“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Guest Post - Gunboat Diplomacy and Iran

In light of the deployment of naval forces near Iranian waters, I did a little research about gunboat diplomacy, referring to The Effectiveness of Gunboat Diplomacy by Robert Mandel. Here are a few insights:

Gunboat diplomacy - defined by Mandel as 'the demonstration, threat, or use of limited naval force for political objectives' - can be considered a relevant branch of deterrent and coercive diplomacy. This particular form of diplomacy incorporates elements of both deterrence – preservation of the status quo – and coercive diplomacy – demonstration of the capability and resolution to inflict 'unacceptable punishment' should there be no alteration of the status quo – and thus is flexible enough to be considered for application in the event of an impending or escalating crisis. The ease with which naval forces can be mobilised for military action allows for constant revision and attunement of the intentions and demonstration of resolve of the assailant.

As gunboat diplomacy embraces elements from both deterrent and coercive diplomacy, naturally it would also be saddled with the limitations of both approaches. Mandel seeks to question two aspects that would affect the effectiveness of gunboat diplomacy: restraint and credibility. Self-restraint (a crucial element of deterrence) is imperative in a sense that the assailant should adopt limited force to achieve limited objectives to prevent excessive coercion, which might backfire and harden the resistance of the victim, thereby escalating the crisis. Credibility is equally important since without convincing the victim that actual, potentially devastating force could be applied by the assailant (a crucial prerequisite for coercive diplomacy), non-compliance would be a likely result. Mandel then proceeds to test several hypotheses to examine the 'relative utility' of gunboat diplomacy as opposed to other variants of diplomacy.

Mandel's tests reveal that gunboat diplomacy is more effective when definitive force is employed, characterised by an informed resolution backed with commensurate naval force to exploit 'speed and surprise to create a momentary and local superiority', thereby creating a fait accompli that puts the victim on the defensive, burdening it with the decision to resort to violence. Also, deterrent gunboat diplomacy is more effective than its compellent counterpart. The former seeks to reinforce rather than alter the victim's behaviour (which would entail certain risks of hardening resistance and national galvanisation of the victimised populace to further dissuade their leaders from complying); also, compellent diplomacy demands a positive response rather than 'simple abstinence' – there may be difficulty in conveying intentions of limited means and objectives when the victim may interpret otherwise and thus perceive a show-of-force as an act of provocation.

Mandel also reveals that assailants who have recently engaged in military conflict in the victim's region are more likely to succeed in achieving its objectives, since past involvement clearly displays the willingness to intervene militarily as the precedent has already been set. Without prior engagement, the assailant might suffer from a lack of credibility as 'perpetual inertia and rigidity' of the victim prevent it from perceiving outside threats as potent enough to endanger state interests. Military preparedness – demonstrated by military expenditure – contributes to credibility by displaying the resolve and propensity to employ actual force if necessary. Mandel thus notes that assailants with higher military preparedness and spending than their victims are more likely to achieve their objectives via gunboat diplomacy. Political stability and domestic support also factor into Mandel's considerations: the more politically divided and unstable the assailant , the lesser the likelihood of success.

However, one shocking result from Mandel's tests is that even when the assailant has a considerable power advantage over its victim, or if the assailant is a superpower, there is inconclusive evidence that gunboat diplomacy will consistently produce desired results.

Mandel's article puts forth a convincing argument that gunboat diplomacy remains relevant to this day, but must be tailored according to the sensitivities and unique circumstances of the crisis. Contemporary conflicts are not always land-locked, and given the proliferation of naval technology, gunboat diplomacy may continue to serve as a flexible option that can be attuned to the shifting nature of the crisis. However, Mandel does not address the question of legitimacy: it has become increasingly difficult to gain legitimacy for gunboat diplomacy due to lack of unity of action in the international community (mostly due to vested entrenched interests that may be compromised by a shift in the status quo), not to mention that the ease of deployment of naval forces induces assailants to act unilaterally.

