COIN Through the Eyes of Bourdieu: American Legitimation Practices in Iraq 2007-2009

: American Legitimation Practices in Iraq 2007-2009

  • Alexander Brammer

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Abstract

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 initiated a three-year process of transition in which the US military retooled itself – in training, doctrine, equipment, and personnel policies – to fight the irregular wars that many thought would be the primary security challenge of the 21st century. In Iraq, a model of expeditionary counterinsurgency (COIN) was rediscovered, and the concept of political legitimacy was explicitly placed at the centre of military and interagency doctrine as the US struggled to stabilize its new Middle Eastern democratic project. For a time during and immediately following the 2007-2008 Iraq Surge, it seemed that legitimacy-oriented expeditionary COIN was to be the answer the US was seeking for Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Today, things look quite different. As tensions have risen with Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, and as it has become clear that US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to achieve most of their associated political objectives, the US military has once again transitioned away from irregular warfare concepts, capabilities and doctrine in favor of deterrenceoriented preparation for high-end near-peer contingencies around the globe. Yet despite the excellent work done by academics and practitioners alike to reflect upon COIN in the modern era, there are still critical questions that are unanswered about how and why the US failed to achieve its objectives in what has been dubbed the ‘counterinsurgency decade’. In Iraq, specifically, where America’s legitimacy-oriented expeditionary COIN model was invented, the question of what the Surge accomplished has been answered, but the question of how it was (or was not) accomplished has not, to date, been rigourously examined. As we look toward future conflicts in the information age, this central question of legitimation is likely to become increasingly important.

The core research question driving this thesis – to what extent and how was the United States able to legitimize the government of Iraq between 2007 and 2009 through its counterinsurgency practices – is designed to look anew at the US experience in Iraq, through the lens of counterinsurgency’s core logic of legitimation. The originality of the argument in this thesis, aside from its central focus on COIN as a process of legitimation, lies in its theoretical and methodological approach. Using a Bourdieusian sociological framework to conduct analysis of practices as patterned and repeated actions allows for a unique approach to bridging the structure-agent divide. By tracing COIN ‘practices’ as the ontological focal point and unit of analysis within the single case study of Iraq, the thesis is able to integrate structure and agency and focus on the operations and interactions that shaped the cognitive and physical battlespaces in Iraq during the Surge. The ontology of practice is central to both the theoretical and methodological frameworks used in this thesis, which are linked by a Pragmatist epistemology that is neither overly dogmatic nor relativist in its commitments to truth claims. Acknowledging the contingent and evolving character of human interaction and warfare alike, the findings in this thesis are considered to valid until proven otherwise.

The first key finding of the thesis has to do with sequencing: The United States did not begin to see success in stabilizing Iraq until it got the sequence right – population security and control, US legitimacy, and then efforts to build Government of Iraq legitimacy – and things fell apart again when it disengaged from this effort. This suggests that part of the sequencing question is intimately tied up with recognition of how long an expeditionary COIN intervention needs to be sustained to ultimately be successful. The second key finding is that the COIN force’s legitimacy matters. Although COIN doctrine locates the host-nation government’s legitimacy as its central objective, in Iraq it was impossible to begin to build this until the United States and its coalition partners themselves had achieved a minimum level of popular support in Iraq. It is not clear that this lesson on the primacy of its own legitimacy has been internalized today in the United States interagency.

The third key finding simultaneously reinforces and critiques the growing emphasis on the ‘strategic narrative’ in Western defence circles: In Iraq, words required actions to matter. The first three years of the US occupation of Iraq were characterized by a words-deeds gap that significantly degraded US credibility and therefore hampered its efforts to legitimize the Government of Iraq. It was not until it began demonstrating its commitment and sharing the burden with Iraqis that the US began to see success in building a resonant narrative. When those actions ceased, the words again began to ring hollow, suggesting that efforts to build narratives using rhetoric and discourse alone will struggle to find success in similar settings. The fourth key finding has to do with the dangers of ethnocentrism in these types of conflicts. The United States embarked upon a program of democratization in Iraq that was almost entirely disconnected from Iraq’s cultural and political history. US policy-makers attempted to create an institutional free-market liberal democracy in Iraq by toppling a dictator and holding elections, which is what caused Iraq to spiral into civil war in the first place. It was not until the US approached stabilization and legitimation through the Iraqi cultural frame of reference that it saw any kind of success.

Fifth and finally, the analysis in this thesis suggests that in Iraq specifically, COIN – as a politico-military methodology – is not to blame for US failure (to include the rise of ISIS). It seems more likely that it is the current state of US domestic politics, which incentivizes politicians to prioritize domestic political issues at the expense of foreign policy issues that are nevertheless core US national interests. The hyper-polarized nature of US politics precluded a consistent, predictable strategic policy to be pursued in Iraq across presidential administrations, with the outcome being that the short-term benefits of the Surge – problematic though they may have been – all unravelled in short order when US engagement ceased.
Date of AwardJul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsMarshall Aid Commemoration Commission
SupervisorAndrew Thomson (Supervisor) & Dominic Bryan (Supervisor)

Cite this

COIN Through the Eyes of Bourdieu: American Legitimation Practices in Iraq 2007-2009: American Legitimation Practices in Iraq 2007-2009
Brammer, A. (Author). Jul 2020

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy