The Illusions Underlying our Foreign Policy Discussions

So many of our debates about defense and foreign policy take place in a fantasy world.

Nations. Every time you look at a globe, you’re participating in an illusion: that the Earth’s land mass partitions neatly into nations. On the globe, ungovernable places like Afghanistan and Syria look every bit as solid and well-defined as Belgium or Japan.

In spite of ourselves, we fall for that illusion again and again. When American troops occupy a place like Iraq, we immediately start talking about “installing” a government, as if Iraq were a light socket that just needed a new bulb after we removed the old one. After all, there are lines on our globes, and little stars that denote their capitals. You just put somebody in charge, they send one of their people to the UN, and there you go: a nation.

In reality, the world is full of wild places where the word “government” doesn’t quite apply. Some of them, like Kashmir, are contested regions on the edges of larger entities. Some, like in Afghanistan, start right outside the capital and extend over the bulk of the alleged country. In places like Mexico, neighborhoods of major cities are controlled by crime families that the official government can’t overcome.

Some wild places are ruled by insurgencies that aspire to become governments themselves. Some are a field of play where rival warlords compete for dominance. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s going on: There are troops that claim to represent a government, insurgencies fighting against them, warlords picking a side one day at a time, criminal gangs just trying to do business, mercenaries paid by some interested party, official foreign troops allied with the government, or even covert foreign troops who wear no insignia and officially aren’t there at all.

Code that on a map.

War and peace. Another illusion is that war and peace are a binary pair of opposites. You’re at war, or you have peace. Peace is the natural order, but occasionally it is punctuated by relatively brief episodes of war, like the Civil War or World War II. Society has its normal rules for peacetime, but occasionally a switch gets flipped and the rules of war apply, giving more freedom to governments and armies, but less to citizens and foreign civilians caught in the wrong place.

Because peace is the natural state, within a few years any war is supposed to come to a conclusion: victory, defeat, or a negotiated settlement. Citizens submit to the restrictions of war on the implicit assumption that those restrictions are temporary. When events don’t play out that way — if say, the war goes on and on with no apparent end in sight — citizens get antsy and support for the war wanes.

Similarly to its localization in time, war is also supposed to be localized in space. There is a comparatively small and well-defined war zone where the shooting happens; everywhere else, life is normal but for a few restrictions necessary to support the war effort. Inside the war zone, people neatly divide into combatants and non-combatants. Combatants are soldiers of the afore-mentioned nations, which have agreed to rules that (up to a point) protect non-combatants.

The way a nation wins a war is through the quantity and quality of its combatants. Either you throw more troops at your enemy than it can handle (as Iran did against Iraq in the 1980s), or you equip your troops with expensive weapons that give them a decisive advantage (as the US has done wherever it fights).

Conventional war. One of the strangest bits of terminology we use is “conventional war”, which is supposed to distinguish a conflict from nuclear war on the one hand and “unconventional” war on the other.

The classic conventional war is World War II in Europe: There are two sides that each control well-defined territory. The line between those territories is the “front”, and each side tries to push the front one way or the other, using armies equipped with guns and tanks, and supported by air and naval power. Away from the front there might be spies, saboteurs, and assassins; covert partisan groups (like the French Resistance); or even enemy troops who have infiltrated past the front lines somehow (like our airborne troops on D-Day). But these behind-the-lines struggles are a sideshow compared to the big tank battles at the front.

What’s weird about calling this model “conventional” is that it rarely happens any more. Granted, it’s not totally gone. The Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1967 was a conventional war. The opening phase of the Iraq War, where the US and its allies attacked and destroyed Saddam Hussein’s organized armies, was conventional.

But the US war in Vietnam wasn’t conventional. The Afghanistan War isn’t conventional. After the initial invasion, the Iraq War wasn’t conventional.

Unconventional war. “Unconventional” war is like what happens behind the lines of a conventional war. It’s all sabotage and partisans and irregular troops, but there is no “line” for this activity to be behind.

By calling this kind of war “unconventional”, we ghettoize it. It’s like the irregular verbs in a foreign language. War is mainly conventional war, and we’ve got that covered. But there are a few exceptional situations that fall through the cracks.

And that’s the problem we’ve had these last 60 years or so: Everything falls through the cracks. If the Viet Cong or the Taliban would just line up some tanks and roll them at us, we’d totally nail those suckers. If Boko Haram would field an air force and dogfight our F-16s, they’d have no chance. If the Colombian drug cartels floated a navy and tried to land narcotics on our Gulf coast in a Normandy-invasion sort of way, they’d find out just how mighty we are.

But they don’t. Everybody who takes on the United States fights an unconventional war against us. And we keep losing.

