More Than Defense In the Balance

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In the January / February 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates published an article entitled, “A Balanced Strategy; Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age.” Not surprisingly, the article identified “balance” as the “defining principle” of American defense strategy. Indeed, in the 2008 National Defense Strategy, balance is the underlying theme given the uncertainty of the current international security environment and the increasing demands being placed on the department amidst severe fiscal constraints. With the article's publication, balance has essentially become the department's new mantra, permeating all declarations of policy, most notably the eagerly anticipated FY2010 budget. While a welcome change from Donald Rumsfeld's ambitious (but more esoteric) “transformation,” balance again presents the likelihood the impetus to characterize strategy will again trump the place of developing strategy.

Gates, a public servant to five presidents, had been a reluctant nominee for the secretary of defense position. Gates, who had ended his career as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had rebuffed President George W. Bush when the new position of national director of intelligence was created. Upon taking the job, Gates clearly named Iraq his highest priority and famously kept a clock on his desk counting the days until January 20, 2009, which would be his last day on the job.

Over the course of his two years in office, Gates did focus on Iraq and shepherded the “surge” to its successful execution, but also seized the opportunity to voice his perspective on long-standing deficiencies hindering the Department of Defense, and the American national security structure in general. In a series of well-received speeches, Gates articulated the failings of a defense establishment too resistant to change, too focused on the next war at the expense of the current fight, and strongly encouraged the revitalization of American “soft power”.

The end result is this new rubric of “balance” and its formulation as the basis for defense planning going forward. Balance holds a military repeatedly tasked with quelling irregular foes must become more proficient at irregular warfare; balance promises a more critical look at the multi-billion dollar procurement programs predicated on challenges dating back to the Cold War and based on unproven technologies. Balance asserts the Department of Defense will cede more responsibility to the Department of State and contribute to a more capable whole-of-government approach.

Incoming President Barack Obama is in seeming agreement, even though he never supported the “surge” directed by Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq or acknowledged its successes during the campaign, making Gates the first defense secretary to be retained between administrations of opposing parties.

Despite the sanction, balance is not without its defects. While few senior political figures have contested the drive to recalibrate American military capabilities in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a fierce debate has raged below the surface.

The Crusaders Versus The Conseratives

As ably recounted by Andrew Bacevich in his Atlantic Monthly article, “The Petraeus Doctrine,” military officers are energetically debating the consequence of the shift in emphasis from conventional warfighting to stability operations and counterinsurgency tactics. Officers in favor of the shift are dubbed “crusaders;” their opponents, the “conservatives.”

Crusaders contend the Army purposely avoided examining the challenge of unconventional warfare, all in the name of avoiding another Vietnam-like quagmire. Accordingly, when Iraq fell in less than three weeks, the US Army was unprepared for the ensuing insurgency.

Observing the fiasco, crusaders were determined to not emulate their predecessors; if Vietnam taught officers to abstain from fighting insurgents halfway around the world, then Iraq would teach them the importance of mastering counterinsurgency.

Therefore, crusaders supported the Bush Administration decision to increase deployed forces and rely on counterinsurgency in Iraq – unlike Vietnam, where the Nixon Administration gradually decreased its commitment and transitioned the responsibility for the fight to the South Vietnamese.

Conservatives counter the Army did not take up counterinsurgency because of the experience in Vietnam, but rather returned to preparing for the more pressing conventional military threat posed by the Warsaw Pact. Moreover, conservatives argue the turn of events in Iraq reflects more than just the application of counterinsurgency tactics and stability may prove ephemeral, only compelling the United States to stay longer, all the while further degrading America's conventional capabilities.

In this vein, conservatives contend the Army did not abandon Vietnam just as it was poised for victory; the military exited before the conflict further sapped its strength to confront a higher priority threat.

Failures of Ignorance or Poor Memory?

Central to this narrative is the contention the Army, and by extension the nation's senior political and military leadership, “largely ignored” the matter of irregular warfare, or worse, “forgot” the lessons of Vietnam and were incapable of adapting to the challenge of insurgency once it returned.

The critique, while persuasive and somewhat justified, is not wholly correct.

Surely, the travails of the post-Vietnam military resulted in some institutional knowledge being both lost to departure or disregard, but those remaining certainly remembered and did not ignore or forget the experience, as much as they adapted as best they could given the corresponding international security and domestic political environment.

America ignominiously withdrew from Vietnam, but the many divisions of Warsaw Pact remained ranged across Central Europe. Americans tore itself apart over the Vietnam War, but various segments of the population and the national leadership remained committed to a military inferior to none.

Applying Lessons Learned

One decade after America left Vietnam, an administration committed to revitalizing the nation’s security posture was in charge and a secretary of defense and his principal military aide were able to formulate a strategy aligned with international security challenges, the military's most recent experiences, and prevailing domestic preferences.

Reagan Administration Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger memorably laid out eight specific questions that all had to be answered affirmatively before committing U.S. forces. His assistant, Colin Powell, a future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later emphasized the criticality of “overwhelming force.”

The assertion the two men operated on the “[assumption] that future American wars would be brief, decisive, and infrequent,” was false.

While the Persian Gulf War was mercifully brief and decisive, scarcely any sober observer predicted the rapid defeat of the battle-hardened Iraqi Army at a low cost in American lives.

Most critically, the doctrine firmly identified the criteria for undertaking military intervention; interestingly though, the criteria more accurately measured the rigor with which senior decision-makers developed strategy, not the likelihood of an effective military operation.