This study illuminates several aspects of gunboat diplomacy that prove to be highly relevant in the Iranian nuclear crisis: the USA has employed compellent diplomacy to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but refuses to negotiate with it - without diplomatic relations, the act of deploying aircraft carriers near Iran only serves to convey provocation, hardening Iranian resistance and galvanising the nation behind its leaders. The invasion of Iraq has set a precedent, but increasing political partisanship and divisiveness at home, coupled with the failure to communicate limitations of means and objectives, has diluted any advantages the USA has over Iran. It is useful to remind ourselves that deterrent and coercive diplomacy only work when we assume the rationality of actors – a belligerent leader such as Ahmadinejad who believes in perpetuating nuclear apocalypse so that salvation will arrive can hardly be considered 'rational'.

Defining the parameters of the conflict is a fundamental concern for both the US and Iran: obviously, it is in neither of our interests for the Middle East to combust in flames - the fires of Kurdish secessionism, civil war in Lebanon and Iraq and the ensuing instability of the region (in terms of economic investment in its oil sector) will engulf and consume Iran whole.

Though I absolutely detest the suggestion that negotiations with Iran are actually of any worth, coercive diplomacy has to be backed by communication of our limited objectives and means. Let it be known that foisting democracy on Iran is not our objective, that we are not interested in perpetuating the collapse of the Iranian regime through unlimited military power.

But also let it be known that we will make good on our promises to cripple an already dismembered Iranian economy through decisive strikes on its oil and gas pipelines, that we will stand by as spectators when our dear "friends", the Saudis unleash large quantities of oil to drive oil prices down, that we will continue to persist in dissuading investors, banks and nations from ever spending a single rial - oh wait, they don't accept that anymore - dollar on Iran. The Russians and Chinese have begun to pull out, and the Indians aren't terribly enthusiastic. In short, to show that we can hurt you and we know how to. First to feel the pain will be those sneaky operatives of yours in Iraq, and trust me, Patraeus is no Abizaid.

Mandel helpfully suggests that when the assailant allows the victim a way out of the crisis that avoids humiliating the latter, the stand-off tends to de-escalate in intensity. By offering to provide economic aid and technological expertise in upgrading and maintaining oil and gas infrastructure on a strictly review-and-readjust protocol, securing Russian help in building nuclear processing plants (the Russians know better than to export capabilities that will allow Iran to refine weapons-grade uranium) and basically averting the implosion of Iran's regime - we can then demand for the steady dismantlement of the nuclear programme, cessation of funding to insurgents and militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

And of course, there's always the handy naval option should Iran misbehave. The burden of initiating violence or reconciliation - if they so choose - is now placed on their shoulders.

As trish insisted, "victory" has lost its meaning in this conflict:

I believe victory has long since ceased to be an issue. I'm surprised anyone bothers to use the word. I certainly don't know how victory as a clear, delimiting objective can even be applied to on-going operations. I'm not sure anyone else knows that either.

The parameters of the conflict have broadened across boundaries far more intangible than any pre-1945 wars could have been contained within. There probably isn't any sort of chance one could adopt an all-encompassing strategy that - in the rarest of confluence of circumstances and variables - would actually constitute a clear "victory". I recently attended a lecture whereby the speaker asked for opinions as to when the Cold War ended.

Obviously, most of the audience would have agreed with the speaker that 1989 was the marker of the end of hostilities; yet I ventured a guess: that it hasn't truly ended, but metamorphosised into a low-intensity conflict between the US and Russia. Personally, I believe that this tension between the powers has been a mainstay, and will continue to be so.

But my suggestion drew snarky responses. What was "victory" in terms of the Cold War defined as? Not the utter annihilation of all ex-Soviet satellites, or the purging of KGB (now unofficially the FSB) agents throughout the world, or the decapitation of the Soviet Union's leadership. "Victory" was defined as a set of limited objectives in which both powers managed to avert a thermonuclear holocaust, prevent escalation of the stand-off into a bloody World War fought on multiple proxy fronts that could have led to economic debilitation on both sides (though obviously the Soviet Union first before us) and needlessly cost innocent lives in the long term.

