Shadow Government

The unintended consequences of COIN

By Christian Brose

I started actively following the debate over counterinsurgency and the future of the U.S. military after reading this piece by Andrew Bacevich. His whole "Crusaders versus Conservatives" dichotomy is a bit simplistic, and sheds more light on Bacevich's own preferences in the debate than on the debate itself. Still, it's a good introduction to a fascinating argument that rages on.

FP's new partner, the Small Wars Journal, does a fantastic job tracking the debate, albeit wearing its preferences in its title. Elsewhere, Charles Dunlap weighs in for the COIN skeptics, and here at Foreign Policy, so does the unflappable Gian Gentile, who perhaps more than any other member of the military intelligentsia is waging his own counterinsurgency against the counterinsurgency advocates, if that doesn't screw up the metaphors too much. This prompts a characteristically smart rebuttal from Abu Muqawama, along with the following question: "Isn't there anyone other than Gian Gentile willing to take up the anti-COIN crusade? Where is everyone else?"

Well, OK. I'm your Huckleberry -- kind of. To be sure, I'm all for better-institutionalizing COIN in the U.S. military. I've argued before that nation-building is a national interest, and we'd better get used to it and good at it. I understand that this debate over doctrine is really a competition over scarce resources, and thus a zero-sum game in which hard trade-offs are required.

I also presume that what we're arguing over is how to balance two things that both the COIN boosters and their anatagonists agree we need to have: a military that can both fight small wars and insurgencies when it needs to, while also maintaining the capability to manage the harder side of good old-fashioned geopolitics, including interstate conflict, in which those big, pricey weapons systems really do come in handy. If not, this is like arguing over whether the key to weight loss is diet or exercise.

That said, shifting more resources toward COIN and away from the traditional capabilities to deter and, if necessary, defeat other states is not just a question about some war the United States may or may not have to fight somewhere down the road. It is a decision that will affect the behavior of other, potentially rival states right now -- the choices they make about whether and in what ways to challenge us.

My concern about the current COIN fixation is that by redesigning our military to better fight the last wars (insurgencies), at the expense of different future ones (interstate conflicts), we may invite the very thing the COIN strategists seem to be betting won't emerge: namely, the rise of a peer competitor that is not content just to play the peaceful role of a responsible stakeholder. In fact, such a traditional threat might not emerge if we remain on our current trajectory of military spending and force structure (or a slightly modified version of it), but only because we would be successfully dissuading it.

So in our rush to shift the balance of power within our military toward COIN, we shouldn't assume that rival states won't change their behavior in response to ours, and that this may leave us with a nasty self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shadow Government

What to remember before talking to Iran

By Michael Singh

When it comes to Middle East policy, the unspoken theme of Secretary-designate Clinton’s confirmation testimony -– as well as recent interviews given by President-elect Obama -– is continuity. The clearest substantive break with the Bush administration that both Obama and Clinton have sought to emphasize, however, is on engagement with Iran, as Chris discusses here.  The merits of engaging with Iran will, I’m sure, be much-discussed in the coming months, on this blog and elsewhere.  It is worth, as a prelude, framing the issue a bit.

It’s worth noting that the general diplomatic approach advocated by the President-elect and Secretary-designate –- mixing incentives and sanctions while offering dialogue –- is precisely the approach that the United States and its allies have taken for the past several years. (The details of the so-called “incentives package” are available in Annex II to UN Security Council Resolution 1747, and Bill Burns' recent description of U.S. policy on Iran is available here.) The new administration will need to decide what new sanctions and what new incentives it wishes to enact and can convince allies to support.

This leads back to the question of engagement. It is vital to keep in mind that engagement is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Its utility as a diplomatic tool is a function primarily of two things:

1. The expected benefit: This in turn depends largely on both parties’ objectives, the rationality with which they negotiate, and most importantly, leverage –- who has it, and how much. You get leverage through sanctions, incentives, and other means; you use leverage through diplomacy, one manifestation of which is engagement.

2. Potential downsides: The benefits of engagement must be weighed against its costs. In most circumstances the cost of talking is negligible; however, when the other party is a regime like Iran’s or Zimbabwe’s, the cost is undeniably higher.

One detail lost in the public debate on engagement with Iran is the fact that every U.S. administration since 1979 has reached out to Iran in one way or another, as Secretary Gates pointed out in the Q and A after a recent speech at the National Defense University. This includes the Bush administration –- the United States and Iran engaged in trilateral talks (with Iraq) at the ambassadorial level regarding security in Iraq, and the United States (as a member of the “P5+1”) offered to talk to Iran about its nuclear program in a multilateral setting after Iran suspended its enrichment of uranium. 

There has been little explanation offered by the new team of how the innovations they have suggested -– offering the Iranian regime bilateral negotiations and dropping preconditions –- will either increase the likelihood of success of talks on Iran’s nuclear program or mitigate their downsides. This is the question that the Obama administration will need to answer: whether and how their particular approach to engagement fits into an overall strategy to build and employ leverage to accomplish U.S. objectives in the short time available.