Commentary Magazine


Topic: war

What Diplomats Can Learn from Marines

A minor theme of my forthcoming history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the State Department undercuts the effectiveness of its diplomacy by always looking forward but seldom considering the past. Self-criticism and the study of past mistakes are the best ways to avoid repeating mistakes. The inability of Arab militaries to self-criticize for cultural and political reasons was a major factor in Col. Norvell B. De Atkine’s seminal article “Why Arabs Lose Wars.”

The State Department, however, has seldom if ever conducted a lessons-learned exercise about why some of its previous initiatives have failed. Enter Donald Bishop, a retired Foreign Service officer and public diplomacy specialist, who served as the policy advisor to General James Conway (U.S. Marine Corps) between 2006 and 2008. Writing recently for the Public Diplomacy Council, Bishop recalled his service in an article entitled, “Learning from the Marines: Schoolhouses, Debate, Public Affairs, and Recognition,” and provides a useful comparison between the culture of the Foreign Service and that of the U.S. Marine Corps and finds that diplomats might learn a great deal from Marines.

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A minor theme of my forthcoming history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the State Department undercuts the effectiveness of its diplomacy by always looking forward but seldom considering the past. Self-criticism and the study of past mistakes are the best ways to avoid repeating mistakes. The inability of Arab militaries to self-criticize for cultural and political reasons was a major factor in Col. Norvell B. De Atkine’s seminal article “Why Arabs Lose Wars.”

The State Department, however, has seldom if ever conducted a lessons-learned exercise about why some of its previous initiatives have failed. Enter Donald Bishop, a retired Foreign Service officer and public diplomacy specialist, who served as the policy advisor to General James Conway (U.S. Marine Corps) between 2006 and 2008. Writing recently for the Public Diplomacy Council, Bishop recalled his service in an article entitled, “Learning from the Marines: Schoolhouses, Debate, Public Affairs, and Recognition,” and provides a useful comparison between the culture of the Foreign Service and that of the U.S. Marine Corps and finds that diplomats might learn a great deal from Marines.

He observes, “Anyone who thinks the Marines are all brawn and no brain should visit The Basic School with its emphasis on decision making; the Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning, which trains Marines to understand how they will encounter people from different cultures; and the Marine Corps Command and Staff College for its emphasis on planning and integration of all the elements of national power.” While the Foreign Service provides supplementary training and has embraced specialized language institutes, it has no corollary to the Marines when it comes to expanding the academic self. 

He continues, “The Marine Corps cultivates professional debate and even dissent, using the Marine Corps Gazette as a vehicle for the expression of opinion and new ideas. It so values contention over ideas, responsibly stated, that contributors to that journal are honored even when junior opinions make senior eyes roll, or when opinions are strongly contrary.” Much depends on any particular unit’s command environment, but I have heard far more rigorous debate openly among military personnel, with and in the presence of their superiors, than I have in embassies. And woe to any diplomat who uses the established dissent channel, for that would be a career killer.

Bishop makes other apt comparisons as well, and his whole short article is worth reading. That the cultural divide between military and non-military spheres has widened ever since the end of the draft is undeniable. Few diplomats and even fewer in academe have much understanding of who the military is and how they operate. That such a divide remains might be inevitable. That bureaucratic cultures in practice do not learn from each other’s best practices, however, is unfortunate.

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Sequestration and Combat Readiness

Gen. Martin Dempsey, army chief of staff, and Gen. Jim Amos, Marine commandant, are warning that sequestration could result in overly deep cuts to the ground forces. But is anyone listening? Not so that you would notice.

As Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings noted yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, if sequestration continues unabated, the army could fall from 532,000 today to 380,000 active-duty soldiers–or even fewer. Figures of less than 300,000 have even been mentioned. That would cut the U.S. Army to a size not seen since the start of World War II.

The dangers of such an approach should be obvious. But few if any are paying attention to them in Washington today because the widespread assumption is that we will never have to fight another ground war again. Why this assumption has become prevalent is a mystery because it flies in the face of all known history–to wit, mankind has been fighting on the ground since his earliest days on this earth. Ground warfare continues notwithstanding the creation of air forces, computers, and precision, stand-off weapons such as drones and smart bombs. Just look at Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a whole lot of other places.

