Mar 20

The President and the executive branch wield enormous power that has become less and less checked by Congress over the years, giving the sitting President has the power to push America into conflict or avoid it altogether. Bill Clinton guided NATO air strikes in Kosovo. George W. Bush vigorously pursued war in Iraq. Obama avoided war in Syria, but launched air strikes in multiple countries.

Last week, I wrote about some potential countries Donald Trump could go to war with/in, but one country deserves it’s own post: Iran. The election of Donald Trump makes a potential war with Iran much more likely.

The (Yuge!) Potential Costs of a War with Iran

A lot of media coverage discusses “Will we go to war with Iran?”. But that’s framing the issue incorrectly, as we’ve bemoaned in our coverage of a war with Iran. The more important question is “How bad could this be?”, so we’ll start there.

We’ve done a ton of writing about a war with Iran. We wrote a whole paper at the Small Wars Journal based on our series of posts on the subject. And recently repeated our thoughts as Iran hit the news again last month. We bring this up because, even as the drums start to beat for war with Iran, cable news, broadcast news, and print media almost entirely fail/failed to mention that a war means dead American troops, dead Iranian troops and civilians, and possibly dead American civilians. And potentially dead civilians throughout the Middle East.   

One could counter: look at Afghanistan, Panama, Iraq (twice); didn’t we dominate those wars?

Iran is a different, more difficult country to wage war in than our previous two overseas military excursions. Iraq had a military, but Iran’s is vastly superior in almost every category. Afghanistan is large and rugged, but Iran is larger and rugged-er. Iran also has more people and land mass than both those two countries combined, not to mention a more stable political system.

I can’t see the future, and if past wars are any example, no one can. But I can look at the risks, and as a former intelligence officer—I’ll repeat this for emphasis: as a person who used to do this very work for the U.S. Army—the possibilities of a war with Iran are terrifying.

To start, Iran could use its unconventional navy to down aircraft carriers. They have an armada of speed boats armed with torpedoes, designed to overwhelm our large ship’s defenses.

Or Iran’s anti-aircraft weaponry could prove much more effective than anything we have seen, downing many more aircraft than we lost in Iraq. Iran has better anti-aircraft weaponry than either Afghanistan or Iraq possessed. We could eventually defeat these, but airmen could die in the process.

If our troops hit the ground, we’d deal with both conventional and unconventional attacks on multiple highways of death. Iran wouldn’t fight us straight up. Harassing attacks would be the order of the day. They’ll could take the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan as models, improving on techniques that hampered our counter-insurgency efforts and apply them to this conflict. (Many IRGC troops probably practiced these techniques from firsthand experience.) Our helicopters would have to deal with those same anti-aircraft weapons.

Which isn’t to say American air, naval and ground forces wouldn’t “win” a war with Iran. We would. Eventually. But the invasion could shatter casualty records not seen since the Korean war. And then we would have to conduct “stability operations” which at least three wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq) have shown the U.S. military doesn’t do very well. Especially since we’d be overthrowing a democratically elected government, which may come as a surprise to casual viewers of the news. Given that overthrowing a democratically elected leader in Iran started the entire conflict, winning hearts and minds will be much harder than Iraq or Afghanistan.

And that’s the “conventional” side of it. Iran could start flinging missiles around the Middle East. Or launch targeted terror campaigns, either individual assassinations or bombings in retaliation. Or it could have a way to block the Straits of Hormuz of the Persian/Arabian Gulf, which could send the global price of oil skyrocketing, with disastrous effects.

Those are the first order effects. Just the initial things we could see happening. A failed occupation could spawn new generations of terrorists. Or US intervention could send allies scrambling to create new counter-alliances to counter another American invasion of another sovereign country without broad international support. Why would our allies abandon us this time? Because we had a signed international deal that made this whole war unnecessary. (We loathe people invoking Munich, but it is useful to note that Hitler was the one who tore up agreements with his allies.)

Why The Trump Administration Makes War With Iran More Likely

First, Trump has advisors with an expressed anti-Iran leaning. CIA chief Mike Pompeo. Steve Bannon. (Formerly General Flynn in the NSA.) Even General Mattis, a moderate in his administration, is an ardent Iran opponent. Each has advocated for war with Iran at one time or another. If Congress will give Trump his war, these advisers will make it happen. It is unclear how the new National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster, feels, but also unclear how much influence he has. (The analogy here is the George W. Bush administration, which was filled with anti-Iraq voices and we saw what happened there.)

Second, Trump doesn’t understand international diplomacy as opposed to deal making. Trump’s ego thinks he could make a better deal with Iran than Obama did. He can’t. Donald Trump comes from a world where he could pick and choose his deals and partners. Part of his success was making an awful deal, reneging on his promises, then moving on to another sap to make the next deal. The problem is Iran already has a deal with America and tearing it up has consequences. Donald Trump can’t just declare bankruptcy and move on to the next deal, though he believes he can.

Third, the war hawks in Congress have his ear. By this I mean the never-satisfied former neo-cons (and pseudo-realists) who always search for the next dragon to slay. When the Russians went away as enemies at the end of the Cold War, they looked to the “Axis of Evil” to fill the vacuum. Some war hawks in Congress just want to have enemies. For conservatives like Senator Tom Cotton or columnist Charles Krauthammer, Iran fills the void

Fourth, Trump’s campaign had strong backing from pro-Israeli groups. One of the biggest drivers of anti-Iran sentiment is a variety of pro-Israeli think tanks in Washington D.C. from the Heritage Foundation to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. (Which I should really do a post on. The FDD is allegedly about defending all democracies, but mainly publishes papers critical of Iran, which has as much claim to democracy as Israel. And way more than Saudi Arabia, who the FDD hasn’t ever mentioned as a threat to democracy.) This think tank works with SuperPACs to push both the ideology and the money backing pro-Israeli policies, which include a possible war with Iran.

Fifth, Donald Trump has a tendency to say and do rash things. My evidence? The campaign. Want more evidence? His first month in office, including putting Iran “on notice”. In the high stakes world of international diplomacy, this isn’t good. I fully believe if Iran had captured US sailors during the Trump administration, we would have gone to war. When air strikes can be launched in hours without Congressional approval (this isn’t 100% legal, but definitely true), a rash leader could cause huge problems.

Sixth, we’ve already seen the drums for war starting pounding. It took less than a week for him to insult Iran, and the escalation started. Just look at the CNN breakdown of relations between Iran and America since Trump started his administration.

Not one of those six reasons has to do with protecting America or its ally Israel. They are about forces who want to go to war or a personality that isn’t suited to international diplomacy. I just don’t see a world where Donald Trump rationally assesses threats and expectations about a war with Iran (or any country) and that’s what makes it so likely.

The sad part about writing this? It doesn’t have to be this way. The Iranian deal is diplomacy at its finest and it is already working. In an optimistic time, it would be a sign of a better world. But we don’t live in those times, and now we may have to pay a price.

Mar 13

Imagine a world. Like this one. Where everything is going as it has. Sure the media regularly bemoans how awful life is in America, but overall, Americans live their lives, free of violence.

Then in one weekend, this changes. Maybe an Iranian boat crashes into a U.S. warship. (Or Iran seizes another U.S. Navy vessel. Or vice versa.) Or ISIS attacks a Special Operations compound in Iraq. Or North Korea fires a missile at Japan. The next events happen in a blur.

American planes take off and bomb pre-determined targets. Cruise missiles fly from battleships. U.S. paratroopers drop from the sky and marines seize beachheads. Tanks load on trains destined for shipping containers destined for some continent half-way across the globe. The nation fighting the U.S. will likely lose hundreds of thousands of people. America could lose thousands as well.

If the war is poorly thought-out or executed, or Murphy’s law comes to the vagaries of war, the initial casualties aren’t the only problems. With some countries, nuclear weapons could come into play. And the casualties would skyrocket or worse. The global economy could freeze up. As a society, we’ve forgotten that, more often than not, wars are terrible for the economy and, more importantly, terrible for people. We’ve forgotten since we’ve gone for so long without a major interstate war.

We wrote last week that Donald Trump is a war hawk. More importantly, despite some sane voices in his administration (McMaster and Mattis), he’s surrounded by other war hawks (Bannon and Miller). So we at On Violence believe the election of Trump makes another U.S. war or “military intervention”, in euphemism speech, more likely. Today, we’re going to run down our completely unscientific ranking of which countries America is mostly likely to go to war in the next four years and why.

Tomorrow we crown the winner, but I’m sure you know who that is...

2. Syria or Iraq

The logic here is pretty straight-forward. Trump’s former National Security Advisor called ISIS an “existential threat” (it isn’t) and it stuck. So Trump has called for the elimination of ISIS, most recently at his address to Congress.

“As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS, a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians and men and women and children of all faiths and all beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”

The question is whether this conflict spirals into America’s third major occupation of the region. You cannot eliminate ISIS from the air. And if you have to rely on allies in the region, that may include vile dictatorships like Syria or even Iran, who Trump hates. As Fareed Zakaria reported last weekend, ISIS is on the ropes anyways due to sustained fighting in both Syria and Iraq. But if something goes wrong, especially a terror attack, I could see an easily escalation of military conflict.

3. Yemen or Somalia

I’m lumping these two countries together because both suffer from failed state or near failed state status, and both have offshoots of extremist terrorist groups (AQAP in Yemen; Al-Shabaab in Somalia). In some ways, you could argue that we’re already at war there, if by war, you mean having troops on the ground fighting and launching drone strikes. JSOC is conducting active operations in both countries and indeed we all know the US lost a special operator in Yemen almost a month ago.

Going to war in one of these countries would probably be a slow escalation process, like Vietnam. We put more special operators on the ground to conduct more missions, using the previous failed missions as an excuse. Then we put more troops to support those troops. Then we need more troops to protect more troops and at some point we end up propping up the government. It’s Afghanistan redux.

4. North Korea

Unlike Yemen or Somalia, I see the North Korean situation igniting like a firecracker. North Korea remains intent on building a defensive/offensive military capability and it doesn’t matter how impoverished its people are in the meantime. Again, if Trump’s impulsiveness wins out, we could see a spark ignite this region.

North Korea also seems intent on taking advantage of U.S. dysfunction and poor relations with mainland China immediately. The amount of times North Korea has been in the news since the inauguration feels high. That said, we should caution that it often seems like war with North Korea is imminent every spring. We wrote about the “war that wasn’t” a few years back, based on On The Media’s excellent coverage of the issue. As we wrote about Iran, a war with North Korea could be awful, even without the nuclear weapons.

(As a side note, North Korea really is the argument for free market capitalism and democracy as opposed to agrarianism/trade protectionism and authoritarianism. It’s pretty clearly the least developed/poorest nation in the world, and it has the least amount of trade with the outside world. This is what happens when you try to control an economy completely through the state and your awful leaders can’t be voted out of office.)

5. Eastern Europe

Everything in Eastern Europe/Ukraine points to an unlikely-to-happen, but still possible conflict or escalation. Trump could believe he needs to stand up to Putin, and draws the line in the sand in Ukraine. Putin wants to continue to expand his sphere of influence and his insistent meddling in European elections causes the EU/NATO to stand up against him as well. So a war breaks out.

The gigantic stockpiles of nuclear weapons on each side make this scenario unlikely. As crazy as each side is, I just can’t see a war starting because of that. (Though I would feel safer if neither side had those weapons, actively armed or at all.)

Wild card: Small East Asian nation

I’m thinking Myanmar, Philippines or Thailand, nations with a small Muslim minority population that could draw in America as an excuse. Violence recently flared up in Myanmar, though that country has become more democratic. For a war hawk, the enticing thing about small East Asian nations (Myanmar or Thailand) is they seem small and easy to conquer, er invade, er conduct military operations in...until you get there. The Philippines is large and unwieldy, but we’ve had troops on the ground there throughout the war on terror.

