Friday, January 17, 2014

WOW A Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College Throws in the Towel on US War Making

Michael J. Mazarr, a professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College, has a fascinating article out in the Council on Foreign Relations publication Foreign Affairs, it is titled The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm.

He doesn't go as far as most libertarians would in calling for an end to all US meddling overseas. He writes, for example:
[T]he United States should rely on gradual progress through patient, long-term advisory and aid relationships, based on such activities as direct economic assistance tailored to local needs; training, exchanges, and other human-capacity-development programs; military-to-military ties; trade and investment policies; and more.
However, his comments, on US global military adventures and US attempts at stabilizing weak countries, are  well-reasoned and explosive criticisms.

Here are key snippets:
 For a decade and a half, from the mid-1990s through about 2010, the dominant national security narrative in the United States stressed the dangers posed by weak or failing states. These were seen to breed terrorism, regional chaos, crime, disease, and environmental catastrophe. To deal with such problems at their roots, the argument ran, the United States had to reach out and help stabilize the countries in question, engaging in state building on a neo-imperial scale. And reach out the United States did -- most obviously during the protracted campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After a decade of conflict and effort with precious little to show for it, however, the recent era of interventionist U.S. state building is drawing to a close. And although there are practical reasons for this shift -- the United States can no longer afford such missions, and the public has tired of them -- the decline of the state-building narrative reflects a more profound underlying truth: the obsession with weak states was always more of a mania than a sound strategic doctrine.

The practical challenges of state-building missions are now widely appreciated. They tend to be long, difficult, and expensive, with success demanding an open-ended commitment to a messy, violent, and confusing endeavor -- something unlikely to be sustained in an era of budgetary austerity. But the last decade has driven home intellectual challenges to the concept as well.

The threat posed by weak and fragile states, for example, turned out to be both less urgent and more complex and diffuse than was originally suggested. Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index for 2013 is not exactly a roster of national security priorities; of its top 20 weak states, very few (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan) boast geostrategic significance, and they do so mostly because of their connection to terrorism. But even the threat of terrorism isn’t highly correlated with the current roster of weak states; only one of the top 20, Sudan, appears on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and most other weak states have only a marginal connection to terrorism at best.

 There has never been a coherent set of factors that define failed states: As the political scientist Charles Call argued in a powerful 2008 corrective, the concept resulted in the “agglomeration of diverse criteria” that worked to “throw a monolithic cloak over disparate problems that require tailored solutions.” This basic methodological flaw would distort state-building missions for years, as outside powers forced generic, universal solutions onto very distinct contexts.

The specified dangers were never unique to weak states, moreover, nor would state-building campaigns necessarily have mitigated them. Take terrorism. The most effective terrorists tend to be products of the middle class, often from nations such as Saudi Arabia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, not impoverished citizens of failed states. And terrorist groups operating in weak states can shift their bases of operations: if Afghanistan becomes too risky, they can uproot themselves and move to Somalia, Yemen, or even Europe. As a result, “stabilizing” three or four sources of extremist violence would not render the United States secure.

A third problem was misplaced confidence about the possibility of the mission’s feasibility. The last decade has offered an extended, tragic reminder of the fact that forcible state building simply cannot be accomplished by outsiders in any sustainable or authentic way. When a social order has become maladapted to the globalizing world -- when governing institutions are weak, personalized, or kleptocratic; corruption is rampant; and the rule of law is noticeable by its absence -- there are simply no proven methods for generating major social, political, economic, or cultural change relatively quickly.

As the Australian political scientist Michael Wesley argued in a brilliant 2008 essay, state weakness is primarily a political problem, and yet state building is often conceived and executed as if it were an apolitical exercise. “The intention of remaining aloof from politics while concentrating on technocratic reforms has proved unrealistic,” he wrote. “Even seemingly technocratic tasks confront international administrators with essentially political decisions: the nature and basis of elections; which pressure groups to consult; the reintegration or de facto separation of ethnic communities; school curricula; degrees of public ownership of enterprises; the status of women; and so on. However technocratic their intention, state-building missions inevitably find themselves factored into local rivalries.”

