Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Good Old Days?

Seydlitz likes to remind us that we here in the U.S. seem to have trouble with strategic military and geopolitical thinking. That is, we don't do it well when we do it at all.

Jason over at Armchair Generalist has been on something of a roll lately, talking about the problems at the National Security Council and what he calls, reminiscent of our man seydlitz, the "declining competence of crafting strategy".

jim at Ranger is just convinced that the whole current Beltway gang has their collective head up their ass.

But at the risk of swimming against the flow, may I suggest that we're not getting worse at this.

We were NEVER good at it.

Or, at least, our geopolitical decisions since 1945 show a fairly poor level of thinking about the places, peoples and problems involved, as opposed to simply applying whatever the reflexive, moron-grade thinking of the time was to the issue.

Let's look at the record.

Well, the immediate post-war world didn't give us a lot to work with. We couldn't really do anything about Stalin even if we'd wanted to, which we didn't. Give us some credit for resolving the occupation of Iran in a way that didn't end up with a divided Iran.

But we were about as wrong as we could be about China, letting a combination of Red hysteria and magical thinking about the wonderfulness of the Kuomintang and silly wartime propaganda about Chiang Kai-shek lead us into a cascade of muttonheaded decisions that left us with a new enemy in Asia and tied to a belligerant, strategically useless "ally" whose penchant for getting us into "let's you and him fight" situations is only forgotten today because we adopted another irritatingly pugnacious little bastard of a nation at the same time.

Globally we almost completely missed the opportunity to take advantage of the former European colonies' wars of liberation. Instead of looking inside and rediscovering our primal American Revolutionary we usually backed the old powers, needlessly alienating the new nations.

In some places we actively did worse, notably in our own hemisphere, where our penchant for "our SOBs" gave us the Duvaliers in Haiti (helping us to generations of poverty and instability), the Batistas in Cuba (helping us to Fidel) and the Somozas in Nicaragua (helping us to Danny Ortega and the FMLN). Add our other SOBs like the Shah of Iran and Ferdy Marcos in the PI. Lovely people to invite to a party, assuming it was your own robbery, rape and murder...

We completely fucked up on the Middle East, first by actively supporting the 20th Century crusader state, and then by bankrolling those rulers who supported us and them, perforce dictators because their own populace didn't like their decision. Think about it - in a place where all we really needed was passage of the Suez and petroleum, a place where we had no real need to "take sides", we looked at the places with canals and petroleum and chose...the little piece-of-shit desert theogenetic foreign body. Why? Because we felt bad we'd let Hitler saute' all his Jews?


So after doing the smart thing at Suez in '56 we proceeded to screw the pooch thereafter. And lets not go into the foolishness of what we did in the Gulf culminating in Ambassador Glaspie's offhand meeting with our then-ally Saddam who thought he'd been given to green light to settle his differences with Kuwait his way. But add that to the let's-burn-down-the-grocery-store-to-cook-our-canned-spaghetti logic of funding a bunch of whack Islamic nutjobs to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.


Y'all know about that.

Throw in stuff like developing a dictator in Panama and then invading to oust the same dictator. Ignoring the growing threat of instability below our southern border.

Funding a massive carrier navy designed to refight Midway in an age of submarine-launched antiship missiles.

Issuing every soldier a floppy black felt headgear...

OK, now I know it's time to stop. But, seriously, can we agree that this "loss of strategic competence" isn't exactly news?

We did one Big Thing right - we held out, and hung on - long enough for the Soviet state to collapse.

But we've fucked up SO many little things. When you look at it that way, hanging around occupying the ass-end of central Asia and invading the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates doesn't look all that much different, or stupider, does it? Stupid? Yes.

But not new or different, eh?


  1. Heh.

    Chief, you might be on to something. The hagiography about all the "good times" that existed before today is really something we as a people have to get over. The times were the times. Some better than others, but none ever so great! Mature people learn this; they appreciate what they have now, strive to improve it in small ways, and refuse to accept the fantasyland of "it was sooo much better back then..." thinking. Sadly, we have a large number of fellow citizens who have never grown up despite their advanced age. Not dumb, but ignorant, their minds so completely owned by Madison Avenue and so unexercised by real thinking that they schlep down every trope, every lie, every bit of propaganda.

