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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wise Men or the Crowd?

The frequency of strategic miscalculation among civilian and military leadership is chilling. Strategic miscalculation is so commonplace that I hardly need to give examples. The neoconservative grand strategy of Middle East transformation is the most notorious example, and many commentators have noted the absence of a new grand strategy in its place. The Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns began with operational plans to topple governments, but virtually no strategy for filling the power vacuum. Israel's US-backed war with Hezbollah in 2006 worsened Israel's and the US's security. The US destroyed Somalia's most promising government in years because it was Islamic, accelerating state failure and spawning a piracy problem that now demands international military intervention.

Watching strategic blunders pile up has led me on a quest to answer some questions I deem vital: how do you design an organization where truth wins? How do you build institutions to ensure that the right people take leadership, and that the system allows only the best ideas to rise to the top? How do you break groupthink? How do you create an open intellectual climate where ideas are debated and refined, but with enough centralized authority to choose a strategy and implement it? In short, how do you build institutions that are better at strategy?

Traditionally, the US has entrusted foreign policy and national security to elite circles of what Andrew Bacevich calls "Wise Men." In The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism he writes, "... Wise Men view popular--or even congressional--intrusion into policy formulation as distinctly unhelpful, if not downright dangerous. The intricacies of national security are said to lie beyond the ken of the average citizen, who is all too likely to be swayed by short-term, emotional considerations rather than taking a sober, long-term view." The Wise Men are generally well-educated, live and breathe national security issues, and have powerful networks and think tanks standing behind them. The problem is that the Wise Men, both civilian and military, are frequently wrong. They are the chief architects of our most catastrophic strategic miscalculations. Bacevich's criticism is unsparing, and his book is only one of several dozen on the subject. It's not only liberal University professors who are leveling criticism. The most damning critique of senior military leadership came from within, with Lt Col Paul Yingling's article A Failure in Generalship.

So where do we turn? Can we "crowdsource" strategy? In an age when technology, new media, and new methods of collaboration have empowered individual citizens like never before, can citizens take more ownership of foreign policy and national security issues? Not fully. Adam Elkus asks exactly this question in his essay Can Strategy Be Crowdsourced? and his answer is no. He argues, "While network forms of organization are superior to hierarchies in many ways, their strength has been substantially exaggerated. Emergent intelligences cannot formulate strategy nor sustain momentum beyond the tactical level of conflict, networks are not as invincible as commonly portrayed, and hierarchies have certain advantages worth preserving."

Viable long-term strategies are often unpopular, especially in the short term, and the public is notoriously fickle. The word "populism" has negative connotations for a reason. Strong, visionary leadership by individuals who understand policy is vital. The Wise Men are probably right that the crowd will frequently advocate for bad policy. This is especially true in fields that are highly counterintuitive, like economics.

Another problem is the crisis of education, civic responsibility, and simple interest in foreign affairs among Americans today. Abu Muqawama and Arab Media Shack railed yesterday at how bad American TV news is, noting that Bristol Palin's baby drew more media coverage yesterday than the conflict in Gaza. The major networks are market-driven, so you can tell from their headlines a lot about what Americans want. Much of it is drivel. This morning's CNN webpage has headlines about Charles Barkley getting arrested on suspicion of DUI and an 88 year-old woman yanking a nude intruder's testicles. Is this the crowd we want to source national security to?

But the critiques of Wise Men and Crowds both go too far. On the side of the Wise Men, there are plenty of national security professionals who are saying the right things. Strategic failure in the Global War on Terror drove many of the worst policymakers out of power, and elevated a new, more thoughtful group of leaders. Many good policy suggestions abound. Part of the challenge now is building political momentum for the right ideas.

On the side of the Crowd, I still believe in the power of the intellectual marketplace to generate winning ideas. And despite the alarming disinterest in serious policy issues among many Americans, this trend is by no means universal. The US still has a very large population of intelligent, thoughtful, interested citizens who deserve to have a voice. Authoritarian governments always claim they can't trust their citizens with the responsibilities of power; countries like Egypt languish under their rule, while the empowered citizens of liberal democracies prove this logic wrong. The US needs to trust its citizens.

So is it Wise Men or the Crowd? I think it's both. Winning organizations today must be a hybrid of top-down hierarchies and bottom-up networks. Senior leaders must build organizations that encourage innovation and thoughtfulness. Knowledge and differing viewpoints should flow freely, and debate should be encouraged. When it comes time to make decisions, these same leaders should act confidently and decisively to implement the best ideas.

I learned this lesson in a microcosm of the Air Force's Squadron Officer School. I've picked on its weak academics, but as a leadership school, SOS excels. It was one of the most formative events of my career. Over the course of four weeks, the fourteen members of my flight transformed from a disorganized pack of individuals into a highly effective team. Among other things, the school forced us to tackle a series of complex problems to teach leadership and organizational management. These problems required teamwork and innovation. Our early mistake was operating solely as a crowd; everyone tossed around good ideas, but we had no executive authority to make decisions and implement a final strategy. We also learned that the quieter individuals--who often had the best ideas--would not speak up unless someone specifically solicited their input. We quickly adapted and developed a model that served us throughout the rest of the course. For each activity, we appointed a leader from the outset. During the brainstorming phase, the leader would facilitate an open discussion and solicit input. He or she would ensure that everyone participated, and would draw out the quiet team members. Towards the end of the brainstorming session, the leader would announce the final strategy. There would be some final tweaking, then a rehearsal. By the time we executed, we had a single, cohesive strategy that represented the best ideas of the team. It didn't necessarily matter who the leader was, because the process worked so well. We had created an excellent organization for meeting the challenges of the school, by combining hierarchical structure with openness. Wise Men and the crowd.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

RSS Problems

It was brought to my attention that the RSS feed is not working on the blog. If you are interested in subscribing, I hope to have the feed working within the next day or so. Check back soon.

