America’s Defense Amnesia

(by Adam Elkus)

Over at The National Interest, Paul Pillar diagnoses America with an “amnesia” about intelligence. The US, like Guy Pearce’s amnesiac character in Memento, does not perceive that it is caught in a larger oscillating cycle:

Attitudes of the American public and elected officials toward intelligence go in cycles. There is an oscillation between two types of perceived crisis. One type is the “intelligence failure,” in which things happen in the world followed by recriminations about how intelligence agencies should have done a better job of predicting or warning of the happening. The recriminations are customarily accompanied by “reform,” or talk of it, which chiefly means finding ways to do things differently from what was done before—not necessarily better, just different. Usually there also are accusations of malfeasance by individuals, even though there is an inherent tension between attributing failure to unreformed institutions and attributing it to individuals who screwed up. Often the response also involves additional empowerment of institutions, in the form of added resources or added authorities.

The other type of crisis involves seeing institutions as too empowered, with the response being to place additional restrictions on them. For U.S. intelligence agencies one of the most conspicuous examples of this phase of the cycle was in the 1970s, with some of the agencies in question already suspect as the nation came out of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and with the principal response being to erect Congressional and legal checks that are still in place today. Now we are seeing in a somewhat milder form the corresponding phase of another cycle, as the nation comes out of more than a decade of recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which stimulated the most recent burst of empowerment. There is new talk about reducing the powers and scope of activity of agencies and adding more checks and restraints.

Pillar goes on to explain that the nature of intelligence does not provide easy directions regarding how allied intelligence targets figure into larger geostrategic intelligence factors that impact what policymakers desire out of the intelligence community. It is a great read from a man who is both a veteran of the intelligence world and a consistent critic of US foreign policy and security. However, I’d like to expand Pillar’s metaphor of “amnesia” beyond the intelligence world. We really have defense and national security amnesia.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was not uncommon to hear sentiments arguing that force-on-force, firepower-centric conventional warfare could not cope with the challenges of a “global counterinsurgency.” Indeed, some argued that the previous high-tech military ideas not only were out of date with the nature of the challenge, but almost lost the war altogether. Both manpower-heavy and manpower-light counterinsurgency campaigns were proposed.  The Surge is still seen today in many quarters as the closest thing America has to a recent military triumph. As Antulio Echevarria noted, critics of conventional warfare argued that opponents had adapted around America’s strategic advantages, but it was less clear that there was any causal relationship.

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