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.

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 Whats 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 »

From No Boots to Nightmare Fuel in Syria

by Micah Zenko Thursday, December 3, 2015
President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One at Orly airport near Paris, France, on December 1, 2015. (Gaillard/Reuters) President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One at Orly airport near Paris, France, on December 1, 2015. (Gaillard/Reuters)

Yesterday, while being interviewed by Norah O’Donnell of CBS News, President Barack Obama made a revealing statement about the careful manner in which U.S. military interventions are made. O’Donnell asked Obama if he was going back on his word by authorizing an expansion of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria with the deployment of what the Pentagon calls a “specialized expeditionary targeting force.” The president earnestly replied, “You know, when I said no boots on the ground, I think the American people understood generally that we’re not going to do an Iraq-style invasion of Iraq or Syria with battalions that are moving across the desert.” Read more »

Guest Post: Obama, Don’t Cross the Rubicon in Syria

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko Friday, November 20, 2015
A member of al-Nusra Front carries his weapon as he squats in the town of the northwestern city of Ariha, Syria, after a coalition of insurgent groups seized the area in Idlib province on May 29, 2015. (Abdullah/Reuters) A member of al-Nusra Front carries his weapon as he squats in the town of the northwestern city of Ariha, Syria, after a coalition of insurgent groups seized the area in Idlib province on May 29, 2015. (Abdullah/Reuters)

Bogdan Belei is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

On his way to Rome in 49 BCE, Julius Caesar paused before crossing the Rubicon. With only a single legion under his command, and outnumbered two to one by Pompey’s legions, the general faced the serious threat of defeat if he committed his forces to invade Rome. Ultimately, Caesar led his army to victory and solidified the Roman Empire. But the decision to fight his opposition was driven by the reality that Caesar had only one alternative to victory: surrender. Read more »

Guest Post: The Islamic State – Where is it now?

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko Thursday, November 5, 2015
An armed motorcade belonging to members of the Islamic Youth Council in Libya drive along a road in Derna, eastern Libya, after the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. (Stringer/Reuters) An armed motorcade belonging to members of the Islamic Youth Council in Libya drive along a road in Derna, eastern Libya, after the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. (Stringer/Reuters)

Helia Ighani is the assistant director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action.

Since the self-proclaimed Islamic State captured territory in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, their network of affiliated groups has grown significantly. The Islamic State—known previously as al-Qaeda in Iraq—was disavowed from al-Qaeda in 2014 for its divergent philosophy and brutal tactics. Pre-existing terrorist groups in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere have declared their allegiance to the Islamic State, increasing the number of fighters to anywhere from twenty thousand to two hundred thousand in Iraq and Syria alone. Now, nearly thirty-five terrorist groups have declared their allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Read more »

How the U.S. Government Condemns or Ignores Indiscriminate Bombing

by Micah Zenko Thursday, October 29, 2015
People walk at the site of a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's capital Sanaa on October 28, 2015. (Abdullah/Reuters) People walk at the site of a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's capital Sanaa on October 28, 2015. (Abdullah/Reuters)

If you watch U.S. government press conferences, you will occasionally come across a moment of incidental but illuminating honesty. Yesterday, one such moment occurred during a routine press briefing with Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the command element for the war against the self-declared Islamic State. Col Warren was asked about the growing number of disturbing allegations of Russia’s indiscriminate use of airpower in Syria. Just the day before, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “it appears the vast majority of [Russian] strikes, by some estimates as high as 85 percent to 90 percent, use dumb bombs.” Warren echoed Carter’s assessment, claiming that, “Russians have chosen to use a majority of really, just dumb bombs, just gravity bombs, push them out the back of an airplane, and let them fall where they will.” Read more »