An American Foreign Legion: A Profoundly Stupid Idea Whose Time Has Not Come

Image by Archangel12 via Flickr Creative Commons https://goo.gl/ZGI8Dm
Image by Archangel12 via Flickr Creative Commons https://goo.gl/ZGI8Dm

There are some bad ideas that simply refuse to die. A “senior fellow” at the Atlantic Council, named Sean McFate, trots out one of the tried and true losers in The Washington Post. We need an American Foreign Legion.

McFate, whom I do not know, styles himself as something of a Renaissance Man and all-around prodigy. If you don’t think he is wonderful, he’ll quickly disabuse you of that notion.

President Obama recently announced that an additional 250 Special Operations forces will be sent to Syria to stem the spread of the Islamic State. It won’t work. By now, “too little, too late” has become the moniker of the administration’s Middle East policy. To be fair, the policy of Obama’s predecessor wasn’t effective either. What is needed is a new piece on the chessboard: an American Foreign Legion.

McFate lays out the world as he sees it. In the Middle East, in general, and in the fight against ISIS, in particular we have a series of options.

Do nothing and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Use Special Forces.

Use large numbers of conventional forces.

Use private military contractors (PMCs).

Create an American Foreign Legion.

The force in an operation is dependent upon the military strategy. Here McFate confuses strategy (do nothing, train indigenous forces to control the battle space, i.e. using special forces and PMCs, US and allied forces in direct action, i.e. using US military or foreign legion, with the forces required to carry out the mission.

A military strategy is dependent upon a political strategy. Absent a political strategy, which the United States does not have at the moment, any discussion of the right type of forces is simply bullsh**. But that’s why we blog, right? Because bullsh**.

McFate is an academic who uses an extraordinarily thin, virtually infinitesimal, resume as an Army officer (he never specifies his branch but his service in a Patriot battalion indicates he was not an infantry or special forces officer). He apparently did not command during his time in the Army. He did not attend a staff college. This is not to say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about but his military experience is irrelevant to his academic writings.

I’m not going to look at the SF and PMC options for a few reasons. First, McFate doesn’t really understand the roles and functions of the different types of special forces. Secondly, PMC use for large scale operations carries a cost, both financial and political, that no US administration is ever going to accept.

US conventional forces and an American Foreign Legion would fill the same battle space, that is, a sustained conventional operation against ISIS  or similar foe.

The third option is Iraq War III. We could mount another “surge” of U.S. troops, as we did in 2007 to turn the tide of the war we launched in 2003, in hopes of winning hearts and minds. But the surge and the counterinsurgency strategy failed. Once U.S. troops leave, terrorists take over again, as the Islamic State has proved. Few Americans would like us to get sucked into another long war in the Middle East.

An American Foreign Legion would solve many problems that have plagued us in the past decade of war. First, it would provide a publicly acceptable, truly volunteer force for long-term operations in the Middle East. Second, training and vetting standards could be maintained in a transparent manner, unlike with today’s contractors. Third, legionnaires could be held accountable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Today, when contractors do something wrong, such as commit murder, they typically get sent home with minimal punishment. As Prince put it, they get a choice: “window or aisle.” Fourth, it solves the loyalty problem. The American Foreign Legion would be a path to citizenship in exchange for service to our cause. This is not a radical idea; we do this to a limited extent in our military. Fifth, a long-term Foreign Legion would be cheaper than contracting. In fiscal 2014, the Pentagon spent $131 billion on contractors — more than twice Britain’s entire defense budget. Lastly, it would help stem the growth of the mercenary industry worldwide. The United States is the biggest consumer of private military services, but we have limited control. When we no longer wish to pay military contractors, they will find someone who will.

When I look at this I see something much different. I see a conventional force that will bring with it an incredible political price and limited combat effectiveness. Let’s examine the alleges advantages first.

First, it would provide a publicly acceptable, truly volunteer force for long-term operations in the Middle East.

Is this true? Do we have any evidence that large scale recruiting of foreign nationals would be politically acceptable to anyone? No. It is an assertion and a very shaky one. For an analog, let’s look at our own history. Did the British Army using Hessian (for you pedants, yes, I know Hesse-Kassel was only one of several German principalities who supplied troops) troops help or hinder their cause in North America? And it is a fact that Britain’s use of German mercenaries provided a propaganda tool that weakened the political position of the British government at home. There is no evidence whatsoever that the American public will like the idea of using foreign troops.

Second, training and vetting standards could be maintained in a transparent manner, unlike with today’s contractors.

This is again a false choice. An American Foreign Legion is not an analog to PMCs. But it does bring up some questions that McFate has assumed away. Where will this Foreign Legion be trained? Who will train them? What will the vetting standards be? Would we accept recruits, for instance, that meet the same “vetting” standards as your typical “refugee” from a Turkish camp or San Bernardino shooter? Who will do the vetting?

