Civil Savant

How Andrew Marshall has shaped our world.

USAf/Getty Images
USAf/Getty Images

There is no category in the Guinness Book of World Records for "longest serving strategist" — but there ought to be. Andrew Marshall, who has directed the Pentagon’s Dickensian-sounding Office of Net Assessment for the past 40 years, would surely hold this record. And he adds to it every day, still active in body and insightful of mind at 91. Richard Nixon appointed him, and he has served every president since. Indeed, Barack Obama’s strategic "pivot to the Pacific" — right or wrong — almost certainly derives from ideas that Mr. Marshall has been advancing for years about the need to respond to the rise of China as a world power.

But long before President Obama began to ponder Marshall’s ideas, Ronald Reagan was briefed by him about the possibility of winning the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviet Union. Marshall, an economist by training, had grown convinced that the Soviet Union was spending a much greater share of its gross domestic product on the military than even the most detailed intelligence estimates allowed. He, his team, and a few Pentagon colleagues dug deeply into the data and came away convinced that the Russians were spending a quarter, a third, perhaps even more of their annual economic output on their national security.

Reagan’s own intuitions about Soviet inefficiency were borne out by the group’s insights, and he decided to act on Marshall’s notion of pursuing a "cost-imposing" strategy on the Russians. This soon became the Reagan Doctrine of helping others to fight against Moscow-aligned regimes, the most notable success — in the near term, at least — coming in Afghanistan. For a very modest investment in putting some Stinger missiles into the hands of the mujahideen, it became possible to run the Soviet intervention there right off the rails. That we completely walked away from Afghanistan after the Russians left in 1989 is no fault of the cost-imposing strategy.

Marshall’s Cold-War-winning concept wasn’t just about arming rebels, either. He also strongly advocated a policy of encouraging the Saudis to produce more oil, so as to reduce the global per barrel price. Russian hard-currency revenues depended quite a bit on oil, so when the Saudis pursued this option, it struck a major blow to Moscow. There were other elements to the Marshall-inspired strategy, some of which still cannot be mentioned openly — but they can be loosely described as fostering an assortment of exaggerated beliefs about American military capabilities that impelled the Soviets to take costly countermeasures.

The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 provided proof of the efficacy of the cost-imposing strategy. Earlier that same year the lop-sided victory in our first war with Iraq bore out yet another one of Marshall’s big ideas: the notion that a "revolution in military affairs" was getting underway. Ironically, he took this idea from the Russians, who had long been thinking in terms of a technology-driven "military-technological revolution." Mr. Marshall saw, correctly, that a quantum change in strategic thought would only occur if technology were not the centerpiece. Rather, he felt, that major advances would be the product of organizational and doctrinal changes were. Yes, new tools were very important; but new practices had to accompany them as well.

In this respect, Mr. Marshall was hearkening to the broad notion of revolutionary changes in military affairs that had been advanced by historian Michael Roberts in a lecture he gave at Queen’s University of Belfast in January of 1955. The talk spawned a major strand of research that scholars of military affairs have pursued now for many decades. Marshall’s genius was in nurturing links between academics working in this field and the practitioners he served in the Pentagon.

Perhaps his biggest fan was Donald Rumsfeld, who also had a deep appreciation that technological change was having a profound impact on military practices. But the fall of Rumsfeld at the end of 2006, and the tendency to mischaracterize his views as entirely technology-driven, slowed Marshall in his march to bring the American military into the information age. Slowed, but not stopped, as even today he strives to champion notions of a nimbler and far more networked military — something directly referred to in the public rollout of President Obama’s strategic guidance exactly a year ago.

Andrew Marshall is to strategy what Admiral Hyman Rickover was to the nuclear navy: a true pioneering spirit and intellectual leader. The greatest similarity between the two lies in their long service and profound policy impact. But they differ in some important respects as well. Reagan found there was a point when he had to gently nudge Rickover into retirement, as the admiral, then in his 80s, seemed to have become more dogmatic and inflexible over time. Marshall, on the other hand, has grown even more intellectually supple over the years, his judgment guided by a quiet — and quite amazing when on display — command of facts. No wonder this magazine made him No. 44 on its list of top global thinkers this past year — it’s Hank Aaron’s number.

I have been continually involved with Andrew Marshall, in one capacity or another, for three decades now, and can say without any reservation that he has gotten even better over time. When we met some weeks ago, for example, our conversation was about sea power in the information age, particularly the innovative approach that the Chinese navy seems to be taking. It was a short talk, but I have returned to his comments again and again ever since. Andrew Marshall plants ideas like seeds, knowing they’ll germinate.

At the end of our meeting, I let Mr. Marshall know that I would be retiring in about a year-and-a-half. As I am some 30 years his junior, he first gave me one of his famous inscrutable looks — then just laughed, loud and long.

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