UPDATE: RSS feed should work now. If anyone encounters any problems with the blog, please don't hesitate to e-mail me.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Israel-Palestine Through a COIN Lens

Israel's assault on Gaza continues into another day. I feel a little queasy reading the headlines each morning, because I'm flashing back to July of 2006. Israel has no doubt learned a thing or two from Lebanon, but I still don't see how this can end well.

I'd like to pose a question. The US military has learned relearned a tremendous amount about counterinsurgency strategy in the past few years. Successful implementation of an effective counterinsurgency strategy has made a world of difference in Iraq. So here's the question: if COIN experts applied all that knowledge to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, what would they conclude? If we set aside our passions and loyalties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and assess the situation as objectively as possible, how would we evaluate Israel's long-term counterinsurgency strategy?

Viewed through one possible lens (of many), the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank can be viewed as insurgents against the Israeli government. There are two fundamental strategies for fighting an insurgency: annihilation or turning the loyalty of the people. Israel's long-term strategy has been a limited form of annihilation. When Palestinian violence flares up, the IDF uses military force to crush the source of the violence.

Strategies of annihilation raise both moral and strategic objections. Israel knows this well, because its most heavy-handed tactics draw strong international criticism. In his discussion of annihilation strategies, Nagl quotes the most recent British army's Counterinsurgency Manual:

"None of the attritional 'solutions' described above is appropriate in a liberal democracy and it is considered that a 'gloves off' approach to any insurgency problem has a strictly limited role to play in modern COIN operations. Furthermore, the record of success for attrition in COIN operations is generally a poor one. Undue focus on military action clouds the key political realities which can result in a military-dominated campaign plan that misses the real focus of an insurgency."

That paragraph might sum up the 2006 war with Hezbollah. Israel failed to achieve any of its major objectives. Furthermore, the war destabilized the region and worsened Israel's overall security. Hezbollah got a new lease on life as a resistance movement, Hassan Nasrallah emerged as a national hero, and the government of Lebanon nearly collapsed. Israel also lost moral capital and fueled resentment across the world.

The alternative counterinsurgency strategy--the strategy the US has employed in Iraq--is providing security and legitimate governance, winning the population's loyalty and eroding support for insurgents. This alternative is pragmatically and morally satisfying, because both the government and the majority of the people win. Nagl quotes a US Army officer:

"If the bulk of the band find they can live as decent human beings, do not have to rob to live, and can have land and homes, they will be poor guerrillas from then on. If the great mass of the population knows it will be protected by a strong, just government, it has no reason to cooperate with the guerrillas, and the system of intelligence and supply that sustains all guerrilla movements breaks down. Without popular support the mopping up of the hard-core die-hards is fairly easy."

This paragraph is telling, because the situation in the West Bank and especially in Gaza is almost exactly the opposite. Most Palestinians do not believe they will ever enjoy full human rights, their own land and homes, or just governance. There is plenty of blame to go around--corrupt Palestinian governance, neglect by other Arab countries, and internal extremism--but Israel shares a great deal of responsibility. When Israel continues building new settlements in the West Bank that violate the terms of any possible peace agreement, for example, Palestinian people have no reason for faith in a peaceful political resolution. Their loyalties will largely remain with insurgent/resistance movements.

Israel will no doubt win most or all of its tactical engagements in Gaza. It might even win an operational victory, and Hamas' control of Gaza needed to be challenged sooner or later. But it seems to me that the operation is occurring in a strategic and political vacuum. Applying the lessons of counterinsurgency doctrine, I see no way Israel can achieve a positive strategic outcome on its current trajectory. Both Israelis and Palestinians will continue to pay the price long into the future.

But I'm not trying to preach; I'm asking a question. What do you think?

Building Peace Goes Public

Starting a blog is a scary business--especially if you're a countercultural military officer with a lot of opinions. I've wanted to run a blog for years, but it took me a while to get my confidence. The blogosphere feels like a minefield sometimes. Dangers abound: Violating OPSEC or strict military rules on blogging. Offending the wrong people. Sharing something that will endanger myself or my family while living in the Middle East. Inadvertently writing something improper that will cause my career to implode. Or simply just being wrong--a real danger when you're writing about issues as messy and complex as foreign affairs.

So why do it? Because I firmly believe in the free market of ideas. Ten thousand minds are more imaginative, insightful, and capable than a few expert minds huddled behind closed doors. Some gatekeeping is necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff, but I mostly believe in the power of the intellectual marketplace to recognize good ideas. I wanted to try making my own contribution... not just because I believe in my own ideas, but because I believe so strongly in the process. Blogging is one of many innovations the military and government can use to generate and recognize winning ideas (and stomp out the bad ones).

Still, I began my blog slowly. I did not advertise. I did not network with other bloggers. I just plodded ahead, writing for a non-existent audience, testing the waters of the blogosphere and figuring out the direction this blog would go.

