Friday, May 18, 2007

So I Tells the Doctor, It Hurts Whenever I Do This, and the Doctor Says....

Matt Yglesias (riffing off of Brian Beutler's discussion of David Brooks' latest offering) has this to say:

I agree with Brian Beutler. David Brooks' discussion of insurgent tactics in Iraq ends up in a very strange place:

If the Iraqi insurgents defeat the U.S. then every bad guy on earth will study and learn their techniques. The people now running for president will find themselves in bigger heaps of trouble than the current one now is — trouble that this presidential campaign hasn’t even dealt with.
But, look, the Iraqi insurgency is hardly the first group to demonstrate that it's possible to force foreign occupying armies to withdraw from territory where they're not wanted even if the occupying army is, in some sense, militarily superior. This has been a well-known feature of the world for decades, if not centuries. Indeed, it's worth pointing out that advocates of invading Iraq used to be perfectly aware that we wouldn't be able to use military force to trump public opinion.

It is odd how this seemingly obvious fact has been forgotten, or is being deliberately ignored, by so many that should know better (or do). One of Matt's commenters nails it:

You'd think a country that was founded on a guerilla insurgency against a superior British force would have a better grasp of the efficacy of guerilla warfare.

But then, as Jim Henley noted, even those discussing counterinsurgency doctrine in various exalted circles lose sight of this most salient of features: fighting insurgencies will likely only be a problem for us if we proceed to impose ourselves as a military power in distant lands. We must work to make that an extremely rare event. Which would be the only truly sound counterinsurgency doctrine.

In fact, if we ensure the rarity of our foreign military interventions by applying strict tests to any future commitment of forces, we make it likelier that we will not face as dogged an insurgency when we truly must (ie, ensure that there is a high level of domestic support for our intervention in the target country, establish the legitimacy (and morality) of the action, attain high levels of international cooperation/support, present clear and attainable goals, etc.).

Sure, indigenous insurgencies can erupt in weak states to challenge an ineffectual sovereign, but it is unclear to what extent we would want to get involved in such a fight - and we're not really vulnerable to such a domestic insurgency here in the States (military coup and civil war fantasies notwhistanding). Further, indigenous insurgents squaring off against domestic counterinsurgents tend to lack many of the familiar advantages they would normally have vis-a-vis a foreign power -- such as superior knowledge (cultural, linguistic, geographical, topographical, etc.). Nor will they necessarily enjoy the rhetorical high-ground that nationalism and xenophobic impulses provide. Of course, the more we involve ourselves in such a fight, the more likely we can stigmatize our favored side and thus cede the rhetorical high ground to our opponents (see, ie, recent Somalia/Ethiopia conflict).

Here's Henley with the goods:

This I think is the issue that Yingling and the rest of the Army’s “counterinsurgency insurgents” avoid. Insurgency can’t pose an existential threat to the country. Is there a single instance of insurgency warfare conquering foreign territory? Even if you consider South Vietnam and North Vietnam to have really been separate countries, it was, as certain hawks never tire of pointing out, Hanoi’s regular Army that conquered the South. The FLN could kick France out of Algeria, but it could never rule France. Hezbollah drove Israel out of Lebanon in the 1990s using guerrilla warfare. It couldn’t use the same tactics to drive Israel out of Galilee. Insurgencies can prevent foreign or local governments from consolidating control over the insurgents’ “own” territory. Guerrilla movements that get big enough have been able to take power in their own countries.

But they can’t conquer. Insurgency is fundamentally reactive and, if not always merely “defensive” . . . parochial. A guerrilla army swims in the sea of the people, like the man said, and foreigners make a lousy sea. Even if all “the terrorists” wanted to follow us home after we “cut and run” from Iraq, they could never have remotely the effect here that they manage in Iraq. Here they lack a sea.

By and large, a country like the United States only needs to commit to an ongoing posture of counterinsurgency if it is also committed to serial military domination of foreign populations. In fact, the United States is currently so committed, on a bipartisan basis. But that’s an unwise and immoral posture that will lead to national ruin in the medium to long term. The Iraq defeat offers one of those rare moments for real national reappraisal, an openness to genuine reform. Rather than work at getting better at executing an unwise and immoral grand strategy, let’s choose a different one.

Good idea.

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