The current issue of Military Review (.pdf, via Small Wars Journal) contains a quiet but significant article by Christopher Housenick titled “Winning Battles but Losing Wars” (p. 91). The overlap with French Gen. Vincent Desportes’ analysis — synopsis here (.pdf), interview here (.pdf) — is pretty striking, especially with regards to the ways in which attacks on state infrastructure in the initial destructive phase of an intervention will inevitably hamper reconstruction efforts in the stabilization phase. According to Desportes, the challenge before Western militaries isn’t to “. . .conduct a ‘better war’. . .[but to] aim for a ‘better peace.'”
The question underscores the need for a doctrinal evolution in American military strategy. So far, that’s been limited to the still hotly contested COIN vs. conventional capacity debate. (Col. Gian Gentile, a WPR contributor here and here, has a recent CSM op-ed, also via SWJ, on the subject.)
I’ve been developing the argument this week that the debate should be broadened to include our global conception of the military instrument. So long as war is conceived of from a strategic and doctrinal perspective as an all or nothing proposition (that’s to say total, with an objective of regime change and unconditional surrounder), the American military will be extremely constrained in its possible deployments. That, in turn, has an impact on American foreign policy.
Now, I’m not advocating for a banalization of military interventions or an embrace of limited war. What I’m suggesting is that American strategic doctrine is poorly adapted to the current geopolitical landscape of rapidly emerging, diffuse centers of influence. And so long as that doctrine hasn’t been re-examined, we’ll be susceptible to the same kind of strategic miscalculations that led us to underestimate the length and cost of our engagement in Iraq.
American power, both hard and soft, took its current shape in the global conditions of the post-WWII/Cold War era. Overwhelming and decisive force in the conduct of a total war was a sound approach to those conditions. But in many ways, those conditions were a strategic parenthesis, as was the post-Cold War unipolar moment. Now, both the geopolitical and military contexts have changed, and we need to adapt the ways in which we conceive of and apply our influence and power as a function of those changes.
That means finding a balance between America’s historic traditions of isolationism on the one hand and global crusader on the other. The conflicts to come might not rise to the level of a crusade, but neither will we be able to comfortably ignore them. There will be no shortage of time- and resource-consumingstabilization and reconstruction operations to choose from, but there’salso a growing risk of limited conventional conflicts, whether betweenregional rivals or larger powers and their weaker neighbors. We are no longer the world’s reluctant policeman, neither in the eyes of the world, nor in our own. But we have yet to identify what role we will play, across the spectrum of hard and soft power. We’d better do so before events catch us offguard.