It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry in response to recent press reports suggesting that the Biden administration is gearing up for a “sustained bombing campaign” against the Houthis in Yemen. Unsurprisingly, the initial coalition strikes against the Houthis apparently did not destroy the Houthi arsenal being launched at commercial vessels in the Red Sea.
As was the case in the great jihadi hunt across Southwest Asia stretching over nearly a quarter century, the United States today finds itself at war in a conflict with no defined political objective and a clearly unachievable military objective against an enemy that is nested in a complex political and strategic circumstance that is completely unfamiliar to the United States. Sound familiar?
It is also a war with no apparent timeline in which the application of force is linked to ill-defined benchmarks, suggesting that we could launch our bombs and missiles indefinitely or until we run out of ammunition — to no strategic purpose.
Have we learned nothing from our follies of the last 25 years in which we proved incapable of clearly relating ends, ways, and means in making decisions on when and under what circumstances to use force?
For those states that can afford them, standoff weapons and bombs have become the preferred method of policing the international system. Yet it’s hard to remember any of these strikes having any sort of lasting positive impact once the headlines and videos faded. Strangely, these tools of war maintain a hold on government and the popular imagination as some sort of “decisive” action that curiously demonstrates strength, commitment, and resolve.
The reality is that strike warfare — long range strikes by planes and missiles — has rarely achieved its advertised political and strategic consequence. Yet it remains a dangerous, drug-like chimera to countries like the United States desperately searching for some sort of easy, low-cost way of maintaining global influence, control, and primacy in a chaotic world. Like all drugs, the initial rush feels great, but the long-range addiction is, in the end, far more destructive, dangerous, and difficult (if not impossible) to kick.
We tell ourselves that the state/bad guy on the receiving end (in this case the Houthis) will feel the wrath of our (duly proportionate) strikes and reconsider continuing their attacks.
Yet, of course, the Houthis in public pronouncements seem to have welcomed the chance to start shooting directly at the United States. Moreover, we have limited knowledge of the Houthi anti-ship weapon arsenal in its entirety, let alone the political motivations that surround their own use of force. The truth is we have no knowledge or understanding of whether and under what circumstances the Houthis will cease fire, but blithely assume that our missiles and bombs will make them behave.
The history of America's fetish
Open-ended military strikes regrettably have become an ill-considered American fetish. We told ourselves the same thing in December 1998, in the three-day fusillade against Iraq known as Operation Desert Fox, when Washington wanted to stress its disapproval of Saddam Hussein’s recalcitrance toward UN weapons inspectors. And, of course, Desert Fox was really just the exclamation point on a campaign of long-range strikes during the 1990s that sought to control the Iraqi dictator’s non-existent WMD programs.
My favorite strike of the 1990s was the 1996 cruise missile strike to warn Saddam off attacking the Kurds in northern Iraq. He did not. But the strategic consequences of those strikes went unrecognized at the time, and they had little to do with Saddam. Following those strikes, the U.S. took on the role of protecting the Kurds and tacitly endorsed their dream of statehood — a decision that today continues to shape the region in ways that may or may not support our interests. In the end, the era of the 1990s culminating in Desert Fox proved to be little else but the bridge to the next phase of the U.S. war on Iraq.
We told ourselves the same thing in the opening phases of the shock and awe campaign of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as we blasted away in our creative targeting against Saddam’s armies under the rubric of “shock and awe” and “effects-based operations.” Sure enough, Saddam’s armies indeed melted away from our initial bombing and our advancing armies, only to regroup and morph into something much more dangerous and deadly that is still shaping the landscape of the Middle East today.
We told ourselves that same thing in Afghanistan, as we unleashed a fusillade of strikes called in by CIA jawbreaker teams that sent the Taliban scurrying over the border into Pakistan in 2001 to rest and refit. Once they had done that, they slipped back across the border to resume the war — a conflict they would eventually win 20 years later — forcing the United States to retreat and leaving the Taliban in control of the country.
We told ourselves the same thing in Libya in 2011, when we believed that a few well-placed missiles and bombs would enable a peaceful transition of power from Qadafi to someone more amenable to, well, us. Of course, as was the case in Iraq, the strikes were only the opening round in an ongoing struggle for political power and authority that continues to this day.
As was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, the second-order effects of the strikes in Libya ended up being of far greater strategic consequences than was anticipated at the time. The current Biden national security team, which engineered these strikes, obviously learned nothing from the experience.
We’ve told ourselves the same thing in the global war on terror, where we have sent our robots and special forces hunting for sought-after “high value targets” all over the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. We have surely rained death and destruction on these enemies (and killed lots of innocent people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time) with our Hellfire missiles, but did we win any of these wars?
Yet we remain addicted
Despite these uncertain results and even colossal failures, we remain addicted to strike warfare, telling ourselves that we can police the politics on the ground by dropping bombs from on high. The reality is, of course, different. Targeting people and property with high explosives tends to make them angry and fight harder. Just ask the Houthis, who have endured years of U.S.-sponsored and supported airstrikes by the Saudis and others in the Yemeni civil war. Obviously, the Houthis were not bombed into submission.
Therein lies the strategic dilemma for the West, which has invested billions in the strike, information, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities designed to blow things up at long range with little advertised collateral damage. The revolution in military affairs (and billions of taxpayer dollars) indeed delivered the strike complex — much to the delight of political leaders, who saw in it a low-cost substitute for sending armies to the four corners of the globe to police local political disputes. As described above, this is largely a myth.
The Houthis have indicated they’ll stop shooting when the Gaza War ends. Perhaps Secretary Blinken should stop by Sana'a on his next trip to the region for consultations. Even more importantly, maybe the Biden Administration should listen to the Houthis and others and take decisive steps to end the war in Gaza instead of becoming enmeshed in the conflict's wider fires to no strategic purpose.
Surrounded by the wreckage around the world wrought by strikes stretching back over half a century, you’d think that it was time for us to get into the rehab center and confront our addiction, yet this latest round of strikes tells us that our habit depressingly remains as strong as ever.
James Russell is an associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. The views expressed here are his own.
An aviation ordnanceman on board the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) tightens a laser guiding device to the nose of a 2,000 pound bomb in preparation for strikes against Iraq during DESERT FOX in 1998 (US Navy/public domain)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.