Would Captain Kirk Intervene in Syria?

What 'Star Trek' teaches us about international relations.

From the early stirrings of modern international law in the mid-1700s, there has been a norm of military non-intervention in others' affairs -- a kind of real-world version of Star Trek's Prime Directive -- but it has been routinely violated. Beginning with Emerich de Vattel's Law of Nations (1758), continuing with John Stuart Mill's "A Few Words About Non-Intervention" (1859), and on to John Vincent's Non-Intervention and International Order (1974), a steady stream of philosophers, scholars, and statesmen have affirmed the right of nations to determine their own fates without foreign militaries coming in to settle their hash. Still, this great weight of logical argument has been overturned again and again by nations keen to intervene and spread their influence, control natural resources, or, possibly more nobly, to "improve" other peoples' lives. As the late Hedley Bull observed back in the 1980s: "[T]he gap between the rule of non-intervention and the facts of intervention [is] now so vast that the former has become a mockery."

In the decades since Professor Bull made his assessment, the United States has been one of the world's leading practitioners of intervention, often prompted by a growing willingness to use force to spread democracy. Even before George W. Bush's military misadventures in the Middle East, Bill Clinton had ratcheted up an aid mission in Somalia into an effort to tip the scales in an ongoing civil war, an intervention that ended badly on the chaotic streets of Mogadishu in 1993. The next year he ordered an invasion of Haiti -- a threat that was good enough on its own to send dictator Raoul Cedras running. Clinton also intervened twice in the Balkans, largely on humanitarian grounds -- both times only with air power, even in that pre-drone era. When it came to Rwanda, though, where nearly a million innocents were hacked to death in a few months, Clinton demurred -- an inaction that he notes in his memoirs is "his greatest regret."

Barack Obama has taken up the cudgels of intervention as well, but with much more subtlety than his immediate predecessors. In Libya, for example, he both cultivated allied participation and limited the American role to combat support. Same with Mali. Even his drone attacks on the sovereign territory of other nations have come at a slow pace -- only a few dozen have been launched this year -- and with much stealth. Now he calls for the removal of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but he has so far limited the notion of intervening to stepped-up support for "good rebels." This is something like the position Ronald Reagan took with regard to arming the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s -- but that action is more properly labeled a "counter-intervention," as there were over 100,000 Russian soldiers occupying Afghanistan at the time. Obama's biggest test will come over Iran, where he could argue that self-defense compels intervention to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation.

The United States has hardly been alone in "making a mockery" of the norm on non-intervention. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided considerable support for wars of national liberation -- often with the assistance of Cuban soldiers, who punched way above their weight on the world stage. These were the sorts of wars that, ironically, the Russians are now opposing by helping to prop up Assad in Syria. After the collapse of the USSR, Russian troops intervened in several of its successor states also, in the so-called "near abroad." But Moscow has seemingly tempered its appetite for intervention and now serves as a leading voice in the United Nations, along with China, against such ventures -- though, assistance to Bashar aside, Russian forces also remain in Abkhazia against the wishes of the Georgian government.

All these actions should prompt us to ask whether the principle of non-intervention should simply be jettisoned. When one looks back at American history, though, there may be at least some support for non-intervention. Yes, Americans must acknowledge that independence from Britain was won in part because of French military intervention. But it was Britain's decision not to intervene in the Civil War -- a choice London made after many stern Russian warnings to stay out of the conflict -- that contributed mightily to the Union prevailing. To these events one must add the clear preference of the founding fathers to avoid wars overseas. Indeed, in the wake of the Revolutionary War, and for some time after, the "standing army" was kept under 1,000 soldiers, most of whom patrolled the frontiers. Foreign intervention was something in which the Founders had little interest.

These sentiments were profoundly felt among the body politic, and American intervention came in World War I only after German U-boats began to wage a particularly savage form of unrestricted submarine warfare. In World War II, the United States stayed out until directly attacked at Pearl Harbor; even then, after the day of infamy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt could get a declaration of war only against Japan. War with Germany had to wait the few days it took for Hitler to declare war on the United States.

The American ethos of non-intervention began to erode during the Cold War, when decisions were all too often taken to intervene in nations where the Russo-American rivalry was being played out. But after the collapse of communism, and even now in these times when there seems little that can stand in the way of American interventionism, cautionary voices are still heard. Ron Paul may have received far too few votes to make a difference in American presidential politics, but his message of non-intervention still resonates deeply throughout the land.

So maybe it's a good idea to hold on to the non-intervention principle. After the debacles American foreign policy has suffered over the past decade, the notion of non-intervention offers important ethical and intellectual handholds for those who would urge caution upon their political and military leaders. The principle also keeps pace with the sense of the vast majority of other nations -- who prefer non-intervention -- which will help to shore up the kind of unity that will prove crucial if progress, prosperity, and peace are to have a chance in the future. Such unity will also be much needed on those (hopefully rare) occasions when intervention is appropriate -- as in keeping another Rwanda-like genocide from ever occurring.

In the world of Star Trek, the Prime Directive served as a check, but not an unthinking ban, on intervention. And so there were many interventions and counter-interventions. My favorite was in the original series, the episode "A Private Little War," when Captain Kirk ordered Scottie to make some flintlock muskets for the bow-hunting hill people of a planet where he had once tarried because the Klingons were arming the other side with these relatively advanced weapons. Kirk intervened, but only after much soul-searching, and in a proportionate way that established a balance of power and at least kept the Prime Directive in mind.

Would that all interventions in our world were undertaken as thoughtfully.        


