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When Both Parties are Right: U.S. President Trump & U.S. DOD Secretary Mattis

by John Brian Shannon

Each member of the U.S. president’s cabinet serves at the pleasure of the president and the same is true in the case of the United States Secretary of Defense which position is in the top tier of the Executive Office serving the country’s leader. The other two top tier cabinet positions are, of course, the Secretary of State and the Chief of Staff. All of whom serve at the president’s discretion.

That said, General Jim Mattis has done an excellent job as the U.S. Defense Secretary and there are questions as to why such a capable individual should find it necessary to retire from a position to which he was obviously well-suited. Also, the question exists whether the president influenced that decision or whether General Mattis was fired and the term “retiring” was used to convey proper respect to a long-serving military member who earned every honour he ever received.

Obviously, the president and the secretary had a difference on policy, that goes without saying. But under the U.S. Constitution, a U.S. president can pursue any foreign or domestic policy he chooses and he or she doesn’t need the approval of his cabinet.

(Of course, it’s better if they do approve)

U.S. cabinet officers serve the president, not the other way around. Therefore, in case of a difference of opinion the president wins, every time, and it must always be that way.

Even such notable soldiers as General Douglas MacArthur who tried to bully U.S. president Harry S. Truman into militarily attacking China — thereby dramatically enlarging the Korean War — was finally forced to step down famously saying, Old soldiers never die; they just fade away” find themselves subject to the U.S. president’s discretion by virtue of the laws of the United States and its Constitution.

Still, it could be instructive in some way to examine the reasons behind such events to ascertain whether a systemic problem exists that must be dealt with, or to find whether these events occurred due to some other reason.

Let’s look at the Syrian situation in the context of American military involvement, because in the case of president Trump and secretary Mattis it’s almost surely the issue that divided them:

  1. Syria has been involved in a civil war since 2011 and was the last country in the region to feel the effects of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
  2. No country is allowed under international law to intervene militarily in another country’s civil war without being invited by the lawful government of that country. Countries can’t unilaterally insert themselves into the midst of civil wars. That’s black letter international law. It’s 100% non-negotiable.
  3. Which the Americans did. As did their allies (some European countries).
  4. Russia and Iran on the other hand were invited by the lawful government of Syria and that invitation was made publicly. It’s a matter of public record.
  5. The legal exception to involvement by non-invited parties occurs if the UN Security Council approves military actions; Where the UN Security Council votes to apply sanctions or approve military force, military intervention becomes legal under international law. However, the UN Security Council didn’t approve military force by the U.S. and its allies against Syrian government forces or non-government forces (terrorists). Yet, the U.S. and its allies militarily attacked targets in Syria without the proper and legal authorizations required by international law.
  6. Though such actions clearly broke international law, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad didn’t seem to mind. Yes, he did complain at first, but as soon as the Americans and their European allies lessened their attacks on terrorist targets in Syria, Bashar Al-Assad suddenly stopped complaining. To many people (and it might even hold up in international court if it ever comes to that) this clearly registered as tacit approval for America and her allies to conduct military operations against ISIS inside Syria for the duration of the Syrian civil war.

With me so far? Few people would dispute points 1 through 6 above.

No doubt that U.S. president Trump and U.S. secretary of defense Mattis were 100% aligned in regards to U.S. policy in Syria since the confirmation of General Jim Mattis on January 20, 2017.

Any difference of opinion between the two is therefore recent and easy to discern.


American Involvement in Syria: Part II

Since about November of 2018 it appears that the battle against ISIS is largely won in Syria.

From now on, it’s going to be a mopping-up operation with exponentially increasing chances for American and Russian forces to clash (accidentally or otherwise) in the ever-smaller areas formerly controlled by terrorist groups.

Not only American and Russian of course, many countries operate inside Syria fighting terrorists and thereby assist the Syrian government (even if assisting the Syrian regime isn’t one of their objectives) and some terrorists might decide to meddle with the foreign forces fighting them.

Any individual who feels they have something against America or Europe who happens to have access to a rifle, a rocket launcher, or other weapons system may feel entitled under Jihadi rules to shoot down an American fighter or bomber jet, helicopter, or perhaps take out a number of U.S. soldiers who may be sleeping in a tent or non-hardened building.

For a terrorist, the opportunity to create a war between Russia and America, or between Russia and Europe (however unlikely that may, or may not be) might prove too tempting and numbers of them on multiple occasions might soon decide to employ themselves on suicide missions to accomplish that objective.

‘Targets of Opportunity’ are what every American and European military person will now represent to Jihadis at this stage — whereas prior to November 2018 they were too busy trying to stay alive to get involved in planning traps so that (nominal allies, in Syria, at least) America and Russia might find themselves in a ground or air fight against the other. Such danger that represents!


