Sunday, October 12, 2014

What should be the role of the US military in the world today?

"Don't bluster, don't threaten, but quietly and severely punish bad behavior"

As we continue to see more stories about Isis and what to do about it, and as the debate revs up to suggest that we need to send ground troops in, I think it will be well-worth remembering some history.

I think that in a cold-war environment, that the US’s role absolutely was necessary in securing peace (in the US-vs-USSR rivalry) for 50-odd years in Europe.

This is a different environment, however, and I don’t think that the US can “finish” the Iraq war (and shouldn’t have started -- George Bush 41 was correct to have extracted us from the 1991 conflict as he did).

I was a big fan of Robert Kaplan’s “Supremacy by Stealth” article in 2003, I’m of the opinion that (as he stated) “Our recent effort in Iraq, with its large-scale mobilization of troops and immense concentration of risk, is not indicative of how we will want to act in the future.”

Here is just a small selection from that piece. Kaplan’s recommendations seem relevant today:

The historian Erich S. Gruen has observed that Rome's expansion throughout the Mediterranean littoral may well have been motivated not by an appetite for conquest per se but because it was thought necessary for the security of the core homeland. The same is true for the United States worldwide, in an age of collapsed distances. This American imperium is without colonies, designed for a jet-and-information age in which mass movements of people and capital dilute the traditional meaning of sovereignty. Although we don't establish ourselves permanently on the ground in many locations, as the British did, reliance on our military equipment and the training and maintenance that go along with it (for which the international arms bazaar is no substitute) helps to bind regimes to us nonetheless. Rather than the mass conscription army that fought World War II, we now have professional armed forces, which enjoy the soldiering life for its own sake: a defining attribute of an imperial military, as the historian Byron Farwell noted in Mr. Kipling's Army (1981).

The Pentagon divides the earth into five theaters. For example, at the intersection of 5° latitude and 68° longitude, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, CENTCOM (the U.S. Central Command) gives way to PACOM (the Pacific Command). At the Turkish-Iranian border it gives way to EUCOM (the European Command). By the 1990s the U.S. Air Force had a presence of some sort on six of the world's continents. Long before 9/11 the Special Forces were conducting thousands of operations a year in a total of nearly 170 countries, with an average of nine "quiet professionals" (as the Army calls them) on each mission. Since 9/11 the United States and its personnel have burrowed deep into foreign intelligence agencies, armies, and police units across the globe.

Precisely because they foment dynamic change, liberal empires—like those of Venice, Great Britain, and the United States—create the conditions for their own demise. Thus they must be especially devious. The very spread of the democracy for which we struggle weakens our grip on many heretofore docile governments: behold the stubborn refusal by Turkey and Mexico to go along with U.S. policy on Iraq. Consequently, if we are to get our way, and at the same time to promote our democratic principles, we will have to operate nimbly, in the shadows and behind closed doors, using means far less obvious than the august array of power displayed in the air and ground war against Iraq. "Don't bluster, don't threaten, but quietly and severely punish bad behavior," says Eliot Cohen, a military historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington. "It's the way the Romans acted." Not just the Romans, of course: "Speak softly and carry a big stick" was Theodore Roosevelt's way of putting it.

We can take nothing for granted. A hundred years ago the British Navy looked fairly invincible for all time. A world managed by the Chinese, by a Franco-German-dominated European Union aligned with Russia, or by the United Nations (an organization that worships peace and consensus, and will therefore sacrifice any principle for their sakes) would be infinitely worse than the world we have now. And so for the time being the highest morality must be the preservation—and, wherever prudent, the accretion—of American power.

The purpose of power is not power itself; it is the fundamentally liberal purpose of sustaining the key characteristics of an orderly world. Those characteristics include basic political stability; the idea of liberty, pragmatically conceived; respect for property; economic freedom; and representative government, culturally understood. At this moment in time it is American power, and American power only, that can serve as an organizing principle for the worldwide expansion of a liberal civil society. As I will argue below, the United States has acquired this responsibility at a dangerous and chaotic moment in world history. The old Cold War system, for half a century the reigning paradigm in international affairs, is obviously defunct. …

Powers that may one day serve as stabilizing regional influences—India and Russia, China and the European Union—are themselves still unstable or unformed or unconfident or illiberal. Hundreds of new and expanding international institutions are beginning to function effectively worldwide, but they remain fragile. Two or three decades hence conditions may be propitious for the emergence of a new international system—one with many influential actors in a regime of organically evolving interdependence. But until that time arrives, it is largely the task of the United States to maintain a modicum of order and stability. We are an ephemeral imperial power, and if we are smart, we will recognize that basic fact.

