Come on, America, Do Some of that Intervention Shit

Andrew Exum notes that most analysts who call for military intervention fail to specify the particulars.

Andrew Exum notes that most analysts who call for military intervention–Syria is the particular case, but I’d argue it’s true in almost all cases–fail to specify the particulars.

I’m reminded of a line from Top Gun in which Goose exclaims, “Come on, Mav, do some of that pilot shit!”

On the one hand, it’s not a particularly useful bit of advice. The pilot is well aware of a need to do some of what it is he does and needs no additional encouragement. The problem is making a choice under the worst kind of  stress–when making the wrong one will get you dead.

On the other hand, it’s a perfectly understandable thing for Goose to say: he’s under stress, too, and perfectly helpless in dealing with the situation.

With respect to bad things happening across the world being shown on Western television screens,Don Snow, my major professor in grad school, coined “the Do-Something Syndrome.” Like Goose, they’re horrified with a situation and want America to do something–anything–to fix it. Naturally, that “something” is often coming to the rescue with our powerful military.

The problem, even aside from niceties like national sovereignty, the rule of law, and regional spillover effects, is that military force is very seldom the ideal tool to deal with the situation at hand. In the particular case of Syria, it’s not at all clear what form intervention would take. We could set up a no-fly zone but, since the problem is ground action not aerial attacks, what would be the point? We could set up aerial patrols and take out bad guys shooting at civilians–but we’d probably kill as many civilians as we’d save. We could send in ground forces. But to do what? A regime change? And then what? As we’ve seen recently, taking out a Ba’athist regime doesn’t necessarily mean the end to violence.

Exum adds,

A broader problem here, as I was discussing with both Adam Elkus and Robert Caruso, is that regional specialists rarely understand military capabilities and options well enough to make an argument for or against, and those who understand military capabilities and options rarely understand the regional dynamics well enough to make an argument for or against.

This is indeed problematic. I’m a former Army officer with a PhD specializing in national security policy and some 25 years experience in the field. I’ve got a reasonable clue about the nature of the military problem from both the 10,000 feet and the platoon view. But I’ve got only a tangential understanding of the nature of the opposition forces in Syria or the dynamics likely to play out if all the al-Assads were suddenly terminated.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Eric says:

    This is indeed problematic. I’m a former Army officer with a PhD specializing in national security policy and some 25 years experience in the field. I’ve got a reasonable clue about the nature of the military problem from both the 10,000 feet and the platoon view. But I’ve got only a tangential understanding of the nature of the opposition forces in Syria or the dynamics likely to play out if all the al-Assads were suddenly terminated.

    Come on, James, do some of that research the enemy shit.




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  2. MBunge says:

    What makes the “do something” impulse so dangerous is that many analysts who call for military intervention have not only never served in the military, none of their friends and families serve and they have no expectation any of their children will ever serve. Which isn’t to say that veterans are all foreign policy pacifists, but doing “something” is a much greater temptation when that “something” has had and will have absolutely no impact on your or your life.

    Mike




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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Eric: It would take months of intensive study to be even remotely equipped to make independent judgments on Syria. The shortcut most commentators take is to read a handful of articles by people who plausibly offer expertise, crib some talking points, and spout them off as original analysis.




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  4. I’m reminded of the line of thought that Yes, Minister once dubbed “the politician’s fallacy”: We must do something; this plan is something; therefore we must do this plan.




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  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    Few of the analysts of course are going to be doing any fighting and most of them have next to zero appreciation of either military or geopolitical realities. I don’t have your credentials Jim but I’ve played on the odd sand table a long time ago and I’m continually amazed at the pontifications of some of these folks who don’t even seem to have looked at maps and betray scant knowledge of the places where we are going to “intervene.” The explanation is that their agenda is usually entirely political. Even retired senior officers have allowed themselves to be co-opted into this process for money or ideological reasons (remember the Pentagon pr program orchestrated by Rumsfeld and co) which I regard as a betrayal of lower ranked members of the service. These are invariably enormously complex situations (actually the Ghadaffi one was relatively simple) and we involve ourselves at our peril. On another but related topic I’d be really interested in any views you may have about nature of our army (not the navy/airforce) because the fact is that it’s record since WW 2 is not one of great distinction despite its undoubted quality. Perhaps the American way of making war where materiel simply doesn’t lend itself to the kind of counterinsurgent conflicts we’ve found ourselves engaged in. I don’t count Desert Storm which was an old style colonial war where we had overwhelming air and materiel superiority. Feel like letting loose your inner von Moltke?




