COIN and the Militarization of Foreign Policy

I think Michael Cohen and I probably agree on more than he realizes, or at least more than what this post suggests. He identifies the militarization of foreign policy as the greatest danger of “embedding counterinsurgency doctrine in military planning.” I’m not sure about the causation there, since I don’t think the militarization of foreign policy depends exclusively on the trend towards COIN. But regular readers of the blog know that I consider the militarization of foreign policy not just a future danger but an alarming reality. And I agree with Cohen that the seductive “war-lite” aspects of COIN will reinforce that shift.

As for the passage Cohen cites, it comes from a post discussing, among other things, the relative roles of the military branches in national security. So when I said that only the U.S. Army can engage in reconstruction operations, it was in comparison to the U.S. Navy and Air Force, not the U.S. State Department. Also, I was not referring to post-conflict reconstruction, which I agree ought to be the bailiwick of civilian agencies. I was referring to the trend in modern warfare whereby reconstruction takes place before hostilities have ended. That’s something that civilian agencies should not be undertaking, both for reasons of security, capacity and legitimacy.

More broadly, I would characterize the militarization of foreign policy as the growing tendency to identify priorities using criteria that select for a military approach. AFRICOM is one example, whereby engagement with African governments is increasingly security-centric and under the auspices of military training. The emphasis on stabilizing failing and failed states for national security reasons, as opposed to reinforcing wobbly but functional ones for policy foreign policy reasons, is another.

One area where I disagree with Cohen, thoug, is his assertion that non-state actors and transnational threats pose the greatest security challenges to the U.S. They might pose the most likely challenges to U.S. security, or even the most numerous. But the greatest challenges by far are posed by the nation-states with a capacity to do serious military damage to our territory, our armed forces, and those of our allies. Either way, though, COIN is the most poorly adapted military doctrine to either threat.

For the time being we need it to muddle our way out of Iraq and Afghanistan. But I’m convinced that the COIN debates we’re engaged in today — as well as the calls for a society-changing, nation-building military — will seem very dated the moment we’ve managed to draw down our current engagements.