Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:44 | SYDNEY
Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:44 | SYDNEY

Nation-building as a strategic issue


Sam Roggeveen


3 December 2008 17:48

Via Spencer Ackerman, I see there's a new and really quite enlightening blog exchange over whether the US military should be designed at least in part for 'stability operations'; that is, counter-insurgency and nation-building. On one side of the debate is Jason Brownlee from the Middle East Report, who sees the US Army's new counterinsurgency stability operations manual, FM 3-07, as a textbook for US imperialism:

FM 3-07 marks, yet again, the post-September 11 zeal of President George W. Bush’s administration for a mission—nation building, if by another name, stability operations—that candidate Bush disdained in 2000. The outgoing president leaves his successor a bureaucratic apparatus and ideological leitmotif for rationalizing vast military spending and foreign adventurism.

The counter-argument comes from the blog Abu Muqawama, and claims that Brownlee is confusing strategy with operations. It's the Pentagon's job to come up with doctrine for possible military contingencies, but just because they develop such plans does not mean the US is going to embark on them. How and when US military forces are used, and to what ends, are political decisions made by politicians and, ultimately, voters.

That seems to me perfectly correct, yet quite incomplete. For one thing, developing a capacity for stability operations goes well beyond writing doctrine, and encompasses all sorts of training and procurement decisions. Resources are finite, even in the Pentagon, so when stability operations get more resources, other military functions and capabilities must suffer.

So the shifting of resources to stability operations is itself a highly political question, since it means the US will be able to perform one military task better, but others less well. That must influence politicians when the time comes to decide how and when to apply force.

The US military's efforts to examine its Iraq and Afghanistan experiences and think through how it could do those kinds of operations better strike me as sensible and important. But perhaps what concerns people like Brownlee is that documents like FM 3-07 imply that the larger strategic questions of whether it is even sensible or desirable to embark on stability operations have been settled. Or, to go even further, these operational documents may in fact drive strategy. After all, if stability operations is what you are equipped and trained for, that is what you will do.

Brownlee could draw on David Brooks' latest column to reinforce this concern:

Some theoreticians may still talk about Platonic concepts like realism and neoconservatism, but the actual foreign policy doctrine of the future will be hammered out in a bottom-up process as the U.S. and its allies use their varied tools to build government capacity in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, the Philippines and beyond. Grand strategists may imagine a new global architecture built at high-level summits, but the real global architecture of the future will emerge organically from these day-to-day nation-building operations.

John Gray referred to neo-conservatism as 'militant optimism', and Brooks' column is a pretty good illustration of it. Despite the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, Brooks seems convinced that the US has this nation-building problem pretty much licked, and that it is the wave of the US foreign policy future. But that seems a preposterously premature judgment. The grand strategic debate that Brooks thinks is irrelevant is precisely the one we need to have.