The No-Plan Zone

Modest measures to aid the Syrian rebels won't topple Assad. And despite protestations, even Washington's hawks don't want to go further.

Last week, the Daily Beast published an "exclusive" news story supported by comments from two anonymous administration officials: "Obama Asks Pentagon for Syria No-Fly Zone Plan." The newsworthiness and hype surrounding such reporting was puzzling given that the military's operational plans for a no-fly zone (NFZ) in Syria were completed many months ago and have been refined as new information has become available. Of course, versions of these plans have also been briefed in detail to the White House on multiple occasions. Soon after the Daily Beast story ran, Pentagon spokesperson Dave Lapan felt compelled to declare: "There is no new planning effort underway." This failed effort to plant a story about White House interest in NFZ options for Syria is perhaps the most perfunctory effort ever to coerce a foreign leader -- in this case, Bashar al-Assad, before the forthcoming diplomatic discussions in Geneva.

The Obama administration's leaks should not be surprising -- they are representative of the theatrical and half-hearted nature of America's debate over military intervention in Syria. On March 27, 2011, just one week after a U.S.-led coalition began selectively enforcing an NFZ over Libya, then-Senator Joseph Lieberman endorsed a similar measure for Syria, in case Assad "turns his weapons on his people and begins to slaughter them, as Qaddafi did." Over the subsequent 27 months, every plausible military tactic and mission has been exhaustively analyzed and deliberated by policymakers, active-duty and retired military officials, pundits (including myself), journalists, and others.

Civilian officials have requested a range of military options, the Pentagon's planning process has responded, congressional committees have held multiple hearings, the media has covered the unfolding fighting in and around Syria, and interested commentators have offered their opinions.

Seven months ago, State Department spokesperson Toria Nuland told reporters: "On the no-fly zone itself, you know that we've been saying for quite a while we continue to study whether that makes sense, how it might work." As those "studies" have continued, the American people have been polled repeatedly to gauge their opinion -- the latest two polls demonstrate that less than a quarter of Americans think the U.S. military should intervene in Syria.

At this point, it is safe to say that -- short of definitive evidence of large-scale regime-directed chemical weapons use, or threats to Turkey, a U.S. treaty ally -- it is highly unlikely that the United States will intervene militarily in Syria's civil war. There are many reasons for this, including an American populace exhausted with nearly a dozen years of continuous warfare, senior military officials deeply opposed to an open-ended mission while still fighting in Afghanistan and confronting the threat of Islamic militants regrouping in southwest Libya, and a president who adheres to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's semi-serious dictum: "Every administration gets one preemptive war against a Muslim country."

However, the most significant explanation of America's unwillingness to attack Syria is that the level of military force that officials and policymakers are willing to employ would not materially change the outcome of the civil war. The threshold of force that would have to be used -- as well as the sheer numbers of advanced, lethal weapons that would have to be supplied to the armed opposition -- to assure the toppling of Assad, will not be forthcoming. The course and outcome of Syria's civil war is simply not that important of a national interest for the United States to take the lead and catalyze a military coalition or weapons-supplying role.

Even the most prominent and vocal advocate of intervention, Sen. John McCain, has proposed military options that would be wholly insufficient to defeat the Syrian Army, associated paramilitary forces, and foreign fighters. McCain has repeatedly emphasized that no U.S. ground troops should be committed to this effort, declaring in April: "The worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground in Syria." On Sunday, he also endorsed a NFZ and a "safe zone," but added: "We don't have to risk our pilots... I would not send U.S.-manned aircraft over Syria." McCain said that these zones could be enforced with Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, though Turkish officials have told their American counterparts that they do not support the use of the missiles or their sovereign territory to enforce a NFZ.

Sen. McCain also stated on Sunday: "I would use stand-off cruise missiles to crater the runways." For the tepid interventionist, cratering runways has always been a leading tactic to recommend -- somewhere below drone strikes, but above NFZs. What is problematic for McCain's phrasing is that the U.S. military cannot effectively crater a runway with cruise missiles, which Air Force weaponeers often deride as "ground scrapers." It is a military mission that uses many manned aircraft to release runway-penetrating weapons at a low altitude. The November 1994 NATO raid on the Serbian-held airfield in Ubdina, Croatia lasted 45 minutes, and required a force package of 39 aircraft to drop 80 gravity bombs and make five "major craters." Within two weeks, the Ubdina airfield was repaired and working again. While aerial munitions have advanced markedly in the past decades, the principles of physics and military logistics would still require manned aircraft to conduct this proposed mission in Syria.

