Foreign Affairs Focus: Max Boot on Small Wars

Washington simply doesn’t have the luxury of simply avoiding long wars against brutal insurgencies. Instead, it needs to figure out how to fight them better, argues Max Boot, Jeane Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs. Boot recently sat down with Gideon Rose to discuss how. A transcript is available below: 

ROSE: Hi there. I'm Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs. We have the distinct pleasure today of talking with Max Boot, the Jeane Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations, author of numerous books, including Invisible Armies, which is a wonderful history of guerilla warfare around the world, and an article in our latest issue on the lessons of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Max, it seems rather obvious that after a decade of failed and bitterly controversial wars in strategically relevant countries in the Middle East that didn't achieve much, the answer is that we should not be getting involved in these brushfire counter-insurgencies in the first place, correct? Isn't that what the obvious lesson of a decade of war is?

BOOT: Well, if we could avoid getting involved in wars, I think everybody would be happier. The problem is, as we've seen over the course of our long history, there's really been very few, if any, presidents who have actually succeeded in staying away from such conflicts and especially now, when the U.S. is the preeminent power in the world and insurgency is the preeminent form of warfare. Almost nobody is fighting the kind of conventional tank-on-tank engagements that the U.S. military pines for and does so well at. Almost everybody is fighting using guerilla and terrorist tactics, and it's very hard to take a hands-off attitude, as even President Obama has discovered.

I mean, he wanted out of Iraq in a desperate way. He got out of Iraq, but we keep getting sucked back in, because the consequences of American disengagement are so terrible. And so I think in the future, we don't know where American troops are going to be deployed.  All we know is that based on the lessons of history, they will be deployed and most likely in scenarios that will involve them in humanitarian relief, nation-building, counter-insurgency, anything but conventional force-on-force conflict.

ROSE: So the real lesson isn't to not listen to militaristic warmongers getting us dragged into these places, but instead, what?

BOOT: Well, you know, I don't think President Obama would ever be described as a militaristic warmonger, and yet, he is deploying U.S. troops to deal with Ebola in West Africa, to deal with the situation in Iraq and Syria, to deal with the situation in Afghanistan.

And so I think the lessons really are instead of taking this attitude of "We're just not going to do this kind of stuff," we've got to figure out how to do it better. And so what I've tried to do in this article is to draw 10 lessons from the last decade of war that will help us to do it better and be more successful in the future.

ROSE: So what are some of those lessons?

BOOT: Well, the immediate lesson is kind of a no-brainer, and it's one keep ignoring time after time, which is let's think about what happens after regime change. I mean, we're very good at overthrowing regimes, but we're not very good about doing anything to -- to create any kind of stability or order afterwards.

This was a mistake we notoriously made in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  And as a candidate, Barack Obama was very eloquent in denouncing the mistakes that President Bush had made, and then guess what?  He makes exactly the same mistakes in Libya, where we did a great job of overthrowing Gaddafi but did nothing to secure the country afterwards. And there was, I might add, a similar lack of planning for our pullout in the case of Iraq, where there was very little sense of what would happen after U.S. troops left in 2010.

So I think we need to think about what happens after regime change, and we also -- in a related point, we need to think about the long term. We can't think about these as being kind of quick, in-and-out engagements. We send some troops, kill some people and then come back home to a victory parade. Sadly, it doesn't work that way. If we actually do it that way, as we found out in the case of Iraq, the fruits of our victory are likely to go rotten on the vine.

ROSE: So the practical implications of that is if we can't stay out of these things and we can't treat them as light, quick, disposable operations and we need to think the long term, that implies what? A long-term, benevolent imperial presence across countries around the world?

BOOT: Well, I don't know if I would use the world "imperial." I mean, you can if you want. But I would say we do need a long-term presence, and we need to understand that if we are making a military commitment to a lot of these situations, it should be for the long term. And in many ways, a model of that, I would suggest, is what happened in the Balkans in the Clinton administration, where we went in there in 1995 into Bosnia and 1999 into Kosovo. And guess what? We're still intimately involved in what's going on, and there's still international peacekeeping forces there.

That's -- you know, Don Rumsfeld was very critical of that, because he said that they're becoming dependent on us. Well, you know, there are worse things in the world than a little bit of dependency keeping the peace. If that's the goal then I think we do have to have that kind of long-term commitment. But of course, you can ratchet it down over time. I think it's very hard to go to zero, but you certainly don't need hundreds of thousands of troops there.

ROSE: So pulling out too soon is almost like getting off your antibiotics when the symptoms have gone but before the full course of the treatment is -- is finished?

BOOT: I think that's a great analogy, and you may seem like you're well, but then if you go off the drugs, all of a sudden, the disease recurs.  And that's exactly what we're seeing in the case of Iraq, which is degenerating into full-scale civil war since the departure of U.S. troops in 2011.

ROSE: Give me one more lesson, and the rest, we'll leave to people who actually read the piece.

BOOT: Well, I think that a crucially important lesson is that we have to have the right kind of infrastructure and personnel to deal with these kinds of issues. So we need more people who speak the local languages, who understand the local cultures, and who understand what it takes to reconstruct governments, not just to put munitions on target.  We're very good at that, but we're not very good at building up states and engaging in nation-building, and unfortunately, that is something that we have to do, like it or not. And so we need to have the capacity to do that, which is something that we really lack today outside the U.S. military.

ROSE: So is that like a foreign colonial office that we want or something like that, or do you want a sort of paramilitary force like the Spanish Guardia or the Carabinieri or something like that?

BOOT: Well, I think part of it is that the U.S. military has to remain committed to studying counter-insurgency.  They need to do more to learn about governance, you know, set up a school of governance, for example. But I think the most important elements that we lack are having a civilian infrastructure to help with these tasks.

So for example, I would say take the U.S. Agency for International Development, which currently has this very amorphous development for the sake of development type of mission, and I would convert that into a nation-building agency that would actually be focused on how to stand up governments in pursuit of vital American national security interests, especially in -- in the broader Middle East.

And they can do that by, for example, hiring a bunch of veterans who served in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, who are soon going to be on the unemployment line. They can be hired for that kind of job. That's the kind of capacity, I think, that we need, and we currently don't have.

ROSE: Max Boot, along with lots of others with many different perspectives on the lessons of a decade of war, in the new Foreign Affairs. Thanks a lot.

BOOT: Thank you.

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