Why America isn't winning its wars

It's easy to blame presidents for a lack of strategy, but a growing number of officials are saying that the fault lies with a lack of vision in the Pentagon. 

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
British Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon (R) listens to US Defense Secretary Ash Carter speak to journalists following their meeting at the Pentagon in Washington Dec. 11, 2015. The defense chiefs discussed increased cooperation in the fight against Islamic State militants.

When Michael Vickers was making his name as the Central Intelligence Agency operative depicted in “Charlie Wilson’s War” – running a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan through Muslim jihadis – it was by no means a war of decision by committee. 

It was the bold and resourceful work of a maverick.

The wisdom of that approach remains controversial – it vanquished the Soviets but planted the seeds for modern terrorism. Yet this week, Mr. Vickers, a former undersecretary for intelligence, told lawmakers that the qualities that guided him in Afghanistan have been in too-short supply in America’s recent warfighting. Put bluntly, American efforts to respond to the security challenges of today simply aren’t working.

“We are not postured as a [Defense] department, intellectually or organizationally, for these highly asymmetric and largely unconventional long-term challenges,” Vickers said in congressional testimony. “We are winning battles and campaigns, but not our wars.”

Vickers is not alone in his belief that America’s security infrastructure needs to rethink deeply how it makes decisions. The criticisms from top defense and intelligence officials go far beyond typical partisan complaints against the Obama administration. Instead, they lay the blame on the Pentagon and CIA themselves, arguing that those organizations are consistently failing to come up with new and innovative ideas to present to the president, resulting in a lack of strategy. 

“We seem flummoxed by and self-deterred in our response to Russian indirect and direct aggression,” added Vickers, who stepped down from his job earlier this year. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, “although it’s certainly not from a lack of trying, we are far from having a strategy that can bring stability.”

These are, of course, enormously complicated decisions. And part of the caution stems from the desire to avoid unintended consequences that could come back to hurt the United States even more – as the support for the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s has, many say.

But there is a growing sense among some officials that the debate about the Islamic State, for example, has become “overly focused” on boots on the ground, because top Pentagon leaders are not thinking in “broader and more diverse strategic terms,” said retired Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Eggers, former special assistant to the president for national security affairs and a former Navy SEAL, ​during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, at which Vickers also testified. 

'The tyranny of consensus'

To fix this, the Pentagon must change the way it does business, argued former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, who is often named as a likely contender to become the first female secretary of Defense if Hillary Clinton is elected.

Making good decisions requires, in no small part, being decisive. Yet the most “pernicious” practice within the building today is “the tyranny of consensus that has come to dominate the Pentagon,” she said.

While consensus is generally viewed as plus, “focusing what we can all agree on has become an end in itself in too many areas,” including strategy development, Ms. Flournoy told lawmakers Tuesday.

Consensus is a particularly tough goal considering that the Joint Staff, the collection of the Pentagon’s top officers, has grown to nearly 4,000 people, she notes. That’s 10 times its 1958 size.

This is not simply a matter of efficiency, but also effectiveness, Flournoy said. “Bloated headquarters staffs have been documented to slow decisionmaking, push too many decisions to higher levels, incentivize risk-averse behaviors, undermine organizational performance, and compromise agility.” 

Instead, they create a “lowest common denominator consensus that does little to illuminate tradeoffs and investment decisions the department must make for the future.” 

Congress launched a major reform of the Pentagon 30 years ago, known as Goldwater-Nichols, in the wake of the Vietnam War. The goal was to fix a Pentagon recommendation-making process that had grown so bad that its military advice was “generally irrelevant, normally unread, and almost always disregarded,” as James Schlesinger, secretary of Defense from 1973 to 1975, put it at the time. 

“Goldwater-Nichols was, of course, informed and catalyzed by the failures of that generation. And my sense is that our modern shortcomings are equally deserving of them,” said Mr. Eggers. 

He cited former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s take on the matter: “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements since Vietnam, our record has been perfect: We have never once gotten it right.”

The buck stops ... where?

The need for change today was one of the rare points that seemed to have bipartisan consensus this week. 

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted that within the Pentagon, “Innovative ideas that challenge the status quo rarely seem to survive the staffing process as they make their long journey to senior, civilian, and military leaders.” 

Instead, the result seems to be “watered down” thinking “that is acceptable to all relevant stakeholders precisely because it is threatening to none of them.” 

Michael Rubin worked in the Pentagon during the Iraq War.

“It’s very easy to blame presidents and say the buck should stop with the president, but I do believe what we’ve seen for the past 20-something years has been the ossification of the decision-making process,” he says.

He recalls frequent policy discussions in the early days of the Iraq insurgency that routinely devolved into semantics. “Whenever you have people start arguing over terminology – whether they should be called anti-Iraq forces, or terrorists – that ultimately becomes a distraction,”  says Dr. Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

It doesn’t help, either, that the body charged with corralling the policymakers – the National Security Council – is itself bloated, Flournoy and others noted. “The NSC was created to coordinate policy and impose discipline and ensure it’s implemented, but it has turned into another large bureaucracy,” Rubin says, growing to an estimated 400 staffers – roughly double the size it was under the George W. Bush administration.

In the Brent Scowcroft era under George H.W. Bush, Flournoy recalled an organization “with a very clear understanding of what their role is, which is strategy, policy, honest broker, and options development for the president.”

Reducing staff sizes within the NSC and the Pentagon is a necessary start, said Flournoy. 

Outside-the-Pentagon thinking

Mr. Eggers said he would place a premium on strategic and higher university training for military leaders. He pushed, too, for a “red team” of experts from outside the building to question the conventional wisdom within.

This idea was enthusiastically greeted by Sen. Angus King (I) of Maine. “I love the idea of a red team in the Pentagon or perhaps the National Security Council whose job it is to contest the conventional wisdom – to contest the consensus, to be obnoxious,” he said. “I could volunteer for that.” 

The key may be getting a key group of players together, says Rubin.

He recalls the run-up to the Iraq War, when he was the Pentagon’s country director for Iran and Iraq. “What we felt was, if they would just get us a place in Crystal City [near the Pentagon] where we could all work together,” they could speed the decisionmaking progress. 

This might include people from the Pentagon, State Department, Treasury, and CIA all troubleshooting in one place. “What we don’t have is anything to allow people working on a common problem to actually work together,” he says.

He recalls when, during the Iraq War, someone in the State Department was investigated for leaking unclassified documents … to a Pentagon official. 

“Let’s treat the people working on these problems as a unit which can be 100 people working together,” he says. “They can hash things out, and then someone in NSC can make a decision – and bring it to the president if they can’t.” 

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