Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Sea Power in the Pacific, Drones in Lebanon, and America’s “Dirty Wars”

by Micah Zenko
April 26, 2013

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) departs for a deployment to the Asia-Pacific region, in San Diego Bay, California. (Christine Walker-Singh/Courtesy Reuters). The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) departs for a deployment to the Asia-Pacific region, in San Diego Bay, California. (Christine Walker-Singh/Courtesy Reuters).

David C. Gompert, “Sea Power and American Interests in the Western Pacific,” Rand Corportation, to be published June 3, 2013,  pp. 160-162.

If we are indeed in for a change in the basic premise of sea power, the main reason would be that globalization is making cooperative maritime security more attractive and even compelling. But why would globalization favor cooperation over confrontation at sea? This is a legitimate question: After all, economic interdependence did not prevent naval rivalry or, for that matter, world war a century ago. More to the point at hand, why would the common economic interests of China and the United States, including secure trade, foster maritime cooperation when such an approach was not pursued by Great Britain and Germany, also major trading partners when they became rival sea powers? The answer is complex but worth examining.

First, it can be argued that although economic interdependence did not prevent the great-power politics and antagonism that led to World War I, it should have. World War I was a tragic triumph of jealousy, hubris, and maneuvering over the modernizing and presumed moderating effects of increasingly interconnected economies. Sovereigns made win-or-lose calculations that had lose-lose consequences for their societies. While some powers paid a higher price than others for World War I, losses suffered by “winners” were also staggering (enough to nurture British and French appeasement of Hitler). Moreover, the automaticity built into pre-war alliances and interlocking pledges of support in the event of war—later seen as regrettable—left decisionmakers with little space or time to manage a cascade of crises that led to war despite their inhibitions. Had European statesmen understood how long and devastating the War would be, even for winners, they just might have exercised better control over their mechanistic alignments, military planning triggers, and optimistic generals. That German leaders, for example, did not foresee how war would turn beneficial economic cooperation into ruinous economic punishment is not a reason to expect leaders today to be as myopic. Likewise, that British leaders saw no alternative but to deny Germany’s maritime-security interests does not mean that no alternative to sea-power rivalry exists today—or, for that matter, existed then.

In this regard, and second, it is evident that today’s Chinese and American leaders do appreciate that conflict could inflict great economic harm, all the more so because of Sino-U.S. interdependence. When crises have occurred (e.g., over Taiwan or U.S. surveillance patrols near China), one or both capitals have acted judiciously. Such care by each power toward the other, despite divergent interests in the region, is not only because of doubts about the course and outcome of military conflict but also because both economies could suffer tremendously regardless. Thus, the fact that the Chinese and American economies are coupled and largely share the same fate, in war as in peace, is a major inhibition on great-power behavior.7 Conversely, if Sino-U.S. war were to occur, it could be because of the same sort of miscalculation or conceit that befell European leaders a century ago.

Third, the nature and workings of economic integration under conditions of Europe prior to World War I are different in kind than those of globalization.8 The former involved choices at the margin to acquire raw materials and goods from nations where a comparative advantage in producing them existed. Although there was significant international investment, trade was largely replaceable and reversible, albeit at considerable cost. Under today’s conditions of an integrated world economy, interdependence is becoming organic: Markets for goods, services, capital, finance, technology, management, distribution, production operations, infrastructure, and equity are increasingly global and unified. Movements through these markets are continuous, swift, and resistant to national control. Market-driven value chains— research, development, componentry, sub-systems, systems, services—do not respect sovereign jurisdictions or preferences. This is structurally different than interacting national economies. If the breakdown of international trade and investment due to war and protectionism harmed all national economies during World War I and the Depression, the damage from the collapse of today’s global economy would be incalculable.

Globalization does not merely connect such economies as thoseof the United States and China, it mixes and melds them. It not only leaves sovereigns with diminished control but also vests in them a shared vital interest in sustaining and protecting their common economy. One aspect of this interest is the security of the seas on which the bulk of the commerce of the increasingly common world economy takes place. This does not guarantee that powers will not compete at sea. Indeed, growing maritime rivalry and tension in East Asia is proof that they will. Although certain aspects of Mahan’s teachings now seem quaint, his premise that relative sea power matters still stands. Yet, globalization means that cooperative maritime security stands a better chance of overcoming rivalry today than it did, say, in the Anglo-German case of 1890–1914.


