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12 Jan 2013 - 05 May 2021
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America’s strategic stupidity
Obama’s new foreign policy team must beware of generals bearing predictions
Andrew J. Bacevich 12 January 2013
Every few months, America’s four-star admirals and generals gather at a military base not far from Washington to participate in what General Martin E. Dempsey, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, calls his ‘strategic seminar’. The aim is to foresee the future, anticipating security challenges that the United States will face in the coming years, thereby enabling the Pentagon to prepare itself accordingly. With that end in mind, Dempsey and his colleagues engage in what the New York Times has styled ‘a lethally earnest game of Risk’, participants striding across ‘a giant map of the world, larger than a basketball court’ as they posit various crises and speculate on the response each might entail.
The enterprise invites derision. The photo accompanying the Times story shows Dempsey, arms akimbo, apparently deep in thought. He is standing astride Central Asia. Surrounding him are aides, dressed in civvies and wearing plastic booties to protect the map, notepads at the ready. Your thoughts, boss? It’s a made-for-Kubrick set-up.
One ought to sympathise with General Dempsey. He is, after all, the principal military adviser to the president. In the formulation of basic national security policy, his voice counts. If the United States, maintaining far and away the world’s most powerful and expensive military establishment, can chart a course that not only protects its interests but also advances global peace and harmony, then Dempsey will deserve some measure of the credit. But unlike Dempsey’s map, the real world is not fixed. Contra Tom Friedman, it’s not flat. And it’s not small. At a Pentagon strategic seminar you might stroll from Quantico to Cape Town for a cup of coffee without the boss even noticing you’ve left your post. In the real world, the trip’s more difficult.
Yet Dempsey’s map hints at the dirty secret that members of the fraternity of strategists, civilian and military alike, are loath to acknowledge. The formulation of strategy begins by assuming away complexity, reducing reality to a convenient caricature. Strategic analysis is almost by definition dumbed-down analysis. To conjure up solutions, you start by simplifying the problem.
Granted, on odd occasions, simplification may yield outcomes that are at least partially useful. The Cold War era provides one example. After the second world war, the world did not divide neatly into opposing eastern and western camps. Bipolarity was a largely fraudulent construct, as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and India’s Jawaharal Nehru among others never ceased to point out. Yet bipolarity provided the United States with a made-to-order template for basic policy. The communists were the bad guys. The leaders of their camp were seemingly hell-bent on expanding; our camp was going to prevent that. Oversimplification yielded oddities (classifying Japan as western) and blunders (the Vietnam war being the largest), but by and large containment made sense.
Post-Cold War efforts to devise a strategy to replace containment have not made sense. The most important of those efforts occurred in the wake of 9/11. Once again, with George W. Bush at the helm, the United States sought to divide the world into two camps, with terrorism supplanting communism. As Bush famously put it, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ This time, however, Washington did not consider it sufficient merely to contain the threat. It was intent on entering the enemy camp, eliminating not only the terrorists but also the conditions giving rise to violent anti-Americanism. Confident that its military forces were unstoppable, the US waged preventive war and launched into the Global War on Terrorism.
Problems ensued. Not least among them was the fact that US forces turned out to be better at initiating hostilities than concluding them. Simply put, the troops proved unable to win, a shortcoming painfully evident in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet of far greater importance were developments away from the battlefields of the global war that Bush initiated and Barack Obama inherited. Post-9/11 bipolarity — ‘us’ against the terrorists with the world’s fate at stake — failed to account for what really mattered. Indeed, the Global War on Terrorism was irrelevant to the power shifts and re-alignments that were creating the international order of the 21st century. While the Americans were expending trillions of dollars in their futile effort to pacify Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Awakening was turning the Middle East upside down. China and India, along with Brazil and perhaps Turkey, were emerging as powers of the first rank. The global energy picture was being transformed (to America’s considerable advantage). And climate change was posing threats far beyond anything Osama bin Laden ever dreamed up.
I am not faulting Washington, preoccupied with the bugaboo of radical Islamist terrorism, for failing to devise a strategy that takes these matters into account. I am certainly not asking strategists for clever ideas on how the America can shape the future, whether by providing arms to Syrian rebels (who are, after all, terrorists) or by ‘pivoting’ toward East Asia in order to prevent China (America’s banker) from getting uppity.