Training is also an issue. The fact is that in most of the world, basically anywhere outside Western Europe and Australia, the armies are political enforcers focused on squelching internal opposition. Special Forces from the Arab world are barely competent line infantry in a real army. Their “special” component is their political reliability. Even when you look to emerging regional superpowers, like India, their special forces are little short of pathetic. So it isn’t like a American Foreign Legion can be plugged into the role currently filled by US Special Forces. An unit composed of foreigners, even experienced soldiers, would require extensive training in US tactics, techniques, and procedures as well as a thorough grounding in how the US military operates so that it can operate in cooperation with US and NATO forces.

Third, legionnaires could be held accountable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Today, when contractors do something wrong, such as commit murder, they typically get sent home with minimal punishment.

This statement is both true (they would be covered under UCMJ) and utterly false. If you think PMCs who kill people, even under the most ambiguous circumstances, get minimal punishment, then you should talk to these guys now serving 30 years to life in a federal prison. As the real comparison is between different flavors of conventional forces, there is actually no difference here between using US forces an a so-called American Foreign Legion.

Fourth, it solves the loyalty problem. The American Foreign Legion would be a path to citizenship in exchange for service to our cause. This is not a radical idea; we do this to a limited extent in our military.

I have to admit to not even knowing what this means. It presumes, or so it seems, that the receipt of American citizenship is sufficient to keep someone recruited into this American Foreign Legion from killing their fellow soldiers or betraying them to the enemy. If having American citizenship is not sufficient today to keep Nidal Hassan from gunning down fellow soldiers it is difficult to see how a promise of citizenship works any better.

Fifth, a long-term Foreign Legion would be cheaper than contracting. In fiscal 2014, the Pentagon spent $131 billion on contractors — more than twice Britain’s entire defense budget.

Again, this is a false comparison. First, we don’t know how much these soldiers would be paid. Would we use US payscale, or would we look to what soldiers from other nations make, or would we pay them a premium over the US payscale? If we assume that they are paid US scale then, de facto, they would be no cheaper than US troops.

Lastly, it would help stem the growth of the mercenary industry worldwide. The United States is the biggest consumer of private military services, but we have limited control. When we no longer wish to pay military contractors, they will find someone who will.

This is an internally inconsistent statement. The real implication is that if we used an American Foreign Legion we would create more mercenaries because PMCs would go to other, foreign, clients. I have to admit to not being a student of the use of mercenaries in the 21st century. I did, however, study extensively their use in Africa in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. McFate conflating PMCs and Russian military serving in the Ukraine as “mercenaries” is simply disingenuous to the extent that it isn’t patently dishonest. PMCs, unlike the the mercenary units in the Belgian Congo and Katanga and Angola, respond to the direction of national governments who can put their boards of directors in prison.

And, of course, the young men whom we would attract to an American Foreign Legion might find it lucrative to take their training to various Third World despots after their term of service, or form their own mercenary detachments, rather than take the proffered US citizenship and getting a job in Obama’s economy.

Let me tell you where I see the major fallacies in this proposal.

Foreign countries will object to their citizens being actively recruited.

Extensive training and a permanent training facility would be required to field the initial unit and guarantee a replacement stream.

This American Foreign Legion will require American officers and non-commissioned officers to lead it so it isn’t like there will not be American casualties if it is used in combat.

This American Foreign Legion is arguably illegal under International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, 4 December 1989. I say arguably because even though it might technically be legal you can bet the UN and every other nation Obama has pissed off will be claiming it is illegal. This has legal consequences for the soldiers serving in it if they travel back home or are detained en route or captured.

Soldiers serving in the American Foreign Legion would clearly be liable to prosecution by their home nations and would not have any recourse to the Geneva Conventions if captured even if ISIS were in the mood to observe them.

Unless changes were made in federal laws and regulations a lot of US military equipment, like all communications gear that includes crypto and intel product, would be off limits to these soldiers as you cannot have the requisite security clearance without US citizenship.

Unless all the soldiers recruited have fluency, not mere proficiency, in English, it is difficult to see how this kind of unit could do much more than basic security work.

Vetting potential soldiers from the nations we’d most like to recruit from, the Middle East, would be an insuperable problem.

What happens when we discharge these men? The US Army School of the Americas is a PR nightmare because of the political careers of some of its alumni. This unit would have the same problem when US trained soldiers begin showing up in Islamic insurgencies or in other places in the world.

Deploying such a unit would still require significant use of US military forces to provide logistics, transportation, intelligence support, combat air support, medical care, etc. Those units would require American forces to protect them.

This idea is not just a little bad, it is very bad. It creates a military force that would require extensive US military support to put into action. It puts large numbers of Americans serving with the unit at risk. It would generate limited combat power. It brings with it all the political problems of a long term US military enterprise along with an enormous number of domestic and international political problems.

McFate should go back to writing novels.