We lose in a fairly predictable way: We see war as a temporary thing. We imagine applying our matchless power until we’ve captured the enemy flag, and then we’ll declare victory and go back to our normal peacetime lives. So all the enemy has to do is refuse to give us a flag to capture. Melt into the countryside, hide among the civilian population, and come out just often enough to remind everyone that they’re not defeated yet. Eventually these tactics will run out our clock and we’ll start looking for a way to leave.

Obama took a lot of criticism in Iraq for a having a timetable, because you’re not supposed to tell the enemy how long they have to wait. But even without a timetable, we don’t fool anybody. Everyone knows we can’t stay forever.

Dr. McFate

The new rules of war. That’s where Sean McFate starts in his recent book The New Rules of War. How can we be so powerful and yet keep losing wars?

I find it hard to believe that “McFate” is his real name, but it seems to be. He’s on the faculty at Georgetown and the National Defense University. (Dr. McFate is not to be confused with Dr. Fate, the most powerful sorcerer of the DC comic book universe, even though McFate sounds a bit like a comic book character himself: He was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, served as a mercenary in various conflicts he can’t talk about, got a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics, and published two novels. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to stumble across the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak, or maybe an infinity stone.)

The central point of McFate’s “new rules” is less that he knows exactly what we need to do and more that we need to start thinking about reality again. The book’s subtitle, “victory in the age of durable disorder” introduces the book’s central idea: that disorder is a chronic condition to be managed, not a disease we should expect to cure and be done with.

Dr. Fate

Durable disorder is something that happens in the twilight region between war and peace. It can be found in the physical places that we call “failed states”, but it also happens in abstract areas where the rules of war and peace have never been nailed down, as in cyberwar between rival countries’ hackers, or information war.

“Conventional war is dead.” is the first of McFate’s new rules. He points out that not even other great powers practice it any more. Look at Putin’s Russia. In the last few years they have

  • invaded Crimea with “little green men” — masked soldiers without Russian insignia — that Putin for a long time denied existed or had anything to do with him.
  • manipulated the American political process to put his man in the White House and co-opt one of our two major political parties. Similar tactics have just about succeeded in breaking the United Kingdom away from the European Union.
  • bombed civilian areas in Syria to produce a wave of refugees that destabilized democratic governments across Europe.

None of that is peaceful, but neither does it fit into the usual categories of war. It is aggressive and sometimes violent, but far from the tanks-pouring-into-Europe scenario that NATO was designed to oppose.

Weapons. McFate disapproves of the urge to invest fabulous amounts of money in ever-more-complex technology. Rule 2 is “Technology will not save us.” There’s a reason for that: Gee-whiz weaponry may succeed in giving us greater dominance of the battlefield, but it doesn’t address the problem that most of our conflicts don’t happen on traditional battlefields.

Tech is useful, he says, but not decisive.

Gizmos can shape our everyday lives, but not victory. War is armed politics, and seeking a technical solution to a political problem is folly. Ultimately, brainpower is superior to firepower.

Instead, he recommends investing more in people, particularly special forces, diplomats, and people who know how to shape narratives. Rule 5 is “The best weapons do not fire bullets.”

Mercenaries. Having been a mercenary, McFate has a more nuanced view of them than you typically see. The stereotypic merc is a killing machine for hire. But in McFate’s account, they are like any other professionals whose skills may be used for good or evil. (Compare, for example, computer programmers, who could be developing algorithms to help Facebook manipulate us more completely, or who could be hacking Cayman Island banks to expose the sources of dark money.) Maybe they will take a gig with the bad guys to keep food on the table, but they’d rather work for people they believe are the good guys.

McFate tells an amazing story that I have no other source for: During the Darfur genocide, he claims, Mia Farrow floated the idea of human rights organizations hiring mercs to secure safe places for refugees to run away to. It was seen as a temporary measure while a parallel PR campaign would try to shame the world community into taking action. The scheme was never put into action, but it could have been.

He foresees a future in which mercenaries play an ever-larger role. Rather than pay a corrupt government for protection (like Rachel Maddow describes Exxon-Mobil doing in Equatorial Guinea) why shouldn’t a corporation just establish its own fiefdom with paid soldiers? When individual people have tens of billions of dollars and strong views, why shouldn’t they take direct action rather than work through the political system? What if, say, the Koch brothers decided to take down Venezuela, or Bill Gates finally had enough of corrupt African governments getting in the way of his foundation’s good projects?

Educating strategists. Strategy, especially grand strategy, is held in low regard these days. It’s supposedly a bunch of ivory tower ideas that have lost touch with the real world.

