Comment October 2008

The Petraeus Doctrine

Iraq-style counterinsurgency is fast becoming the U.S. Army’s organizing principle. Is our military preparing to fight the next war, or the last one?

For a military accustomed to quick, easy victories, the trials and tribulations of the Iraq War have come as a rude awakening. To its credit, the officer corps has responded not with excuses but with introspection. One result, especially evident within the U.S. Army, has been the beginning of a Great Debate of sorts.

Anyone who cares about the Army’s health should take considerable encouragement from this intellectual ferment. Yet anyone who cares about future U.S. national-security strategy should view the debate with considerable concern: it threatens to encroach upon matters that civilian policy makers, not soldiers, should decide.

What makes this debate noteworthy is not only its substance, but its character—the who and the how.

The military remains a hierarchical organization in which orders come from the top down. Yet as the officer corps grapples with its experience in Iraq, fresh ideas are coming from the bottom up. In today’s Army, the most-creative thinkers are not generals but mid-career officers—lieutenant colonels and colonels.

Like any bureaucracy, today’s military prefers to project a united front when dealing with the outside world, keeping internal dissent under wraps. Nonetheless, the Great Debate is unfolding in plain view in publications outside the Pentagon’s purview, among them print magazines such as Armed Forces Journal, the Web-based Small Wars Journal, and the counterinsurgency blog Abu Muqawama.

The chief participants in this debate—all Iraq War veterans—fixate on two large questions. First, why, after its promising start, did Operation Iraqi Freedom go so badly wrong? Second, how should the hard-earned lessons of Iraq inform future policy? Hovering in the background of this Iraq-centered debate is another war that none of the debaters experienced personally—namely, Vietnam.

The protagonists fall into two camps: Crusaders and Conservatives.

The Crusaders consist of officers who see the Army’s problems in Iraq as self-inflicted. According to members of this camp, things went awry because rigidly conventional senior commanders, determined “never again” to see the Army sucked into a Vietnam-like quagmire, had largely ignored unconventional warfare and were therefore prepared poorly for it. Typical of this generation is Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, once the top U.S. commander in Baghdad, who in late 2003 was still describing the brewing insurgency as “strategically and operationally insignificant,” when the lowliest buck sergeant knew otherwise.

Younger officers critical of Sanchez are also committed to the slogan “Never again,” but with a different twist: never again should the officer corps fall prey to the willful amnesia to which the Army succumbed after Vietnam, when it turned its back on that war.

Among the Crusaders’ most influential members is Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, a West Pointer and Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate from Oxford University. In 2002, he published a book, impeccably timed, titled Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam. After serving in Iraq as a battalion operations officer, Nagl helped rewrite the Army’s counterinsurgency manual and commanded the unit that prepares U.S. soldiers to train Iraqi security forces. (Earlier this year, he left the Army to accept a position with a Washington think tank.)

To Nagl, the lessons of the recent past are self-evident. The events of 9/11, he writes, “conclusively demonstrated that instability anywhere can be a real threat to the American people here at home.” For the foreseeable future, political conditions abroad rather than specific military threats will pose the greatest danger to the United States.

Instability creates ungoverned spaces in which violent anti-American radicals thrive. Yet if instability anywhere poses a threat, then ensuring the existence of stability everywhere—denying terrorists sanctuary in rogue or failed states—becomes a national-security imperative. Define the problem in these terms, and winning battles becomes less urgent than pacifying populations and establishing effective governance.

War in this context implies not only coercion but also social engineering. As Nagl puts it, the security challenges of the 21st century will require the U.S. military “not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies.”

Of course, back in the 1960s an earlier experiment in changing entire societies yielded unmitigated disaster—at least that’s how the Army of the 1980s and 1990s chose to remember its Vietnam experience. Crusaders take another view, however. They insist that Vietnam could have been won—indeed was being won, after General Creighton Abrams succeeded General William Westmoreland in 1968 and jettisoned Westmoreland’s heavy-handed search-and-destroy strategy, to concentrate instead on winning Vietnamese hearts and minds. Defeat did not result from military failure; rather, defeat came because the American people lacked patience, while American politicians lacked guts.

The Crusaders’ perspective on Iraq tracks neatly with this revisionist take on Vietnam, with the hapless Sanchez (among others) standing in for West­moreland, and General David Petrae­us—whose Princeton doctoral dissertation was titled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam”—as successor to General Abrams. Abrams’s successful if tragically aborted campaign in Vietnam serves as a precursor to Petrae­us’s skillfully orchestrated “surge” in Iraq: each demonstrates that the United States can prevail in “stability operations” as long as commanders grasp the true nature of the problem and respond appropriately.

For Nagl, the imperative of the moment is to institutionalize the relevant lessons of Vietnam and Iraq, thereby enabling the Army, he writes, “to get better at building societies that can stand on their own.” That means buying fewer tanks while spending more on language proficiency; curtailing the hours spent on marksmanship ranges while increasing those devoted to studying foreign cultures. It also implies changing the culture of the officer corps. An Army that since Vietnam has self-consciously cultivated a battle-oriented warrior ethos will instead emphasize, in Nagl’s words, “the intellectual tools necessary to foster host-nation political and economic development.”

Although the issue is by no means fully resolved, the evidence suggests that Nagl seems likely to get his way. Simply put, an officer corps that a decade ago took its intellectual cues from General Colin Powell now increasingly identifies itself with the views of General Petrae­us. In the 1990s, the Powell Doctrine, with its emphasis on overwhelming force, assumed that future American wars would be brief, decisive, and infrequent. According to the emerging Petrae­us Doctrine, the Army (like it or not) is entering an era in which armed conflict will be protracted, ambiguous, and continuous—with the application of force becoming a lesser part of the soldier’s repertoire.

Presented by

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, was published in August.

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