Which Voids Needs to be Filled?

Over at Ink Spots, Gunslinger responds to my recent post on civil-military relations.  his key paragraph argues:

Our Afghan strategy, if you could call it such, is horribly vague to the point of uselessness, which I see has a failure in leadership at the highest levels here in DC. Any general, with 30-plus years of leadership experience, will naturally fill that void with how he best interprets his commander’s intent. In this case it seems to simply means: win in Afghanistan. So I think that is what Generals McChrystal and Petraeus were and are attempting to do. I don’t see this as a power grab by the generals and I don’t necessarily see the President as trying to use them to sell the war. Nor do I see it as a crisis – yet. But the civilians aren’t providing the leadership they should and the generals are filling that void as their nature dictates they should. The only solution to this particular imbalance, in my mind, is not to fire generals, but instead create a viable strategy and policy and provide the generals the leadership they need and deserve.

As it turns out, this is the Paul Yingling argument, that I discussed in a previous post:

Paul Yingling’s famous essay on the “A Failure in Generalship” is a fascinating document.  He excoriates the military leadership for, in essence, failing to repair through operational brilliance the strategic incoherence of the Bush Administration in Iraq. Yingling has essentially given up on the ability of civilians to lead, and instead he pleads for a military savior to emerge.

Petraeus, is, of course, that savior.  His concept for counter-insurgency warfare promises to square the circle.  It provides an operational scheme to make foreign occupations possible despite insufficient resources.  It eliminates the tensions between military intervention and local resistance.  It is all an illusion, but it serves the purpose of removing civilian leadership from the loop.  It is an operational concept based on the assumption that our civilian leadership is incapable of strategic thought, and that gives the military essentially unlimited authority to implement operational schemes designed to make the best of a bad situation.

Three points:

(1) I get the argument.  I really do.  And I feel a visceral sympathy for it. If I were serving in Afghanistan, or if my loved ones were, I would absolutely want someone to step in and impose strategic coherence so that the war was not pointless.  I’d want someone who could make the sacrifices meaningful, and try to ensure that the men and women on the ground do not suffer in vein.

(2) I also get that this is appealing to military culture. There is a great emphasis on people who can get things done and not always be asking questions and for clarification.  Every young officer gets that drilled into them from their first contact with military service. 

(3) That said, it is a bad for civil-military relations and bad for the concept of civilian control in particular.  I think this should be an obvious point, though I acknowledge that reasonable people might argue that salvaging a decent outcome in Afghanistan is more important that sustaining some abstract concept of civil-military relations. 

(4) But there is a bigger strategic issue.  Well, two actually.  First, strategic coherence is not theater specific.  While it is true that McChrystal and Petraeus may be adding to strategic coherence in Afghanistan by “filling the void” there, this approach is actually increasing strategic entropy at the international level.  The problem isn’t just that I have doubts about the focus on operations in Afghanistan; my bigger concern is that our commitment in Afghanistan (and before that Iraq) is serving to imbalance our global posture in innumerable ways.  “Winning” in Afghanistan cannot be disconnected from our broader strategy in the world, and yet it definitely is.  And simply put, Petraeus is not demonstrating much interest in that issue.  So in the sense, he’s filling a void, while at the same time contributing to a bigger strategic void.  So even if you forget about process and theories of civil-military relations, I am not sure that Petraeus is actually, in a net sense, adding to strategic coherence.

Second, “winning in Afghanistan” is a meaningless concept on its own.  The question about desirable end  states there have to be lodged in a broader vision of American policy, a vision that ultimately is supported and ratified by the American public. You can’t, in that sense, define victory autonomous from American domestic politics.  And that is where my real beef comes in.  You want to argue that Petraeus is simply filling a strategic void in Afghanistan? Okay.  I am willing to accept in principle that the adoption of a state-building scheme is consistent with the policy guidance he is receiving.  I’ll even grant that it is legitimate for Petraeus to lobby internally for COIN and nation-building as the appropriate approach to take, so that he is, in effect, writing his own policy guidance since no one else seems to want to.  Fine.  Not ideal, but okay.  But that still does not excuse direct lobbying of the American public in support of this scheme.  Saying that military leaders are allowed to act as policy entrepreneurs inside the government is already a significant modification of civil-military norms.  Saying they should be the main public spokesman vis-a-vis the public is, I would argue, too much.

7 comments to Which Voids Needs to be Filled?

  • ndubaz

    The current problem in Civil-Military relations lies less in our failure to articulate a coherent strategy or in military culture than in the imbalanced institutional weight of the military in regional strategic planning and policy.

    We maintain six regional combatant commands with large staffs and equally large subordinate supporting organizations to focus on developing and executing operational art as a substitute for strategy within their defined geographic regions. The State Department by contrast maintains comparatively tiny regional bureau offices in Washington D.C. with miniscule budgets and even less institutional heft to direct regional efforts. The budget for just Pacific Command and its subordinate organizations is significantly larger than the budget of the entire State Department.