In trying to force change on recalcitrant governments and societies, moreover, outside interventions undermine internal motives for reform by transferring responsibility for a better future from local leaders to external actors. The outside power needs cooperation from its local clients more than they need its sponsorship. The result is a dependency paradox that impedes reform.

The weak-state obsession has drawn attention away from such pursuits and made a resurgence of traditional threats more likely. Focusing on two seemingly endless wars and half a dozen other potential “stability operations” has eroded U.S. global engagement, diminished U.S. diplomatic creativity, and distracted U.S. officials from responding appropriately to changes in the global landscape.

When one reads the memoirs of Bush administration officials, the dozen or more leading global issues beyond Afghanistan, Iraq, and the “war on terror” begin to sound like background noise.

As weak states continue to generate specific threats, such as terrorism, the United States has a range of more limited tools available to mitigate them. It can, for example, return terrorism to its proper place as a law enforcement task and continue to work closely with foreign law enforcement agencies.
The full article is here.


  1. 1200+ words to excuse a useless lifetime, when all it took was nine to thrive.
    Peaceful free trade with all.
    Entangling alliances with none.

  2. It took THIS long for him to figure that out? Shit, I figured all this crap out a mere ONE YEAR after paying attention to politics long ago. It's not rocket science. What's REALLY stupid is that many fucking idiots STILL haven't figured it out yet! I am surrounded by useless morons.

  3. These elitist snobs live in a bubble. They suffer from a serious bout of groupthink, where everyone shares the same skewed worldview about how America needs to manage the planet's affairs. Wars, coups, rigged elections, bribes - it's all in a day's work.

    These same overeducated morons just can't seem to come to terms with the folly of their actions. The thought that interventions will result in resentment and blowback rarely cross their minds. And for those that are aware, they seemingly don't care, because changing course would require America and its allies to mind their own business. Can't have that!

    Such a policy reversal would mean that the navel-gazers in Washington would have to find gainful employment in the private sector. There is nothing as frightening to lifetime bureaucrat than the idea that they might have to work for a living.

  4. Not that I usually put myself in the position of defending the military, but ...

    The military university system genuinely values academic freedom. This paper is how change slowly gets made within the military. While the positions clearly don't go as far as readers here would like, I think we should applaud and support more of this type of thinking.

  5. Great article. In 2003 pre-Iraq war (which I vehemently opposed), I could see the waste of human lives, trillions of dollars, US stuck for years in foreign entanglements, with little to show. Most anyone with a brain should have seen through the NYT & Neocon propaganda that was used to go to war. Unfortunately(and predictably) my rationale for opposition came to pass in Iraq, Afghanistan, other places. A gigantic War-Homeland Security-Nation Building contractor apparatus has built up in DC, and requires ongoing ‘feeding.’ This is a huge reason the ‘war beat’ drums on.

  6. Please, give me a break. Read between the lines. We are changing and have been "pivoting" policy already, this is a defensive statement from the CFR about the fact that our mission to destroy a whole region is now complete and we can move on without looking back and certainly without any calls for our return. Was Iraq a failed state before we destroyed it? Was Libya a failed state before we destroyed it? Were the Balkan's, despite the internal transitional bloodletting before we bombed the crap out of it? This is all very quaint, truly, but I seriously doubt we will see the Fascist Empire of the United States..turning our militarily bases in these areas into Disneyland's. And the call for a greater focus on the defense of our nation is simply a call for furthering the domestic police states mission of total safety and total control.

    If you think we have turned a softer cheek, realizing the mistakes we made in the destruction of millions of lives and the decimation of whole civilizations then why are there special ops forces in over 134 countries right now executing, undermining and destabilizing any government or operating entity that stands in the way of the "interests" of the Empire. Red Hearing after the fact. This is bullshit for those that still have some faith in the mythology of American exceptionalism.

  7. So let's see if we can summarize this "useless eater's" well-reasoned and explosive criticisms.

    Here goes...

    Wait for it...

    Mind your own fucking business!

    [Gee, maybe I should be writing articles for the Council on Foreign Affairs - yeah, thought not - be a much shorter publication.]