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May 11, 2010


Mike Few


One thing that I'd keep in mind is the distinction between our actions in Iraq/A'stan and other forms of intervention. In those two, we conducted regime change and occupation with an eventual turn towards counter-insurgency. In other places (Phillipines, Colombia, Kenya), we employ FID and other indirect methods to work with the host nation to empower the central authority.

As we continue to examine our success and failures, we'll probably come to have a better understanding of our own limitations to help others, or as Zenpundit notes, "our evaluation of the suitability of such ventures should hinge on a realistic assessment of its relationship to core interests as well as the suitability of the local patron."

Ultimately, it's up to the people on what form of government they will endure. Sometimes, despite our best interest, no manner of state/nation-building will fix that. Then, we have to do the cost-benefit analysis on how much we're willing to spend to help.




That's true. Perhaps this is presentism and my largely academic perch, but I see FID as more likely in the future than Iraq and Afghanistan's regime change, postwar occupation, and COIN cycle. Hence the use of a prototypical Cold War "advise and support" example.

That being said, the processes described here also apply to a more direct COIN issue - the Malaya example, as overused as it is, was about a violent form of state-building that the British assisted in the short term, although nobody saw it as such at the time or now.

What you say is very true about the people and the costs/benefits. A clear-eyed analysis about either of those things is worth more than the continued squabble between COINdinista and COINtra. That's why I'm glad you comment extensively on SWJ, it moves things forward.


I'm curious though - do you see us coming closer to a better understanding of our strengths and limitations? Or is the current debate going around in circles? Granted, it's a bit of a hard question to ask given the immense diversity of the venues that the conversation is taking place...

Mike Few

I don't know. Here's a general response. The optimist inside me screams that we must move towards a better understanding- see the world as it is not how we wished it to be and all of that. The pessimist in me responds with a sarcastic, "whatever dude, fat chance of that."

Dale Carnegie's voice is helpful when considering an approach to force rational thought into a heated discussion,

"When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity."

I'm still perplexed at what happened in the US after 9/11. I've written that we had a moment of 'compartmentalized psychosis' or temporary insanity. As you read back through the NSS 0f 2002 and 2006 and review our decision making and execution, we wanted to transform (ie control) the world in order to ensure that we were never going to be attacked again. It's odd how the fears or anger or doubts consumed and confused us.

One of the US people's strengths is our constant ability to remake ourselves. One of the corresponding weaknesses is that we have a short memory.


I'm not sure if you've seen the movie "Dark City," but the central plot of that involved a city where every night at midnight the thoughts and memories of the inhabitants as well as the landscape of the city itself was re-arranged. Of course, the twist (why this happens) involves the usual sci-fi thriller setup of aliens and such.

But without the ham-handed twist, it's an interesting metaphor for American life. Some people are driven crazy by this, others thrive on it.

Mike Few

Haven't seen it, but it seems similar to George Orwell's Animal Farm and the recent Batman flick "The Dark Knight."

"my largely academic perch"

Here's some guidance that I'll provide as you begin your career. Good academics drive debate. As you've probably already learned, a theory is only an opinion (informed or otherwise) of one's observations of the world. As you continue to gain influence, develop and nuture relationships with those that your respect and trust.

One day, as you gain wasta or power, the policy-makers may seek your opinion on policy when they are unsure where to go. At that point, you're the man driving the train.

So, what you're doing- reading, writing, blogging, is very important.

BTW, Pinky and the Brain is my favorite all time cartoon.


What I meant by "academic" is a recognition that this is 50,000 feet and above-type analysis. While that can work pretty well, it has definite limitations that come with the territory in terms of predictive power. And one of those is presentism - a lot of research and analysis tends to heavily extrapolate present conditions to the future. Of course, no one has all of the answers necessarily.

But thanks very much for the encouragement!

And Pinky and the Brain is underrated.


By the way, the back-and-forth here (on the subject of COIN and state-building) is very interesting:



Mike Few

I'll check them out. You might want to see the current Inkspots blog.


That's all that I'm going to speak on the matter for now.


Another comment of note is Ray's, from Mudville Gazette's post on the subject.

Of course you can kill your way out of an insurgency: this is what the Mongols, the Romans, and even the American Army did in the 19th century.

The word is genocide: kill everybody, or kill most of everybody, ship the rest into slavery/onto a reservation far away.

State-building, as you point out, takes many forms. Genocide is one of the more effective, for the bloody and politically minded. Making the distinction between state- and nation-building, even if is something of a blurry one, is worthy; I think it also has to do with how and whether you want to get your hands dirty.


In most cases I've read about in the last 150 years (since the industrial era), state-building has been broadly illiberal in nature. While it doesn't necessarily mean that a "kill them all" Quentin Tarantino-type solution is employed, instrumental coercion is usually a central part.

And we shouldn't be surprised - the central problem of the state-builder is how to unite a fractured group of peoples. Sometimes this is accomplished through economics (Kimberly Zisk Martin makes an argument like this in a paper three years ago). But a lot of the time it is a military/security problem - or at least is seen as such by the state-builder.

A third state-building vehicle is a messy combination of both massively, medium, and sublethal coercion, economics, and deal-making, which is also common in history as well.

The point is that from the role of the external FID agent, or in a more drastic case the counterinsurgent acting as the civil power, these world-historical processes that indigenous actors are carrying out become practical business. And they have a serious of very difficult moral, political, and strategic decisions to make about how the political-military operations are going to deal with the processes of indigenous state-building.

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