Don’t conflate issues of “proxy war” with contemporary U.S. security assistance programs for allies and partners

In a rather polemical blog post entitled “Why No One Ever Really Wins a Proxy War,” Brittany Benowitz, Chief Counsel of the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, and Alicia Ceccanese, a Legal Fellow for that Center, seem to allege that contemporary American security assistance programs bear significant blame for adverse consequences they believe stem from what they construe as “proxy war.”

While security assistance and proxy war are both subjects worthy of discussion, the way Benowitz’s and Ceccanese’s article attempts to deal with them results in a confusing conflation of two complicated topics that have distinctions that matter.

Regrettably, their argument reflects mistaken assumptions about U.S. national security strategy, is marred by problematic sourcing, and omits several critical facts about U.S. security assistance aims and programs.  Yes, both topics deserve a balanced and thoughtful dialogue, but unfortunately, their blog post doesn’t provide it.

U.S. national security strategy since 9/11

The writers never define what they really mean by “proxy war.”  The standard definition is “a war fought between groups or smaller countries that each represent the interests of other larger powers, and may have help and support from these.”

Nevertheless, Benowitz and Ceccanese make this misleading assertion:

“[P]ost-9/11, the United States doubled down on its strategy of supporting local proxies to deal with terrorist threats. Research indicates that U.S. security assistance increased by over 229 percent from 2001 to 2019.”

This presents a classic logical fallacy meant to cause the reader to think the purpose of U.S. security assistance is to finance a “strategy of supporting local proxies to deal with terrorist threats.”  Of course, the claim about U.S. strategy is very wide of the mark, as is the writers’ notion about what America’s security assistance is about.

America’s post-9/11 strategy “to deal with terrorist threats” hardly relied upon “supporting local proxies” – after all, critics often say U..S. forces “invaded” two countries. To be clear, what the first national security strategy issued after 9/11 in 2002 really said was that “[m]ultilateral institutions and the support of coalition partners are valuable, but the United States will not hesitate to act alone to protect its national interests.”  (Emphasis added.)

Simply because multilateral institutions and coalition partners join America’s fight against terrorist threats by no means makes them “proxies” of the U.S.  Terrorists are the enemy of everyone; they are the hostis humani generis of the 21st century.

Iraq 2009

Regardless, rather than depend upon “local proxies” as Benowitz and Ceccanese seem to think was the strategy since 9/11, the U.S. instead deployed more than 2.77 million of its own troops to “deal with terrorist threats.”

In a nutshell, “post 9/11” it was mainly the young Americans sent in harm’s way who principally dealt “with terrorist threats” to the U.S., as opposed to some collection of “local proxies” as the writers imply.

Doing so involved an enormous sacrifice: over 7,000 American military personnel died in those operations, and more than 53,000 were wounded in action.  Obviously, the U.S. “strategy” to “deal with terrorist threats” centered on its own military and, again, not “local proxies.”

Furthermore, the U.S. has not “doubled down” on any strategy “to deal with terrorist threats.”  To the contrary, the 2018 U.S National Defense Strategy flatly states that “[i]nter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”  The writers’ interpretation just doesn’t square with current U.S. security strategy.

In any event, one can only conclude from their assertions that these writers assume that if the U.S. provides security assistance to a country, doing so ipso facto transforms the recipients into American “proxies.”  That could not be more wrong, and such a view of U.S. security assistance is puzzling if one gives the facts even a cursory examination.

The scope of U.S. security assistance programs today

The reality is that there are a myriad of U.S. security assistance programs involving a very wide range of actors, and it’s truly insulting to characterize them as mere U.S. “proxies.”

In fact, America’s principal security assistance entity – the Defense Security Cooperation Agency or DSCA – is involved “with over 200 countries and international organizations around the world.”

Are we to suppose that all these nations are U.S. proxies?  Does anyone believe, for example, that Pakistan (a nation of 212 million) or India (1.3 billion people), two countries these writers explicitly mention, are just American “proxies”?

The high number of security assistance recipients isn’t especially surprising since “the U.S. is bound by treaties to defend a quarter of humanity.” Contrary to what their article purports, US security assistance is intended, among other things, to help build the ability of allies and partners to provide for their own defense, not to transform them into American “proxies.”