The speaker responded, though, with a question: "So you're saying that the War is psychological?" To a considerable extent, yes. I am very much convinced that this battle for "hearts and minds" - not just among Arabs, but those treasonous bastards that rufus has pointed out (that is, if they can still be convinced) - is first and foremost a psychological one. Already, our enemies have taken to narratives and netwar, fighting the propaganda front much more effectively than us, turning public opinion against the CinC.

"Victory" is never so clear-cut, and we have to be prepared to hunker down for the long haul. westhawk echoes this sentiment: the Iraqis have to realize that the U.S.-Iranian confrontation is equally permanent. Whether the U.S. is allied with Iraq or not, and whether U.S. military forces are in Iraq or not, the U.S. is in a permanent, grinding struggle with Iran for domination of the Persian Gulf region. Iraq’s Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders have to get used to that reality and make their calculations accordingly.

Islamic terrorism (or Islamism, if you so prefer) will always be a viable threat: I believe it is in our mutual interest to do all we can to mitigate the potency of this threat so as to render it low-intensity. That will be as "victorious" as we will be able to feel. Psychologically, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that "complete victory" is easily attained through force and force alone - too high standards work as a double-edged sword: defeatocrats will always point out the failure to meet these expectations as a justification to accept defeat.


  1. MSNBC just scrolled that Senators Warner and Levin have reached an agreement on a bipartison anti-surge resolution.

    Now we'll see if Trent Lott can herd 40 GOP Senators into a filibuster, or if the GOP's visable solidarity with the President collapses.

    Great post, harrison

  2. Turner Broascasting showing the World how easy a multiple city bombing campaign could be to stage.
    Ten or so of those magnetic light promotional boxes, placed in strategic spots around Boston.

    Look at the mayhem they achieved, just in Boston, Turner says there are similar promo devices set in 9 other US cities.

  3. I read it, early, trish.
    But ever since the "End of History", wasn't, I've been less than impressed.

    Most of his points are accurate, we'd have to hit the Iranians so hard, they could never get up, right out of the box. That has not been our style, we tend to escalate our wars, incrementally.
    That, in Iran, would be a true international disaster.

    As I've said many times, get tough or get out. That goes for the entire military situation, from Iran to Lebanon and everywhere in between. I do not think the US knows how to be tough, anymore.

    Leaving, the US did not utilize Iraqi oil for well over a decade, has not use Iranian oil for over two decades, so there is no new loss, there.

    As loo linked, the Iraq Federals do not want to provide a battlefield for the US vs Iran War

    Back to containment or total war, the US will decide on containment, more than likely. At least until Haifa burns in a nuclear fire.

  4. Both that Guardian article and the Warner/ Levin coResolution, if MSNBC reported accurately goes right to harrison's theme.
    but increasing political partisanship and divisiveness at home, coupled with the failure to communicate limitations of means and objectives, has diluted any advantages the USA has over Iran.

    The US's aims are not going to be achieved with out using the gunboats and much much more.
    A small strike, to "send a message", would be the worse case scenario possible. That is our normal course of action.

  5. I read it trish, almost wrote it up, but then i did not want to catch the end of history as i know it. It is hard to believe that the neocons want to stick their head in the fire twice.

    Sometimes I feel like I am in the middle of a badly written movie.

  6. this part got me:

    "The US unintentionally abetted Iran's regional rise by invading Iraq, eliminating the Ba'athist regime as a counterweight, and empowering Shia parties close to Tehran. It seems reasonably clear that Iran wants nuclear weapons, despite protestations that its nuclear programme is only for civilian purposes; nuclear energy makes little sense for a country sitting on some of the world's largest oil reserves, but it makes sense as the basis for a weapons programme. It is completely rational for the Iranians to conclude that they will be safer with a bomb than without one."

    I guess I cannot get the scene out of my head of Saddam cursing the persians and then being hanged...and he goes out trying to understand why the Americans do not appreciate the real threat and masters of WMD... a really bad script.

  7. The "Iran does not need nuclear power" storyline is awfully weak, as well. Back in the days of the Shah, the US was gooing to finance & build 24 reactors, spread across the country.