    As for the current NSC and its inability to marshal up the disparate parts of our government to achieve objectives (any objectives), I tend to agree, they are not the best. Not the worst either. But not good.

    Despite all that is going on in the world today, I think our government lacks a true focus, a real north star to rally behind and lead from. It has not always been thus. But it has been this way for a while.

    (Unless of course that true north star is keeping us ignorant while those with the cash fleece the rest of us of what we have left. In that case, DC seems to be humming right along, no? Maybe they are even "wicked smart"?)


  2. Monroe doctrine - successful grand strategy

    building naval battlefleet about 1900-1915:
    successful creation of "big stick" for political conflicts with Europeans in defence of the Monroe doctrine

    containment of Soviet Union; mediocre & ultimately successful

    NATO: huge success

    U.N., Worldbank, IMF world order: huge success

    treatment of Axis powers post WW2: huge success

    Small countries like Luxembourg don't offer many opportunities for critique, but they don'tdo much else either. Large countries (not necessarily "great") tend to do much and to offer many opportunities for critique.

  3. Chief,

    I agree and I think our inability to do much more than muddle along strategically is one of the "features" of our political system.

  4. FDChief-

    I think you overstate your case.

    The NSC was founded after WWII to assist the President in first formulating and then coordinating policy within the government. That policy need not be perfect, in fact it never will be, but need only workable and applicable to the national security threats as they are recognized by the principles. The military and CIA have only an advisory function.

    Prior to 1941, the US did not have much need for grand strategy (which is essentially what the NSC does) - the period 1917-1919 having been a flash in the pan that we would probably have been better off sitting out.

    Policy does not have to be perfect, but functional and appropriate - equating means and response to suspected threat. During the period 1950-2000 the NSC pretty much accomplished its goal, the threats were adequately assessed and the response functional and appropriate without causing a disaster. Vietnam is the exception, but even that has to be looked at once again imo. As William Pfaff writes in his review of "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam":

    "The conclusion Goldstein draws from the evidence of the Bundy papers and notes is that Kennedy's determination at the time of his assassination was to withdraw American advisers from Vietnam. The trainers who had been sent should not be further reinforced, but gradually drawn down in the course of 1964.

    Goldstein quotes tapes made of Kennedy's meetings with Bundy, McNamara, and his military adviser, Maxwell Taylor, on October 2, 1963. McNamara and Taylor were just back from Vietnam. They recommended that 1,000 of the 16,000 US military advisers be withdrawn in the following two months, with most of the rest removed by the end of 1965. Bundy asks why. McNamara says, "We need a way to get out of Vietnam. This is a way of doing it." Bundy disagrees. Kennedy agrees and gives the orders.

    Forty-seven days later Lyndon Johnson was president . . ."

    It all depends on the president and how he sees grand strategy, and LBJ saw grand strategy and domestic politics as essentially the same thing. Pfaff review deals with the subject of Post-WWII decolonization as well . . .

  5. To finish this off let me make a couple of additional points.

    First, what is the record of the other great powers during the same period of time?

    Are the examples of France, the UK, the Soviet Union/Russia and China much better in formulating and coordinating state policy?

    Lots of misses and some disasters as well, but would you argue that any have faired exceptionally well? Significantly better than the US over the same period? If they have done more or less as well, then the source of what you are talking about is more likely the complex international political reality, than the failure of any one state.

    My second point is that the problems we face today stem imo from abuses to the NSC system that were implemented under Bush II. It was in 2002-3, the run up to the Second Gulf War, that the executive essentially decided on what the policy would be and then forced the system to act as a source of justification to do what they had already decided upon, essentially create a threat to national security that did not exist. The abuse/destruction of our intelligence collection/analysis capabilities dates from this time.

    Along with this abuse/manipulation of the government institutions of policy formation/coordination was the forced mindset of the "global islamic revivalist" threat along the same exact lines of the former actual threat of the USSR/Cold War period. This included the irrational assumption that the new threat was by definition "existential" . . . and thus required a massive and unrelenting response.

