Tuesday, September 20, 2011

R2P is NOT the new COIN, but Ulfelder is just as wrong as Safranski about why*

I’ve got about a half-dozen half-written posts on the subject of R2P, which – thanks largely to Anne-Marie Slaughter – seems to be the hot topic in my blogospheric circles of late. The fad is both reflected and observed by Mark Safranski at ZenPundit, who yesterday asserted that “R2P is the New COIN.” This claim struck me as a bit aggressive and not altogether accurate, and I was heartened by its coincident rejection by Jay Ulfelder (a much smarter man than I). I do think, though, that Jay and Mark are talking past one another to some extent, so my contribution here is an attempt both to dispel what I see as a few misconceptions and to highlight how these two may have misunderstood one another.

* Ok, so the post title is sort of inflammatory, and it's not really a terribly accurate representation of what I think. But sometimes you've got to do crazy stuff to get ahead in this game, you know?

Safranski’s point – if I’m reading him properly – is a pretty simple one: he argues that R2P has the intellectual heft and internationalist “elite” sanction to replace counterinsurgency as the new “it” phenomenon for enlightened commentators and policymakers – basically that it can (or will) become the new narrative for those who are uncomfortable advocating for American primacy on its face to justify continued internationalism. Here’s how he puts it:

[I]n it’s current policy trajectory, R2P is going to become “the new COIN”.
This is not to say that R2P is a military doctrine, but like the rise of pop-centric COIN, it will be an electrifying idea that has the potential fire the imagination of foreign policy intellectuals, make careers for it’s bureaucratic enthusiasts and act as a substitute for the absence of a coherent American grand strategy. The proponents of R2P (R2Peons?) appear to be in the early stages of following a policy advocacy template set down by the COINdinistas, but their ambitions appear to be far, far greater in scope. […]
R2P is following the same COIN pattern of bureaucratic-political proselytization with the accomplished academic theorist Anne-Marie Slaughter as the “Kilcullen of R2P”. As with David Kilcullen’s theory of insurgency, Slaughter’s ideas about sovereignty and R2P, which have gained traction with the Obama administration and in Europe as premises for policy, need to be taken seriously and examined in depth lest we wake up a decade hence with buyer’s remorse.
I want to very strongly endorse Mark’s recommendation that we examine in depth any theoretical construct on which we intend to base American grand strategy or foreign policy in the future, but I think he overstates the influence of both Slaughter’s and Kilcullen’s ideas. It’s worth noting that the U.S. does not actually pursue a foreign and security policy that is geared to defeat “globalized insurgency,” whatever the Australian guru may have recommended, and that Slaughter’s thoughts on the erosion of state sovereignty – even paired with the advocacy of folks like Sarah Sewall – haven’t driven a significant uptick in armed humanitarian intervention. But I’m drifting away from the point somewhat.

The point (which Safranski acknowledges to some extent in his fourth paragraph): the recent “institutionalization of COIN” across the American political and military cultures is more attributable to its apparent viability as a policy expedient in difficult circumstances than a testament to the overwhelming power of the so-called COINdinistas’ “bureaucratic-political proselytization.” The way that “COIN wisdom” has infiltrated both doctrine and the vernacular of the political class is unlikely to be replicated by R2P for the simple fact that COIN was pitched as the necessary savior of American Iraq policy, not a new, clean-slate paradigm for U.S. engagement in the world. The COINdinistas were obviously more than disinterested spectators, and their politically-astute advocacy certainly greased the skids for widespread acceptance of their politico-military concepts. But they wouldn't have even had a hearing were it not for the deteriorating situation in Iraq. If FM 3-24 had been published in the insurgency-free context of say 1999, the foreboding parallel to R2P would make more sense.

