This is something I've been meaning to talk about for awhile now. I will just sketch out my idea for now.
The US foreign and security policies/strategies are at a historical moment right now, the moment of paradigm shift. The paradigm is this: Nation-State Centric versus Nation-Tribe Centric.
Failures of Nation-State Centric Paradigm
US policies used to be, and still nominally is, Nation-State centric. Everything the United States does has to be channeled through states and official governments. For example, we know that terrorists reside in, say, Sudan. However, we can't just go in and grab them. We have to petition the Sudanese government for extradition, even though the Sudanese government does not have that much control over the terrorists. Once the terrorists get the wind of an impending extradition, they can use bribes and their contacts in the government to get out of Sudan. And there's nothing we can do about it [except the CIA].
Or, another example, the Iraqi Oil-For-Food program. Right after Gulf War I, we embargoed Iraq's trade. Officially, Iraq was not getting anything through the UN embargo. Unofficially, smugglers moved oil out of Iraq and food/medicine into Iraq. Saddam Hussein and his people were getting a handsome cut of the smuggling trade. But he chose not to give the food and medicine to his people, because he knew that the suffering of his people made great TV. And it did. The UN started the Oil-For-Food program. Iraq now could export as much oil as necessary to feed its people. However, Iraq never came close to its export quota. Saddam chose to sell less oil than he could so that his people would continue to suffer privation. Critical medicine remained short in Iraqi hospitals. On the black market, however, Saddam continued selling oil to line his coffer and buy some weapons.
Because of our Nation-State centric paradigm, the United States (and the UN) could not go into Iraq and run the Oil-For-Food program directly. We had to wait for Iraq to sell however much oil it wants to. Give Iraq the food and medicine. And watch the Iraqi government divert food/medicine shipments away from its people, and into the black market. We also ccould do little to stop Iraq's black market oil export, because Saddam was exporting his oil to countries like Syria and Turkey, our putative allies. We had to depend on the grace of the Syrian and Turkish governments to police their own black market activities.
Iraq and Afghanistan
Nation-State paradigm is the main reason our strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan were not working for much of the 21st Century thus far. The paradigm dictates that our policies have to go through the state governments of Iraq and Afghanistan. So for the longest time, we waited for the Iraqi national government to dither about its constitution, then waited some more as they stood up the ministries and carved up patronages. We knew, in the back of our minds, that the Iraqi parties don't have much representation on the ground. That the Iraqi parties were antagonizing the more popularly based insurgencies. However, we could not go against the Iraqi government. If the governing coalition refused to bring more Sunnis into the government, then the most we could do is talk some more.
However, it is also Iraq that has spurred the paradigm shift that we are undergoing. Sometime in early 2006, the US military came to a concensus that we needed to ignore the national parliament and start engaging the local insurgents politically. In the Anbar province, we started negotiating with the sheiks ourselves. We paid the "Sons of Iraq" to provide local security. We paid the sheiks to clean the streets and dig ditches. We dragged the mayors and police chiefs with us to meet the sheiks, sometimes. And everything flowed from that Anbar Awakening.
The difference here is a bottom-up approach versus top-down in imposing security. Before the Awakening, we were recruiting Iraqi soldiers and policemen from a national perspective. We looked at the overall number and depended on the Iraqi ministries to recruit. If the recruiting drive missed, say Fallujah, there was nothing we could do. We gave the ministries Iraqi and US money, and if the ministry bureaucracy does not apportion funds equitably, the most we could do is complain.
In the bottom-up approach, we by-passed the ministries and engage the local level directly. If the recruiting drive missed Fallujah, we could work with the local dignitaries to put security on the street. Americans could hire Fallujan rent-a-cops if there are not enough Fallujan cops.
Because we are in the midst of this paradigm shift, we do not have a clear policy and strategy. The US State Department had always depended on the Host Nation bureaucracy to execute US aid and assistance. Today DoState is trying to stand up Provincial Reconstruction Teams on an ad hoc basis without clear direction. It cannot find enough people to staff these Teams, even though they are a national priority.