Wild card: Latin America

In the 1980s, we used to adventure down south for military interventions pretty frequently (Panama, Grenada, some stuff in Nicaragua/Costa Rica, UK in Falklands). Venezuela, a popular villain in right-wing media for years, is a the pretty obvious place the United State could intervene, but even countries like Ecuador have tried to stand up to the US in diplomatic terms. The flare up here could be trade, could be immigration or could be drugs.

Mar 07

Before we rehit the potential costs of a war with Iran (coming next week), it is important to remember that a year ago, in January 2016, America could have gone to war with Iran but did not. And understanding why we didn’t go to war explains the threat Donald Trump poses to our security.

It would have gone down something like this: an American Navy vessel is in Iranian waters. The U.S. says it is lost or off-course. Iran seizes the vessel. Americans demand the sailors back with threats. Iran refuses. The President launches a rescue mission that encounters “resistance”, i.e. Iranian soldiers. Shooting starts. Suddenly, the U.S. or Israel or Iran is launching missiles or dropping bombs.

War has broken out.

This didn’t happen. Instead, American Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif worked out a peaceful solution. Iran released the sailors.

I have a simple theory for why this happened: former President Obama didn’t blame Iranians or the leader of Iran for seizing the U.S. warship. Because he didn’t do that--because his default position wasn’t blame--we averted this crisis. I want to drill down into that word “blame” because I think it explains how crises like this one are either averted or erupt into war.

You could start by blaming the largest group possible, as Neil Cavuto did at the Republican debate shortly after the incident. Cavuto opened a question to Jeb Bush saying:

“Governor Bush...the Iranians have provoked us, detaining us, as we've been discussing, with these 10 Navy sailors Tehran had said strayed into their waters..”

Notice Neil Cavuto used the term “The Iranians”. That’s a pretty big group. You have to wonder how the entire country of 77 million people agreed to kidnap the sailors?

Of course, they didn’t all agree with it. And it says a lot about your foreign policy positions, whether you hold the people of the country morally responsible for the actions of an Iranian officer in a patrol boat off your coast or whether you hold that officer alone responsible. Terrorists routinely blame “Americans” for drone attacks. Have you personally launched a drone attack? Probably not, so it seems unfair to get blamed for it. (Especially if you don’t think our country should be using them in the first place.)

The next level down on the blame scale is the leaders of Iran. Some Republicans don’t blame all Iranians, merely the Mullahs. Like Chris Christie:

“We need to rebuild our military, and this president has let it diminish to a point where tinpot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships.”

In this case, there are two explanations for the Mullahs being responsible for kidnapping the sailors. In the first, they ordered a patrol boat to kidnap the sailors. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, considering they decided to release the sailors 15 hours later.

So the only other explanation for why Christie blamed the Mullahs is that he blames them for everything their Navy does under their watch. Complete responsibility. This would mean if Chris Christie ever had any underlings who, say, shut a bridge down for political revenge, he is as equally responsible as the underlings. Obviously, he doesn’t believe that.

We could extend this “blaming the leaders” analogy to Obama. Was he the one responsible for the U.S. sailors being in Iranian waters? Of course not. He didn’t order them there and can’t be held responsible for them getting lost. Those two American analogies (Christie and Obama) show why we can’t blame the Mullahs. Or Prime Minister Rouhani.

Instead, it is much better to look down to the individual unit commanders involved.

The Iranian boat commander and his superiors could have been doing one of two things. Either they were honestly trying to do their job and protect their territorial integrity--something the American military absolutely would do--or they were trying to provoke a regional war. Now the latter explanation is totally feasible. A rogue commander is upset at the Iran nuclear deal and--perhaps goaded/ordered by other hard-liners in the Quds force--tries to force a war by kidnapping U.S. sailors.

But then Iran returned the sailors. So even if rogue forces were trying to upset the nuclear deal, other more powerful forces overrode them. Either it was an accident that the U.S. boat was in the wrong place and the Iranians were simply doing their duty, or the moderates in power in Iran were able to avert a power play by the hard-liners. That’s great news.

Of course, there were two actors in the sea that day, the Iranians and the U.S. sailors. The U.S. sailors had two possible explanations for their actions as well. Either they were in Iranian waters by accident (negligence), at which point the situation was resolved appropriately. Or they were in Iranian waters deliberately, at which point the U.S. still wants to save face and get them back. (As isn’t unusual, the U.S. narrative of what happened changed after the initial news cycle.) We should hope Iran assumes the best (accident) as opposed to worst (deliberate).

To sum up: the situation with the Iranian sailors was really an interaction by the lowest levels of the military of both Iran and the United States. And instead of assuming the worst, each side assumed the other side was acting in good faith, and the situation was resolved without violence. The best possible outcome.

Do we think with Donald Trump (and Steve Bannon) the same thing will occur? Will they assign blame to the lowest possible levels? Or will they blame the Mullahs and the IRGC for future interactions like this? Instead of de-escalating, could they use it as pretense to start a war?

So much has changed in a year.

Mar 01

I recently reread, or more accurately re-skimmed, Waltz’ Man, The State, and War to refresh myself on his three “images” for foreign policy theory. The three images all try to explain the cause of war, but from different perspectives. Somehow, Donald Trump manages to make war more likely across all three.

His distaste for international organizations makes the world more dangerous through his actions from the perspective of the third image (the international order image) and if he turns America into an illiberal democracy and encourages autocracies around the globe, he makes the world more dangerous from the perspective of the second image (the domestic politics image).

But we neglected the most important way Trump makes the world dangerous:

Donald Trump is a war hawk.

Waltz started with the “first image”, the personalities of leaders around the globe, because when most people try to answer, “Why does war happen?” they usually respond, “Well, people of course.” This is part of a grand historical tradition of the “great men of history” who, usually, in these tellings, through exceptional charisma or character or ineptitude, make things happen in history.

Take World War II. Another great power war would probably have happened at some point. Without the constraints of the liberal world order and the threat of nukes, what would have stopped it? But when it happened specifically in the late 1930s, well, Adolf Hitler deserves the blame. Hitler wrote about the glory and power of Germany, talked about restoring an empire, and believed in the idea of “Anschluss”, or the uniting of the German homeland. He talked like a war hawk and delivered on that promise. More concretely, he alone gave the orders to invade Austria, Poland, Russia and France.

