Exum says basically this: Our policies have tended to result in small wars, however foolish. We want an Army of our policies. There is, in other words, a difference between operations and strategy. Counterinsurgency experts are just preaching good practice in the former. They just work here. Grand strategy is someone else’s gig.
There is merit in this view. But it has two problems.
First, the COIN gurus do not confine themselves to the operational side of things. Exum works for the Center for New American Security, which has collected counterinsurgency experts who argue that 1) Americans can become proficient counterinsurgents and 2) counter-terrorism requires that transformation. I believe neither. Apparently Exum only buys 1. I hope he can convince his colleagues to stop saying 2.
Second, the stark divide between strategy and operations is an ideal. The theory that the military services are only professional technicians serving the ends of politicians is too simple. The Army has political interests, which change with its structure and leadership. Those interests affect our defense and foreign policy. The causal arrow between national security policy and the structure and doctrine of the organizations that execute it points both ways. Pretending it is not so is a dodge, even if it gets you an A in your undergraduate civil-military relations class. Both Creighton’s Abrams’ reforms ensuring that the president had to activate the reserves to start a war and the Weinberger-Powell doctrine were sneaky usurpations of authority. They were also realistic efforts to avoid bad wars and on balance good things.
Defense writers tend to depict the generals who resist permanently transforming the US ground forces into a counterinsurgency force as benighted fools and the lieutenant colonels who buck them as forces of truth and light. The reality is more complicated. The Big Army that wants to fight only Big Wars reflects a realistic sense of what military force can and can’t do and the insight that reengineering foreign countries goes in the can’t bucket. They make these wars less likely. The little army aligned against them is a result of the fact that these wars occur anyway, and being prepared is sensible. I am not sure who I’m rooting for.
More clear to me is that the realist view of small wars wars could use support. Realists say that what we’ve discovered fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are just COIN best practices, which guarantee nothing because this is ultimately someone else’s politics. They say that the best solution is don’t do it and next best is to severely curtail your objectives and stop confusing counterinsurgency with counterterrorism. If the new counterinsurgency class believes even part of that, they should say so more forcefully.