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Time for a Grand Strategy Board?

Monday, April 25th, 2011

The Gerousia

“I have not lived so long, Spartans, without having had the experience of many wars, and I see among you of the same age as myself, who will not fall into the common misfortune of longing for war from inexperience or from a belief in it’s advantage and safety”

Archidamus, King of Sparta

One thing on which most commentators, academics and former officials seem to agree is that the United States government has a difficult time planning and executing strategy. Furthermore, that since 1991 we have been without a consensus as to America’s grand strategy, which would guide our crafting of policy and strategy. This failing bridges partisan divisions and departmental bureaucracies; there are many career officials, political appointees and even a few politicians, who can explain the nuances of the Afghan War, or the Libyan intervention, the depreciatory tailspin of the US Dollar or America’s Russia policy – but none who would venture to say how these relate to one another, still less to a common vision.

Sadly, they do not, in fact, relate to one another – at least not, as far as I can discern, intentionally.

Few American policies or even military operations (!) in one country can be said to have been conceived even within a coherent and logically consistent regional strategy and it is not just common, but normal, to have DIME agencies working at completely contradictory purposes in the same area of operations. The interagency process, to the extent that it exists, is fundamentally broken and incapable of interagency operational jointness; and the institutional coordinating mechanism for any “whole of government” effort, the National Security Council, has become too consumed with crisis management. A mismatched prioritization of resources which leaves little time for the kind of long range planning and strategic thinking that allows nations to seize the initiative instead of reacting to  events.

It would be a useful corrective for the better conception and execution of US policy, for the President and the Congress to create a special board for grand strategy that could give presidents and key officials frank assessments and confidential guidance to help weave their policy ideas into a durable and overarching national strategy. One that might last beyond a few days’ headlines in The New York Times.

The President of the United States, of course has a number of bodies that could, should but do not always provide strategic advice. There’s the Defense Policy Advisory Board, an Intelligence Advisory Board,  the National Intelligence Council, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, the Office of Net Assessment and not least, the NSC itself and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose Chairman, by act of Congress, is the military advisor to the President and Secretary of Defense. While strategic thinking does percolate from these entities, many have very specific mandates or, conversely, wide ranging briefs on matters other than strategy. Some operate many levels below the Oval Office, are filled with superannuated politicians or have personnel who, while intellectually brilliant, are excessively political and untrained in matters of strategy. The Joint Chiefs, the professionals of strategy, are highly cognizant of the Constitutional deference they are required to give to civilian officials and are very leery of overstepping their bounds into the more political realms of policy and grand strategy.

What  the President could use is a high level group just focused on getting strategy right – or making sure we have one at all.

I’m envisioning a relatively small group composed of a core of pure strategists leavened with the most strategically oriented of our elder statesmen, flag officers, spooks and thinkers from cognate fields. A grand strategy board would be most active at the start of an administration and help in the crafting of the national strategy documents and return periodically when requested to give advice. Like the Spartan Gerousia, most of the members ( but not all) would be older and freer of the restraint of institutional imperatives and career ambitions. Like the Anglo-American joint chiefs and international conferences of WWII and the immediate postwar era, they would keep their eye on the panoramic view.


The Octagon Conference – FDR, Churchill and the Combined Chiefs of Staff

Here’s my grand strategy board in a hypothetical perfect world, unlike the one that prevails inside the beltway. I’m sure people will quibble with particular names or will suggest others. I freely admit, for example, that I do not have the best grasp of who our leading intellectual powerhouses are in the Navy, Air Force or the closed world of intelligence analysis and this impairs my ability to put together the list. Nevertheless, I’m trying anyway:

Let’s start with a group of acclaimed and eminent strategic thinkers who have demonstrated over a long tenure, their ability to consider matters of war, peace and statecraft as well as the nuances of strategic theory:

Thomas Schelling -Chairman
Andrew Marshall
Edward Luttwak
Colin Gray
Joseph Nye

Next, some senior statesmen:

Henry Kissinger
George Schultz
Zbigniew Brzezinski

Madeleine Albright

General officers and one colonel with a demonstrated talent for challenging conventional assumptions:

Lieutenant General Paul van Riper
General James Mattis 
General Jack Keane
Colonel John Warden

Two economists:

Alan Greenspan
Nouriel Roubini

Two scientists:

Freeman Dyson
E.O. Wilson

Mixed group of strategists, historians, practitioners and theorists:

David Kilcullen
John Robb
John Negroponte

Barry Posen
Antulio Echevarria

Chet Richards
Micheal Vlahos
Thomas P.M. Barnett
Stephen Biddle
Robert Conquest
Duane Clairridge
Jack Matlock
Martin van Creveld

Visionaries and Contrarians:

Nicholas Nassim Taleb
William Gibson
Ray Kurzweill
Andrew Bacevich

What are the problems with my grand strategy board (aside from having zero chance of coming into being)? 

