Shadow Government

The return of unilateralism -- Obama edition

By Christian Brose

Yesterday, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer had a thoughtful op-ed about Afghanistan. Here's how he frames the problem:

[A]n honest assessment of Afghanistan must conclude that we are not where we might have hoped to be by now. While the country's north and west are largely at peace and improving, the south and east are riven by insurgency, drugs and ineffective government. Afghans are increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in building up their country. And the populations in countries that have contributed troops to the NATO-led mission are wondering how long this operation must last -- and how many young men and women we will lose carrying it out.

He goes on to list five lessons the alliance should learn if it is to succeed -- things like encouraging a more responsible Afghan leadership, more cohesive NATO operations, better regional diplomacy, civil-military cooperation, and strategic communications. All of this is right and unarguable. But isn't the United States learning another, far more sweeping lesson? Here's a hint: President-elect Obama will add up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year, nearly doubling the force we currently have. So isn't the real lesson that, after several years of pushing our allies to add more resources, more troops, and to lift the restrictions on their ability to operate, the United States is now re-Americanizing the war effort? In short, haven't we all but admitted that we are losing with NATO, and now we are going to do what's necessary to win -- with or without NATO's full support? One could be forgiven for calling this unilateralism that dare not speak its name.

Now, don't get me wrong: I don't mean to minimize the sacrifice of allies like Canada and the Netherlands that are in the thick of the fight and taking casualties, or that their contribution isn't needed and valuable. Nor do I mean to suggest that more troops alone will solve all our problems in Afghanistan. John Nagl and Nate Fick explain why in the latest issue of Foreign Policy. That said, what's interesting about the debate over Afghanistan is how, in the excitement that more attention will be paid and resources devoted to that war, we seem to be glancing over the fact that one of the major decisions of Obama's first year is the return of a more unilateral approach in Afghanistan.

Though I wasn't in government at the time, my sense is that the unilateral impulse in Bush's first term was adopted less out of a concern for ideology than effectiveness. The administration had seen what a mess coalition fighting was in Kosovo, how we'd only barely won, and fairly or not, it resolved that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan would not be hamstrung by coalition cat-herding. The push to multilateralize the war came later. NATO was invited in, and a patient, persistent, good faith effort was made in Bush's second term to win as an alliance -- to get more troops, new rules of engagement, better coordination, and greater committments of resources from our allies. This was a valiant attempt to make multilateralism effective, but the new U.S. committment to Afghanistan seems to imply that it didn't fully work, and that we'll take it mostly from here, thank you. Considering what Secretary Gates has already said publicly about the problems of NATO's war effort, I have a feeling he'd agree if he were being less diplomatic.

Maybe Obama's hope is that, by nearly doubling the U.S. force in Afghanistan, we will effectively shame Europe into stepping up with us. Maybe Obama will be able to turn Europe's goodwill toward his presidency into real will power to fight and win a tough, costly war. Maybe. But something tells me that NATO's performace in Afghanistan these past several years better reflects the perceived national interests, domestic public opinion, and limited capabilities of our allies, more than it does their unwillingness to work with an unpopular American president.

This could have big implications for NATO. A major hope of the Bush presidency -- not all of it, to be sure, but much of it -- was that NATO could be transformed into an expeditionary alliance, that it could move beyond Europe to tackle global challenges. The acid test is Afghanistan. If NATO can't be relevant there, where it matters most, then what? And if NATO's contribution in Afghanistan is now deemed inadequate, as the new policy would imply, this would seem to suggest that our hopes of NATO, and thus Europe, becoming a real global power -- hard, soft, smart, etc. -- won't fully be borne out. This doesn't mean the United States should spurn NATO's help. It might just mean that the primary mission now for NATO as an institution is simply to add greater international legitimacy to what is becoming a more unilateral exercise of American power.

This could become the future role for NATO writ large, and it's not an insignificant one. No one should cheer or revel in Europe's limitations. The United States needs partners, and we can't do everything alone. Still, if NATO's imprimatur helps to maintain domestic and international support for the United States, more or less on its own, addressing global security problems that desperately need to be solved, then so be it. This is a valuable role for NATO and thus Europe to play, but it's not the one many of us hoped it would.

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.