    This has de facto abrogated responsibility for regional policy to the Combatant Commanders. Until we rebalance our institutional design away from a dysfunctional military-led, civilian-supported structure towards proper civilian-led, military-supported regional efforts, there is little hope for a sea change in civil-military relations.


    Cross-Posted at Ink Spots

  • Here’s what I wrote about this over at our joint:

    I actually thought Bernard’s most recent post was very good, but I differ with him on his closing point: GEN Petraeus can easily be prevented from taking his case to the public if that’s not what the president wants; he merely needs to be given that order. If the president says “listen Dave, it’s not your job to do PR for this effort, and it’s not appropriate for you to be speaking to the American people,” and GEN Petraeus can’t provide a compelling rationale for why the president is wrong on that, then bang, done. As usual, Bernard lets the political leadership off the hook when it’s as simple as making a decision and giving an order.

    The problem is that the president knows he gets political cover from letting GEN Petraeus articulate the rationale and spell out the details. President Obama can say “this is my guy, he’s the expert, I’m giving him the mission and the resources and he has the freedom to execute as he deems most appropriate,” and then he’s insulated from the negative consequences of any specific decision about tactics or operational approach.

    The big issue with Afghanistan is this: the president is pinned down by his earlier commitments, by his easy reliance on the facile argument that American involvement in that country is necessary to keep planes from flying into buildings in Manhattan. And because that’s such a simple thing for the American people to believe, because it doesn’t require leadership or effort or the elaboration of complex ideas for people to think “yeah, sure, that sounds right,” we end up in a situation where the military has to execute on a senseless tasking based almost entirely on general ignorance and political palatability.

    GEN Petraeus and GEN McChrystal have facilitated that reality, but isn’t that their job? They’re given a mission, and they get it done. They’ve determined that the way to get it done, unsurprisingly, is more resources and longer timelines. The responsibility is on the president to say “that’s not gonna happen,” or to articulate a broader national security strategy that SHOWS people that the “necessary” resource commitment in Afghanistan is totally out of synch with our global strategic approach. He hasn’t done that, and his senior staff hasn’t done that.

    This is the only criticism I can level at Secretary Gates: he’s enabled this to happen by parroting the line that Afghanistan is vital to U.S. national security, probably for two reasons: 1) his boss told him to, and he’s saluting and moving out, and 2) it’s always easy to emphasize your support for the current mission, support for the troops, and belief in the necessity of “victory.” This makes the whole thing understandable if not forgiveable.

  • Gulliver: “As usual, Bernard lets the political leadership off the hook when it’s as simple as making a decision and giving an order.”

    Dude, go talk to some senior civilians about this issue, especially in the case where general is question has a personality cult around him and has most of the major journos fawning over him constantly. It is harder than you think. Recall, if you will, that they tried to muzzle McChrystal after IISS. Both Jones and Gates publicly rebuked him. But that didn’t prevent Rolling Stone.

    And even if you prevent public comment, you still can’t prevent P4 giving backgrounders to Max Boot or Tom Ricks or Spencer Ackerman and getting their message out anyway.

    It is not as easy as ending it by fiat.

  • Why would public rebukes “prevent Rolling Stone”? That was a magazine profile. It’s not the same as an op-ed in a U.S. newspaper or an appearance on Meet the Press.

    I’ve got no problem at all with military officers “getting their message out” through indirect means like favorable press coverage, because then they have to compete in the marketplace of ideas. If people read Boot and say “this doesn’t seem to synch with what the president and the SECDEF are saying about our priorities,” that would be a step in the right direction. The problem as it stands right now is that the senior civilian leadership isn’t willing to articulate a vision of what they KNOW to be right, so there’s no conflict at all when Petraeus tells people that Afghanistan is the most important patch of ground in the world for American security.

    The problem we both have is when senior military officers use the uniform and the flag to establish credibility, and when they suggest that “supporting the troops and accomplishing the mission” is more important than WHAT the mission is or how it fits into the broader narrative of national security. The White House could head this off by, for example, writing an NSS that’s reasonable and realistic, instead of a PR document that again underlines the centrality of Afghanistan and the fundamental, unquestioned necessity of American primacy to security. But no one has the balls or the security cred to do that, with the exception of the SECDEF, and he’s already using his balls and cred to advance a whole lot of other priorities inside the Department.

    I wrote my original comment before having read your more extensive post on the subject of fault and blame below, a post that I think is generally pretty good (and makes a case against several of the things that I wrote above). I’m not going to get into an extended dissection of it right now, but it’s food for thought.

  • Carl Prine

    Why do you hate our freedom?

  • […] Which Voids Need to be Filled?, 20 August 2010 […]

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