For one, it is probably way too large. In my efforts to balance expertise in strategy with varied thinking it grew bigger than what is manageable in real life, if the group is to be productive.

Secondly, it is an exceedingly white, male and conservative leaning list – though to some extent that reflects the criteria of experience, the field of strategy itself and the nature of American politics.  Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, is definitely bright but her politics are fundamentally opposed to effectively maximizing American power in the world or the use of military force – thus making her of little use except as a voice of dissent.

Another limitation of this exercise is the idiosyncratic eclecticism of my approach – this was a blog post written over a few days in my spare time and not a methodical inquiry into who in American life would verifiably be the “best qualified” to help construct a grand strategy. There are “insiders” who command great respect within the national security, defense and intelligence communities who are unknown to the general public, or even this corner of the blogosphere, who would be enormously helpful to such a board. Finally, a grand strategy board would not be a panacea; it would be subject to all the inertial pressures that over time would reduce it’s ability to effect change, just as the Policy Planning Staff and the NSC have been “neutered” over decades by the forces of the status quo.

That said, the above group or one reasonably comparable to it could, for a time, markedly improve the construction of strategy , assuming American leaders are willing to enlist such advice, put aside short term political considerations and pursue long term strategic goals.

Whom would you nominate to a grand strategy board?

Grand Strategic Viewing:

Recommended Reading

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Top Billing! Pundita –Adm. Mullen CYA as Rana prepares to rat out ISI. Meanwhile Rawalpindi rats out Obama and Cameron.

…Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio is skeptical about the strength of Mullen’s grasp of the concept of sacred obligation; Bill points out that Mullen had stopped short of addressing the key point, which is that Pakistan’s military actively supports the Haqqanis:

“Pakistani officials of course denied supporting the Haqqani Network, and claim they haven’t taken on the Haqqani Network due to the focus on the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. This of course is untrue, and Admiral Mullen of course knows that.”

Yes. Bill adds: “Despite his ‘sacred obligation’ to stop US soldiers dying at the hands of Pakistan-backed terror groups, Admiral Mullen cannot bring himself to call Pakistan to account for its actions. And as a result, more US soldiers will die as the dyfunctional ‘alliance’ between the two nations is nursed along.”

True, true, all true; however, that Admiral Mullen would risk the close relationship he’s cultivated with General Kayani by publicly uttering an implied criticism of Pakistan’s military is an eyebrow raiser; that he did this at the worst juncture in U.S.-Pakistan relations since 2001 and while a guest of Pakistan’s government was confounding. (1)

I don’t think one has to dig deep for the solution to the mystery. On April 12, the day after ISI head Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha spent four hours dressing down CIA chief Leon Panetta and Admiral Mullen about CIA activities in Pakistan, the Times of India reported that court documents had been made public indicating that a conspirator in the 2008 Mumbai massacre was prepared to rat out the ISI in U.S. courtroom testimony. According to the Times of India:

David Headley aka Daood Gilani and Tahawwur Hussain Rana, the two Pakistani expat footsoldiers who allegedly planned and conducted the Mumbai recce before the 26/11 terrorist carnage, have implicated the Pakistani government and its intelligence agency ISI in the ghastly attack.

In court documents that have surfaced ahead of his upcoming trial in Chicago, Rana says his acts of providing material support to terrorists in the Mumbai attacks as alleged by US prosecutors “were done at the behest of the Pakistani government and the ISI, not the Lashkar terrorist organization.”

The documents also cite Rana invoking his friend David Headley’s Grand Jury testimony in which the latter too implicates ISI…

…However, the key point is there’s clear indication that within a matter of days, when the Rana trial gets underway, the shit is finally going to hit the fan. In my view that means Mullen is scrambling to cover his ass. And if Rana really does sing like a bird, Mullen won’t be the only one in Washington scrambling.

