Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Fear Factor

At the outset, Seeking Security in an Insecure World develops a definition of "security" that begins with its Latin root, securus, which means "without a care." Insecurity, of course, is the opposite state, a condition characterized by anxiety and fear. There is a part of this opening discussion of security and insecurity in Seeking Security in an Insecure World that is, I think, worth quoting for its relevance to the psychological state of the nation in the aftermath of the massacre in San Bernardino, California last week:
Insecurity reflects the state of the world, but it is also a state of mind. Consequently, the proximity, in both space and time, of a threat can affect its ability to produce insecurity. There also seems to be a "dread" factor in insecurity. Humans often dread the unknown and the uncontrollable event, such as a random bombing, out of all proportion to the actual threat such an event poses. The social dimension of insecurity--the creation and spread of collective fears--adds another element to our understanding of the subjective aspect of insecurity. Not only do the conditions that produce insecurity change over time, collective understandings do as well. Security--and insecurity--are socially constructed.
There have been events--objective conditions--that have prompted feelings of insecurity: the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino loom large at present. But human psychology and the way it generates interpretations of these attacks is equally important to our efforts to understand the fear that is driving so much political rhetoric and social discourse lately. Considered objectively (that is, applying reason over and against emotion alone), the threat that terrorism poses is small. Terrorists, after all, fight the way they do because they are weak in comparison to the military and police forces marshaled by developed states. Terrorism is a form of asymmetric warfare, a way of fighting that seeks to avoid the powerful adversary's strengths. Hitting the soft underbelly of a society generally means attacking in ways that violate the collective norms of society--norms against deliberately targeting innocent people, for example--because even strong states, especially if free, expect that law and not force alone will do part of the work of providing security.

Terrorism "works" not by defeating (or evening demonstrating an ability to defeat) the security forces of a state like France or the United States but by getting into the minds of people who can influence the policies of the state. Unable to change the objective aspects of a powerful state's security, terrorists hope to alter the subjective aspects--the psychological terrain--of security. This is why, to terrorists, the victims of an attack are less important than the audience. Victims are chosen randomly; the audience is chosen very deliberately.

If it is true that "security--and insecurity--are socially constructed," then what we are witnessing right now in the United States is a political process--primarily (but not exclusively) the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination--that is actually generating much of our present insecurity. Most people could sense this already, but the point bears emphasis.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Putting the "Wonga Coup" Investors on Trial

The Daily Mail reports that Sir Mark Thatcher, son of the late Margaret Thatcher, is to be the subject of a private prosecution in the United Kingdom for his role in the 2004 coup plot against Equatorial Guinea's dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Simon Mann, who was captured in Zimbabwe while en route to Equatorial Guinea with sixty mercenaries, will be the prosecution's star witness.

Private prosecutions, possible in some common law systems, involve allegations of criminal conduct brought by an individual or organization rather than the public prosecutor. In some cases (including this case involving the failed "Wonga Coup"), evidence may be developed by private investigators. Obiang has engaged a prominent British human rights attorney, Jason McCue, to present the case. (McCue's profile on TED.com states, "Jason McCue litigates against terrorists, dictators and others who seem above the law, using the legal and judicial system in innovative ways.")

Mann served four years in a Zimbabwean prison before being turned over to Equatorial Guinea for trial. He was convicted and sentenced to a 32-year prison sentence but released after a year and a half. He maintained at his trial and in a memoir published after his return to the United Kingdom that he was the front man for a group of British investors including Thatcher and Ely Calil. Obiang has long been suspected of making a deal with Mann for his release from prison in the expectation that Mann would help him make the case that the British, Spanish, and U.S. governments were behind the coup plot.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Those who are looking for absolute security are on the wrong planet. This one has life.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What You Should Be Reading After Paris

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, those with the least intelligent things to say seem to be shouting the loudest. Some are trying to get attention in the still overcrowded field of those running for the Republican presidential nomination. Others have airtime to fill and ratings to worry about. Then there are those who are simply way too inclined to express their deepest fears on social media. The mix is toxic and, in a democracy, it threatens to affect policy in some truly harmful ways.

