Small Wars

This Week at War: Does the Pottery Barn Rule Still Apply?

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Could "repetitive raiding" replace counterinsurgency?

After the last decade's costly experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, future U.S. leaders will very likely wish to avoid another nation-building effort that requires the suppression of a stubborn insurgency.

But wishing rarely makes problems go away. There might, hypothetically, be another occasion when a "rogue" regime needs to be removed in the interests of either regional stability or basic human rights. Is there an alternative to post-removal counterinsurgency and nation-building? And what about Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" -- "you break it, you own it" -- referring to the United States' moral obligations to Iraq after the 2003 invasion?

Writing in Armed Forces Journal, Bernard Finel, a senior fellow at the American Security Project, rejects the Pottery Barn rule and offers an alternative to counterinsurgency, namely "repetitive raiding." Finel explains his proposal this way:

[T]he vast majority of goals can be accomplished through quick, decisive military operations. Not all political goals are achievable this way, but most are and those that cannot be achieved through conventional operations likely cannot be achieved by the application of even the most sophisticated counterinsurgency doctrine either.

As a consequence, I believe the U.S. should adopt a national military strategy that heavily leverages the core capability to break states and target and destroy fixed assets, iteratively if necessary. Such a strategy -- which might loosely be termed "repetitive raiding" -- could defeat and disrupt most potential threats the U.S. faces. While America's adversaries may prefer to engage the U.S. using asymmetric strategies, there is no reason that the U.S. should agree to fight on these terms.

After explaining why the United States should fight on its own terms rather than those that favor the adversary, Finel then applies the economic concept of marginal benefit versus marginal cost to discuss the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. Finel argues that in both cases, the United States achieved most of its war objectives very early on. Cumulative costs at those points in the campaigns were trivial compared with what they would eventually become. In both wars, the United States stayed on in an attempt to achieve the remaining war objectives, paying massive marginal costs for the last few marginal benefits.

It seems easy to dismiss Finel's argument by noting the risks and costs the United States would have borne had it left Iraq and Afghanistan as broken and chaotic places. Finel explains how these risks and costs were minor, unlikely, or could have been mitigated without open-ended military occupations.  

But Finel is right to bring up the point about marginal benefits versus marginal costs. The United States will leave Iraq and Afghanistan at some point. When it does, there will still be some degree of trouble and uncertainty about the future in both places. Even then, no one will be able to say that all the broken dishes were repaired. Accepting that, Finel's argument for "repetitive raiding" as an alternative to counterinsurgency may find some appeal.

A painful decade has improved civil-military relations

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced civil-military relations in the United States to grow up and leave behind a naive adolescence that prevailed at the start of the last decade. Before the wars began, the "normal" theory of civil-military relations, described in Eliot Cohen's book Supreme Command) still ruled. Under the "normal" theory, civilian leadership determines war policy and then leaves the generals and admirals alone to run the war. Thankfully those days are gone; hardly a month passes without the secretary of defense or some other senior figure heading out to the field, questioning not just generals, but also colonels and sergeants about their tactics. Likewise, soldiers now deeply immerse themselves in questions about the connections between policy objectives and military strategy, the evidence for which can be found every day at websites such as Small Wars Journal. By dropping the normal theory and letting policymakers and military officers into each other's "lanes," the result has been a generally smarter use of military power.

Although U.S. civil-military relations are more mature, Mackubin Owens, a professor at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, thinks further improvement is needed. In an essay written for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Owens argues that several persistent problems are inhibiting the country's ability to formulate better strategy.

First, Owens thinks that residual traces of the normal theory live on, and not without good reason. The theory's exclusion of the military leadership from policy formulation was designed to maintain civilian control over the military and keep the military out of politics. Likewise, military officers viewed the execution of war plans as closely resembling an engineering project, to be performed only by highly trained professionals -- civilian amateurs should not meddle. But the theory created barriers between policy objectives and the military actions that should be designed to achieve those objectives.

Second, Owens asserts that the enduring culture of the normal theory has created organizational cultures in each of the military services that resist interference and calls for change from civilian political leaders. Yet when those civilian political leaders formulate a national security policy that requires military force, who will be held responsible for ensuring that the proper military tools are ready to implement the policy? If the "normal" theory walls off the institutional military from close political supervision, the country may find itself unprepared for new eras of conflict (as happened at the start of the last decade).

Finally, Owens blames the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 for further raising the wall between policy formulation and military strategy. The disastrous attempt in 1980 to rescue U.S. Embassy employees from Tehran and the 1983 invasion of Grenada revealed serious problems in interservice cooperation. The solution was Goldwater-Nichols, which reduced the authority of the Washington-based service chiefs and increased the power of regional field commanders, who are responsible for executing joint-service military operations. Many have applauded the act for improving interservice military efficiency. But Owens claims the price has been the creation of further distance between civilian policymakers and warfighters, resulting in a greater disconnection between policy objectives and military strategy.