    I would add that the NSC is hardly the only government institution that has been debased and manipulated by narrow and corrupt ideologically-driven interests . . . in fact this is our current reality as we experience a whole series of institutional failures not limited to government.

  6. Sven: in the order you listed them:

    1. The success of the Monroe doctrine was due as much to the cooperation of Great Britain after the 1830s as anything we did. If the Brits had decided to make an issue of our "control" of the Western Hemisphere I don't see how we could have done anything about it. Our "grand strategy" from 1815 to 1890 pretty much consisted of staying out of the rest of the world's way and not picking fights with the global superpower. I'm not saying that was a fail, but it didn't really amount to a hill of beans. It was a Luxembourg strategy.

    2. Building the Mahan Navy helped announce our arrival as a Great Power, but I'm not sure it did anything for us in terms of getting what we wanted from the European powers. It got Spain out of Cuba and the PI, but I'm not sure that, given the long-term results that our association with those lands is a big point in our favor.

    Our diplomacy - making sure we continued to get along well with Great Britain - made sure we never had to find out what would have happened if the Grand Fleet had a bone to pick with us.

    And I'd argue that our decision to intervene in WW1 was pretty much a wash; we helped defeat Imperial Germany, but Wilson did a hell of a lot to goof up Versailles and then botch the LoN.

    My question would be "NATO: huge success" at what, beyond the containment of the Soviets? Sure, we were the linchpin of a military alliance that lasted 40 years, but doing what, other than preparing for the GSFG to rush the Fulda Gap? I'd include the U.N., Worldbank, IMF, Bretton-Woods, Marshall Plan, occupation/reconstruction of the Axis powers under the same heading: "Stuff We Did To Lead The West Against The Red Menace". Good stuff, yes, but not such a clever bit of geopolitical thinking as the failure to percieve the real nature of the Wars of Liberation or the gross geopolitical error of adopting Taiwan and Israel were un-clever bits of geopolitical errors.

    Like I said - we did the Big Thing well enough. But it was in our diddling around in the hustings, our failure to think outside the "Commies Bad" box and be nimble, adapt our methods to the means at hand and the places we were working in that makes me so unimpressed with our geopolitical savvy post-1945.

  7. Seydlitz: I would not restrict my criticism to just the NSC. Obviously it HAS failed in that it has never worked really well as an umbrella organization that would give the Executive a concise appreciation for "national security", drawing together the diplomatic input of State, the military assessments of Defense, intelligence, economic factors; the NSA has become just another distracting power focus.

    And Vietnam was just a symptom of our inability to seperate genuine national resistance/uprising/liberation/rebellions from the Evil Empire's Global Dominoes, not really a unique failure in itself. You note that McGeorge Bundy, the then-NSA, was on the wrong side of that little debate. Sheesh...

    Your point appears to be that the "national security apparatus" had basically convinced Kennedy that Vietnam WAS a dead-end rather than the Second Front Against Global Communisim, but that the unilateral, political decision of the executive (in that case, LBJ's domestic political agenda) fixed the policy, strategy and intel around the preexisting conviction of the president. How is that different from "...the abuses to the NSC system that were implemented under Bush II (where) the executive essentially decided on what the policy would be and then forced the system to act as a source of justification to do what they had already decided upon, essentially create a threat to national security that did not exist. The abuse/destruction of our intelligence collection/analysis capabilities dates from this time."?

    Sounds to me like we were doing a pretty good job to ignore the intel collection and analysis we were doing in SE Asia back in 1966. While I agree that the Bushies took a simple intel swan dive and turned it into a double reverse half-gainer with a twist, I would argue that the difference is in scale rather than either intent or execution.

    Don't get me wrong - I'm NOT trying to call us out as the World's Greatest National Strategic Fuckup". Lord knows we have lots of company there - the Soviets were WAY worse; crude, brutal, and often stupid. The French and Portugese made some horrifically bad choices as to how they ended their empires.

    All I'm trying to say is that the bad calls we're making today in central Asia? Not all THAT much worse than we've ever done. Sometimes we tend to treat the Bush Wars as though they were some uniquely fucked-up, unprecidented mess. I'm just trying to put them in perspective. Because if the problem was some recent train-wreck brought on by "abuses to the NSC system that were implemented under Bush II" then all we would really need to do would be to go back and undo those abuses. But if I - and Andy, and SP - are right, then the troubles go deeper than that, and we're going to keep right on bumbling into this stuff for a long, long time...

