Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Actually, failure IS an option

If there is one phrase I could expunge from the U.S. military vocabulary, it would be that "Failure is not an option." Of course it is. And refusing to think about it seriously actually makes a bad outcome more likely. Yesterday morning one of my smart CNAS colleagues, Shannon O’ Reilly, was wondering aloud why ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

If there is one phrase I could expunge from the U.S. military vocabulary, it would be that "Failure is not an option." Of course it is. And refusing to think about it seriously actually makes a bad outcome more likely.

Yesterday morning one of my smart CNAS colleagues, Shannon O’ Reilly, was wondering aloud why the Pentagon didn’t plan more for the option of the United States being kicked out of Iraq. The excuse being given, apparently, is that there was worry that such planning would leak.

I think that is just too damn convenient an alibi. I actually think that the bureaucracy dislikes planning for anything less than victory. No one likes planning retreats. The Army especially emphasizes optimism even when it isn’t called for.

The problem with this is that, as David Kilcullen has pointed out repeatedly over the years, the host government you establish in places like Afghanistan and Iraq must at some point stand on its own two feet and demonstrate its independence. Inevitably, it will have to distance itself from the U.S. government. Basically, we should have expected to be kicked out at some point. In fact, had we done so, it might have been spun as a sign of success. But that would require some unconventional thinking, some serious consideration of the American relationship with host nation governments –and some long-term planning for that day of expulsion.

If there is one phrase I could expunge from the U.S. military vocabulary, it would be that "Failure is not an option." Of course it is. And refusing to think about it seriously actually makes a bad outcome more likely.

Yesterday morning one of my smart CNAS colleagues, Shannon O’ Reilly, was wondering aloud why the Pentagon didn’t plan more for the option of the United States being kicked out of Iraq. The excuse being given, apparently, is that there was worry that such planning would leak.

I think that is just too damn convenient an alibi. I actually think that the bureaucracy dislikes planning for anything less than victory. No one likes planning retreats. The Army especially emphasizes optimism even when it isn’t called for.

The problem with this is that, as David Kilcullen has pointed out repeatedly over the years, the host government you establish in places like Afghanistan and Iraq must at some point stand on its own two feet and demonstrate its independence. Inevitably, it will have to distance itself from the U.S. government. Basically, we should have expected to be kicked out at some point. In fact, had we done so, it might have been spun as a sign of success. But that would require some unconventional thinking, some serious consideration of the American relationship with host nation governments –and some long-term planning for that day of expulsion.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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