Ask yourself this: is the “more than $1.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists began driving tanks through eastern Ukraine,” to be pejoratively characterized as aid to a “proxy,” or is it something in the interest of the Ukraine as well as free people everywhere?

LTG Hooper, Feb 2020

Benowitz and Ceccanese speak of security assistance in terms of “weapons, funds, and logistical support.”  If you assumed that’s all there is to it, you would miss a lot.  As LTG Charles Hooper, the director of DSCA, explained recently, U.S. security assistance is much more than that:

“It includes institutional capacity building, international education and training programs, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. The United States is not just looking to help partners modernize equipment, we are also helping them develop effective government processes, encouraging civilian control of the military, training and educating all levels of leadership, and building a full spectrum capability to help them reach their—and our—strategic objectives.”

Importantly, as LTG Hooper points out the U.S uses “Security Cooperation activities to promote the rule of law around the world, thereby creating a network of like-minded allies and partners that ensure our collective global security.”

Does security assistance “increase the duration of conflict”?

Benowitz and Ceccanese’s broad and undifferentiated claim that security assistance “increases the duration of conflict” is also suspect for a variety of reasons.  For example, the link they provide for that proposition tells a far more complicated story, and one of questionable relevance today.

Specifically, despite the authors’ claims, their source actually examines military intervention as opposed to military assistance – two things that can be very different.  Additionally, the article only examines civil wars (as opposed to inter-state wars), and is limited to the period of 1945 to 1999.

Examining history can be a wonderful thing, but it’s undeniable that the world has changed dramatically over the last two decades, and that’s a key reason why the essay needs more current sourcing.

Is economic assistance pointless?

More troubling, however, is Benowitz and Ceccanese source’s conclusion about “military or economic intervention.” Although they cite him only as to the impact of military assistance (which they evidently equate to “intervention”), he actually takes a rather one-dimensional view in his conclusions, finding no difference as to the impact of either military or economic intervention:

“If the objective of an intervention is to shorten the length of a civil conflict, then an outside military or economic intervention is not a terribly effective strategy to do so. Regardless of how the intervention is conceived—or empirically operationalized—there seems to be no mix of strategies that leads to shorter expected durations.  Even maintaining a neutral posture of organizing the intervention under the auspices of a multilateral rubric is not sufficient to form an effective means of conflict management.” (Emphasis added).

In other words, the decades-old data relied on by Benowitz and Ceccanese’s source seems to be interpreted by him as indicating economic aid, even when organized in a neutral, multilateral way, will not shorten conflict.

Should we then foreclose even attempting such a peaceful solution in the 21st century?  Not in my book.

Actually, when properly done, economic aid can go a step further: it can help prevent violent conflict altogether.  In its 2019 Strategic Prevention Project’ report, the U.S. State Department explained that:

“[A]ssistance can contribute to preventing violent conflict, but simply increasing levels of assistance to fragile states alone does not automatically result in less violence.  It is critical that assistance is designed and delivered in a way that is sensitive to group divisions and conflict risks.  Furthermore, assistance needs to be closely coordinated with diplomatic engagement given the inherently political nature of these challenges.”

Moreover, I believe non-violent economic means can, in fact, help shorten conflicts in the right situations.  Notwithstanding Benowitz and Ceccanese’s source’s conclusions, a much more recent study (2016) shows that one form of economic intervention – sanctions – can be effective in shortening conflict when dynamically employed in a holistic manner:

“[T]here is reason to believe that sanctions can shorten the duration of civil conflicts.  However, once sides in a conflict have moved to the use of violence to settle their dispute, it is hard for sanctions, in isolation, to impose enough cost to convince warring factions that settling a conflict has greater value than what could be expected from continued fighting….[W]e argue that sanctions, in isolation, are unlikely to affect the duration of civil conflicts.  However, when sanctions are combined with military interventions they can contribute to conflict management strategies resulting in shorter civil conflicts. “(Emphasis added).

“Biased” interventions or coalition operations?

Additionally, Benowitz’s and Ceccanese’s source says the “evidence suggests that biased interventions shorten dramatically a conflict relative to a neutral intervention.” (Emphasis added). Again, there is confusion because the writers use the source as authority for the impact of military assistance while the source speaks of military interventions.

