COIN and the Clausewitz-ization of U.S. Military Doctrine

I’m sure I won’t be the one to convince him of why, but I disagree with Michael Cohen when he says that the “fetishization and enshrinement” of COIN is “a slippery slope for more not less US military intervention.” In the same post, Cohen rightfully reminds us that trends in military doctrine have a pretty short half-life. The U.S. didn’t go around looking for places where we could unleash an air war in the late-90s, after all, even though that trend, as Cohen insightfully points out, was all the rage after the Kosovo campaign. Surely that’s an argument against his concerns about COIN.

Although COIN is not total war, it requires total commitment — in terms of time, resources and political will. If so far no insurmountable objections have been raised against its implementation in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s because there’s a broad consensus that those conflicts need to be drawn down responsibly.

Once they are, it is very unlikely that U.S. public opinion will be mobilized for similar undertakings. U.S. strategic culture is based on total crusades, whether against existential threats or affronts to the national conscience, because only those kinds of total campaigns can generate the political will necessary to sustain the war effort historically needed for victory. And the strategic logic behind the “Long War” is unlikely to meet that minimum threshhold, post-Iraq and Afghanistan.

The advance that COIN represents — which I described in the post that Cohen takes issue with as a “humanist” approach to war — could alternatively be explained as the Clausewitz-ization of U.S. strategic culture. Strategically, we have always been an island, and it has historically taken extraordinary circumstances to get us to leave that island. One consequence is that the elements of Clausewitz the U.S. military has integrated have been island interpretations: Instead of being an extension of politics, war is what occurs when politics fails. Once the shooting starts, we no longer negotiate with the enemy. We defeat it.

COIN puts politics back at the heart of the U.S. approach to warfare, as illustrated by the stability and reconstruction operations that accompany it, by the emphasis on the political allegiance of the population, and especially by the use of negotiated political accomodation to thin the ranks of the insurgency.

That it has taken its place in the spectrum of U.S. military doctrine doesn’t mean we’ll leave our island more readily or more quickly, but rather that we’ll consider the political difficulties inherent in any potential intervention more thoroughly before engaging in it. And that will always be an argument for less war, not more.

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