Or take the Iraq War. Can you imagine Al Gore pursuing war with Iraq as revenge for 9/11 given that Iraq wasn’t related to Al Qaeda, had actually fought Al Qaeda, and didn’t have WMDs? So yeah, probably not. On the counter side, would Gore have invaded Afghanistan? Probably.

America faced a clear choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. America chose the President who will likely turn out to be a war hawk and no one can realistically argue otherwise. From the things Trump has said to the recklessly aggressive posture of many fellow Republicans, you can assume Trump is inclined to send America to war. And today we’re going to lay out that case.

(Would Hillary Clinton have started wars? Probably, but the flavor of war would have been “responsibility to protect”, to stop war crimes or genocide, or to prevent tragedy, than in the pursuit of the always vague “protecting America’s interest” which will now be known as “America First”.)

First, the Republican party is a war hawk party.

Sorry, but it is, and we’re tired of pretending that it isn’t. The Republican convention was filled with invective against ISIS. And the Republican party has been opposing the Iran Deal since Obama signed it. Together, ISIS and Iran represent the evils of the world, for some reason. (Along with helping doses of insulting Barack Obama.)

As an example, take Senator Tom Cotton. Cotton fascinates me (Michael C) because we were both in the U.S. Army, both led platoons, and both are clearly interested in politics. From there we both went completely different directions. Take the time Cotton recommended punishing innocent civilians over Iran sanctions:

”Once in the House, Cotton’s anti-Iran advocacy showed a mean streak. When, in 2013, a new Iran sanctions bill came before the lower chamber, Cotton introduced an amendment that would “automatically” punish family members of sanctions violators. “There would be no investigation,” Cotton explained during the mark-up. “It’d be very hard to demonstrate and investigate to conclusive proof.” Cotton wanted to punish innocent people; he called it “corruption of blood,” and extended the category to include “parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids.”   

Tom Cotton is just one example of hawkish-ness in the Republican party. They have many vocal leaders  in Congress who want an enemy for America to fight, from Iran to ISIS to Russia to North Korea to new countries we haven’t even thought of yet. Our posts from the Republican primary started on this topic and it’s one we’ll return keep hitting.

Second, Donald Trump is expanding the military.

Why not “rebuild?” our military as Donald Trump says? Because you can’t fix what isn’t broken and you  can’t rebuild something that is already built. The U.S. military is the greatest fighting force on the planet, and that’s that.

But he can make it even greater-er. Lats night, he proposed a budget increase of $18 billion (that he is misleading spinning as a $54 billion upgrade). He can increase the number of jets (and people flying them). He can increase the number of brigades (even though he should increase the number of battalions per brigade first, but the former is sexier). He can increase the number of boats in the sea. And our elite special operations units of uber-elite hyper-special forces of elite SOCOM? He can just give them tons of money they can stack in piles and burn. (Though if we gave stacks of money to SOCOM under orders to burn it, some of those elite special operators would totally steal it.)

If all you have is a giant military, every global problem looks like a war. Forward positioning so many troops so close to so many hot spots just increases the odds we send them to a war zone. And a huge upgraded military will beg to be used. Before World War I, each side started building up troops and navies. Before Germany started World War II, it had to build up its military. A huge Cold War military got America drawn into Vietnam and Russia drawn into Afghanistan. This is just what happens.

Third, Donald Trump has said he will use force to solve problems.

Repeatedly, in debates and during his RNC acceptance speech, Donald Trump vowed he would wipe ISIS off the face of the Earth. That will require force. He’s also said he’d bomb women and children if needed. He vowed to tear up the Iran deal, and the likely consequence will be war.

We should take him at his word. Trump sees force as a solution to his problems.

Fourth, Donald Trump is temperamentally suited to be a war-hawk.

We’ve seen him lose his temper via Twitter and news reports say he also lost his temper on a diplomatic phone call to Australia, a staunch ally.  He will get drawn into potential conflicts with countries like Iran or, God forbid, China because he values his own personal reputation more than our country. We saw this after the election when Trump spent more time concerned with the size of his inauguration crowds than appointing cabinet officials. Or when he delivers speeches railing on the media rather than make an Affordable Care Act replacement plan. 

Hillary Clinton easily got under his skin during three debates. It didn’t work, but she poked the bear and he roared. Unlike Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush or Obama, all men who could calmly assess threats and makes the right strategic decisions, Trump responds to every perceived slight. Why would we think he won’t do this on the global stage?

What can we say from all the evidence? Donald Trump is temperamentally suited to be a war hawk president. Whether he uses his power to start wars--or whether his administration is competent enough to pull it off--remains to be seen.

Feb 27

When I was young, I celebrated the entire catalogue of Tom Clancy. This included his non-fiction books celebrating various types of units across the US military. I started with the Marines, continued to Armored Cav, and then blasted through Airborne, Special Forces and Aircraft Carrier. Since the US Army sections were the best, I joined the Army ROTC program in college. I wish I were joking.

In the Armored Cav book, Clancy interviewed a young Captain in the Armor branch who had squared off against Saddam Hussein’s tank forces and won accolades for the accomplishment. This Captain? H.R. McMaster, currently a Lieutenant General and now Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser.

I’ve thought highly of McMaster since I read about him in middle school, so I have some quick thoughts on his recent appointment.

Thought 1: He’s really good at personal PR.

Not only did I know of McMaster from that interview in a Tom Clancy book, but his book, Dereliction of Duty, made the Chief of Staff reading list when I was in college, so I tried but failed to finish reading it while in ROTC. (I have four or five other books sitting on a bookshelf in this same category.) McMaster then went on to do a military-world famous 60 Minutes interview about his experience in Tal Afar waging counter-insurgency well.

So the guy’s good at public relations and getting media. Why does this matter? Because I hope he can stand up to the Trump machine’s PR onslaught. Not a ton of hope, but some hope.

Thought 2: McMaster did COIN right.