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Gen. Martin Dempsey, army chief of staff, and Gen. Jim Amos, Marine commandant, are warning that sequestration could result in overly deep cuts to the ground forces. But is anyone listening? Not so that you would notice.

As Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings noted yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, if sequestration continues unabated, the army could fall from 532,000 today to 380,000 active-duty soldiers–or even fewer. Figures of less than 300,000 have even been mentioned. That would cut the U.S. Army to a size not seen since the start of World War II.

The dangers of such an approach should be obvious. But few if any are paying attention to them in Washington today because the widespread assumption is that we will never have to fight another ground war again. Why this assumption has become prevalent is a mystery because it flies in the face of all known history–to wit, mankind has been fighting on the ground since his earliest days on this earth. Ground warfare continues notwithstanding the creation of air forces, computers, and precision, stand-off weapons such as drones and smart bombs. Just look at Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a whole lot of other places.

It is the height of hubris to imagine that the U.S. can stand aloof from such messes simply because we desire to do so. If history shows anything, it is that the U.S. has a tendency to get sucked into distant conflicts, and that includes the dispatch of ground forces. Just look at the 1990s–the last period of major defense downsizing when we got involved in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, among other places.

Today if we show an inability to field substantial ground forces we are practically inviting our enemies to challenge us in this arena of warfare, whether through the use of terrorist and guerrilla tactics or (more unlikely but not impossible) through conventional combat operations. Yet both Republicans and Democrats are so caught up in their political squabbles, with neither side being willing to address the fiscal danger of runaway entitlement spending, that they are oblivious to the impact their defense cuts are having on our military readiness in general and our ground-combat readiness in particular.

Dempsey and Amos might as well be talking to a brick wall for all the notice they are getting. We should be paying more attention because history shows that those in the past who have warned about the dangers of excessive defense drawdowns have inevitably been proven correct.

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Obama’s Two Dangerous Sentences

Bill Kristol considers the most dangerous sentence in President Obama’s second inaugural address to be the one endorsing the “lesson” that we are heirs to “those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends …” (emphasis added):

Surely President Obama should have said this: “we are also heirs to those who won the peace as well as the war…” But he didn’t say that. The formulation Obama chose—”and not just the war”—suggests that Obama believes that it’s no big deal to win a war, and the greater achievement is winning the peace. With respect to World War II, this view is ludicrous. With respect to today’s world, this view is dangerous.

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Bill Kristol considers the most dangerous sentence in President Obama’s second inaugural address to be the one endorsing the “lesson” that we are heirs to “those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends …” (emphasis added):

Surely President Obama should have said this: “we are also heirs to those who won the peace as well as the war…” But he didn’t say that. The formulation Obama chose—”and not just the war”—suggests that Obama believes that it’s no big deal to win a war, and the greater achievement is winning the peace. With respect to World War II, this view is ludicrous. With respect to today’s world, this view is dangerous.

We used to end wars responsibly by winning them, and we won the subsequent peace not so much by offering friendship as by occupying defeated foes and transforming their system of government. That is the way those in World War II, to whom we are heirs, did it. But these days we don’t win wars; we leave them behind and announce our pursuit of “peace in our time” by other means. A few sentences after the one cited by Kristol, Obama used what Mannie Sherberg at Boker tov, Boulder! calls “the most infamous, the most ignominious, the most shameful four-word phrase in all of modern history,” in the following paragraph in the inaugural address:

“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad … We will support democracy … And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice … because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.” [Emphasis added]. 

Sherberg also notes Obama’s “utter failure to mention the cardinal fact of our time: that America is at war with a worldwide totalitarian ideology … and that we must therefore, before anything else, make sure we win that war.” Perhaps that is too much to ask from an administration that officially removed the word “jihad” from its vocabulary and changed “terrorism” to “man-caused disasters,” but one wonders what Iran and Israel make of Obama’s use of the phrase “peace in our time” and his failure to state — in his paragraph covering America’s role in the world–that America is prepared to use force, if necessary, against “unacceptable” threats.

It reminds one of Obama’s unfortunate definition in 2009 of the phrase “never again,” which for him has only an aspirational rather than an operational significance–rendering it in his 2009 speech simply a kind of hope for an idyllic time in the future, like “peace in our time.” 

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