    Seems reasonable that if Iran needed the nuclear electricity, in 1978, they certainly can make a case for needing it today.

  8. Harrison's post suggests a twilight world, an end of the history of absolutism, which lasted fifteen minutes. We went from "with us or agin us" to a world where the ally we are fighting for is allowing the enemy we are not fighting to support killing our troops and will incidentaly be opening up banks for our blood brother ally.

  9. trish, i am sure that somewhere on that shelf of yours is Charlie Wilson's War. That deserves a highlighter or two.

  10. I preferred it when I worried about the klystrons overheating.

  11. Don't worry, be happy.

    All those problems are meaningless, the US economy grew 3.5%.

    What more is there, then money?

    Not US National Sovereignty, the borders must remain unsecure, because of money.
    Money is the key, follow it.
    From Saudi Arabia to DC

  12. Goodness Gracious.

    So Warner and Levin are against the surge.

    What's their plan?

    Can't wait for those nuclear armed mullahs; what's their resolution for that possibility? Someone please link me to it.

    Fukuyama reminds me of a politician, seems before the invasion he was characterized as a neocon himself. I did not find his answer for the Iran situation in the article, what was it? Sell those books boy

    Heard about another militia group to be utilized today.

    Iran, couldn't defeat Iraq but has the the U.S. shaking

    Fat, soft, self-absorbed Americans

    Defending everywhere...weak everywhere

    It could all change in a day though

  13. harrison,

    As always, a piece well done.

    A rule of business negotiation, applicable to foreign policy, requires that at the outset the opponent must be considered rational. If the opponent proves irrational, the rule demands immediate cessation of attempts at negotiation, since these will be perceived as weakness.

    I hope you did not consider my reply to the colloquy between Trish and you on the question of victory as "snarky". If I came across that way, I do sincerely apologize. Having said that, the public "needs" victory, however that may be defined or understood. The public has no interest in the intellectual exercises that we here at the EB so enjoy. Unless this administration, or anyother for that matter, can convince the public that victory has been achieved (even on some very limited basis), public support will evaporate. To some real albeit unquantified extent, good news of enemy deaths will often suffice; a classic case being the tactical Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor, which kept that public enthused.

  14. trish,

    That is why the guys at State make the big bucks.

    Does nomenclature matter so long as the public is appeased?

  15. I know, trish.
    I've argued for a different force structure to be utilized in Iraq, for years now. Failure was evident for a long time now.

    Between the types of troops deployed, the RoE and the political considerations due to early deployment of the Iraqi Sovereignty card.

    What we did in Central America, in the late 70s, early 80s bordered on the illegal. Well outside the spirit of US Law. Did my share, maybe more.
    But we did only have the 54 active duty fellows, in El Salvador, most of the time.
    No way the Bush Team could do it, no cajones. Ronnie could always be forgiven for forgetting. Sir Ollie, he was willing to fall on his sword, but wielded it against the Senators rather well, well enough.
    Only took the Federals at State less than 20 years to screw up that good work.

  16. Well, maybe by May '07 we should have Baghdad "secured", it'll only have been, what, four years by then?

    No hurry, no worries.
    Be happy.

  17. trish,

    Tell me you do NOT have confidence in State, which has been missing for decades.

  18. This site has been picking up commenters for some time now. As I said before, in agreement with Rufus, this traffic has to do with quality rather than the absence of a particular "ranter".

    Rufus, while we sometimes disagree on politics, we have never disagreed on the soul cleansing value of good booze and outstanding boobs. Your absence would be a great loss to us all.

  19. Robert Caldwell of Oregon is accused of acting as the US agent of a British company which tried to smuggle batteries used to power Hawk anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, a criminal complaint said.

    The company was in the process of ordering 35 batteries at a cost of $US5,000 ($6450) each from an exporter who was working as an informant for customs officials. The aim was to ship them through Amsterdam and Britain in order to avoid detection.

    Mr Caldwell was arrested in a sting last week before the batteries could be shipped out of the United States. The complaint indicated Brooklands Freight Services had been smuggling arms to the Middle East for some time.