Essentially, McMaster was the opposite of the “Rakkasan approach” to COIN, which is to kill them all and let God sort it out. (We wrote about this in a very disturbing, very early On Violence post.) This is the sort of thinking that believes if we just kill enough bad guys, well, then we win the counterinsurgency.

This never works and McMaster’s approach--which later went on to inform Petraeus’ COIN handbook--emphasized respecting the locals, building government capabilities, and influencing the population. I can’t wait to see how McMaster’s approach to COIN meshes with Trump’s approach to terrorism, which seems like the exact opposite.

Thought 3: And we agree on a bunch of other things.

McMaster thinks that war is fundamentally political. So do we.

McMaster believes that we need to fight our wars ethically. So do we.   

McMaster believes that we need to focus on the human element of war more than the technological. So do we.

McMaster has warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex. So have we.

Thought 4: Too Much of “Defense” in the Three Ds.

Why did Trump have to pick another general for his administration, specifically for a national security post?

This is his third candidate for National Security Adviser if you count Admiral Harward, who declined the position and they’ve all been former/current military flag officers. He put a general in charge of Homeland Security and another general in charge of the Pentagon. It’s a miracle he didn’t pick a general as Secretary of State, instead choosing a hundred-millionaire business man, which is his other favorite type of person after billionaires.

Early in the Obama administration, it was trendy to talk about the three Ds of global affairs, Defense, Diplomacy and Development. Ideally, they work in concert and in balance. With Trump, he has no plans to use two of the Ds, it seems.

Thought 5: McMaster may really help stand up to bad decisions.

That was the point of McMaster’s book after all. Wars can be won or lost by the decisions in Washington D.C. first and foremost.

So will McMaster bring that same critical decision-making ability to the war on terror as he chastised the Joint Chiefs, McNamara and Johnson for Vietnam? I think so and we’ve already seen the signs. Take his approach to terrorism, which marries his willingness to disagree with his approach to COIN:

“President Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has told his staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion, rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.

"The adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told the staff of the National Security Council on Thursday, in his first “all hands” staff meeting, that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic,” according to people who were in the meeting."

Thought 6: But still Bannon.

Yet one thought worries me. With Steve Bannon in the White House, the right wing’s war with Islam will continue, regardless of who holds the National Security Advisor position. Who will have Trump’s ear, McMasters or Bannon? Bannon runs the so-called “Strategic Initiatives Group” with Jared Kushner, and they have focused on stopping Islamic terror. As long as Donald Trump uses this group (and Fox News) instead of daily intelligence briefings to get information, McMaster's influence may be limited.

Feb 23

After Donald Trump’s election, one of the most inspiring podcasts for us was the super frank discussion between Brooke Gladstone, Bob Garfield and Katia Rodgers from On The Media (a must listen podcast if ever there is one) debating how the show will evolve after the election.

They struggled with something we struggled with last year: despite all our writing about the Republican primaries, despite his support of war, torture and murder, despite being the most un-endorsed candidate in history, Donald Trump became President (after losing the popular vote). And over the last month, we’ve seen that the Donald Trump from the campaign trail is the same one who took office. So where do we go from here when all of our past efforts have failed?

Well, you don’t give up. The OTM folks didn’t and have been producing great content.

And we don’t plan to stop writing either, as you’ve probably noticed. If anything, Donald Trump has been the best muse we could have asked for. (After eight calm and steady years of Obama, it got hard to get outraged. We no longer have that problem.)

If you thought that our “Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2016” held all our thoughts on this new Trump administration, boy, were you wrong. That series really only discussed Donald Trump in the context of what his election could mean for the liberal world order and our “Invisible Golden Age”. But Trump’s election has ramifications for defense spending, foreign policy, national security, criminal justice and diplomacy. And in the month since he took office, we’ve seen a radical shift from the Trump administration in all those areas. So how will On V confront the second President to take office since it launched? More importantly, how will we change?

Quick Reactions to the News

If you’ve been following the blog since the inauguration, you’ve seen that we started doing “Quick Reaction” posts to the headlines. For a long time, we didn’t like “chasing the news” and yet, under the current climate, we’re re-thinking that policy. Frankly, Donald Trump churns out more news in a week than Obama did in a month, and we need to track and respond to all that.

In the future, we’ll be responding to news as it breaks, with links to our past relevant material. We’ll do this both for huge stories and smaller ones.

Keep up the Hot Takes

At the same time, you don’t read On Violence for opinion pieces you could read anywhere else. You want something different. Off the mainstream. We plan to keep that up, providing our readers with both unconventional ideas (the Army needs better managers, not “leaders”) or non-traditional solutions (remember the International Criminal Court for Terrorists, Pirates and Trans-National Criminals? Or the new Global Marshall Plan?)

We’ll keep that going. We want takes as hot as, well, the potential the radioactive fallout from Donald Trump’s next nuclear war, and ideas crazy enough that they just might work.

We’ll Stay in Our Lane

In an Army live fire drill, you stay in your lane or you get shot by someone else. Though we are incredibly interested in domestic politics (as was obvious in last week’s post), we know that our biggest contribution to the national debate comes in the areas related to “violence”, broadly defined, mostly focusing on foreign policy and the military. (And some domestic policy related to police shootings, police militarization, and civil liberties, which we feel fall under our purview.)

Still, we know that we can’t cover every issue. Take, for example, the wars in Libya and Syria. We haven’t written a ton on those subjects--though we had some great stuff on the news coverage over Syria--compared to Iran, where we wrote a both a paper we’re quite proud of and over thirty blog posts. In short, we know a lot about Iran and we’re quite worried about America going to war there.

So we’ll try to re-hit some of the areas we’ve done before: Iran, The World is Getting Safer, Trimming the Size of the Military, Intelligence is Evidence, Counter-Insurgency (if we start another war) and International Relations Liberalism.

That’s to start. As the Trump administration gets rolling, we’ll keep adding to the arsenal, as long as it relates to violence. Including a new, broader focus...