Rather, I fault Washington for its unwillingness to acknowledge its persistent cluelessness in the face of all that has occurred since a prior US strategy purportedly ‘won’ the Cold War. What I am asking from strategists is this: fess up to your failures. Acknowledge the limits of your predictive abilities. Quit simplifying. Shut up.
In the present age, strategy as such has become a dangerous chimera. Strategy sustains the illusion that the United States can and should determine the course of world events, thereby keeping America in the global driver’s seat. Yet whatever is coming down the pike, you can count on one thing: it’s going to be something other than what General Dempsey anticipates as a result of his strategic seminars. Nor should we expect Secretary of State John Kerry (or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, if he wins confirmation) to do any better. When it comes to looking round the bend, the civilians are no more adept than the soldiers. As always, the United States — like every other nation — will be left to cope as best it can.
The one thing that the US actually could do to secure its future is the one thing that it refuses to do: demonstrate a capacity to manage its own affairs; live within its means; set its own house in order. In Washington, talk about global strategy provides an excuse to avoid doing what needs to be done.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a visiting research fellow at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
Tags: 12 January 2013
what an unintelligible tosh.
“visiting research fellow”, myass.
Your eloquence leaves me in a state of awe.
There’s certain irony in the words “Strategic analysis is almost by definition dumbed-down analysis.” I really wonder where from the right honourable researcher extracted such a profound and by all means sophisticated definition. As far as it’s possible to glean from the academic books, strategy is about taking into account exactly the complexities and strategy starts from realistic assessment (if we are to believe guys from West Point and the like establishments). Many professional strategists would routinely complain that complexity involved in formulating strategy is exactly what is discarded by top military brass. Probably, the ultimate strategic aim of this article is just – military bashing and the right honourable researcher feels obliged, by virtue of his belief system (Peace Studies), to stage a verbal acrimonious attack on men in military uniform. I can humbly suggest that Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clauswitz volumes on War supplied with Michael Howard’s (historian) works would make a nice addition to his reading list. There’s a peace in every war, init?
Climate change is not a threat. The threat derives from the cynical response to the chimaera of “man-made global warming”.
I am always amused at the idea that the most adaptable animal on the planet – homo sapiens, is going to be wiped out by a warming trend which over the last 150 years has seen a 0.8 degree rise in the mean global temperature. We will simply adapt our agricultural practices and learn to cope. That ability is hard wired into human beings which is why they were able to settle every scrap of habitable land from Saharan oases to the wilds of Lapland and the frozen north. People even manage to live in Newcastle.
“America’s strategic stupidity”
You mean ” Post-Vietnam demoralisation syndrome – the deeply pessimistic belief that America cannot and should not fight to defend its security and values anywhere in the world; that if bad people are defeated in war only worse people will ever take their place; and that therefore the best strategy for America is to buy them all off, pull up the drawbridge and retreat into a self-delusional isolation.”
-Melanie Philips
He didn’t say that. He pointed out that many of the decisions that have been made have been clueless. What you describe as ‘Post-Vietnam demoralisation syndrome’ does not exist, or at least if it exists somewhere, it has had no effect on US foreign policy – especially in the Middle East where horrible blunders have been made and vast fortunes have been expended.
Judging from numerous past statements, Hagel clearly
believes that the key to ensuring global and regional stability is adopting a
soft policy towards any radical entity working to fundamentally change the rules
of the game and threaten the prevailing world order, including Iran. According
to him, the Tehran regime’s moderation is contingent upon shelving the military option
as a viable alternative in neutralizing the Iranian nuclear threat. The strategy of appeasement is a precondition for attaining stability. If and
when this sought-after stability is attained, then the American hegemon can
realize its dream of hunkering down in its own isolationism, just as the
designate secretary of defense will have planned it. This would enable the U.S. to relieve itself of the arduous burden that comes
with managing the complexities inherent in the international system. One can only hope that enough efforts will succeed in thwarting his appointment and that Chuck Hagel’s dream of isolationist-driven appeasement will quickly subside
into oblivion.
