Best Defense

The FP transcript (IV): Why is making the hard choices always someone else’s job?

[Here are Parts I, II, and III.] Ricks: Michèle? Flournoy: Two things, and especially because I think in Iraq, because the fundamental premise for the war was shown to be false, that should have triggered exactly the kind of discussion that: “Uh-oh, here we are. We’ve discovered there are no WMD, so what are we ...


[Here are Parts I, II, and III.]

Ricks: Michèle?

Flournoy: Two things, and especially because I think in Iraq, because the fundamental premise for the war was shown to be false, that should have triggered exactly the kind of discussion that: “Uh-oh, here we are. We’ve discovered there are no WMD, so what are we trying to do here, and what is our strategy and what are the risks and what are the tradeoffs and how much in resources are we willing to put in?” And then, the perverse effect is that it also affected Afghanistan because once the focus was on Iraq, Afghanistan really did become an economy-of-force effort for the first many years, which also takes the oxygen out of the fundamental strategic discussion.

Fastabend: I discovered this dilemma in Iraq. I wasn’t in charge of strategy; I was in charge of operations. From the strategy guys, I would get the strategic conditions I was supposed to achieve: “Secure the borders of Iraq; end the violence. Our job is done. Make it happen.” And no choices had been made, no options, nothing really was useful with respect to strategy.

Ricks: Shawn and Michèle, you both effectively held strategic positions. In fact, Shawn had the title, director of strategy for the American Empire.

Glasser: That’s a capital “E”?

Ricks: Again and again we’re coming back to original sin, fruit of the poisoned tree, and strategic confusion at the outset, where the system did not work, where the differences were not examined, and where assumptions were not examined either.

Brimley: Right, so I think we have a profound inability to make hard, clear strategic choices, but then I think that forces us to react, right? It forces us into a reactive posture. And for years I’ve heard the phrase, “Oh, Shawn, you know the enemy has a vote. The enemy has a vote.” But we have a veto, right? And as we think about the years ahead, as we think about a constrained fiscal environment, we’re going to have to make hard choices. And the enemy is going to try to lure us to do things that are not in our comparative advantage, so we’re going to have to face up to the notion that we can veto that. We have a choice, and that’s in how we prosecute these things. Those choices carry inherent levels of risk, but we should embrace that, not run from it.

Ricks: Michèle, why doesn’t the system make hard choices?

Flournoy: Well, I can speak to what I experienced in the Obama administration. A lot of what we’re talking about here happened in a much earlier period. I’m just guessing, I’m speculating, that part of why this initial fundamental strategic rethink didn’t happen in Iraq is that, in the middle of [the war], you’ve gone in and you’ve broken the china, and now you have to say, “Whoops. The fundamental premise was wrong. Now what are we going to do?”

That’s a very politically fraught thing for an administration to do when it’s got tens of thousands of Americans in harm’s way on the ground for a mission that was very controversial from the beginning. I think it would have been an extraordinary act of leadership for, whether it was the president or the national security advisor, you know, the team, to sort of say, “Hey, wait a minute. This is not what we thought it was. What are our interests? How do we clearly define a new set of objectives and make some choices about how we’re going to prosecute this?”

Ricks: That explains Iraq, but does it explain Afghanistan?

Flournoy: In Afghanistan — again, I wasn’t there in the early days– I think that we were very good at getting in, very poor at seeing the way out. And I think part of the reason why we migrated from the focus on al Qaeda to “What are we going to do about Afghanistan writ large?” is getting caught in the sense of: What is a sustainable outcome? If you take too narrow an approach, it’s like taking your hand out of the water. Once you leave, you’re right back in the exact same situation where you have a government that’s providing safe haven and you’re facing a threat again. And yet we never really resourced, fully resourced, a counterinsurgency strategy until very late in the game when Obama did the review. But that was like coming in the middle — the symphony had been playing for a number of years. You’re inheriting something and now trying to say, “Well, now, given the interests at stake, clearly define who is the enemy, who is not. What’s the limited outcome we’re going to try to achieve, and how do we go after that?” But it’s a lot harder to do coming into the middle of an operation with a lot of history than it is to do it right from the beginning. And I think that we probably would have defined it differently had we had that opportunity to shape it from the beginning, but given where we were and what we inherited, I think, you know, we did the best we could.

Ricks: Jim, it seems to me that what this conversation is saying is that there’s something profoundly wrong at the civil-military interface, and your initial question speaks to this.

