Thursday, September 03, 2009

Another Krock of Krepinevich

"Strategy is fundamentally about identifying or creating asymmetric advantages that can be exploited to help achieve one’s ultimate objectives despite resource and other constraints."

– Andrew Krepinevich and Barry D. Watts, Regaining Strategic Competence,September 2009

The problem with retired Army light colonel Andrew Krepinevich, the self-described "expert on US military strategy," isn’t so much that he says silly things; it’s that people in positions of power and influence take the silly things he says seriously. Krepinevich is the epitome of contemporary American think-tankery: a pseudo-intellectual war hawk with Washington connections who can talk all day and get people to listen, but who couldn’t find the body part he sits on with both hands and a GPS receiver.

In Regaining Strategic Competence. a recent monograph written under the aegis of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Krepinevich and Barry D. Watts argue that America needs to regain its strategic competence. That’s the one assertion they make that I have no argument with.

Strategy is not, as they claim, "fundamentally about identifying or creating asymmetric advantages." That’s the core concept behind maneuver warfare and the crux of Sun Tzu’s philosophy, but strategy encompasses much more than asymmetric considerations. Many a sound strategy has featured a symmetric superiority over one’s opponent. Patton didn’t defeat Rommel’s tank divisions with cunning applications of tai chi and Taoist thought.

"Resource and other constraints" hardly apply to the American strategic calculus. We spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined. Our post-World War II failures — most notably Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — have not been a result of constraints in resources or methods, but in the self-defeating nature of the conflicts themselves. No quantity of field manuals or doctrines can make counterinsurgency a winning proposition. The only folks who win that kind of war own the local gene pool.

Krepinevich and Watts say that, "the overall trend in the strategic performance of American political and military elites appears to be one of decline." We hardly need full-time tank thinkers to deliver us to that conclusion. It is telling, though, that the authors point to "the outcome of the Cold War" as an example of superior U.S. strategy. They specifically credit "offsetting Warsaw Pact numerical superiority with precision strike, increased US defense spending in the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, and the covert arming of mujahedeen fighters to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan" as highlights of American strategic thinking.

The precision strike vs. numbers aspect was likely included because of Watts‘ Air Force background and his subsequent career as and air power "expert." Despite the claims of the wild blue fanatics, going toe-to-toe with the Russkies was always about a symmetric, Patton-esque tank battle in Germany’s Fulda Gap.

We don’t really know that increased defense spending in the 80s tipped the scales of the Cold War. The defense spending we’d been doing up to then had done a fine job of containing the Soviets and shoving them down the slope to economic ruin. The Strategic Defense Initiative always was (and still is) the stuff of cinematic space opera. We’ll develop the kind of missile defense adequate to have survived a nuclear exchange with the Soviets shortly after we colonize the Pleiades. Krepinevich and Watts make no mention of the fact that our covert arming of mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan led to the most challenging strategic conundrum we presently face, but why should they? That might be like admitting that they’re post-modern bull feather merchants (which they are).

That the authors make homage to Reagan-era strategies exposes their political bias, as does their endorsement of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower as presidents who "took strategy seriously" and whose examples "remain worthy of study and emulation."

Lincoln was a deep thinker, but his strength was as a policy maker, not a strategist. His unifying concept — that the Union must be preserved at all costs — is what led to the North’s victory in the Civil War despite the incompetence of most of Lincoln’s generals and their thumb-less execution of the war. It took elevation of U.S. Grant to general-in-chief to turn the tide of that war, and his strategy was hardly the "asymmetric" maneuver scheme that Sun Tzu described and that Krepinevich and Watts adore. Grant, in fact, was almost Soviet in his approach. The North had more men, industry, communications, infrastructure, and overall stuff than the South. All he had to do to achieve strategic victory was engage the enemy tactically. He could lose a thousand battles and still win the war.

