by David Isenberg
The latest version of U.S. national security orthodoxy was on display this week at the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington, D.C., where Defense One, a division of Atlantic Media’s Government Executive Media Group, held its third annual summit on Monday. Over 500 people gathered to listen to various senior military, governmental, and political leaders give their views on the state of the world and how the United States is and should be responding.
The title of the conference summed up the essence of the gathering: The Age of Everything. As Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, speaking about Asia, wrote in a message to the summit:
The Asia-Pacific is a region of both extraordinary opportunity and extraordinary challenges, including continuing provocation from North Korea, ongoing threats of terrorism, the growing impact of climate change, and challenges to the long-held universal principle of freedom of navigation.
It is a region which exemplifies the challenges of “the age of everything,” as threats become more transnational, more transregional, and cannot be addressed in isolation. It is an age that brings complex challenges in every part of the world, from the destabilizing and malign influence of Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria, to the steady metastasis of the Islamic State in the Middle East, to the growing threat of cyber warfare.
The mood, in short, was that threats are everywhere. As retired Air Force Lt. Gen., James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, said, “I don’t remember a time when we have been beset by a greater number and greater diversity of threats around the world.”
Lack of Caution
Supporters of a more cautious U.S. military engagement with the world were not in evidence at the conference. To paraphrase what Arnold Schwarzenegger said in the Terminator movies, the USA is back – even though any reasonably sane assessment of U.S. policies over the past 14 years would suggest that the United States had never left to begin with.
As Kevin Baron, Defense One’s executive editor, said in his opening remarks, “Clearly the United States is at the stage where it says yes to everything. This conference is the age of everything. From hunting down terrorists in far off lands to checkmating Vladimir Putin, to cybersecurity. There is no end to it. The public doesn’t get a good view of how these things work together. These are all part of the same matrix.”
There is, of course, an ineluctable tension, if not outright contradiction, between doing everything and facing the greatest number of threats in recent history, but nobody addressed that directly. Nor did they confront the old wisdom that he who tries to do everything ends up doing nothing.
In the first panel Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes was asked about last week’s announcement by the Obama administration that it would be sending 50 Special Operations troops to Syria to assist such groups as Syrian Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIL or IS). The White House promotes the deployment as a train-advise-and-assist mission.
Given that far more Russians and Iranians are already inside Syria, and the Russians may be drawn into sending more according to Director Clapper, Rhodes faced the inevitable question of what good it would do to send just 50 advisers. He replied, “What makes a difference is when we strengthen our partners in the fight. What doesn’t work was taking oppositionists out of the country and train them. They are not going to be fighting side by side with the Syrians. They are intended to be force multiplier, allowing those fighting ISIL to be better trained and equipped. Their mission is not to be in the fight but to provide ‘facilitation advice.’”
Rhodes’s response served as both an admission of past administration failure in training opposition forces and a vague hope that this time it will be different. Perhaps it is just as well that nobody asked, let alone answered, any follow-up questions, such as: what would be the impact on the U.S. Special Operations Command, given that it is already operating at historically high levels? As the Intercept reported, in the fiscal year that just ended, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to a record-shattering 147 countries, according to Special Operations Command. That number translated into a SOF presence in 75 percent of the nations on the planet and a jump of 145 percent since the waning days of the Bush administration. On any day of the year, America’s most elite troops can be found in 70 to 90 countries.
Yes, the Obama administration does not plan on sending into Syria anything like the number of troops the Bush administration sent into Iraq or Afghanistan. And the Special Operations forces in Syria are not supposed to be conducting joint operations. But the president who came into office facing two wars will now likely be leaving office fighting three (Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq). And even Rhodes had to concede that combat was a real possibility for the forces going into Syria. “Again, not to put too fine a point on it but we have great confidence in our SOF operators,” he said. “If they make a decision that combat is called for we won’t oppose it.”
In fairness, Rhodes did acknowledge that even U.S. power had limits. Responding to a question from the panel moderator that the U.S. has been ceding power and influence to Russia he said, “Does it make sense to take complete ownership of everything in the Middle East? But that is not a core interest. The idea that we are going to do social engineering on the ground is invalid. If we couldn’t do it in Iraq why would anyone think we would attempt it in Syria? It makes no sense. Your questions suggest a degree of agency by the US that is not borne out by events. We are not going to be able to fix these places that are undergoing seismic changes.”
Addressing Adversaries in Asia
The Middle East was far from the only place where the United States could potentially find itself in conflict. Turning to Asia, Rhodes was asked about the USS Lassen, a U.S. guided missile destroyer that recently passed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The passage was the most significant U.S. challenge yet to the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit China claims around artificial islands it has built in the Spratly Islands archipelago.
Rhodes responded, “The US will continue to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of navigation. The goal is to have a multilateral dialogue to resolve these issues and to move these disputes into an international forum that can resolve these issues. The US presence is a stabilizing presence. We can’t have a situation where a bigger nation can bully a smaller nation, but at the same time we need to have a dialogue.”
That same day Reuters reported that the U.S. Navy plans to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands in the South China Sea about twice a quarter to remind China and other countries about U.S. rights under international law. Over the weekend China flew armed fighter jets over the South China Sea in response, according to news reports. Business Insider also reported that a Chinese attack submarine stalked the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan near Japan last month in the closest encounter between a carrier and a People’s Liberation Army Navy submarine since 2006, according to American defense officials.
One of the few speakers who sounded a note of caution was Rep. William M. “Mac” Thornberry (R-TX), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Speaking about the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he said, “As this morass continues, there are fewer and fewer good options. I readily acknowledge that a more aggressive approach has its downside. It is true we shouldn’t be taking action for action’s sake. We have to acknowledge mistakes made in the past if we are going to move forward.”
And what might moving “forward” mean? An answer was provided in a later panel, featuring U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Miley who listed several of what he considered current delusions about conflict:, “Wars can be won with standoff weapons. Armies are easy to generate. SOF can do it all. Wars are short.”
He added, “War is a political act – using violence to impose your will on an opponent. You have to use ground forces to do that. At the end of the day war is won on the ground. The way you win wars is to commit the nation.”
Photo: Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work provides the closing keynote address at the 3rd Annual Defense One Summit (courtesy of DoD/Clydell Kinchen)