  8. Or, at least, our geopolitical decisions since 1945 show a fairly poor level of thinking about the places, peoples and problems involved, as opposed to simply applying whatever the reflexive, moron-grade thinking of the time was to the issue.

    It's my opinion that there was never any serious insightful thinking about geopolitics WRT to our intelligence services.

    It's my opinion that these services have always been enmeshed with the politics in DC of the day, concerns about markets and the growing influence of states rival to the US and its interests, with a health dose of religion and ideology.

    The topic of the Joint Strike Fighter and its engine is a good example of this.

    "Turns out, as Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington helpfully points out, CAGW had an incentive to get the word out.
    The conservative blog has revealed that CAGW, which was apparently the source of information for ABC’s piece – secretly has been paid by Pratt & Whitney for its efforts. This certainly calls both CAGW’s credibility and the reliability of the ABC story into question."

    There may be some serious thinking done about intelligence and policies, but that is at the low end of the ladder in terms of priorities.

    Money and politics rule.


  9. FDChief-

    Your position seems to have mellowed.

    We seem to agree that US policy as formulated and coordinated by the NSC was adequate enough to respond to US national security/interests during the period 1950-2000, with the exception of Vietnam. The goal of course was long-term US interests as perceived by the principles during that period, not achieving some idea of "justice" among nations.

    Vietnam is the exception for this period and I make a clear distinction between 1950-2000 and post 2000, but then you write, "I would argue that the difference is in scale rather than either intent or execution".

    I would say the differences are so great as to make the comparison more of a contrast. LBJ did believe that Southeast Asia was vital to US interests and the fall of the RVN government a potential disaster for the US. How is that intent anything at all like Bush's intent to knock over a weak state in 2003, which was seen at the time as just the first step in the implementation of a new regional balance of power? Vietnam was remember a very limited war, whereas Iraq was a war for not only the total overthrow of the enemy state but the remaking of the Iraqi political identity as a starting point for even more radical goals.

    The strategic thinking behind Vietnam was quite complex, even if still uninformed as to the actual lengths that the North Vietnamese would go in pursuit of their interests, whereas Bush's war of 2003 was going to be a "cakewalk" with the president declaring "mission accomplished" after having landed on an aircraft carrier's flight deck . . . that is it was devoid of strategic thinking.

    1965 represents a popular executive grappling with tough decisions which they saw as reflecting the best interests of the country, whereas 2002-3 saw a radical clique abusing the institutions of government for the narrow and corrupt interests of their supporters.



  11. ...US policy as formulated and coordinated by the NSC was adequate enough to respond to US national security/interests during the period 1950-2000, with the exception of Vietnam. The goal of course was long-term US interests as perceived by the principles during that period, not achieving some idea of "justice" among nations.

    What I would say, rather, is that US policy was adequate to deal with the central existential threat to the US; the Soviet Union. The policies formulated by Kennan and Marshall worked; they kept the two powers poised against each other, but without open war, for as long as it took the Soviets to collapse under their own incompetence. Mind you, had GOSPLAN been less inept we might not be having this discussion.

    BUT...the failures weren't a matter of some sort of fucking airy-fairy "justice"; the failures were that we could have avoided a lot of the troubles we spent blood and treasure on in the Third World if we had been able to stop looking at everything through the lenses of the observation towers along the intra-German border.

    Vietnam wasn't an outlier - we made the same mistake in dozens of places, from Angola to Egypt to El Salvador. We ended up making our lives more difficult by supporting or endorsing people whose actions were inimical to the best interests of the bulk of their own populations because they were doing what we thought we needed. Some of that was being "anticommunist", some of it was toadying to the former colonial powers, some of it was just good old-fashioned dictatorship.

    But, in the end, most of these regimes proved to be greater strategic liabilities than they yielded in geopolitical benefits. What did we get from Taiwan in return for the billions we spent on its defense, or the trillions of man-hours in naval deployments? The troops they sent to Vietnam? What did we get in return for Israel? The Shah's Iran? Marcos' PI? Somoza's Nicaragua?