Let us suppose you would prefer some reasoned analysis over feverish diatribes. Let us suppose further that you value knowledge as much as a high decibel level. What (and whom) should you be reading? Here are a few suggestions:

Will McCants is the author of the recently published book The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (St. Martin's, 2015) and a fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His brief essay for FP ("How the Islamic State Declared War on the World") is a good starting point for understanding what ISIS is. McCants makes the important point that ISIS is not just a terrorist organization. It is a state--and a state-sponsor of terrorism (much as North Korea is a state and a transnational criminal organization, an insight I owe to this excellent monograph). For McCants' view on the warrant for ISIS-style violence in Islam, see this brief piece on the Washington Post's "Acts of Faith" blog.

Robert Pape, professor of international relations at the University of Chicago and co-author (with James K. Feldman) of Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, suggests that ISIS attacked Paris because of the role France has played in a successful military campaign against the Islamic State. "The group," Pape writes, "is lashing out against the states that are now posing crippling blows to its dreams of a caliphate in the Middle East." Pape's Boston Globe op-ed is titled "Why Paris? The Answer Can Be Found in Syria and Iraq."

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and author of the forthcoming book America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, is more pessimistic about what the U.S. or France can do to defeat Islamic extremism. In this Boston Globe op-ed--"A War the West Cannot Win"--Bacevich argues for a defensive posture that leaves those in the Middle East to sort out their political and religious differences without external involvement. 

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, takes the rhetoric about the response to the Paris attacks down several notches in an essay--"Don't Give ISIS What It Wants"--for FP. Walt argues that ISIS has a long-term strategy and that the first priority of the U.S. should be "not to fall into the obvious trap the Islamic State has set." That was my point in yesterday's post.

Daniel Drezner, professor of international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, also urges everyone to "take a deep breath" before acting in the wake of the Paris attacks. His comments on the Washington Post's "PostEverything" blog--"Formulating a Policy Response in Anger Is Probably Not the Best Way to Defeat the Islamic State"--remind us that, among other things, "the Islamic State is not winning in the Middle East."

Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and author of Globalized Islam and Holy Ignorance, offers a helpful overview of the many conflicting state interests in the Middle East in this op-ed for the New York Times titled "The Attacks in Paris Reveal the Strategic Limits of ISIS." One cannot read this piece and come away believing there are simple solutions to the conflict in Syria or the broader problems of the Middle East.

In offering this reading list, I am not endorsing all of the views expressed by these individuals. In fact, one couldn't coherently endorse everything each one says for the simple reason that there are some clear differences of opinion among them. I am suggesting, however, that these brief essays--none will take more than about five minutes to read--are better informed and more carefully reasoned than most of what you will get from the twenty-four hour news networks, the vast wastelands of the Internet just on the other side of click bait, or your Facebook friend Earl who has strong opinions about everything.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Chess Lessons

Experienced chess players understand gambits. Politicians should, too.

What, exactly, is a gambit? In chess, it's an opening--a sequence of moves at the beginning of a game--designed to entice the opponent to make a move that will leave her in a weakened position. Typically, a gambit involves leaving a pawn vulnerable to capture, but in a location on the board that requires the opponent to cede control of the center squares or to make some other tactical concession. A gambit, in other words, involves baiting a trap and waiting for the opponent to walk right into it.

Terrorist attacks should generally be understood as gambits. They are intended to provoke a particular response that the terrorists believe will benefit them, at least in the long run. The response the terrorists desire is probably the one that, for the victim and the wider audience, is the easiest to rationalize and the hardest to resist. As a rule of thumb, if you don't know what the terrorists are trying to goad you into doing, you might be better off not doing anything rather than choosing to follow your gut.

So, what is it that the Islamic State might want? Let's start with an even bigger conflict in the Middle East--one that draws in a variety of powers that are distrustful of one another. Let's add a more visible presence of French, U.S., and Russian military forces. And then let's add an end to the open door for Syrian refugees.

Why might the Islamic State want these things? Because its appeal is based on two things: first, its ability to provide better governance than the weak and corrupt governments of Iraq, Syria, Libya, or parts of Egypt, and, second, its ability to present itself as the best defender of Islam against an implacably hostile West.

Those who have reflexively called for widening the war in Syria and Iraq on the one hand while excluding Syrian refugees from the United States and Western Europe on the other might do well to learn something about gambits.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Urbanization of Insecurity

Tonight Paris has been the scene of an unspeakable atrocity. As President Obama said just a few hours ago, "This is an attack not just on Paris, it's an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share." It is also, once again, an attack on a city--one in a growing list of examples of the urbanization of insecurity.

