Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | June 10, 2011

Yemen: War on autopilot

Clausewitz was right about this: war is the continuation of policy by other means.  Waging war is an execution of policy, and what it requires constant supervision from is policy, not rules or plans adhered to by rote.

Ed Morrissey at Hot Air had a useful piece Thursday on the latest strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen, and asked whether that amounts to inaugurating another “new war” for which President Obama failed to seek Congressional authorization.  His conclusion was that it doesn’t, because the strikes on Al Qaeda are a continuation of the global war on terror (GWOT), for which there is ongoing authorization.

I don’t disagree with that conclusion, but I also don’t think it answers the right question.  The better question right now is not whether Obama has the authority to conduct strikes in Yemen, but whether continuing the GWOT on its previous basis, despite changing conditions in the Middle East, is a good application of policy.

Yemen is fast sinking into a civil war.  President Saleh, injured and evacuated for medical treatment, almost certainly won’t be going back.  Al Qaeda in Yemen is no longer merely a rogue element against which the US and a recognized government in Sanaa are making common cause.  It is now one of the factions seeking to influence the outcome of Yemen’s internal struggle.  Some in the mix of factions – namely, the Shia Houthi tribe – have support from Iran; others from Saudi Arabia.

Now, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for US policy as it pertains to the fate of Yemen.  It would take a tremendous effort to pursue a favorable outcome in Yemen without armed intervention – and armed intervention is unthinkable.

Granting that, however: is continuing the air strikes on Al Qaeda, using the same rhetoric and gloating press releases as in 2009-10 – as if nothing has changed in Yemen – really the right thing to do?  We can insist that we are not involved in the internal melee there, but we’re attacking one of the factions in it.  In this strange situation, we have taken a giant de facto step away from the semi-fiction of “cooperating with the Yemeni government,” because that “government,” whatever is left of it, is in no position to “cooperate” with anyone.

Instead, we are – in effect – entering an all-but-lawless territory at will and opening fire, for no purposes but our own.  We assume no responsibility for Yemen’s internal problem, while nevertheless using force that will affect its outcome on Yemeni territory.  Aside from other considerations, this approach lacks any assumption of moral or political leadership on the part of the United States.  “Who cares what happens to Yemen, as long as we can kill Al Qaeda operatives?” is a not-unreasonable reading of the policy effectively at work here.

The narrow cynicism of that may resonate with some Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum.  But it is the opposite of global leadership.  It tacitly posits the United States as a nation wholly on the defensive, without vision, moral confidence, or compunction, reduced to using the territory of others for a sniper perch.  That is not the United States we have been for the last 70 years – but the “GWOT on autopilot” is making it seem like that’s the nation we are becoming.

I faulted George W. Bush for not sufficiently engaging on the moral and political side of counter-jihadism.  But with the Obama administration, the bottom has simply fallen out in that regard.  However imperfectly, Bush did make an effort to bolster the civic position of average citizens and potential reformers in the Muslim world.  He used stand-off attacks on jihadist cadre far less than Obama does, and “hearts and minds” engagement substantially more.

Obama has reverted to a lowest-common-denominator mode of execution favoring drone strikes.  Perhaps he thinks military force “works” to produce outcomes the way a piston fires, by a morally neutral set of physical rules.  However he sees it, his understanding doesn’t seem to extend to this: that when you wade into someone else’s civil war and start shooting, you are sending a big signal of some kind.  Sound policy acknowledges when a condition of that magnitude has changed, and checks to see if its assumptions and goals should be revised.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.



  1. This is the overarching danger in Robot Wars. When there is nothing risked, no action is foreclosed. Of course this is the Liberal way. No consequences, ever.

    When wars are conducted by remote control life and liberty become meaningless. This is actually two directional. The enemy becomes numbers, dots, counters, markers of attrition. In disregarding his enemy’s humanity, the attacker also ignores the enemy’s greatest weapons, human intellect and emotion. Those weapons, when deployed with self-righteous anger will defeat robots and their masters every time.

    We are treading in the socio-political territory of Science Fiction writers. When you risk nothing, there is no valor, no honor and no sacrifice. Without those there are no victories; moral or otherwise. There is just killing… to no purpose. Societies never survive that condition.


    • TMF- i’m favorable to your conclusion but wonder if you have any historical examples of not surviving that condition?

      • The closest that I have to a “robot” war would be the interminable wars of the Italian city-states of the 13th-16th centuries.

        The condottieri provided the various houses of the Duchies of proto-Italy with plenty of fighting, lots of battles, and many men killed, but nothing much was ever settled.

        Although mercenaries are the “human” their function within a political structure is mostly robotic. Oddly their “humanity” was often demonstrated by their questionable loyalty, and treachery when dealing with the nature of fighting for cash.

        Throughout history the use of mercenary forces has been more or less a chronic failure, and those societies that attempted to establish or defend themselves using such military configuration have met with failure.

        On a micro-level, the German Vengeance weapons failed miserably. The V1 and V2 both presented certain dangers, but their promise far outweighed their capabilities.

        My father made an observation about the use of Ryan Firebee Drones in Vietnam. They were dangerous because “.. [T]hey were misleading; there was no judgement, no flexibility, and no perspective. ” (I realize the 1970’s era drones were far less capable than the current crop of drones, but his observation is no less accurate)

        BTW our own history is touched with Mercenaries… the Hessians were fierce, capable soldiers, but ultimately were defeated by not having much real interest in defeating the Americans. Many deserted, many showed up in American uniforms… and their children fought the British in 1812.

        Hope this helps… some – Like I said this is all very new and has only really been considered by Science Fiction.


  2. Higher orders of issues may moot this issue. Al Qaeda seeks to destroy our economic strength and in particular to thwart our oil supply. These are things Obama is doing. Do not give this clown a second term, then, drill, baby, drill. That’s a good policy change. And if we don’t redeem our money supply, we’re soon going to have the same problem that sparked the Middle East chaos: hunger. This is just around the corner and there will be little concern over winning the hearts and minds of Muslims if and when this occurs.

  3. Drones are weapons, not something entirely novel. Dozens of different weapons have been developed for the purpose of attacking the enemy at a distance and they’ve all been employed in hope of inflicting damage while minimizing exposure for the side employing the weaponry.

    The use of drones is not going to prove to be without cost or consequence for the usual reason. The monopoly doesn’t last

  4. But they’re probably not gonna lead to the collapse of the United States.
    We’ll have to find other reasons why the spineless liberals are gonna destroy the Empire.

  5. There are some hearts and minds that can’t be won over to our side. Perhaps our CiC or our State Dept has concluded that the positive benefit of whacking terrorist targets of convenience will be greater than the adverse consequences. I am not so sure they are wrong.

    • I’m inclined to agree with you, Vinnie. The Arabs are realists and are quite understanding of the actions we take to defend ourselves against Al Quaida. What they don’t like (in common with people everywhere) is foreign meddling in their internal affairs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: