Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Is counterinsurgency a Wall Street plot? The American Interest seems to think so

I’ve seen lots of nutty stuff about counterinsurgency, mainly the badly mistaken Gentilian notion that it is soft-hearted handholding, a belief that could only be held by someone who was not in Baghdad in the spring of 2007. But I was surprised to see James Kurth, whose thoughtful work I have enjoyed in the past, ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I've seen lots of nutty stuff about counterinsurgency, mainly the badly mistaken Gentilian notion that it is soft-hearted handholding, a belief that could only be held by someone who was not in Baghdad in the spring of 2007. But I was surprised to see James Kurth, whose thoughtful work I have enjoyed in the past, advance the theory that counterinsurgency is what a nation does when its foreign policy is controlled by financial elites -- in our case, Wall Street.

Here is the nut of his argument, made in the November/December 2011 of the American Interest:

... the American experience in the first half of the 20th century suggests that a strong industrial sector will tend to think in terms of big wars against great powers ... Conversely, the British experience in the same era suggests that a strong financial sector will tend to think in terms of small wars and imperial policing, since it calculates that only these wars will provide an acceptable mix of costs and benefits.

I’ve seen lots of nutty stuff about counterinsurgency, mainly the badly mistaken Gentilian notion that it is soft-hearted handholding, a belief that could only be held by someone who was not in Baghdad in the spring of 2007. But I was surprised to see James Kurth, whose thoughtful work I have enjoyed in the past, advance the theory that counterinsurgency is what a nation does when its foreign policy is controlled by financial elites — in our case, Wall Street.

Here is the nut of his argument, made in the November/December 2011 of the American Interest:

… the American experience in the first half of the 20th century suggests that a strong industrial sector will tend to think in terms of big wars against great powers … Conversely, the British experience in the same era suggests that a strong financial sector will tend to think in terms of small wars and imperial policing, since it calculates that only these wars will provide an acceptable mix of costs and benefits.

(p. 13)

I didn’t realize the same people who brought you the Great Wall Street Debacle and Bailout of 2008 apparently are behind the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I think Kurth can only arrive at this conclusion about our history by neglecting a big chunk of American military experience of the first half of the 20th century, which began with the Army fighting guerrillas in the Philippines and raiders along the Mexican border, and continued with the Marines conducting small actions in Nicaragua and Haiti. In fact, the Marine Corps summarized its experiences of that time in a terrific document called, oddly enough, "Small Wars Manual."

On the other hand, whenever something like this article provokes such a strong reaction from me, it makes me wonder if there is a kernel of truth in it.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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