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March 26, 2008


Eric Chen

Professor Nacos,

You said: "Comparing U.S. Forces' stationed in Europe and Korea with the Iraq situation does not wash."

Senator McCain said: “Make it 100. We’ve been in South Korea . . . we’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That would be fine with me. As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, that’s fine with me. I hope that would be fine with you, if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al-Qaeda is training, recruiting and equipping and motivating people every single day.”

Professor, you're extrapolating current Iraq to be the status quo for the coming decades in Iraq. That may indeed bear true, but it's as reliable as predicting the shape of the following 50+ years of US organic military presence in Korea based on where we were 5 years into our intervention in Korea (began 1945, nK invasion 1950).

My point is that if you read the disputed McCain quote, you'll see that Senator McCain doesn't say he is willing to accept a "100 years" of US military presence in Iraq if those years look like now in Iraq. At least in terms of force protection, McCain means that if the situation in Iraq evolves to something like our security and stabilization roles in other parts of the world, *then* that kind of timeframe becomes acceptable. You can apply the same logic to Afghanistan.

Looking at the world from the prism of the 1940s, or indeed, the panic-stricken early 1950s when it seemed as though a military-led, atomic-armed Communist wave was engulfing the world, did "entangling alliances" and US organic military presence in Europe and Asia seem any less risky than it does today in the Middle East?

I don't mean to imply that I know this will all work out for us as well as the arc of the World Wars through the Cold War, but relatively recent history does show that perseverence counts. Certainly, our enemies apply that lesson to their own strategy.

You said: "The so-called Global War on Terror(ism) cannot be fought and won in the traditional military style. Al-Qaeda Central is today mostly a propaganda threat. It is the multitude of autonomous cells and loosely connected cells and hubs around the globe that are the most serious terrorist threats."

I agree, except that President Bush's definitively liberal strategy in the War on Terror implies that Al Qaeda is officially viewed as symptom more than cause.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that this competition "cannot be fought and won in the traditional military style", which is why I cited my Spectator column about the critically needed military transformation in the areas of post-war and peace operations and JFK's dictate on counter-insurgency that, if anything, is more valid today than when he was alive. Our current Petraeus-led counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq is key in that transformation.

I understand historical precedents can only be useful to a point because things change. JFK told us that insurgency was the rising threat to the liberal world order. Since then, our varied government institutions, especially the military, pointedly chose to devalue that threat in order to stay within the traditional comfort zone of our own strengths and preferences. Logically, the enemy continued to learn and evolve. JFK's prognostication has come to pass and in today's assymetrical non-traditional war, we are at the disadvantage.

You're correct that solely based on our "traditional military style" - and I would add our traditional diplomatic style as well - that comparing our future in Iraq (and Afghanistan) to our present in Europe and Asia "does not wash". In order for us to reach the kind of state we have achieved in those once-frightening missions, we have to learn a new military style that features the anachronistically named "operations other than war" - post-war, counter-insurgency and peace operations. Again, we've only recently begun this revolutionary learning curve in Iraq under GEN Petraeus. If we remove ourselves from Iraq before we can complete this learning curve, then yes, the "100 years" in Iraq as McCain has framed it will become impossible.

Thank you, Professor, for providing this forum to share and compare our thoughts. As always, it's an honor to do so with the Professor from one of my favorite classes in college.


Eric: Comparing U.S. Forces' stationed in Europe and Korea with the Iraq situation does not wash. Once the hostilities were over, neither the Germans nor the South Koreans fought the U.S. military forces--they were part of Western European and South East-Asian defense treaties during the Cold War era.
Iraq was, first of all, a preventive war that resulted in a quick military victory against the Saddam Hussein regime. Ever since, though, various Iraqi factions--in addition to foreign fighters--have fought the occupation forces in addition to various parts of their own population.
This is a completely different situation that it has been in all those years in Europe, most of all Germany, and Korea.

The so-called Global War on Terror(ism) cannot be fought and won in the traditional military style. Al-Qaeda Central is today mostly a propaganda threat. It is the multitude of autonomous cells and loosely connected cells and hubs around the globe that are the most serious terrorist threats.
I will be blogging on this as soon as I get a chance.
One way or the other, Eric, I appreciate your always thoughtful and relevant comments.

Eric Chen


C'mon - you know - as much as anyone who lived through the 20th century - what Senator McCain meant. You, better than most. "100 years" doesn't sound so scary to me, considering that, as an American soldier, I served on a driver-escort detail in Seoul during the 50th anniversary of the Korean War commemoration. Our forces have served as a war-fighting or stabilization and security presence in Korea for over 60 years (we often forget to count the period before the Korean War), and the same can be said for our forces in Europe, especially Germany. Will our forces still be in E.Asia and Europe in 2045? Who knows, but "100 years" in either place is something we seem prepared to do. As much as those relationships seem normal now, I'm sure the prospect was as disconcerting in the early 1940s as the prospect of long-term organic partnerships in the Middle East today.

Of course, if you consider the start point of American entry into Europe as World War One, then we are now over 90 years as an organic presence in Europe, which makes "100 years" realistic, indeed. (Arguably, President Bush Jr is the most controversial liberal US President since President Wilson. At least President Truman could blame the USSR and Maoist China for the Korea War.) I suppose for any remaining die-hard southern American Confederates, American organic presence in the short-lived lands of the CSA is now close to 147 years and counting.

Which goes to show, that even in the nation-v-nation wars we're familiar with, sustained presence, even "100 years", is not abnormal. The key is to remember that each of those years is dissimilar and, throughout our history, the American military has historically performed a myriad of functions in service of our nation's foreign policy. When I served before 9/11, we already grumbled then how much soldiers, we active-duty types as well as reservists, were being deployed away from home.

Today's Global War on Terror, or Long War, is a different kind of war. It's very much the insurgency-v-counterinsurgency that President John Kennedy prognosticated before his assassination, rather than the Cold War formula we're more comfortable with. If sustained involvement has been a regular feature of even our more-traditional nation-v-nation wars, then it is a central feature of an insurgency-v-counterinsurgency war.

After decades in which our counterinsurgency capability was deliberately starved by 'realist' policy makers inside and outside the military, at the same time insurgency matured as the sensible exploiter of an obvious American weakness, we've only begun - with GEN Petraeus as its chief champion - to institutionalize counterinsurgency, with its emphasis on peace-building. In a changing world in which our competitors learn in evolutionary fashion, it's critical that we allow the time, space, and resources so our counterinsurgency capability can mature in Iraq, not only for the good of Iraq, but for long-term American foreign policy strategy.

Two links (apologies, Professor - I don't how you format your links):

"When Anti-War is Anti-Peace", an edited version of my Columbia Spectator opinion column of the same name from Feb '07: http://learning-curve.blogspot.com/2007/02/spec-opinion-when-anti-war-is-anti.html

President Kennedy speech about counterinsurgency to West Point graduates, 1962: http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2008/03/this-is-another-type-of-warfar/

Final note: Of the remaining presidential candidates, I believe Barack Obama has the potential to be the best representative of President Bush's definitively liberal strategy in the War on Terror. However, his assertion that the Democrat victories in the 2006 senatorial elections are the cause of the "Surge"/Counterinsurgency successes under GEN Petraeus is far more jaw-dropping for a prospective US President than Senator McCain's gaffe about who sponsors which Islamic extremist insurgents in Iraq.

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