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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You Might Have Missed: Drone Exports, Somalia, and JFK’s “Ordinary Mortals”

by Micah Zenko

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Rear Adm. Kirby in the Pentagon Briefing Room, U.S. Department of Defense, February 18, 2015.

Rear Adm. Kirby: These are actually proscriptions in place that we will follow and we will expect anybody that receives these systems to follow…It’s in our best interest to be able to have this kind of control, supervision, and scrutiny over the potential delivery of these systems because it’s a ubiquitous, now, capability. Not every nation has the same sophistication at it as we do, but this is a technology that’s not going away. So, it suits our interests, and I think it should suit the American people’s interests to know that we’re going to be involved, from soup to nuts, on how these systems are eventually transferred. Read more »

Obama’s New ISIS Strategy: Reflecting Reality

by Micah Zenko
A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria. (Bruch/Courtesy U.S. Air Force) A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria. (Bruch/Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

In his September 10 address to the nation, President Obama declared America’s war aims with regards to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL): “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” I wrote several pieces that pointed out how this was an unrealistic and unachievable strategic objective. Just as Presidents Bush and Obama previously vowed to “eliminate” or “destroy” several militant or terrorist organizations, and failed completely each time, I believed that it was a certainty that the United States would not destroy ISIS. My opinion was, in part, informed by conversations with State Department and Pentagon officials and staffers who unanimously thought that the “destroy” objective was unobtainable and should never have been articulated with such a maximalist term. Read more »

You Might Have Missed: Recent Academic Journal Findings

by Micah Zenko
(Free for commercial use/No attribution required) (Free for commercial use/No attribution required)

Simon Frankel Pratt, “Crossing off names: the logic of military assassination,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 26(1), 2015, pp. 3-23.

Those governments or commentators who publically advocate the use of military means to kill specific enemies have in recent times generally preferred terms such as ‘targeted killing.’ (p. 3)

The following proposed definition should not suffer from the problems of its predecessors, and thus offer a solid beginning for further exploration of assassination as a strategic concept: Read more »

Guess Who’s Bombing ISIS?

by Micah Zenko
UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond hosts a meeting with coalition members to discuss the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on January 22, 2015. (Nicholls/Courtesy Reuters) UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond hosts a meeting with coalition members to discuss the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on January 22, 2015. (Nicholls/Courtesy Reuters)

Today, the New York Times reported that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) suspended airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in December, “citing fears for its pilots’ safety after a Jordanian pilot was captured.” The article states that the UAE will not participate until U.S. V-22 Osprey aircraft are based in northern Iraq, rather than Kuwait where they reportedly are now, so they can respond faster to execute a combat search-and-rescue operation to recover a downed pilot. The reason those V-22s are not in northern Iraq is that the airbases located there cannot be adequately secured from the potential threats from ISIS rocket, mortar, and small-arms attacks. Raising the overall level of the security of an airbase, including the approach and departure corridors, in order to station such a valuable air asset would require an estimated three to four hundred American troops. Read more »

Should the United States Give Lethal Aid to Ukraine?

by Micah Zenko
Members of the Ukrainian armed forces drive armored vehicles in the town of Volnovakha, eastern Ukraine, on January 18, 2015. (Ermochenko/Courtesy Reuters) Members of the Ukrainian armed forces drive armored vehicles in the town of Volnovakha, eastern Ukraine, on January 18, 2015. (Ermochenko/Courtesy Reuters)

When reading the thoughtful report, Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do, ask: What political objective does it intend to achieve, and will the recommended policies achieve it? That objective is: “The United States and NATO should seek to create a situation in which the Kremlin considers the option of further military action in or against Ukraine too costly to pursue. The combination of closing off that option plus the cumulative impact of Western economic sanctions could produce conditions in which Moscow decides to negotiate a genuine settlement that allows Ukraine to reestablish full sovereignty over Donetsk and Luhansk.” Does the lethal and nonlethal assistance that the report recommends providing to Ukraine create this “situation” or produce these “conditions?” (There is another less concrete political objective—“preserving the credibility of security assurances for the future”—which credibility hawks can attempt to defend.) Read more »

Avoiding a U.S.-China Great Power War

by Micah Zenko
Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army General Fang Fenghui hold a joint news conference after their meeting at the Pentagon in Washington on May 15, 2014. (Gripas/Courtesy Reuters) Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army General Fang Fenghui hold a joint news conference after their meeting at the Pentagon in Washington on May 15, 2014. (Gripas/Courtesy Reuters)

In book one of The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides provided his explanation for why the Spartans (or Lacedaemonians) broke the thirty years’ truce treaty with the Athenians after just fourteen years: “I consider the truest cause the one least openly expressed, that increasing Athenian greatness and the resulting fear among the Lacedaemonians made going to war inevitable.”  Thucydides reiterates later how the Spartans assembly voted “that the treaty had been broken and that they must go to war not so much because they were persuaded by the arguments of their allies as because they feared further increase in the power of the Athenians, seeing the greater part of Hellas under their control.” Read more »

Challenging the Terrorist Safe Haven Myth

by Micah Zenko
U.S. President George W. Bush during a briefing at the Pentagon on September 17, 2001, at which he said the United States wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." (McNamee/Courtesy Reuters) U.S. President George W. Bush during a briefing at the Pentagon on September 17, 2001, at which he said the United States wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." (McNamee/Courtesy Reuters)

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

For thirteen years, U.S. counterterrorism strategy has relied on an assumption that arose after 9/11: international terrorist attacks against the United States require a safe haven. Denying safe havens in Iraq and Afghanistan took nearly seven thousand American lives and will have an eventual estimated cost of $4 to $6 trillion.  More recently, this assumption served as the rationale for launching an open-ended war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is nearing its sixth month of engagement. Read more »

What the Pentagon Wants in a New AUMF: Perpetual Warfare

by Micah Zenko

During his State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress “to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant].” The White House has claimed repeatedly that such an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) is not legally required because the president already has the authority to conduct operations “against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces” as provided in the 2001 AUMF. Given that the United States began bombing Iraq on August 8, it is clear that Congress tacitly accepts this interpretation and is in no hurry to pass an updated authorization for ISIL, just as they have never made serious efforts to reform the 2001 AUMF. Read more »

You Might Have Missed: ISIS, Defense Contractors, and Yemen

by Micah Zenko

Tim Starks, “Congress on Yemen,” Roll Call, January 22, 2015.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC):  ISIL is a bigger threat to us than anything I can think of right now.

(3PA: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) has killed 3 Americans, while non-communicable diseases killed 2,337,280 Americans in 2013. For a list of much bigger threats than ISIS, see here.) Read more »

You Might Have Missed: Drone Pilots, Press Freedom, and CIA Accountability

by Micah Zenko
RPA Pilots, Senior Airman Travis and Captain Ben, fly an MQ-1 Predator during the wings two million flying hour milestone on October 22, 2013. (Staff Sgt. N. B./Courtesy: U.S. Air Force) RPA Pilots, Senior Airman Travis and Captain Ben, fly an MQ-1 Predator during the wings two million flying hour milestone on October 22, 2013. (Staff Sgt. N. B./Courtesy: U.S. Air Force)

Daily Press Briefing, U.S. Department of State, January 15, 2015.

MARIE HARF: So clearly, we think that media organizations should have the right publish what they want. Doesn’t mean they have to prove that they can. It’s obviously a decision for them to make. Read more »