Addressing Conservative Ideology and Hypocrisy

One of the reason we started this blog was because we wanted to write philosophically about violence, in addition to using Michael C’s personal experience to recommend improvements for our military and foreign policy. But both of us have loved philosophy since we were kids.

Frankly, conservative philosophy has been degraded in this country. First, across the spectrum, they’ve embraced an ugly, immoral, anti-Christian foreign policy that focuses on hatred of others and violence. More importantly, as it relates to domestic policy, Republicans have embraced party over country, power over principles. Republicans in Congress held their noses in the hopes that Trump will help them pass their ideological agenda, while many rank and file Republicans voted for him in the hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade.

One thing connects their ugly foreign policy and desire for power: hypocrisy.

In the years ahead, we’re going to address this problem, even though it touches on non-explicitly-violent domestic policy. The country needs strong, motivated, spirited debate. It also needs an ethical one. Focused around facts. That puts values and ethics above personal gain. We hope to provide that.

Going Forward

Is just blogging enough? Will our words make a difference? We don’t know. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking on this; we don’t think so. Words without action only mean so much and words on their own can’t stop Donald Trump. So we have some other plans to expand the scope of the blog.

But we aren’t ready to say anything quite yet, so stay tuned.

Feb 17

Sooner or later, I was going to write a post on my complicated relationship with General Mike Flynn. When I went to the Military Intelligence Captains’ Career Course, Flynn had been on a roll, publishing papers critical of Military Intelligence and the IC in general during the War on Terror. Here’s a vaguely positive quote from a very old post:

“The Army needs an AAR at the highest level. General Flynn, the head intelligence officer in Afghanistan, recently published an article at CNAS titled “Fixing Intel.” It reads like an AAR summary. But why did he have to publish a paper in CNAS?”

In person I was even more pro-Flynn. Then he became a crazy person who took payments from Russia and gave speeches in Russia and went on Russia Today...you get the idea. Then he did his speech at Trump’s Republican National Convention, promising to lock up his political opponent, an idea he must have gotten from all his time in Russia. I was even more dismayed to find that he believes ISIS poses an existential threat to America. (Which is absurd.) And that we are in a generational war with Islam. (We aren’t.)

Fortunately, he got fired before we had to dive into his generally war-hawk views and his potential disastrous run as national security adviser. But we have some more thoughts:

1. The NSA position should be approved by the Senate

Some people have pointed out that the scandal isn’t over Flynn’s firing but his hiring. And we agree. But like always, we want to offer solutions.

Here’s one: the National Security Advisor should be a cabinet level position. This should be a policy priority of Democrats. (We would throw in any permanent members of the National Security Council Principals Committee as well.)

2. Flynn had a super low VORP.

We agree with the consensus: we’re happy Flynn is not National Security Advisor anymore. But why?

Due to a notable lack of statistics, it is hard to conduct an “advanced metrics” analysis of politicians. (The analytics revolution hasn’t hit politics. Yet.) Wouldn’t it be great to know the politicians who out-perform their metrics at any given time on a regular basis? Like including efficiency metrics or associating fund-raising with dollar per political vote?

Though we don’t have the data to do that actual analysis, I still think we, as political pundits, can do this “back of the envelope” style. And my preferred self-made statistic is “Value Over Replacement Politician”, a la sports metrics like VORP or WARP.

I developed this “VORP for Everyone” philosophy back in the military and I use it today as a manager. Basically, if you are a manager, your goal should be to manage a team of all-stars. If you do, you’ll be a rock star. If you have a team of replacement-level people, you’ll struggle to achieve results. And if you have below average people, you’ll set the organization back.

In politics, I don’t just mean VORP as in getting things done/effectiveness, I also mean in making good policy decisions. Joe Biden was probably an average VP in that he didn’t screw up much, but he also didn’t really do anything. John Kerry had a higher VORP than Hillary because he really sealed the deal with Iran and the P5+1 and the Paris Climate Change accord. In the Bush Administration, there were definitely some high performers in terms of accomplishing things, but those actions had disastrous consequences. For example, Vice President Cheney’s “replacement politician” probably wouldn’t have invaded Iraq.

So that brings us to General Flynn. Flynn both had bad ideas (see above about civilizational war) and seemed to be ineffective. So, by being both ineffective and misguided, Flynn had a truly low VORP. In other words, if every reasonable candidate for National Security Adviser is ranked in their performance, you would have 0% (the worst potential candidate ever!) and 100% (the greatest Nat Sec Adviser ever!). Flynn is somewhere between 1% and 10%. The odds are overwhelming we will find a better (and safer) National Security Adviser.

(Though it looks like a solid candidate just turned Trump down.)

3. Trump is most upset at the leaks, so we’re glad Obama didn’t set attack leakers...oh wait, he did.

This entire scandal, the revelations about Flynn talking to Russia, came out through leaks. Clearly, leaks help keep the government honest by exposing wrongdoing. Presidents hate this.

Like President Obama, who aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers.

We’ll be writing updates on Wikileaks, Russia hacking, leaking and more in the months to come, but for now we’ll say this: we support responsible leaks in the public interest, shepherded and edited by responsible journalists. But the tools President Obama left for his successor to prosecute leakers should frighten us.

4. The real national security crisis.

A final point on hypocrisy. We’ll be writing about this for months, if not years, to come, but the Republican party's hypocrisy is becoming unbearable. Flynn opened up his convention speech arguing that Hillary Clinton’s email server put our national security at risk:

FLYNN: Yes; I use -- I use #neverHillary; that's what I use. I have called on Hillary Clinton, I have called on Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race because she, she put our nation's security at extremely high risk with her careless use of a private e-mail server.

And yet donald Trump, this weekend, discussed national security on the patio of Mar-a-lago. The hypocrisy of him and Republicans is astounding. Clearly, Republicans only investigated Hillary’s email server for political reasons. In retrospect, this is another argument against the media’s massive coverage of that issue.

Feb 15

This blog focuses on America’s foreign policy and military issues, with slight detours into terrorism, intelligence, gun violence, civil rights, and the overall safety of the world today.

In short, we don’t think explaining/debating/writing about election results falls under that purview.

