The Slow, Attritional Death of My Molar Enamel

Every public policy scholar has particular arguments in his or her field that seem so empty, or so obviously wrong, that seeing them causes the scholar to grind his or her molars down to the nub.  Seeing my friend Spencer Ackerman’s article on the Army’s new Stability Operations Field Manual gets at one of my policy pet peeves.  (My boss Chris Preble has more on the topic below.)

First, as an aside, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell claims that we need a stability ops manual because the United States exists in an “era of uncertainty and persistent conflict.”  What uncertainty, exactly?  What period in the past century would Caldwell argue has been characterized by “certainty”?  And how is “persistent conflict” measured?  More sharply, from the Army’s vantage point, hasn’t United States national security policy itself over the past 25 years amplified uncertainty and created conflict?

John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and now a scholar at the centrist Center for a New American Security also supports the shift toward emphasizing stability operations, arguing, as have dozens before him, that

The greatest threats we face, arguably, will no longer be from states that are too strong, but from states that are too weak.

In one sense, it is (I mean this sincerely) gracious of Nagl to allow that there is a chance that the greatest threats we face might not emerge from weak states.  It is such an article of faith among Beltway security analysts that weak states are the biggest threat that it demonstrates a broad-mindedness on Nagl’s part to consider that they may not be.

But Nagl’s statement on its face, it’s just occurred to me, doesn’t hold any particular analytic value, let alone policy implications.  We would need to know something about the nature of the second-greatest threat(s) we face in order to make any relative claims about the importance of the greatest threats.  If, on the one hand, the second-greatest threat we face is a combined nuclear first-strike from China and Russia, then it’s crystal clear that we ought to really emphasize stability ops.  If, on the other hand, the second-greatest threat we face comes from the Animal Liberation Front, saying that something is the “greatest threat we face” doesn’t tell us too terribly much.