Cities have long been subject to attack. The burning of Washington in 1814 and the destruction of Atlanta in 1864 provide examples familiar to Americans. But prior to the twentieth century, cities were generally targeted at or near the end of a successful military campaign; they were not generally attacked as a desperate tactic of the weak in an attempt to turn the tables on the strong. Urban terrorism, like the aerial bombardment of cities that preceded it (also called "terrorism" by those who experienced it), is a form of asymmetric warfare--a mode of attack that avoids the adversary's strengths and zeroes in on its vulnerabilities, even if such a mode of attack is considered barbaric or "an attack on . . . the universal values that we share."

Consider the pattern that has emerged in recent years.

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, appeared to present a new form of terrorism. After all, roughly nine times more people died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 than had died in the January 1985 Air India bombing over the Irish Sea, which had previously been the deadliest terrorist attack in history. What made the 9/11 attacks different from the many terrorist attacks that had gone before were their sophistication and their manifest intent to kill as many people as possible. But there were precursors to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The unsuccessful effort in 1993 to bring down the World Trade Center in retrospect appears to have been a harbinger of things to come. It was an attack intended to inflict mass casualties, as was the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo attack in Tokyo. In the latter case, an apocalyptic Japanese cult calling itself Supreme Truth attempted to spread sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system. The attack, motivated by the group's belief that it was destined to rule Japan, was preceded by a multimillion-dollar effort to manufacture and test biological weapons. Ten times between 1990 and 1995, Aum Shinrikyo attempted to spread biological agents in and around Tokyo. For various reasons (some illustrating the difficulty of working with biological weapons), not a single person was killed in any of these attacks. Consequently, Aum Shinrikyo turned its attention to chemical weapons. In the Tokyo subway attack, twelve people were killed and over a thousand were injured. Still more experienced some form of severe psychological trauma.

An incident similar to the deadliest part of tonight's attack in Paris occurred in Moscow in October of 2002 when fifty Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater during a performance, taking approximately 700 hostages. The terrorists, who wired themselves and the building with explosives, demanded that Russia end its war against separatists in Chechnya. At least 129 people died in the theater, most from a toxic gas Russian forces pumped into the building prior to the raid that brought the ordeal to a conclusion.

On the morning of March 11, 2004, ten bombs exploded on commuter trains in downtown Madrid. The detonation of the bombs was a coordinated effort, with all ten exploding within minutes of 8:00 a.m. In addition to the ten bombs that exploded, police located and safely detonated three other bombs. After the attack, it was determined that 191 people died and approximately 1,800 people were injured in the blasts. Initially, the attack was thought to be the work of the Basque separatist group ETA, but it was later found that Islamic extremists, inspired by an al Qaeda call for attacks on Spain, were responsible.

A little over a year later, on July 7, 2005, three bombs exploded in the London Underground while a fourth bomb exploded on one of the city’s iconic red double-decker buses. These explosions all occurred at the height of the city’s morning rush hour, effectively bringing the city to a standstill while rescue crews rushed to help those trapped both above and below ground. After extensive rescue efforts and searches, the final count was fifty-two people dead and more than 950 injured. The attacks, suicide bombings executed by four British men, all of whom had no known terrorist background or affiliation, highlighted the danger cities face not only from foreigners but from their own citizens as well.

On November 26, 2008, the Pakistan-based terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba launched a brutal and carefully planned attack on multiple locations in Mumbai, India. The attack spanned three days as ten gunmen indiscriminately killed Indians and foreigners alike in highly populated areas, including a hospital, a Jewish center, a cafĂ©, and two hotels. The attackers, all well prepared, continually eluded capture by Indian police and counter-terrorism units. Indeed, in the aftermath of the attacks, there was much controversy over how ten gunmen could cause so much destruction and fight off Indian forces for three days within a single city. Overall, 164 were killed and 308 were injured.

What these cases tell us is that cities are vulnerable--and thus are tempting targets for extremists. While an effective response by well-prepared police or military units can mitigate the impact of urban terrorism, there seems to be little that can be done to prevent attacks like those that have occurred in Paris, Mumbai, London, Madrid, Moscow, and other cities. Governments seeking answers where there are few to be found are likely to use more military force abroad and more electronic surveillance at home. And they will face pressure from their most reactionary citizens to turn away refugees, notwithstanding the fact that refugees, far from being the problem, are themselves fleeing terrorists.