Like Grant, Eisenhower was the leading general of a great war who made for a sub-mediocre president. As the five-star officer in charge of the European Theater of Operations during World War II, Ike was more of a politician than a strategist, the competent figure capable of juggling the galactic egos of the great political and military figures of that conflict. As president, Ike was more of a golfer than a politician. His best strategy moves were building the U.S. interstate highway system and ending Douglas MacArthur’s botched Korean War. Krepinevich and Watts say nothing of those accomplishments; they opt instead to laud Ike for forming what would later become the National Security Council planning and operations coordinating board, a body that was actually created by Ike’s Democratic predecessor Harry Truman.

To credit Reagan with strategic acumen is to liken Jessica Simpson to Beethoven. The Cold War was won before Reagan took office. All he had to do was look like a movie star and not flub his lines too badly. But, like Lincoln and Ike, he was a Republican and worth the praise of Krepinevich and Watts and the rest of the warmongery.

Krepinevich and Watts give Democrat Franklin Roosevelt a certain amount of credit for victory in World War II, but they make it clear that success was largely a matter of Winston Churchill and George Marshall keeping Roosevelt from screwing up too badly. It’s telling as well that the authors identify their target audience as the "next administration," making it clear that they don’t expect the Democrats in charge now to pay any attention them. Here’s hoping that the Republicans who replace the Obama crowd don’t listen to Krepinevich and Watts either.

One could write volumes about the Aristotelian lapses in their logic, but this one stands out for me: a common pitfall of strategic performance, they tell us, is "mistaking strategic goals for strategy." That’s like mistaking a sentence for its subject and predicate. Without goals, a strategy is merely a collection of wimp words and platitudes. If you need further evidence that the latest Krepinevich manifesto is a pile of day-old horse lunch, witness that David Petraeus hagiographer Thomas E. Ricks, who has lately shown himself to be dumber than Jessica Simpson and dirt mixed together, says that right now Regain Strategic Competence is his "subway reading."

If that’s the best thing you have to read on your way to work, Tom, sharpen two pencils and shove them in your eyes.

Krepinevich is part of the neoconservative cabal that has captured the narrative of strategic thought. Their core assumption — that armed force is still and will continue to be a effective tool of American foreign policy — will be the downfall of this country unless we reject the notion out of hand. That so many people (like Ricks) continue to regard Krepinevich as a "fine strategic thinker" should frighten you. Krepinevich is one of the maddest hatters at the think tank tea party going on in Washington.

Krepinevich and Moss make much of the necessity to identify and develop individuals with the "cognitive skills to do strategy well." What they really want is to place people in decision-making positions who think like Krepinevich. They aim to replace the "American political and military elites" with a political and military elite cast in their image.

At this point in the American experiment, our best strategists exist outside the influence of the D.C. beltway. Anyone who steps into the puzzle palace immediately becomes as puzzled as the puzzle masters.


  1. Anonymous10:13 PM

    Please write several more books. I will buy several of each.

  2. Perhaps the primary constraint we face is that we have more ambition than brains in our ruling class.

    I am not saying that just to be flippant. We need to accept that as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy and find ways to still achieve our goals.

    If we won't stop shooting ourselves in the foot, we should find a way to stop loading the gun.

  3. Anonymous7:14 AM

    The legal definition of deceit, I have looked it up in the past 2 hours, includes the term contrivances.

    What our think tanks and several cable news channels use as thought pieces are verbal contrivances designed to create a false image to induce the accepting (of the contrivances, who never question) to do things that otherwise are against their best interests.

    It is deceit and fraud which harms US strategic decision making.

    Next time Pedraeus speaks look for the contrivances.

    Loggie 20

  4. Thanks to all for the comments.


  5. Jeff,

    As with many of your articles, you seem to bemoan the obsession of our security elites (both military and otherwise) with the ever-changing buzz-words of military affairs and strategy. However, at the same time, I sense that you, and many commentators both military and civilian, seem shocked by the inability of commanders to come to grips with the simplest lessons of military art. Likewise, there is an inability to analyze a bigger picture and digest the effects of a militarized foreign policy.

    Given your background, how do you think this reflects on the ways we educate our senior military and civilian leaders? Do you have strong feelings about the efficacy of the services themselves in educating their senior commanders (i.e. War College, etc.)? Curious to hear some of your thoughts on the matter.



