Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Invincibility, Omniscience, and Infallibility - The Foundations of American Foreign Policy

A chorus of defense punditry is rising in astonishment at how a CH-47 Chinook with dozens of Navy SEALs on board could have been shot down by the lowly Taliban (nicely summed up here at Time's Battleland blog).  The questions range from tactics, techniques, and procedures (how did they put themselves in a vulnerable position, where were the escorts, couldn't they have prevented the shootdown), to command decisions and resourcing (why so many in one bird, why not an MH-47 or H-60), to technological (why don't we have laser beams that can blind the shooters, was this some new improved enemy weapon).  Even Max Boot weighs in from the Wall Street Journal, arguing indirectly (only just indirectly) that the tragedy is a product of the Obama administration's decision to draw down the number of troops in Afghanistan, and suggesting between the lines that we can expect more of this as special operations forces are relied on more heavily.  This chorus exposes the bases of American foreign policy thought:  invincibility, omniscience, and infallibility.  Pundits, politicians, and even generals believe that we can achieve far more than good sense would suggest.  The disbelief at the CH-47 shootdown demonstrates that our foreign policy community is delusional.
Helicopters are vulnerable creatures, but so too are infantrymen in a firefight and vehicles, even mine-resistant, ambush-protective vehicles (MRAPs).  Helicopters are essential to the rapid and relatively safe movement of troops and supplies around the battlefield, especially in Afghanistan where roads are poor, terrain is difficult and canalizing, and IEDs are a constant threat.  It should go without saying that war is a risky endeavor.  Special operations are conducted at a level of risk far higher than that which normal troops are exposed to.  Hence, the term "special operations."  Risk analysis and mitigation is a significant part of any military plans, but takes on another level of detail for special operations.  Yet, no level of planning, preparation, or equipping can entirely remove the risk.  The surprise should not be that an aircraft with 31 people in it got shot down this weekend.  The surprise should be that this has not happened earlier and more frequently.  The public and many of the pundits do not hear about all the times that helicopters are targeted and even hit and TTPs, robust and redundant systems, crew training, and good luck prevent tragedy.  Yet, given the number of helicopter sorties conducted in Afghanistan and the weapons and knowledge available to the enemy, it is a wonder that the insurgents have not had more success.  Commanders give great attention to ensuring crews are not putting themselves in vulnerable positions and that tasking does not become predictable, but sometimes the choices are bad and worse.  Leave an embattled unit twisting in the wind or risk another to fly to the rescue.  The enemy understands this and sooner or later (in my mind this was a case of later), the odds come up.

This is not to downplay the tragedy of this event.  Yet, when a nation embarks on the course of war, it must not expect that it will be invincible, omniscient, or infallible.  Too often, though, as our punditry is showing this week, these impossible attributes are all expected.  These unreasonable expectations are a critical failure of our foreign policy thinking.  We imagine we can do more than we really can, with less resources than we really need.  We think that we can muster more support effortlessly than we really can.  We expect our bureaucracies to function more efficiently than they ever will.  We imagine that our enemies and friends will act in ways that will ease our way to success.  And we imagine that we can think or innovate our way past hardship and tragedy.

Adam Elkus wrote on this irrationality at the blog Fear, Honor, and Interest today.  This one sentence makes reading the entire entry worth your time:  "Grand strategy has to be built on a realistic estimation of how it can be sustained in a time when the most basic political functions - how to distribute resources - are in a state of paralysis.  Our thinkers need to grasp the concept state power.  It has been articulated in a number of ways, but I think Fareed Zakaria has one of the best statements.  State power is "that portion of national power that the government can extract for its purposes and reflects the ease with which central decision-makers can achieve their ends."  In other words, just because we are the most powerful economy with the most powerful military in the world, we cannot always garner the support and the resources needed to attain the ends that decision-makers would like to attain.  I'm trying to develop this thesis for a chapter in my upcoming book.  Given our power and our robust standing military, our country can enter wars with the ease of an authoritarian government (one part of the imperial presidency argument), yet once engaged, we act much more like a democracy, meaning it is far harder to mobilize resources and maintain commitments over time.  This is a worst of both worlds approach.  Yet, our pundits and policy makers suggest policy (often in pursuit of the very democratic peace theory that should give them pause about a democracy's ability to prosecute long wars) on the assumption that state power is relatively unlimited and domestic politics will not intervene.  Alternatively, they imagine that they can reshape other societies before domestic politics begin to crimp policy options.

One of the most important projects that our punditocracy can embark on today is recaging our perception of our own invincibility, omniscience, and infallibility.  This is not defeatist babble.  This is the only way that we can sustain the conditions that allow us to be the world's leading state into the future.

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