Tuesday, March 29, 2011

There is no new thing under the sun

Over the last decade or so, a number of DoD and national strategic documents have asserted the unprecedented security challenges of a world wracked by potentially destabilizing trends: globalization, urbanization, rapid demographic change, and so on. The language of last year's National Security Strategy (pdf) will no doubt be familiar to you:
The convergence of wealth and living standards among developed and emerging economies holds out the promise of more balanced global growth, but dramatic inequality persists within and among nations. Profound cultural and demographic tensions, rising demand for resources, and rapid urbanization could reshape single countries and entire regions. As the world grows more interconnected, more individuals are gaining awareness of their universal rights and have the capacity to pursue them. Democracies that respect the rights of their people remain successful states and America’s most steadfast allies. Yet the advance of democracy and human rights has stalled in many parts of the world.
Such features of the global strategic environment have been noted by military leaders, as well. Here's a portion of what GEN George Casey, soon-to-retire Chief of Staff of the Army, wrote in October 2009's Army Magazine, to describe what he calls the "era of persistent conflict":
Globalization can spread prosperity by accelerating the transfer of trade, technology and ideas, but it can also propagate destabilizing influences. While globalization has brought prosperity to people around the world, its benefits are unequally distributed, creating “have” and “have not” conditions that can spawn conflict.
Now check out this passage from another (less recent) assessment of the strategic environment:
Social patterns and institutions in most underdeveloped nations are extremely malleable. They are often a legacy of shapeless, frequently illogical political units which are derived, in part, from a colonial past. The disturbance of man’s mind and environment caused by the last World War  still lingers on in the Cold War. Concurrently a concept is spreading that society is manipulable. These characteristics act to diminish respect for public order, and encourage initiatives which easily cross the line into disorder and violence.
Intensifying and exaggerating these factors, and sweeping on with a momentum of its own, a social and economic revolution of great force has been spreading throughout much of the world. Purposefully or otherwise societies are gearing themselves to higher levels of economic and social activity. The necessary substructures inevitably cut into traditions and habits fostered by rural isolation. Rural people crowd into the strange environment of cities that lack for them a satisfactory pattern of living. Social action, like land reform, manifestly alters accustomed social and often political relationships. These are but examples of the manifold ways in which the revolution of modernization can disturb, uproot, and daze a traditional society. While the institutions required for modernization are in process of being created, this revolution contributes to arousing pressures, anxieties, and hopes which seem to justify violent action.
Looks familiar, I'd imagine, but I'm guessing you've never seen it before. Maybe I'm late to the game on this one -- and you should probably take away my COINdinista card for this -- but I'd never seen it before, either. The blacked-out sections above read "the last World War" and "in the Cold War." The passage is from the U.S. Overseas Internal Defense Policy (pdf), approved by President Kennedy in 1962 and promulgated via National Security Action Memorandum No. 182. The OIDP represented America's first run at national counterinsurgency policy, and served as the foundation for what would eventually develop into DoD's joint doctrine on foreign internal defense (pdf).

The worry in 1962, of course, was that weakened "transitional" societies would be vulnerable to communist subversion and insurgency. Today, our concern over weak and failing states stems from the threat of ungoverned spaces, violent extremism, destabilizing refugee flows and other humanitarian disasters, and so on.

A great irony of the present moment is the way that we've rhetorically (and in at least one case, materially)supported movements that seek to destabilize at least marginally capable state governments at a time when the very core of our foreign and security policy is reorienting in a Nixonian direction -- "the foreign policy equivalent of outsourcing," Peter Beinart once quipped. More to the point: we've spent the last ten years or so behaving in ways that suggested to the rest of the world that with the limited exception of certain well-known and agreed-upon poleis non gratae (the Irans and North Koreas of the world), handling your own anti-violent-extremist business was basically the way to satisfy America. (Viz. esp. Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, etc.) Perhaps the best example of this is the case of Libya: the rapprochement with Tripoli since 2003 need not be recounted here (see this CRS report (pdf) if you're interested), but it's worth noting.

Also worth noting is this section of the same 1962 COIN policy document excerpted above:
The U.S. does not wish to assume a stance against revolution, per se, as an historical means of change. The right of peoples to change their governments, economic systems and social structures by revolution is recognized in international law. Moreover, the use of force to overthrow certain types of government is not always contrary to U.S. interests. A change brought about through force by noncommunist elements may be preferable to prolonged deterioration of governmental effectiveness or to a continuation of a situation where increasing discontent and repression interact, thus building toward a more dangerous climax. Each case of latent, incipient, or active noncommunist insurgency must therefore be examined on its merits in the light of U.S. interests.
I suppose President Obama and other advocates of the Libyan intervention would feel similarly about anti-authoritarian movements in the Middle East, however hostile to al-Qaeda their despotic targets may be. Qaddafi surely banked on American restraint when hinting at the specter of terrorism; he obviously miscalculated. But it may be worth asking ourselves, after the expensive intervention that has resulted from this miscalculation, whether it's America's responsibility to more clearly enunciate just exacly how "each case of latent, incipient, or active" anti-authoritarian agitation will be evaluated.


  1. Crimes against humanity are like pornography. You know them when you see them coming. Of course we won't always intervene to prevent them, but the judgment call is what we pay the President the big bucks for. Three different presidents made the call in Macedonia (there the threat sufficed--an interesting example rarely mentioned), Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and now Libya. I count Iraq and Afghanistan in other categories, certainly not humanitarian intervention. Four cases don't make a formula, and a formula would be unwise. But I wouldn't call any of them obvious miscalculations either.

  2. Good catch, Gulliver. How did I miss this post before?

    The culture of official Washington (the part that stays pretty intact whatever the administration) fascinates me.

    We are world class butt-inskis and it hasn't changed one iota in years. Intentions may be good, but implementation is damned messy and expensive.

  3. Er, the butt-inski comment really wasn't referring to our Libyan intervention. I was thinking more of your excerpted quotes.

  4. Er, the butt-inski comment really wasn't referring to our Libyan intervention. I was thinking more of your excerpted quotes.