What Admiral Stavridis Is Reading

Try to keep up…

Admiral James Stavridis: What I Read (The Atlantic Wire)


Chancellorsville Redux

by Dr. Rebecca J. Johnson

The CIAO professor probably isn’t the one who should write a wrap up on a staff ride, but — you know — I’ve got the keys to the kingdom. It occurs to me after spending two wonderful days with the two best CGs at the Command and Staff College that every CG has a very different experience on the staff rides, and this blog could be a good way for you all to share the big take aways / lingering questions you may have.

For me, I found the question of initiative most interesting this year: Can you seize and maintain the initiative on the defensive? For CG 8, the question came down to the definition of initiative and whether we’re talking about operational or tactical initiative. One thing I continue to wonder about but did not raise (it was hot and we were pressed for time) is whether you can maintain the initiative while developing the situation. It seems to me that until Hooker ceded Hazel Grove, he maintained the operational initiative; he was simply developing the situation. Once he ceded that piece of key terrain (not to be confused with decisive terrain, as LtCol Callahan very helpfully explained today), the AVN seized the initiative and was able to decide the terms of the engagement to their advantage. The rising Rapidan and inevitability of Longstreet’s arrival provided helpful support.

What were the big issues you all wrestled with as you looked at Chancellorsville? (CG8’s other big light bulb moment was learning poison ivy grows up trees. This was perhaps not operationally significant, but is pragmatically crucial information for living in the Northern Virginia area!) What questions do you have that carry over to Gettysburg? The more feedback you give us, the better we can shape your experience there.


ADM (ret) Dennis Blair on developing future US strategy

By way of introduction, this is Dr. Eric Shibuya. I am currently on sabbatical for the fall semester, but will return to CSC and (probably) CGs 5/12 in January (unless Dr. Phillips thinks just being course director is too easy or something). I’m very excited about this blog and will hope to make periodic postings while I am away.

To that end, here’s my former boss, ADM Blair, giving a talk at the Australian National University, discussing the obstacles to developing a coherent US strategy for the future.

International Relations Theory and U.S. Foreign Policy

by Dr. Rebecca J. Johnson

As you’re preparing for this week’s seminar on International Relations Theory, I wanted to share a quick IR Theory Cheat Sheet we use in CGs 1 and 8. For students not in CGs 1 and 8: Please don’t walk in to seminar and tell your PhDs how they ought to approach analyzing IR theory. They will bring their own insight and perspective to your conversations. Still, this could be a useful way to orient yourselves as you read and to focus your thinking on each theory’s strengths and weaknesses.

Also, I very much like this overview of Liberalism by Dr. Andrew Moravcsik. As you can tell from scrolling through his publications, the man’s pretty smart and has spent his entire career thinking about these issues. I know you already have a ton to read, but it’s worth skimming, if you’re so inclined.

Any thoughts or feedback? Leave a comment!

Syria is the Epicenter of a Regional War

by Dr. Benjamin M. Jensen

The capture of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, an elite Iranian military wing, by the Free Syrian Army alongside a flurry of diplomatic meetings across the region highlights the magnitude of the unfolding struggle. Syria is not just a civil war, it a regional battle for power and influence.

This struggle has two axes. A Sunni-axis comprised of multiple Syrian opposition groups, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar is wrought with rivalries and a fundamental coordination problem.  Reports on the ground indicate as much.  Rebel groups often have trouble getting reinforcements and support from one another.  Supplies disappear en route.  There also appears to be a severe equipment shortage.  Interviewed rebels consistently complain about a lack of enough weapons alongside reports of $3 bullets and $1,500 AK-47s, prohibitively high costs to sustain an insurgency.  Adding to the confusion, foreign fighters are flowing in with reports of Al-Qaeda flags and Libyan rebels growing by the day.

Members of the Sunni-Axis are vying for influence pitting former Syrian Air Force Colonel and Free Syrian Army leader Riad al-Asaad against Saudi Arabia’s preferred candidate, former Republican Guard Brigadier General Manaf Tlas.  Qatar, who was one of the earliest backers of the rebels, continues to host conferences with opposition groups to achieve some semblance of unity.

The Kurdish question further complicates unity in the Sunni-axis.  The President of the Iraqi Kurdish Region, Massoud Barzani, is trying to bring together competing Syrian Kurdish factions, some of whom historically supported Assad.  While such a move threatens to shift the balance of forces on the ground, it directly threatens Turkey where political leaders fear a separatist Northern Syria Kurdish enclave driving Istanbul to pressure all Syrian opposition groups to deny the Kurds a semi-autonomous region in a post-Assad Syria.

Assad’s backers are composed of a Shiite-axis including his regional backers Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki as well as an Eastern Camp made up of Russia and China.  While Assad’s patrons have a common unity of effort in ensuring his regime survives, their motives differ.  The Shiite-axis sees the struggle as a zero-sum conflict dating back to the Battle of Siffin and the First Fitna, or Islamic Civil War between 656- and 661 AD.  Through this lens, the Shiites are fighting an existential war of survival against Sunnis.

The Eastern Camp includes the regime’s principle military backer, Russia, and China.  While Russia has more immediate military interests in Syria including its naval base and weapon sales, both Moscow and Beijing are concerned about sovereignty and religious extremism.  Beijing especially consistently stresses a policy of non-interference, a relic of the Communist party’s perception of Western intervention as thwarting the rise of China. Both nations share a deep concern about predominantly Sunni separatists in their respective nations. Russia worries about the radicalization of the Caucasus while Beijing worries about the prospective of future violence in Xinjiang Province.

These competing axes present a dilemma for the West.  Whether proxy support or military strikes any intervention absent unifying the Syrian opposition is a recipe for disaster.  Outreach efforts should focus on building command and control within the rebels and convincing them to fall back and consolidate before seeking a decisive battle against Assad’s regime.  Second, a successful proxy intervention, if there is such a thing, would have to first drive a wedge between Assad’s supporters.   China is unlikely to shift policy amidst a leadership transition while Iran will never sacrifice their ally for sectarian as well as geopolitical reasons. Therefore, diplomatic outreach should focus on Iraq and Russia.  The West can bargain with Putin, but should be mindful of paying a high price for even small concessions.

In deciding whether to deepen Western involvement in Syria, prudence dictates leaders weigh the humanitarian grounds for action against the risks of a broader conflict spiral in the Middle East and beyond.  National interests still matter even if they are weighed on a scale against human lives.