"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.