The United States of America is now functioning as a technologically advanced second-rank power (and a somewhat dithering and hapless one, at that). There are multiple dimensions of this development, but one in particular is informative – even emblematic.
The illustration I have in mind comes from a comparison of two situations in which we are providing operational intelligence support to our clients. (In the narrow sense, Ukraine and Iraq are not treaty allies, per se. That doesn’t limit what we can do for them; it affects what we are obligated to do by prior commitment. “Ally” is a term good enough for many uses. Client is more technically accurate.)
I wrote a few days ago, in a larger post on NATO and strategic issues, about our imagery intelligence support to Ukraine. To recap, we are providing Ukraine with imagery of Crimea, but we’re handing it over after a delay, and removing portions of it that reveal Russian military force formations. According to the administration, we are motivated not by arcane bureaucratic considerations, but by simple fear:
The White House agreed last year to Ukraine’s request to provide the photos and other intelligence. But before delivering them, U.S. officials black out military staging areas on Russian territory and reduce the resolution so that enemy formations can’t be clearly made out, making them less useful to Ukrainian military commanders.
Those steps, which delay the delivery of the images by at least 24 hours, are designed to keep the U.S. out of the so-called kill chain—military jargon for the stages of lethal operations—because of concerns that furnishing actionable intelligence to the Ukrainians could trigger a more aggressive Russian military response.
Presumably, we have clarified this by disclosing it to the Wall Street Journal so that Russia will see the inoffensive, totally non-actionable peaceableness of our intentions, and be mollified. Hey, nothing actionable here, drug. Don’t hurt us.
The other example seems to form a contrast, and at one level, it does. According – again – to the Wall Street Journal, we’ve begun furnishing the Iraqis who are fighting to retake Tikrit with video feeds from our UAVs, which we are now flying over the area at Baghdad’s request.
The contrast, such as it is, lies in the difference in the quality of intelligence we’re willing to provide. The Ukrainians are chopped liver, getting only redacted and delayed images. The Iraqis are getting real-time video feeds, something we can’t effectively redact.
And, of course, if the Iraqis are getting the video feeds, that means the Iranians alongside them are getting the feeds as well. U.S. intelligence is in effect going directly to the Iranian forces commanded by Qassem Soleimani. Says WSJ:
Military officials said they aren’t working directly with Iran. But the intelligence will be used to help some 20,000 Iranian-backed Shiite militia fighters who make up the bulk of the force that has been struggling for weeks to retake the strategic city.
The primacy of Iranian leadership and planning in the battle for Tikrit is laid out in this earlier post. Calling the battle an “Iraqi” campaign is a superficial fiction, at best.
But the contrast between what we’re giving Iran and what we’re not giving Ukraine is less important than the way in which these two situations are alike.
This is how they’re alike: we, the United States, are navigating in trepidation through a veto-laden minefield set by others. We’re using military force on that basis: allowing others to dictate the conditions in which we operate, and the limitations on our choices. We’re seconding our forces to the inchoate will of smaller powers, and letting Russia and Iran set the hard boundaries for what we’re safe doing, and what we have to put up with.
When this is happening, it’s only a matter of time until our men and women in uniform, exposed and vulnerable, are turned into sacrifices. Whether they are killed, or whether our policies are held hostage to their fate, it’s America that is whipsawed.
The difference between a first-rank power and others is that we have discretion over the conditions in which we use our national power. We can do more than pick and choose our battle spaces; we can shape, prepare, and influence.
And because we can, we should. Doing so is an obligation of the commander in chief, to his people, to the soldiers under his command, and to our allies. Using military force without making it a use of American power is a form of corruption, a distortion of our values and the compact of our people with our citizen-soldiers.
It’s a terrible, immoral form of false sanctimony, to send our soldiers forth to be subject to the strategic goals and vetoes of other nations. Some in Obama’s circle of advisors think of it as “smart power.” It’s not power at all. It’s treating American power as if it’s an embarrassment rather than a solemn obligation to the American people. It’s treating our men and women in uniform as if they are mere units of tactical utility – and, as such, expendable.
ADDENDUM: As this goes to post, word is just coming in that the U.S. has conducted the first air strikes against targets in Tikrit today.
An Iraqi commander in the city told the AP that a warehouse used to store Islamic State weapons was bombed by a U.S. plane, and a U.S. official in Washington confirmed that arms warehouses were among the targets.
This forms an interesting contrast with the statement from defense officials reported by WSJ yesterday (see link above):
U.S. airstrikes in Tikrit are a much more complicated and more remote option.
“It’s a possibility, but intelligence and surveillance doesn’t directly equate to targeting and lighting something up,” said a third U.S. defense official.
While it’s conceivable to plan and approve strikes in such a short time, it’s unlikely, given the type of target mentioned. I assume our senior officials knew days ago that we were about to start conducting strikes. But for whose campaign objectives, and how any of it fits into American policy, are open questions.
From here, it looks like we’ve dropped our drawers and we’re backing up to a rattlesnake nest.