America needs to become more skilled at small wars but should generally avoid them at the same time. Its a hard balancing act.
I’ve always been a bit torn on the movement within the US military to reform itself around nationbuilding and small wars. On the one hand, American legions find themselves in these wars, and it is sensible for them to think hard about what they are doing and how to do it better. As Iraq showed, institutional amnesia and a bias towards heavy warfighting left them ill-prepared to secure and cultivate the people, birth a new state, and marginalise insurgents. They needed to get better at this business, and they did.
On the other hand, these wars are best avoided. To be sure, they can erupt without warning, but even then, the US has choices. Which is why strategy is needed to ask the basic questions: what is the national interest? what are the limits of American power? Is it worth it? What problems must America learn to live with, rather than try to eliminate?
Without the discipline of strategy, America risks seeking operational and tactical solutions to strategic problems.
I don’t share Gian Gentile’s hostility to the rediscovery of COIN in quite the same degree. But as he argues in his recent Parameters piece:
The new American way of war has eclipsed the execution of sound strategy, producing never-ending campaigns of nation-building and attempts to change entire societies in places like Afghanistan. One can only guess at the next spot on the globe for this kind of crusade…in the new way of American war, tactics have buried strategy, and it precludes any options other than an endless and likely futile struggle to achieve the loyalty of populations that, in the end, may be peripheral to American interests.
As Gentile warns, learning how to fight small wars more effectively can generate a dangerous fatalism in the Western imagination, that these wars are inevitable and even natural. This problem is magnified in a higher political realm. There is a certain type of hegemonic world view that is still alive, as Daniel Larison warns:
Obama believes that by stressing interdependence and globalisation that he has seriously addressed complexity in foreign affairs, but he has simply replaced one rigid scheme with another, and in that scheme every problem on earth is potentially our problem. If every problem is our problem, and everyone’s security is “inextricably linked” to our own, how can any President set priorities or address one crisis rather than another when all are potentially just as relevant and connected to American security?
An overreaching, hegemonic view of the world, where almost any conflict or problem is a danger to American national security, can combine with an optimistic view of small wars, that they are natural and eminently winnable. Not only does this lead to farce – where envoys in the Afghan hinterland teach bemused warlords about gender awareness, and where no discussion is complete without the tiresome babble of ‘governance’ and ‘narrative’. Liberal crusading and hyperactive interventionism becomes the default state of foreign policy. Whether the soul of military art is armed social science, or killing people and breaking things, this state of heightened ‘security addiction’ would lead to endless war.
Without getting too antiquarian and pompous, its not exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind.