The Application of American Military Power

I did manage to get through one book while I was away, America at Arms, a study of American strategic culture written by Gen. Vincent Desportes. Desportes was until yesterday the commander of the French Army’s Force Employment Doctrine Center. Today he assumed his new duties as commander of the Inter-Army Defense College. On starting the book, my first thought was that it should be required reading in France. Upon finishing it, my final thought was that it should be required reading in America.

While not his primary concern, Desportes’ analysis helps put the strategic debates of the immediate post-9/11 period, and specifically the decision to invade Iraq, in historical context. In combination with his latest book, The Likely War, it also sketches the outline of the major challenges facing American military power, namely how to exploit our massive strength in an age of minor conflict. (My synopsis of The Likely War (.pdf), as well as an interview I conducted with Desportes (.pdf) just went online over at Small Wars Journal.)

For a variety of reasons (geographical, cultural and historical) that Desportes explains in great depth, American military culture has evolved around a doctrine of massive force and technological superiority that can basically be summed up as a strategy of “Win fast, win big.” The paradox is that this approach grows in part out of the American public’s aversion to war, which is viewed not as a Clausewitzian means of pursuing diplomatic ends, but a last resort when diplomacy fails. As such, it must be total; the enemy becomes the incarnation of evil, and nothing short of his unconditional surrender is acceptable.

The problem arises when American military power is mobilized for anything short of a crusade. Americans are willing to accept enormous sacrifices so long as the perceived stakes, whether a threat to our national security or an outrage upon our national values, are commensurate to the costs. But limited wars, like Korea and Vietnam, don’t cut it. In other words, in order to mobilize American public opinion to support a foreign intervention, it must always be Munich, 1938, and the man sitting across the table must always be Hitler.(What’s often overlooked when the appeasement argument is trotted out is that America was not at the negotiating table in Munich because public opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to any involvement in a European war until the attack on Pearl Harbor, and even then it took some effort to justify an emphasis on the European theater, as opposed to a Pacific focus.)

The implications for the Iraq War, which could more accurately be separated into two wars (the three week invasion and the five-year counterinsurgency), should be obvious. The demonization of Saddam Hussein, the exagerration of the security threat, and the refusal to accept anything short of regime change all go hand in hand with the mobilization of public opinion necessary for the massive operation that culminated in the fall of Baghdad. The difficulty in maintaining public support for the five years of war that followed goes hand in hand with the limited operations necessary for stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq.

I’m increasingly convinced that more than the expression of an imperial design, the Iraq War was an effort by the neocons to resolve Madeleine Albright’s famous challenge to Colin Powell during the Bosnian crisis: “What good is it having the most powerful military in the world if you don’t use it.” The problem is that, as Desportes makes clear, the American military was not designed for (and the American public is not sympathetic to) the kinds of limited operations that the Iraq War became, and that will in all likelihood characterize the conflicts of the near future. That’s a fundamental problem, given the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape, that no one has yet addressed.

Paradoxically, one of the consequences of the initial strategic miscalculations of the Iraq War is the ascendance of Gen. Petraeus’ COIN doctrine that is more adapted to limited, asymmetric war. But whether or not you believe that America should be investing its strategic resources in more COIN interventions, a limited war against an asymmetric insurgency is a far cry from a limited war against a conventional military. Contrast, for instance, the American misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan to Russia’s return to the field in Georgia, where a calculated limited war significantly advanced Russian strategic interests at virtually no cost. Consider, too, the chorus calling for some sort of anti-Russian crusade in the context of America’s strategic culture as described by Desportes. It’s very unlikely, given the American military as currently configured, that such an intervention could remain limited.

I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is. A tiger can’t change its stripes, and it’s unrealistic to expect the American public and military to suddenly toss off three centuries of history and suddenly embrace a cold-blooded, “limited war” realism as a foreign policy tool. But the disconnect between America’s strategic posture and military instrument on the one hand, and the evolving nature of armed conflictand the geopolitical balance of power on the other, deserves some attention.

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