The world's most vibrant and prosperous cities are places of great diversity with the tolerance needed to match and nurture it. They are threatened most by intolerance, whether homegrown in the form of racist policemen or imported in the form of religious extremists. Unfortunately, the very qualities--diversity and tolerance--that make a city like Paris so attractive are also the ones that make it so vulnerable. And this fact, I fear, leaves us little to work with in trying to address the urbanization of insecurity.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Saints . . . and Sinners

In many of the churches of Western Christendom, yesterday was All Saints' Day, or the Feast of All Saints, a day set aside to remember those who have died in Christ. It is ironic, then, that word of Willis Carto's death came yesterday. And it may be perplexing that I would break a long (unintentional) silence on this blog to note his passing. But to note his passing is not to mourn it.

Six months ago, I would not have known who Willis Carto was. But in the course of conducting research at the Reagan Library on the ratification of the Genocide Convention, Heather Odell and I came across a large number of letters sent to the White House (primarily in April 1985) to express opposition to U.S. ratification of the 1948 treaty that defines genocide and obligates states to prevent and punish its commission.

The letters came mostly from people who were members of or were influenced by a right-wing organization called the Liberty Lobby. Willis Carto founded the Liberty Lobby in 1958 as a means of promoting his extremist views. According to his obituary in the New York Times, "Mr. Carto raised funds to finance a right-wing military dictatorship in the United States, campaigned to persuade blacks to voluntarily return to Africa and, most influentially, started newsletters, a journal and conferences of academics and others to deny the scale, and even the existence, of the Holocaust." It is not hard to understand why his organization would have campaigned against ratification of the Genocide Convention. What is hard to understand is why so many Americans would have joined the campaign--the Times notes that there were 400,000 people on the Liberty Lobby's mailing list in the 1980s--and why eleven Republicans in the Senate would have opposed ratification to the bitter end.

Carto's views were, according to his friend Louis T. Byers, "those of a racial nationalist." He magnified his influence by keeping himself and his views out of the limelight and enlisting supporters through appeals to the Constitution (the Genocide Convention would supposedly require the U.S. to turn over its citizens to a World Court in violation of their constitutional rights), to historical objectivity (Carto's Institute for Historical Review and its journal published "scholarly" articles that questioned the accuracy of existing research on the Holocaust), and to American exceptionalism (the Liberty Lobby suggested over and over that America's greatness would be undermined by any form of obeisance to international law). Without understanding the larger narrative represented by the Liberty Lobby and the Institute for Historical Review, many Americans lent their names to Carto's worldview. The same sort of thing happens today when people argue that dominant groups--not racial minorities or women or the poor--are the primary victims of discrimination or that climate change is not happening because there was a harsh winter or, on the basis of a headline or two, that immigration endangers our society.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that support for racist organizations is always and only a product of ignorance regarding the larger narrative. After all, there are racists among us and, if we are honest with ourselves, we each harbor our own evil impulses. Carto's life should remind us of what evil impulses look like when given full expression. His obituary is repulsive. But the history of the Liberty Lobby and the Genocide Convention should also remind us that "principled opposition"--to civil rights, to help for refugees, to the right to health care, to conservation of the Earth--may sometimes be, in reality, nothing more than a rationalization of evil.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Deadly Air

Wednesday's catastrophic explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin are, understandably, attracting greater attention at present, but new research suggests that day-to-day air quality is a far greater threat to human life than random events like the Tianjin disaster.

A statistical analysis by researchers at Berkeley Earth asserts that air pollution in China is responsible for somewhere between 700,000 and 2,200,000 deaths each year. The midpoint of the estimate--1,600,000 deaths per year--translates to 4,400 deaths per day.

The paper, based on detailed records of air-sampling stations in China and neighboring countries combined with World Health Organization frameworks for estimating mortality associated with the diseases most commonly linked to air pollution, is scheduled to be published in PLOS One on August 20. PLOS One is an online, open-access, peer-reviewed science journal that publishes about 30,000 papers per year.

The Berkeley Earth research suggests that much of Beijing's famed air pollution is produced 200 miles away in the industrial areas of Hebei Province. This means that local efforts to mitigate air pollution in advance of the 2022 Winter Olympics will likely be inadequate in the absence of measures addressing the pollution generated by more distant coal-fired power plants.

More on the Berkeley Earth findings, including maps and data sources, can be found here. The study to be published in PLOS One is available here (PDF).

