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February 14, 2008

The Best Counterinsurgency: Unentangle


by William S. Lind

Retired Air Force Colonel Chet Richards has published another short, good book: If We Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration. The "it" in question is a republic, which we are unlikely to keep since republics require a virtuous citizenry. But suggesting a rational, prudent defense policy for the next administration is sufficiently quixotic we might as well also pretend the republic can endure.

Richards' first major point is that most of our armed forces are "legacy forces," white elephants designed for fighting the Red Army in Europe or the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific. They have little utility in a world where nuclear weapons prevent wars among major powers, wars with minor powers can be won easily and usually aren't worth fighting, and legacy forces generally lose against Fourth Generation opponents. Although they are largely useless, these legacy forces eat up most of the defense budget. Richards would disband them, save the Marine Corps, some useful tac air (i.e., A-10s) and some sealift, and give the money back to the taxpayer.

That will happen when pork stops flying. But the point is a good one; most of what we are buying is a military museum. I disagree with Richards that the Marine Corps or any other major elements of the U.S. armed forces are Third Generation forces, forces which have institutionalized maneuver warfare. The Marines talk it, but it is not what they do. I would prefer to keep enough of the Army to face the Corps with some competition, rewarding whichever service actually makes it into the Third Generation. Bureaucratic competition is a good thing.

Perhaps Richards' sharpest point is that DOD's latest fad, counterinsurgency, is something of a fraud. He notes that whereas states have often been successful in defeating insurgencies on their own soil, invaders and occupiers have almost never won against a guerrilla-style war of national liberation. Not even the best counterinsurgency techniques make much difference, because neither a foreign occupier nor any puppet government he installs can gain legitimacy. Despite the current "we're winning in Iraq" propaganda, both Iraq and Afghanistan are almost certain to add themselves to the long list of failures. If neither the U.S. Army nor the Marine Corps can do successful counterinsurgency, what can they do? That brings us back to Richards' first point.

While all these observations are useful, there is one suggestion in If We Can Keep It the next administration desperately needs to follow, namely Richards' recommendations on grand strategy. As Germany discovered in both World Wars, if you get your grand strategy wrong, nothing else you do well matters; you still lose. At the moment, America's grand strategy suggests we have the national character of a rich kid schoolyard bully. Somebody hit us pretty good from the back, so in retaliation, we've beaten up on some weak kids in the playground, one of whom had nothing to do with it but whom we had been wanting to thrash anyway. In the meantime, we've left the real perpetrators alone, even though everybody is sure we know where they are, and we've been careful not to pick on kids who look like they might hit back.

Not very attractive, is it?

The best passage in Richard's book prescribes the grand strategic antidote:

"As a first step, therefore, the country needs to return to its roots. We need to restore our innate suspicion of foreign entanglements and concentrate on being the best United States of America we can be."

With the ghosts of our Founding Fathers, I reply, Hurrah! This is advice the next administration can take, should take and will take – if, and only if, our next President is Ron Paul.


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  • William Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former Congressional Aide and the author
    of many books and articles on military strategy and war.

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