Gates on Strategic Balance

Defense Sec. Bob Gates gets the last word on yesterday’s asymmetric blog war, in a Foreign Affairs essay that should put to rest any doubts about whether or not he should have stayed on at the Pentagon. The entire piece is too well-constructed to dissect, so I recommend just clicking through and reading it all.

But the operative word is balance, and as a reflection of how well the piece achieves that balance, all the concerns and criticisms that I cited yesterday are represented: the need to build capacity for the wars being fought balanced by the emphasis on conventional capacity already deeply embedded in the Pentagon’s institutional culture; the need to maintain America’s military power balanced by the limits of what that power can achieve; and perhaps most importantly, the need to solve today’s doctrinal challenges balanced by the knowledge that there is never a clean or failsafe theoretical solution to the horrible reality — to be avoided when possible — that is war.

Two things, in particular, stood out, though. The first, and I think this has so far been neglected in the COIN vs. conventional debate, is the degree to which even the conventional wars (i.e. those against other nations) that the U.S. military might fight in the near future are likely to be asymmetric:

Other nations may be unwilling to challenge the United States fighterto fighter, ship to ship, tank to tank. But they are developing thedisruptive means to blunt the impact of U.S. power, narrow the UnitedStates’ military options, and deny the U.S. military freedom ofmovement and action.

In the case of China, Beijing’s investments in cyberwarfare,antisatellite warfare, antiaircraft and antiship weaponry, submarines,and ballistic missiles could threaten the United States’ primary meansto project its power and help its allies in the Pacific: bases, air andsea assets, and the networks that support them. This will put a premiumon the United States’ ability to strike from over the horizon andemploy missile defenses and will require shifts from short-range tolonger-range systems, such as the next-generation bomber. . .

This recalls something that French Gen. Vincent Desportes pointed out in his book, “The Likely War” (which I reviewed for Small Wars Journal here, .pdf), namely that the very nature of victory in war is asymmetric, since victory essentially results from avoiding, undermining or surviving the enemy’s strengths while exploiting its weaknesses. Gates’ fallback option of striking from afar doesn’t strike me as the most viable of solutions, since the Chinese strategic emphasis on theater denial is designed as an asymmetric deterrent to an American intervention in a potential war against Taiwan. So maybe some work needed there.

The second thing was this:

What is dubbed the war on terror is, in grim reality, a prolonged,worldwide irregular campaign — a struggle between the forces ofviolent extremism and those of moderation. Direct military force willcontinue to play a role in the long-term effort against terrorists andother extremists. But over the long term, the United States cannot killor capture its way to victory. Where possible, what the military callskinetic operations should be subordinated to measures aimed atpromoting better governance, economic programs that spur development,and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented, from whomthe terrorists recruit. It will take the patient accumulation of quietsuccesses over a long time to discredit and defeat extremist movementsand their ideologies.

I think this gets to the heart of the “imperialist/colonialist” concerns that have been raised with regard to the doctrinal emphasis on stability operations. It’s anachronistic to think of these occupations in the 19th century sense of imperial colonialism. But there is an element of colonialism to them, in the sense that they represent rearguard actions to impose the twin components of modernism and the Westphalian order on the last pockets of resistance to them around the globe.

Again, there’s an element of social work, and an element of community development, to this kind of thinking: the geopolitical equivalent of rehabbing the burnt out shells in a run down neighborhood to get rid of the crack addicts that use them for shelter, thereby improving neighborhood safety. But there are two problems to this approach. The first is that the actual terrorists using the world’s pockets of instability as threat vectors are, by and large, the products of modernism and themselves refugees from the Westphalian order, not the aggrieved, impoverished masses clamoring for entry into it.

The second is that it’s already a questionable assertion that the impoverished masses are actually clamoring for entry into it. Many of them just want a decent life in the context of the traditional cultures they’re used to. The institutions of governance we take for granted in our approach to building a nation are either distant or irrelevant, or both, to the day to day lives of the people we think they will be helping.

So the question is also, What can we do to improve people’s lot outside of the context of the stability ops/security paradigm? That’s the thought I’ve been trying to develop with regard to the Obama administration’s approach to development and aid: Whether and how it ought to, and can, be integrated into a strategic vision.

Gates insists that we’re unlikely to engage in nation building under fire following forced regime change anytime soon, while acknowledging that’s not the only application for these capacities. Humanitarian interventions, peacekeeping missions and others come to mind. But I’m not convinced that the logic behind them actually applies to the real world, where meeting people’s needs doesn’t necessarily correlate with aligning them with American interests.