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Deterring Cyber Attacks

The New York Times reports today that President Obama has been weighing a variety of possible responses to the intrusion into Office of Personnel Management computers that was first reported in June. The hack, which has been attributed to China, resulted in the theft of personal information for over twenty million federal employees. Although CIA data was not involved in the breach, some of the information collected may have allowed the Chinese to determine the identity of spies posted to China in the past.

One of the considerations involved in the Obama administration's deliberations--and apparently the reason that certain administration officials were willing to talk to a reporter about ongoing discussions--is the desire to achieve a measure of deterrence by imposing costs on the attackers that are clearly tied to the initial data breach. James R. Clapper, Jr., director of national intelligence, and Admiral Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, have both argued that Chinese cyber attacks will keep escalating as long as the United States fails to impose costs on China for the attacks. On the other hand, there is a concern that retaliation, if not carefully calibrated, might prompt escalation rather than restraint.

According to the Times article, the idea of economic sanctions against China has been considered and rejected due to the potential for costly Chinese retaliation against U.S. economic interests. Additionally, the idea of criminal prosecution has apparently been rejected due to the scope and nature of the OPM breach. A recent Congressional Research Service report notes that U.S. policy regarding cyber espionage attempts to distinguish between breaches that involve national security and those that are concerned with economic interests. The former draw a counterintelligence response while the latter are potential subjects for criminal prosecution.

Two years ago, at a "shirt sleeves summit" in Rancho Mirage, California, President Obama tried but failed to get his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to agree to a framework for the regulation of activities in cyberspace. If the U.S.-Soviet nuclear relationship provides any guidance--and it's not entirely clear that it does--a sense of mutual vulnerability may be necessary to bring the United States and China to the point of being able to cooperate on cyber arms control.

Friday, July 24, 2015

What's the Message?

The recent New York Times article on the Islamic State that I discussed in this post is accompanied by a photo that is said to be from "a militant website." Here's the photo:

Precisely in the center of the photo is a boy wearing a blue shirt. It appears to be a polo shirt, although it's possible it's a T-shirt over a polo shirt. The real mystery associated with the shirt, however, concerns its message: What's the message and was it intentional?

Here's what can be read on the shirt:

. . . IGHT

The AC-130 is a modified C-130 flown by the U.S. Air Force to provide air support for ground units. Its side-mounted weapons have been used to devastating effect in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya, mostly against suspected insurgents and terrorists on foot and in vehicles. Some have called for AC-130s to be used against Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq, but its vulnerability to anti-aircraft fire (the reason for the flares being deployed in the photo below) and the fact that it is used in conjunction with troops on the ground who direct its operations have militated against deployment against ISIS.

But, getting back to the shirt: Was it printed up and distributed by the Islamic State? Is this why the boy wearing it seems almost to be posed in the center of the photo? Is there another photo where this one came from that displays the full message? And, again, what's the message?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Rethinking the Islamic State

On Tuesday, the New York Times ran a story on the evolution of the Islamic State. While it might be better to characterize what has been happening as an evolution in Western thinking about the Islamic State, a point that the story (if not the headline) attempts to make, there is some useful information to be gleaned from the pastiche of interviews and expert analyses presented in Tim Arango's narrative.

First, individuals living in areas controlled by the Islamic State and experts on the region make the point that the Islamic State, while extremely repressive, has brought a measure of stability to parts of Iraq and Syria that have long been in turmoil. This stability is, at least to some extent, due to the elimination of the corruption that existed under the region's dictators and, all too often, its supposed liberators as well. As a man from Raqqa put it, "You can travel from Raqqa to Mosul, and no one will dare to stop you even if you carry $1 million." Sadly, neither the forces favored by the West in Syria nor the governments that succeeded Saddam Hussein in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan have been convinced that good governance--clean governance--is essential to the state-building enterprise. This seems to be something that the Islamic State, for all of its horrors, understands.

Second, three of the experts quoted in the article--Harvard's Stephen Walt, the Brookings Institution's William McCants, and former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin--find parallels between the violence of the Islamic State and that of revolutionary France, Bolshevik Russia, Maoist China, and some other modern states. If these parallels are meaningful--and I would argue that they are--then Western discourse needs to abandon the rhetoric of fighting terrorism where the Islamic State is concerned, unless those using that rhetoric intend "terrorism" to mean what it did when the term was coined in connection with the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. A state that conducts beheadings--whether with a guillotine or a sword--should be condemned, but we misconstrue what is happening if we call the beheadings acts of terrorism while using that term in its modern sense.