That has apparently changed now. This blog has drawn the notice of some senior folks in the counterinsurgency community, and received mention in Small Wars Journal. I expect my traffic will grow, at least in the term term. I have no idea whether new visitors will stick around, but I'll keep doing what I always do: speculating on ways the US military and other organizations can make wise policy to build a better world. The big difference is that now I'm actually accountable for what I write. That's a scary prospect, but that's exactly how the free market of ideas is supposed to work.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Pentagon Looks at Climate Change & Africa

I haven't written much about the Pentagon's Minerva Initiative, but it's one of the most intriguing developments I've seen in the last few years in how the Pentagon does business. The project caught my eye because it's an example of the kind of "crowdsourcing" I believe so firmly in. Instead of spending millions or billions of dollars to tackle problems in-house, government--like many leading companies now--should find ways to tap the energy and talent of willing members of the general public. That's exactly what Minerva does. It offers $50 million over five years to fund research projects in the social sciences.

Minerva has generated a lot of controversy, and I'm sympathetic to fears about militarizing the social sciences with Pentagon dollars, but I'll leave the debate to others. In the meantime, I'm curious to see what results Minerva generates. Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced who would receive the grants (see the above hyperlink).

One project caught my eye and warmed my heart: James Lindsay of the University of Texas is "leading an investigation into the effects of climate change on state stability in Africa."

I'm no expert on global warming. But whatever you think about the reasons for climate change, or whatever you think about whether or not climate change can be slowed or reversed, all the facts seem to indicate that the Earth's climate is indeed warming. There is a strong consensus on at least that much. This is a vital moral and strategic issue, because volatility in the climate can cause severe practical consequences in countries ill-equipped to adapt to change. Slight rises in sea level because of polar ice breakup will flood many coastal regions. Raising the temperature a couple degrees will change the feasibility of growing certain crops, and several scientific papers have convincingly argued that even small temperature rises adds tremendous energy to hurricanes. Katrina served as a wake-up call to much of America that concern for climate change isn't merely about hugging trees.

If the Earth does indeed suffer a period of rapid climate change, these effects will be most devastating in poor countries without the resilience to adapt. Massive crop failures, natural disasters, or coastal flooding could all destabilize fragile societies and economies in Africa. Such disruptions would likely take an unacceptable humanitarian toll, as well as pose strategic threats to the international community. Just look at Somalia.

Foreign policy is frequently reactive, especially in small developing countries. For the past twenty years, the US and UN have undertaken a number of missions to put out African fires. These missions seldom go well, because the problems are not military in nature. The only solution to instability in weak states is a long-term investment in their economic and political viability. Africa needs preventive strategies, not military interventions. As economist Jeffrey Sachs argues, it needs carefully targeted infusions of aid and development to break poverty traps and build the capacity for economic growth.

That is why I'm excited that Minerva is researching climate change and the stability of African countries. It's the strongest sign I've seen that the Pentagon is looking seriously at positive strategies to shape Africa and forestall crises, rather than merely respond.

Warrior Intellectuals

I finally read John Nagl's counterinsurgency book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. I'd heard the book was good, but I had no idea HOW good. It's fantastic. The beauty of the book is that it's not merely about counterinsurgency; it's about building adaptive learning organizations that know how to defeat insurgencies. That's something I'm passionate about, so I devoured the book over my Christmas break, when I should have been busy opening presents and eating pumpkin pie.

So, learning organizations.

It's been a bumpy but exciting ride, watching the Army become a "learning organization" over the past two years. By mid-2006, as a C-17 pilot and International Relations student who was living and breathing the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, I was in total despair. I'd lost faith in most of the leaders and institutions I was serving. With Iraq embroiled in sectarian violence and teetering over the abyss of civil war, Air Force commanders continued to give me pep talks about how "they slept better at night" knowing that we were making the world safe from terrorists. In 2007 I watched a "motivational" briefing in a rapidly deteriorating Afghanistan by a high-ranking AFCENT general. He wowed us with slides tallying bombs dropped, sorties flown, targets destroyed--all the wrong metrics for fighting a counterinsurgency. That summer, when I attended Squadron Officer School, we learned all about how to plan a strategic air campaign like we fought in Desert Storm--and never discussed counterinsurgency. My deployed squadron played a supporting role in Israel's disastrous 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. I was living history, and despite the cheerleading from some of my colleagues, I knew this was a dark chapter of history that Israel, the US, and Lebanon would all deeply regret. As my knowledge of international affairs deepened, my trust in my leadership eroded.

Then something happened. New names started to appear in the news. David Petraeus. John Nagl. David Kilcullen. H.R. McMaster. Paul Yingling. A new counterinsurgency manual was released, and the process of its creation was as revolutionary as the manual itself; the military invited participation from NGOs, lawyers, academics, and anyone else they could find. Secretary Gates entered the scene, talking loudly about the need to build up soft power and demilitarize American foreign policy. New media like Small Wars Journal sprang up, giving all these young revolutionary officers a place to put their heads together--and they were saying things that made sense. They got it. I read about a counterinsurgency school in Afghanistan, run by a Captain--a Captain!--who'd studied terrorism at Oxford. To make things even better, all these big new names were beginning to get promoted.

The Army has done a remarkable job transforming itself into a learning organization. I'm encouraged that Nagl's book found such a widespread audience in the Army, and that his lessons about building learning organizations were codified in FM 3-24. I don't believe the Army is "there" on its COIN doctrine--big debates still rage on, and there are probably other debates we SHOULD be having--but that's not really the point. The point is that the Army is institutionalizing processes that allow good ideas to rise to the top. I believe my own service, the Air Force, has a ways to go, but I'm confident it will get there.