Ulfelder agrees in principle:

In my opinion, R2P stands no chance of becoming the next COIN because attempts to make civilian protection a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy will be resisted stiffly by the U.S. military.
The specific collection of beliefs and ideas we now call COIN (link) became ascendant in the latter half of the 2000s because it spoke to the needs and desires of civilian and military leaders alike. In the mid-2000s, the U.S. and its allies appeared to be losing the wars they had started a few years earlier in Iraq and Afghanistan, or at least not winning them. Policy-makers responded to the risk of failure by groping around for fresh ideas on how to tip those messy and costly wars toward “victory.” COIN took shape in response to this demand. COIN gave military leaders new things to try in place of the old ones that were failing, and it fanned policy-makers’ hopes for a way to bring those costly wars to some successful end.
But I think Jay is wrong to focus so much on the acceptance of the military, which is, frankly speaking, a matter of near irrelevance to policymakers. (As the occupation of Iraq should have amply demonstrated, the White House doesn’t ask “do you have doctrine for this?” before assigning a mission to the military.) The principles of R2P may not be codified into military doctrine the way COIN has, but this isn’t nearly so important as it seems: doctrine is a guide to tactical and operational action, but viewed from another perspective it can be boiled down to “the list of tasks that I as a military leader need to train my forces to perform.” And there’s not a whole pile of stuff under the “R2P” heading that doesn’t also fall into one of the other bins the U.S. military is already training on.

R2P is a legal concept and perhaps even a prescriptive guide to state action, but it’s not a military mission. What are the “R2P tasks” for military forces that aren’t already covered by offense, defense, and stability operations? There may be some additional responsibilities for operational and strategic leaders, but the tactical tasks are essentially those of combat operations, peacekeeping, and peace-enforcement. (We have a legitimate expert on this subject here at the blog, so I hope he’ll chime in, but I’s also encourage others in the know to please correct me if I’m wrong.)

[Added for clarity: "additional responsibilities for operational and strategic leaders" are the sphere of policy, not doctrine; it's reasonable to assume that DOD might drag its feet on putting out policy (that is, issuances or directives) as to the specific functions and responsibilities associated with civilian-protection operations. But such policy already exists for combat operations and stability operations, so this seems to me a bit of a red herring.]

The military may not like the idea of armed humanitarian intervention gaining pride of place in American security policy, but that won’t keep it from executing the missions or training on the required tasks. After all, there wasn’t much enthusiasm for small wars in general (including COIN), Military Operations Other Than War, humanitarian assistance, security cooperation and security force assistance, and so on over the last several decades, but we’re still doing ‘em. After all, the SECDEF might not have favored the Libya intervention, may not have understood the alleged strategic rationale, may not have had high confidence in our ability to constructively shape conditions there, etc., but: U.S. forces still created and enforced a no-fly zone, waged interdiction operations against Libyan regime assets, and supported the operations of NATO allies in the Libyan AO… all without liking it much or having adapted culturally or doctrinally to the mission. The success (however fortunate) of the NATO operation weakens the claims of those who might argue that new doctrine and concepts are needed to effectively execute an "R2P mission."

All of which is just a long way of saying this: Ulfelder is likely right that R2P is unlikely to form the basis for future American security policy, and Safranski is likely wrong. But Ulfelder is likely wrong about the reasons why not, or at least those that pertain to the military – he’s on much more solid ground when he emphasizes the “emergency” justification for COIN in both the military and political spheres.


  1. Interesting post - I agree with a lot of it. A few quick points:

    1 - It is a blatant myth that the USG has institutionalized COIN. It has occurred to some limited degree in the military (obviously the Army, USMC and joint SOF community than USAF and USN), but barely at all among civilian agencies. There has been far greater institutionalization of CT than COIN.

    2 - As you point out, COIN wasn't an answer in search of a question. It came to the fore as a proposed response to a deteriorating situation, having tried a number of other approaches that didn't work.

    3 - The vast majority of advocates of R2P are not arguing for it to become the central guiding principle of all US foreign policy. In fact, I can't think of any who do. If you find one, knock some sense into him or her. The R2P 'doctrine' (here not used in the military sense) is actually an extremely cautious one firmly founded in just war theory's consideration of moral hazards and perverse consequences. It's designed for relatively rare and extreme circumstances. For example, as tragic as the situation in Syria is, given the loss of life that would likely result from an attempt to intervene militarily, it wouldn't seem to be justified based on currently available information (just as Samantha Power argued against invading Iraq in 2003).

  2. 4 - R2P does not always entail or require a military response. As policy doctrine, it is intended to guide and shape a response - including the selection of the appropriate tools - which will vary according to the circumstances.

