Over the next decade, the United States can expect to face complex foreign challenges from terrorism, insurgencies and internal conflicts fanned by external sponsorship, but the threat of conventional state-on-state wars, including direct assaults on the American homeland, have significantly diminished, according to retired Lt. General Douglas Lute, the former ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Damon Winter
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Damon Winter

Conflicts are unlikely to threaten vital U.S. interests or demand the scale of intervention that bogged down the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lute said on Feb. 13 at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Setting aside North Korea’s military ambitions and Iran, the most significant threats to the U.S. or its allies in NATO will come from low-tech weapons such as roadside bombs or the high-tech cyber world, he added.

In his first public remarks since concluding a 41-year career as an officer, White House adviser and diplomat, Lute said the quality of U.S. conventional forces is an effective deterrent to aggression by any state.

“I don’t think Russia intends to invade NATO,” he said. “That’s not a fight Russia wants to pick.” 

A greater risk is being drawn into an internal fight that doesn’t involve vital national interests and where the U.S. military is forced into trying to do a job it’s not built to do, Lute said. That is the history of the past 15 years, he said. Lute helped develop policy on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council from 2007 until 2013, first for President George W. Bush and later for President Barack Obama. Before that, he oversaw U.S. military operations worldwide as a director on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.

“We run the risk of deploying into situations we don’t understand, where we can contribute more to the problem than to the solution,” Lute said. “Because of cultural, geographic, political and sometimes ethnic factors that so complicate a situation, we should be very wary of deploying this world-class conventional force into unconventional situations.”

Lute addressed a range of issues he has dealt with during the latter years of his career, in a discussion moderated by Robin Wright, a distinguished scholar at USIP.

On whether NATO is obsolete:

The alliance, founded in 1949 as a bulwark against communist expansion, adapted after the end of Cold War and remains relevant today, Lute said. Enlargement from 16 to 28 members has brought 100 million people into an organization formally committed to the mutual defense of democratic states, he said. Peacekeeping missions in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo two years later, then NATO’s automatic enlistment in the U.S. fight in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, show flexibility and effectiveness that testify to its relevance, he said.

We run the risk of deploying into situations we don’t understand, where we can contribute more to the problem than to the solution.

Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves against Ukraine have sparked a surge in European defense spending—shortfalls on commitments being a sore point with the U.S.—and renewed NATO’s vigilance and deployments to the east. To the south, NATO is responding to new threats involving terrorism, migration and instability, he said. The alliance is part of the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, with an effectiveness that is enhanced by decades of joint training, exercises and cooperation, he said.

On improving relations with Russia:

Russia “tore up the rule book” by seizing Crimea and conducting a “semi-proxy war” in the Donbass region of Ukraine, Lute said. “NATO is not going to get over it,” he said.

Yet there are areas where both countries should be open to cooperation. In counter-terrorism, Russia is confronting an ISIS franchise on its southern flank while at least 5,000 Russian citizens have joined the terrorist group in Iraq or Syria, he said. Both nations have an interest in reducing the risk of inadvertent clashes or unnecessary suspicions by, for example, displaying transparency about the size and placement of forces and avoiding close encounters between U.S. and Russian ships and aircraft.

On the prospects for Iraq and Afghanistan:

Big infusions of American troops in both countries achieved short-term gains in stabilization and reducing violence, particularly in Iraq, which was torn by sectarian conflict in 2007, Lute said. But neither country has instituted the political reforms needed to make the accomplishments of the troop surges permanent, he said.

Iraq’s government “is less sectarian than it was, but it has not come to grips with the forces that gave rise to ISIS” and other destabilizing elements, Lute said. The Iraqi government has failed to meet any of the political benchmarks set out by the U.S. 10 years ago, including electoral reform and a law on local governance, he said. He also pointed to the devastation of the Sunni cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in the battle to dislodge ISIS and the lack of reconstruction efforts to date. The next generation of extremists will arise from the destruction, he predicted.

In Afghanistan, Americans continue to fight amidst a government driven by “industrial strength corruption” that can’t deliver for its people, Lute said, even as the top U.S. commander in the country has called for an additional 8,400 troops. An expanding mission that began to focus on democratic values and governance “defied anything that looked like Afghanistan,” he said. Meanwhile, the U.S. has built an Afghan force of 350,000 troops to battle perhaps 30,000 Taliban—fanatics who hold the initiative and conduct effective asymmetric warfare.

“Until we get to the root causes, this will go on and on,” he said. As for America’s role in addressing the sources of the conflict, Lute said the U.S. probably lacked the ability or capacity to build a “credible, representative, durable political outcome,” a goal he described as “orders of magnitude” more difficult than building an army.

The U.S. went to Afghanistan after 9/11 to deprive international terrorists of a safe haven from which to launch further attacks, a vital U.S. interest, Lute said. That narrow objective was achieved and can be secured from a handful of bases with a small number of military personnel, he said.

In Iraq today, the U.S. is combatting ISIS for much the same reason with about 5,000 troops who keep a low profile and provide mostly technical, medical, intelligence and other specialized assistance.

 “If I have to choose today’s model or 170,000 westerners trying to do it for the Iraqis, I choose today,” Lute said.

Watch Ambassador Lute discuss the value of local peacebuilding in Iraq, or watch the entire discussion.

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