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.

Why a Syria Safe Zone Still Won’t Work or Protect Civilians

by Micah Zenko Friday, February 5, 2016
Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on February 4, 2016. (Ismail/Reuters) Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on February 4, 2016. (Ismail/Reuters)

Respected former U.S. diplomats Nicholas Burns and James Jeffrey published a Washington Post op-ed today, calling on the U.S. military to lead the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria. The authors propose, “to locate it over twenty-five to thirty miles south of the Turkish border….Its central purpose would be to help local forces drive out the Islamic State and to provide a haven for civilians until the war can be brought to a close.” Burns and Jeffrey further acknowledge some of the difficulties involved with their proposal, admitting that, “the United States would have to deploy U.S. soldiers on the ground inside Syria along the Turkish border in order to recruit the majority of the zone’s soldiers from Turkey and other NATO allies, as well as the Sunni Arab states.” This safe haven would be further protected by a no-fly zone operating primarily out of Turkish airbases. Read more »

Donald Trump as Commander-in-Chief

by Micah Zenko Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up gesture at his caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa on February 1, 2016. (Bourg/Reuters) Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up gesture at his caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa on February 1, 2016. (Bourg/Reuters)

I have a piece on ForeignPolicy.com that attempts to evaluate what sort of commander in chief Donald Trump might be if actually elected president. After his second place finish in the Iowa caucuses last night, pundits might be writing off his chances to secure the Republican nomination, yet again. However, the Iowa caucus process is wholly unique and may not be representative of Trump’s overall national momentum. In addition, he has retained double-digit leads over his rivals in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the site of the next primaries scheduled for February 9 and 20, respectively. Read more »

Guest Post: What Happens if the Battlefield ‘Goes Dark’?

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko Wednesday, January 13, 2016
A U.S. soldier smokes next to an armoured vehicle before a night operation in southeast Baghdad on September 12, 2007. The image below the soldier's face is a reflection of a GPS unit's screen, as seen from inside a vehicle. (Barria/Reuters) A U.S. soldier smokes next to an armoured vehicle before a night operation in southeast Baghdad on September 12, 2007. The image below the soldier's face is a reflection of a GPS unit's screen, as seen from inside a vehicle. (Barria/Reuters)

Aaron Picozzi is a research associate for the military fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The United States has recently enjoyed the tactical benefit of fighting enemies incapable of matching the technological prowess of the U.S. military. The use of modern weaponry against relatively antiquated forces has led to successful operations on the battlefield, particularly against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The U.S. military’s high-tech upper hand relies upon the leverage of these technological disparities, and in turn, has fostered an inflated level of combat supremacy. This problem resonates from foot soldiers to the highest level commanders and planners. Read more »

Obama’s Drone Warfare Legacy

by Micah Zenko Tuesday, January 12, 2016
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement at the National Counterterrorism Center in Mclean, Virginia, on December 17, 2015. (Barria/Reuters) U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement at the National Counterterrorism Center in Mclean, Virginia, on December 17, 2015. (Barria/Reuters)

Today, I have a short piece in the New York Times’ “Room for Debate,” accurately summarized by its title, “Obama’s Embrace of Drone Strikes Will Be a Lasting Legacy.” The piece shows how President Barack Obama institutionalized and normalized the use of drones to target various militant and terrorist suspects. It also includes the most updated data of post-9/11 non-battlefield drone strikes, updating our estimates from the five-hundredth such operation conducted in November 2014. As of today, there have been approximately 550 strikes—50 under George W. Bush, 500 under Obama, which have cumulatively killed an estimated 3,405 militants and 470 civilians. This information is fully presented in the chart below with the sources used. Read more »

How Many Bombs Did the United States Drop in 2015?

by Micah Zenko Thursday, January 7, 2016
Smoke and flames rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province on October 20, 2014. (Pfaffenbach/Reuters) Smoke and flames rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province on October 20, 2014. (Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