It is not clear that Iraq was a blunder. On the other hand leaving Iraq after we had won a stunning victory and putting 100 thousand NATO troops into Afghanistan was certainly a monumental blunder. The cockpit of history at the moment is in Syria. Similar mayhem would certainly have spread to Iraq if we had not invaded. Thus we have averted a catastrophe. But why are we not protecting out investment? Why are our forces 4000 miles to the east? Even 2 brigades in Mosul would swing the battle in Syria towards the western forces. We could replicate the success of Iraq in Syria. As it is we sit and wring our hands and hope that the turmoil in Syria does not blow back into Iraq and Jordan and the Gulf. We face the real prospect of an Al Qaeda run terror state smack in the middle of the worlds main oil resource. So much for the “cut and run” strategy. Mohammed Noori
Are you kidding me? The war in Iraq was an absolute disaster. For you to say it’s not “clear” exposes you as a moron. Archibald Bomwitz
If the USA would do what comrade Bacevich suggests in the four last lines of his article then comrade Bacevich would among the very first to accuse Americans as selfish and interested only in their own prosperity on the costs of others suffering!
Is it just me or does this article make very little sense?
The author seems to be saying that strategising is of little or no use but if that is the case then why does every single successful military and corporation in the world engage in it?
The author even goes so far as to tell the US top brass “Quit simplifying. Shut up.” This is of course a pretty silly thing to say particularly as the people he is telling to shut up in such a blasé fashion have spent their entire careers studying and producing strategic plans and are doubtless capable of producing strategy to a level of complexity the author would be incapable of comprehending.
Lets consider those generals standing for a moment on that map at Singapore and considering the effect of a war between Malaysia and Indonesia. They could ask questions like, is such a war likely? would such a war close the Malacca Straits? What effect would closing the straits have on our interests? What resources would we require to re open the straits if it became necessary? You could ask those questions.
Or of course they could do as the author suggests and quite over simplifying.
The author ridicules American military strategists and planners for trying to anticipate future threats — just because the world is a complicated place. Of course, it is. But the United States, just like any other nation, has to take a good look at what’s going on in the world, what threats to it exist, and develop a plan and strategy for how to address those. Following that, verify and update those notions.
What is Bacevich’s alternative — have the US just sit back, not plan, and hope for the best? In 1982, most US military planners viewed the most likely threat to be the Soviet Union, and they proceeded accordingly. In 1990-1991, the Cold War was ended, and the US ended up fighting its first major war — not against the Soviets, but against Saddam Hussein in Mesopotamia.
Was all that planning in the 1980s wasted? No. By having a strategic plan, the United States created a military force with the capabilities it needed for the 1990s.
I also have to take issue with Bacevich’s simple-minded assertion that the United States “initiated” hostilities in Afghanistan, and, therefore, was wrong to intervene there. The United States was attacked on 9/11 by forces supplied, trained, and armed by terrorist groups being allowed to flourish in Afghanistan with impunity.
If Bacevich were in charge in 2001-2002, what would he have done? Just allowed al-Qaeda to keep on living on in peace?
I agree with his ultimate conclusion about the United States to live within its means and set its own house in order. But he seems to feel that contingency planning is not part of that, enticing the United States into military interventions with which are none of its business.
However, that is not the fault of U.S. military strategists — going to war is a decision made by the President and civilian political leadeship. The job of Gen. Dempsey and his subordinate commanders is to be ready —- to anticipate problems, and to give the Commander-in-Chief options based on what is available.
Globals strategy does not provide an excuse for avoiding necessary action — it provides a framework that the nation can use to guide its strategic planning, and force and weapons structures.
bubble burster
This article is ridiculous. All plans concocted anywhere and at any time simplify reality. As the author states, some simplifications (containment) were useful and some not. Yet he concludes that we should basically stop strategizing. What prey tell should we replace it with. Reactivity?
All powerful countries shape the world and are shaped by it. Inaction as well as action has consequences. Would Bacevich really advocate not trying to anticipate those consequences?
He seems to have shifted from criticizer the content of strategy to criticizing the act of startegizing.
So I am trying to think what things would be like if the author’s recommendations were followed.
President: Does a rising China present any security challenge to the US?
Adviser: Well sir it may, or it may not. it is complex question.
President: So what action should we take? Should we economically engage and hope China liberalize and embeds itself in a cooperative global economy or should we keep in place political relationships and military capacities that might be needed in the future?
Adviser: Well sir, that would require assessing of the future and implementing a plan based upon that assessment. But the past has shown how dangerous strategizing like that can be, so we recommend just ignoring it and focusing on domestic issues.