  6. In a nutshell, Nugget, the most important aspect of military art is the art of careerism. All else is insignificant.

  7. There was an interview with Harden Lang (not sure of the spelling) from CSIS on the BBC Global news podcast this morning about the state of Afghanistan.

    It reminded me of one of those games where you have to chug a beer or knock back a shot when you hear certain words. It was full to bursting with buzzwords and clichés.

    Some examples:
    shift in strategy
    cautious optimism
    turn a corner
    resources (need for more)
    need for progress
    what we mean by progress
    stay the course
    turn and run
    hearts and minds
    work with Afghan partners
    cutting and running
    step up to the plate
    kinetic support
    free of national caveats

    The last three were his assessment of what the NATO "partners" had to do.

    He seemed to think that a country's citizens and government really had no right to decide the extent of their military involvement in Afghanistan, or what they could do while they were there.

    Maybe I'm missing something here, but when the military decides, I believe we may have a military dictatorship.

    Since the U.S. has never had one (officially) and the U.K.'s last brush with one was during the time of Cromwell, maybe the memory of it all has gotten a bit rusty.

    However, Germany, Vichy France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and others have military dictatorships as a fairly recent memory.

    Don't know who this Lang guy is, but he should get out more, and not just to Kandahar, from where he's just returned. Nice he could return. Lots of people aren't so lucky.

    First podcast for Sept. 4th re Afghanistan can be found here.

    A direct link to the download is here.

    The relevant bit starts at about the 8 minute mark.

    His CSIS is not to be confused with our CSIS, the Canadian Spy Agency. I wasn't even aware we had one until recently. It was staffed mostly by retired RCMP officers. They supplied the info that enabled Maher Arar to be kidnapped and renditioned to Syria to be tortured and imprisoned for a year - for nothing.

  8. And who didn't see
    coming? ("A latter-day Ike.” Evidently, we are to be spared nothing). The campaign advertising pretty much writes itself: “He'll do for America what he did for Iraq!”

    These red state yokels I live with will be lined up around the block to vote for him, too. Believe it.

  9. Thanks for the links, Fil. Yeah, JP, you heard it here first.

    As president, Petraraeus will hand out guns and bribes.


  10. "subway reading." Emphasis on the "sub!"

  11. "the outcome of the Cold War" is that BOTH countries are broke, they quit printing money and we didn't. None of it worth the paper it is printed on. YAY! We won!

  12. If you're going to be in DC on the 22nd and 23rd of September, stay away from the Canadian embassy. They're going to be blowing things up in the courtyard.

    Canadians to stage mock IED attack in Washington

    At least four times over two days this month, simulated IED blasts will bring the Afghan war – and Canada's combat role in Kandahar – home to Americans if an elaborate scheme based on modern training realism attracts widespread attention, as is hoped.

    “If this works the way I want it to, more Americans will know what Canada is doing in Afghanistan,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Martin, a military attaché at the Canadian embassy.

    A clutch of top American generals, powerful Capitol Hill players and Afghan experts from both sides of the border are expected at the two-day conference hosted by the embassy.

    I am so embarrassed I can't even express how much.

    Aliens have taken over the brains of our military, I'm sure of it.

    On behalf of all Canadians whose brains haven't be turned to mush, I apologize to the residents of DC, who have to put up with this stuff, and to everyone else who abhors these theatrics.

  13. "No quantity of field manuals or doctrines can make counterinsurgency a winning proposition. The only folks who win that kind of war own the local gene pool." Amen.

    That's all you need to know. Even if you put US troops in a US city, in a very short amount of time the people of that city would be calling for them to get the hell out. I don't understand how many times we have to do this before we figure it out. We look like the stupidest fucking people on the face of the earth.

  14. Anonymous9:44 AM

    One of the keys to keeping waste going is to measure nothing that might reveal the frauds. That way you can never admit your plan (not) didn't work.

    The careerism side is to keep only those LT's who can behold a pigs ear and say it is an aeleron.

    Today CNN reports a great victory for the ISAF and 10th Div (USA) they stormed, held and secured a hospital run by the Swedes' aid group.

    Another trillion for the US Army and twenty more years achieving such glory!

    Loggie 20

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