NEW DELHI – President Barack Obama’s first foreign trip since winning a second term highlights Asia’s new centrality to America’s economy and security. But Obama’s Asian tour also underscores the main question about American policy in the region: Will the United States’ “pivot” to Asia acquire concrete strategic content, or will it remain largely a rhetorical repackaging of old policies?
The United States, quick to capitalize on regional concerns triggered by China’s increasingly muscular self-assertion, has strengthened its military ties with its existing Asian allies and forged security relationships with new friends. But the heady glow of America’s return to center stage in Asia has obscured key challenges in remaining the region’s principal security anchor in the face of China’s strategic ambitions.
One challenge is the need to arrest the erosion of America’s relative power, which in turn requires comprehensive domestic renewal, including fiscal consolidation. But the need for spending cuts also raises the prospect that the US might be unable to finance a military shift toward the Asia-Pacific region – or, worse, that it will be forced to retrench there.
9-11 introduced a moratorium if not outright end to the intramural squabbling then occurring over the nature and direction of Military Transformation, both in the case of the U.S. Army and Air Force (see yesterday’s blog) and to a lesser degree among NATO allies. The soon-to-follow second Iraq War, however, showed yet again that old paradigms die hard. What came to be known as Phase 1 of this war would not have confused Jomini or Clausewitz. Nor would they have been disoriented by the rationalist (i.e., Jominian) principles behind it either. It was Phase 2 of the war, of course, that became the problem. Because the U.S. and its allies remained fixated on long-familiar conventional operations, they were slow to see that three of the supposedly unrepresentative forms of war previously discussed in this series had now actually come to define organized violence. They were no longer “peripheral”, they were central. War, that’s capital W war, was different now. The not-so-stealthy changes that had been knocking on the door for 50 years were now in the house; in fact, they owned the house. We were now, to use Rupert Smith’s term (see his The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World), flailing about in “wars amongst the people.”
But what, in practical terms, does this mean? Well, it means the blurring of what had once been a clear foreign-domestic divide. It means the blurring of what had been a relatively clear combatant-non-combatant divide. It means the blurring of what had been war and what had been peace. (Peace, after all, isn’t necessarily the violated starting point of a conflict.) It means that organized violence has become privatized and that unregulated “shadow warriors” are now capable of mass effects violence, as only states were once able to do. And perhaps most importantly, war amongst the people means that J.F.C. Fuller was right. Total Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare, regardless of all the “bells and whistles” Military Transformation has tried to add on over the last 20-30 years, no longer exists. There will no longer be “big fights” between multiple nations and their armies à la World War II, or so Smith and his supporters claim. There will no longer be “massive deciding events” used to resolve international disputes. Warfare is now “360 degrees”, irregular, asymmetrical, post-heroic, “liquid”, etc. It focuses on intangibles and not necessarily territory. It is designed to promote the perceived legitimacy of one collective narrative or storyline at the expense of another. It stages salutary spectacles to impact the psychology of whole populations. (The word “stages” is appropriate here since today’s warfare is decidedly theatrical. It is an updated and more complex version of Prince Kropotkin’s “propaganda by deed.”)
When confronted with the post-1945 diversification of hard power described in Friday’s blog, how did the national security establishments of the Euro-Atlantic zone react? Well, you could say the response was problematic. There is a reason that mischievous wags claim military intelligence is an oxymoron or that armies are synonymous with “tradition unhampered by progress.” Change in security establishments can indeed be slow because experimenting with human lives is never an attractive idea, particularly if an official letter to about-to-be devastated loved ones is the end result. For this reason and grubbier, less salutary ones, as the 20th century progressed and the fissures described Friday only grew, the most basic reaction of the greatest military power in the world and that of its most trusted allies was denial. Yes, denial. The United States refused to accept that limited wars by limited means for limited ends, nuclear warfare, insurgency-prone irregular warfare, and transnational terrorism represented “real” war. They were dismissed as anomalies. They were dismissed as abnormal. They did not reflect what security elites had come to define as “genuine” state-directed violence. These departures, taken as a whole, were given only limited conceptual space in a mental world still dominated by Jominian Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare.
As the world anticipates Obama’s long-awaited strategy review for Afghanistan, the debate around the war intensifies with politicians, experts and laymen weighing in on the desired course of Afghan policy.
A war that has lasted eight years, and that costs the US $3.6 billion a month, has become a source of intense historical and strategic debates about the nature of conflict in South Asia, the region’s geopolitical significance, and the role of US power in the modern era. With America’s Vietnam legacy in mind the pressure to deliver something positive is immense.
But in these debates about strategy- how to quell the Taliban insurgency; how to address the region as a whole, particularly with Pakistan’s shortcomings in mind, and how to strengthen the Afghan government without giving Karzai carte blanche, etc – the humanitarian focus is exactly what seems to be missing.