    5 - In terms of military doctrine, you're correct in thinking that the tactical tasks required to carry out an R2P operation are largely the same basic range of offense, defense and stability. However, at the operational/theater level, it does require a somewhat different paradigm to develop a 'theory of the conflict' and therefore a coherent plan to attain strategic objectives. Put simply, the dynamics of conflicts are somewhat (not entirely) different when one or more belligerents view mass or systematic violence against civilians as either a key tactic to achieve their goals, or as intrinsic to those goals.

    Secondly, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, TTP will need to be adjusted, and transmitting the commander's intent to all echelons becomes critical. That doesn't mean that those slightly adjusted TTP can or should be codified - they'll vary according to the situation.

    I would note though that some of the key stability tasks on the AUTL that will in many cases be critical for R2P ops remain vaguely or badly defined. FM 3-07.5 does not address the gaps that Szayna, Easton and Richardson pointed out in 2007.

  3. 6 - For the sake of clarity, there is a difference at the policy level (and throughout relevant guidance, where it exists or is under development) between 'civilian protection', 'protection of civilians', and R2P. 'Civilian protection' generally refers to actions by civilian (usually humanitarian actors, although sometimes the civilian staff of PKOs) to protect civilians, and obviously doesn't involve military action.

    'Protection of civilians' is a wider category that encompasses 'civilian protection' efforts, as well as both political and military action by PKOs or PSOs, but generally in a semi-permissive environment (or at least one in where the operation has strategic consent from the host nation). The use of force is generally envisioned as somewhat politically constrained, but still potentially far higher than in 'traditional' peacekeeping.

    Although the R2P policy doctrine originally laid out in 2001 (and certainly as elaborated by the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General for R2P) envisions a wide array of responses including many non-military prevention and recovery efforts, for the purposes of this discussion (and in common parlance) R2P operations presume a non-permissive environment, in which the intervenors may or may not have the consent of the host nation.

    Yes I realize the language is a bit of a maze, and that at the end of the day we're talking about protecting civilians from mass or systematic violence in each of these categories. I didn't invent it, though, and the distinctions matter to many who are involved in shaping both the agenda and the responses to these situations. Don't shoot the messenger.

  4. I think you're right that I overstated the degree of deference to military leaders' concerns in policy choices about R2P situations. I also pointed to a couple of other factors, though: the military's fatigue from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S.'s larger financial woes. I didn't say so as clearly as I should have, but I expect the *combination* of these forces will prevent the U.S. from taking on many more military operations in the name of civilian protection in the next few years.

    As to MK's point that no one is advocating for R2P to be the central pillar of U.S. foreign policy, of course that's right. Still, I gather there are influential people looking for ways to push liberal global governance forward, and I think they see application of R2P as an important instrument to that end. If that's right, then it's not silly to talk about the possibility of R2P becoming a driving force in U.S. foreign policy.

  5. If R2P became a driving force in US foreign policy, it would have three primary effects:

    1 - More fully integrating the issue of atrocity prevention into information gathering, analysis and reporting processes for all relevant agencies (obviously would primarily affect the DOS, USAID, and the IC - especially Defense Attache Offices). This would involve a little bit of extra training, and one additional factor for field personnel to keep an eye on.

    2 - Incorporating a consideration of how US actions can be shaped to reduce the likelihood our outright prevent mass or systematic violence against civilians where the threat of an atrocity is not immediate (e.g. how do we shape SFA to both instil a stronger respect for LOAC - beyond a 3 hour module in a weeks-long training cycle - and achieve our other goals?)

    3 - Where a threat of mass or systematic violence against civilians become acute, considering the range of options to prevent or respond, and whether the cost/benefit calculation justifies those responses. In other words, not that much different than what we do on any other issue, except that we won't prima facie dismiss atrocities as none of our concern. On the other hand, just because something is our concern doesn't mean we're going to action, military or otherwise.

    In other words, I seriously doubt it would radically alter US foreign policy except in the relatively rare and extreme cases where the need for intervention intersects with US interests and available resources to create an opportunity to prevent or halt atrocities. And even then, a multilateral approach may leverage key US capabilities in support of the main effort executed by other forces.

