July 27, 2012
Limits to War?
I greatly enjoyed Steven Metz's article
on the rise of "invisible wars" in World Politics Review. Why? Well,
Metz is way ahead of the giant pack of writers looking to capture the zeitgeist
of American strategy because he understands that truly limited wars occur
because of limited political objectives rather than simply limited means:
While the United States would like to find and support partners that share
its objectives and priorities, it does not rely on finding them. So long as it
is able to buy some degree of access to areas that spawn extremists, it can
prevent terrorists from developing an effective power-projection capability.
After all, that is the objective, even if we sometimes seem to forget it.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, special operations forces, cyber capabilities, and
the tactics and operations associated with each are certainly more limited means than
large-scale stabilization missions. But they can still serve unlimited
political ends. There is a persistent misconception that more modest uses of military and political resources equates to limited war. In reality, one can have quite grand and expensive capabilities tasked towards fairly modest objectives or pursue expansive goals without the resources neccesary to achieve them.
I am, however, unsure of how long the US's current military and strategic concepts will last. First, as Antulio Echevarria wrote in 2002, most new ways of war are in fact "ways of battle." The American way of war--to be more accurate a set of competing ways of war--evolved slowly over a period of multiple centuries. We have had many more ways of battle, most of which tend to have a fairly limited shelf life. Politics--budget and otherwise--tend to change fast and with them the tactical and operational tools and technologies that the US uses to make warfare. Think, for example, how far Afghanistan and Iraq were from the future of small, high-end brushfire wars predicted by many 1990s Transformation enthusiasts. We embarked on our ten year journey in the first place because 3,000 of our citizens were murdered by terrorists operating out of a fortified base area.
Would another 9/11 cause us to throw everything overboard and go back to large-scale stabilization operations? Probably not. There are resource constraints to conducting force projection that we are steadily approaching. We also depend on operational heft and symbolic political importance from allies whose cuts make the worst sequestration scenarios seem tame in comparison. But a cautious lesson can be found in the 1950s nuclear strategy debates. Here, limited means actually increased the potential destructiveness of warfare because the US aimed to make nuclear weapons substitute for expensive conventional local forces. What matters most is not the means but the politics and policy behind them.
As Dan wrote in his post on declaring victory, politicians risk substantial domestic costs if they fail to give sufficient attention to counterterrorism. The public is happy because the violence is, if not exactly invisible, once again relegated to exotic locales in Central Asia and the Horn of Africa. A sense of distance between the US and its opponents has once again been restored, but for good? It's still hard to tell in late July 2012.