Which isn’t to say we don’t have thoughts. Clearly some explanation is needed to explain how Donald Trump got elected to determine how we can best respond to that election. As the saying goes, you can’t know where you’re going/how to win elections, if you don’t know where you’ve been/why you lost. And though I, Eric C, am just bursting to write an entire book on what happened--and Lord knows people will--we’ll try to limit this to just one post. Mainly, we just don’t agree with most of the explanations and narratives put forward so far.

But first, let’s debunk two common misconceptions:

Misconception #1: X Factor Caused Hillary Clinton to Lose.

Notice we didn’t name the factor. That’s because, as is the case with almost every major event in history, no one thing causes one other thing. A whole bunch of them do. Was it Russia? Was it Comey? Was it Clinton’s campaign? Yes. And no. Actually, it was all of them. And more.

You may remember our analysis of the Iraq war. We listed a range of factors and provided our back of the envelope estimate for how much they caused us to lose that war. We’ll take the same approach for this election. Though we should mention, the “percentages” are in no way scientific.

Misconception #2: A Majority of Americans Supported Donald Trump.

I originally wrote the headline for this section as “Hillary Clinton lost the election” but deleted it because, well, she did lose the electoral college, and Michael C doesn’t like me getting too partisan on the blog. But of all the other things that can be said about the election, this is the most important:

The Democratic candidate for President received nearly three million more votes than the Republican.

Even more important: Democrats received six million more votes for their Senators. And how many votes cost Hillary the Electoral college? About 80,000 in a nation of over 300 million. So almost nothing. (0.02% in other words.) What about the enthusiasm gap? More people showed up to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration than attended it. And it spawned counter-protests across the country, including our very conservative home town of San Clemente, CA.

These facts may surprise you, because a ton of commentators, from the far left to the middle, have claimed the election proves that Democrats are out of touch with Americans. And Republicans and conservatives have used the results to claim they have a legislative mandate. We’ve seen pundits we love make this claim, even if they later they point out that people always overreact to elections. Probably the best example would be Glenn Greenwald, who’s alternately blamed drone strikes, NSA wiretapping, the Iraq War, Democrats support for Wall Street and more for the election result, even though some of those claims are clearly absurd.   

Repeat this mantra, Democrats: don’t act like losers when you didn’t lose.

So, with those misperceptions out of the way, let’s breakdown why Hillary isn’t President, starting chronologically. (To be clear, the last two causes are the most important, so if you don’t read the whole thing, skip to the bottom.)

1. Pessimism: 5%

2. Media Biases: 5%

As we wrote about in our “Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2016”, it’s been incredibly dispiriting to watch as America falls into an almost nation-wide despair over the last couple of years, disillusioned by police shootings of unarmed citizens, riots in response to police shootings, shootings of police officers, a vanishingly small number of terrorist attacks, economic inequality, the rise of ISIS and, finally, the election of an uninformed possible demagogue.

In reality, the world is as safe as it has ever been, which is why we’ve written over 20 posts arguing this point, and plan to write a whole bunch more. We’ll say it again for impact: these are the safest most prosperous times in human history. Ever. That includes the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

Sense a disconnect?

As I wrote about a few weeks ago, Democrats, at every turn, fail to trumpet their victories. Left-wingers always complain about Democrats. The “mainstream media”, regardless of who is President, assumes an adversarial stance versus the party in power, focusing on the President. And conservatives? They’re mostly happy if they’re in power.

But relentless media negativity is only one of many ways the media actually favors conservatives:

- Mainstream media coverage tended to favor Donald Trump, mainly by trying to report “evenly” (in terms of time) on both candidates. This led to a false equivalency of both sides, with outlets like the New York Times (but not The Washington Post) running “investigations” on the Clinton Foundation without spending time on similar investigations into the Trump Foundation.

- Or you could point out the false equivalency every time someone said “Washington is broken” or “Nothing gets done!” without pointing out that Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, broke it. And it worked. 

- Another problem is that the media tends to close around the same daily topics. Thus, the media narrative focused Clinton’s emails, while never settling on one Trump issue, save groping.

- And the right-wing has an entire media apparatus, from Fox News to talk radio to Breitbart, dedicated to their cause, while most “left-wing” outlets (like NPR, PBS and the New York Times) still want to cover things fairly and follow ethical journalistic practices. Just look at the debate over the “Trump Dossier” compared to what conservatives promote on Alex Jones’ Infowars or Breitbart. Many far-left organizations (like The Intercept, Democracy Now! or Jacobin) are as critical of moderates as they are of conservatives.

Overall, these media biases, especially the overwhelmingly pessimistic coverage of the world today, led to an enthusiasm gap among Democrats that probably more than accounts for the missing 80,000 votes Hillary Clinton needed to win the Electoral College.

3. Systemic Republican Electoral Advantages: 20%

Republicans, due to a variety of factors, have a competitive edge electorally in America:

Geography: Voters in low population states have more representation in electing Presidents and Senators than high population states. The Senate looks almost like a national redistricting effort by the Founding Fathers, cramming a lot of Democrats into a few large states like California, New York and Illinois.

Redistricting: Republicans have a near insurmountable advantage in the House of Representatives because of gerrymandered districts.

Citizens United: Since the Supreme Court’s decision, Republicans have a big money edge over Democrats, especially down ballot.

The Media: See above section.

Voting Rights: Republicans have systematically restricted voting by closing polling places and creating ID requirements since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. The exact effects are uncertain, but it’s a problem that’s only getting worse.

To sum up, Republicans have a systematic advantage in our country's elections, hence why Democrats can win more votes for both the President and the Senate and still not hold office. As Nate Silver described it, Republicans are working to “preserve minority rule in this country”. What’s the catch? These advantages mean that the governing bodies of America no longer actually represent the views and opinions of a majority of Americans. That’s not good for the country long-term. 

4. Hillary Clinton’s Campaigning: 5%

5. A Bitter DNC Primary: 5%

6. Third Party Candidates: 3%

Critics on the far left are right about one thing: by consolidating around Hillary Clinton before the primaries began, Democrats failed to both adequately vet her weaknesses and nominated a sub-par campaigner. Hillary Clinton, in her own words, said, “I’m not a natural campaigner.” And her campaign failed to focus on the Rust Belt states.