When it comes to enhancing the lethality of the Syrian rebels -- beyond deciding who receives the weapons, or wondering where they go after Assad falls -- intervention advocates are also unwilling to provide the advanced weapons that could tip the battlefield in their favor. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, has introduced legislation that would permit a range of lethal and non-lethal support to "properly vetted" opposition members, but "no man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) will be transferred as part of the assistance." Meanwhile, former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter has proposed: "The key condition for all such assistance, inside or outside Syria, is that it be used defensively -- only to stop attacks by the Syrian military." Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed arming unified rebel groups "with defensive weapons," while Truman National Security Project president Rachel Kleinfeld proposed sending "antitank weaponry calibrated to pierce lower-grade Syrian armor, not higher-level Israeli, NATO, and U.S. tanks." I am not aware of a definitive categorization for "defensive" battlefield weapons, but providing them while withholding the MANPADS that the rebels demand does not increase the likelihood of a march on Damascus to end Assad's rule.

Syria intervention advocates rarely describe how modest military options or defensive weapons transfers would plausibly achieve some strategic objective -- which is almost never articulated. Rather, the goal of intervention is to "do something," while limiting America's exposure -- in troops, treasure, and reputation -- to the outcome. The U.S. military is exceptional at planning and conducting regime change campaigns, and the CIA could ensure that the rebels were supplied with the advanced offensive weapons necessary to defeat security forces loyal to the Assad regime. However, most advocates remain unenthusiastic about recommending that President Obama authorize any of the steps that would ensure Assad is removed from power. We are deluding ourselves if we believe that we need more time to "think through" U.S. military intervention options for Syria. We have an excellent understanding of what those options are, and a vast majority of officials, policymakers, and the American people do not believe they are worth the effort.

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National Security

Confront and Confuse

Did Obama's speech actually say anything new about drones?

On Thursday, President Obama gave an exhaustive and wide-ranging speech that attempted to re-frame U.S. counterterrorism objectives, defend his administration's policy choices, and provide guidance for the remainder of his second term. This speech had been promised in Obama's State of the Union address, and it was effectively the culmination of a 16-month effort to selectively engage with -- and shape -- public debate so as to put drone strikes on a more defensible footing.

Obama should be credited for recognizing that targeted killings are controversial among Americans and that discussing their ethical and policy tradeoffs is his responsibility as president. In the speech, he also finally acknowledged what no U.S. government official had ever admitted: that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan predominantly targeted individuals who threatened U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan, not the U.S. homeland. As Obama noted: "By the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we've made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes."

The term "force protection" is defined by the Pentagon as "preventive measures taken to mitigate hostile actions against Department of Defense personnel (to include family members), resources, facilities, and critical information." The force protection objective of Pakistan drone strikes partially explains why their numbers expanded and contracted with the surge and withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Why the Bush and Obama administrations refused to acknowledge, until Thursday, what was plainly evident to anybody who followed this issue, will likely remain an unsolved riddle of the war on terror.

The most anticipated component of the speech was what language Obama would use to describe the individuals that the United States contends it can legitimately target outside of traditional battlefields. As this column has noted repeatedly, trying to intuit U.S. targeted killing policies from the adjectives and phrases used by senior officials has been a wasted effort, since the gap between justification and actual practice has been so wide.

There were a series of pre- and post-speech leaks to influential national security reporters which suggested that Obama would limit drone targets. Two hours before the speech there was also an embargoed conference call with three anonymous administration officials (you can probably guess who they were), which provided some clarity. President Obama also reportedly met with foreign policy columnists after his speech, including Thomas Friedman, David Ignatius, Fred Hiatt, and Gerald Seib.

These sources told us three things:

First, the new classified presidential policy guidance contains a "preference that the United States military have the lead for the use of force...beyond Afghanistan where we are fighting against al-Qaida and its associated forces," according to one official. "The White House plan is for the Defense Department to assume control over all drone operations in less than two years," wrote Mark Mazzetti. In contrast, Greg Miller determined that "Obama's New Drone Policy Leaves Room for CIA Role." On Tuesday, White House correspondent Peter Baker contended that ending CIA drone strikes in Pakistan is not assured, but will be reviewed bi-annually "to determine if it was ready to be moved to military control."

Second, in responding to a question about military versus CIA operations, another anonymous official said that "the targeting parameters for all lethal actions are uniform," which I interpreted to mean that they apply no matter who is the lead executive authority. In January 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that the same legal principles regarding "direct actions" apply to "all components of the government involved in counterterrorism, be it military or nonmilitary."

Third, the new guidelines indicate that targets must present a "continuing, imminent threat to Americans," according to a U.S. official. The New York Times and the Financial Times both wrote that this indicated an end to the controversial practice of "signature strikes" against anonymous military age males whose guilt is determined, in part, by the patterns of their observable behavior. But, on Tuesday, Baker wrote: "For now, officials said, ‘signature strikes' targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas." Meanwhile, Declan Walsh revealed that this year "the United States cut back on so-called signature strikes against clusters of militant suspects." So, who knows?

The problem is that, in his speech, President Obama did not directly address any of those issues, nor are they discussed in the declassified summary of the presidential policy guidance. He also did not speak to the longstanding concern of what procedures are in place to mitigate harm to civilians, stating instead: "Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set." This is merely an assertion, and it raises further questions about how the Obama administration defines "near-certainty" and what lower standard they were following previously.

(Secretary of State John Kerry further confused things days later when he proclaimed: "The only people that we fire on are confirmed terrorist targets, at the highest levels, after a great deal of vetting." One difference between the previous guidance and the new guidance is that there is no longer a mention of "senior al Qaeda officials," which makes the "highest levels" comment puzzling.)

This was supposed to be the speech in which President Obama clarified his targeted killing policies. Instead, he further confused both domestic and international audiences. By comparing it with previous administration officials' comments, Jonathan Landay determined that "Obama's speech appeared to expand those who are targeted in drone strikes." Wall Street Journal reporters came to the opposite conclusion: "The new language is more restrictive than the policy declared in an April 2012 speech by John Brennan, then White House counterterrorism chief."

To quote the rant by former New York Jets football coach Herman Edwards about anonymous comments by his staff: "Just put your name on it. That's all I say. Be a man, or a woman, put your name on it."

This is President Obama's policy. He has authorized over seven times more drone strikes than his predecessor, he is the commander in chief, and he can declassify whatever information he wants. He missed this opportunity to put his name on his drone policies, relying on his senior aides to do it for him -- a common presidential practice. To assure his administration remains the "most transparent in history," he should direct Brennan's replacement, Lisa Monaco, to prepare a follow-up speech that explains to the public, not just to selected reporters, what U.S. targeted killing policy really is.

Later in the speech, Obama also touted the extent of his administration's engagement with Congress, declaring, "I've insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action. After I took office, my administration began briefing all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appropriate committees of Congress." This language suggests that the Bush administration never reported non-battlefield targeted killings to the Senate and House intelligence committees, which is not true.

Moreover, congressional oversight extends beyond four committees receiving after-the-fact notifications of targeted killings. The Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committee members and staffers have repeatedly requested, and been denied, general briefings about how targeted killings are conducted within the countries in which they oversee U.S. policy. The judiciary committees and others have requested at least 21 times access to all the Office of Legal Counsel memoranda that provide the legal basis for targeted killings. And the White House has flatly refused repeated requests for administration officials to testify at recent hearings regarding targeted killings. This is strange behavior for a president that has "insisted on strong oversight."

Obama also endorsed "efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal" the Authorization for Use of Military Force, adding, "I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further." This must have been news to the national security bureaucracy, since just two weeks prior four senior civilian and military officials repeatedly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the AUMF should be maintained. As Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, stated: "I think the AUMF as currently structured works very well for us.... Senator Inhofe said if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I would subscribe to that policy."

Toward the end of his speech, while being interrupted with questions by activist Medea Benjamin, Obama stated: "These are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong." But on Thursday the president did gloss over a lot of them -- and the White House's leaks didn't help. What matters now is whether the Obama administration will actually tell Congress and the American public how it is conducting targeted killings. As the president declared in his State of the Union address, "[I]n our democracy, no one should just take my word that we're doing things the right way."

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