Belmont Club

The budget of force

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Politico that in every action being considered in the Middle East, the paramount question was how it bore on the overall strategy for the region. That was true of the handling of unrest in Libya.

“When one talks about Libya or Tunisia, you have to also ask yourself this question: What I do there, in Libya or Tunisia, is going to have an effect elsewhere, and if these most important activities are going on in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states … one has to make sure that whatever you do in Libya is done with an awareness that it’s going to have an effect — either a favorable or an unfavorable — effect in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.”

And it must be true about dealing with unrest in Syria. The Washington Post and Foreign Policy report on the most serious challenge to Assad’s regime yet.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was facing the most serious unrest of his 11-year tenure Thursday as anti-government protests in a southwestern city threatened to escalate after a deadly crackdown. …

On Wednesday, security forces launched a pre-dawn raid in the city in which dozens of people were killed, according to witnesses and activists. Precise estimates of the death toll range from 15 to 51.

On Thursday, witnesses said, thousands of people gathered in the city to bury the dead, chanting, “Syria! Freedom!”

Germany began the ritual call for Damascus to ‘end the violence’, statements which were echoed by the UN, the US and other European countries. John Kyl and Mark Kirk have urged the President to throw his support behind the Syrian protesters. Hezbollah is clearly worried.  They organized a huge protest in Beirut demanding that the critics back off Syria.

It looks like a golden opportunity that is sure to be missed. But it isn’t just Syria that is experiencing upheavel. The defensive game needs some work too.

Yemen is now experiencing a severe rift within its ruling elite. “Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the country’s top general are hashing out a political settlement in which both men would resign from their positions within days in favor of a civilian-led transitional government, according to three people familiar with the situation.” Unless they are successful, further infighting may be expected during which al-Qaeda may rise to take advantage of the confusion.

The people familiar with the negotiations said Thursday that Mr. Saleh and Gen. Ahmar are intent on preventing bloodshed and preserving stability in the Arabian Peninsula nation. Aides to both men said that while they both understand that Mr. Saleh’s continued rule is untenable, they have agreed that the timing of his resignation can’t happen until they have worked out the details of a transitional governing council that would take his place. They hope to have a detailed plan ready by Saturday, the people said. …

Amid the current crisis, U.S. officials have worried that Yemen’s security forces would be redeployed away from counterterrorism duties or that al Qaeda might take advantage of the crisis to launch new attacks.

In the strategically important southern province of Shebwa, where much of the nation’s energy reserves are located, tribesmen have said they have taken over 17 military compounds belonging to Interior Ministry forces under the command of Mr. Saleh’s nephew Yahya, a key liaison to U.S. counterterrorism officials. Tribes now control four of Shebwa’s 17 districts and have taken over security duties as well as the responsibility to safeguard the energy infrastructure, according to tribesmen.

The Syrian regime would be nice to bring down, though one can’t say Washington is working at it. Developments in Yemen are important but efforts there have taken a back seat to the histrionics of the Duck of Death. With so much violence to condemn, in so many important places, Steven Hurst of the Associated Press wonders what makes Libya so special. The proximity of Yemen to Saudi Arabia and Syria’s importance to the region should rank them high in the scale of “concern”. The answer he received from former State Department Nicholas Burns was essentially that of the drunk who searched for his lost watch under the streetlamp because that was where the light was. America is acting in Libya because that’s where the UN resolution is.

“The ability to reach a consensus on action in Libya, in the face of potential crimes against humanity,” he said in a recent commentary, “is not illegitimate simply because a similar consensus cannot be reached in other circumstances.”

Rumsfeld, earlier in the Politico interview, had words for that kind of approach too. In his view, you decide where you want to go and then find the transportation to get there. It would be unwise, he argued, to clamber onto the first available moving object and then ask where it is going. Emulating the strategy of the drunk at the lampost wasn’t always a good idea. After all, the watch might not be there.

“You decide what it is you want to do and then you get other countries to assist you in doing that,” he said, “And, in this case, it looks like just the opposite was done, that the coalition is trying to determine the mission and it’s confused. … If peoples’ lives are at risk and you’re using military forces, you need to have a rather clear understanding as to who’s in charge and who’s making the decisions.”

Still, some attention is being paid to Syria. The current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, urged the Syrian Army to ’empower a revolution’. “Drawing a parallel between the unrest in Syria and the protests that unseated Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president, Mr Gates said: ‘I’ve just come from Egypt, where the Egyptian army stood on the sidelines and allowed people to demonstrate and in fact empowered a revolution. The Syrians might take a lesson from that.'”

The trouble is, they might not. Thomas Friedman observed that Syria plays by what he called “Hama Rules”, a reference to a town in which every protester was shot or rounded up without question or mercy. They have found you are criticized less when you are feared more.

When Syria’s Baath regime feels its back up against the wall, it always resorts to “Hama Rules.” Hama Rules is a term I coined after the Syrian Army leveled – and I mean leveled – a portion of its own city, Hama, to put down a rebellion by Sunni Muslim fundamentalists there in 1982. Some 10,000 to 20,000 Syrians were buried in the ruble. Monday’s murder of Mr. Hariri, a self-made billionaire who devoted his money and energy to rebuilding Lebanon after its civil war, had all the hallmarks of Hama Rules – beginning with 650 pounds of dynamite to incinerate an armor-plated motorcade.

Message from the Syrian regime to Washington, Paris and Lebanon’s opposition: “You want to play here, you’d better be ready to play by Hama Rules – and Hama Rules are no rules at all. You want to squeeze us with Iraq on one side and the Lebanese opposition on the other, you’d better be able to put more than U.N. resolutions on the table. You’d better be ready to go all the way – because we will. But you Americans are exhausted by Iraq, and you Lebanese don’t have the guts to stand up to us, and you French make a mean croissant but you’ve got no Hama Rules in your arsenal. So remember, we blow up prime ministers here. We shoot journalists. We fire on the Red Cross. We leveled one of our own cities. You want to play by Hama Rules, let’s see what you’ve got. Otherwise, hasta la vista, baby.”

Commanders with limited resources choose their battles carefully because committing forces in one theater means they are not available in another. That applies to Commanders in Chief too. Former Secretary Rumsfeld pointed out that the unsolved puzzle of the Libyan operation is how it contributes to the wider strategy in the region. The AP noted that among the many fires burning all over the place, Syria and events in Bahrain and Yemen had at least an equal claim on American outrage. What principle then, guides the Commander in Chief’s budget of force?


A cynic might be inclined to argue that President Obama’s operation in Libya serves the purpose of preemptively tying up US reserves. It supplies a relatively target easy to beat up on — admittedly a bad guy who looks and plays the part — so that if and when the heavy lifting is required elsewhere the Commander in Chief can justly say, “I already gave at the office”. In that way, if Assad decides to play Hama rules, the President can claim he is already preoccupied with protecting unnamed persons in the Eastern Libyan desert. You can avoid the big conflicts by embroiling youself in little ones.

That may not make strategic sense, but is serves the “cause of peace”. That may be over-analyzing the situation.  Hanlon’s Razor exhorts us to “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” That leadership might simply be incompetent could be the simplest of all explanations and sadly enough, the happiest.

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