The Duck of Minerva

Why the Pentagon Can’t win the Long War


19 December 2006

David Brooks, in his Sunday NYT column (requires Times Select to read), gives out awards for great magazine articles of the year. He recognizes two outstanding articles on how the Pentagon is fighting in Iraq and terrorism. In his article, Brooks makes a fundamental and vital insight that needs to become part of the emerging Grand Strategy Debate.*Brooks writes:

There was also a sense that we were losing ground in Iraq. One of the best magazine writers on that story, George Packer of The New Yorker, tended to profile American dissidents who were trying to change the way we fight that war.

In an April essay, “The Lesson of Tal Afar,” Packer followed Col. H. R. McMaster, who argued that the Iraq war was as much a psychological and anthropological problem as a military and political one. Then, in December, his “Knowing the Enemy” appeared, about freethinkers in the Pentagon and elsewhere who were studying how Hezbollah and the Iraqi insurgents create narratives that demoralize their enemies, energize believers and create a sense of historical momentum.

One gets the feeling from his articles that America’s enemies are playing a different game. They’re waging an open-source campaign for cultural symbols, while we’re oblivious to anything we can’t drive over or kill.

Spot on, David Brooks. This is, perhaps, the single biggest reason that “more troops” cannot and will not “fix” Iraq. Its why Hezbollah is gaining power in Lebanon even after a major military defeat. Its why the US military can win each and every tactical encounter with Iraqi Insurgents and yet still lose the war. Its why the war in Afghanistan is no longer “won.” “Knowing the Enemy” is particularly insightful on this account, spending lots of time talking about why the Pentagon needs more Anthropologists.

It also suggests why Patrick’s point about Drezner’s point is rather insightful. All of these grand strategies are motivated by underlying theories of International Politics. They, however, must now encounter a world where the threats they purport to address also have grand strategies, Constructivist Strategies. For example, Lynch reveals Al Queda’s constructivist turn. Drezner suggests Iran’s constructivist gambit. These actors, and others are and will continue to create discourses that make sense of US power and military actions in ways rather detrimental to achieving the intended outcome of those actions. For any of these US grand strategies to “work” they must contain a component that creates a narrative of how US grand strategy works, successfully, and tell that story as the US goes about its foreign policy. That was the Cold War. See Patrick’s book for the full story.

This also suggests a significant and perhaps vital “policy relevance” for an entire vein of constructivist and post-structural scholarship emerging in International Relations, and reveals the potential seeds of failure of realist and liberal-institutionalist policy advice.

*One aside, the Cold War was often conceived as a war of ideas– Capitalism vs. Communism– and as a result, the US invested heavily in cultural exchanges, funding scholarship, and USIA and lots of other things to produce the discursive space in which the grand strategy of containment made sense. Compare with how the Bush Administration is fighting the GWOT–homeland security, intelligence, military. The war of ideas element is given a lot of lip service, but generally ignored. When was the last time you saw Karen Hughes do anything at all, let alone anything interesting?

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