The bankruptcy of counterinsurgency: Stanley McChrystal on Afghanistan

posted 16 May 2010 with minor revisions 24 May

I can’t get General McChrystal’s recent appearance on the the PBS NewsHour out of my head. What the U.S. commander in Afghanistan had to say on the application of the currently fashionable doctrine of counter-insurgency (or COIN) was unnerving. Its platitudes and vacuity revealed more forcefully than anything I have seen to date the conceptual bankruptcy of the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan.

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Responding to the China Challenge

essay in American Diplomacy, 10 May 2010

The media provides almost daily reminders of how complex and tangled the U.S.-China relationship has become. The range of issues in play is extraordinary, even unprecedented. At the forefront right now are a mix of hardy perennials (such as arms sales to Taiwan, the future of Tibet, and human rights) and newly emergent concerns (such as internet censorship and cyber warfare, sanctions against Iran and North Korea, holdings of U.S. debt, the trade gap, currency devaluation, competition over oil and other natural resources, and the response to climate change). Taken together, these issues generate considerable contention and have the potential over time to spawn a dangerous level of ill will.

Viewed in historical perspective, the U.S.-China relationship may now be at a major inflection point. On the one side, an increasingly strong and self-confident China poses a profound challenge to a U.S.-defined and dominated global regime. On the other side, American elites continue to have a hard time coming to terms with this unfolding challenge. While U.S. presidents have grudgingly accepted China’s legitimacy as a major power, rumblings of discontent with China’s Communist Party dating back some six decades have echoed powerfully in Washington and the media. The result has been a divided U.S. response to China’s rise, part accommodation, part confrontation, and each arising from distinct, even contradictory premises. Read More »

Victory in Vietnam: The Myth That Won’t Die But Can’t Stand Up

post to UNC Press Blog, 6 May 2010

Taking academic history into the public square is always eye opening. A recent round of appearances following the publication of A Vietnam War Reader reminded me of the continuing hold on the public imagination of the myth of victory in the Vietnam War. Triumph was possible, so the argument goes, had only the public kept its resolve and were the military allowed to move decisively. While this myth refuses to die, it also won’t stand up to scrutiny. An expanding body of scholarship, including notably fresh contributions over the last decade, make ever less plausible this “woulda, coulda, shoulda” version of the Vietnam War. [See New views on the the Vietnam War: Suggested readings. (updated 6/6/2011)] Read More »

Obama’s Foreign Policy: Not Change But More of the Same

editorial in Journal of Political Criticism (Seoul), vol. 6 (May 2010)

Barack Obama was elected president on the promise of change. And in domestic policy he may deliver on some of that promise. But on foreign policy the record to date suggests that Obama means more of the same. The legal and other excesses associated with the “global war on terrorism” persist. The nuclear proliferation challenges posed by Iran and North Korean continue to baffle Washington. U.S. policymakers still stand aloof from serious international efforts to protect the environment. Israel remains an obstreperous ally whose lobbying operations all but paralyze U.S. policymakers. Washington is demonstrating a remarkable tendency to keep moving at the same pace and in the same direction regardless of who is in the White House.

Nowhere is this continuity in U.S. policy more evident or more consequential than in regard to Afghanistan and China. While each poses familiar and fundamental challenges to current U.S. policy in a key region, Washington seems to cling to old assumptions and conceptions no matter how questionable.

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