American Involvement in Syria: Part III

Even after the American troops (numbering only 2000 personnel) leave Syria there are still a number of ways to influence events in that country.

a) Soft Power
b) Hard Power

Soft power is the application of diplomacy. The UN is the most likely place for this to happen and America has a strong presence at the United Nations. At this point in the Syrian civil war, America’s best option is UN-backed diplomacy and its 2nd-best option remains direct diplomacy between the nations that are in some way involved with Syria.

Hard power is the application of military force. The U.S. military is the most powerful on Earth but that doesn’t mean the United States should be bombing just for the sake of bombing.

If there are better options than that, those should take precedence over military actions that could result in the unwanted and unnecessary problems of military conflict happening by accident between the U.S. and Russia, or between the U.S. and Iran (or between the U.S. and any other countries operating in Syria) or between the Americans and the Syrians.

None of that is going to help bring peace in Syria.

A final thought about U.S. Hard Power being applied in Syria following the pullout of America’s 2000-strong ground and air force is that the US Navy can deliver as many missiles as the president chooses to targets in Syria from the Mediterranean Sea, anytime the president wants. This has been done in the past with regards to purported chemical attacks that occurred in Syria and is something the Navy trains for every day of the year. Likewise with the U.S. Air Force, which can deliver as many bombs or missiles to terrorist targets inside Syria as the president chooses.

And none of them are going to accidentally bomb Russian or Syrian government positions due to the prior notification protocols common among the world’s major military forces that operate in conflict zones.

Conducting military operations inside Syria is still against international law (therefore I’m not advocating for such operations!) unless Bashir Al-Assad approves of it in advance (and it’s possible he might need help if he gets surrounded by terrorists again) and it’s still in America’s interests to have the democratically elected Bashir Al-Assad government in charge of Syria vs. any number of shady terrorist groups — but at least the lives of 2000 American troops won’t be unnecessarily at risk.

They don’t mind necessary risk, but they hate unnecessary risk. Wouldn’t you?


“Two Men Look Out Through the Same Bars – One Sees Mud, the Other, Stars”

In the final stage of the Syrian Civil War, U.S. president Trump likely sees a case of diminishing returns in Syria, with a growing threat of accidental conflict with America’s nominal allies (Russia, Syria and even Iran — as far as the Syrian conflict is concerned) He sees the potential for a sudden Jihadi attack comparable to the Marine barracks attack in Beirut (1983) that killed 241 U.S. Marines that could undo the good work done by U.S forces in the country especially if a large number of U.S. troops were to be killed in such an attack whether by design or accident; He sees that Syria’s allies are poised and able to complete the task at their cost in both lives and treasure, and he sees that America isn’t going to gain anything further by staying.

ISIS will be defeated in Syria due in large part due to American involvement and no matter how long America stays it isn’t likely to get more recognition for its work fighting terrorism there than it’s already gotten.

In short, for all the right reasons, president Trump decided that U.S. forces should leave Syria — and U.S. Navy aircraft carriers or U.S. Air Force bombers could still deliver a message to terrorist groups operating inside Syria at a moment’s notice.

And from the perspective of Jim Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, he has resigned for all the right reasons. If you can’t agree on policy (and it is the job of the president to decide policy, not the SecDef) then it’s right to leave. No doubt that General Mattis felt there was more good that American forces could still do inside Syria (even though they weren’t invited and aren’t there legally) and that having U.S. forces on the ground was a stabilizing force in the country. It was that for certain.

But now that Bashar Al-Assad’s tacit approval of unasked-for American ‘assistance’ is almost certainly about to come to an end president Trump has made the right policy move on Syria.

And the president still retains the option of US Navy or Air Force attacks on terrorist targets inside Syria — while removing only the increasingly imperilled ground force option.

‘Timing is everything’ they say.


Related Articles:

  • A look back at the deadly 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut (abc.com)

Who benefits from a wider Ukrainian conflict?

by John Brian Shannon  | February 18, 2015

During the Cold War it was widely known that the Western forces (except for the Swiss and the Swedes who were politically neutral) could hold the Warsaw Pact countries for only one week before they would need to ‘go nuclear’ against the invading Soviet Army.

Therefore, no matter how bravely the Western European armies, air forces and navies fought and no matter how bravely the U.S. and Canadian forces fought, the numerical superiority of Warsaw Pact (especially in tanks, troops and war matériel) meant that they would completely overwhelm Western Europe in a week.

Which is why the Western powers reserved the right to employ ‘First Strike’ capability (the right to use nuclear weapons as the first option in any conflict against Warsaw Pact nations) in the case that Western Europe was invaded. Logical, but harsh. (It kept the peace for decades, it must be stated)

After the Cold War ended, it was discovered that the Warsaw Pact powers would have won the conventional war even more quickly than we had realized due to other factors that were then-unknown to us.

