The Senate Armed Services Committee voted today to nominate Colin Kahl as undersecretary of defense for policy, the number three position at the Pentagon. Kahl’s track record of partisan rhetoric and failed strategy initiatives may prove his nomination a lame duck, however, and his adherence to twentieth-century strategies are a step backward for the US.
Kahl, who served as a national security advisor to President Joe Biden when the latter was vice president, has been called out for his hyperbolic and hyper-partisan stances on social media.
He previously tweeted “we are going to die” in response to John Bolton’s being nominated as US National Security Advisor, accused the GOP of being “the party of ethnic cleansing,” and said that “war drums already sounding,” in response to then-President Trump’s warning that there would be severe consequences should Iran restart its nuclear program.
What is most interesting about the tweets, however, is their context.
Kahl’s comment equating the Republican Party with ethnic cleansing was actually made in response to news that Trump would be withdrawing American troops from Syria. And Kahl’s “war drums” language was mirrored nearly verbatim by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in an attempt to sway international opinion against the US.
This context highlights two key strategic perspectives that Kahl promotes, and which ought to be expected to rear their ugly heads should he be confirmed: Containment and interventionism.
Kahl is a proponent of the utterly failed Cold War era policy of containment. Originally conceived of as a strategy to prevent the spread of communism out of the Soviet Union and China, the strategy of containment led to the creation of the infamous Domino Theory which spurred America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Modern backers of the theory such as Kahl believe that the malign influence China and Iran can be contained though economic, diplomatic, and military pressure. The strategy requires frequent intervention in foreign conflicts, however, and is a key reason why the US has remained mired in the Middle East since the Gulf War.
Further, the Obama-era Iran Nuclear Deal was built on containment thinking, and Kahl defended the idea that Iran should be allowed to continue efforts to develop a nuclear weapon so long as the nation was adequately contained through diplomatic and economic means.
This represents what is truly the height of Kahl’s strategic hubris, he believes that containment can be carried out purely through economic and diplomatic means and, while chiding direct American military involvement, has championed the dependence of US allies on American military and arms support.
Experience demonstrates that containment does not work. The over-reliance of America’s allies on US arms and training spreads the nation’s military too thin and leaves its allies ironically without strong militaries of their own. The Iran Nuclear Deal merely attempted to delay the arrival of Iranian nuclear warheads and could not prevent them.
Forget Kahl’s partisan rancor for a moment. Social media is what it is, and it is not an adequate indicator of job performance per se. Focus solely on Kahl’s demonstrated beliefs with regard to national strategy.
At every turn, Kahl’s strategic opinion appears to rely completely on jargon and theory devoid of any meaningful engagement with the reality of the 21st-century battlespace. Like virtually every National Security Advisor of the last 20 years, Kahl is so entrenched in the failed theories of the Cold War as to be incapable of offering meaningful strategy in an era defined by AI, multi-domain operations, and the rushing onset of fifth generation warfare.
Kahl’s partisanship is irrelevant. What matters is that his ideas would continue the tragic US trend of fighting the last war rather than preparing for the next. The only word to adequately describe his nomination is hubris.
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