Dubik: The sense that I’m getting is we spend too much time worried about control and autonomy and less time talking about shared responsibility in strategic and operational decisions. The civil-military discourse is defined by civilian control of the military — absolutely essential to it — but all relationships are more complex than one formula can ever describe. So, while control and autonomy are part of the relationship, the shared responsibility is a huge part that doesn’t seem to get as much play in the professional military education or in the development processes that are used for producing civilian strategists and leaders.

Ricks: This is an unfair question, but let me ask it anyway. If you could rewind us to Sept. 11, 2001, how should civil-military discourse have been conducted at that point?

Dubik: Well it certainly should have been centered around the fundamental questions, not of how, but of why and what.

But I’d like to kind of challenge the discussion a little bit, in the sense that we didn’t have these analyses. When I went back and reviewed your books [gestures at Ricks], Woodward’s books, Michael Gordon‘s book, your book [gestures at Chandrasekaran], I see a very similar pattern with respect to Iraq for sure. There are at least eight or nine major strategic reviews that clearly identified that what we were doing was not working. Yet we didn’t make really a big shift until 2007. My bet is you could go through and find papers about Afghanistan that say the same thing, that until you [gestures to Flournoy] did the review in 2009, that there were plenty of evidence that what we were doing wasn’t working, but we had no shift. Back to your original question
. The first question was more about how and not enough about why and what, and then we couldn’t adapt. It wasn’t just in Afghanistan that we were treating it as an economy of force — we were — but it was an economy of thought. There wasn’t the attention.

Flournoy: Because there’s no bandwidth.

Dubik: Right.

Brimley: There’s only so much bandwidth for policymakers, and what you see early in Afghanistan is all the planning power on the military and civilian side gets sucked into the Iraq problem. And it is sort of on autopilot: Things are going well; there’s not a lot of thought that needs to be given to it.

Ricks: Bandwidth? When I go back and read the papers of George Marshall and other senior leaders in 1939, 1940, ’41, they’re dealing with much bigger problems, global issues, and they are making really hard choices, such as: Let the Philippines go, keep the sea lines of communication open to Australia–but win in Europe first. These are basic, fundamental things.

So I would argue with the bandwidth thing. What’s clogging them up nowadays?

Crist: The initial question I raised was: Do commanders have to think? And I think it gets to what General Dubik said about getting focused on shooting the close-in target.

We don’t think about the long-term ramifications of the actions and the strategy. In my view, the great failing of Tommy Franks, he never asked about that the assumptions were coming down about what this campaign would look like — assumptions being facts in the campaign design. Those assumptions were never challenged. In many ways, as I describe in my book, there was no red team to look at, “OK, how is this going to impact Iran? Does it open opportunities for them, or does it have a deterrent effect?” And so I think that, having sat down with a number of top commanders and staff, that piece of it isn’t done. It’s almost discouraged because “that’s the policymakers’ realm, it’s not ours.”

Dubik: Well that’s the civil-military issue. It’s control and autonomy. So, at least on the military side, the bulk of the training is deductive training. You are given a mission, you are given an end state, you are tossed over the transom the strategy, and just. . . .

Ricks: When you’re talking about shared responsibilities, it seems to me you’re talking about trust. Trust is the essence of that shared responsibility — the sense of a common future, that we trust each other, we’ll be working on this. It seems to me you’re saying there’s a fundamental lack of trust in our civil-military system.

Mudd: Hold on. One interjection that relates to bandwidth is the difference between choices and questions. I think [back in 2001] we blew over the questions. You said it’s not “how,” which is what we did on Sept. 12; it’s why and what. On Sept. 12, 2001, can you imagine asking the question: Is the Taliban really a threat? Today, 12 years later, I’d say, “Well clearly it’s not a threat! In fact, they’re going to be in the government!” But we blew through the question, which led to space, because you have to have space because the Taliban’s a problem — in retrospect, they weren’t. So we made a choice, but we didn’t know we had a choice.

I’ll close by saying there’s a bandwidth issue; part of this is the speed of decision-making in Washington. Can you imagine at the Washington Post, sitting back on Sept. 12 and saying, “Wait a minute; you sure the Taliban’s a threat?” You would have been crushed. That, clearly, would have been a good question.

Ricks: I want to go to two things here. Dave Fastabend, you talk about the inability to make hard choices. How do we get the system to surface and make hard choices?

Fastabend: I think we need to relook at what we teach about strategy and train people about how these decisions are made. I think we should teach strategy much like the Harvard Business School teaches strategic decision-making in business, on a case-study basis. There’s lots of good history out there where they could teach people what were, in essence, the choices people had in various situations. You [Ricks] very articulately described the ones Marshall had. Talk about what the options were, how they made the trades and came to it. But don’t take people through these ridiculous exercises about define the ends you want and go see if someone can make a path to it.

(and more yet to come)

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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