In 1991, the president and his national security team succeeded in producing a strategy whereby military means were clearly linked with national objectives. As LT GEN Paul Van Riper has written in regard to the Persian Gulf War, “Unlike in the Vietnam War, … an unambiguous logic ran from the [March 1990] National Security Strategy through President Bush's August 5, 1990, statement on national security objectives for the region and the secretary of defense's promulgation of theater military objectives to the missions the theater commander assigned to his operational units. Policy, strategy, and operations were coupled appropriately.”1

Concluding the Persian Gulf War substantiated the correct lessons had been learned is arguably justifiable. More pointedly, the president and his national security team had achieved the “balance” between strategy and doctrine that is absent today.

When Lessons Learned Were Being Ignored and Forgotten

While the Reagan and Bush Administrations had succeeded in restoring the reputation of the world's premiere fighting force, victory in the Gulf War did not secure the Bush Administration's re-election. American voters turned out the foreign policy president with one dedicated to focusing on the domestic economy.

The incoming Clinton Administration had little national security experience and was woefully unprepared to handle the geopolitical challenges of world without the constancy of the Soviet threat. Unsure of little in this new world, except the primacy of its armed forces, the administration was all too ready to every crisis, no matter how insignificant, with the application of military power.2

Powell, the only holdover, found himself alone amidst civilian decision-makers unconstrained by the “Vietnam Syndrome” (which some had helped foster), ignorant of the arduously path taken by the military taken during that time, and forgetting the key ingredient is first developing strategy. Within a few short years, Powell was infamously on the brink of an “aneurysm” after arguing with Secretary of State Madeline Albright over the commitment of U.S. forces in the Balkans.

Over the course of the next decade, the “strategic pause” the nation enjoyed only left the military adrift – and eventually unbalanced.

Because the Clinton Administration haphazardly committed U.S. to stability operations and failed to develop complementary capabilities across the government, the military became strained as key elements were repeatedly tasked for these ventures.

The succeeding Bush Administration proved equally guilty. Despite a roster of seasoned national security practitioners, the Bush Administration failed to address the deficiencies inherited from the Clinton Administration. Suspicious of the commitments inherent in the Clintonian depiction of America as the “indispensable nation,” the Bush Administration opted instead for the more straightforward course of outright global military primacy. While premised on fulfilling campaign rhetoric to establish a “humbler” American foreign policy, the approach essentially amounted to “arrogance without purpose.”

By the time the Bush Administration assumed purpose in the form of regime change and democracy promotion after Afghanistan, the imbalance only grew worse.

The rigor of criteria was supplanted by the premises of ideology; the default to employ overwhelming force was derided as overly orthodox. Powell, now secretary of state, was outmaneuvered by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney. Powell was reduced to advising the president of the “pottery barn rule”.

The inevitable result was a complete mismatch of military capabilities with the mission at hand. The triumph of a successful three week invasion and capture of Baghdad was immediately upended by the seemingly unending “untidiness” of looting, terrorism, sectarian massacres, and political fecklessness. The response – a incomprehensible refusal to acknowledge a nascent insurgency and (more inexcusably) a failure to re-orient capabilities and priorities to the warfighter.

As Dr. Thomas Barnett, formerly of the DOD Office of Force Transformation, has aptly commented, the department had been buying for one kind of war while fighting another kind of war.

Aneurysm Redux

Assuming the Oval Office with a mandate for change, incoming President Barack Obama has raised the hopes of defense reform proponents. President Obama's decision to retain Obama was interpreted as more than the desire to maintain continuity and, for them, constituted an endorsement of Gates' resolve to redirect the department and the military.

Unfortunately, the effort to re-balance defense priorities is uninformed by presidentially directed strategy.

As Bacevich noted, crusaders are positing warfare waged in the form of stability operations and counterinsurgency tactics “implies not only coercion but also social engineering.” Bacevich quotes leading proponent LT COL John Nagl, who wrote, the security challenges of the 21st century will require the U.S. military “not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies.”

What remains unclear is whether the president has come to the same conclusion. Considering his response to the criticism he lacked national security experience was by referring to his 2002 speech opposing the invasion of Iraq because it would be a “rash war” which would, even if successful, “require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” (Emphasis added)

Whether Obama knows or not, turning the page on the Bush Presidency entails more than belatedly concentrating on the deficiencies the Administration failed to address. The American public is clearly not clamoring to undertake another Iraq-style commitment; support for the war in Afghanistan has just ebbed to a new low with 42% of polled respondents characterizing the commitment as a “mistake.”

Obama must provide a rationale for persisting with nation-building missions. Unfortunately, Obama's actions to date do not inspire confidence. While portraying Afghanistan as the “good war” and worthy of an expanded U.S. military commitment, Obama has failed to explain why.

Denying Al Qaeda a sanctuary has been accomplished, but is shepherding such a fragile country critical to the national interest? Seventeen thousand additional troops have ordered to Afghanistan, but the administration's much-touted policy review has not been completed. The addition of forces may be merited on operational grounds, but to what end?

Until a presidential declaration of strategy informs the new impulse to balance defense capabilities, it will be Gates recollecting his brush with an aneurysm.


1 LT GEN Paul Van Riper, Foreword to National Security Dilemmas: Challenges and Opportunities by Colin S. Gray, 2009

2 Bacevich wrote the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine had assumed “future American wars would be brief, decisive, and infrequent.” Ironically, the nature of the success during the Persian Gulf War – brief and decisive – led to this assumption, but the consequence was this increased readiness on the part of the president and his national security team to use force, actually making military invention more frequent, not less.

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