Yet to illustrate just how sincere the U.S. military command and the Obama administration are about taking Pakistan’s military to task, it surfaced today that under pressure from Rawalpindi the Obama administration had agreed to provide Pakistan’s military with 85 ‘Raven’ surveillance drones…

Read the rest here.

Very tough post by Pundita and I note, Pakistan has again halted NATO trucks despite the gift of drones. 

Foreign Affairs (Nassim Nicholas Taleb & Mark Blyth) –The Black Swan of Cairo:How Suppressing Volatility Makes the World Less Predictable and More Dangerous 

Why is surprise the permanent condition of the U.S. political and economic elite? In 2007-8, when the global ?nancial system imploded, the cry that no one could have seen this coming was heard everywhere, despite the existence of numerous analyses showing that a crisis was unavoidable. It is no surprise that one hears precisely the same response today regarding the current turmoil in the Middle East. The critical issue in both cases is the arti?cial suppression of volatility — the ups and downs of life — in the name of stability. It is both misguided and dangerous to push unobserved risks further into the statistical tails of the probability distribution of outcomes and allow these high-impact, low-probability “tail risks” to disappear from policymakers’ ?elds of observation. What the world is witnessing in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya is simply what happens when highly constrained systems explode…

Hat tip to Crispin Burke

Thomas P.M. Barnett- Failed states keep neighborhoods bad, allowing AQ sanctuary, while rising states allow connections, but it’s civil strife that remains AQ’s bread-and-butter dynamic

Patrick is also right that AQ prefers up-and-comers, or states with just enough connectivity and technology and corruption to give them access to the Core.  Pakistan is perfect in this regard, much better than Afghanistan (my column Monday).  Under the right conditions, we need to worry far more about Pakistan than Afghanistan, which is a solution for locals.  

National Defense MagazineFBI Anticipates Terrorist Attacks on Soft Targets in the United States

This is an easy predicting, being inevitable. The fact that it has not happened yet speaks less to our inane TSA “security theater” than to the deep reluctance of state sponsors of terrorism to have an “American Beslan” traced back (perhaps erroneously) to their doorstep. It is not that Hezbollah or HAMAS or the LeT could not shoot up a shopping mall, elementary school or bomb a sports stadium – they could very easily – it’s a strategic choice not to do so as the extent of US retaliation is no longer predictable.

Moises Naim –Who Lost Mexico?

The Mexicans (Hat tip to John Sullivan)

Newshoggers.com (John Ballard)-Syria Links

Provocative collection.

SWJ Blog (Larry Goodson and Thomas H. Johnson)-How the Soviets Lost in Afghanistan, How the Americans are Losing

The Eagle goes over the mountain…..

That’s it!

And Taking Names!

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Ya Mullen Huzzah!  

About  goddamn  time ….

Tim Hetherington, RIP

Thursday, April 21st, 2011


Tim Hetherington after being presented with a Quilt of Valor by the Quilts of Valor Foundation

I was saddened to hear the news from Kanani Fong that Tim Hetherington, the gifted documentarian and journalist who made the critically acclaimed film RESTREPO was killed today in MisrataLibya. Preliminary details are sketchy but early reports had Tim and another reporter suffering shrapnel injuries from an RPG during an attack by Gaddafi forces on Libyan rebels:

Leila Fadel, a Washington Post reporter who was at the hospital, reported that Hetherington was rushed from the battle by ambulance along with rebel fighters. He was taken to a triage tent next to the hospital, she said, and appeared pale and was bleeding heavily. He was pronounced dead some 15 minutes after his arrival, according to her account in The Washington Post.

Story: ‘Restrepo’ presents agonizing war closeup

“Tim was in Libya to continue his ongoing multimedia project to highlight humanitarian issues during time of war and conflict,” Hetherington’s family said in a statement. “He will be forever missed.”

Hetherington was best known as co-director of the documentary film “Restrepo” with Sebastian Junger, author of “The Perfect Storm.” The film tells the story of the 2nd Platoon of Battle Company in the 173rd Airborne Combat Team on its deployment in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. The title refers to the platoon outpost, named after a popular soldier, Juan Restrepo, who was killed early in the fighting.

I did not know Tim personally, though I attended an early screening of RESTREPO where the audience included soldiers who had been at Restrepo and their family members. The documentary was powerful and touched the lives of many people and was a testament to the physical bravery of Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger who stood alongside American soldiers in the firefights of the Korengal Valley. That was Ernie Pyle journalism at it’s best.

