Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Echevarria: The president’s mind is the true American center of gravity, plus why landpower is different, and more thoughts

Antulio Echevarria is one of those guys I always read, no matter what aspect of defense he is writing about. Even when I don’t agree with him, his assertions make me think. For example, in a recent article, he argued that "It is the mind of the commander in chief-where gains and losses are weighed-that ...

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Antulio Echevarria is one of those guys I always read, no matter what aspect of defense he is writing about. Even when I don't agree with him, his assertions make me think.

For example, in a recent article, he argued that "It is the mind of the commander in chief-where gains and losses are weighed-that has always been America's center of gravity, not the will of the public." I had never thought of that, and it did make me stop and consider. On reflection I suspect he is correct: I think it was Lincoln who often shaped public opinion during the Civil War, not the opposite. It was Lyndon Johnson's fears and flaws that drove both his handling of the Vietnam War and his failure to level with the American people. It was George Bush's determination to invade Iraq that led to the American invasion, not a groundswell of public opinion that drove him.

In the very next paragraph, Echevarria launches another provocative thought on how landpower is fundamentally different from airpower and seapower: "Landpower is generally employed not only to defeat an opponent's ground forces, and the quicker the better, but also to establish and maintain control over people and places thereafter." I think he is right, and this is one reason that landpower is, I think, more important than the other two forms of power. (And that is one reason this blog focusses more on the Army and Marine Corps than on the Navy and Air Force.)

Antulio Echevarria is one of those guys I always read, no matter what aspect of defense he is writing about. Even when I don’t agree with him, his assertions make me think.

For example, in a recent article, he argued that "It is the mind of the commander in chief-where gains and losses are weighed-that has always been America’s center of gravity, not the will of the public." I had never thought of that, and it did make me stop and consider. On reflection I suspect he is correct: I think it was Lincoln who often shaped public opinion during the Civil War, not the opposite. It was Lyndon Johnson’s fears and flaws that drove both his handling of the Vietnam War and his failure to level with the American people. It was George Bush’s determination to invade Iraq that led to the American invasion, not a groundswell of public opinion that drove him.

In the very next paragraph, Echevarria launches another provocative thought on how landpower is fundamentally different from airpower and seapower: "Landpower is generally employed not only to defeat an opponent’s ground forces, and the quicker the better, but also to establish and maintain control over people and places thereafter." I think he is right, and this is one reason that landpower is, I think, more important than the other two forms of power. (And that is one reason this blog focusses more on the Army and Marine Corps than on the Navy and Air Force.)

Then, in the next paragraph after that, he loses me. He argues that the contemporary era is no more uncertain or ambiguous "than the era of the Cold War, or any other era." I disagree. The Cold War may have been more dangerous to the future of humanity, but there were some knowns. The Soviet Union was a stable, slow-moving, conservative, and rather poor enemy. For several decades, our national strategy of containment remained in place. But as I say, even when I disagree with him, he makes me stop and think.   

That’s a lot of thinking to pack into an op-ed piece not much longer than this blog post about it.

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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