One of the most important features of the Army's transformation is the rise of "warrior intellectuals" who have both impeccable combat and academic credentials. In a recent article Small Wars Journal, Hamid Hussain captures how rare and extraordinary this is:

"Traditionally there are two types of mid level officers. One is 'commander' type excelling in combat at company and battalion level but not having necessary intellectual capacity to see the bigger picture. Other group is 'intellectual' type having the capacity to think in various dimensions but are poor managers of men therefore they are usually not successful in combat. The group under discussion is unique in that they have not only excelled in combat but almost all of them hold a PhD. These colonels have a rare combination of combat experience along with impeccable academic credentials."

The system conspires against the rise of these officers. As an Olmsted scholar who hopes to serve and lead in our country's foreign policy apparatus, I can appreciate how difficult it is to achieve strong credentials in both combat and academia. The military offers few opportunities for its officers to attend top-notch schools. Many career fields frown on non-operational assignments. Spend too much time out of the operational world, and your career is over. In both the Army and the Air Force, becoming a Foreign Area Officer/International Affairs Specialist is frequently a kiss of professional death.

I hope that the military can institutionalize an organizational culture and processes whereby more officers can become "warrior intellectuals." God knows we need more of them. History won't end with Iraq. New crises await that will demand new ways of thinking; we want to ensure we have a steady supply of bold, visionary officers who will rise to the challenge.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How to Invest in Language Training

After September 11th, the US military recognized its dire need for speakers of "strategic languages" like Arabic and Chinese. Very few members of the Armed Forces speak these languages; of those who do, many can't speak them well. Arabic has a particular problem. Most American students of Arabic study the formal Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and not the wildly different dialects spoken across the Arab world. Linguists who score top marks on the DLPT can't necessarily communicate with Arab people on the street. The DOD met its shortfall by offering extraordinary tax-free salaries to civilian translators. It also developed long-range strategies to develop its capacity for languages. Speaking solely from the perspective of an Arabic student, I'm not convinced that these measures are enough.

The military offers three general ways (that I've found) to learn a language: (1) enlist as a linguist and attend the Defense Language Institute (DLI) (2) learn on your own, aided by resources the DOD provides (3) for officers, get picked up for FAO/IAS or an international exchange program during Intermediate Developmental Education (IDE).

LINGUISTS: Linguists perform vital functions in the military, but they will not meet the military's foreign language needs on their own. Linguists perform specialized functions like listening to and translating intercepted signals. The DLI is built around this framework. Students focus almost exclusively on reading and listening; they spend comparatively little time speaking, and the current curriculum contains almost no dialect training. This is an endlessly frustrating to a class of officers like myself, who will live in Arabic countries and want to communicate with the local people. From everything I've seen as a dedicated student of Arabic, the military provides almost no resources or training to build this kind of capacity in its officer corps.

LEARN ON YOUR OWN: The military is going to great lengths to encourage its members to learn languages on their own. They offer generous monthly bonuses for high-level speakers of strategic languages, they are adding language components to intermediate schools like Air Command & Staff College, and there is even discussion about making language proficiency a requirement for promotion to flag officer. The problem is that the military provides virtually no support to students who want to learn a strategic language. The military's standard solution is to buy Rosetta Stone licenses to offer DOD members. I wish to make this abundantly clear, as a diligent and highly motivated student who spent three years trying to learn Arabic on his own: Rosetta Stone is NOT an adequate resource to learn a language. It can be an asset, but it is not a comprehensive learning program, especially for difficult languages with non-Latin alphabets. I will happily write an entire post about this in the future. After trying and giving up on Rosetta Stone, I spent hundreds of dollars on books and CDs, looking for the best resources. Some of these were helpful, but Arabic simply proved too difficult to learn on my own. I developed a strong foundation, but I ultimately decided to compete for an Olmsted Scholarship--the only way I saw that I could possibly learn Arabic.

FAO/IAS/FOREIGN IDE PROGRAMS: The military allows some officers to become Foreign Area Officers/International Affairs Specialists. It also offers a few academic study programs in foreign universities and military schools. If an officer gets selected, he or she has the opportunity to study the required language at DLI prior to moving overseas. These are excellent programs, but they are extremely competitive and are available only to a handful of officers. Also, due to institutional culture in the military, these tracks are often viewed as "career killers." In my view, these are the single best option for developing the foreign language capacity of the officer corps.

One problem--with all three of these options--is that learning a strategic language takes an incredible amount of time. I have been studying Arabic at one of the top language schools in the world for six straight months now. I'm near the top of my class and am scoring excellent marks on tests, but I can still barely function in the language. I expect to learn a lot during my remaining my months at DLI, but not enough to be fluent. I can only hope that after two further years in Jordan I will be close to fluent. But if it takes three years for a highly motivated officer to really learn Arabic, after intensively studying for a year at DLI and spending two years immersed, what hope is there for building the capacity of the military at large?


I can only throw out a few ideas here, because I'm treading above my pay grade. These are based entirely on my own experience as a student of Arabic.

SHIFT FROM ROSETTA STONE TO PIMSLEUR. The military's primary offering to language students should not be Rosetta Stone; it should be Pimsleur audio CDs. Spend ten hours with Rosetta Stone, and you'll know phrases like "the horse jumped over the fence." Spend ten hours with Pimsleur, and you'll know--confidently--how to exchange greetings, ask the locations of landmarks, and order food. These CDs are widely respected among language students, and they use a methodology that's fun, effective, and that emphasizes speaking.