A few weeks ago, while working on the third edition of Seeking Security in an Insecure World, I wrote the following about the Islamic State for the section of the book that deals with failed states:
At the heart of the Peace of Westphalia was an agreement to eliminate religion as a reason for warfare by establishing a rule of mutual tolerance among (if not within) states. Both the Holy Roman Empire’s bid to subdue Protestant principalities and the effort of Protestant rulers to extend their control to Catholic territories were delegitimized by their joint acceptance of a principle encapsulated in the Latin phrase cuius regio eius religio (the ruler of the territory determines the religion practiced in it). While religious differences have factored into conflicts many times in the Westphalian era, now the basic principle is being threatened. 
The Islamic State--also called the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham (the term for Syria in classical Arabic) or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)--has capitalized on state failure to inject into the modern world a distinctively pre-modern understanding of the way religion and the state are to interact. On June 29, 2014, the Islamic State publicly proclaimed a caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the first caliph since the days of the Ottoman Empire. It is a theocratic state that considers itself unbound by the Westphalian principle of sovereignty with its corollaries of non-aggression and non-intervention. In fact, the formation of the caliphate signaled the Islamic State’s intent to pursue a policy of expansion that would, according to prophecies in the Qur’an, lead to the Day of Judgment with its divinely foreordained apocalypse. For Muslims who subscribe to the most literal reading of the Qur’an, the establishment of the caliphate was a pivotal event; thousands began traveling from all over the world to the lands controlled by the Islamic State to lend their support to its efforts, military and political, to impose divine judgment on both Muslim and non-Muslim apostates. 
By the middle of 2015, and in spite of armed opposition on the ground supported by American and British airstrikes, the Islamic State controlled a swath of territory roughly equivalent to the size of the British Isles with a population estimated at six to eight million. Its territory, primarily in the most ineffectively governed regions of Iraq and most war-torn parts of Syria, demonstrates well the hazards posed by failed states and the tendency for conditions in them to threaten other states. To be clear, in the territories it controls the Islamic State exercises many of the functions associated with modern states. It enforces law, collects taxes, maintains both military and police forces, and even seeks to build alliances with like-minded organizations. (In March 2015, Boko Haram offered--and the Islamic State accepted--a pledge of allegiance that, in theory, extends the caliphate to West Africa.) In many respects, the Islamic State exercises more effective control over the territories it occupies than the states it has displaced did. However, the Islamic State does not have, and will likely never obtain, the recognition of other states. It exists as a quasi-state (due to the absence of the critical element of recognition) only because the recognized states whose territory it occupies are themselves quasi-states (due to their inability to exercise effective control). Nation-building, therefore, appears as an essential element of any strategy to defeat ISIS, a point recognized by President Obama in his pledge at the June 2015 G-7 meeting in Germany to accelerate efforts to train the Iraqi army to fight Islamic State units.
In working on a book that deals with contemporary issues, there is a constant concern that the period between writing and publication will witness changes that render even the most careful analyses obsolete. Our powers of prediction in international politics are severely limited. In this instance, however, I suspect the Islamic State will still be around next spring when the new edition of Seeking Security appears. It will likely be looking more and more like a "real" state. And some in the West will probably still be trying to figure out why it doesn't really make sense to call it a terrorist organization.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Seventy Years and Counting

The Atomic Age began seventy years ago today. On July 16, 1945, in a part of New Mexico that the Spanish explorers had called the Jornada del Muerto, a nuclear device was detonated for the first time, demonstrating the viability of bombs fueled by nuclear fission.

It was a portentous moment. Exhausted scientists and technicians, having worked feverishly for months with little time off, were on edge. The weather--unsettled, with thunder and lighting perilously close to "the Gadget"--contributed to the tension. Even Enrico Fermi's attempt at humor--he was taking wagers from other physicists on whether the atomic bomb might detonate the atmosphere and, if so, whether New Mexico only or the entire world might be destroyed--rubbed many people the wrong way.

