The United States Should Rethink Power-Projection Abroad

by Jeong Lee. Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings on U.S. defense and foreign policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the World Outline, the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), the Naval Institute’s blog and RealClearDefense. This article originally appeared on Small Wars Journal on November 14th, 2013.

US Army adviser and Afghan troops

US Army adviser and Afghan troops

I get tired of rehashing the same old argument time and again but feel that I must do so yet another time. Of late, I have been getting a lot of feedback on my ground forces merger piece— some positive but mostly negative.

Lest I be misunderstood, I welcome heated and passionate exchanges of ideas. Such discourses are evidence of healthy democracy at work which help to keep things in perspective. In short, robust discussion is what keeps the national security establishment on the cutting edge.

However, it seems that many of my strident critics tend to focus on the operational and tactical minutiae and quaint service traditions when advocating the need for maintaining two separate ground forces. One blogger seemed miffed that my piece does not fully take into account the fundamental differences in raisons d’être and functions between an Army Brigade Combat Team and a Marine Regimental Combat Team. And furthermore, he declaimed in a condescending manner that my piece overlooks the importance of “ability to fight combined arms and services” which enables the troops to possess “overwhelming combat power, both to quickly achieve objectives, and minimize losses to our force.”

Andrew Bacevich of Boston University

Andrew Bacevich of Boston University

To this, I should point out that even though both the United States Army and the Marine divisions successfully delivered a crushing blow to Saddam Hussein’s ragtag army in the early days of its invasion of Iraq through “shock and awe,” they found themselves ultimately mired in  protracted  and unwinnable counterinsurgency campaigns, not necessarily because of insufficient boots on the ground or the failure to execute counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, but because policymakers were incapable of accurately gauging the desire of the “the inhabitants of the Islamic world…[who have become] increasingly intolerant of foreign interference.” Also, his assertion is intrinsically flawed in that it overlooks the unpleasant truth that “the size of the armed forces is not the most telling metric of their strength.”

Worse still, in a risible attempt to rebut my arguments, one reserve Marine captain cites as one of his counterarguments the Marine Corps’ invention of the vertical envelopment tactics during the Korean War to justify his purported “truth” that “a market place of defense ideas is better than a command economy for strategy.” However, the captain blithely ignores in his tired recitation of historical precedents that air mobile warfare, wherein armed gunships provide tactical fire support for the infantry troops, was perfected by the Army and not the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

COL Gian Gentile

COL Gian Gentile

This does not even take into consideration the fact that many of my critics fail to understand the difference between expeditionary warfare and costly protracted occupation of sovereign territory. As I pointed out in my response to my readers, expeditionary warfare is of short-term nature meant to shock the enemy into submission while a protracted occupation of a foreign territory entails a long-term commitment. As recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show, however, Marines have been performing anything but expeditionary warfare. Instead, they have served as an adjunct to the Army. The same was true during the Vietnam War where regiments from 1st and 3rd Marine Divisions established firebases all over South Vietnam.

Most importantly, many of my critics do not understand that in times of waning national power, there is a better alternative to strident militarism which only alienates the global citizens from the United States. Indeed, Professor Andrew Bacevich, Colonel Gian Gentile, and Tom Engelhardt are correct when they advocate that the United States should pursue “a strategy that accepts war as a last resort and not a policy option of first choice.”  This requires that the United States focus on defending the homeland first before seeking to project its finite military might abroad. Given that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have discredited the efficacy of finite military power, it would suit America’s interests to reorient its military towards homeland defense and perhaps pare down its size and functions through a service merger.

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt

Indeed, sorely lacking in criticisms levied against my piece is any discussion on the need to redefine and reorient America’s strategic interests. It shocks me that none of my critics even bothered to ask if the United States really needs to police the world when it doesn’t even have the wherewithal to fix its own dysfunctional government. Contrary to the argument that globalization dictates that the United States should continue to maintain military bases abroad to safeguard its commercial interests because “security, prosperity, and vital interests of the United States are increasingly coupled to those of other nations,” it should be noted that many advanced, industrialized maritime nations such as China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Britain are interconnected but are capable of safeguarding their economic interests without stationing their Marines and soldiers on foreign soil.

Even more important, the United States should make good use of its soft power—its traditional strong suit.  It used to be that people around the world admired what the United States stood for: economic justice, wealth, high quality education as represented through its prestigious research universities and think tanks, high-tech inventions and tolerance for others. However, after having traveled all over Asia, I am not sure that our Asian allies even take the United States seriously.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Secretary Kerry who recently complained about “jokes [emanating from our allies] about whether because we weren’t being paid, one country or another could buy our meals.” This should serve as a sobering reminder to the defense establishment as to what America’s true priorities should be.

About Jeong Lee

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and an MA candidate in International Security Studies Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. His writings on U.S. defense policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, International, Iraq, Jeong Lee, Libya.

2 Responses to The United States Should Rethink Power-Projection Abroad

  1. Jeong, thank you for your refreshing open comment.

  2. Jeong Lee says:

    Thank you for your kind words.

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