FOR INDEPENDENT LEARNERS, THE GOAL SHOULD BE TO BECOME CONVERSATIONAL--NOT FLUENT. AT LEAST AT FIRST. If officers are studying a strategic language for one year at their IDE school, they will not become fluent and shouldn't be expected to. Instead, they should learn how to converse. These officers will not be able to watch and understand Al Jazeera, but they could probably hold a brief conversation with visiting officers from Jordan or Egypt--winning respect and strengthening alliances. Preparing officers for these encounters should be the goal in time-limited language programs. Again, this means shifting from Rosetta Stone to Pimsleur. It also means giving giving students the opportunity to converse with native speakers.

MAKE PRIVATE TUTORING AVAILABLE TO EVERY OFFICER. I have no idea how this could actually be implemented, but I believe it's essential to build language capacity outside DLI. I'd love to see the military build up a program, where the military would match self-motivated students with native speaker tutors and then foot the bill. The Tuition Assistance program currently allows officers to use government money to enroll in language training, but I believe this must be for accredited courses working towards a foreign language degree. It's too inflexible for officers who want private tutoring and who are frequently deployed.

BREAK LANGUAGE LEARNING INTO MILESTONES, AND INCENTIVIZE THEM. Right now, the military has only one metric to measure language ability: the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT), which rates Listening and Reading ability on a 0-3 scale. This test is WAY too hard for beginning students. A student who has been studying Arabic for 3-4 months might get a handful of questions right, but then he must slog through hours of difficult authentic material that he won't have a chance with. There's no reason to subject a new student to a test that is so discouraging and so far above his level. I believe the military should create a series of "milestone" tests for early learners, and should incentivize results. For example, the first milestone in Arabic is learning the alphabet. Perhaps the military could institute an alphabet test. An independent learner who masters the alphabet and passes the test should be able to claim the achievement on his Performance Report. As students cross more and more milestones, perhaps more resources, funding, and school opportunities would be "unlocked." This would give students a sense of accomplishment, encourage them to stick with the language, and reward progress. It would also separate those who are serious about language from those who aren't--and allocate the best and most expensive resources to those students who have proved their sincerity.

REWARD LANGUAGE TRAINING IN COLLEGE. This idea didn't occur to me until I saw it in the headlines yesterday. ROTC is now offering incentive pay to students who enroll in strategic languages. I like the idea. Learning a strategic language takes years, but an officer's career is so crammed full of schools and assignments and deployments that it's difficult to work in language training. What better opportunity to learn the language than in college?

DEVOTE MORE TIME IN AN OFFICER'S CAREER TO FULL-TIME LANGUAGE STUDY. I know. I'm dreaming. Language & Culture advocates have been saying this for decades, but the institution never learns or remembers. Still, I'll just say this: I spent years learning to fly airplanes. Sailplanes at the Academy, Cessnas, trainer aircraft in Undergraduate Pilot Training, and multiple schools for the C-17. An operational pilot also spends much of the time training, keeping his or her skills sharp. But when it comes to language--a skill that is far more difficult than flying airplanes, and just as important to the effectiveness of our military and national objectives--the training pipeline is short, and officers who learn strategic languages have few opportunities to advance or refresh their skills. Until that changes, the DOD will always be behind on strategic languages.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Dallaire in Rwanda

In 1994, the world stood by and watched the worst act of genocide since the Holocaust. Hutu militias in Rwanda armed with machetes raped and murdered approximately 800,000 Tutsis in just 100 days, while an impotent UN peacekeeping force stood by, forbidden from intervening by the UN Security Council--and by the United States in particular. The memory of 18 dead Rangers in Somalia still haunted the US foreign policy establishment. It was also an election year.

The videos from this time period are profoundly disturbing. Rivers literally flow red with dismembered bodies. Tutsi refugees beg UN troops to shoot them, so they won't die by machete when the UN withdraws. Churches are filled with the corpses of Tutsis betrayed to the militias by their own priests. French, Belgian and US troops evacuate sobbing white people from their respective embassies, while abandoned Rwandan staff look helplessly on. US spokespeople hold press conferences, where they trip over themselves to avoid the word "genocide" so they won't invoke international law that demands a response.

I distinctly remember the day I first learned about the genocide, watching a video in a Political Science class at the Air Force Academy. That hour was life-changing. Rwanda has stayed with me, haunting me, driving me, ever since. I've spent thousands of hours studying the genocide, reading about it, and writing a novel based loosely on those events. The Rwandan Genocide has become a part of me. When I grow weary of the grueling deployment rates my military career demands, when I sicken at the ugliness and horror and cynicism of war and realpolitik, when I desire nothing more than to get out of the service and buy a quiet cabin somewhere--Rwanda is one of the things that drives me on. I cling to the stubborn belief that, although military force is often abused, there are times when it is necessary to preserve life. Nowhere was that more true than in Rwanda. I care so much about "small wars", stability operations, and institutional capacity to build security, because I want to make sure we have the tools to prevent such atrocities in the future.

