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.

8 thoughts on “Keeping up with Mr. Incursion

  1. I had a very similiar reaction to the attack on Syria: damn, I’m going to have to blog about this. But now that you’ve done it so promptly, I won’t have to. So perhaps that could be our new modus operandi. We’ll take turns writing about each new country attacked. Between the four of us, that should cut down on the workload.

  2. Would we allow Canada to hit a suspected terrorist with missles in Detroit? Would we allow Mexico to use missles to attack a suspected drug dealer in Dallas? I think not! According to my way of thinking, we have just committed an act of war on these countries. It sounds to me like Pres. Bush is just looking for a post-war tribunal trial or something.

  3. first of all i agree that Obama must win on nov. 4th. mccain is ill tempered and it would be hard living under another 4 more years of someone who is more similar to bush than anyone else.

    but i do disagree that the claim U.S. does not have a right to go after suspected militants who are crossing other sovereign borders with ease and supporting attacks on our American troops. even Obama said that if we have “credible” information that bin laden’s in a certain location in pakistan, we will take him out.

    apparently syria really has no interest in controlling its cross border terrorism. with or without syrian guards patrolling, they will just look the other way. they do not want to cooperate with the US and could care less about what we think.

    im sure you know bush called the war we are in the “war on terror” which is a obviously a very broad stupid name like the war on evil. so i think our government with that “war on terror” mindset believes we are justified in attacking any terrorist or arms and financial supporter where ever they may be. they may be thinking, well if terrorists can be so free to flow in and out of borders we should do the same.

    i think if it means protecting our troops and preventing terrorist attacks and saving innocents, we should go after the bad guys.

    i see the point oxbobend is making. hell no the US would not allow canada to attack a suspected criminal in this country unless they informed the government and asked for their cooperation in the effort, THEN maybe. but with syria… we can’t do that because they wont listen. maybe they will listen and even repsect America if Obama wins. i think with that change, countries whoare against us will be less reluctant and more willing to talk to us.

    sorry for the long comment. i had some time on hand.

  4. soldier-cold, I disagree with your point of view. The US is stationed on an invaded country, not on home soil, and thus far, everyone killed in this insanity is due to this invasion.
    Further attacks on other countries only show the obvious: No other country will dare attack the US no matter what they do, so the US feels it can do whatever it wants.

  5. The counterargument could proceed fairly simply:

    1. Pakistan’s and Syria’s sovereignty was originally undermined by violent organizations who directly use their territory to launch attacks into neighbouring countries.

    2. These attacks are targeted towards both the indigenous security services of the neighbouring countries and on international troops who, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, are currently covered by a United Nations mandate.

    I can understand that such cross-border raids are problematic, but don’t make it sound as if this is an open-and-shut case of Mr. Incursion going apeshit. These raids are not a clear abrogation of international law.

    It’s complicated.

  6. Brian – thanks for your thoughts. I certainly wouldn’t have used the term “apeshit”; I’m sure some careful deliberation at the highest levels goes into the planning of such cross-border raids. You capture the counter-argument well, but to me it’s just not convincing — not because you couldn’t find a lawyer to argue that particular case (you certainly could), but because it assumes a legitimacy to the occupation of Iraq that doesn’t exist. Were U.S. troops stationed peaceably in Texas, and the Mexican government was knowingly hosting an insurgent force that repeatedly crossed the border to attack American troops, then I’d have all the sympathy in the world were you to invoke the Hague Convention and bomb the staging camps in Mexico. But the Iraq War was (and remains) a war of aggression (as Diego is pointing out, above) and thus attacks on neighboring countries in the name of protecting your troops are no more justified than the invasion itself, and indeed compound the wrong by spreading the fighting. To say that Syria’s sovereignty was “originally” undermined by insurgents is to utterly ignore the reason why these insurgents exist in the first place: because Iraq’s sovereignty was violated by the unprovoked invasion of 150,000 American and British troops.

  7. Well, two points in response. (I don’t normally put numbered lists in all my comments–it just seems easiest right now!)

    1. I don’t think it logically follows that because Iraq’s sovereignty was violated by Americans, Syria’s sovereignty can be violated by insurgents. You didn’t state this directly, but you sort of flirted with it…

    The whole point of sovereignty is that Iraq and Syria are two different countries with different governments and populations. Iraq’s sovereignty is a separate issue from Syria’s.

    2. I’m not going to state this with certainty, because I’m the first to admit that I’m not well-enough informed to argue the details of it. But it’s also not an open-and-shut case that the Iraq War violated international law. There are at least three arguments I’ve heard made: (a) UN Security Council Resolution 1441 was sufficient justification for an invasion; (b) the terms of the first Gulf War ceasefire had been violated by Hussein; (c) Hussein had committed genocidal acts towards Iraq’s Kurdish population, and any country whose government commits genocide gives up their claim to sovereignty.

    I personally find (c) to have the most merit.

    Again, I’m not trying to start an argument with you over the legality of the Iraq War–it just bugs me when people state as a certain fact that the war was an illegal violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. There’s a fair case to be made from the other side.

    There are many good and convincing arguments against the Iraq War. I’m not a supporter of the war, for a few reasons. But I find arguments that stem from its “illegality” to be…I don’t know. Unconvincing.

  8. Good responses, Brian. On point #1, I wasn’t flirting with so much as ignoring the question of whether insurgents have a legal right to violate Syria’s sovereignty. Since you raise it, I will agree with you that they do not have that right. I’m not sure, though, that sovereignty just vanishes the first time that someone violates it (i.e. the insurgents, in this case), allowing other governments to subsequently cross the same border with impunity. That is to say, American attacks on those insurgents are not in defence of Syrian sovereignty, but are a further violation of that sovereignty. Two wrongs do not make a right, as the kids say.

    On point #2 (see? numbering your arguments does at least make responding to them easier), I was careful not to use legal language in my first comment, but rather the more straightforward term “war of aggression”. So neither do I want to start a detailed debate over legality (among other things, I’ve got a great deal of cynicism over the UN’s great-power-dominated process of determining what is and isn’t a “legal” war). But your point C is interesting on its own merits, since it again raises the idea of a revocable sovereignty (see point #1). In this case, you argue that any country that commits genocidal acts gives up its sovereignty. My non-facetious and quite serious question is this: how long is this suspension of sovereignty meant to last? Is it for a window of time during and immediately after the genocidal acts, or is it indefinite? If the latter, then there are quite a number of countries out there who have no moral right to their sovereignties: Russia, China, Japan, Germany, Turkey, Cambodia, to name the ones that spring to mind most quickly, and to cover only the better known 20th-century crimes.

    I don’t have an immediate answer to the question of whether sovereignty is a moral concept (and thus revocable if evil is done by its holder) or a legal concept (and thus revocable if the UN Security Council says so) or something of quite a different order (perhaps a self-protective practice that supports norms of behaviour that in turn minimize the odds of general war). But it’s a question, I think, upon which an awful lot turns.

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