Steven Metz: Why Are We Planning an Occupation of Lagos?


One interesting thing that happens as a general interest policy blogger is that I shift between discussions about domestic social policy and national security policy. Whenever there’s a conversation about domestic social policy, the overwhelming assumption is that virtually no new funds will be made available for any purpose no matter how worthy unless you can identify offsetting reduced expenditures elsewhere, and that the entire suite of social problems afflicting American citizens will just be perennially underfunded. When you’re a defense policy conversation, by contrast, it’s like all the planning is happening with monopoly money. If you can devise an even remotely plausible rationale while doing something might be useful, you just kind of charge ahead. Consequently, very abstract conversations about defense planning tend to take on a kind of surreal air with grandiose goals framed on the thinnest of pretexts.

All of which is by way of saying that I thought this Steven Metz post on his reaction to “a Department of Defense symposium which discussed the future strategic environment twenty years out” was very insightful:

I was aghast when people talked about future missions like controlling the vast slums of Lagos or Karachi, both because I don’t think those who made this point understood the magnitude of such a task, and because I don’t think doing so would promote American security. None of the architects or implementers of 9/11 were motivated by the lack of jobs or emerged from a teeming slum. On 9/11 we were attacked by a dispersed, non-state entity but in a perfect illustration of the idea that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, we did what we knew how to do: we overthrew two national governments. But–and this is the important part—because there were no subsequent successful attacks on the United States, we assumed this was the right approach. I non-concur.

In the coming decades we’re going to have to re-address the basic assumptions of the post-9/11 strategy. We‘ve skated by with flawed assumptions for the past five years, but the day of reckoning is near. I think this revolutionary shift in the strategic environment will be particularly momentous for the Army. The Army’s core function has always been to seize and control territory. That made sense during all of human history to this point since threats were geographic in essence. They arose from an identified place, and if we could control that place, we destroyed or minimized the threat. But if you buy the notion that future threats will not be linked to a particular piece of geography–enemies can mobilize resources and undertake operations from almost anywhere–then seizing and controlling terrain will no longer be the essence of security. This led me to predict at the symposium that 20 years hence, the U.S. Army’s role in promoting American security will decline precipitously.

I keep thinking about the alleged need to provide effective governance over 100 percent of the territory of Afghanistan because in the absence of such governance an al-Qaeda safe haven might emerge. This seems to ignore the fact that there are plenty of other Muslim-majority countries that fall short of the 100 percent effective governance standard. But more importantly it ignores the fact that the major al-Qaeda terrorist plots were hatched from the middle of major western cities. We’re not going to make Lagos as well-governed as Madrid, and even if we did it wouldn’t accomplish the goal.

I think the mentality that leads to the idea that we should spend vast resources trying to control the slums of Karachi while skimping on our efforts to bring schools, jobs, health clinics, safe streets, and economic opportunity to the slums of Baltimore reflects not just a misperception of the strategic environment, but a real failure to appreciate the sources of American strength.