The primary focus—meaning the commitment of personnel, resources, and senior leaders’ attention—of U.S. counterterrorism policies is the capture or killing (though, overwhelmingly killing) of existing terrorists. Far less money and programmatic attention is dedicated to preventing the emergence of new terrorists. As an anecdotal example of this, I often ask U.S. government officials and mid-level staffers, “what are you doing to prevent a neutral person from becoming a terrorist?” They always claim this this is not their responsibility, and point toward other agencies, usually the Department of State (DOS) or Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where this is purportedly their obligation internationally or domestically, respectively. DOS and DHS officials then refer generally to “countering violent extremism” policies, while acknowledging that U.S. government efforts on this front have been wholly ineffective. Read more »

Chuck Hagel’s Revealing Insight Into Obama’s Syria Strategy

by Micah Zenko Friday, December 18, 2015
Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walks during a farewell ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia on January 28, 2015. (Gripas/Reuters) Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walks during a farewell ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia on January 28, 2015. (Gripas/Reuters)

Last week, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave his first extended interview since resigning as Pentagon chief in November 2014. The curated interview with Foreign Policy is worth reading in its entirety, if for nothing else than the insights into how White House officials and staffers micromanaged Department of Defense decisions; Hagel claims that staffers would call generals “asking fifth-level questions that the White House should not be involved in.” (This would not be the first or last White House charged with this degree of oversight.) Read more »

Presidential Candidates Use of Force Tracker

by Micah Zenko and Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Governor John Kasich (OH), former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), former governor Jeb Bush (FL), Governor Chris Christie (NJ) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) pose before the start of the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 15, 2015. (Becker/Reuters) Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Governor John Kasich (OH), former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), former governor Jeb Bush (FL), Governor Chris Christie (NJ) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) pose before the start of the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 15, 2015. (Becker/Reuters)

This blog post was coauthored with my research associate, Amelia M. Wolf.

Presidential campaigns are largely consequence-free environments unburdened by the pressures and responsibilities that come with actually sitting in the White House. A candidate can say or pledge to do anything no matter how troubling, costly, or unlikely. The one policy recommendation that every presidential candidate has strongly endorsed during this election cycle—with differing degrees of scope and intensity— is the use of military power. With the sixteen-month war against the self-declared Islamic State stalemated and the percentage of Americans naming “national security and terrorism” the top federal government priority having nearly doubled since April, appeals to force have played an unusually significant role this presidential campaign. This is unsurprising, since military force remains the most responsive, fungible, and destructive foreign-policy tool that a candidate can propose. Unfortunately, the military options put forth may sound tough, but they are rarely articulated in a concrete and actionable manner, which makes it difficult to evaluate the wisdom of the proposals. Read more »

Ten What’s With…Michael Horowitz

by Micah Zenko Monday, December 14, 2015
"Why Leaders Fight" by Michael C. Horowitz, Alan C. Stam, and Cali M. Ellis (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2015). "Why Leaders Fight" by Michael C. Horowitz, Alan C. Stam, and Cali M. Ellis (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Michael C. Horowitz is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the associate director of Penn’s Perry World House. His research interests include leadership, military innovation, the future of war, forecasting, and the relationship between religion and international politics. He has published in a wide array of peer-reviewed journals, as well as more popular outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico and Foreign Policy. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Diffusion of Military Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010). Professor Horowitz previously worked in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense and is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He received his PhD in government from Harvard University and his BA in political science from Emory University. Read more »

How Red Teams Protect Holiday Shoppers

by Micah Zenko Monday, December 7, 2015
A shop assistant uses an eftpos system on December 11, 2012. (Wimborne/Reuters) A shop assistant uses an eftpos system on December 11, 2012. (Wimborne/Reuters)

This holiday season, Americans will spend more than $600 billion buying gifts for friends, colleagues, and loved ones. Roughly 46 percent of the transactions will be done online, with the remaining purchases made in stores. Most shoppers will use credit or debit cards, assuming (incorrectly) that manufacturers and retailers are doing everything possible to protect their personally identifiable information from being stolen by malicious hackers. The truth about whether your information is adequately secure depends upon the security standards and practices that manufacturers and distributors use, which oftentimes fall short. Read more »