Away from the McDonald Ranch where the device and the measuring instruments were being readied, many other important things were happening. The U.S. Government's Interim Committee was finalizing plans for the first use of nuclear weapons against Japan. President Truman was en route to Germany where he would meet with Stalin and Churchill and Churchill's successor, Clement Attlee, at the Potsdam Conference, ready to talk tough in the knowledge that the U.S. possessed "the winning weapon." In Washington, London, Moscow, and other capitals governments were trying to determine what could be expected from the new organization created by the United Nations Charter that had been signed just weeks earlier in San Francisco. Ongoing preparations for war crimes trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo were laying the groundwork for a renewal of international humanitarian law. All of these things would have an impact on the way nuclear weapons would be regarded. And the very existence of nuclear weapons--for the last seventy years and counting--would profoundly affect these things, from U.S.-Soviet/Russian relations, to the functioning of the United Nations, to the character of the laws of armed conflict, to views on terrorism and transnational organized crime and failed states, to the evolution of economic sanctions.

"The Gadget" worked--and we are different because of that.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


One hundred years ago, on April 22, 1915, German troops near the village of Gravenstafel along the Ypres Salient in Belgium released 170 tons of chlorine gas in an attack against the trenches occupied by French forces including units from Morocco and Algeria. The gas was released from canisters along the German line and allowed to drift with the wind toward the French line where it settled into the trenches. Soldiers scrambling out of the trenches to escape asphyxiation were hit with a withering fusillade from the Germans.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1919)
The French and colonial forces suffered approximately 6,000 casualties with many of the wounded being blinded and suffering serious lung damage. A four-mile wide gap in the defensive line was opened up by the attack, but the Germans were unprepared to exploit it fully.

Adam Hochschild's description of the attack in To End All Wars (pp. 140-41) is worth quoting at some length:
On April 22, 1915, near the battered city of Ypres, French soldiers and troops from French colonies in North Africa noticed a strange, greenish yellow mist billowing out of the German positions and blowing toward them in the wind. An unfamiliar smell filled the air. When the acrid cloud reached them, it was so thick that they couldn't see more than a few feet. Soldiers quickly found themselves gagging and choking, yellow mucus frothing out of their mouths. Hundreds fell to the ground in convulsions. Those who could still breathe fled, staggering into first-aid posts blue from suffocation and coughing blood, speechless but pointing desperately to their throats. In the next few days, Canadian troops fell victim as well. Whatever this mysterious cloud might be, it was heavier than air and sank into the trenches, hugging the earth and forcing soldiers to stick their heads out into a hail of bullets. "The chaps were all gasping and couldn't breathe," a sergeant remembered later. "And it was ghastly, especially for chaps that were wounded--terrible for a wounded man to lie there! The gasping, the gasping!"
The spring leaves just coming out on the trees shriveled; grass turned yellow and metal green. Birds fell from the air, and chickens, pigs, cows, and horses writhed in agony and died, their bodies rotting and bloating. The ever-fatter rats that normally swarmed through the trenches, keeping men awake by running over them in the dark on the way to feast on soldiers' corpses, themselves died by the thousands.
This was the first widespread use of poison gas--chlorine--on the Western Front. Deadly and painful as it could be, later forms of gas would be still worse. Like so much else about the war, chlorine was the product of an industrial economy, in this case made by a complex of eight large chemical firms in Germany's Ruhr region known as the IG cartel. Chlorine and its compounds had a long history in manufacturing, but its new use in warfare was an ominous landmark, seeming to open up a range of horrifying possibilities that had previously existed only in the realm of early science fiction.
Chastened by the experience of World War I in which even the Allied Powers eventually deployed chemicals, the international community attempted to close off the "range of horrifying possibilities." In 1925, the Geneva Protocol was adopted to ban the use of chemical and biological weapons in international conflicts. Significant gaps in the coverage of the Geneva Protocol were closed with the adoption in 1993 of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), to which 190 states are party. The CWC prohibits not only the use but the manufacture and stockpiling of chemical weapons.

Credible evidence indicates that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons--including chlorine gas--with devastating effects on civilians in recent attacks conducted in violation of Syria's obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and UN Security Council Resolution 2118 (2013). Acting on the basis of findings by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Security Council, on March 6, 2015, adopted Resolution 2209 threatening enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in the event of further use of chemical weapons.

It seems unlikely that the Security Council will be able to back up its threat to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons given the continued intransigence of Russia and China on matters related to Syria's civil war. However, both states voted for Resolution 2209. Both are also paying a diplomatic price for their grossly immoral position.