Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley’s outstanding Barriers to Bioweapons demonstrates that while it may be relatively easy to pick your poison, there are very significant barriers to manufacturing it. Her main argument, as our reviewers so clearly explain, is that making bioweapons—that is, ‘weaponizing’ biological agents such as anthrax, smallpox, plague, and many others—has been far more difficult to achieve than is generally understood. And this is true whether these are small groups intent on creating terror or nation-states working at far larger scales of destruction.
When released in July 2016, The Report of the Iraq Inquiry elicited the familiar reactions to other government post-mortems about a controversial policy. People noted its size and demanded to know what was new. When few ‘sensational’ details emerged, most observers concluded that the report confirmed what they already believed–good and bad.
The International Security Studies Forum (ISSF) of H-Diplo is very pleased to provide a roundtable discussion of Dr. Jessica Weeks’s book, Dictators at War and Peace. The book offers an important answer to the centuries-old international relations question as to how the politics within states affect the politics between states? Since at least the Enlightenment, most observers have tackled this question by focusing on the differences between democracies and dictatorships, Immanuel Kant and others famously arguing that democracies are more peaceful. Realists have been skeptical of this claim, contending that all types of political systems conduct foreign policy similarly. Especially since the end of the Cold War, international-relations scholars have been consumed with the scientific exploration of the democratic peace proposition.
Voltaire famously observed that “God is always on the side of the big battalions” (5). International relations theorists and diplomatic historians have tended to find Voltaire’s explanation persuasive but, as Paul MacDonald shows in his provocative new book, peripheral conquest during the nineteenth century was a far more complicated endeavor than conventional warfare on the European continent. In his view, the scholarly focus on aggregate military power and relative advantage “ignores the role of social factors in shaping conquest, especially in the periphery of the international system” (6). In Networks of Domination, MacDonald argues that two social factors are crucial in determining the effectiveness of military force in cases of peripheral conquest. The first factor is the extent to which potential conquerors have pre-existing social ties with local elites. Dense ties with local elites, MacDonald argues, makes it much more likely that potential conquerors will be able to identify and fruitfully work with local collaborators. The second factor that facilitates peripheral conquest is patterns of local resistance. When local elites are less connected to each other, MacDonald argues, it is much harder for local resistance forces to confront potential conquerors. The book’s richly detailed chapters include cases of British conquest in India, Southern Africa, and Nigeria, as well as an application of the framework to explain the failed American occupation of Iraq.
In 2015 the United States faces a number of opportunities to intervene with military force in countries of secondary or even less strategic importance to U.S. policy makers. President Barack Obama’s completion of the withdrawal of American ground combat troops from Iraq, and plans to draw down U.S. troops from Afghanistan, have not reduced either the escalation of recent conflicts such as in Libya and Yemen, or the continuation of destructive ethnic and religious strife with international participation in Syria. As if that were not a sufficient number of states with contested conflict taking place, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) expanded from gradual growth after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2013, migrated into the Syrian Civil War, and in February 2014 charged into western Iraq to seize Mosul and other Sunni dominated areas. Boko Haram in Nigeria also escalated its attacks in northeastern Nigeria and engaged in the kidnapping of school girls, burning of villages, murder of residents, and attacks on Nigeria’s neighbors such as Chad. The list does not even include Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea from the Ukraine in February 2014 and Putin’s continued support of Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons, so-called ‘Russian volunteers,’ and funds.
After thirteen years of war, the loss of many thousand of lives, and the expenditure of trillions of dollars, what has the United States learned? The answer depends on not only who is asking but when. The story of the Iraq war would have different endings, and morals, if told in 2003, 2006, 2011, or 2014, and it will continue to evolve. As for Afghanistan, the narrative there has also shifted over time, and the ending also remains in doubt. Neither disaster has been unmitigated. But few would argue that Washington’s approach to either has been a success worth emulating. So the most important question today is what can be learned from the failures.
The dangers of writing about terrorism and terrorist groups, most especially al-Qa’ida, are twofold. The first is that the field is so inundated with punditry and scholarship on the subject that new entrants easily can be lost in the noise; the second is that in order to avoid being lost in the noise the temptation is strong to exaggerate claims and to assert over-strenuously the importance of one’s conclusions.
Since the start of the twenty-first century, military contractors such as Blackwater (now named Academi), Kellogg, Brown & Root, and SNC Lavalin have become household names in many countries. The reasons for their prominence vary from case to case. One is notoriety. Particular firms hold contracts valued in the millions if not billions of dollars, and the conduct of some firms has not been beyond reproach in terms of military effectiveness or their observance of human rights. A second reason is reliance. Contractors are needed to keep state military personnel fed and supplied, to maintain their machines, and in some cases even to protect them. Developed world states especially require them for warring, training, and simply operating given the limited numbers of available national military personnel, the increasing sophistication of military technologies, and the political ramifications of applying state forces overseas. In many states, contractors have therefore become part of the total national force. Yet another reason pertains to dedication and sacrifice. Many firms suﬀffered significant levels of casualties during the long-term interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of contracted personnel have provided continuity over the long haul in often austere and intemperate conditions. All of this points to the considerable depth and scope of contractor involvement, which is arguably unprecedented in recent decades if not centuries. It also stands at odds with traditional conceptions of expensive state security sectors and their capabilities and responsibilities to manage and apply violence.
Why did the United States, despite vigorous public debates over the wisdom of invading Iraq, pursue an ultimately disastrous war with Iraq in 2003? After all, as John Stuart Mill and others have suggested, such debates in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ should surely have led to a solid consensus against such a course. Explaining why American foreign policymakers repeatedly commit such mistakes is the broad task that Christopher Fettweis sets for himself in his new book. In his view, the primary source of blunders in American foreign policy is the nation’s deep and collective attachment to a series of pathological beliefs that he groups into the categories of fear, honor, glory, and hubris. These four pathologies do not lead to random errors in foreign policy making, but instead “almost always lend support to the most hawkish, belligerent position in any foreign policy debate. Fear, honor, glory, and hubris rarely convince leaders to cooperate with rivals or foes; these categories of belief expand the set of casus belli far more widely than any rational calculation would support” (14).
It should not be surprising that the long awaited release in December 2014 of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation did not bring a conclusive end to the debate over the use of torture or enhanced interrogation techniques by the United States. To be sure, John Brennan, the Director of the CIA, acknowledged that the report correctly identified numerous and significant problems with the CIA’s handling of detainees and interrogations in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Brennan was also emphatic in stating his own belief that “enhanced interrogation techniques are not an appropriate method to obtain intelligence and that their use impairs our ability to continue to play a leadership role in the world.” But Brennan also restated the CIA’s long-held objection to the SSCI report’s “unqualified assertions that the overall detention and interrogation program did not produce unique intelligence that led terrorist plots to be disrupted, terrorists to be captured, or lives to be saved.”