Many commentators have commented negatively on the various Awakening movements. They noted the improvements in local security, but always worried that we are undercutting the authority of the Iraqi central government; that we are embracing former Baathists; that we are setting up local warlords. Their concerns generally stem from the Nation-State centric paradigm: if Iraq does not have a strong central government, then the government cannot impose security on its people. Our original policy and strategy was to stand up the central government, able to guarantee internal security, which would allow the US to stand down in Iraq. The Awakenings conflicted with that policy by setting up alternate centers of power. However, the central government had not been able to impose security. The Shiite insurgency and the Sunni insurgency were signs that the Iraqi people did not accept a central government staffed by Iraqi expatriates. We had to grow the local centers of power, co-opting them and steering them in a peaceful direction, thus pressuring the central government to accede to local demands. In embracing the Awakening, the US military adopted a bottom-up tactic when the national policy and strategy remained top-down. The result is strategic confusion, as planners try to reconcile policy with tactic.
The same thing is happening in Afghanistan, tho more slowly. We rushed to set up the central government and the army, without much focus on the local government nor police. The warlords carved up the country and controlled the provinces as they like. Karzai could count on their nominal support, but they always kept high their own interests and those of their constituents. Afghanistan has a more severe problem than Iraq because there are many more factions in Afghanistan, with more regional sponsors. With the "Awakening"-approach, we're again trying to apply bottom-up tactics without seriously reviewing our top-down policy. People like those at Abu Muqawama say that we don't have a clear strategy for Afghanistan. Of course we wouldn't if our tactics and policy conflict with each other.
Paradigm Shift Implications
So it is clear that we are struggling our way through this paradigm shift. Eventually we will have to update our policy to account for bottom-up, non-state approaches. But as the world is full of nationalist feelings and semi-functioning state bureaucracies, we will have a hybrid policy for years to come. We will start with bottom-up, Nation-Tribe approaches toward failed states and semi-failed states (which have nominal state governments).
[In a sense CIA has always practiced a version of this Nation-Tribe approach. However, their shenanigans in the 50s soured the taste of bottom-up paradigm for everyone. A major part of the reluctance to engage in nation-tribe paradigm stems from that historical lesson.]
The Nation-Tribe paradigm is dangerous on the international stage because it directly threatens the governments of the Non-Aligned Movement, namely China, India, and thugs like Mugabe. If the Tibet question comes up for the United States, for example, the nation-state paradigm says, it's an internal problem for China, tho we will protest human rights abuses. The nation-tribe paradigm, on the other hand, can say something like this: We support Tibetan self-determination, and will actively support a process that can lead to Tibetan independence. That is an unlikely outcome of the paradigm, as we need to balance other interests, but that would be foremost on the mind of Chinese leaders as they oppose our paradigm shift. India shares many US strategic goals, but they too have many separatist movements and will oppose a Nation-Tribe paradigm.
A Nation-Tribe paradigm, tho, can lead to a powerful outcome in dealing with humanitarian crisis [edited: crises] like Zimbabwe. For example, we can de-recognize the Mugabe regime as it does not represent all of Zimbabwe. We will carve out a sanctuary on Zimbabwe territory, by force if necessary, internationally preferrably, where the MDC is in charge. We will then provide humanitarian assistance and set out to make the sanctuary self-sufficient in food production. If the MDC decides to raise an army and invade Mugabe territory, we would not intervene. If Mugabe attacks the sanctuary, we will defend. The policy goal is humane governance in Zimbabwe, with the sanctuary as the example and training ground on local governance.
[Yes, this is similar to the Kurdistan model we set up after Gulf War I.]
As we move further into the 21st Century, failed states will proliferate. As John Robb commented, Mexico is sinking inexorably into failed state territory and becoming the US's numero uno security challenge. The nation-tribe paradigm will be essential in dealing with the 21st Century Mexico, as the nation-state pradigm failed in dealing with the 20th Century Mexico. If Iraq is where the US military learned the tactics of bottom-up security, and Afghanistan will be [hopefully] where the US military learns the strategy of bottom-up security/governance, then Mexico will be where the US federal government learns to formulate and execute bottom-up policy in pursuit of US interests. Or we will get to practice COIN tactics on our own soil. Let us hope that we learn fast enough.
Edited to Add: One useful way to think about this shift is on the question of sovereignty: We used to be on the "Theory of Sovereignty", that we assumed every government had full sovereignty, even if reality conflicts with that claim. Now we will operate on "the Test of Sovereignty", where we only acknowledge your sovereignty after you have demonstrated it credibly. To use a dated example, we will acknowledge Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor only if Indonesia can exercise its sovereign powers over East Timor.
Thanks to Joe for the link.