Gili Cohen, Barak Ravid, and Jack Khoury, “IDF Shoots Down Drone from Lebanon Opposite Haifa Coast,” Haaretz, April 25, 2013.

The IDF estimate that Hezbollah has more than ten drones in its possession. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said last month at the Herzliya Conference that Hezbollah has “a significant number of unmanned aerial vehicles, one of which has entered Israeli territory, a scenario we may encounter in the future.”


Jeremy Scahill, “Inside America’s Dirty Wars,” The Nation, April 24, 2013.

The Obama administration would fight passionately to keep those answers secret, invoking the “state secrets” privilege repeatedly—just as George W. Bush had done throughout his eight years in office.

A former senior official in the Obama administration told me that after Abdulrahman’s killing, the president was “surprised and upset and wanted an explanation.” The former official, who worked on the targeted killing program, said that according to intelligence and Special Operations officials, the target of the strike was al-Banna, the AQAP propagandist. “We had no idea the kid was there. We were told al-Banna was alone,” the former official told me. Once it became clear that the teenager had been killed, he added, military and intelligence officials asserted, “It was a mistake, a bad mistake.” However, John Brennan, at the time President Obama’s senior adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, “suspected that the kid had been killed intentionally and ordered a review. I don’t know what happened with the review.”


Jason Koebler, “Air Force General: Autonomous Killing Drones ‘Years and Years’ Away,” U.S. News, April 24, 2013.

“If the focus is on [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], it’s not that hard to automate a mission … frankly it’s not that hard to do,” Lieutenant General Larry James said Wednesday at an event in Washington, D.C. discussing the Air Force’s drone program. “The strike question, where people say you have an automated drone that can go off and shoot something, that’s a different question. I think we’re years and years away, maybe decades away, from having confidence in an automated system that can make those types of decisions.”


Adam Entous and Joshua Mitnick, “U.S. Allies Won’t Steer Its Syria Policy,” Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2013.

“Suspicions are one thing. Evidence is another,” Mr. Hagel said Wednesday, one day after Israel’s top military intelligence analyst caught U.S. officials off guard by publicly disclosing his agency’s determination that Syria’s army has repeatedly used lethal chemical weapons during the country’s civil war…

The U.S. is reviewing those assessments. Voicing caution over the outcome of those reviews, Mr. Hagel said there is no timeline for U.S. intelligence agencies to determine whether chemical weapons were used. “This is serious business and you want to be as sure as you can be,” he said.


Sheera Frankel and Nick Blanford, “Jordan Opens Air Space for Israeli Drones Over Syria,” The London Times, April 23, 2013.

King Abdullah of Jordan has agreed to allow Israeli drones spying on Syria to enter Jordanian airspace, US officials said. The move, apparently brokered by President Obama during his Middle East trip last month, could significantly change the balance of power in the two-year-old Syrian insurgency against the Assad regime.

Although the drones are intended to collect information about the movements of conventional and chemical weapons, they are capable of bearing missiles. And, say US officials, the same corridors through Jordanian air space could be used by fighter aircraft.

President Obama conveyed Israeli security concerns about Syria when he saw the King on March 22. In particular he raised fears about the prospect that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants. Two months ago Israel attacked a weapons convoy inside Syria.

Western officials in the region said it was Israel that made the formal request to enter Jordanian airspace en route to Syria. The officials added that the move was part of a “closely co-ordinated plan” being devised between the United States, Israel, Jordan and Turkey to contain the dangers from Syria’s civil war.

“The level of co-ordination is unusually high and what we would call ‘open’ as compared with the past,” an American government official based in Jordan said. “The fallout from Syria is really a regional threat, so we needed a regional alliance to confront it.”….

Israeli aircraft, including drones, fly several routes into Syrian airspace, including over the Mediterranean via its western coast and over Lebanon from the south. Israeli officials, however, said the preferred route was via Jordan, as it carried the lowest risk of detection. In addition to gathering intelligence, Israeli drones are equipped with missiles and can launch attacks.


Hearing of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subject: “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing,” April 23, 2013.

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: Thank you, Chairman Durban and Ranking Member Cruz, for inviting me here today. My name, as you mentioned is Farea Al-Muslimi and I am from Wessab, a remote village mountain in Yemen.

