Thursday, July 29, 2010

John Nagl is a really smart guy, but this is just goofy excuse-making

Josh Rogin got his hands on an advance copy (pdf) of the Final Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, the group of bipartisan defense experts charged by Congress with Monday-morning quarterbacking DoD's work in writing the official QDR. The panel was composed of a whole bunch of big names in the field, including Stephen Hadley, William Perry, Richard Armitage, Jack Keane, Eric Edelman, John Lehman, Jim Talent, and John Nagl.

The report is broadly critical of the QDR, which puts Nagl in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the work of his colleagues while not being too rough on the woman who founded the think tank where he's now president, former CNAS pooh-bah and current Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy. This is even harder than eating soup with a knife!

Nagl ... told The Cable in an interview that his panel's report doesn't necessarily contradict Flournoy's document.

"The QDR was a very good product and did a good job of focusing on the wars we're in, but was unable to focus on the far out, which is was congressionally mandated to do. Plus the panel could look at things that were outside the Department of Defense," he said. "We also have the luxury of thinking deeper and seeing some troubling trends."

Who else thinks that saying you're "unable" to do something that's required by law is a tolerable excuse? I mean, seriously, that's your excuse? They were unable to do what Congress has mandated they do because there was some other stuff going on? Can you imagine trying that one at work (or on the IRS)?

Ok, so the panel had some luxuries, like not fighting a war at the same time as trying to accomplish its goal. (The Defense Department also has something like a squillion more people to devote to the task than the QDR Independent Panel, but whatever.) And I know how hard it is to develop a massive document like this, especially one that's consensus-built. But there is really no excuse for failing to do what's directed.

Oh, wait. Yes there is.
One of the problems with the QDR was that it came out before President Obama's National Security Strategy and therefore couldn't be properly aligned with the overall vision, Nagl said. "The entire process is not as tightly organized as we would like to see it and it doesn't cascade down from the top as we'd like it to."
Yeah. That is a problem.

As I've told you before, the way we formulate national strategy is all kinds of effed up right now. The QDR should really be informed by a National Military Strategy that's nested within a National Defense Strategy that's nested within a National Security Strategy, all of which should coherently articulate American interests, strategic objectives, means, choices, and associated risk. But let's be clear: the QDR is not a strategy, per se; it's a strategic review. The QDR is overlaid on the various strategies, articulating how the various tools of national power housed in DoD will be applied to threats and strategic challenges. The NSS hadn't yet been published when the QDR came down the pike, and that's a problem. (Of course, the NSS sucks so badly that it wouldn't have helped to produce a better QDR anyway, so I've always found the bleating on that note to be sort of silly.)

All of this is a long way of saying that I agree with the Independent Panel report's general conclusions about the shortcomings of the QDR, as outlined in the introduction:
The initial Bottom-up Review [the QDR's predecessor] was considered a success. Of course there was much debate about the conclusions, but Congress thought the process was worthwhile and mandated that it be repeated every four years. Unfortunately, once the idea became statutory, it became part of the bureaucratic routine. The natural tendency of bureaucracy is to plan short term, operate from the top down, think within existing parameters, and affirm the correctness of existing plans and programs of record.That is exactly what happened to the QDR process. Instead of unconstrained, long term analysis by planners who were encouraged to challenge preexisting thinking, the QDRs became explanations and justifications, often with marginal changes, of established decisions and plans.
I'm not going to get into the specific recommendations made by the panel in the sections of the report that amount to a re-do of the QDR (but suffice it to say that it's definitely informed by the now-published NSS, and amounts to something like "more of EVERYTHING, wwwhhhheeeeee!!!!"). But the fact of the matter is that the QDR needs to be focused on the big picture, on strategic evolution, and on reconceptualizing the way that the nation's military tools can be applied to the task of achieving our strategic goals -- not our intermediate operational objectives. I didn't hate the document as much as some people did, but the Independent Panel got this part right.

8 comments:

  1. One of the problems with the QDR was that it came out before President Obama's National Security Strategy and therefore couldn't be properly aligned with the overall vision, Nagl said. "The entire process is not as tightly organized as we would like to see it and it doesn't cascade down from the top as we'd like it to."

    No, that's a bullshit excuse. The May 2010 document titled, "National Security Strategy" merely codifies in writing what our strategy is, at the unclassified level, along with a bunch of other fluff. The NSS did not say anything that was not already known many months earlier to people in DoD.

    For example, browse pages 19 to 22 of the NSS relating to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is there anything in there that DoD did not know already know several months earlier? It was publicly known in Dec 2009 and I am sure that DoD was involved with the development of that strategy for several months leading up to Dec 2009. The NSS document did not announce our strategy for the first time in May 2010. May 2010 was when it was published for public consumption. It was already our strategy, it was already known, and it's not an excuse for DoD to complain that our strategy hadn't been formulated. It had been formulated. It simply hadn't been written down in that particular document.

    The real important question here, in my opinion, is why the opinion of John Nagl still matters.

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  2. The real important question here, in my opinion, is why the opinion of John Nagl still matters.

    Well, to be quite literal about it, in this instance it's because he was a member of the QDR Independent Panel.

    The May 2010 document titled, "National Security Strategy" merely codifies in writing what our strategy is, at the unclassified level, along with a bunch of other fluff.

