Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Neocons and Liberal Hawks Converge on Counterinsurgency

As the United States boosts its forces in Afghanistan, hawks in both Republican and Democratic circles are championing small wars theory and counterinsurgency doctrine as guides for the U.S. military.

(Inter Press Service)

As the United States prepares to reduce its military presence in Iraq while intensifying its war effort in Afghanistan, hawks within both the Republican and Democratic parties have come increasingly to believe that counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine offers a solution to the central security challenges Washington will face in the twenty-first century.

Drawing on the perceived, if still uncertain, success of the U.S. "surge" in Iraq, many prominent opinion-makers—notably neoconservatives and "liberal hawks"—have joined COIN advocates within the military itself to argue that "small wars" theory should be the cornerstone of U.S. military strategy going forward, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But COIN’s current ascendancy masks several lingering points of contention.

For critics, the current enthusiasm reflects a fundamental overestimation of the efficacy of military force, and a desire for technocratic solutions to strategic problems that presume a neo-imperial nation-building role for the United States.

Even among hawks, COIN has drawn fire from those who dispute the supposed "lessons" of the surge in Iraq, and from those who argue that conventional warfare against potential rivals like China and Russia should remain a much higher priority than irregular warfare against non-state actors.

COIN is a fundamentally broad-ranging concept, encompassing all "military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions" used to defeat insurgency, according to the 2006 Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

It emphasizes protecting and winning the "hearts and minds" of civilian populations—summed up in the mantra "clear, hold, and build"—meaning in practice COIN can often shade into "nation-building."

A team led by Gen. David Petraeus, the most prominent COIN advocate within the military, authored the Army field manual. Now head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) overseeing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Petraeus has become an icon among hawks due to his perceived success in pacifying Iraq.

Many commentators across the political spectrum have called for the principles of the COIN doctrine used in the Iraq surge to be institutionalized as the guide for future military campaigns.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the hawkish independent Democrat from Connecticut, for example, called in January for an enhanced effort in Afghanistan built around six linked "surges"—in troop strength, strategic coherence, civilian resources, "native" support, regional integration, and political commitment.

While conventional warfare remains the centerpiece of military spending—Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently estimated that "irregular warfare" accounts for only ten percent of the new defense budget—COIN has come to dominate conversation in Washington foreign-policy circles, and many argue that "small wars" will characterize the 21st century.

"In a multipolar world where small wars proliferate, there is reason to believe that [COIN] doctrine will shape not only the next phase of the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the future of the U.S. military," according to John Nagl, a former Army officer who contributed to the COIN manual and now heads the influential think-tank, Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

CNAS, which was founded in 2007 and has served as something of a pipeline to senior ranks in the Obama administration, appears to embody the new bipartisan conventional wisdom in Washington. Its “mediagenic” Rhodes Scholar president has become a poster boy for COIN enthusiasts, including influential neoconservatives who featured Nagl at the March kick-off of their newest think tank, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI).

COIN is especially attractive to many liberal hawks, however, because it emphasizes civilian protection and knowledge of local cultures, in contrast to the "shoot-first" style that often characterized U.S. military policy in the early Bush years.

But although advocates portray COIN as a purely pragmatic and non-ideological response to the security challenges of the twenty-first century, critics charge that its focus on "small wars" and nation-building simply assumes that the main goal of the U.S. military should be subduing local populations of far-flung but strategically important countries. In that respect, they argue, COIN can serve as a smokescreen for maintaining a U.S. imperial posture.

"Great powers wage ‘small wars’ not to defend themselves but to assert control over foreign populations," wrote Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel and Boston University professor, in his 2008 book "The Limits of Power." "Historically, that is, ‘small wars’ are imperial wars."

"[T]o assume that wars like Iraq define the military’s future evades a larger question. Given what the pursuit of American imperial ambitions in the Greater Middle East has actually produced … why would the United States persist in such a strategy? Instead of changing the military, why not change the policy?" asked Bacevich.

The history of COIN in the United States is in fact intimately tied to the history of imperialism, dating back to the "Indian wars" and the suppression of insurgencies in Cuba and the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century.

Many of the classics of COIN literature, such as David Galula’s "Counterinsurgency Warfare," came out of the French colonial experience in Algeria. The heyday of COIN came in the 1960s, when the United States supplemented its military forces in Vietnam with tens of thousands of civilian advisers applying the latest social-science findings to everything from police training to land reform.

The U.S. defeat in Indochina made COIN anathema to a generation of military officers who demanded an end to murky and open-ended nation-building engagements. The "Powell Doctrine," which demanded overwhelming force in the pursuit of clearly defined goals, was emblematic of U.S. military thinking post-Vietnam.

While the immediate post-Cold War period saw the U.S. intervene in “small wars” in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans, the George W. Bush administration came to office promising an end to such commitments. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought to transform the military into a technology-heavy force designed to defeat rival states quickly and with as few "boots on the ground" as possible.

It was Rumsfeld’s failure to anticipate the challenges of post-invasion Iraq that sent the U.S. officer corps scrambling back to the archives in search of their predecessors’ wisdom about how to conduct counterinsurgency.