Just six days ago, my village was struck by an American drone in an attack that terrified the region’s goat farmers. Wessab is my village, but America has helped me grow up and become what I am today. I come from a family that lives off the fruit, vegetables and livestock we raise on our farms. My father’s income rarely exceeded $200. He learned to read late in his life and my mother never did.

My life, however, has been different. I am who I am today because the U.S. State Department supported my education. I spent a year living with an American family and attended an American high school. That was one of the best years of my life. I learned about American culture, managed the school basketball team and participated in trick-or-treat and Halloween.

But the most exceptional is an experience with — the most exceptional experience was coming to know someone who ended up being like a father to me. He was a member of the U.S. Air Force. Most of my year was spent with him and his family. He came to the mosque with me and I went to church with him and he became my best friend in America. I went to the U.S. as an ambassador for Yemen and I came back to Yemen as an ambassador of the U.S.

I could never have imagined that the same hand that changed my life and took it from miserable to promising one would also drone my village. My understanding is that a man named Hameed Al-Radmi was the target of the drone strike. Many people in Wessab know Al-Radmi and the Yemeni government could easily have found and arrested him. Al- Radmi was well known to government officials and even to local government — and even local government could have captured him if the U.S. had told them to do so.

In the past, what Wessab’s villagers knew of the U.S. was based on my stories about my wonderful experiences here. The friendships and values I experienced and described to the villagers helped them understand the America that I know and that I love.

Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America in Wessab.

This is not an isolated instance. The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis. I have spoken to many victims of U.S. drone strikes, like a mother in Ja’ar, who had to identify her innocent 18-year-old son’s body through a video on a stranger’s cell phone, or the father in Shaqra who held his 4- and 6-year-old children as they died in his arms.

Recently in Aden, I spoke with one of the tribal leaders present in 2009 at the place where the U.S. cruise missiles targeted the villages Al-Majalah in Lawdar, Abyan. More than 40 civilians were killed, including four pregnant women. The tribal leader and others tried to rescue the victims, but the bodies were so decimated that it was impossible to differentiate between those of children, women and their animals. Some of these innocent people were buried in the same grave as their animals.

In my written testimony, I provided detail about the human cost of this and other drone strikes, based on interviews I have conducted or have been part of. I have a personal experience of the fear they cause. Late last year, I was in Abyan with an American journalist colleague. Suddenly, I heard the buzz. The local people we were interviewing told us that based on their past experiences, the thing hovering above us was an American drone.

My heart sank. I felt helpless. It was the first time that I had truly feared for my life or for an American friend’s life in Yemen. I couldn’t help but think that the drone operator just might be my American friend, with whom I had the warmest and deepest relationship. I was torn between this great country that I love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some AQAP militants. It was one of the most divisive and difficult feelings I have ever encountered. I felt that way when my village was also droned.

Thank you for having this hearing. I believe in America and I deeply believe that when Americans truly know about how much pain and suffering the U.S. air strikes have caused and how much they are harming efforts to win hearts, minds and ground in Yemen and hearts and minds of the Yemeni people, they will reject this devastating targeted killing program. Thank you.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    It’s odd that a photo of the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), now in Singapore, graces an article headlining “Sea Power in the Pacific.”

    The Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Freedom is not only staggeringly overpriced and chronically unreliable but — even if it were to work perfectly — cannot match the combat power of similar sized foreign warships costing only a fraction as much. The Freedom cost $440 million!

    One problem with the LCS is it’s still a ship without a mission. It corrodes in water, can’t see to save itself, and its mission modules are unfinished and as of yet, have no date for scheduled deployment. One of the issues with the Freedom is that it is six percent overweight and therefore more likely to sink if damaged. This seems to have been caused by design changes during construction. The LCS was built without galvanic corrosion protection, something we’ve thoroughly understood since the 1800’s

    Freedom has been “plagued by flawed designs and failed equipment since being commissioned, has at least 17 known cracks, and has repeatedly been beset by engine-related failures. Freedom had several engine failures on its way to Singapore. Its firepower falls far short of foreign ships one-fifth the size. Its RIM-116* lacks the range to protect other ships. Its 57mm gun is short-ranged and cannot support troops ashore.

    It is a nice photo of San Diego.

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