In 2015 the United States faces a number of opportunities to intervene with military force in countries of secondary or even less strategic importance to U.S. policy makers. President Barack Obama’s completion of the withdrawal of American ground combat troops from Iraq, and plans to draw down U.S. troops from Afghanistan, have not reduced either the escalation of recent conflicts such as in Libya and Yemen, or the continuation of destructive ethnic and religious strife with international participation in Syria. As if that were not a sufficient number of states with contested conflict taking place, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) expanded from gradual growth after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2013, migrated into the Syrian Civil War, and in February 2014 charged into western Iraq to seize Mosul and other Sunni dominated areas. Boko Haram in Nigeria also escalated its attacks in northeastern Nigeria and engaged in the kidnapping of school girls, burning of villages, murder of residents, and attacks on Nigeria’s neighbors such as Chad. The list does not even include Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea from the Ukraine in February 2014 and Putin’s continued support of Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons, so-called ‘Russian volunteers,’ and funds.
After thirteen years of war, the loss of many thousand of lives, and the expenditure of trillions of dollars, what has the United States learned? The answer depends on not only who is asking but when. The story of the Iraq war would have different endings, and morals, if told in 2003, 2006, 2011, or 2014, and it will continue to evolve. As for Afghanistan, the narrative there has also shifted over time, and the ending also remains in doubt. Neither disaster has been unmitigated. But few would argue that Washington’s approach to either has been a success worth emulating. So the most important question today is what can be learned from the failures.
The dangers of writing about terrorism and terrorist groups, most especially al-Qa’ida, are twofold. The first is that the field is so inundated with punditry and scholarship on the subject that new entrants easily can be lost in the noise; the second is that in order to avoid being lost in the noise the temptation is strong to exaggerate claims and to assert over-strenuously the importance of one’s conclusions.
Since the start of the twenty-first century, military contractors such as Blackwater (now named Academi), Kellogg, Brown & Root, and SNC Lavalin have become household names in many countries. The reasons for their prominence vary from case to case. One is notoriety. Particular firms hold contracts valued in the millions if not billions of dollars, and the conduct of some firms has not been beyond reproach in terms of military effectiveness or their observance of human rights. A second reason is reliance. Contractors are needed to keep state military personnel fed and supplied, to maintain their machines, and in some cases even to protect them. Developed world states especially require them for warring, training, and simply operating given the limited numbers of available national military personnel, the increasing sophistication of military technologies, and the political ramifications of applying state forces overseas. In many states, contractors have therefore become part of the total national force. Yet another reason pertains to dedication and sacrifice. Many firms suﬀffered significant levels of casualties during the long-term interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of contracted personnel have provided continuity over the long haul in often austere and intemperate conditions. All of this points to the considerable depth and scope of contractor involvement, which is arguably unprecedented in recent decades if not centuries. It also stands at odds with traditional conceptions of expensive state security sectors and their capabilities and responsibilities to manage and apply violence.
Why did the United States, despite vigorous public debates over the wisdom of invading Iraq, pursue an ultimately disastrous war with Iraq in 2003? After all, as John Stuart Mill and others have suggested, such debates in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ should surely have led to a solid consensus against such a course. Explaining why American foreign policymakers repeatedly commit such mistakes is the broad task that Christopher Fettweis sets for himself in his new book. In his view, the primary source of blunders in American foreign policy is the nation’s deep and collective attachment to a series of pathological beliefs that he groups into the categories of fear, honor, glory, and hubris. These four pathologies do not lead to random errors in foreign policy making, but instead “almost always lend support to the most hawkish, belligerent position in any foreign policy debate. Fear, honor, glory, and hubris rarely convince leaders to cooperate with rivals or foes; these categories of belief expand the set of casus belli far more widely than any rational calculation would support” (14).
It should not be surprising that the long awaited release in December 2014 of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation did not bring a conclusive end to the debate over the use of torture or enhanced interrogation techniques by the United States. To be sure, John Brennan, the Director of the CIA, acknowledged that the report correctly identified numerous and significant problems with the CIA’s handling of detainees and interrogations in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Brennan was also emphatic in stating his own belief that “enhanced interrogation techniques are not an appropriate method to obtain intelligence and that their use impairs our ability to continue to play a leadership role in the world.” But Brennan also restated the CIA’s long-held objection to the SSCI report’s “unqualified assertions that the overall detention and interrogation program did not produce unique intelligence that led terrorist plots to be disrupted, terrorists to be captured, or lives to be saved.”
Recently, there has been a spate of books dealing with the issue of strategy and its utility. Lawrence Freedman, Colin Gray, Hew Strachan, and Hal Brands have all weighed in with recent works on the tensions between what strategic theory discusses and the practical difficulties in achieving successful results through its use. The growing attention to the ‘praxis’ of strategy points to the mounting sense of failure implicit in the return of Western military forces to Iraq (including some from states originally opposed to operations there in 2003). Since 2001, the illusive and shadowy warriors of Special Operations Forces (SOF) have been increasingly in the news and popular media. These military forces are frequently touted as key enablers to address the complex problems presented by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. Thus, Grant Martin, himself a Special Operations veteran now working at the U.S. Army’s Special Warfare school delivers a timely and informative article on the value that such capabilities bring to states engaged in conflict.
From the very beginning of the nation’s history, intelligence has been set aside as a conspicuous exception to James Madison’s advocacy of checks-and-balances, spelled out in his Federalist Paper No. 51. The ‘auxiliary precautions’ that this key participant at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (and later America’s fourth President) — the safeguards he had helped build into the Constitution — were never applied to America’s secret intelligence activities. It has been the norm around the world for nations to treat their intelligence services as something special and apart from the rest of government. These agencies wear a cloak of secrecy, have unique access to decision-makers, and are given considerable leeway to carry out their duties without the usual review (in democracies at least) of programs, personnel, and budgets by overseers in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. A nation’s leaders were expected to avert their eyes as the secret services broke laws overseas (a routine occurrence) and engaged in unsavory activities, even assassinations and coups d’état, that would be deemed highly inappropriate for other government agencies.
Each year, undergraduates in my introductory course on international relations read three articles by Robert Jervis. His classic “Cooperation under the Security Dilemma” forces students, so often used to thinking in terms of intentions and motivations, to recognize how structure can lead to tragic outcomes in world politics. They then turn to a chapter from his book Perception and Misperception, which explains that intentions and motives are critical to deciding if one is in a spiral or deterrence situation. Finally, they encounter “Was the Cold War a Security Dilemma,” which mixes careful history and nuanced theory to argue that competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was in fact not a security dilemma, that it stemmed more from the clash of two revolutionary, crusading social systems than dynamics inherent to the anarchic system.
Perhaps only Douglas Porch, with his encyclopedic knowledge of insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) and his broader military expertise, could have written this book. Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War is a magisterial examination across time and space of the history of COIN. It is intended to dispel the myths propagated around it as a kinder, gentler form of warfare waged for the benefit of all involved. An eminent military historian, Porch is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. He has been writing about revolution, insurgency, expeditionary warfare, military empire building, the role of the military in domestic politics, great power war, and related issues for more than 40 years.