Belmont Club

The Return of Rube Goldberg

The key to understanding calls by the “international community” to stop the Syrian government from suppressing dissidents is to ask who is going to answer the phone. Reuters reports that “France said on Sunday that it was doing what it could to secure a U.N. response to increasingly brutal repression in Syria.”  Does that mean France is going to act? No. The UN will. But what exactly does that mean? Who would enforce a UN mandate?

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in a speech in Brussels, reminded listeners of Sherlock Holmes’ dictum. When you’ve eliminated the impossible what you have left is what has to happen. Since nobody has the means to enforce the West’s political will — or the International Community’s — but the United States, then it means … For the last fifty years the “international community” has been investing billions in judges and nothing on posses.  As a result, the apprehension of all Wanted Suspects and Bad Hombres is left to one embattled Marshal. That is the International Community’s clay foot. To understand what the “international community” can do in Syria, consider what it has been capable of achieving in Libya.

while every alliance member voted for Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.

In particular, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets are lacking that would allow more allies to be involved and make an impact. The most advanced fighter aircraft are little use if allies do not have the means to identify, process, and strike targets as part of an integrated campaign. To run the air campaign, the NATO air operations center in Italy required a major augmentation of targeting specialists, mainly from the U.S., to do the job – a “just in time” infusion of personnel that may not always be available in future contingencies. We have the spectacle of an air operations center designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day struggling to launch about 150. Furthermore, the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference. …

I am the latest in a string of U.S. defense secretaries who have urged allies privately and publicly, often with exasperation, to meet agreed-upon NATO benchmarks for defense spending. However, fiscal, political and demographic realities make this unlikely to happen anytime soon, as even military stalwarts like the U.K have been forced to ratchet back with major cuts to force structure. Today, just five of 28 allies – the U.S., U.K., France, Greece, along with Albania – exceed the agreed 2% of GDP spending on defense.

Regrettably, but realistically, this situation is highly unlikely to change. The relevant challenge for us today, therefore, is no longer the total level of defense spending by allies, but how these limited (and dwindling) resources are allocated and for what priorities.

The International Community’s exclusive reliance on diplomacy to conduct international relations, even against aggressive, savage tyrannies arises not from a superfluity of morality but an inadequacy of means. The UN has only two options: sending a special representative and surrendering while acting tough.  On the other hand, Tom Friedman noted that Syria in particular, actually liked to play rough. In other words, it liked to settle arguments by shooting people. In a classic op-ed from 2005, Friedman described the Middle East rulebook provision # 1: the Hama Rule.

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.”

New York Times reports suggest that Damascus still uses the same playbook, even in this Era of the Arab Spring. It has smashed rebels in a northern town of Jisr al-Shoughour bordering Turkey with tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships. The NYT notes, however, that “the government’s ability to crush the opposition at Jisr al-Shoughour may prove a limited victory” because there will be “political repercussions”. Really? Perhaps by that the NYT means that Turkey will join France in demanding that the UN act against Syria. And what’s the UN going to do if it doesn’t send a strongly worded lesson?

Guess. “Action” in the end means physical resources. And who has the physical resources? Right now RAF pilots are learning French in order to use the Charles de Gaulle, the descendants of Nelson having no aircraft carrier of their own. That is ok, because the French have exactly one. Maybe that’s not going to be of much ultimate help, but at least the food is good.

A typical menu will be French onion soup, crab-stuffed avocados or bouchées à la reine (savoury pastry), chicken breasts with white wine and cream sauce, stuffed mushrooms or carottes à la crème, aligot (mashed potato with garlic and cheese) or pommes dauphines and salad. Desserts are expected to include classic French cheeses such as brie or camembert, mousse or eclairs au chocolat, Konakry (a jelly-roll cake with raspberry jam filled with pastry cream and pineapple with an apricot glaze), or cherry clafoutis (baked dessert in a light batter) and, of course, coffee after the meal. All evening meals will be accompanied by fine red wines and vermouth rather than the gin and tonic or beer consumed by officers on British ships when they are off-duty.

The Charles de Gaulle and the Eisenhower

It’s true that the Royal Navy is planning to build two new carriers of the Queen Elizabeth class, but one of those two will have to be mothballed right after completion in order that limited operations on the other one can be afforded. Alternatively one of the two ships may be sold to any willing ally with the cash to run it. It is the naval equivalent of “straight to DVD”. The Telegraph reported that neither ship may ever carry jets.

The first of the new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will enter service in 2016, configured to carry helicopters, not jets. The second new carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, will arrive in 2019. At that point, HMS Queen Elizabeth will be put into “extended readiness”, effectively mothballed indefinitely.

Government sources indicated that the Queen Elizabeth was unlikely to return to service after that, and could well be sold to another country to recoup some of the cost of building it. “There are no plans for it after 2019 and it could well be sold. No one wanted the second carrier but we had no choice,” said one source. “No one is pretending this is an ideal situation, but this is what we were left with.”

“This is what we were left with.” That is not true. Britain still has the United Nations and the International Tribunals not to mention the legions of special rapporteurs and activists from NGOs and multilateral agencies. So the International Community will send these diplomats to lecture on “the rule of law” while Syria, plays tough — see Hama Rules. And as Tom Friedman said, anyone who gets in that game gets hurt, so they had better ask the UN for help. Even the President asks the UN for help. Let’s hope he gets it.

Why asking for UN authorization is better than asking Congress

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