In any event, what are we to make of the source’s claim about “biased” interventions shortening conflicts?  Are we to conclude that if intervention is necessary, it’s better to do so in a “biased” manner instead of in a more neutral way such as through the UN or a multilateral organization like NATO?  Is American unilateralism then the answer?  In my view, not if we can help it.

In his new book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, legendary Marine general and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis makes his preference for multilateral interventions crystal clear:

“When you’re going to a gunfight, bring all your friends with guns.  Having fought many times in coalitions, I believe we need every ally we can bring to the fight.  From imaginative military solutions to their country’s vote in the United Nations, the more allies the better.”

The tangible and intangible value of interoperability

The success of such coalition operations very much depends upon interoperability, that is, the ability of countries to work together.  One facet of that is equipment, and it’s inarguable that when our allies use U.S. equipment, logistics, training, and warfighting are facilitated.  U.S. security assistance can help secure such mutually-beneficial relationships.

Furthermore, to the extent “security assistance” includes arms sales, the reality is that if the U.S. does not provide them, other nations – to include potential adversaries – will.  Let’s be clear: when the U.S. provides security assistance, it comes with requirements that any human rights advocate ought to welcome, even if imperfectly enforced.  But it is avoiding those very requirements – the “strings” so to speak – that other sellers are trying to exploit in their arms sale pitches.

Last January Voice of America (VOA) reported:

“[T]he issue for most Southeast Asian countries is that access to high-tech weaponry is limited to the U.S., which ties sales to human rights, and Russia, which offers soft loans, state-backed credits, barter deals, spares and servicing with a no such strings attached.”  (Emphasis added).

China does much the same.  Because of the 2014 coup in Thailand, the US cut the ability of the Thais to buy U.S. equipment.  They subsequently turned to China, a vendor unbothered by coups in other countries.  Chinese weapons can not only be cheaper, they come with “no strings attached.”

Given that many nations will be buying advanced weapons in any event, let’s ask ourselves this: isn’t it better that they buy them from U.S. sources where there are at least legal constraints on their use?  Do we want to drive them to vendors whose weapons come with “no strings” attached?

F-35 (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Becky Calhoun)

Moreover, U.S security assistance can help temper Chinese strategic ambitions, particularly when  assistance can include access to America’s cutting-edge arms.  For example, one analyst observes that the F-35, the “world’s most advanced fighter jet,” may offset the strategic risk China’s massive global infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative may present to U.S. influence.

Writing last July on Foreign Policy, three expert co-authors said “F-35 Sales Are America’s Belt and Road,” adding:

“Relative to the fighter network, Belt and Road’s optimistic projections cover a larger landmass and more countries, and—crucially—the initiative brands itself as a generator of wealth and peaceful co-existence on a global scale. But Joint Strike Fighter membership provides its own benefits in terms of prestige, access to technology and subcontracts, and close security ties with the United States. Sovereign states will balance these benefits against the potential for dependency—and indeed which country they will have to depend upon. Perhaps Belt and Road wins out in the future, but the current reality favors the U.S. version.”

All of this highlights a concern about Benowitz’s and Ceccanese’s essay beyond its problematic sourcing: overbroad and conclusory generalizations do not aid a dialogue about hyper-complicated and fact-dependent matters such as security assistance and war – “proxy” or otherwise.

Never intervene?

Benowitz’s and Ceccanese’s source also adds what he calls a “fact” that “any type of intervention lengthens the time until the conflict ends relative to no intervention.”  Is that a prescription to never intervene in today’s conflicts?  Put another way, is a shortened conflict an unalloyed good as Benowitz and Ceccanese imply?

Sure, “no intervention” in the fight against ISIS might have shortened the conflict in that it would have left the caliphate intact and reigning over 34,000 square miles of Iraq and Syria.  However, do we really believe the abandonment of nearly eight million humans to a horrific life under the murderous thumb of Islamic extremists is acceptable? We shouldn’t want to live in a world where “no intervention” is always the answer.

Benowitz and Ceccanese further insist that security assistance “increases the impact of fighting on the civilian population.”  However, the sole source for that claim just doesn’t support applying such broad a proposition to contemporary situations.