National Security

Use an Axe, Not a Scalpel

There's no such thing as a surgical strike on a terrorist network.

Remote-controlled weapons, the hot new tools of war, have had the perverse effect of shoring up an old pattern of strategic thought about going after enemy leaders. Wildly popular with the Air Force, there are now more pilots in cubicles than there are in cockpits. Their primary purpose: act swiftly and on the basis of good, timely intelligence to strike with great precision at terrorist leaders. Thus the longstanding strategic concept of counter-leadership targeting -- "decapitation" was the less euphemistic term of an earlier era -- has been revivified. The problem, though, is that when the principal foe is a network, the importance of any individual leader is low because these organizations are capable of a high degree of self-direction. Drones have played key roles in the killing of about 20 of al Qaeda's "No. 3s" over the past decade, but in a network everybody is No. 3.

This focus on taking out the leaders of essentially leaderless networks (that is, interconnected cells that are highly self-organizing and at least semi-autonomous) has led to serious difficulties in the field. For example, many intelligence operatives and military servicemembers who plan and conduct drone operations have found that, all too often, the occasional strike from the sky inflicts damage that the networks can work around and quickly repair. In the meantime, the connections that the killed "leader" had are no longer discernible. Which means, in practical terms, that the slow attrition of drone campaigns, though it may hurt the enemy, does even more harm to the counter-terrorists' store of knowledge about these networks. The more damage done in this slow-paced manner -- there have been just over 400 drone strikes over the past decade, an average of 3-4 per month -- the less is known. This phenomenon is a curious aspect of "netwar" -- the term that my longtime research partner David Ronfeldt and I use to describe how networks fight, and how to fight networks.

If "drone fever" causes difficulties in the field, the problems posed for those in the halls of power are just as serious. Beyond the brief discomfiting of the Obama administration during Senator Rand Paul's filibuster, and the occasional criticism coming from other civil libertarians, the real tragedy of the drones is that this technology has encouraged the pursuit of a terribly wrongheaded national strategy. Drones may make for near-perfect politics in the eyes of the David Axelrods of the world, in that they show toughness to the Right and circumspection about loss of life to the Left, but focusing their use against terrorist "leadership" has proved counterproductive in the long fight against terrorism. Shortly before leaving office, Leon Panetta reaffirmed the traditional view when he said that loss of leaders had put al Qaeda "on the verge of strategic defeat." This is outmoded thinking. One need only look to the many fronts on which al Qaeda is operating today -- even in Iraq, where we are gone, the terrorists are back, and the country is burning -- to see that the global war on terror has morphed into terror's war on the world. If one side is closer to "strategic defeat" after a decade of this first great war between nations and networks, it is the nations. Networks are simply not dependent on a few key leaders -- as even the death of Osama bin Laden has shown.

The plight of nations today is not entirely the byproduct of drones having revived counter-leadership targeting -- but remotely piloted vehicles have indeed made it easier to hit more and think less. Still, judgment must not be passed on the technology itself, but rather on the manner in which it has been used to date. It is not at all uncommon to see the use of new weapons shaped by old habits of mind. For example, the French army in 1940 had more, and more heavily armored, tanks than the Germans, but sprinkled them around fairly evenly among all their field divisions. The Germans, on the other hand, saw new possibilities in the new weapon, and concentrated their panzers in a handful of divisions directed at a few key points -- and won a great, swift victory.

The challenge today is to think beyond using new tools in old ways, to break through to new strategies and concepts of operations made possible by the rise of remotely piloted vehicles. For David Ronfeldt and me, this means operating in concentrated bursts of action, striking networks not at a single "decisive point" -- they don't have such -- but rather at several points at once -- what we call "swarming." Far better to go after al Qaeda by doing a lot more surveillance, for longer periods, prior to attacking. Then, when the network node or cell has been sufficiently illuminated, it can be eliminated in a series of simultaneous strikes that give the enemy little or no chance to hide or flee.

Peter Singer, the great expert on many different advanced weapons technologies, notes in his Wired for War that the Pentagon is indeed looking closely at swarm tactics -- which could augur well for a possible future shift in "drone control" from CIA to the military. But the Pentagon's interest in swarms, so far, has focused on use of this tactic by entirely autonomous robotic systems. That is, by those least likely to be set loose on their own, at least not anytime soon. The point is that, at present, we don't trust robots to swarm. But humans can, so why not encourage them to operate in this manner?

Beyond the long twilight struggle against terrorist networks, it is important to begin thinking about the use of all sorts of drones in other conflict settings. It is possible, for example, to build fighter aircraft that can turn at angles beyond the human body's tolerance. How about creating new squadrons that mix aircraft piloted by humans with high-performance vehicles that are controlled remotely, and one day mixing in some robots into the squadrons as well? In naval affairs, should we really be building yet another generation of costly, increasingly vulnerable aircraft carriers? Or coastal combat vessels intended to fight at eyeball range, but built with aluminum superstructures that will burn to the waterline when hit by a missile? Far better to send a fleet of swift, remote-controlled light craft laden with explosives into harm's way. Indeed, kamikaze drones may fundamentally reshape naval strategy and tactics in the years ahead.

In short, there is a world of opportunity opening up thanks to the rise of remote-controlled weapons systems, but the principal beneficiaries of these advances will be the ones who figure out that the new tools call for new practices. To use breakthrough technologies as a means of shoring up old patterns of thought and action is to court disaster -- in the war against the terrorists and in other conflicts to come.  

Alan Gragg/DVIDS