  6. MK -- Appreciate your comments. A few in return:

    It is a blatant myth that the USG has institutionalized COIN. It has occurred to some limited degree in the military (obviously the Army, USMC and joint SOF community than USAF and USN), but barely at all among civilian agencies.

    You're right, but I'm not sure that observation is terribly helpful. And that's my fault, because I was the one who used the word "institutionalization," which doesn't have a clear meaning or common understanding. What I meant is that the military has adapted somewhat for the COIN mission while the political class has adopted the buzzwords and basic cause/effect narrative of COIN. It's true that there hasn't been widespread reorganization or reorientation to accomplish the COIN mission -- especially not outside the military -- but it seems clear to me that "COIN" isn't a worthy organizing principle for the entire national security apparatus.

    To tie this back in with the thrust of the post, I think Safranski meant to suggest that R2P could or would become a sort of hip concept for commentators and policy folks to line up behind, as so many did with COIN -- a "policy doctrine" (the expression is like fingernails on a chalkboard for this lexicon nit, but I know what you mean and don't have a better alternative) that facilitates ostensibly increased influence and a rapid professional rise for those who are closely associated with it.

    I'm not sure Mark thought this through very well, though, before he made his glib assertion. Like you said, there aren't many people going around advocating for the reorientation of U.S. foreign policy around the principle of preventing mass atrocities; it could never happen, simply because such a simplistic and narrow principle could never hope to account for the broad range of American interests.

    I think what Safranski is REALLY concerned about is the potential for Slaughter's rather radical ideas about sovereignty to strongly influence the way international relations are conceived in the future by the U.S. government -- not just on atrocity-prevention but across the board. That's a reasonable concern when you consider how thoroughly the "weak states are a greater threat than strong ones" paradigm has infiltrated U.S. military thinking about the threat environment over the last decade, but to characterize that fear as "R2P is the new COIN" is reductive, inaccurate, and insensitive to the way that bureaucracies actually change.

  7. (2) In terms of military doctrine, you're correct in thinking that the tactical tasks required to carry out an R2P operation are largely the same basic range of offense, defense and stability. However, at the operational/theater level, it does require a somewhat different paradigm to develop a 'theory of the conflict' and therefore a coherent plan to attain strategic objectives. Put simply, the dynamics of conflicts are somewhat (not entirely) different when one or more belligerents view mass or systematic violence against civilians as either a key tactic to achieve their goals, or as intrinsic to those goals.

    I take your point here, and this is the issue I meant to clarify with my bracketed edit about policy directives. Part of my frustration with the Libya operation stemmed from the tension between the vaguely-articulated mission ("protect civilians from regime forces") and the need for military commanders to create campaign plans with concrete objectives. To put it simply, the commanders of maneuver formations and strike assets are going to interpret that mission through the lens of the tools they have available to them -- men and materiel that constitute combat power -- and determine that for them, "protect civilians" means "destroy the enemy forces that threaten civilians." Which brings us to this...

    some of the key stability tasks on the AUTL that will in many cases be critical for R2P ops remain vaguely or badly defined.

    Truth. But here's the challenging reality: many of the stability tasks on the AUTL are vaguely or badly defined because military forces are unsuited to perform them by organization, temperament, training, core competency, etc. They're badly defined because the military doesn't know how to do them or how to train on them. (We're talking institutionally here; there will of course be units and individuals that have figured things out in exigent circumstances.)

    I don't want to sound like Gentile here, but when you start creating tasks that are not fundamentally and foundationally related to the basic competencies of the forces being asked to perform them -- i.e. in most instances, combat actions -- you can run into some serious trouble both doctrinally (because your doctrine-writers can end up just making shit up) and operationally (because small-unit leaders are in a sense forced to just wing it).

    All of which is a bit of a tangent, because I think the truth is that "R2P"-oriented military missions are probably much more firmly centered on the basic offense/defense/stability tasks (or even really just the offense/defense tasks) than are COIN missions, in which military forces are basically expected to conduct whole-of-government operations/functions.

  8. Whatever R2P is I don't like it....