A handful of heroes have emerged from Rwanda. My personal favorite--a man I will strive to follow my entire life--is Canadian Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire. He was the UNAMIR Force Commander in 1994. Despite his nonintervention orders by his UN superiors and an appalling lack of support from the international community, he fought relentlessly to protect innocent lives in Rwanda, stop the killing, and alert the world to the reality of genocide. He begged for the intervention force of just 5,000 troops to stop the killing. At one point, he disobeyed orders to withdraw--a decision that saved thousands of lives. The institutions General Dallaire served failed both him and Rwanda badly, but he stretched his scant resources and authority as far as they would go to protect the innocent.

Dallaire's efforts came at an extraordinary personal price; the horrors he'd witnessed drove him through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and eventually to a suicide attempt. Thank God he failed. During his recovery, he found new purpose in writing his story--which became the book Shake Hands with the Devil. The book spent more than 135 weeks on the Canadian bestseller list. Later Dallaire became a Canadian senator, and now advocates for conflict resolution and genocide prevention and against the use of child soldiers in war.

In 2007, a feature film was released, based on Dallaire's book. It stars Roy Dupuis as General Dallaire. The movie garnered almost no attention in the US--I didn't even know it existed, until googling Dallaire's name one day--but it is fantastic. The film shows the Rwandan genocide as Dallaire saw it--caught at the cruel intersection between the people of Rwanda, Hutu leaders and Tutsi rebels, and a monstrous international bureaucracy.

The film is hard to find. You won't find it in your local movie rental store or on Netflix, and does not sell it directly, but I was able to find a copy through one of Amazon's affiliated vendors. Anyone with an interest in genocide or peacekeeping should watch the film. The book is excellent too--required reading for anyone wanting a look inside a UN peacekeeping operation.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Leadership in Aid and Development - Further Reflections

In my last post, I argued that the military is being entrusted with more and more foreign affairs responsibilities, largely because it consistently trains stronger leaders than America's non-military institutions and the NGO community. Training better leaders is essential to reforming and strengthening these institutions.

My wife, who served for a time in the US Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, suggested I qualify that thesis. She agreed with my criticism of the Peace Corps--that a good number of its volunteers are immature, abuse alcohol and drugs, and set a poor example in their host countries. However, she said that the Peace Corps still draws plenty of amazing talent. Many of her colleagues had impressive higher education, spoke multiple languages, and were well-versed in foreign affairs. I'm sure the State Department, too, draws a lot of amazing talent. My wife also pointed out that the military has its own bad apples. True. The three Army officers in my Arabic class at DLI, all of whom were company commanders, can tell me story after story about problem soldiers under their command, and I have a few stories of my own from the Air Force.

With that said, I still believe the military--on the whole--produces exceptional leaders. What's the difference? Perhaps the difference is not necessarily in the quality of individual members (though this play a role), but in the health and culture of the overall organization. The military invests a tremendous amount of resources in training leaders. From the first day a new soldier shows up in basic training, he is taught to break through his limits, embrace new challenges, and function as part as a team. The process never stops. Training is continuous, with NCOs and officers learning and practicing leadership commensurate with their grade. I've never seen anything comparable in the civilian world. When I attended Squadron Officer School last summer, one of the senior leaders told us that business leaders frequently visit to study the program, because it's so well-respected at teaching leadership. While I have strong feelings about the weak academics at the school, I will enthusiastically agree that it excels at teaching leadership. Any organization would benefit from the kind of leadership training the military conducts. The problem, I suppose, is resources. Compared to the military, the State Department and USAID are vastly underresourced. Organizations strapped for cash and people can't run extravagant month-long leadership schools.

After my last post, Capt McGregor--who wrote the article I was quoting--contacted me, and we traded a few thoughts on improving interagency cooperation between the military and civilian agencies. We both think the government needs to expand exchange opportunities between the military and other organizations like State and USAID. I would also like to see interagency cooperation in wargaming and training exercises. In the military, we try to "train like we fight", which is why we hold elaborate exercises like Red Flag, which simulate real combat. "Small Wars" require unity of effort between the military and the aid, development, and diplomatic communities, but I don't believe we have an interagency training equivalent to Red Flag for nation-building or stability operations. When we don't train, we have to invent the process as we go along, in real operations. That's not a good way to do business.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Leadership in Aid and Development

I follow a good number of military journals and blogs. Most papers by military officers come from Lieutenant Colonels and above, and sometimes from Majors--probably because many of these papers spring from residency at Intermediate or Senior Developmental Education schools. From time to time, though, I'll find articles by Captains or Lieutenants. Because Captains and Lieutenants are not typically in staff jobs or schools yet, these authors are usually uniquely motivated individuals who have gone out of their way to write a paper. I'm always interested in what they have to say. For example, when I started paying close attention to counterinsurgency doctrine in early 2007, the handful of Air Force papers on the subject came mostly from Majors and Captains with unlikely backgrounds--like Captain John Bellflower, a former Marine who is presently a lawyer and who has two papers published on Small Wars Journal.

This morning I read a paper on Small Wars Journal by Capt Steve McGregor, titled Reconstruction in South Baghdad. McGregor describes the experience of Task Force 3-187 with aid and development in Baghdad in 2007 and 2008. He contrasts the military's approach to aid with the approach of the aid community, leveling several critiques against the latter. He also offers some lessons learned from Task Force 3-187's experience.

McGregor offers one "lesson learned" that is worth repeating here, because I think it's dead-on. He writes, "The Army possesses and develops better leaders than the aid community. As an institution the US Army relies on national service academies, Officer Training Courses, leadership schools such as Ranger School, and real-world experience, to develop leaders. Aid organizations as well as the US Department of State need to reevaluate how they prepare their staff for austere environments and the rigors of nation building or consider military exchange programs."

