Last week, former Army chief of staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan editorialized that the Army is repeating the mistakes of the post-Vietnam era, when it turned away from a decade’s experience fighting a counterinsurgency war, in favor of building a more capable conventional force. This, according to General Sullivan, forced the Army to improvise its way through conflicts in Panama, Somalia, and the Balkans. General Sullivan went on to say that, despite these three experiences, we still possessed the wrong Army when we invaded Iraq in 2003.
One wonders how an Army optimized to fight insurgents would have dealt with the six armored Republican Guard divisions that ringed Baghdad. General Sullivan does not address this question. What he does say is that the Army was well on its way to defeat in Iraq until, after three years of muddling through, it adopted a new counterinsurgency doctrine. Now General Sullivan fears that the Army, in its rush to put Iraq and Afghanistan behind it, will once again put its counterinsurgency skills on the shelf, as it once again turns its attention to preparing for conventional warfare.
I have nothing but the deepest respect for General Sullivan, but his concerns are misplaced. His first mistake is viewing today’s global environment as similar to the environment of the last 40 years. According to the general, “We cannot wish away instability, failed states, post-conflict instability, large refugee flows, genocide, terrorism, humanitarian catastrophe, regime change, and the need for intervention.” Far be it from me to predict an end to all of these various forms of human misery. Still, one must recognize that we live in a dramatically different world from the one that existed when we went into Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago. It is a world in which the United States does not have to bear every burden, and those we choose to (or are forced to) bear are likely to require a force that can sustain itself in a high-intensity conflict.
Africa has been growing economically at 6 percent a year for a while, and many experts believe this is not just another false dawn for that disadvantaged continent. That means Africa’s wealth is on pace to almost double every decade. If we look east, many Asian nations have long experienced even faster growth rates, and even a cyclic slowing will still see them doubling their GDP every decade, if not faster. China, for instance, has been doubling its wealth every six years, and even a slowdown of 50 percent will still leave it on pace to be the world’s largest economy by 2050. In short, the world is getting wealthier at a pace scarcely imaginable when General Sullivan was learning the art of counterinsurgency warfare in Vietnam.
There is, therefore, real hope that the world will experience a declining number of failed states, as a rising tide lifts all boats. Increasing global prosperity will also do much to reduce chronic instability in many regions of the world. Increasing wealth in some nations may, for a time, increase internal turmoil, as growing middle classes demand more power over the political and economic direction of their countries. But even in these cases, growing wealth can temper many of the worst effects of regime change. That assumes that a new government moves rapidly to establish free markets and sufficient rule of law to assure a rapid recovery. It hardly needs saying that such a political upheaval in China, or what may be now taking place in Russia, would certainly have much larger and more unpredictable consequences than what, for instance, the Arab world is undergoing. On the other hand, we are unlikely to commit our military forces to quell internal turmoil in either country. And if we did, an Army and Marine Corps optimized to handle counterinsurgencies would be worse than useless.