Interventionism Run Amok

Obama has just declared preventing mass atrocities to be a "core national security interest" of the United States. Americans, watch your wallets.

August is already shaping up to be a historically bad month for America's global standing. After barely avoiding an international economic crisis over its unsustainable debt, the United States had its credit rating downgraded for the first time in history. On Aug. 6, 30 U.S. troops were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, the single largest loss of American life during the longest war in U.S. history. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has taken steps to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the course of the conflict in Libya suggests little appetite for the use of ground forces in foreign interventions. Thus a recent announcement by the administration, which added yet another item to America's national security to-do list, seemed odd.

Last Thursday, Aug. 4, the White House released the Presidential Study Directive (PSD) on Mass Atrocities (PSDs are used to initiate policy reviews and direct organizational and other activities by government agencies). The new directive's opening line declares, "Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States." Ornamented with the obligatory Beltway platitudes (another "whole of government" approach is needed here, naturally), the directive establishes an interagency "Atrocities Prevention Board" and directs an interagency study to, among other things, help define and develop the board.

No one would dispute the desirability of averting genocide. But the release of this directive, its ambitious opener, and the broader initiative are all strangely discordant with current realities. It appears to be part of a larger trend to make humanitarian intervention a national security priority. Such a move at this moment in history, while perhaps morally commendable, seems strategically quixotic.

Not only is the timing strange, but there are at least three more specific problems with the administration's initiative.

First, it raises questions about how to properly describe conflicts and whether senior leaders can or should develop policy prescriptions in the abstract by conflict type. The directive declares, "Sixty six years since the Holocaust and 17 years after Rwanda, the United States still lacks a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism for preventing and responding to mass atrocities and genocide." But this would seem to apply equally to other forms of internal conflict, such as civil wars, to say nothing of a host of other global problems that Washington is unprepared to combat. Does the United States need to develop a specific "comprehensive policy framework" (whatever that is) and "interagency mechanism" for preventing and responding to all varieties of conflict?

Categorizing conflict is a useful way of studying the past; it allows for the development of doctrine, and because each conflict is not totally unique, history has much to tell us. But classifying conflict can also obscure more than it reveals. Often, classification schemes are the product of reflexive historical analogies, intellectual fads (remember "peace operations"?) and, above all, political considerations. These categories can be woefully misleading for a present or future reality that resists simple labels. Often, as in Iraq, multiple conflicts are occurring simultaneously. And history shows that most genocide is an outgrowth of civil war.  

To name a phenomenon is not necessarily to understand it. Naming can narrow the lens through which a conflict is understood, drain away its political complexity and historical particulars, and lead to cookbook answers. This is a particular risk when one cookbook exists (e.g., for mass atrocities) and another does not (say, for civil war). The old cliché is apt: When you have a hammer, all problems start to look like a nail. In 2006, respected analysts concluded that Iraq was not experiencing a classic insurgency but rather a communal war. It is more than a happy coincidence that the consensus on this question utterly reversed after the publication of the Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual at the end of that year.

More troubling, Obama's proposed approach to conflict prevention and resolution risks putting technique before strategy. The focus on "how" the United States will respond to a particular type of conflict could obscure the questions that should come first: whether, to what ends, and at what cost the United States should act. Should not America's strategic interests, which would inevitably depend on the situation, first and foremost determine policy?

This leads to the second problem with the administration's new initiative: It risks becoming little more than the latest justification for continual U.S. interventionism. The country is entering a difficult period of austerity, and the president has called for a focus on "nation-building here at home." America's real and enduring financial woes are obvious; even China is taking this moment to lecture the United States on its "addiction to debts." A vanishingly small segment of the population has been deployed to two wars for nearly a decade at a cost of more than 6,000 dead, more than 42,000 wounded, and somewhere north of $2 trillion spent. The results of this investment are, at best, mixed. Now seems like a good time for "bringing our foreign policy home."

The third problem with the initiative is that it is likely to produce very little. Interagency study groups, reviews, and boards are a stock in trade of Washington bureaucracy, but increasingly a luxury in light of the government's booming deficits and debt. Taxpayer dollars will be consumed on staff time attending meetings and likely on paying for conferences, outside consultants, and think-tank reports. At a time when there is real talk of cutting benefits to war veterans, it is questionable that this initiative will produce a tangible return on investment.

At best, the likely result of this activity is the appearance that the administration is "doing something" about mass atrocities. At worst, it could become a justification for perpetual American activism, all at the expense of the public, the tiny minority of military service members and their families, and the country's strategic welfare. Here the administration might best heed the advice of historian Walter McDougall, "To preach a crusade is a dangerous thing, for you may just succeed in launching one."

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General Paralysis

A series of blunders have cost the Turkish military its once dominant role in Ankara.

It's not easy being a Turkish general these days. Hounded by a newly emboldened press. Under the constant threat of arrest for coup plotting. Dealing with a government that, unlike its predecessors, seems unafraid of the military.

