Friday, June 18, 2004

Current Strategies: America is in for a long, rough ride

Newport, Rhode Island. I would have imagined Newport in the summer as bright and jazz-like, and overwhelming show of sun, blue skies, and the notes of a saxophone followed by the wild horns of musicians sweating under New England summer warmth. When I woke up on Tuesday, things couldn’t have been farther from that image.

Newport dawned gray on Tuesday, much like my mental state of the last ten months and remarkably similar to the day before. Overcast skies with gray wisps dangling tantalizing close, a dreariness only matched by the somberness of those around me as I gathered in the hotel lobby shortly after 6 am. Yesterday had been full of gray and rain, at least the rain was holding off. Those of us in the lobby are here in Newport for the 49th annual Current Strategies Forum sponsored by the Secretary of the Navy. The dreariness on my part might be from the weather, or the early morning hour, or the pre-caffeine state of my mind. I am surrounded by a dozen, white, old men in conservative dark suits. We look like we’re cut from the same mold. I am the youngest here, my bald head no match for the silver atop these men. Conversations are quiet on this the first morning; by the conclusion of the forum, things will be more animated, attendees having been introduced to new key ideas and other attendees.

Every year the U.S. Naval War College, accredited academic institution offering graduate studies in national security and strategic thinking, sponsors this forum. Originally, I had thought the attendees would be policy wonks and staffers, but it turns out to be influential people of the business world. During the week I will meet retired military officers (general and flag officers along with a sprinkling of lesser senior officers), lawyers, business owners, and even the long-time head of an independent boarding school. I’m told at one point, in a hushed whisper, that while no decision makers are here, some in the crowd have the connections to influence key politicians. Some can pick up the phone and talk to Secretary of the Navy England or Senator Kerry or, even perhaps, President Bush. While I’m not totally convinced of this when I’m told, but the end of the Forum I suspect their might be some truth to the comment.

The Naval War College is an imposing collection of granite buildings on a bluff overlooking Narragansett Bay and the Newport-Jamestown Bridge. I stand on the plaza and the air is tinged with the salty sweetness of the sea, a stiff breeze blowing ashore. Before the first session, I stand on the Spruance Plaza overlooking the Bay. The flags of fifty-three flags flap at half mast; the Stars and Stripes is closest to me, honoring a dead president while flying at reduced height.

Later, as I glanced about the auditorium, I was struck by the similarities of those in attendance. Sure, I know that physical similarities belie differences; racial diversity isn’t something I’d accuse of this crowd. Perhaps that is my strongest criticism during the Forum: that these discussions, as important as they are, are perhaps not heard by either a diverse group or the people who should hear them. Before the War College students enter, some several hundred invited guests sit spread throughout the auditorium, and I don’t see a single person of color. Not one. When the students trickle in, the conversation in the room begins to run up, buzz of energy. So, too, does the diversity increase, but it’s clear that it is global diversity, not one representing America. Naval officers representing the Philippines, Bahrain, Singapore, and dozens of other allies are part of the student body.

The Forum was kicked off by soon-to-be Vice Admiral Route, currently the President of the Naval War College. Among his comments, he recommended two books for us to read: Power, Terror, Peace, and War by Walter Russell Mead and The Pentagon’s New Map by Thomas P. M. Barnett. Barnett’s books is a longer treatise grown from an article he published just a couple of years ago.

The remainder of the day was spend discussing strategic challenges with an emphasis on the Middle East and East Asia. The second day focused on grand strategy and military force structure. During the keynotes and panels, I was struck by the following:
  • Remember that war is a continuation of policy by other means. The military is nothing more than one component of national power which includes diplomacy, information, and economic actions also.


  • America must be global leaders; that is to say that we must lead by example. We cannot expect to be leaders unless our actions meet our words.


  • Acting unilaterally in today’s global world runs against the grain.


  • Globalization will impact our relationships in the future. The basis for much future conflict will be non-national in nature. Religion and culture will play a larger role than national interests. Conflict will be asymmetrical in nature. The distinctions will be blurred between civilians and military, between war and peace. Terror tactics will be the tool of choice.


  • In unconventional warfare and insurgency, we’re going to face a protracted war. The population is the center of gravity & there’ll be blurred boundaries between civilian and military spheres. Asymmetric tactics will be the tactics of insurgent warfare.