    This isn't exactly true. Campaign strategies for theaters of conflict had been articulated with different levels of granularity up to that point, but the actual (uncapitalized) national security strategy -- which is to say, the security component of our grand strategy -- had not.

    Of course, some joker like me might say "well, it still hasn't been, even though the NSS has been published," and he wouldn't be wrong.

    The NSS comes first because civilians articulate national strategy to the military, which then (with its own civilian leadership) develops a military strategy to achieve national objectives. That's why the sequencing is important, but it's all moot if the senior civilians abdicate their responsibility to make real choices and do real strategy.

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  3. But the information needed to draft the QDR was known. That was the gist of my long-winded comment. Nagl offered a cop-out.

    Good point on relevance of Nagl. I guess my follow-up question would be, "why was he on the panel?"

    Sent from my iPhone.

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  4. But the information needed to draft the QDR was known. That was the gist of my long-winded comment. Nagl offered a cop-out.

    And my point is that this isn't actually correct. They had a vague idea, and they pretty much executed on that, but there wasn't an on-paper, articulated national strategy. There should've been. It's not an excuse for not doing a better job, but it's a fact.

    One of the big criticisms when the QDR came out was that it was a budget justification disguised as strategic guidance. I thought that was pretty dumb at the time, and I still don't accept that particular complaint. It DOES lack long-term vision, though, and I attribute that at least in part to the fact that the Administration hadn't yet elaborated its own strategic vision. That's their job. They passed and stalled so as to have the political cover of basically having it done for them by the military leadership, escaping criticism for being national security rubes, etc. (You could see it when the NSS came out and the right couldn't decide if it was More Naive Obama or This Is Just the Same as Before.)

    Good point on relevance of Nagl. I guess my follow-up question would be, "why was he on the panel?"

    The panel is mandated by the defense authorization bill. The SECDEF names 12 people, and then the chairman and ranking member of both the House and Senate Armed Services committees get to pick two each, for a total of 20. Nagl got picked by Carl Levin.

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  5. They had a vague idea, and they pretty much executed on that, but there wasn't an on-paper, articulated national strategy.

    That's what I'm calling BS on. So what if it wasn't on paper. I'm thinking of most FRAGOs that came down to us from BDE or BN. We knew 80% of the details before the order was printed because people involved in drafting it and people who would be expected to execute it were conversing with one another as it was being written. That is why our chain of command thought nothing of sending us a FRAGO far later than the 1/3-2/3 rule would dictate. We knew the gist of it and had already begun preparations. Once the few minor details were hashed out, we would slightly change task organization or alter a few times on the timeline. Many times we used any absence of explicit instructions to our advantage, figuring out what made sense and informing the higher echelon, "hey we're doing X." The higher echelon would either incorporate that into the order or tell us, "hey we haven't finalized the FRAGO yet, but don't do X because we already planned on you doing Y."

    Does this cross-talk not occur in the beltway? Is DoD in the dark until some speech writer in the White House puts pen to paper?

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  6. "The QDR should really be informed by a National Military Strategy that's nested within a National Defense Strategy that's nested within a National Security Strategy..."

    Honestly, I would expect all this to fit into a single 100 page plan written by about three politicians (ministry leadership level) after they were informed by non-politician experts.

    It would be/is awfully slow to develop all this one after another, each hundreds of pages.


    No plan survives first contact with reality anyway, so let's keep it basic and cut away all the non-critical details.

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  7. Honestly, I would expect all this to fit into a single 100 page plan written by about three politicians (ministry leadership level) after they were informed by non-politician experts.

    It would be/is awfully slow to develop all this one after another, each hundreds of pages.


    It's a big country with big interests. There's a lot to talk about.

    But yeah, these documents are developed in coordination with one another, not necessarily sequentially.

    Does this cross-talk not occur in the beltway? Is DoD in the dark until some speech writer in the White House puts pen to paper?

    But the idea is not just that the White House/NSC is writing the strategy, but rather that they're formulating it, too. They're taking a lot of their cues from the building, sure, but the civilian leadership of the country -- with the advice and guidance of professionals and experts in the security field -- should be developing a grand strategy and a security strategy for the country. It's not as simple as writing down what everyone already knows.

    That's really the point of why this NSS is so bad: they just wrote down a bunch of crap that everybody figured they already knew. They didn't make resource decisions. They didn't prioritize. They didn't accept risk.

    I remember your comment at the time (stolen from zenpundit, I think) that it was more like a State of the Union than a strategy, and I completely agree. But that's a mistake in conceptualization, not just in execution. Somebody's got to make the hard choices. They didn't do it. That's what you get for putting a 32-year old speechwriter in charge of the process and not a strategist.

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  8. My approach would be to look at the last pre-9/11 budget as baseline and ask how to get back to that one and be ready for a quick expansion just in case.

    The result would be a list of necessary reforms in all major sub-budgets.

    The force structure decision should be based on "likely" (not worst!) case wargaming.

    Some especially cost-driving strategies (forward deployment, staying substantially head in all technologies) need to be reconsidered as well.

    Finally, DoD and WH need to develop an (unpublished) strategy for how they could get Congress to play along.

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