For example, it doesn’t use data from any current or even recent conflicts, but rather only examines “four insurgent movements in Uganda, Mozambique, and Peru” – mostly from the Cold War era.  What is more is that it doesn’t speak to security assistance to a country, but rather only to “[e]xternal support for rebellion.” (Emphasis added).

Even that limited conclusion is further qualified.  The source is really discussing increases in violence when the rebels have resources, to include access to other than foreign support.  He also admits there are “rival explanations of violence” beyond his own theories, and says that ‘[f]urther cross-national research is needed to distinguish among competing explanations.”  To reiterate, Benowitz’s and Ceccanese’s source just doesn’t grapple with issues associated with 21st century U.S. government security assistance.

Impact of security assistance on the fight against ISIS?

Benowitz and Ceccanese also complain that U.S. aid to Iraqi security forces was a “failure” since it did not stop the rise of ISIS or the emergence of Iranian-backed militias.  Apart from the fact that the rise/emergence of these two entities is vastly more complex than the authors seem to grasp, suffice to say that both organizations did not arise until after the U.S. training mission ended in 2011 (even though Iraqi soldiers knew at the time they needed more help).

Overwhelmingly, analysts view the withdrawal of U.S. assistance, (and particularly U.S. troops) by the Obama administration, not the furnishing of security assistance that permitted the rise of ISIS and the Iranian-backed militias.  In short, the reference to Iraqi security forces proves exactly the opposite point than what Benowitz and Ceccanese think it does.

What is even more puzzling is that for all Benowitz’s and Ceccanese’s objections about U.S. military aid, it was exactly such assistance to the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/ISIS that halted and then dismantled the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria.  No one with even a glimmer of military expertise would say otherwise.  The U.S. was the indispensable partner.  (Check out the discussion here of Dana J.H. Pittard’s and Wes J. Bryant’s, Hunting the Caliphate: America’s War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell.)

The terrible cost to civilians that can result from the failure to provide needed security assistance does not seem to occur to Benowitz and Ceccanese.  In my view, there is a very real “moral hazard” to inaction in war.

As British philosopher John Stuart Mill observed in his 1859 essay, a “person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

Yes, there are issues warranting continued examination and discussion!

Of course, as I mentioned above, there are issues deserving of discussion with respect to U.S. security assistance. No program of such dimensions and diversity of actors is perfect and there is always room for improvement.  It is no small challenge to ensure the proper use of security assistance once delivered to a sovereign nation. Accordingly, fresh ideas ought to be always welcome.

Just last summer the Trump administration warned Pakistan about misusing U.S.-built F-16s (which Pakistan originally obtained in the early 1980s) in violation of the original agreement. Consequently, the Government of Pakistan requested a $125 million sale of security assistance services which is mainly aimed at providing a technical security team to ensure proper use of the jets (called “end use monitoring”).

(That sale, however, doesn’t change the Trump administration’s suspension of other security assistance to Pakistan. In January 2018 certain security assistance to Pakistan was limited “until it takes action against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network militant groups” who are using Pakistan as a safe haven.)

Was all this harder than it needed to be?  Maybe.  So developing better and more effective means for end use monitoring could have real merit. (See the blogpost here.)

Furthermore, there are legitimate debates to be had, for example, about the U.S. decision not to pursue ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty (although even advocates of that controversial agreement concede that its essential elements are “already reflected in U.S. law and regulations”).

However, conflating what are really separate topics of “proxy wars” writ large, and the way America provides security assistance (not to mention oversimplifying both), does not serve to illuminate the needed discussions, especially when outdated and irrelevant materials are relied upon.

We can only hope that the future installments they write on this topic that are to be published by Just Security will be more collaborative, better sourced, more precise, and tempered for a productive dialogue.

Actually, some people do come out winners in so-called “proxy” wars!

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull, depicts the British surrendering, flanked by French and American troops.

Finally, is it really true, as Benowitz and Ceccanese claim, that “no one ever wins a proxy war”?  A 2014 Los Angeles Times article discussing the “perils” of proxy wars nevertheless observed that in “1776, Britain and France, the great powers of their day, used the American Revolution as a proxy war.”

Make your own judgement, but I consider that war a win for Americans!


Still, remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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