  12. And I don't see Vietnam as some sort of geopolitical Homeric struggle. Yes, LBJ did think that the fall of the domino would be disastrous for U.S. interests - he was quite wrong, as history proved. The aftermath of 1975 proved that the skeptics were right all along - that the war was a Viet civil war, and that we would have probably have done as well or better if we'd have made a deal with Ho after the plebiscite.

    Yes, there was a lot more nattering about causes and effects in 1965 than there was in 2003, but I suspect that had as much to do with the intellectual quality of the people involved in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations as it does the intrinsic level of understanding of the respective situations. The best and the brightest were genuinely concerned about national interests and weighing ends versus means, risks versus rewards than the idiot Bushies, who had no more grasp of the potential larger issues than a lemur flinging its poop. But they had the fundamental facts just as wrong. Vietnam wasn't a vital interest, neither is Iraq. Committing U.S. ground troops to the former was as much a disproportionate investment of resources as invading and occupying the latter was.

    So my views haven't mellowed with respect to my suspicion that this is NOT some sort of sudden illness we contracted in 2000.

    We had an efficient and effective national security team focused on the Big Threat, and we were relatively well served. The rest of the world got what was left over, and it shows.

    I will agree with you on this - the problems we have had with our traditional post-1945 European partners HAS been an artifact of the Bushies fuckheaded approach to foreign policy. That has been a nasty change for the worse since 2000, and I'm not sure how we can change that. To some degree it wasn't so much that Bush changed our policy direction as he dropped the pretense that we would listen to the NATO nations' objections to things like our hand-jobbing the Israeli Right, or our blatant double standards about nuclear proliferation, or our tendency to invade people we didn't like just because.

    Bush the Daddy basically did an Iraq in Panama in 1989. But he took the time to create lies that would fly instead of ludicrous nuclear bomb fantasies, he made sure he did his thing in a Monroe Doctrine area, he flattered, cajoled, bribed, and smokescreened the rest of the world. It worked; Manny Noriega rots in a Florida jail to this day and nobody cares.

    So the failures in the First World, yes, that's a relatively new set of failures. But our judgment - not about morality, peace, justice, quality footwear, or any other peripheral issues - about the value to our national interests, the risks and rewards, and the intelligent way to get the most U.S.-benefiting policies out of much of the world outside of the Northern Hemisphere seems to me to have been badly flawed for quite some time. And that history of poor judgement seems to me to have as much to do with our current misadventures in central and southwest Asia as does the Bushies' arrogance and ignorance.

  13. Personally, I see the 2003 invasion as the culmination of post-Cold War American triumphalism. We saw a bit of that in the 1990's under Clinton (who rarely passed an opportunity to stick it to the Russians), but it really came to the fore with Bush. I think there was the attitude that "we won the cold war, we're the only superpower, we are ascendant, and therefore we need to use that power to change the world in our image." Slowly we are coming to realize that being the sole superpower is much more limiting than we thought.

    So I tend to think the Bush excesses won't be repeated anytime soon. Although there is still a faction in the US that believes in leveraging US power to certain ends, the realities we face will stem those ambitions in my judgment.

  14. All,

    Does the very nature of our government make effective and consistent strategic planning unlikely or even impossible? Should we manage our expectations or expect more?


  15. bg,

    I think so. Even with incumbency in the Congress, elections every four years for the Presidency makes long-term planning very difficult unless there is a national consensus.

  16. bg-

    Not only is the nature of our elected structure a bit non-conducive to long term strategic planning, but our unwillingness to allow a professional and permanent military "general staff" further complicates the matter. Without a permanent cadre to do the military side of strategic planning and thinking, that level of thought and advice to the National Command Authority is done by "transients" who are plucked from a career of tactical and operational affairs to do a comparatively short tour at the strategic level. Not conducive to optimal process at all.

    Now, to give Post WWII American strategic affairs its due, we were spot on with the geo-political and military means used in Desert Storm. Had we attempted more than the liberation of Kuwait and severe diminution of Iraq's military ability, most of the Arab world would have opposed the UN operation. However, the wise identification of the objectives by the UN (it was a UN operation led by US forces) resulted in virtually no nations, other than Iraq, opposing the operation. A small operation, but strategically well thought out.