Ironically, many of the same neoconservatives and liberal hawks who now tout the virtues of COIN were previously firm believers in the high-tech Rumsfeld military. This has led critics to charge that these new COIN enthusiasts simply aim to foster a belief in the efficacy of military force and interventionist foreign policy.

Bacevich and other critics caution against falling back into the same illusions about military efficacy that drew the United States into Iraq in the first place.

"U.S. leaders should … be wary of the potential moral hazard represented by the COIN [field manual]: thinking they have figured out the journey, they may be tempted to go down the road more often," Colin Kahl, a CNAS fellow who will head Middle East affairs in the Pentagon, warned in Foreign Affairs in 2007.

Others dispute the notion that the drop in violence in Iraq was due to the surge and the use of COIN doctrine. Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, a West Point professor who has been foremost among these critics, argues that success was due primarily to other factors—notably the decision to begin paying former Sunni insurgents to stop attacking U.S. forces.

Even among neoconservatives and other hawks, it remains to be seen whether the current enthusiasm for COIN will outlast the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some, such as the influential neoconservative columnist Robert Kagan, have already begun to argue that state powers such as China and Russia pose a greater long-term threat than terrorism and other non-state actors, which would once again push conventional capabilities to the forefront of Washington’s military priorities.

This focus on conventional warfare would dovetail with the inclinations of many within the military itself, where the newly influential COIN advocates appear to remain in the minority.

Daniel Luban writes for the Inter Press Service (IPS) and contributes to PRA’s Right Web. IPS writer Jim Lobe also contributed to this article. Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe

Citations

By Daniel Luban, "Neocons and Liberal Hawks Converge on Counterinsurgency" Right Web with permission from Inter Press Service (Somerville, MA: PRA, 2009). Web location:
/rw/4997.html Production Information:
Author(s): Right Web
Editor(s): Right Web
Production: Political Research Associates   IRC logo 1310 Broadway, #201, Somerville, MA   02144 | pra@publiceye.org

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Update was slow, but still no lag in the editor window, and footnotes are intact.     This has been updated – Bernard Lewis, who passed away in May 2018, was a renowned British-American historian of Islam and the Middle East. A former British intelligence officer, Foreign Office staffer, and Princeton University professor, Lewis was…


Bernard Lewis was a renowned historian of Islam and the Middle East who stirred controversy with his often chauvinistic attitude towards the Muslim world and his associations with high-profile neoconservatives and foreign policy hawks.


John Bolton, the controversial former U.S. ambassador to the UN and dyed-in the-wool foreign policy hawk, is President Trump’s National Security Adviser McMaster, reflecting a sharp move to the hawkish extreme by the administration.


Michael Joyce, who passed away in 2006, was once described by neoconservative guru Irving Kristol as the “godfather of modern philanthropy.”


Mike Pompeo, the Trump administration’s second secretary of state, is a long time foreign policy hawk and has led the public charge for an aggressive policy toward Iran.


Max Boot, neoconservative military historian at the Council on Foreign Relations, on Trump and Russia: “At every turn Trump is undercutting the ‘get tough on Russia’ message because he just can’t help himself, he just loves Putin too much.”


Michael Flynn is a former Trump administration National Security Advisor who was forced to step down only weeks on the job because of his controversial contacts with Russian officials before Trump took office.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

Trump is not the problem. Think of him instead as a summons to address the real problem, which in a nation ostensibly of, by, and for the people is the collective responsibility of the people themselves. For Americans to shirk that responsibility further will almost surely pave the way for more Trumps — or someone worse — to come.


The United Nations has once again turn into a battleground between the United States and Iran, which are experiencing one of the darkest moments in their bilateral relations.


In many ways, Donald Trump’s bellicosity, his militarism, his hectoring cant about American exceptionalism and national greatness, his bullying of allies—all of it makes him not an opponent of neoconservatism but its apotheosis. Trump is a logical culmination of the Bush era as consolidated by Obama.


For the past few decades the vast majority of private security companies like Blackwater and DynCorp operating internationally have come from a relatively small number of countries: the United States, Great Britain and other European countries, and Russia. But that seeming monopoly is opening up to new players, like DeWe Group, China Security and Protection Group, and Huaxin Zhongan Group. What they all have in common is that they are from China.


The Trump administration’s massive sales of tanks, helicopters, and fighter aircraft are indeed a grim wonder of the modern world and never receive the attention they truly deserve. However, a potentially deadlier aspect of the U.S. weapons trade receives even less attention than the sale of big-ticket items: the export of firearms, ammunition, and related equipment.


Soon after a Saudi-led coalition strike on a bus killed 40 children on August 9, a CENTCOM spokesperson stated to Vox, “We may never know if the munition [used] was one that the U.S. sold to them.”


The West has dominated the post-war narrative with its doctrine of liberal values, arguing that not only were they right in themselves but that economic success itself depended on their application. Two developments have challenged those claims. The first was the West’s own betrayal of its principles: on too many occasions the self interest of the powerful, and disdain for the victims of collateral damage, has showed through. The second dates from more recently: the growth of Chinese capitalism owes nothing to a democratic system of government, let alone liberal values.


RightWeb
share