Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

America wages war-by-bureaucracy — and it is killing our chances to win

Government institutions have generated and sustained unrivalled American power. But they are self-synchronizing in ways that undermine America’s ability to wage modern war.



By Christopher Kolenda
Best Defense office of getting out of this mess

Government institutions have generated and sustained unrivalled American power. But they are self-synchronizing in ways that undermine America’s ability to wage modern war.


By Christopher Kolenda
Best Defense office of getting out of this mess

Government institutions have generated and sustained unrivalled American power. But they are self-synchronizing in ways that undermine America’s ability to wage modern war.

Robert Komer’s famous Bureaucracy Does Its Thing explained this problem in Vietnam. Nothing has changed. The United States still wages war-by-bureaucracy, more efficiently than ever.

This works when enemies fight on U.S. terms. Thinking and adaptive adversaries are no longer complying. They are smartly turning our bureaucratic way of war against us.

Three mutually reinforcing habits are creating exploitable vulnerabilities.

Skipping strategy. Instead of developing both strategy and policy, the U.S. conflates them. The result is “pol-egy” — national security guidance too detailed for policy, but insufficient to qualify as strategy. From this, Departments develop internal campaign plans.

The downsides of this habit have been less visible in conflicts with linear State-Defense-State sequencing. In such cases, when diplomatic efforts cannot avert the conflict, Defense is ordered to defeat the adversary’s fielded forces. The General develops a military campaign plan to do so. Once completed, the State takes up the diplomacy to secure the peace.

Pol-egy is falling short in modern wars because political, diplomatic, military, and economic efforts must be concurrent rather than sequential. Just like the military learned to integrate land, air, and sea capabilities into a coherent whole, the government must learn to integrate elements of national power. In the absence of strategy, agency campaign plans can become ends in themselves.

Policy and strategy serve critical and distinct functions. Policy defines the what and why. It outlines national goals and objectives, provides guidance and direction on priorities, resources, constraints, and limitations. Policy should be made by the National Security Council (NSC).

Strategy develops how the elements work together to achieve the what and why. It is the organization of ways and means into a coherent theory of success to achieve policy aims, within given guidance, against uncooperative and deadly adversaries and competitive actors advancing their own agendas.

Strategy should be developed and managed by the command charged with the responsibility to achieve national aims. That command should be given the authority to direct and manage the operations of all elements of national power deployed to the conflict zone.

The NSC should oversee and approve the strategy and develop measures of success to hold officials in-theater accountable for results. Failure to differentiate between policy and strategy undermines objective assessments and accountability. In pol-egy, the National Security Council is grading its own homework, heightening the risk of confirmation bias about “progress” evident in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, while undermining the ability to hold anyone accountable for results.

However, no one on the ground is in charge. The inmates, so to speak, are running the asylum. There is no interagency echelon of command in conflict zones. No one has the responsibility and authority to set and manage priorities and efforts that cut across interagency lines. After the NSC issues pol-egy individual agencies execute within bureaucratic silos of excellence. Defense, State, Aid, Intel agencies, and others can interpret pol-egy to justify business as usual while offering assurances about unity of effort.

The whole is less than the sum of its parts. Each agency self-optimizes, but generally fails to recognize the impact on other efforts or the war as a whole. These gaps create confusion and incoherence that can be exploited by adversaries and host nation actors. For instance,

  • Powerful elites have repeatedly and successfully provided faulty information to intelligence and military officials to induce our forces to target their personal and political rivals. Military operations conducted in these circumstances undermine political legitimacy and unwittingly provide more support for the insurgency.
  • Local and national elites manipulate American contracting efforts to create huge economic advantages for narrow privileged interests while marginalizing significant sectors of the population. This is a major reason that aid efforts have often exacerbated rather than reduced conflict.
  • National level officials and elites quickly learn how to take advantage of individual meetings with the senior State, Defense, and Agency officials in-country. It does not take long to use bureaucratic cleavages as leverage to avoid reform or tough choices.

U.S. officials claim that individual agency efforts are mutually reinforcing. This may be true, but evidence suggests that stove-piped efforts often self-synchronize in destructive ways.

Finally, the U.S. takes a milestone-centric approach to political development that ignores or wishes-away the high-stakes and often-violent scrimmage for power in conflict zones.

This approach reduces the most critical issue in modern war — host nation political legitimacy — to a series of activities that presume benign intentions of local actors. Elites, however, rig elections and manipulate other milestones for advantage.

The stakes for them, even those brought to power by American blood and treasure, are simply too high to leave outcomes to chance or risk being out-maneuvered by rivals. Because no one trusts the others — or the nascent institutions — sufficiently to play by the rules, the incentives are to rig and manipulate. Our inaction is often perceived as complicity.

This process heightens the risks of political formations that undermine legitimacy, depletes American lives and resources, and advances the prospects of a sustainable insurgency. This is how we ended up with a predatory sectarian Iraqi government that spurred the emergence of ISIS, and how a predatory kleptocracy in Afghanistan helped the Taliban grow. A coherent strategy would treat dynamic political interaction with more than ostrich-like indifference.

War-by-bureaucracy is undermining America’s ability to wage war. National security reform has not yet been a major topic in the 2016 Presidential campaign. It is time to put it on the agenda.

Christopher D. Kolenda, a former Pentagon senior advisor and veteran of four tours in Afghanistan, is completing his Ph.D. on war termination at King’s College, London.

Image credit: The demon Bael, from Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire infernal (1862)/Wikimedia Commons

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

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?