Bacevich, JimHenley, Autarky^3

Because I am more attentive to things I’m paying attention to, this op-ed by Andrew Bacevich (of the “no peace dividend’ camp) caught my eye.

Titled ‘Obama’s strategic blind spot,’ he starts by suggesting that in focusing too much on the ‘how we win’ we’ve lost track of the ‘why we fight’…

A comparable failure of imagination besets present-day Washington. The Long War launched by George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 has not gone well. Everyone understands that. Yet in the face of disappointment, what passes for advanced thinking recalls the Churchill who devised Gallipoli and godfathered the tank: In Washington and in the field, a preoccupation with tactics and operations have induced strategic blindness.

As President Obama shifts the main U.S. military effort from Iraq to Afghanistan, and as his commanders embrace counterinsurgency as the new American way of war, the big questions go not only unanswered but unasked. Does perpetuating the Long War make political or strategic sense? As we prepare to enter that war’s ninth year, are there no alternatives?

Pragmatists shy away from first-order questions — recall President George H. W. Bush’s aversion to what he called “the vision thing.” Obama is a pragmatist. Unlike his immediate predecessor, he inhabits a world where facts matter.

Yet pragmatism devoid of principle will perpetuate the strategic void that Obama inherited. The urgent need is for the administration to articulate a concrete set of organizing precepts — not simply cliches — to frame basic U.S. policy going forward.

He then goes on to suggest a set of strategic principles:

What should those principles be?

First, the Long War may be long, but it should not get any bigger. The regime-change approach — invade and occupy to transform — hasn’t worked; simply trying harder in some other venue (Somalia? Sudan?) won’t produce different results. In short, no more Iraqs.

Second, forget the Bush Doctrine of preventive war: no more wars of choice; henceforth only wars of necessity. The United States will use force only as a last resort and even then only when genuinely vital interests are at stake.

Third, no more crusades unless the American people buy in; expecting a relative handful of soldiers to carry the load while the rest of the country binges on consumption is unconscionable. At a minimum, the generation that opts for war should pay for it through higher taxes rather than foisting a burden of debt onto their grandchildren.

Fourth, the key to keeping America safe is to defend it, not to project American muscle to obscure places around the world. It may or may not be true that a “mighty fortress is our God”; had the United States been a mighty fortress on 9/11, however, the 19 hijackers would have gotten nowhere.

Fifth, by all means let the United States promote the spread of freedom and democracy. Yet we’re more likely to enjoy success by modeling freedom rather than trying to impose it. To provide a suitable model, we’ve considerable work to do here at home. Meanwhile, let’s not deny others the prerogative of defining for themselves exactly what it means to be free.

Boy, I disagree strongly with much of this. My disagreements are really focused on two areas of it –

The secret to keeping America safe can’t be to ‘defend it’ when the enemies aren’t fleets of warships and armies of tanks. What it takes to lock down and secure an open society like ours means, simply, the end of social freedom as we know it. It’s a massive surveillance state, with all the abuse that implies. Bacevich has been critical at length of the weakness of homeland defense that “let 9/11 happen” – well, what – exactly – kind of “mighty fortress” would have prevented it? Do we simply stop allowing foreign nationals into the country, or assign them government ‘minders?’ Nice rhetoric, show me a policy.

When he says we will use force only as a last resort, does he suggest that we simply take a hands-off position to the balance of the world? Let Israel and the Arabs nuke it out? Let the violent extremists kill enough people to take over societies, and keep their grip on the societies they already control?

Now if he believes that if we stop meddling, they will stop being angry, that’s amusing and wrong.

Way back in 2004, blogger Jim Henley posted a similar ‘Grand Plan‘ that paralleled Bacevich’s (with some additional detail that may or may not reflect Bacevich’s thinking). My overall take on Henley’s post was:

…when I was pointed to Jim Henley’s Grand Plan, I just lost the capacity for reasonable thought; it was so dumb, such a dorm-room, bong-hit driven idea of how the world ought to be that I almost left it alone. Then I got a link to it from a non-blog person, and realized that I had to Go Back In There and wrestle with it.

And as a side note, my feelings about Bacevich’s grand strategy aren’t all that different. Look, let’s go to one specific criticism of Henley:

“A Grand Strategy for the Rest – The Unqualified Offerings Plan, not just for Iraq but for terrorism generally:

1) Stop borrowing trouble

OK, that makes sense. The problem of course is that – as in the oldest known form of drama, tragedy – the trouble we’re paying for was borrowed generations ago. There’s no ‘ollie ollie oxen free'; no Original Position. So as a game-theory concept, it makes lots of sense. As a basis for real-world policy, it makes very little.

2) “Wait” for the people behind the trouble we’ve already borrowed to get old and tired or die off outright.

Right. First Rawls, then Kuhn; a full plate of philosophy’s Greatest Hits. Sadly, the dynamics are little more complex than that. Yes, the changes are large largely generational, but – a big but – the dynamics making the new generation take positions can’t be reset to zero, there are consequences for disengagement, and so there’s little but hope that would lead one to believe that – absent some positive act – the next generations will be happier to coexist than the last.

Still true – what exactly has changed in the Palestinian culture to make them more willing to live alongside Israel since 1948? And – as a sidenote – I’ll suggest that pure containment is Bacevich’s preferred foreign policy; except that – based on his unwillingness to meddle in foreign affairs, it’s containment that starts at the US border.

Look, go read my criticism of Henley’s ideas. Slightly warmed over, they serve perfectly well as criticisms of Bacevich’s as well. Three key points:

The first [problem with Henley’s arguments] is, yes, they do – they do, because they are a part of an expansionist (as are all evangelical) religion that sees a unified worldwide church as is goal, and more important, because one of the strongest strains in that church was raised from stock created here in the West, and defines itself, not only internally through the Quran, but externally, against the West (see Qutb).

