ACCUMULATING PERIPHERALS


Preparing for war makes war less (or more?) likely by mattsteinglass
December 3, 2008, 11:09 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, China, Foreign Policy, Iraq, United States, Vietnam, War

Spencer Ackerman has a good post on a back-and-forth about whether counterinsurgency doctrine is essentially imperialist. Ackerman mainly says it’s not, citing Andrew Exum’s point:

And if the officers of the U.S. Army say that “we don’t do windows” and refuse to author any doctrine for nation-building and security sector reform and then the politicians decide that oh yes you do, then who is being irresponsible? Both parties, perhaps, but certainly the officer corps. What the author of this article doesn’t understand is that while military officers don’t decide how the U.S. military is to be employed, they do have a responsibility to ensure junior officers and their units are prepared for any foreseeable contingency.

But I think the situation here is more equivocal. For example, US Navy Admiral William Fallon, who was relieved as CentCom commander after expressing fairly open opposition to the idea of military action against Iran, recently gave an interview to the Boston Globe in which he said he’d come into conflict with a lot of people at the Pentagon over his opposition to basing much of the US’s military strategy on gearing up for a war against China.

When I was in the Pacific [as the head of the US Pacific Command from 2005 to 2007] there were people with different viewpoints. One of the challenges I saw out there …was that we had one long term issue and that’s called China. It seemed to me that of all the things we needed to deal with we had better figure out how we are going to come to grips with the future relationship between the US and China.

They are the owners of most of our debt. Between China and Japan they are sitting on $3 trillion dollars [of US debt]. People say ‘look at all [the rest of] these problems in the world.’ They are all interesting. For my money, if you fix the problems here most of those others go away because it is our behaviors that are the cause of some of our challenges.

The size of the country and its influence is staggering. So we’ve got to figure this out. There were people who warned me that you’d better get ready for the shoot ’em up here because sooner or later we’re going be at war with China. I don’t think that’s where we want to go. And so I set about challenging all the assumptions and I came back here about once a month and sat down with Secretary Rumsfeld. I’d walk through what I was thinking, why I was thinking that way. There were people who didn’t like that.

[My reputation became] “Fallon loves the Chinese, doesn’t see any problem with this.” [I responded with] “What are the priorities, guys? Do you want to have a war? We can probably have one. But is that what you really want? Is that really in our interest? Because I don’t think so.” We had a lot of initiatives underway [on military-to-military relations with China] and some of that stuff didn’t go over too well back here.

What Fallon seems to be saying here is that essentially preparing for war with China made such a war more, not less, likely, because treating them as an adversary could turn them into one. So I think there’s some recognition even within the military of the concept that preparing for a specific war can actually exacerbate the threat of that war, rather than diminishing it.

Certainly, if the US military had possessed a lot of expertise on counterinsurgency warfare and the interrelationship between military and political dynamics in 2002, the foolish invasion of Iraq might have been far less likely and the (necessary, in my opinion) occupation of Afghanistan might have been handled far better. What trips me up, though, is that if the US military had possessed such expertise in 1962-4, I’m not sure what would have happened; it might have made our intervention in Vietnam more “successful”, but that intervention itself would probably still have been bad for the US and for Vietnam. The problem is what happens at moments when 1. the US military is run in large part by people with expertise in counterinsurgency, and 2. the US political administration and public is in one of its overly optimistic exceptionalist-expansionist moments (or is feeling particularly threatened). It’s at that point that one might find oneself getting involved in pointless bloodshed in places we can’t do much about at any acceptable cost.

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1 Comment so far
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This is an excellent point to a great exchange. I’m also pleased to see you blogging again Matt, keep up the good work!

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