COIN’s Impact on Strategic Policy

If you’ve been following the “COIN will breed COIN” debate, check out these posts by Andrew Exum, Matthew Yglesias and Spencer Ackerman. If you haven’t, check them out anyway. It’s an interesting discussion of whether in makingCOIN a doctrinal focus of operations, the U.S. military will be tempted to intervene in counterinsurgencies of choice. It’s a subject I’ve written about often over the past 18 months. If anything has reassured me that my worries weren’t warranted, it’s been Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’ emphasis on “strategic balance.” Exum’s insistence that COIN practitioners are not necessarily COIN enthusiasts rings true, too.

Still, the COIN-dinistas’ scholar-warrior approach to war has made it more intelligent and less destructive, and thereby more intellectually satifying and morally palatable. Afer all, “Counterinsurgency is armed social work,” as David Kilcullen has said, makes for a better marketing slogan than “War is Hell.” Having experience in social work, I can say that at one point or another, we all found ourselves wishing we did have a gun, even while knowing that forced progress is no progress at all.

But I think Spencer’s point about the theorist-practitioners moving into policy positions offers a better potential payoff as a line of investigation. The question, though, isn’t whether or not the shift will necessarily result in more wars, but what kind of impact will it have on strategic policy? I’d identify three areas where it will have an impact:

1) An emphasis on stability as the strategic objective of American foreign policy. This is largely consistent with America’s historical emphasis, primarily due to the benefits of stability to trade and commerce. But with failed states now being perceived as a national security threat vector, that will probably increase. The downside is that promoting stability, if pushed to an extreme, can translate into stifling change and progress. There’s also an internal tension, since trade and liberalization often have very destabilizing effects.

2) An emphasis on understanding over knowing. This seems like a clear net plus. One of the cornerstones of the new COIN doctrine is the need to understand the culture within which the operation is unfolding. Translated into a broad policy directive, that can only have a positive effect on strategic decision-making. If there’s one risk, it’s that in emphasizing the socio-cultural aspect of intelligence, COIN hones the ability to shape opinion through narrative, both within the theater of operations, but also domestically. The potential for abuse should be obvious.

3) An emphasis on a whole of government approach. The advantage here is that the wholistic synthesis of interagency strengths offers better strategic guidance for identifying objectives. It’s also the institutional incarnation of “smart power.” The disadvantage is that it also often results in policy paralysis and turf wars. The risk, too, is that it might eventually lower the barriers to “policy entrepeneurs” that the systemic firewalls have erected between agencies. There’s also the problem that, notwithstanding all of Bob Gates’ protests about the militarization of American foreign policy, the military will still be the biggest-funded agency within any interagency approach for the foreseeable future. And we know what talks and what walks, especially in Washington. While that doesn’t necessarily mean more wars, it does mean that strategic policy will most likely be driven by the Pentagon and informed by the military’s perception of America’s national interests.

That’s a start. Feel free to shout back with any others I’ve missed.