Keeping up with Mr. Incursion

U.S. special forces attacked a village/building/camp (select one) inside Syria on Sunday, killing eight people, according to Syrian officials. A rationale, given “on background” as all such messages are these days, was soon forthcoming: the area near the Iraqi town of Qaim had long been regarded by the Pentagon as a crossing point into Iraq for weapons, money, and foreign fighters, so as the unnamed U.S. military official in Washington told AP, “We are taking matters into our own hands.”

This, obviously, raises serious issues of national sovereignty, jus ad bellum, and the rule of international law. But the most serious of all is the question of how I’m supposed to keep track of this stuff. Seriously, do I have to write a thoughtful post every time the U.S. attacks a sovereign country? Or only when it does something surprising, like attacking a large one? If it sticks to attacking small ones, can I cover a subset of these — say, one in every three or four? Assuming that the principles being violated will hold true in almost all cases, should I be able to expect readers to understand that all those attacks and incursions that I’m not commenting on are just as strongly (if tacitly) condemned?

I hope so. I think this condemnation-by-example approach is the only way for me to preserve my sense of right and wrong, because with new violations of sovereignty becoming almost a monthly occurrence, I’m horrified to say that I think I’m starting to get used to it. I’m actually starting to get habituated, in other words, to the idea that the entire non-U.S.-aligned planet (plus certain parts of the U.S.-aligned planet — see Pakistan) is one vast and undifferentiated free-fire zone, that national borders are now of no more import than the lines marking out dukedoms on faded medieval maps, and that force is the only thing that really counts.

And I have to say, I think this is one of the more important objectives of raids like this. After all, the practical significance of such things are comparatively tiny and ephemeral: a handful of bad guys killed, a building shot up. Indeed, the problem of foreign fighter infiltration was already a waning one, as the number of infiltrators into Iraq had dropped from 100 per month in July 2007 to 20 per month only one year later. Instead, this cross-border attack, and perhaps a sibling raid in Pakistan back in September, may well have been of primarily political aim.

Exactly, you say: it was meant to pressure the Syrian government into patrolling its borders and shutting down the smuggling routes. I see you gesturing at Pakistan to prove your point. But no: the U.S. media’s favoured narrative of an indifferent Pakistani government shaken into full cooperation by a provocative U.S. action fails to take account of the fact that at the time of the U.S. raid on Angoor Adda the Pakistani military was already involved in a high-intensity, multi-week battle with militants in Bajaur agency.

Likewise, what precisely would one expect the Syrian government to fear from this recent attack? Bombs over Damascus? Syria is already used to enduring the occasional Israeli airstrike without fearing a full-scale invasion by that country, so it’s unlikely that Bashar al-Assad’s regime will roll over merely because American commandos attacked some militants in its far eastern desert.

No, I suspect that such cross-border attacks — a category that includes the ever more frequent missile strikes on Pakistani soil launched from the CIA’s fleet of remotely piloted vehicles — have an additional and grander political aim, and that is to condition public and elite opinion to the idea that the U.S. is within its rights to use military force, at will, against countries with which it is not at war. It is, to elaborate a little further, the idea that borders are perhaps useful to the United States as control points, but do not act as legal or moral constraints on the scope of U.S. military operations. From the mountains of Pakistan to the bazaars of Somalia, from the Syrian desert to the streets of Italian cities, the global battlefield is everywhere a suspected insurgent may be sleeping, and everywhere an American warhead falls. And on this one issue, much as I hope (for a whole host of reasons) that Obama wins on November 4th, there is notably little difference between the positions of the candidates.

There is, of course, history to this, a history at least as long as that of the Europeans’ punitive use of gunboats against “savage” lands. But unlike the naval ships of the nineteenth century, which were all too often reduced to the situation of the French man-of-war in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — “In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent” — modern American gunboats can actually hit things. Commanders can fire a 60,000-dollar Hellfire missile from an RPV, risking literally none of their own troops, and phone home with a body count comprised of people at least possibly related to the enemy they were hoping to hit.

Such technologies are tools with upside benefits and almost zero downside risks (from a purely military point of view), and as such they have become over the past twenty years a dangerously addictive drug for U.S. decision-makers, and act now as a key enabler of the Bush administration’s more thoroughgoing version of America’s long-evolving “no borders” view of war. And it’s precisely the permanent, no-going-back nature of such technological capabilities that makes keeping up with Mr. Incursion a losing game.

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Filed under Foreign Affairs, History

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