  17. Al,

    "Post WWII American strategic affairs its due, we were spot on with the geo-political and military means used in Desert Storm"

    Interesting. Where I would agree that having limited objectives worked out well, wasn't our continued presence of Kuwait and KSA part of bin Laden's justification for 9/11 (or last least part of what gave him the backing he needed)? I would disagree and call Desert Storm a brilliant Tactical success, a solid Operational success, but long term Strategic terms, it was still problematic.

  18. One of the best strategic plans/execution I've noted in modern times is Brazil's transition to energy independence. In the70s, when the West was held hostage by an oil crisis, everyone cried that we need to do something about it. For a couple of years, the US talked about doing something, but by the 80s, well, nothing. In Brazil, they made a decision to become energy independent and it took 30 years, but today their production of ethanol using sugar cane, and a requirement of flex chips in all cars for ethanol fuel has made them 100% self dependent.

    I wonder why the Brazilian government was able to make this happen?Why won't we see something like this happen here? What kind of disaster would it take to enable us to accomplish something of this magnitude?

  19. Chief,
    I'm not so sure that NATO contained the Soviets, nor that the cold war defeated them.
    I think that the crushing weight of communism , and the cost of dominating eastern Europe,and the ww2 cost caught up with them and they simply ran out of steam.
    We just nudged them in that direction.

  20. Aviator,
    We collectively use the Desert Storm campaign as a example of success, and was it really.?
    Yeah, we kicked ass on a tin shit heel. So what??!
    What did we gain strategically? I for one don't care who controls Kuwait, as long as they sell us oil.Same for Saudi Arabia.Same for IRQ.
    Did we solve anything , except placing scum bags back on a throne that they wouldn't/couldn't fight to maintain.
    How was democracy served?How did we benefit as a nation?
    All we proved is that a weak dictator would not do a spoiling attack , or do anything to disrupt our obvious build up prior to D day.
    It's dangerous to consider this a template for the future.

  21. jim-

    I used desert Storm as an example where a defined geo-political end state was established (Liberate Kuwait and restore the status quo ante), the end state was achievable by military means, and the objective was achieved.

    Whether or not it served any ancillary objectives of "democracy", access to oil or benefit to the US as a nation is another issue.

  22. Vietnam was an exception in that the damage that it caused was serious enough to end our cultural/political dominance that we had enjoyed since 1945. Vietnam ended the common image of the US GI handing out chocolate bars and replaced it with something else. This for those in the West and those influenced by the West throughout the world. After Vietnam we also started to doubt ourselves, something that had not been the case before.

    The dates 1945-2000, or arguably 1941-2000, are important since that does delimit the era of US grand strategy. Before that date (with the exception of 1917-19) there was no US grand strategy for the simple reason that there was no need for a US grand strategy. Latin American adventures in support of US mercantilism prior to 1941 don't count in my book as "grand strategy". Grand strategy in terms of "United Fruit" and central America or the US oil companies and Mexico? Not really grand strategy is it?

    US strategy outside the Northern Hemisphere during the period was done with the backdrop of the Cold War. Without the presence of super power rivalry, what interest did the US have? Very limited.

    So why the break after 2000? The comparison with Vietnam offers the best explanation. The war in Vietnam, disaster that it was, was still a limited war. Our goal was not to overthrow the government of North Vietnam and create a new Vietnamese political identity, but to coerce the North Vietnamese to stop supporting/controlling the NLF's attempt to overthrow the RVN. In terms of strategic theory, it was quite complex and difficult to implement, but there was a coherent strategy, the problem was linking the political purpose with the military aim . . . that military success was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

    Thomas Schelling goes into this in some detail in his famous "Arms and Influence" from 1966 pages 82-88.

    The break comes after 9/11 with the beginning of unlimited wars against methods . . . essentially US messiahism/"spreading democracy"/corrupt and powerful intersts feeding off the US state - all run amok. It's no wonder we have the current obscurantism of "maneuver warfare" and "4GW politics" . . . since both fit the current decay of strategic thought.