The solution, according to Owens, is twofold. First, military leaders must reassert a voice in strategy and, presumably, engage their civilian masters on the integration of military actions with policy objectives. On the other side, civilian leaders should closely probe and supervise the services' plans for force structure, acquisition programs, training, and doctrine to ensure that the services are creating military capabilities that will support national policies. On these measures, civil-military relations have improved. But it has taken a decade of painful wars to bring about this improvement.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: The Long Death of the Powell Doctrine

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Mullen finished off the Powell Doctrine

After a long illness and years of neglect, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, finally euthanized the Powell Doctrine. Mullen administered the coup de grâce in a speech he delivered on March 3 at Kansas State University.

During his tenure as chairman, Gen. Colin Powell stated the principles he thought the U.S. government should follow when contemplating the use of military force. According to Powell, the situation should involve a vital national security interest. There should be a clear and obtainable objective. A clear exit strategy should be planned from the beginning. The action should have broad political support. The military plan should employ decisive and overwhelming force in order to achieve a rapid result. And the country should use force only as a last resort. Powell's principles were no doubt the product of his negative experiences as an officer during the Vietnam War and the results of Operation Desert Storm, which seemed at the time to be a vindication of his ideas.

Needless to say, the deployments of U.S. military force this decade have obeyed precious few of these guidelines. Powell wrote his doctrine in an attempt to keep the United States from thoughtlessly involving itself in ill-defined and open-ended military quagmires. But critics have argued that modern irregular adversaries have exploited gaps the doctrine left uncovered. By this view, rigid adherence to the Powell Doctrine would prevent the United States from having any effective response to irregular warfare challenges. Neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have followed its precepts.

So what is the new Mullen Doctrine? For the chairman, the issue of whether the United States will employ military force has long been settled. The issue now is how the United States should apply its national power. Mullen summed up his views this way:

We must not look upon the use of military forces only as a last resort, but as potentially the best, first option when combined with other instruments of national and international power. 

We must not try to use force only in an overwhelming capacity, but in the proper capacity, and in a precise and principled manner. And we must not shrink from the tug of war -- no pun intended -- that inevitably plays out between policymaking and strategy execution. Such interplay is healthy for the republic and essential for ultimate success.

The Mullen Doctrine accepts that every day for the foreseeable future, U.S. military forces will shoot at, or will be shot at, by somebody somewhere in the world. Given this seemingly permanent state of war, Mullen says that politicians, soldiers, and the public will need to engage in an open-ended discussion that will constantly adjust how the country employs its military forces.

Mullen assumes that the public now accepts that low-level warfare is an enduring fact of life. If he is wrong about this, the Powell Doctrine could rise from the grave.

What is Burma learning from the nuclear "rogues"?

Is North Korea helping Burma build a plutonium-producing reactor? On March 2, the Washington Post discussed this possibility, along with the broader military relationship between the two countries. The article noted that the budding military partnership between Burma and North Korea has the attention of the Obama administration. But as is the pattern with all such isolated and "rogue" regimes, the U.S. government is struggling to achieve diplomatic leverage over the situation.

Could Burma have a clandestine nuclear program? In September 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed a nearly complete plutonium reactor it found in the Syrian desert. A subsequent investigation revealed that the site was a near duplicate of North Korea's Yongbyon reactor and built with North Korea's assistance. With the discovery of the joint North Korean-Syrian project, many wondered where else in the world North Korea may have secret nuclear partnerships.

David Albright, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Institute for Science and International Security, has concluded that information that Burma is constructing major nuclear facilities is inconclusive and that the regime is not close to establishing any significant nuclear capability. He also notes that trade in nuclear materials with North Korea is banned by the U.N. Security Council.

Albright is hopeful that the early detection of a possible Burmese nuclear effort will enable the international community to stop such a program, in contrast to its failure to do so with the Syrian reactor, with Iran's program, and with Pakistan in the 1970s.

U.S. Sen. James Webb's visit to Burma in 2009 reopened direct talks between the two governments. Such contact is helpful and could be part of a solution, but is not worth much unless the United States and its partners develop some significant leverage to counter the numerous incentives in favor of nuclear proliferation.

"Rogue" states contemplating whether to begin a clandestine nuclear program find numerous cases of positive reinforcement for doing so, and few if any cases of effective punishment. For example, China is a strong defender of state sovereignty and has stood up for this principle by defending nuclear rogues such as North Korea and Iran that most in the international community would like to rein in. Sharing strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, Burma could expect similar protection from China.

Burma has no doubt observed how North Korea has converted its nuclear and ballistic missile programs into lucrative cash businesses. In addition, North Korea has repeatedly extracted food and energy assistance in exchange for promises of good behavior. And Pakistan has exemplified how rewarding a nuclear arsenal can be. Concern over the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is a significant factor in the U.S. strategies for Afghanistan and South Asia and is a reason why Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid.

On the other side of the ledger, there are few examples of the international community effectively punishing a nuclear proliferator. Iran's case remains open and is an opportunity for the U.N. Security Council to change that pattern. Until that happens, Burma and others considering their options will watch and learn.

J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images