Small Wars

This Week at War, No. 3

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

President Obama and the co-existence doctrine

This week, the world witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. If opinion polls and the views of the global media are accurate indicators, much of the world is happy to see President Obama installed in office, and equally pleased to see the back of former President George W. Bush.

The world’s happiness at this change is presumably tied to an assumption that the United States will have a new foreign policy, one based on realism. In his inaugural address, Obama pledged to work with the world as he finds it. The new president said:

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Obama thus seems willing to accept the nation-state system as it is. This new attitude should be a relief to foreign governments, both authoritarian and democratic, many of which found the Bush approach to democracy promotion either destabilizing or illegitimate.

If the Obama administration is now supporting a new era of coexistence, it will please Col. David Maxwell of the U.S. Army, a career Special Forces officer and a contributor to Small Wars Journal. In his Proposal for a Unifying Strategic Doctrine for National Security, Colonel Maxwell proposes retiring the negative lexicon of the [global war on terror]/Long War and replacing it with a positive strategic doctrine he calls Co-existence. How does Colonel Maxwell define Co-existence?

A doctrine of Co-existence recognizes that each nation-state must be in charge of its own security and while friends, partners, or allies can provide external support, in the end a nation must assert its sovereignty and protect itself. The U.S. or another country cannot win a counter-insurgency fight in another nation’s territory. It can only provide external support to that nation fighting against lawlessness, subversion, or insurgency. … A doctrine of Co-existence recognizes that a nation’s security can be protected by like-minded nations working together to protect the nation-state system and nations’ sovereignty.

As the painful experiences of this decade have reminded us, the United States can succeed in irregular warfare only when it works through, by, and with indigenous forces, hopefully those of a legitimate government.

However, we are in an era when the power of nonstate actors is growing, and the authority of many nation-state governments is dwindling. This opens up opportunities for both nation-states and nonstate actors to game the nation-state system. For example, inside Pakistan, powerful nonstate actors function in parallel with the legitimate government, and very likely with the approval, support, and protection of certain factions within that government. The Iranian government has provided support for nonstate actors within the territory of other nation-states, a practice also followed by many other governments in many other places. Support of proxy nonstate actors is a long-standing method used by nation-states to achieve goals when other methods are unavailable or impractical. A policy of Co-existence with nation-states might leave open some gaps if some of those nation-states are bypassing the nation-state system to advance their own interests.

Withdrawing from Iraq: too slow or too fast?

On Wednesday, Obama met with his national security team to discuss how to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq. Foreign Policy‘s Marc Lynch argues that Obama should stick as closely as possible to his campaign pledge to remove all combat forces within 16 months. Why? Lynch reminds us that on July 31, Iraq will conduct a national referendum to approve or reject the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Lynch fears that if the United States drags its feet on troop withdrawals, the Iraqi electorate might reject the SOFA, resulting in a large setback for U.S. interests.

On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker warned that a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops runs some very serious risks. According to Crocker, if a rapid withdrawal results in a loss of confidence, Iraq’s citizens might pull back, dig the trenches, build the berms, and get ready for what comes next. Crocker, a career Foreign Service officer, will retire in two weeks.

What are the military problems concerning withdrawal from Iraq? Col. Robert Killebrew, a retired U.S. Army officer and a contributor to Small Wars Journal, identifies two in his piece Transition in Iraq: Withdrawing the BCTs (brigade combat teams). The first problem, large, but straightforward, is recovering millions and millions of tons of U.S. equipment that the U.S. government does not want to leave behind with the Iraqis.

The second problem, more complex than the first, is to reorganize the U.S. command in Iraq from a traditional field combat command to an organization that focuses purely on support and advice to the Iraqi government and its security forces. The U.S. military has experience with both hauling tonnage and advising military counterparts. But the size of the task in Iraq, along with the time pressure the Obama administration might apply, may make the transition in Iraq especially challenging.

Was deterrence restored in Gaza?

The Israel Defense Forces have ceased fire in Gaza and withdrawn from the territory. Israel’s policymakers will now have to evaluate what was achieved.

The cease-fire in Gaza occurred due to separate unilateral decisions by the Israeli government and Hamas’s leadership. International brokers did not seem to play a part. Nor does it appear that international observers will arrive in Gaza to supervise a cease-fire or to monitor Hamas’s possible reconstitution.

Similarly, Israel’s offensive has apparently failed to halt smuggling into Gaza through the tunnel network extending into Egypt.

Hamas’s leadership remains intact; Hamas retains the capability to reconstitute its military potential; and there are no international monitors to supervise a cease-fire. All that remains is an Israeli hope that the pain they have inflicted on Gaza will be sufficient to affect Hamas’s future decisions.

Previous issues:

This Week at War, No. 2 (Jan. 16, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 1
(Jan. 9, 2009)

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