Friday, March 12, 2010

When did that happen?

I don't typically get a lot of satisfaction out of Robert Haddick's "This Week at War" columns at Foreign Policy. It may be that I spend enough time at SWJ that most of what Haddick covers amounts to a recap, or it may be a product of the lowest-common-denominator sort of writing that FP seems to encourage. Recognizing that "This Week at War" is expressly designed to deliver a dumbed-down summary of SWJ's original content to a more general audience -- as evidenced by the ludicrous subhead "What the four-stars are reading" -- I suppose I ought not fault either Haddick or the site for that.

But there are a couple of recurring themes that jump out at me and rub me the wrong way a bit, like the sort of low-grade, snide China hawkery or the off-putting suggestion that Haddick's got an exclusive handle on what constitutes "correct" civil-military relations. It's on this latter subject that this week's edition focuses.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced civil-military relations in the United States to grow up and leave behind a naive adolescence that prevailed at the start of the last decade. Before the wars began, the "normal" theory of civil-military relations, described in Eliot Cohen's book Supreme Command) still ruled. Under the "normal" theory, civilian leadership determines war policy and then leaves the generals and admirals alone to run the war. Thankfully those days are gone; hardly a month passes without the secretary of defense or some other senior figure heading out to the field, questioning not just generals, but also colonels and sergeants about their tactics. Likewise, soldiers now deeply immerse themselves in questions about the connections between policy objectives and military strategy, the evidence for which can be found every day at websites such as Small Wars Journal. By dropping the normal theory and letting policymakers and military officers into each other's "lanes," the result has been a generally smarter use of military power.
Really? When did that happen? I'm shocked by this assertion. What evidence do we have of any "smarter use of military power" over recent months or years? It's hard to believe that Haddick could be talking about the process through which President McChry... er, Obama arrived at his Afghanistan escalation plan. (Bernard Finel wrote extensively on this subject late last year. I don't want to suggest that I agree completely with Bernard on this subject, because I don't, but only to present the alternative case to what Haddick suggests is "mature" and "smart.")

Where else has the use of military power been "generally smarter"? Is it the fact that the Obama administration has wholeheartedly accepted the dictums of the COIN crowd in Afghanistan? Or the refusal to get directly involved in Yemen and Somalia? Or decisions about the withdrawal timeline in Iraq, which have been pretty well settled for a while now?

What evidence is there, really, to suggest as Haddick does that "U.S. civil-military relations are more mature" now than ten years ago?

For me, an advancement in U.S. civil-military relations would constitute the following: (1) politicians learning how and when the capabilities possessed by the military can be used to effect certain desired end-states, and taking the proper decisions with regard to funding and organization to facilitate the military bringing these capabilities to bear; and (2) military officers expressing an understanding for and appreciation of the ways that military action can effect these changes, that is to say, a better understanding of the linkage between the operational and the strategic, between design and result. I don't know how you measure these sorts of changes, but then, I don't know exactly on what basis Haddick asserts that positive change has already taken place.

Haddick cites Mackubin Owens in calling for a closer integration between policy and strategy, which all sounds good to me. Maybe we all agree and I'm just too dense to figure it out.

14 comments:

  1. Maybe 15 years ago would be a better baseline.

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  2. "Recognizing that "This Week at War" is expressly designed to deliver a dumbed-down summary of SWJ's original content to a more general audience -- as evidenced by the ludicrous subhead "What the four-stars are reading" -- I suppose I ought not fault either Haddick or the site for that."

    To simplify is not to "dumb" down, necessarily. If I give a lecture to medical students versus residents, when I simplify for one and not the other, it's not that I think one is dumb and the other isn't. It's that I understand they are on different parts of the learning curve.

    I'm not going to defend this particular article - haven't read it - but I applaud the general idea of taking complex ideas, or aspects of an intellectual debate, and trying to present a few ideas in clear language to the general public. You can't complain about the general public not caring about X, Y or Z, and then make fun of the very instruments that help the caring along....

    Or, maybe you can. And this has nothing to do with the post, really, I just wanted to type something. Also, I kind of like Haddick's stuff at SWJ, but then I'm on a very different part of the learning curve than you are.

    *Strategy Page says somewhere on it's site that it strives to present information in a simple and clear way, keeping in mind different reading and educational levels. Or something like that. I am always touched by it - it speaks to the best and most generous instincts.

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  3. Regarding "dumbing it down" versus simplifying: see here.

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  4. What is the point of this blog? Do you do anything other than criticize other people's writing? It's not even humorous.

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  5. What is the point of this blog? Do you do anything other than criticize other people's writing? It's not even humorous.

    I'm disappointed if you feel that's the case, though I suppose I kind of wonder why you have 176 recent visits if you find it so unbearable.

    The point of this particular post was to engage the readership in a discussion about trends in civil-military relations, and to debate Haddick's contention that they're somehow more "normal" or "good" or "mature" than at any point in recent history. I suppose there may have been a way to do that without actually criticizing Haddick's piece, but perhaps I'm just not creative enough.

