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War, As We Like It

8:20 PM, Jan 6, 2012 • By NADIA SCHADLOW
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There may be examples in history where war unfolded to the script of politicians and generals, but few come to mind. Unfortunately, the Pentagon’s newest strategic guidance prepares only for a future of ordered, defined battles. President Obama stated this much when he said that “the tide of war is receding” and that “we are turning a page.” The Pentagon’s guidance suggests that U.S. leaders have been seduced into thinking that technology can replace strategy and that the nasty people and messy politics that drive conflict around the world can be mitigated from afar.

Aircraft Carrier

The president’s statements and the Pentagon’s guidance confirm that the United States, driven by a desire to put a decade of messy war in the Middle East and South Asia behind it, is shifting toward a Pacific-centric defense strategy This geostrategic pivot toward Asia, accompanied by an emphasis on high technology Sino-centric warfare, fails to account for the character of conflict in most of the rest of the disordered world.

Most disturbing is the Obama administration’s seemingly deliberate effort to undervalue the hard won lessons of the past ten years by advancing the view that Iraq and Afghanistan were anomalies, and that the capabilities developed over the past decade will be less relevant to future conflict.  The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are in fact, directly relevant to what Secretary of Defense Panetta called the “international security environment that is growing in complexity and uncertainty.” Unfortunately, the Pentagon’s new strategy threatens to undermine our capabilities to respond to these uncertainties. 

There may be arguments for reducing the size of America’s ground forces, with perhaps the most straightforward being that we cannot afford the cost of them. And the United States may decide to become less interventionist and try to reduce the use of ground troops. But the line of thinking that now pervades the Pentagon avoids recognizing that combat and the restoration of political order go hand and hand. Any large scale intervention by U.S. ground forces—and the Pentagon has said that United States Army and the Marine Corps should be able to undertake at least one major regional contingency—will involve the need to restore basic political order.  

A belief that war and politics can be separated is dangerous and ahistorical.  Dangerous because it means sending soldiers into conflict not fully prepared for what to expect. And ahistorical because it has never happened—every large American military intervention has involved the restoration of order. It is a part of the American way of war.

Air power and naval power alone have rarely been decisive strategic instruments of war or intervention. Conflict and war are driven by people trying to dominate each other. To think that we can resolve conflicts cleanly, from afar is shortsighted. And even Libya, which is, oddly enough, heralded as a victory for this “new way of war” is a weak example that has yet to be borne out. As soon as the NATO-led regime change operation began and Qaddafi was killed, his adversaries abandoned pledges to give up their weapons.  Libya’s new provisional government, the Transitional National Council, remains fragile and the tribal politics there will surely be contested, likely with violence. 

 The dismissal of the lessons and the relevance of Iraq and Afghanistan undermines other aspects of the new guidance. Potential conflicts with peer or regional competitors, such as China, Iran, and Pakistan, would involve complex political dimensions that would require serious civil-military operational planning and execution—much of the same kinds of skills that U.S. military and civilian personnel undertook in so called “stability operations” in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, the new guidance affirms America’s readiness to intervene for “humanitarian reasons.”  Yet to affect lasting change in such interventions also requires attention and planning to the politics that generate the killing of innocents. If we are, as the new Strategic Guidance says, ready to send in our armed forces to “respond to a range of situations that threat the safety and well-being of its citizen and those of other countries” then it is hard to see how the U.S. military will avoid having to do many of those so called “stability” tasks that were part of Iraq and Afghanistan—and previous wars.

The current strategic guidance reflects the hope that we get the war that we “want.”    Unfortunately, we are more likely to get the wars that we get.

Nadia Schadlow, a senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation, is a former member of the Defense Policy Board and has completed a study on the U.S. military’s role in stability operations in war.  

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