    Weapons to Iran

  20. Rufus has a temper like a fire cracker, but he cools down fast. He knows he is needed and welcome.

  21. Excellent posting.

    > "victory" has lost its meaning in this conflict

    > What was "victory" in terms of the Cold War defined as?

    I think of it as an outline, like this:

    Defend ourselves (The ultimate goal)
    -- Cold War II (Putin's Russia)
    -- -- Battle #1 vs. Russia II
    -- Iranian / Shiite threat
    -- -- Threat of nuclear weapons
    -- -- -- Battle #1 vs. Iran Nukes

    Our ultimate goal is to protect ourselves. There are a lot of general threats like Russia and Iran, and as you have said, it is tough to say exactly what the final victory is there. However, with the goal of protecting ourselves in mind, we can break it down into individual battles like we did in the Cold war. Each of those individual battles needs to have a specific definition of "victory". (When we can't define victory, like in Iraq, it shows something is seriously wrong.)

    Looking at it another way, some people take a "top down" approach where they try to find a way to win the "war on terror". I look at it from "bottoms up", what are specific threats that the US needs to respond too, the specific battles we need to fight today.

    > we must not delude ourselves into thinking that "complete victory" is easily attained through force and force alone

    > our enemies have taken to narratives and netwar, fighting the propaganda front much more effectively than us,

    Yes, one of the biggest problems which has surfaced since 9/11 is that all the lessons from winning the Cold war have been forgotten, and much of American now sees conventional military warfare (or nukes!) or surrender as the only options.

    It's amazing that in a "war against terror" which supposedly has our survival at stake, that we throw away so many options, tools that our enemy is using to fight against us. I mean things like patience, restraint, building alliances, divide & conquer, propaganda, economic sanctions, diplomacy, and limited military operations.

    So supposedly it is a 20 year "war on terror", yet we are told we need to "win" next week, and do it using conventional military force only.

  22. But, sam, he's gonna plead "Not Guilty"!
    Interesting that it's not the first time that company may have shipped weapons to Iran.

    Wonder if the Brits are going to pickup their suspect National, Christopher Tappin, who ran the company out of Britain and has not yet been arrested, but has been charged in the US.

  23. loo,
    The 20 year timeline is a lie, devised by those that refused to even try.

    2002 State of the Union, Mr Bush said
    "Time is not on our side"

    It was not until we were well on Course to failure that it became a "Long War".

    Before that: " I can hear you. (Applause.) I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. (Applause.) And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

    Soon being the operative word at Ground Zero.

  24. We actually get enought traffic now that we could make money with advertising, but I think it trashes the look of a blog. I like the clean look and as long as we do not profit, we can pretty much post anything with links and attribution. The Telegraph likes us. We probably quote them as much as anyone.

  25. The National Council of Resistance of Iran repeated claims that it had obtained the names of more than 30,000 Iranian agents working in Iraq, including members of parliament and ranking members of the Iraqi security forces.

    It also claimed to have uncovered details of facilities in Iran used to make bombs for Iraqi insurgents.

    The Paris-based council is the political wing of the People's Mujahideen of Iran, deemed a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union.

    US Warns Iran

  26. Would pretty much be peanut dough, though, isn't it, duece?

  27. Re: Victory

    If you say you are going to take Vienna, then, take Vienna.

    Contratemps Fallujah: if you are not going to take Fallujah, then, STFU.

    The public has tired of years of unfulfilled administration chatter. There may come a day when the administration will wish to be thought cynical and hypocritical rather than vain and stupid.

    Do the Iranians see in Mr. Bush the first true Benjamin Spock. president?

  28. Gloom and Doom

    In reading an assortment of blogs, I was taken with how little excitement was generated by the killing at Najaf. There may be another shoe to drop, but what is so damned hard about just savoring the moment? Yes, the President may be a rodent, but why all the circle jerking when US forces kill hundreds of Muslims, many of them “foreign”?

    Well, I said then and I say now, "Hoorah"!