There is a broad consensus that our non-military instruments of power are in serious disrepair. The lack of institutional capacity to create leaders is a huge part of the problem. The US military has its problems, to be sure, but I've never seen another organization that consistently produces so many exceptional leaders.

The contrast with the State Department became painfully clear in November 2007, when State mandated service for Foreign Service Officers in Iraq to fill 48 open billets at the cushy embassy well within the Green Zone. Hundreds of FSOs protested. At a meeting, veteran diplomat Jack Croddy drew extended applause for one of the single most disgraceful and cowardly quotes I've heard from a government official: "It's one thing if someone believes in what's going on over there and volunteers. But it's another thing to send someone over there on a forced assignment. And I'm sorry, but basically that's a potential death sentence, and you know it. Who will take care of our children? Who will raise our children if we're dead or seriously wounded? Who will get our kids through life?" With one sound byte, a US diplomat simultaneously expressed opposition to American foreign policy, refused to follow terms in his employment agreement, and expressed both personal and institutional cowardice, in an appalling contrast to the tens of thousands of soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is this the leadership we trust to tackle foreign affairs challenges? It's no wonder more and more foreign affairs responsibilities are being pushed towards the military.

The aid community is fraught with leadership challenges of its own. Just to cite one example, a former Peace Corps administrator wrote a critical article in Foreign Policy magazine in April about the organization's myriad problems. My wife, who served in the Peace Corps, tells me that the Peace Corps is heavily trying to recruit older, more mature people because they have so many problems with juvenile volunteers who abuse drugs and alcohol, violate cultural norms, and otherwise set a bad example of Americans to the world.

McGregor is right; aid organizations need reform, and they need good leaders at the helm.

When I reached the end of McGregor's article, I was intrigued when I read his bio: "Captain Steve McGregor received his commission from the US Air Force Academy in 2004. After one year in the Air Force, CPT McGregor cross-commissioned to the Army, completing Infantry Officer School and Ranger School. He then received an assignment to the 101st Airborne in the Fall of 2006. CPT McGregor recently returned from a 14 deployment to Yusufiya, Iraq with Task Force 3-187, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). While there he served as a platoon leader and was then appointed to the S9—the primary battalion staff position responsible for Civil and Military Operations. At the end of his tour, Captain McGregor worked in the Policy and Plans Section of the Baghdad PRT helping to shape revision of the Joint Campaign Plan and coalition election involvement. Next year CPT McGregor is leaving the army to pursue graduate studies in Social Anthropology and a career in the US Department of State."

I'd love to sit down over a beer and hear his story. His career a snapshot of the complex, dizzying, cross-institutional world in which the US military now operates. I'm sure he will be a valuable asset to the State Department.

Secretary Gates on a Balanced Strategy

I don't know if it's appropriate for an officer to gush over his Defense Secretary, but I can't help it: every time Secretary Gates gives a speech or writes a paper, he waters my eyes. The secretary's latest paper appears in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs. A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age explains the 2008 National Defense Strategy and lays out a clear, pragmatic vision for allocating limited resources to prepare for both conventional and asymmetric military operations.

Some of the terrain is familiar. Gates--who never misses an opportunity to raise the subject--writes again about the erosion of America's non-military instruments of power like the State Department, USAID, and our public diplomacy apparatus, and the crucial need to rebuild their capacity.

Other material is new. Without actually using the phrase, Gates hints at a growing military-industrial complex that has locked the DOD into expensive weapon procurements geared for conventional wars. The system is expensive, contributes to an overmilitarization of American foreign policy, and is ill-suited to meeting many of the challenges of today's world. Gates writes, "Support for conventional modernization programs is deeply embedded in the Defense Department's budget, in its bureaucracy, in the defense industry, and in Congress. My fundamental concern is that there is not commensurate institutional support -- including in the Pentagon -- for the capabilities needed to win today's wars and some of their likely successors."

He suggests that it's time to institutionalize a lower-tech, rapidly-implementable procurement system for irregular warfare capability. He asks some pointed questions: "Why was it necessary to go outside the normal bureaucratic process to develop technologies to counter improvised explosive devices, to build MRAPs, and to quickly expand the United States' ISR capability? In short, why was it necessary to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities needed to protect U.S. troops and fight ongoing wars?"

In his book The Pentagon's New Map, Thomas Barnett argues that the procurement cycle actually drives operational planning--which is opposite of how the system should work. Gates addresses this issue head-on: "The key is to make sure that the strategy and risk assessment drive the procurement, rather than the other way around."

Gates goes on to discuss the resistance that he faces trying to break through a rigid bureaucracy: "Apart from the Special Forces community and some dissident colonels, however, for decades there has been no strong, deeply rooted constituency inside the Pentagon or elsewhere for institutionalizing the capabilities necessary to wage asymmetric or irregular conflict -- and to quickly meet the ever-changing needs of forces engaged in these conflicts."

Dissident colonels. I like the sound of that. That's what I want to be when I grow up. In the meantime, I'm grateful for a Secretary of Defense who sides with the dissidents and is willing to tackle institutional resistance to meeting the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Dehumanization and Racism in War


A couple years ago, I stumbled across a short film that earned its fame at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. Titled "Planet of the Arabs", the film is a compilation of clips from Hollywood movies, showing popular stereotypes of Arabs. When I first saw the film, I was skeptical. Yes, I knew that the vast majority of Arabs are not terrorists, but didn't Arabs--at least the Muslim ones--need to own up to the fact that terrorism is predominantly an extremist Islamic phenomenon, and that it's only natural for Hollywood to make movies about it?

