Tag Archives: Presidential Transition

Policy and the End of the Bush Administration

Spencer Ackerman has a spectacular article up about the State Department’s new policy document “Counterinsurgency: A Guide for Policy-Makers,” which is going to be published in November. The policy handbook has a lot of interesting things to say.

The handbook seeks to provide a framework for considering whether Washington should intervene in foreign countries’ counterinsurgency operations, raising difficult questions about whether such nations deserve U.S. support; under what conditions that support should occur, and whether success is possible at acceptable cost. No systematic approach to strategic-level questions in counterinsurgency currently exists for senior U.S. government officials.

Asked for comment, the handbook’s chief author, David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer who is now an adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, explained that it tells policy-makers to “think very, very carefully before intervening.” More bluntly, Kilcullen, who helped Petraeus design his 2007 counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, called the decision to invade Iraq “stupid” — in fact, he said “fucking stupid” — and suggested that if policy-makers apply the manual’s lessons, similar wars can be avoided in the future.

. . .

The handbook instructs policy-makers about the necessity of using all elements of national power — not just military force, but also diplomacy, development aid, the rule of law, academic disciplines and other specialties often considered peripheral to warfighting — to triumph in counterinsurgency. Victory, as well, is defined as support for a foreign nation’s ability to successfully govern, rather than a decisive U.S. military effort.

“No amount of competence, know-how or dedication on the part of an intervening country can compensate for lack of determination by the government affected by the insurgency,” the draft reads. “Thus, the primary focus for USG [U.S. government] or international agencies engaging in COIN [counterinsurgency] is often the building of governmental capacity within a host government, rather than directly killing or capturing insurgents.”

There are lessons in the handbook that the U.S. government has clearly been reluctant to adopt. It explicitly instructs policy-makers to “co-opt” insurgents whenever possible — something that the Bush administration’s rhetoric about the “evils” of Iraqi and Afghan insurgents makes problematic.”The purpose of COIN,” the handbook says, “is to build popular support for a government while suppressing or co-opting an insurgent movement.”

Kilcullen added that negotiations are a two-way street in counterinsurgency. “A government that offers [insurgents] no concessions [will] usually lose,” he said, but “an insurgency that offers no concessions will usually lose.” Another piece of advice — one that resonates in the wake of the administration’s torture scandals — simply reads, “Respect People.”

Similarly, the handbook attempts to integrate civilian and military agencies into a concerted strategy — something the Bush administration has been unable to substantively accomplish in Iraq and Afghanistan. “COIN planning should integrate civilian and military capabilities across each of the four COIN strategy functions of security, politics, economics and information,” it reads.

The handbook urges that military and civilian efforts in counterinsurgency be launched simultaneously. “Economic and political progress is not dependent upon a completely secure environment, nor does the ability to provide adequate security depend entirely upon on political and economic progress,” the draft reads. “Establishing security is not a precursor to economic and governance activity: rather, security, economic and political efforts must be developed simultaneously in parallel.” Accordingly, the handbook is a joint effort of the Depts. of State, Defense, Justice and the U.S. Agency for International Development, with input from other bureaus, including the Central Intelligence Agency.

Beyond the fascinating implications of the handbook itself, Ackerman raises a very interesting point about the upcoming transition between the Bush administration and whoever comes next.

Crane, of the Army War College, worried that the handbook’s scheduled publication — sometime after the November election — might make it a casualty of an unpopular and lame-duck Bush administration. “The dilemma that the writers are gonna have is: do you make it the last gasp of an outgoing administration — or the first policy shot of a new administration?” he said.

For all of the Bush administration’s myriad flaws it has made some substantial policy progress recently. Some of the recent shifts, like negotiating more directly with Iran, will likely stay as American policy, especially if Obama wins. However, there are other areas where neither candidate may be willing to invest the political capital to keep going.The advances in Counter-Insurgency doctrine is one of the major areas, but Secretary of Defence Robert Gates’ fight with the Air Force is another that stands out. Obama’s camp could well be hamstrung by the inherent distrust of Democrats on national security policy that some in the military have, while McCain’s advisers certainly don’t seem to be the type to wage major battles to change things at the Pentagon.

A lot of the things that are going on here, like Gates’ battles and the Kilcullen report, are the administration learning from its mistakes. There is always a big risk of losing learned knowledge when adminstrations change, especially when there is a change of parties. Bush wasted a lot of time and effort trying to change every policy Clinton ever held, which had disasterous results such as in North Korea. Now, maybe the fact that Barack Obama has already set up the beginnings of a transition team will help aleviate this problem if he is elected. But he has to win first. Meanwhile, the McCain camp seems to be in disarray, and in any event he is staffed by the type of ideologues who think that Bush has been making major mistakes recently, so there are no guarantees even if there isn’t a change in parties.

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