The "American Empire" has been discussed ad nauseam of late, but practical ways of managing it have not. Even so, the management techniques are emerging. While realists and idealists argue "nation-building" and other general principles in Washington and New York seminars, young majors, lieutenant colonels, and other middle-ranking officers are regularly making decisions in the field about how best to train Colombia's army, which Afghan tribal chiefs to support, what kind of coast guard and special forces the Yemeni government requires, how the Mongolians can preserve their sovereignty against Chinese and Russian infiltration, how to transform the Romanian military into a smaller service along flexible Western command lines, and so forth.

The fact is that we trust these people on the ground to be keepers of our values and agents of our imperium, and to act without specific instructions….

Of course, the military state of affairs likely has changed much since Kaplan wrote this. But the recommendations he makes should still be top-of-mind for every person in congress, everyone who has a say in setting policy.

I do think that if the US should commit itself to conflict in Syria and Iraq (again), the cost would be enormous -- blood and treasure -- and it would not contribute to any kind of “peace” at all in that region. Short of an “all-out-mobilize-as-we-did-in-WWII” kind of conflict, it would not even be “winnable”. Nuclear weapons would help greatly in that kind of situation, but there is no way anyone would permit that to happen.

For that reason, I think the next option should be an effort of attrition. Sure, Isis is “well supplied” and “well-funded” over there, but that can’t last in the current environment.

It is a war of religion. But I think that it will backfire on them, Instead of spreading terrorism globally, it will become a magnet for terrorists to “come and defend the cause”. In that way, it will support the cause of security worldwide, and it might even make the “global jihadi” cause to seem a lot less attractive to those fanatics that it is currently attracting.

Of course, no one can profess to have all the answers in this situation. But we are looking at a congressional election in the next month, and these are the kinds of discussions that people ought to be having.

Read the entire Kaplan article: Supremacy by Stealth.

Here, in outline form, are his recommendations:

Rule No. 1: Produce More Joppolos (form local alliances)
Rule No. 2: Stay on the Move (“don’t get bogged down”)
Rule No. 3: Emulate Second-Century Rome (form local alliances)
Rule No. 4: Use the Military to Promote Democracy
Rule No. 5: Be Light and Lethal
Rule No. 6: Bring Back the Old Rules (Coordinate the CIA and Special Forces)
Rule No. 7: Remember the Philippines (The first encounter between the U.S. military and a guerrilla insurgency)
Rule No. 8: The Mission Is Everything
Rule No. 9: Fight on Every Front
Rule No. 10: Speak Victorian, Think Pagan

But read the entire Kaplan article: Supremacy by Stealth.


  1. Not coincidentally, the U.S. Army has released a new strategy document:

  2. Not that the wicked, lazy, traitorous Sovereign of the U.S., We the People, would ever have supported such an action, but one could have made quite a good case for invading and taking over Iraq. After 9/11, Congress and the President should have produced a 'finding', declaring that every nation in which a substantial percentage of the population was cheering in the streets was at war with us. Their leaders may have wrung their hands rhetorically, but they were either lying or were not actually leading their nations. Ignore them.
    Nothing says we would have had to take any actual physical action against all of these nations. But picking Iraq would have been just fine: strategically located, turn left to Syria, turn right to Iran. Forget about 'nation-building': take out Saddam and his so-called armed forces. Take control. Declare martial law throughout the nation. Warn the populace: any hostile action will result in draconian measures. Cooperate, and rule of law will be established. Prosperity will follow. Oh, and by the way: Christian missionaries WILL be allowed and protected.
    Now we have a base in the middle of the ME. Iran: give up the nuclear program or else. Syria: behave yourself, likewise.
    But We the People are not that wise, alas. Even on 'worldly' terms, we don't deserve to survive. On spiritual terms? Don't get me started. But our internal wickedness does not give anyone the right to attack us, and we still have the right and duty to attempt to defend ourselves.