The unexpected resignation on July 29 of Turkish Chief of Staff Isik Kosaner and the commanders of the army, navy and air force spoke to these accumulated frustrations. The resignations of the four top generals seemed to be prompted by the Aug. 1-Aug. 4, twice-yearly meeting of the Supreme Military Council, which determines military promotions. The military appeared particularly concerned about the fate of 14 generals currently in jail for allegedly plotting a coup who are due for a promotion, but whom Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would like to put out to pasture. In the end, a compromise was worked out between the government and Gen. Necdet Ozel, the new chief of staff, that allows the jailed generals to stay in uniform for another year, but without being promoted.

There is no denying the precipitous decline of the military's influence in Turkish politics. In a country where the previous pattern had been that the top brass forced the politicians out of office by making their lives unbearably miserable, the opposite is true now. But the generals' fall from grace did not happen overnight: The military's latest defeat is the result of a series of blunders and a broader failure to adapt to the changing realities in modern-day Turkey over the past decade.

Since coming into office nearly nine years ago, Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have slowly whittled away the military's power and increased civilian oversight over the previously unaccountable Turkish armed forces. It passed, for example, legislation that allowed for trying military personnel in civilian courts, while the powerful National Security Council, the military's main instrument for political control, was brought under civilian control. Meanwhile, government-friendly newspapers -- especially the liberal Taraf -- seemed to delight in chronicling every one of the lumbering military's stumbles and, more significantly, in exposing a series of plots allegedly cooked up by the Turkish armed forces to topple the government (or at least tarnish its name).

These plot accusations have, in turn, led to a series of high-profile court cases and the arrest of some 250 military personnel, among them several generals and admirals. In fact, only hours before Kosaner and his colleagues submitted their resignations, a Turkish court accepted yet another indictment against the military, this time accusing 22 officers and generals of working to create an online smear campaign against the Islamic-rooted AKP.

In his resignation statement, Kosaner, who wanted to promote his men despite their legal problems, sounded as if he realized he is powerless in countering the forces arrayed against him.

"One purpose of interrogation and long detentions has been to keep the TSK (Turkish Military Forces) on the agenda all the time and so give the impression that (the military) is a criminal organization, and it has not gone unnoticed that the (pro-government) media, which sees this as an opportunity, has published all kinds of false news, smears and accusations to turn our honored nation against the military forces," he said in his statement.

"Because this situation has not been prevented and addresses to the relevant institutions have been ignored, and because it is an obstacle to my protecting the legal rights of my personnel, it has become impossible for me to continue serving in the noble position I occupy."

The AKP and its allies have certainly worked hard to corner the military, especially with the court cases brought against it. But in many ways, Turkey's generals have only themselves to blame for the mess they are in. While Turkey has been undergoing profound changes over the last decade, the military has failed to keep up with those developments, sticking to what it knows best -- an outdated, inefficient and tone-deaf formula -- which led to the steady erosion of public support.

The Turkish top brass's self-inflicted wounds over the last several years range from the churlish, such as the refusal by some generals to shake the hand of President Abdullah Gul's headscarved wife at a state reception, to the deeply damaging, such as the 2007 release of an online statement registering the military's commitment to secularism and its opposition to Gul's candidacy for president. Despite what came to be known as the "e-coup," not only did Gul become president, but the AKP successfully used the incident to portray itself as a victim of military meddling and increased its share of the vote in the parliamentary elections later that year.

Some of the Turkish military's missteps, meanwhile, were the result of shocking negligence. In 2008, for example, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) attacked the Aktutun border outpost, near the Iraqi border, killing 17 Turkish soldiers. Taraf reported that the military failed to respond to images from aerial drones that showed PKK guerrillas preparing to attack, raising troubling questions about whether the military could have done more to prevent the loss of life. The armed forces' reputation was weakened further by the release of photos showing the air force commander, whose services provided backup during the rescue attempt, on vacation playing golf the day of the bloody attack, seemingly oblivious to what had happened. "Resign, My Pasha," read the front-page headline in the popular Vatan newspaper, using the Ottoman term for military generals.

Even in terms of the various court cases against it, which have their strong skeptics, the military has miserably failed to keep up with the times. Take the most famous of these, the Balyoz, or "Sledgehammer" case, in which some 200 officers are accused of hatching a 2003 plot to topple the government. According to the indictment, the scheme included plans for the bombing of Istanbul mosques and the roundup of ideological opponents in sports stadiums. The military retorted that the prosecution's evidence is not part of a coup plan but rather from a simulation of a domestic security crisis. Both sides may be right. Turkish law since 1960 has given the military the malleable imperative to "preserve and protect the Republic of Turkey," and for decades part of the Turkish military's self-declared job description was to stand guard over the country's secular system and be as prepared for domestic threats as it was for external ones. What some see as coup planning the Turkish generals saw as a natural exercise in threat preparedness. What they had disastrously failed to recognize was that this part of their job was no longer critical, but, in today's Turkey, criminal.

The resignation of Kosaner and the other generals shows that the Turkish military is now a tool of state power, rather than the other way around. It's a great victory for Erdogan and the AKP, but it also comes with a heavy burden. By removing what has been described as the greatest roadblock to Turkey's further democratization, the AKP must now prove that it can deliver the democratic goods it has been promising. If it can't, it may find itself forced to find another punching bag.