President: But wont that give Chin a free hand? Will the not take that as a sign that they can impose their will on East Asia
Adviser: We don’t know sir. All we know is that if we try to think our way through this and come up with a plan we will probably screw it up. In the face of uncertainty we recommend doing nothing. In fact, we will all shut up now.
So in abandoning the debate of good versus poor strategy and embracing an argument of strategy versus no strategy I think you have rally jumped the shark Andy. David Newland
The usual hyper-critical silliness from a typical leftist flake appearing in a typical leftist publication and God only knows why RCW regards it as meaningful.
So many negative assumptions are made about the US and its military that one wonders how this bumbling bunch have managed to do anything right. Oh, that right they haven’t. Why bother, then, to pay any attention to them. Oh, that’s right, they start nasty, unwinnable wars that wise foreigners and the UN somehow–and very secretly–fix for us.
RCW should should be ashamed of itself for putting this PC silliness on its website.
I’m reminded of what is probably an apocryphal quote attributed to Calvin Coolidge, that when you see ten problems coming down the road, just wait, as nine of them will veer off into the ditch before reaching you, leaving you to deal with just one.
Our problem is we fail to wait, because we have to be seen as “doing something”.
Post 9-11 issued in war in Afghanistan which sole purpose was to revenge the death of thousands of civilians working quietly in the twin towers. It was clearly identified who were the culprits were and we clearly had a focused enemy. The problem was that the use of force should have been overwhelming and with a clear end strategy. That strategy should also include total devastation of the Taliban. No political strategy. Just as in WWII and earlier, clear victory. Quick and decisive. It was not quick and we took our eye off the ball with Iraq. Boon Tee Tan
Why talk about foreign strategy when the US cannot take care of or solve its domestic problems? Is the coming new administration not beating a retreating drum worldwide?
(mtd1943, vzc1943)
Graduate student drivel. From an adult – no surprise that he is an Obama groupie. Reading Bacevich’s biography, he is another victim of Vietnam Syndrome, whereby Americans who served there and were vilified by popular culture for it resolve to oppose the use of military force under any circumstances. Chuck Hagel, case in point.
And US strategy “purportedly “won” the Cold War”? There are some Poles, Czechs, Estonians Lithuanians, Latvians, Bulgarians Slovaks Romanians and Ukrainians who might disagree with that sneer.
At least graduate student drivel would beat your comprehensive classroom (infomed by fox News) analysis.
My, aren’t leftists ferocious snobs.
Theodore Svedberg
The suggestions in this article are a good antidote to the mess that US FP has become in the last 20 years. I think denigrating strategic thinking is not helpful, however.
We need better strategic thinking. We should begin with how we view the US role in the world. First we cannot and should stop trying to micromanage the interactions between other nations. Before we engage in committing our military overseas we should ask basic questions about what US interests are really involved. This is just common sense practical advice. If we think about it we could have avoided the wars in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Serbia. The ten year war in Afghanistan was also a mistake though it was clear we should have attacked in 2002, removed the Taliban from power and then withdraw after 6 months with a warning to the various Afghan factions we would return if the Taliban returned.
This strategy would not require the large US military that we have today. We can defend our borders with a fraction of the forces we have today. We could learn from the Chinese. They have a very firm policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other nations. They have commercial relations with most of the world but when political events change to their commercial disadvantage they adjust to the changed circumstances without recourse to military intervention. They will engage in war if their borders are threatened.
I think Bacevich’s views are that the American military empire (what is it today, some 700 or so military bases around the world) have become an end in themselves. That is, too many in the US define preserving that military empire as protecting US national interests. That is where stupid strategic thinking begins. Those military strategists that he rightfully criticizes are devising strategies whose only goal is to justify the unneeded and bloated empire.
China has a “firm policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations”? Tibet, for example?
Theodore Svedberg
Tibet is recognized as a province of China. This was internationally acknowledged by the UN at its founding and all countries with diplomatic to China accept this also.
Pity the Tibetan people were never consulted.
Ivan Terrible
This time, however, Washington did not consider it sufficient merely to contain the threat. It was intent on entering the enemy camp, eliminating not only the terrorists but also the conditions giving rise to violent anti-Americanism.
Maybe it is because USSR or other communist countries never engaged in a direct attack on US soil? Eh? Cold war vs Hot war a little?