A second film made me reconsider. My wife--who worked at an alternative high school with a large proportion of African-American students--brought home a copy of Birth of a Nation, Hollywood's first blockbuster, which is still widely hailed as one of the great films of history. It is also one of the most overtly racist movies ever made. White actors in dark face paint play the roles of rioting "crazed negroes" and a murderous former slave who preys on white women. The film is racist on almost every level, but what caught my attention most was the acting. I suppose the white actors were trying to "act black", and in the process they conveyed the depth and crassness of their racist stereotypes. Apparently this technique was not uncommon; according to Wikipedia, blackface was an element of American theater and film for more than 100 years. After I watched Birth of a Nation, I remembered Planet of the Arabs and watched it again, with new eyes. I was appalled by two things: (1) by the stereotypes American actors conveyed when they tried to "act Arab" and (2) my own blindness to those stereotypes before.


This is a blog about war and peace. Why write about racism? When national leaders go to war, they must generate convincing myths, or narratives, to explain the war and sustain domestic support. The phenomenon is as old as Thucydides. In War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges writes, "... in mythic war we imbue events with meanings they do not have. We demonize the enemy so that our opponent is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects--eventually in the form of corpses."

This process of demonization goes hand-in-hand with racism. Hedges writes, "Most national myths, at their core, are racist." Over the years, I've been amazed to discover how selective we are about our racial sensitivities. The majority of Americans are well-educated about the evils of slavery and racism against African-Americans; they reel at the slightest hint of racism towards blacks. These same Americans, however, might never think twice about using "hajji" as a racial slur or wrapping towels around their heads on Halloween and chanting "Allahu Akbar!" As nations mobilize for war, their myths dehumanize the enemy and reinforce racist stereotypes. When myths collapse and old wars are forgotten by new generations, these racist stereotypes are exposed for what they are. I was horrified when, as a small boy, I heard my great-grandfather used the word "Jap." A word that was unremarkable to his generation was appalling to mine. But history is littered with racial slurs against enemies, and all the stereotypes they entail.

In today's world, where the international community faces a radical Islamist insurgency, Arabs or Muslims (which are not the same, but are frequently confused) are often viewed through such a racist lens. The early language of the Global War on Terror--which is now thankfully almost extinct--was "mythic" in the sense that Chris Hedges uses, pitting the forces of absolute good against absolute evil. While the Bush administration carefully stated that the US was not at war with Islam, society at large was less discerning. Many Americans were admirably tolerant of Arabs and Muslims living within the US (although there were notable exceptions), but when it came to Arabs and Muslims abroad--in places like Afghanistan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia--cartoonish stereotypes prevailed. We dehumanized our enemy, and in doing so dehumanized potential allies and the average Muslim on the street--whose loyalties are the real center of gravity in the war on terrorism.


Apart from racism's obvious intrinsic evil, it is also unpragmatic and counterproductive to both our military goals and our national interests. Some might argue that dehumanizing the enemy is necessary to convince soldiers to fight. Counterinsurgency turns this logic on its head, because success depends on respecting, trusting, and building relationships with the local population. It also requires understanding insurgents as human beings: knowing their reasons for fighting, the subtle differences between their factions, the incentives or threats that might convince them to lay down arms. Our early strategy in Iraq failed largely because it lacked this subtlety; our narrative pitted American forces against a monolithic "enemy", who we made no effort to understand. It took months or years for many Americans to understand that Iraqi insurgents were comprised of many different factions, many of which despised each other, and that success in Iraq would require a strategy sophisticated enough to treat each one differently. As Iraq's conflict spiral tightened in 2005 and 2006, for example, more and more Sunni and Shiites were drawn into violence simply to defend their communities and survive.

An Air Force interrogator wrote an article in the Washington Post the other day, in which he said, "Over the course of this renaissance in interrogation tactics, our attitudes changed. We no longer saw our prisoners as the stereotypical al-Qaeda evildoers we had been repeatedly briefed to expect; we saw them as Sunni Iraqis, often family men protecting themselves from Shiite militias and trying to ensure that their fellow Sunnis would still have some access to wealth and power in the new Iraq. Most surprisingly, they turned out to despise al-Qaeda in Iraq as much as they despised us, but Zarqawi and his thugs were willing to provide them with arms and money. I pointed this out to Gen. George Casey, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, when he visited my prison in the summer of 2006. He did not respond."

Dehumanization did not put us on a path to success. Quite the opposite. Dehumanization blunted our strategy, caused us to underestimate sophisticated enemies, and led to abuses like those at Abu Ghraib--which were devastating to our foreign policy goals. Thankfully, our senior commanders reversed this course of dehumanization, opening the door to our biggest strategic gains. The counterinsurgency intellectuals taught soldiers to live among and respect the Iraqi and Afghani people. General Petraeus took the bold and controversial move of supporting the Anbar Awakening--empowering many Sunni fighters who had previously fought against American forces and the Iraqi government. Our military has not turned soft--our commanders are waging a relentless war against enemy fighters who cannot be reconciled--but they have the insight and subtlety to know who to fight, who to engage with, and how. In all cases, formulating effective strategy requires that we understand others as human beings, not as racist stereotypes.

Racism and dehumanization are detestable in all their guises. War should offer no exceptions.

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