This also showed up in an overall enthusiasm gap which, again, we blame on liberals and the media. Need proof of an enthusiasm gap? Just compare the size of Hillary’s crowds during the campaign to, say, the size of crowds at protests after the election.

Many Bernie Sanders supporters, cravenly inspired by Hillary’s loss, immediately said their guy would have won, though I doubt it, and I’m also a self-described socialist. But the ugly primary fight led a lot of Bernie Sander’s supporters to become (justifiably) disaffected with the system, especially after the release of hacked DNC emails. (More on this below.) Some Bernie supporters spent the entire DNC convention booing her. Then, some of Bernie Sander’s disaffected voters (understandably but regrettably) voted for third party candidates.

These factors weren’t huge (all told we only give them about 13%) but in an election of 80,000 votes, they matter.

7. Racism/Immigration: 1%

8. Economic Inequality: 1%

Since the election, the main topic of debate among pundits has been whether racism or rising economic inequality caused Trump’s victory. With apologies to easy media narratives, I doubt either issue swayed the election.

I think blaming economic inequality for the election overstates its impact. Put another way: if Democrats/America were more socialist, would that have stopped Trump? I doubt it. Last month, I got super annoyed listening to Fareed Zakaria GPS because Fareed made that exact point I’d been wanting to write. Namely, populist, right-wing, white nationalist movements have been popping up around the world, regardless of economic inequality or expanded social welfare programs:

“Supporters of Trump and other populist movements often point to economics as the key to their success — the slow recovery, wage stagnation, the erosion of manufacturing jobs, rising inequality. These are clearly powerful contributing factors. But it is striking that we see right-wing populism in Sweden, which is doing well economically; in Germany, where manufacturing remains robust; and in France, where workers have many protections. Here in the United States, exit polls showed that the majority of voters who were most concerned about the economy cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

"The one common factor present everywhere, however, is immigration. In fact, one statistical analysis of European Union countries found that more immigrants invariably means more populists. According to the study, if you extrapolate from current trends, “as the percentage of immigrants approaches approximately 22 percent, the percentage of right-wing populist voters exceeds 50 percent.” Hostility to immigration has been a core theme of every one of these populist parties."

Michael C disagrees. He thinks rising income inequality dampened enthusiasm among Democrats, a theme that runs through almost every section in this post. On this point, I think he may be right about one thing: Democrats have seemed ineffectual on combating rising inequality...mainly because Republicans have stopped them at every turn, by opposing any form of tax increases, Wall Street reforms, worker’s rights and government spending. And now that Trump has taken office, this trend continues, debunking the entire argument.

What about race? Some of Trump’s supporters certainly are racist. A certain segment of Americans, energized by the election of the first black President, then catalyzed by terror attacks, immigration and police shootings, were motivated by race. But do I think these people would have voted for Hillary under any circumstance? No. Republicans could have run Marco Rubio, and the other factors I’ve described (like media coverage, the electoral college, Wikileaks/Comey) still would have played a bigger role.

Overall, I doubt either racism or economic inequality swayed the election. At least not as much as the next two factors...

9. FBI Director James Comey’s Letter to Congress: 15%

10. Wikileaks Release of Hacked Emails: 15%

Hillary had a seven point lead in the election going into October. By election day, the polls had basically evened up to within 2% of the final popular vote total. This is pretty good as far as polling errors go. And it means you can pretty accurately assess which news stories damaged Clinton’s poll numbers.

FBI director James Comey’s unprecedented step of writing a letter to Congress in the weeks before the election, hinting at another possible investigation into a Hillary email server, clearly tipped the election to Trump. Wikileak’s release of the DNC emails got Bernie’s supporters upset at her and the release of another batch of Podesta emails in October kept negative headlines in the news. All three fed into a steady narrative about Clinton’s untrustworthiness.

Before Democrats start a debate about how to radically transform the party in response to the election, recognize that these two events did more damage than anything else, except the next factor. Again, Hillary got a majority of votes for President. And she only lost the election by about 80,000 votes.

11. The Electoral College: 25%

When critics say Democrats are blaming everyone but themselves for the loss, ask this, “If the election were determined by popular vote, where would Trump have gotten 3 million more votes?” Hillary Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump. Almost every other explanation falls short when you look at it this way.

Some people rebut this by saying, “Well, those are the rules everyone agreed to.” True, but the next logical question is: do you agree with this system? If you do, well, sorry, you’re wrong. The Electoral College is an anachronistic, anti-democratic holdover from the past and it needs to be abolished immediately. It’s archaic, propped up by a love of tradition or a desire to maintain the power of low population, less diverse states, as Bill O’Reilly quite inelegantly pointed out on his show.

In Closing, Democrats Needs to Fix the Systemic Problems in our Electoral System

To summarize the takeaway from this exercise, anytime you hear anyone (left, right or center; pundit, politician, analyst, reporter or civilian) argue that Democrats need to change their message or, God forbid, their policies remember this:

The Democratic message already appeals to a majority of Americans.

Looking at why Hillary Clinton isn’t president or why Democrats don’t control the Senate, it isn’t because of the Democrats “message” or policy priorities. The majority of Americans agree with those. Instead, systemic electoral disadvantages favor Republicans over Democrats. They favor rural voters over urban voters, white voters over minorities. Outside of Clinton’s weakness as a campaigner or Democratic pessimism, almost every reason the Democrats lost is out of their control.

Instead of changing their message to fit an electoral system that favors Republicans, Democrats need to prioritize fixing the electoral system to enact their policies, starting with redistricting efforts, reforming campaign finance laws, stopping voter suppression, investigating the FBI and Russian meddling in the election, and ending the electoral college. In terms of strategy, they need to open the Democratic primary to all candidates, learn to celebrate their victories, stop fighting with each other, and pressure the media to report fairly.

We plan to do our part, as we’ll discuss on Monday.