Building Militaries in Fragile States

By John L. Hewitt III Joint Force Quarterly 92

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Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States
By Mara E. Karlin
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017
$75.00 296 pp.
ISBN: 978-0812249262

Reviewed by John L. Hewitt III
John L. Hewitt III is the Command Executive Officer of the 86th Training Division, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.

Building Militaries in Fragile States
Building Militaries in Fragile States
Building Militaries in Fragile States
Photo By: University of Pennsylvania Press
VIRIN: 190123-D-BD104-013

Have you ever wondered why the United States has such an “uneven” record when it comes to building foreign militaries? Since the United States has been involved in building militaries since World War II, one would think it would be adept at doing this, particularly considering its military funding, training, and equipping apparatus. However, this is not the case, as illustrated by measured, objective studies.

Mara Karlin, former Pentagon policymaker and current associate professor of practice of strategic studies at The Johns Hopkins University, has taken a serious look at the nuts and bolts of building militaries abroad—why strategies do and do not work—and the results of U.S. attempts to build militaries in fragile states.

In Building Militaries in Fragile States, Karlin provides a thoughtful, well-researched, and comprehensive account of the components of and challenges associated with U.S. attempts to build militaries through four case studies: Greece (1947), South Vietnam (1955), Lebanon (1982), and Lebanon (2005). As she notes, according to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, security cooperation or building militaries “is one of the serious security challenges of our times” and must be addressed appropriately. Karlin further asserts, “It can be done cheaply and potentially reduce casualties,” which the U.S. populace would undoubtedly support. Moreover, “building partner militaries will likely be increasingly seen as an easier and cheaper way to handle them” in the future.

Karlin states that it is not more training, equipping, and funding that are needed. These things do not address a foreign military’s key requirement, which is, Karlin concludes, “to exert the government’s sovereignty throughout its territory.” Instead, she contends, the United States must be “deeply involved in the partner state’s sensitive military affairs, not operating on the periphery (or passively), and ensure that antagonistic external actors play a diminishing role, instead of degrading the gains brought about by U.S. involvement.” This is important as it determines whether “the partner state military is likely to establish an internal defense.”

Karlin’s book includes much useful data, via charts, tables, and other graphical aids, and is bolstered by personal accounts from leaders, decisionmakers, diplomats, general officers (both U.S. and foreign), Department of Defense (DOD) officials, and others who are charged with structuring or restructuring, funding, equipping, training, and leading efforts to build nascent or immature militaries. Best of all, Karlin offers a glimpse behind the secretive curtains of the Oval Office (Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama), DOD and Department of State, U.S. Embassies, and the National Security Council, where readers become privy to somber, prudent, and reflective accounts regarding the complexities and challenges of these missions.

Karlin introduces readers to a volatile mix of dynamics including frail and stout egos, domineering and acquiescing personalities, strong and fragile leadership, Presidential entreaties (and blunders), wavering and staunch commitments, intra- and inter-departmental infighting and cohesion, and discordant approaches and points of view toward mission strategy and implementation. The dynamics manifest themselves throughout the study and generally yield predictable results—success or failure. In Greece, for example, the U.S. “involvement in military affairs was deep, the U.S. did not become co-combatants, and it managed to reduce the impact external actors had on Greece.” In Vietnam, U.S. involvement in military affairs was “limited, and it overreacted to concerns to external actors.” The case was similar in Lebanon (1982 and 2005), where external aggression in the form of Syria, Iran, and Israel, and internal aggressors like Hezbollah induced considerable pressure on Lebanon and the United States, requiring the two sides to essentially agree to disagree on the appropriate strategy.

Karlin closes the book with a thought-provoking chapter devoted to recommendations. She succinctly recaps the cases, identifying where the host nation and the United States succeeded or failed. Her bold prescriptions for policymakers to consider in future endeavors are helpful. The author herself admits the book’s lone limitation, with respect to the relatively small number of countries analyzed, acknowledging that “this book laid the groundwork for future research on strengthening partner militaries for internal defense.”

To be clear, the book is not a school solution or completed answer sheet to the test. Instead, it serves as a playbook for policymakers to analyze and deduce historical problems, juxtapose those against today’s challenges, reconcile them, and then identify mechanisms that contribute successfully to building militaries.

Building Militaries in Fragile States is a formidable contribution to this field of study; it is prescriptive, detailed, and informative. The author provides readers a roadmap for further investigation that should elicit robust conversations, deeper analysis, and decisive actions. I recommend this book to foreign policy analysts, policy wonks, military personnel, and anyone interested in foreign affairs. Mara Karlin illuminates a problem that will no doubt bedevil the United States for decades—her insights are both enlightening and frightening. JFQ