September 12th, 2012

What a difference eleven years can make.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the United States of America dropped into a boiling cauldron of pain, confusion, and anger. On September 12th, 2001, images of first responders desperately searching the rubble of the Twin Towers for survivors were juxtaposed against solemn Presidential press conferences, an outpouring of global condolences, and a tornado of speculation about the perpetrator of the attack. We were scared as hell.

What were we going to do about these Al Qaeda guys? What could be done against this kind of organization? It was based in essentially the least accessible country on Earth, led by veterans of a very successful insurgency against another military superpower, well-funded (at least by the standards of non-state actors), and stocked with additional affiliates, agents, and fellow travelers dispersed and hidden across every other continent. Dick Cheney thought it would take multiple generations to beat Al Qaeda, possibly even a century or more.

Well, it didn’t, even after a very costly excursion to Iraq. It took about a decade. The job’s not “done” in the usual sense of the word–putting an end to all terrorism and violent extremism everywhere isn’t even possible in comic books–but Bin Ladin’s organization is neutralized. It turns out that even the most sophisticated non-state actor isn’t going to last very long against the combined resources of the developed world.

Think about it this way. The United States made the dismantling of Al Qaeda one of its top foreign policy priorities. I say “one of the top” because AQ wasn’t President Bush’s top priority, although it probably took the #2 slot; AQ’s destruction has most certainly been President Obama’s top priority. This spot was formerly reserved for the job of containing the Soviet Union, which was by most accounts the second-most-powerful nation state in history. It was the world’s largest state geographically, and contained a workforce of about 150 million people who spent a lot of their productive capacity (in 1990, this amounted to about $2.7 trillion) building weapons.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a threat. By comparison, the Al Qaeda organization proper consisted of a few thousand people working with hundreds of millions to a few billions of dollars. To be sure, many of these people were highly intelligent, skilled killers, as well as absolutely ruthless and willing to die for their cause… but we are still talking about a group that was three to four orders of magnitude smaller than the USSR.

And the US switched focus only ten years after the USSR dissolved. Much has been made of AQ’s revolutionary, internet-enabled, decentralized nature, and how it supposedly made the organization impervious to the kind of brute force a superpower can muster, but it’s clear that ten years of technological process in networking didn’t change the nature of the game enough to absorb this kind of heat. Thus, when we turned a substantial portion of the military-industrial-intelligence complex designed to crush the USSR in a vice on Al Qaeda, we didn’t just kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer, we hit it with an 18-wheeler.

My point here is not to bray about how awesome America is, or to pen a rah-rah triumphalist superpatriotic screed. In my opinion, our approach to defeating AQ has been inefficient, brutal, inhumane, and at times illegal, befitting a “total war” mentality that may have been appropriate against Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or Soviet Russia (although that is also debatable), but not against AQ. Nor, of course, do I want to minimize the suffering inflicted by Bin Ladin and Friends, here, in Europe, and throughout the Muslim world. These were very dangerous people. They had to go one way or another, and we have a mandate to insure their successors never become as dangerous.

It is merely to remember that they were–and are–human, and as such, neither infallible nor invincible. And in retrospect, it’s not that surprising they’re mostly dead now.

SWAMOS 2011 Ho!

I’m attending Columbia’s Summer Workshop On Military Operations and Strategy (SWAMOS 2011) at Cornell University. Summers in upstate NY are notoriously hot, and Ithaca is certainly living up to its billing. It’s 90 degrees outside and pretty close to full humidity, which is a huge change from Santa Monica.

Luckily we will be spending much of the next two weeks indoors in an air-conditioned conference center, receiving a full-scale info dump on the latest and greatest in the political science sub-subfield known as Strategic Studies.

I tell most people that I concentrate in International Relations and Comparative Politics, which fits in nicely with the Poli Sci Department’s schema at UCLA, but I consider myself a Security Studies person at heart. Classically, Security Studies as a field has dealt with diplomatic (and not-so-diplomatic) interactions between Great Powers; its chief tenets and theories are derived from the Cold War, the global game of chess between two glowering superpowers.

That is the 20th century conception. I love learning about Great Power politics, the era of modern industrialized warfare, the grand ideological crusades of the past century. These topics are the foundation of my education. In fact, my most recent paper discusses the rationality of Japanese strategy and operations leading up to World War 2. Now that  is old school!

However, while there is still much to examine in the diplomatic record that is of great scholarly worth, I have personally become more interested in the new era of warfare and political violence. To really earn analytical traction on what our future is going to look like, we need to sort areas of continuity from areas of change.

This is where Strategic Studies comes in to the picture. It is the subsection of the study of political violence that discusses the use of military force at various levels of resolution–the political, grand strategic, strategic, operational, and tactical levels, in descending order of complexity.

It provides us with the “microfoundational” analytical tools we need to understand how military engagements are won, in the greatest possible detail. I’ve done about a thousand pages of advance reading to prepare for the workshop, starting with the illustrious Clausewitz (one of the most lucid and efficient political theorists I’ve ever had the pleasure to read… perhaps not surprising given his Prussian military background!)

The syllabus has proceeded through Stephen Biddle’s magisterial Military Power, and then burrowed into tactical recreations of famous battles from the World Wars, command training manuals from the U.S. military, and even touched on military modeling and operations research.

It is exactly the kind of stuff that the vast majority of work in International Relations and Security Studies glosses over and/or stuffs into footnotes. And it is hugely important and interesting.

Part of my interest stems from my background in game design; I have had some ideas about creating new simulation methods through interactive games, and this reading has driven home the point that similar techniques are already a very big deal in military and government circles.

Another part of my interest derives from the fact that our theories about what is likely to happen in our political and military future need to be informed by actual military mechanisms. Political scientists may have a good understanding of the political side of the equation, in the abstract, but such understanding isn’t much good without a corresponding knowledge of the limits imposed by technological, operational, tactical, physical, and command factors.

Obviously nothing beats actual military experience for learning this stuff. But without major efforts to make up for this shortfall in experience, we will quite literally have no idea what we are talking about.