  • Our current national policy is based on a presumption which is flawed, that a lack of democracy leads to terrorism. The truth is much different; a lack of democracy doesn’t lead to terrorism; the causes of terrorism are much more complex.


  • Al Qaidi has a great leadership program in place. Al Qaidi, unlike terror groups of past, aren’t personality driven. Al Qaida develops leaders so that when one can’t do the work anymore, another person can fill in. It’s like the military; if all our general and flag officers were removed overnight, we’d fill in with other people who will be able to fill in, with nearly no loss in productivity.


  • Abu Ghraib has tainted the perceptions of all the United States has done and is doing in Iraq. Anti-American sentiment is spreading across the world; it’s not all because of the actions of military members in Abu Ghraib, but that certainly hasn’t helped things. Our arrogance, our willingness to step to military power, is mostly to blame.


  • CENTCOM had predicted that any military actions in Iraq would degenerate into insurgency operations on the part of the enemy. More than six years ago, CENTCOM developed plans which saw the insurgency and called for 300,000 troops for the occupation. More recently, the CIA and the Department of State has predicted Iraqi insurgency. This makes me wonder: why did our elected political leaders not listen to this counsel? Did they not hear or did they just ignore it because this input didn’t support their own goals. The prediction of insurgency and sustained asymmetrical operations didn’t fit their mold.


  • What is in future for America? At the first summit of the International Telegraph Union, an international governmental organization, the United States didn’t have a seat at the table. Nope, only the true world powers of 1865 were at this conference: France, the Ottoman Empire, and 18 other sovereign nations. Are we bound for the same fate as those world powers?


  • Terrorism is not an ideology, it’s a tactic. We’re not in a war, either, we’re in struggle. What we’re really in, then, isn’t a War on Terrorism, it’s, rather, a struggle against a group of radical jihadists. But, whatever it is , it’s going to go on for thirty or forty years or longer. We need to be in for the long haul. The Second World War, which was a fight against fascism, took four years. The Cold War, which was a fight against communism, lasted forty years. Be ready for something longer.


  • Our current struggle is against highly dispersed adversaries who use low tech, high impact asymmetric tactics. We have to create a force which can deal with this. To be successful we must get inside their decision loop. Our current military is structured big and hierarchical, unlike those who terrorist tactics. The military has a vertical construct, while the world (and those non-national actors who we are currently fighting) have a horizontal organization.


  • The current administration’s view of the world, even before the attacks of 9/11, has three key components: (1) Power, and military power specifically, matters most in international relations. Those with the most are best. As such, the Iraqi war is a demonstration of Iraqi power. (2) International institutions and international law are constraints on the United States and what the United States wants to do. (3) Power, and our use of exceptionalism, are acceptable because are motives are pure. Those in the international community who understand we are pure of heart agree with our actions; everybody else, well, they just don’t understand. Those who oppose us do so to constrain us, but we are right in our actions.


  • We are no longer a world of competing nation states. We are now a world of globalization. Our power, as great as it is, is insufficient in the face of globalization. We must act with others; we cannot continue to act unilaterally. America is at risk of losing everything; we are at risk of losing our ability to lead. One reason for this is our reliance on the military portion of aspects of national power (Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economics). We need to regain the moral authority we’ve lost. We cannot continue to believe power is best, we can go it alone, and we know what’s best. It will take years and years to rebuild what we have lost and squandered over the last two years.


  • Perhaps we need to shift our view of the world with regard to what our goal is. Police who shoot to kill, often die. If, however, they shoot to live, well, they mostly do. It’s a matter of how to look at the world. Perhaps we need to move from wining the war to winning the peace.


  • How can we get Americans to realize we really are in a struggle and that they are at risk?


  • Everyone, especially leaders, must come to grips with this question: What is it you believe? We must not be against but for something. What are you for and how do you translate that into something you can deliver?
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Forum was that it exemplified America: Here I was, on the campus of the U.S. Naval War College, and people were thinking critically and disagreeing with American policy and strategy. Amongst nearly everyone there was agreement that the U.S. Navy, and all the military services, exists to act as directed in support of American policy. Those in the military don’t have to agree with that policy, but they do have to carry it out. And in forums like this Forum, they can voice their opinions and built cogent arguments as to why they disagree.

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