Saturday, June 20, 2009

Not shooting ourselves in the foot

Stephen Walt argues in What I told the Navy Foreign Policy Online 06/18/09 that the US is and will remain the predominant global power for the foreseeable future, i.e., decades. And that "the United States can do more to harm itself through misguided policies than our adversaries can do to us through deliberate acts of malevolence". And he details some of the more important mistakes to avoid:

The first self-inflicted wound the United States could make would be to spend too much on national security. ...

A second self-inflicted wound is the recurring tendency to view allies as liabilities rather than assets.
His third point of caution is one that touches on an issue that needs a lot more clarity in the public debate than our current political and media establishments seem able to muster. One the one hand, it makes sense to prepare for the likelihood that we will be fighting other wars in the Middle East and South Asia. And it would be foolish to keep on developing a military designed to fight the Soviet Union in Europe, which is largely what the Pentagon has done since the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, unilateral conquest and protracted colonial-style warfare like we have in both Iraq and Afghanistan right now is not something that we should plan on repeating. There could always be a need for some limited action like the initial months of the Afghanistan War, which should have focused much more exclusively on finding, capturing and/or destroying actual units of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qa'ida group. There needs to be a useful balance between preparing for such wars, for instance, by teaching Arabic to a lot more of our soldiers. But there's also an effect that if we plan for taking over countries and trying to do what we've been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, that we'll be tempted to find opportunities to use those capabilities in cases where doing so is not in the national interest, and/or where applying such capabilities in an Iraq- or Afghanistan-type protracted war will be in itself damaging to our interests.

The third self-inflicted wound is forgetting what the U.S. military is and isn't designed to do, and ending up in costly efforts to remake the politics of areas that we do not understand. U.S. armed forces are extremely good at deterring or reversing large-scale conventional aggression, at preserving balance of power in key regions, and contributing to other aspects of global stability, like putting teeth in programs like the Proliferation Security Initiative. But the United States is not good at governing other societies -- who is? -- particularly when it lacks detailed knowledge of the societies in question, has insufficient language skills within the national security and foreign policy establishments, and when the prerequisites for democracy are absent from these areas. It follows that our current preoccupation with counterinsurgency -- which is largely an artifact of the decisions to occupy Afghanistan and Iraq on a long-term basis -- is a strategic misstep. [my emphasis]
In the end, wars are political decisions. And when the Executive and the Congress may decisions about wars on the flimsy basis that such decisions were made with both Afghanistan and especially Iraq, no amount of preparation by the military is going to be able to avoid bad results. What's happening right now is that Pentagon is still focusing on massive resources for nuclear and conventional war and tacking on counterinsurgency (COIN) capabilities as an extra. Although in practice, the latter seems to be little more than conventional war adapted to to bombing villages and adapting conventional tactics to small-unit urban guerrilla warfare than any basic re-orientation of methods of warfare. And it's hard to see how it can be much different, unless we own up to intending to do in the future what we've been doing for the last seven years and counting in Afghanistan and six years and counting in Iraq: something not a lot different that British and French colonial warfare with up-to-date weaponry.

And owning up to that would bring its own set of problems.

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