. Stratfor’s George Friedman, however, contends that this ‘failed presidency’ will be hard to watch during its final two years.

Drone wars. In this week’s can’t-miss long read, “The Unblinking Stare,” The New Yorker’s Steve Coll writes about the utter lack of accountability or transparency in the U.S. drone program in Pakistan. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf adds that we should at least stop calling the victims “militants” until we can confirm their identities.

In their own words…

“What do you do when you’re trying to explain in words, to the father of a fallen Marine, exactly what that Marine meant to you?”   –– Writer and former U.S. Marine Phil Klay in his acceptance speech on Wednesday. Klay’s short story collection, “Redeployment,” won the National Book Award for fiction.

“A strong majority of Americans agree that we are at a serious crossroads. In my view the solutions are not simply political, but those of leadership. I learned long ago on the battlefields of Vietnam that in a crisis, there is no substitute for clear-eyed leadership.”   –– Former Virginia senator, distinguished writer and former U.S. Marine Jim Webb announcing the launch of his 2016 presidential exploratory committee.


Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defence