The Regime Change Disease ?

My co-blogger Dan Trombly puts his finger on an emerging problem: American strategy and regime change. I’ve highlighted bits that are of special importance for military and intelligence strategists:

Although generally not explicitly affiliated with the United States military, the US and other states have had a long history of overthrowing foreign leaders while leaving most of the state apparatus intact. This has allowed the US to pursue its interests while heading off the potential instability a root-and-branch change in regime would bring. Normative changes and the moralization of US foreign policy since the disappearance of Cold War “necessity” has basically put an end to these sorts of activities. There is no more gunboat diplomacy where the US sails its ships, occupies a port or two, and ensures somebody new enters the palace. …

The American way of war does not often avail itself to limited conventional wars. It is easier and safer for US planners, whether under the guise of “rapid dominance,” “effects based operations,” or some other schema, to bombard and obliterate as much of the enemy’s military and civil organs of state power as possible, to end the war quickly and reduce potential threat to American efforts. The idea of spending so much on the US military and putting American lives at risk makes accepting anything less than total victory an uncomfortable compromise and a harder sell for politicians at home. The emphasis on nation-building and COIN then is probably the necessary complement to the current American way of war, where everyone wants to make Phase III as quick and risk-free as possible. Unfortunately, the result of these grand strategic choices and their operationalization is that the US exposes its men and the countries and regions it is seeking to stabilize to different, and perhaps more dangerous, forms of risk.

This is part of why strategic raiding is so problematic. The technical capabilities to do so are within reach, as the Bin Laden raid demonstrated. We are already raiding with drones and airpower in many theaters of operation. But a large-scale strategic raid in the model of a 19th century naval “descent” involves by necessity the complete suppression of the enemy’s systems and forces through parallel warfare. The alternative is often an fruitless bombing mission designed to replicate the highly sui generis outcome of the Kosovo war–in cooperation with native allies that often times do not possess the skill, daring, and experience of the Northern Alliance.

The “sweet spot” would be a kind of Gulf War I-type outcome in which enemy forces are vastly diminished but not to be point of complete disintegration. This, however, was not the intended outcome of the war, as many strategists expected to fatally weaken the Hussein regime. And unless the policy is set in an manner that allows the adversary to escape with a timely warning and a threat of future losses, you become drawn in again–just like the US was in Iraq during the interwar years. Perhaps the US just doesn’t do limited wars.

A more acceptable outcome would be a Guatemala or Tehran-style coup or even something akin to the Soviet Union’s intervention in Prague, but as Trombly notes those are perhaps the intelligence equivalent of the chimera of Austerlitz.

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