Sincere condolences to the friends and family of Tim, who are numerous in this corner of the blogosphere

A two part meditation, part ii: of monks and militants

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron ]
See also part I: Scenario planning the end times


Today I received a book in the mail from Powell’s: C Christine Fair and Sumit Ganguly‘s Treading on Hallowed Ground: Counterinsurgency operations in Sacred Spaces. That covers the spread of my interests pretty concisely. I’m reminded that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was complicit in several attempts to assassinate Hitler, once said, “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants” – again, the intersection of the sacred and harsh “facts on the ground”.

I am interested in this intersection partly because my father was a warrior and my mentor a priest and peace-maker, and partly because that mentor, Fr. Trevor Huddleston CR, taught me to anchor my life in the contemplative and sacramental side of things, then reach out into world with a view to being of service – an idea that he movingly expressed in this key paragraph from his great book, Naught for your comfort:

On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.

A few days ago I saw a film that encompasses that same range – from the contemplative to the brutal – telling the story of the Cistercian (Trappist) monks of Tibhirine in the Atlas mountains of Algeria, the warmth of affection that existed between them and their Muslim neighbors, the mortal threat they came under from Muslim “rebels” whose wounded they had cared for, their individual and group decisions to stay there in Tibhirine under those threats, and their eventual deaths.


It is an astonishing story, and my copy of John Kiser‘s book, The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria, which also tells that story, already has more tabs in it noting phrases and whole paragraphs I’ll want to return to than any altar missal – and I’m only two-thirds of the way through it.

I don’t wish to retell the story – I’d rather you saw the film, Of Gods and Men, in the theater if possible, on DVD if not, or read the book, or both – but a few of those book-marked passages stand out for me.

First, Algeria – in the words of Albert Camus:

Algeria is land and sun. Algeria is a mother, cruel and yet adored, suffering and passionate, hard and nourishing. More than in our temperate zones, she is proof of the mix of good and evil, the inseparable dialectic of love and hate, the fusion of opposites that constitute mankind

That sets the scene – and I am inescapably reminded of that comment of Solzhenitsyn, which I quoted at the end of my first response to Abu Walid:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an uprooted small corner of evil.

Algeria brings that separation into sharp relief – the monks of Tibhirine knew and acted on their knowledge that it passes through each and every human heart.

Next, the Qur’an. When the monks first meet the militants, their prior, Fr. Christian de Chergé, begins to quote from Sura 5, and the militant leader completes the verse:

The nearest to the faithful are those who say “We are Christians.” That is because there are priests and monks among them and because they are free of pride

The view I wish to present here in describing the monks of Tibhirine is not a view from left or right but from a contemplative perspective — and while I do not believe it the only perspective to be considered, I think we do well to heed the insights of Christian monks — a group to whom even the Muslim scriptures give praise.

Then, the Rule of St Benedict:

Just as there is the zeal of bitterness that is evil and separates us from God and leads to hell, so also there is a good zeal which removes vices and leads to God and eternal life.

This, then, was the spirit in which the monks of Tibhirine served and loved their God – and their neighbors as themselves.

And finally, the Bible, from the book of Job:

My face is flushed from weeping and on my eyelids is the shadow of death; although no violence is in my hands and my prayer is pure.


It was with that shadow playing on his eyelids that Fr. de Chergé penned these words of immense generosity:

Facing a GOODBYE …

If it should happen one day — and it could be today — that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.

I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.

I would ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?

I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood.

I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.

I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this.

I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.

It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called, the “grace of martyrdom” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately.

I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters.

It is too easy to soothe one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.

For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: it is a body and a soul.

I have proclaimed this often enough, I think, in the light of what I have received from it.

I so often find there that true strand of the Gospel which I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.

Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic:
“Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!”

But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.

This is what I shall be able to do, God willing: immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.

For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.

In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families — you are the hundredfold granted as was promised!

And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:

Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD BLESS” for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours.

May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.


Algiers, 1st December 1993
Tibhirine, 1st January 1994

Christian +


I note with sadness today the death of Tim Hetherington, photo-journalist and co-director of the film Restrepo, together with that of his colleague Chris Hondros, in Misrata, Libya. Their cameras, and those of others like them, brought and will bring the grimness of war home, into the living rooms of peace.

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