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  6. Eric says:

    @James Joyner:

    Hahaha I know that the amount of time is a lot of hard work. You had a sorta similar argument with the President being able to be a master at two complete different fields at the same time. I just couldn’t help myself from your theme.




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  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I have said it before, I will say it again: “Don’t just do something, sit there!”




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  8. sam says:

    Who gives a shit? America Fvck Yeah! We don’ need not stinkin particulars. Particulars are for pussies.




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  9. DRS says:

    You know, our enthusiasm for “doing something” would go down considerably if war was something that happened on our side of the world as opposed to perpetually “over there”.




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  10. Rob in CT says:

    This takes me back to 2002. Aside from being highly dubious about the casus belli (WMDs!!), I figured that the only chance of success – if regime change was the goal – would be a massive effort… a “Marshall Plan” for Iraq.

    So I thought ok, surely they’re ramping up a huge effort to figure out Iraq. Its people, their history, etc., so they know what to do once they’re running the place (I took a pasting of Saddam’s army as a given).

    I looked around and saw… nothing. Granted, some such planning could’ve been hush-hush, but a major effort on the scale of what I figured was required would have been reported. You’d have heard about the State Department hiring everyone with any sort of expertise on Iraq (language, history, etc) they could get their hands on.

    And you had big-shot politicos and talking heads blathering on TV and clearly demonstrating they had no fricking idea what they were doing. People who didn’t know about Sunni/Shia. At all. It was staggering.

    Now, I’m not surprised. Now I know better.




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  11. JohnMcC says:

    Being old, as I am, gives one the chance to see things several times. In 1956 as the Soviet Union crushed Budapest we saw live TV images of young men fighting tanks with glass bottles of gasoline. There was a hue and cry to ‘DO SOMETHING!’ Fortunately we had a wise old president who knew better. So we did not. Hopefully a lesson learned.




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  12. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner: Months? It would take a career’s worth of study to understand the socio-political dynamics of offing the Assad regime. Of course people with that knowledge are out there, but as they’ve spent their lives learning rather than sucking up and “networking” with the powerful our government won’t bother consulting them. Far better to listen to ignorant but media-savy hacks.




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  13. James Joyner says:

    @Ben Wolf: Oh, absolutely. I’ve spent a good part of a career studying security affairs and still have major holes. But a few months of dedicated study would, combined with that background, allow me to make intelligent public comments about a Syria intervention.




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  14. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t doubt you could Jim but then I’m sure some bright sparks in the Pentagon spent a few months studying Iraqi affairs and arrived at suspect conclusions. Like we could occupy the country and pacify it with a force of around 50,000 men.




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  15. Ben Wolf says:

    @Brummagem Joe: Well, James actually has spent a lifetime studying national security, which is why it’s always good when he’s on Fox rather than Brit Hume or Bill Kristol talking about foreign affairs. The geniuses in the Bush Administration, on the other tentacle, figured a bunch of towel-heads couldn’t possibly be that hard for good ole’ white ingenuity to figure out, put a couple of months thought into it and then sounded the call for Iraqi Fraydum.

    One thing you can quickly identify about the beltway crew is their stunning arrogance and lack of awareness regarding the limits of their knowledge.




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  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Well, James actually has spent a lifetime studying national security,

    I think I acknowledged that above.

    The geniuses in the Bush Administration, on the other tentacle, figured a bunch of towel-heads couldn’t possibly be that hard for good ole’ white ingenuity to figure out,

    Leaving aside the fact that all the security analysts in the Bush admin didn’t exactly fit your caricature the size of the force required take and pacify Iraq would have been analysed to death in the Pentagon not by Bush political operatives but by military analysts with a background not dissimilar to Jim’s.




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  17. Ben Wolf says:

    @Brummagem Joe: The administration thought the occupation would be a cakewalk because U.S. forces would be welcomed. The military staffers and political appointees who planned he operation had little to no knowledge of the dynamics involved. In fact the administration had only a handful of analysts who read or spoke arabic, and none who could be considered expert in the religious, political and cultural challenges. It was a group of arrogant white men who thought they knew everything because they lived and worked in the Center of the Universe and so never bothered to ask, or listen, when informed advice was given by scholars without the prerequisite political connections.




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  18. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    It was a group of arrogant white men

    That may or may not be true but the professional planners in the Pentagon would have had very similar backgrounds to JJ. Mainly career officers with some higher ed degrees.




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