Wag the Dog?

Andrew Bacevich – one of our most eloquent critics of the United States’ quasi-imperial foreign policy – has an interesting article (hat tip: Sullivan) in this month’s Atlantic describing the shift in Army counter-insurgency doctrine and its broader implications for US grand strategy. In short, Bacevich believes that the rise of counter-insurgency tactics is a case of the tail wagging the dog, as US policymakers may become more inclined to commit forces to nation-building if our military is more effective at counter-insurgency operations (emphasis mine):

Embedded within this argument over military matters is a more fundamental and ideologically charged argument about basic policy. By calling for an Army configured mostly to wage stability operations, Nagl [one of the leading advocates of a shift towards counterinsurgency – Will] is effectively affirming the Long War as the organizing principle of post-9/11 national-security strategy, with U.S. forces called upon to bring light to those dark corners of the world where terrorists flourish. Observers differ on whether the Long War’s underlying purpose is democratic transformation or imperial domination: Did the Bush administration invade Iraq to liberate that country or to control it? Yet there is no disputing that the Long War implies a vast military enterprise undertaken on a global scale and likely to last decades. In this sense, Nagl’s reform agenda, if implemented, will serve to validate—and perpetuate—the course set by President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11.

Turning the US military into a glorified colonial constabulary is a worrying proposition, but I wonder if Bacevich mistakes a particularly visible symptom for the underlying disease. I’d venture that the rise of the counter-insurgents (to borrow a phrase) is the military’s belated response to a bi-partisan foreign policy consensus that tacitly accepts an expansive US role in peace-keeping, conflict resolution, and Third World nation-building.

Bacevich’s recent LA Times column deftly describes the structural and political factors that constrain presidents from radically changing foreign policy. While Obama is marginally less hawkish than McCain, neither candidate is willing to greatly reduce our military and political footprint overseas (even relatively modest proposals are unlikely to be seriously considered). Here, for example, is a favorable description of Obama’s foreign policy “vision” from the liberal American Prospect:

“They [Obama’s advisers] envision a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering “democracy promotion” agenda in favor of “dignity promotion,” to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root. An inextricable part of that doctrine is a relentless and thorough destruction of al-Qaeda.”

Sounds fairly expansive, n’est-ce pas? This, from the same coterie of advisers who Bacevich describes as “. . . Democratic war horses, including former secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher and former national security advisor Anthony Lake — a group that is not young, not charismatic and not known for innovative thinking.”

What’s more, the Prospect’s description of the Obama campaign’s connection to the emerging counter-insurgency doctrine suggests that both candidates are fairly enthusiastic about improving our capacity to invade and occupy foreign countries (emphasis mine):

Sarah Sewall, a Harvard professor and another of Obama’s closest advisers, also knows about stepping outside of her comfort zone. A longtime human-rights advocate with the disarmament organization, the Council for a Livable World, Sewall found herself in 2005 and 2006 with an unlikely partner: Gen. David Petraeus. He and two colleagues were rewriting the Army and Marine field manual for counterinsurgency and wanted Sewall’s input on how to create a more just, humane, and successful doctrine. For agreeing to help, she was attacked by some on the left. “Should a human-rights center at the nation’s most prestigious university be collaborating with the top U.S. general in Iraq in designing the counterinsurgency doctrine behind the current military surge?” Tom Hayden wrote online in The Huffington Post.

Sewall’s involvement may have lost her some influence within the academic left, but she has become a hero to the military’s growing circle of counterinsurgency theorist-practitioners. “Her impact on the thinking about the war and the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been significant and not without cost,” says Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, one of the counterinsurgency community’s luminaries. “She has shown, in my eyes, great moral courage. I think Senator Obama is listening to someone who has thought long and hard about the use of force and who understands the kinds of wars we’re fighting today.”

And what liberal panegyric would be complete without the obligatory reference to JFK, whose wildly successful approach to foreign policy Obama hopes to emulate:

In his focus on the importance of dignity in our policy toward the developing world, Obama sounds quite a bit like John F. Kennedy, who knitted together an argument for engagement with the “non-aligned” world and began the tradition of development assistance as a foreign-policy goal. However, Kennedy’s basic foreign policy continued along the Cold War lines that had been laid down during the Truman administration.

Of course, the article fails to mention that JFK’s conception of “engagement” with the non-aligned world (not to mention his infatuation with – you guessed it – counter-insurgency tactics) led to our disastrous involvement in Vietnam.

In other words, the military’s decision to embrace counter-insurgency doctrine has always struck me as a fairly rational response to a foreign policy consensus that is quite comfortable with American hegemony. Will Obama’s emphasis on “dignity promotion” be significantly less expansive than McCain’s full-throated embrace of preventive warfare? The particulars of their approaches may differ, but both candidates are committed to policies that are likely to result in nation-building, unconventional warfare, and perhaps even additional long-term foreign occupations. When viewed in this context, the most troubling aspect of the military’s new doctrinal emphasis is that by making the US better at counter-insurgency warfare, the Army may increase the public’s collective tolerance for sustained foreign occupations. After all, it’s not as if mainstream anti-war sentiment is driven by principled objections to US imperialism or even a horrified response to the destruction we’ve wrought on the Iraqi people. To the contrary, support for the Iraq War only went south after American body bags started hitting the tarmac (despite the Administration’s cynical thoughtful attempts to shield the American people from the consequences of foreign conflict).

UPDATE: More good stuff from Bacevich – who is always worth reading/listening to – via the American Conservative’s Daniel Larison. I’ll have more to say on this subject in the coming days.



Filed under Foreign Policy

4 responses to “Wag the Dog?

  1. Clint

    i dare you to make less sense.

  2. Scott

    I think there is a growing objection to action abroad that you don’t give adequete weight to. There is a very persuasive objection to the Iraq War on a fiscal basis that has been gaining momentum. The narrative is that the war is taking an larger and larger portion of the budget, with little return in the way of Oil, and that the money would better be spent domestically. This is particularly sharpened by the economic decline we are currently facing. This sentiment could very well form the basis of the so-called “principled objections” to counter-insurgency that you call for.

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