Not least among them was the fact that US forces turned out to be better at initiating hostilities than concluding them. Simply put, the troops proved unable to win, a
What a load of BS. US troops won in Iraq within 2 weeks. The regime was finished. What was messy and yes, violent, is the period after the war. Unfortunately, US cannot follow efficient techniques of Stalin in the occupied countries. US is a one trick pony when it comes to the defeated countries: build the Democracy. Worked well with Germany and Japan for a number of reasons. Among them – much better generals, as opposed to Pentagon bureaucrats (except Patreus) that ran the show.
Would you like it if US immediately sent a couple of millions to the concentration camps, shot some 30,000 and appoint a head of the black for each block in Baghdad who and whose family would have been held responsible for the order on the block? That would bring the order right away. But that’s not the way US is doing things
Ivan Terrible
The one thing that the US actually could do to secure its future is the one thing that it refuses to do: demonstrate a capacity to manage its own affairs; live within its means; set its own house in order. In Washington, talk about global strategy provides an excuse to avoid doing what needs to be done.
That will immediately stop Jihadist mass murders in Pakistan, Thailand, Somalia and Mali. Right. What a moron Cody A. Fitch
There is no war on terroror it is a cold war that the leftist in the USA do not want to talk about anymore so their brothers in the fascist mindset of extremist leftism can win. The Communist Chinese have admitted to creating proxy warriors to attack the USA to force us to take out loans from them to pay them major interest and force our full old cold war pyramid of economic implosion to start to look just directly at proxy warriors which used to be just part of the economic implosion directive. But today the main issue in the agencies directives are not economic implosions or what Communist State Business are funding or helping and what characters in those business are creating the proxy warriors. Today it is just find the proxy warriors. Instead of the first cold war rootology. It is not a terrorist war. It is a proxy war. To different things. Terrorist do not exist. They have to come from some tree and some nurshment of a grid that watches them. In a grid where everybody who reads or thinks online or in books or at churches is watched. There is no such thing as a terrorist only proxy warriors. Cody A. Fitch
During the cold war the US right made sure this was known so the proxy warrior masters of our enemy could not use them to take over our markets. Today though the right is to embedded in their proxy crusade war against their own brothers in the third temple to be able to turn them against the Communist lands. If you look at the French issue today. The Communist Chinese PLA are directing the Al Queada proxy units to attack free market and Democracy areas. Instead of doing what Charlie Wilson did and directing mercantilism of souls that just like to kill for their beliefs against the Communist atheist markets.
For heaven’s sake post these thing on a white background. the damn thing is just about invisible against a gray background !
“The one thing that the US actually could do to secure its future is the one thing that it refuses to do: demonstrate a capacity to manage its own affairs; live within its means; set its own house in order. In Washington, talk about global strategy provides an excuse to avoid doing what needs to be done.”
Such a profound change in American acculturation would have to begin at the top, and would be generational in scope.
“Quit Simplifying. Shut up.”
That is pretty Bush-League conclusion to come to considering your education. If the Generals do not simplify at the Strategic level, this summit would last for the rest of the month with them just talking through the movement of units and supporting units and the capabilities. Any plan, no matter how incomplete or simple, is better than no plan at all.
Any strategy that descends to armed conflict is by definition a defeat even if victory ensues.
The cold war was not won by generals but by American labour and denim jeans.The trouble with military strategists is, they are limited by military strategy.
The world is now moving to conflict and confrontation only if those with foresight choose a different path can it be averted.
Complex adaptive systems are fundamentally unpredictable: The 2008 economic meltdown was missed by 99.9% of the world’s economists and financiers. The Arab spring was missed by 99.9% of the world’s politicians and strategists.
All you can do in the face of massive events being missed is ensure you are sound, robust. In other words don’t run a deficit in a boom (Labour UK and others), don’t assume fragile political structures will remain intact (Middle East). In other words, be strong, watchful and ready, but don’t meddle in complex systems. No matter what you think you know the outcome will be otherwise.
When I hear the words American foreign policy,I automatically think……..Oh no.Another American war coming up.
The yanks blunder around the world killing people and then wonder people fly aircraft into their buildings. Mohammed Noori
For the chicken-hawks blasting this article as leftist propaganda, the author is a Vietnam veteran, a Catholic conservative and had a son who died in Iraq.
So, go back to playing Call of Duty.
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