But the United States’ biggest failures in recent years have been failures of strategy. Bad strategy is how you win all the battles but lose the war. The mess in Iraq arose because we didn’t know what we were trying to accomplish: Replace Saddam with a friendlier tyrant? Control a larger chunk of the world’s oil supply? Create a showpiece democracy for the rest of the Muslim world? We didn’t know, so we couldn’t do it.

McFate locates this problem in how we educate our military leaders: We start out teaching them tactics and expect them to grow into strategic thinkers as they rise up the ranks. It seldom happens. He also has a radical diagnosis: Our officer corps attracts and promotes too many engineers. Engineers make good tacticians, but strategy is a liberal art.

My take. I think that McFate has sold conventional war a little short: It’s not so much that conventional war is obsolete, but that US dominance has largely taken it off the table. The same is true of nuclear war: It’s not that nuclear weapons can’t be used to win a war — they were key to our victory over Japan. But that example defines the situation where nukes are usable: You have them and your enemy doesn’t.

The fact that we haven’t exploded a nuclear bomb (other than as a test) since 1945 doesn’t mean that there was no point in building them. Our nukes took nuclear war off the table for our enemies.

The same thing could be said about the tanks, planes, ships, and missiles of our conventional arsenal. Wars against the United States have been unconventional not because conventional war is obsolete, but because potential adversaries know the US would win such wars.

We want to keep nuclear and conventional war off the table, so we should still invest in weapons that will make those options unattractive to our adversaries. (That probably doesn’t require as much money as we currently spend — maybe ten aircraft carriers is enough — but it does require something.)

I think some of his other rules are questionable, but in some sense that criticism misses the point. He’s raising questions that somebody needs to raise. Our defense debate is often just about a number: How much are we going to raise the budget this year? It needs to be about what we’re trying to do and how we imagine doing it.

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  • madelonw1011  On December 9, 2019 at 2:18 pm

    I would recommend the book 13 HOURS IN BENGHAZI, by Mitchell Zuckoff, to anyone interested in the role of mercenaries.

    • dp  On December 10, 2019 at 11:50 am

      He is arguing for an expanded mission of mercenaries, not just killing and security. I don’t know that allowing them to be the government is a good idea.

  • Leslie Gould  On December 9, 2019 at 2:38 pm

    I thought you might like this book review. Sometimes reading the review saves you from having to read the whole book. That’s my rationale for sending it to such a busy man.

    Sent from my device.


  • Lydia Spitzer  On December 10, 2019 at 11:42 am

    Thanks, Doug — this is great! It seems to be the curse of the military mindset: maybe the combo of military schools and how military promotion works, the military (are? is?) always coming up with better ways to win the previous war. Makes me wish there were a gifted military person running for the presidency, who could cut through all that precedent and history to impose this kind of new, reality based thinking….More mercenaries need to run for office, perhaps!

  • dp  On December 10, 2019 at 12:02 pm

    What I see as a big problem with US military power is our inability to win the peace. We continually create corrupt, unsupported governments which allows the former enemy to melt away and return later. Look at Iraq, we’re on our 3rd corrupt government and they are likely to be overthrown by the people. This could work out but the church is the strongest influencer of the people and in Iraq the church is pretty radical. Could see the rise of ISIS. In Afghanistan we are preparing to give it back to the Taliban. The US needs to be smarter, use a longer occupation. We should set up the tools for self determination. Use education for all, establish good policing, and install a competent manager until the country can have fair and honest elections and then stay and help that government govern so that all people are taken care of. Then when the vanquished come back to cause trouble no one will join them, the police will arrest them and the judges will convict them. This involves work that we haven’t been willing to do.

  • Dennis Maher  On December 10, 2019 at 4:11 pm

    I feel a bit like I am living in a sci-fi future in which I cannot know my own government, the people I voted for, who our friends and enemies are, who is paying me, and what I am doing to earn it. This is major confusion and chaos; a puzzle inside an enigma….

  • Wade Scholine  On December 11, 2019 at 11:34 am

    What if, say, the Koch brothers decided to take down Venezuela, or Bill Gates finally had enough of corrupt African governments getting in the way of his foundation’s good projects?

    This basically presumes that the Kochs or Gates succumb for the fallacy identified at the beginning of the piece:

    … we fall for that illusion again and again. When American troops occupy a place like Iraq, we immediately start talking about “installing” a government, as if Iraq were a light socket that just needed a new bulb after we removed the old one.

    You could hire mercs to create a lawless zone where a State used to be, but if you want a State that does your bidding you need to address the fallacy that you can plug in a new Government and expect it to work.


  • By Perks of the Office | The Weekly Sift on December 9, 2019 at 11:57 am

    […] This week’s featured posts are “Articles of Impeachment: Broad or Narrow?” and “The Illusions Underlying our Foreign Policy Discussions“. […]

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