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  6. @Anon,
    I'm pretty sure Gulliver's purpose is to antagonize losers who spend their Saturday nights leaving worthless comments on blogs. Looks like mission accomplished.

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  7. @Gulliver, I apologize. I actually meant to post on a completely unrelated blog but had several open at the same time. My bad, no problem with this blog.

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  8. Funny link, Schmedlap,

    I don't think I've simplified things down to Homer Simpson levels, and yet, it's a good vignette in that it illustrates an important point. The patient needs to understand what is happening and that may be tricky given the individual circumstances. Also, we must never mistake years of technical training for wisdom (or intelligence, even. There are some very stupid educated people out there. Haven't you seen my silly comments on blogs?)

    Respect the individual!

    Gulliver,

    What's with the "President McChryst...." joke? Seriously? You all know I am not a particular fan of this President's policies, but you know what? Just because you don't agree with his decision-making in this instance, it doesn't mean he is any person's puppet. Dude.

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  9. What's with the "President McChryst...." joke? Seriously? You all know I am not a particular fan of this President's policies, but you know what? Just because you don't agree with his decision-making in this instance, it doesn't mean he is any person's puppet. Dude.

    Dude -- It's not about being anyone's puppet. I was trying to be lighthearted about the fact that we never got a more sophisticated explanation from the president about why the escalation was necessary, or how it would make our country and people more secure, than the bumper-sticker slogans that GEN McChrystal had been repeating since the summer. It's not so much that I don't agree with the president's decision-making as that I think he abdicated the responsibility to seriously consider his options, instead supporting a course of action put forward by a popular general without ever really stopping to think if it was about anything more than some vague idea of "winning."

    What's the desired end-state? How's it going to happen? How will it make us safer?

    No one answered any of these questions. They talked about protecting the people, standing up the ANSF so we could stand down, making Afghans capable of keeping their country from being a safe-haven for terrorists who would strike at America. We can do better, and I expected better from this president.

    GEN McChrystal's just doing his job. Somebody tells him "win," and he comes up with the best way to make it happen. This one's on the president.

    Dude.

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  10. "It's not so much that I don't agree with the president's decision-making as that I think he abdicated the responsibility to seriously consider his options, instead supporting a course of action put forward by a popular general without ever really stopping to think if it was about anything more than some vague idea of "winning." "

    He abdicated his responsibility? Oh, come on. Look, I'm deeply skeptical - how could anyone reading my comments these past months not pick up on that? I am deeply skeptical. However, he didn't abdicate his responsibility - he made a different choice than you would if you were commander-in-chief.

    Anyway, let's agree to disagree on this, mainly, because I'm out of time for blog commenting today :) Remember - I put aside dedicated time for this, that, and the other. How sad that you all have to know that about me.

    Anecdotally - some relatives who are deeply, deeply, deeply skeptical about all things Pakistan surprised me by saying they think there is some kind of change going on. Of course, they all think it's related to a lot of outside pressure, but they think it's real!

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  11. He abdicated his responsibility? Oh, come on. Look, I'm deeply skeptical - how could anyone reading my comments these past months not pick up on that? I am deeply skeptical. However, he didn't abdicate his responsibility - he made a different choice than you would if you were commander-in-chief.

    I'm not saying he was just being lazy. I'm saying that a whole bunch of factors conspired to convince him that going with what the general wanted was a good idea, and that he never took the time to explain to the American people WHY in a way that was any more sophisticated than a five-year old's bedtime story. He trotted out the same nonsense, ignored the same ludicrously obvious weaknesses and counterpoints, and expected to get by on the same sort of Bush-ian fear tactics that we've been subject to for most of the last decade.

    Look, I'm not taking it personally. I think the president is an intelligent and charismatic guy, and that he generally has a lot of character and integrity, and that he's a pretty outstanding leader. But he dropped the ball on this one. He might've been correct to believe that the American people's whims and commitment to the effort were more easily manipulated by men in uniform, that he couldn't afford politically to back away, that he had too much else on his plate to give Afghanistan the deep thought and consideration that it deserved. Or hell, maybe he really believes that Regimental Combat Team 2's patrolling in Nimruz is keeping Americans safe from lunatics with box cutters or a van full of fertilizer. I just find the latter proposition far less likely.

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  12. Gulliver,

    Seriously, you don't know why we're escalating in Afghanistan?

    9/11 was plotted in Afghanistan by terrorists. If that isn't enough of an explanation for you then maybe I'll upload a video of me waving an American flag and chanting, "USA! USA!"

    Oh, and I almost forgot: Islamofascism, House of War, and jihad is a pillar of Islam (look it up).

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  13. Dude,

    Have you seen my Inkspots blog?

    All this hate distracts from the discussion.

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  14. MIkeF:

    Sometimes - not very often, thankfully - it gets cranky in the comments section, even without SNLII!

    You should see any India thread involving me and Gulliver.

    (I made some sort of cranky comments at Wings Over Iraq, too, yesterday. I hope Starbuck knows I was kind of joking - I used, like, a million smileys and everything. I may not know mucc about South Asia in formal educational terms, but the emotional contours of certain conflicts! Read my cranky comments and learn young people, read and learn!)

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