The West would’ve lost in 3 days and we would’ve been caught ‘flat-footed’ and completely overrun. Yes, a complete rout in the conventional war.

If it really came down to it, that same situation could still play out in Europe in our century, as Russia still enjoys huge numerical superiority in tanks, military personnel, and other war-making capabilities.

In order to not lose all of Europe, we would need to go nuclear on Day 3 of a concerted attack, or we would lose the whole thing.

Which would invite an overwhelming response. Obviously.  Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Map of Europe - early 2014

Europe map courtesy of Cartographic Research Lab, University of Alabama

There is no military solution in Ukraine

Anyone who thinks otherwise, needs to go to War College for 10 years because they are not basing their decisions on the above-noted reality. Which can bite you.

The strongest defence against a Russian takeover of Europe is a strong and united society, one that is impenetrable and indivisible.

Such a society presents a major problem for any invader. With no means to divide and conquer, it means an extended conflict, à la the French Resistance of WWII. No invader wants that, whether political leaders who must deal with the political fallout of rising bodycounts on TV every night for months or years, or military leaders who recognize the devastating effect it has on overall troop morale, affecting their troops based thousands of miles away. See Vietnam War. See also, Soviet/Afghanistan War.

A bickering, splintered European society, and involving ourselves militarily in Ukraine could raise the temptation level of Russian military leaders to a place that we should always avoid.

All that is needed to empower the Russian military to gain undue and increased influence in the Duma and in the office of the Russian president, is a for social disorder to spread in Europe and a few European governments to fall in rapid succession.

As we saw in Russia, circa 1991, kinetic energy can quickly become a dynamic force

We know that Russia’s strong suit is the ability to wage conventional war in Europe.

We know that the Ukrainian separatists/pro-autonomy forces strength lies in their ability to hold their present ground — and at the very worst retreat into Russian territory for days, weeks, or months, to re-enter Ukraine elsewhere and fight from that location. It’s a huge border. There is no way to police it.

We know that Europe’s strong suit is Soft Power. 

Why would we ‘fight’ Ukrainian separatists/pro-autonomy forces (who apparently, receive military and intelligence assistance from Russia) with our weakest hand (our conventional military forces) which happens to be Russia’s strongest hand?

Why not ‘fight’ Ukrainian separatists/pro-autonomy forces/Russian assistance with Soft Power — our strongest hand?

For one example of sending Russia a ‘Soft Power message’ — understand what lower oil prices have done to the Russian economy

That use of Soft Power happened (over the space of a decade) because both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama decided to ramp-up North American oil production to record levels, resulting in a massive glut of oil which has worked to dramatically lower global oil prices.

Which policy netted a number of results. Gasoline prices for Americans dropped considerably and are still dropping, which boosted the U.S. economy. Due to the huge increase in American petroleum production affecting the global oil supply, global oil prices are still falling. America’s foreign oil imports dropped significantly. By 2017 at the latest, the U.S. will be a net petroleum exporter. Europe’s moribund economy began to improve almost instantly as the oil price fell. Russia’s huge oil exports suddenly became a huge liability for them and growth in the Russian economy has ground to a halt. All of that has happened via the use of Soft Power. Impressive.

Russia needs their oil to sell above $110. per barrel in order for it to be profitable

Unlike Canada where the tar sands oil (classed as #4 sour crude) needs to be priced at over $56./bbl to be profitable, and Saudi crude oil needs to be priced over $7./bbl (classed as #1 sweet crude, if there’s any of that ‘easy to extract and easy to refine’ oil left) and $22./bbl (classed as #2 or #3 medium crude) to be sold at a profit.

It’s the oil speculators (who live mostly in America and Russia, collectively known as the 1%) who profit on anything over and above production costs — whether we are talking oil or any other commodity. But you knew that.

There was no real 1% prior to high oil prices, nor was there a huge, profitable, and growing export market for Russian oil.

Ergo, the high oil prices of recent years are largely responsible for the creation of the 1% in both America and Russia, and the creation of the huge Russian oil export market.

In any potential war, or in cases of serious sabre-rattling, we need to look at who benefits — and ‘work it back’ from there

Oil prices always rise in during periods of convincing sabre-rattling or outright war, and both the oil price rise and any war that might result could ultimately impact many people.

In the case of Ukraine, the people who will benefit from any determined sabre-rattling or outright conflict there, will be relatively small numbers of people (the 1%) most of whom live in America and Russia.

I guess it’s up to citizen oversight to ensure that this situation doesn’t get out of hand.

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