U.S. Military Ill-Equipped to Defeat Insurgencies

America should avoid small wars when they are "a matter of choice"

September 1, 2006

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WASHINGTON – In a study released today by the Cato Institute, “The American Way of War: Obstacle to Success in Foreign Internal Wars,” Jeffrey Record, a professor at the U.S. Air Force’s Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama, argues that continuing political and military difficulties in Afghanistan and Iraq underscore the limits of America’s conventional military supremacy. Record asserts that inappropriate strategies for dealing with counterinsurgency are deeply rooted in American political and military culture, and that these cultural impediments argue for avoiding counterinsurgency campaigns entirely.

The author acknowledges that varying combinations of weaker political will, inferior strategy, and democratic governance explain insurgent wins over great powers, but notes that distinctive aspects of America’s history, culture, and way of war further disadvantage the United States in wars against materially weaker though committed and resourceful enemies.

Record notes two main shortcomings of the United States in these modern-day military endeavors. First is the American tendency to separate war and politics – to view military victory as an end in itself, ignoring war’s function as an instrument of policy.  Second is the U.S. military’s profound aversion to counterinsurgency.  These elements combine to form a recipe for politically sterile uses of force, especially in limited wars involving protracted hostilities against weaker irregular opponents. “Simply put, the United States is not very good at defeating enemies who do not fight like we do, enemies who avoid our strengths while exploiting our weaknesses,” writes the author.

Record also argues that Americans are impatient, excessively confident in technological solutions to non-technological problems, and unwilling to risk American lives when vital national interests are not at stake. Expecting that America’s conventional military superiority can deliver quick, cheap, and decisive success, Americans are surprised and politically demoralized when confronted by embarrassing setbacks in Lebanon and Somalia, and continuing political and military difficulties in the Middle East.

“Barring profound change in America’s political and military cultures, the United States runs a significant risk of failure when it enters small wars of choice, and great power intervention in small wars is almost always a matter of choice,” Record says. “Most such wars moreover do not engage core U.S. security interests other than placing the limits of American military power on embarrassing display. Indeed, the very act of intervention in small wars risks gratuitous damage to America’s military reputation.”

Instead, Record recommends not intervening in such wars, except in those rare cases when military intervention is essential to protecting or advancing vital U.S. national security interests.

Policy Analysis Paper no. 577