The second problem is that even if we tried, we couldn’t cut the ties that are at the boundaries between our cultures. Trade, migration, media…the big three drivers that force their culture into contact with ours – even without the mechanisms of imperialism (stipulating for the moment that imperialism is as powerful as he suggests) force us to deal with each other. Does he somehow think that the Playboy Channel and MTV will somehow stop being watched in Riyadh? And that this itself won’t be a threat to the established order?


What [fresh] humiliations, exactly, did he have in mind? Because I think he’s forgetting that OBL is talking about ancient colonial history, and battles in Andalusia and at the gates of Vienna. These folks have a much better sense of history than we do.

and finally,

But the interests here are (a) inseparable – we can’t economically (or culturally) ‘disengage’ from the Islamic world; and (b) central to our well-being – it’s not only the oil and the economy, but the fact that while the Vietnamese Communist Party signed up for the internationalization of Communism, we didn’t need to worry about them, it was the USSR and China carrying that ball; Hanoi was happy to just bring Saigon into the fold. It was a nationalist manifestation of an international movement. Islamism isn’t nationalist. It hasn’t, doesn’t, and won’t stop at national borders.

There’s a great paraphrase of the Three Laws of Thermodynamics that goes

You can’t win.
You can’t break even.
You’ve got to play.

That’s thermodynamic reality. Political reality in a wicked-problems world, like it or not, follows similar rules.

You don’t know if you’re winning or losing.
You don’t know when you’re done.
You have to play.

I get the impulse to just close our collective eyes hold our breath and hope things will get better. In this country, we’re about 500 years too late for that.

7 thoughts on “Bacevich, JimHenley, Autarky^3”

  1. How does Bacevich think Britain could have ended the war in 1915? By having the “imagination” to abandon France and the Low Countries to the Kaiser?

  2. The Long War launched by George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 has not gone well.

    Well, at least no one can claim Bacevich is suffering from failure of imagination. But seriously, when he starts out like that, how can the rest of his thinking not be a disaster?

    Yes, yes, I know–the Bush administration was pathetically, catastrophically awful about selling the concept. How lame are you, as the owner of the biggest bully pulpit in world, if two smart guys from nowhere (den Beste and Wretchard) can do a better job explaining what you’re trying to do than you can yourself?

    But … if Bush hadn’t gone into Iraq, you can’t possibly suggest with a straight face that today the mullahs in Qom would be talking to the ones in Najaf about how the government in Iran is overstepping its bounds.

  3. The secret to keeping America safe can’t be to ‘defend it’ when the enemies aren’t fleets of warships and armies of tanks.

    This wasn’t the answer even when the enemies were fleets of warships and tanks. It may have escaped Bacevich’s attention, but the solution to Japanese predations in the Pacific wasn’t to build an American fleet and have it patrol up and down the western seaboard, defensively. It was to build an American fleet and, at horrible cost, blow up every machine the Japanese that could roll, float, or fly. The solution to German predation in the Atlantic was not to gamely try to avoid those pesky U-Boats, but to blow them up. Both of those temporary solutions were followed up with the more lasting ones of blowing up all the factories which made those things, and then imposing governments that would not replace the factories.

    Likewise, the Cold War: Nuclear weapons made the notion of going in and blowing stuff up a little too risky, but still, we did not simply hunker down and let the Soviets do as they would and passively defend. We actively defended through a policy of containment.

    Likewise, World War I: Ending stalemates did end the war.

    Likewise, the American Civil War: Neither side was content to sit defensively in its own little arena.

    Wars are not typically won by defending, and this is not a new thought in the theory of warfare.

    The constraints of this war do, of course, make it different from previous conflicts. This is also not new– all wars and special. AL notes wisely that the diffusion of targets in the US makes defense-only even less plausible than in previous wars, and I’d even go so far as to say that the diffusion of offensive actors abroad makes the saturation bombing runs of the last century ineffective as well.

    But that argues, not for a defensive posture, but for an active posture of a different nature. The end game here is the same as it was in the Cold War and World War II: The dismantling of war-making infrastructure and the replacement of hostile regimes with friendly ones. (We only got part of that in the outcome of the Cold War, obviously.)

    This is as unlikely to happen if we just sit aronud and think happy democratic thoughts today, as it was in 1965 or 1941.

    It is depressing that an actual professor of international relations at a prestigious university could fail to understand this. It’s almost as though he has a strategic blind spot.

  4. Cold War – Please –

    ” And then, within a few short years, the world as it was ceased to be. Now, make no mistake: This change did not come from any one nation. The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful. ”

    Obama in Russia.

  5. Er, they stood up and decided that they would no longer be run by totalitarian Communist governments. The “peace with the West” was a side benefit of this, not a deciding factor in their decision to do so.

    It WAS, however, part of the strategy of containment. By provoking an arms race, the West forced the communist countries to devote a significantly larger proportion of their total output to military ends. You can’t ignore the effect of the lower Soviet standard of living due to this guns-or-butter decision on the eventual collapse of the Soviet government.

    But a part of containment was the willingness to actually confront the Soviets when they attempted to expand militarily. It wouldn’t matter if we had all the nukes in the world if the Soviet leadership had been convinced that we would be unwilling to use them. By contrast, a significant part of the planning that went into the 9/11 attack was the calculation that the US, though possessing overwhelming force, was not willing to bring that force to bear – that a small number of casualties would be enough to force the US to withdraw.

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