  29. For instance, it is reported that the great tribalist Sheik Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law was whacked today. Among a culture holding pride of family as sine qua non, the great leader was posthumously knocked on his ass. And this is a guy who claimed the power to lead Islam into a victorious war with the West. Now, I do not expect Wolf to do cartwheels, but where is the joy among conservative bloggers?

  30. rufus,

    I expect nothing more from the MSM, but why aren't bloggers, especially milbloggers, putting out those numbers at every opportunity? You get the feeling that some folk wouldn't know a win if it bit them on the ass.

  31. Like a bunch of adolescents who would rather appear not to be wrong than to be actually right.

  32. Here’s a resolution bloggers might demand of the Senate: “We hereby commend the brave Americans who flat out wasted the mot**rf***ers in Somalia.” Indeed, everytime American arms prevail anywhere, bloggers might demand such commendation from the House and Senate. Why, before long, you might have yourself a convoy even the MSM could not ignore.

  33. Again, the hostility of the MSM is a given. What is depressing is the silence or outright prevarication by so-called milbloggers. Good grief, the involvement of the Iranians has been known for years to those of us associated with the military. It was also known to the big name conservative bloggers. But the big name conservative bloggers, as the MSM, are selective. When a guy like Ed Morrissey will delete a perfectly respectable comment because his "military" sources find it discomforting, he does as great a disservice to the country and its war fighters as Dan Rather.

  34. Maybe I have missed something, but "mindless cheerleading" isn't it.

  35. trish,

    You are correct: I do not listen to talk radio or television. Those people are often no more than entertainers. Moreover, I hate bad historical fiction.

  36. rufus,

    And here I thought it was just MY age catching up with me. You may count me dead the day I forget the pleasure of cold beer and warm ...

  37. > I'll say it again: We cannot get real movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan until that baby is wrapped up. That's just a fact.

    What is the definition of "wrapped up"? There is no alternative, and the Congress knows it. Even the most extreme Democratic resolutions talk about leaving troops in Iraq for a variety of purposes like "fighting terrorism". We will be in Iraq for a long, long time. No one in Congress will vote to allow a caliphate to form in Iraq and launch 9/11's, and if they did, there is no reason to fight it in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

    We don't want to fight Iraq's internal battles, but everyone agrees with that. The Democratic plan for reducing troops is the same as Bush had.

    Even though the political situation seems ugly now, in the longer term two groups will lose, the extremes. One is the anti-war Democrats who want another Vietnam, a total withdrawal and surrender in Iraq. The other is the neo-cons, the ones who think we should take over a country a day.

  38. > How do you know you're losing the real war? You spend A LOT of time fretting about the propaganda war.

    That's good news because it means the Islamists are losing badly. Almost everything they ever do is propaganda war. They have no military accomplishements in Iraq like holding territory. Just killing of civilians in front of cameras, which are designed for the liberal MSM to broadcast as propaganda showing that "we are losing the war", so the Democrats can then vote us out of Iraq.

  39. Senate Resolution Called Disgrace

    It looks like a few Republicans are calling the resolution what it really is, and the true face of the MSM is showing, how much they hate the military.

    Republicans said the troops in Iraq want the full support of Congress rather than give up on a mission in which they have lost so many comrades. They pointed to an NBC News clip aired last week that has stormed the Internet.
    "One thing I don't like is when people back home say they support the troops but not the war," one soldier interviewed said. "If they're going to support us, support us all the way."
    Spc. Tyler Johnson said, "You're not supporting what they do. They died for you. It don't make sense to me."
    The clip became one of the most-watched clips on YouTube yesterday with more than 38,000 views.

    William M. Arkin, a columnist, took offense.
    "These soldiers should be grateful that the American public ... do still offer their support to them, and their respect," wrote Mr. Arkin. "Through every Abu Ghraib and Haditha, through every rape and murder, the American public has indulged those in uniform, accepting that the incidents were the product of bad apples or even of some administration or command order."
    The NBC report "is just an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary -- oops sorry, volunteer -- force that thinks it is doing the dirty work," he added.

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