Blogging Nagl - Whose Vote Counts?
Posted by Michael Cohen
One of the arguments that you hear from many COIN-advocates about the need for the US military to devise counter-insurgency expertise is that this is the future of military conflict. Even though counter-insurgency is not necessarily in the American military's comparative advantage; even though there is limited political will for long-term counter-insurgency operations we need to prepare because as John Nagl puts it in this month's Washington Quarterly "the enemy gets a vote."
. . . The history of the past sixty years demonstrates that we will not be able to dictate when, where, and how wars are fought. Doing more of what the U.S. military ‘‘does best’’ is not the answer to all of the challenges that will be forced upon us.
Well sure that is true, but the US government gets a much bigger vote; and how we use our military should be determined by what America's civilian leaders determine is in the country's interests.
The COIN-danistas deterministic notion of future military conflict is particularly hard to reconcile with Nagl's later point that "U.S. conventional military capabilities still qualitatively outstrip those of potential adversaries to a significant degree. Such capabilities are too costly and infrastructure-intensive for most countries to develop, purchase, or field. Instead of playing the U.S. game, current and potential enemies have turned to asymmetric approaches designed to neutralize our strengths and exploit our relative weaknesses."
Well wait a minute here - if no country can qualitatively match the United States and if our enemies only approach for confronting the United States is through asymmetric approaches then wouldn't this suggest that the United States has a rather fulsome capability to decide when, where and how to fight wars?
Take Afghanistan, for example. We were attacked on September 11th and rightly saw the necessity of a military response. Now there were many specific ways we could have responded; a large military footprint (which would have been prohibitively difficult and expensive both in money and lives) or a combination of air power, special forces and the use of local militias. Indeed, we were precisely capable of determining, as a country, how we fought Al Qaeda and the Taliban. And there was almost no chance that we wouldn't be successful in dislodging the Taliban from power and degrading Al Qaeda's capabilities.
In Iraq, there were many opportunities for how to deal with Saddam Hussein - diplomacy, a stronger sanctions regime, air power and finally invasion and occupation. We of course chose the worst possible option, but the point is that Saddam didn't get a vote at all. How we responded was a decision completely at our disposal. Finally, consider the Balkans. There was a widely held view that Serbian aggression in Bosnia and later Kosovo represented a threat to our regional interests there. But the United States didn't engage militarily until 1995 and we chose to utilize our air power backed by diplomacy. We used our own determination of our interests and capabilities to decide how we intervened there.
The simple fact is that the United States has an enormous ability to determine precisely where it fights wars, when it fights them and how it engages the enemy. It is perhaps America's greatest comparative advantage as a military power. Indeed, it is deeply ironic to consider that we are, by and far, the world's most powerful country, uniquely capable of shaping world events - yet we act as though our behavior on the international stage is crucially shaped by the actions of others. Perhaps the best example of this was the Bush Administration's constant reminder that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda wanted to set up a caliphate across the MIddle East.
Our actions need not be shaped by the rantings of sociopath, but by a cool and calculated determination of the threats we face and the best means of confronting them. If the civilian leadership determines, as it did after the Vietnam War, that the US should avoid long-drawn out engagements with unclear political goals and a not easily defined exit strategy than we have the power to execute on that policy. If they decide we simply shouldn't fight counter-insurgencies and use our military for nation building then, we as a country, are more than able to adopt that approach.
As this wonderful movie clip from my youth reminds us, sometimes the only winning move is not to play.
In the end, perhaps Nagl is right that our enemies get a vote. But the United States gets a veto.