Sunday, July 3, 2016

Quotable: Celestino Perez on strategic discontent, politics, ideas, local knowledge, and biases

Saturday, July 2nd 2016

Perez image from

If I may generalize from my Foreign Service experience with the military services, what commanders want most from an American embassy is local knowledge, be it political, governmental, economic, informational, cultural, or social.  Units deployed to foreign countries surely bring capacity and expertise, and their intelligence, plans, and civil affairs officers are quick studies, but commanders well understand that their operations need the kind of local knowledge that embassies and consulates command.  They expect that knowledge from Foreign Service Officers.  They are usually surprised – and gratified -- to learn that knowledge and advice also come from expert local staff.

It has been my experience, too, that commands especially appreciate the knowledge provided by Public Diplomacy officers and their local staff.  Public Diplomacy officers have a mix of contacts from all walks of life.  They focus on society, culture, the media, faith, education, and opinion-forming institutions.  Reading editorials, meeting students, and monitoring social media are all ways Public Diplomacy officers feel the pulse of a society.

New challenges to the international order and the primacy of American power, combined with disappointments in Iraq and Afghanistan and frustrations in the fight against ISIS, have set in motion deep reflection among national security thinkers.  They are challenging old approaches and old premises.  “Errors in Strategic Thinking: Anti-Politics and the Macro Bias” by Army Colonel Celestino Perez, Jr. (the Chief Security Cooperation Planner for U.S. Army North, G5) illustrates the trend.  It was published in the 2016 second quarter issue of Joint Force Quarterly.

He began with some straight talk:  “. . . American strategic performance too often surprises and disappoints. Strategic discontent, which arises from the failure to conjoin strategic intent and actual outcomes, may well be the default expectation, whereas strategic satisfaction is the rare surprise.” 

Consider, too, Perez’s four elements of “politics”:  (1) “(relatively) nonmanipulable or structural elements (for example, geography, the global economic system, and the distribution of natural resources),” (2) intentionally manmade or institutional elements (rules, policies, regulations, strategies, and organizations), (3) meaning-infused or ideational elements (such as communal norms, values, beliefs, practices, varieties of religiosity and secularity, and narratives), and (4) hard-wired or psychological elements (cognitive processes, heuristics, and biases).”  A staff officer prepping for a deployment would be hard pressed to prepare a useful PowerPoint on these elements; all could be addressed by a Country Team briefing, with Public Diplomacy addressing the third element in particular.

Colonel Perez’s article focused on biases and military education, and it urges military planners to anticipate not only a campaign but its aftermath too.  The flip side of his insight on the “bailwick approach” and “compartmentalization bias” is that diplomacy must join a conflict, not simply wait for its outcome.

Here are some key quotes:

  • . . . two intellectual errors contribute to strategic discontent. The first error, anti-politics, indicates the servicemember’s tendency to discount the military importance of ground-level politics.

  • The second error, which aggravates the anti-politics error, is the macro bias in strategic thinking. This bias leads strategists and military professionals to neglect the importance of local knowledge and bottom-up dynamics.

  • It follows that the military professional should study how best to nudge into reality, in cooperation with an international array of military and civilian partners, satisfactory political outcomes.

  • Macro bias is evident to observant professors and students in mid- and senior-level military education. Teachers often reinforce this bias with the admonition to “avoid getting in the weeds” during planning exercises or seminar discussions about strategy.

  • The macro bias also appears on classroom whiteboards, which often betray a wave-top approach to understanding a conflict’s environment. At times, students (too) neatly arrange the elements composing “the operational environment” in an orderly matrix with columns labeled political, military, economics, social, information, and infrastructure.

  • . . . students in military classrooms do not engage in sustained study of real-world contemporary crises—comprising actual populations, political dynamics, and armed actors—with the detail and skill necessary for adequate intelligence analysis, military planning, or strategy formulation.

  • The proposal to integrate social and political science in military education is consistent with the aims of the Department of Defense (DOD) and joint community. The Minerva Initiative is a “university-based social science research initiative,” whose principal goal is “to improve DOD’s basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the [United States].”

  • A second challenge is a “bailiwick approach” among educators regarding what military expertise and advice entail; that is, the flawed idea that the military’s expertise, or bailiwick, concerns solely the unidirectional delivery of ordnance, whereas the reciprocal causal connections between war’s destructive and constructive elements are someone else’s (perhaps a diplomat’s) bailiwick.

  • . . . to engage in conflict without fully considering the physical, cultural, and social environments. . . . One has only to examine our military interventions over the last 50 years in Vietnam, Bosnia and Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan to see the evidence and costs of this oversight.”

  • The application of lethal military power certainly affects rifle-bearing adversaries. But lethal power also disturbs politics, and this political disturbance in turn engenders boomerang effects on military and strategic performance.

  • A 2012 study by the Joint Staff finds that the U.S. military’s number one shortcoming during this century’s first decade of war was a “failure to recognize, acknowledge, and accurately define the operational environment,” to include “information about ethnic and tribal identities, religion, culture, politics, and economics.”

  • Major General Michael Nagata, USA, asks similar sociopolitical questions about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Nagata, the commander of U.S. Central Command’s special operations effort in the Middle East, declares, “We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it.” Moreover, “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”

  • . . . Dempsey articulates the need to study rising powers, nonstate actors, criminal organizations, religious groups, and ideological agitators.

  • Put otherwise, this imperative requires that military teachers and students study the new science of politics and war.

  • Finally, strategic thinking suffers from a compartmentalization bias (which equates to the bailiwick approach plaguing educators described previously) whereby military professionals believe their role is merely to fight wars while civilian partners think about political outcomes. This bias led General Walter Boomer, USMC, to wonder why State Department representatives were not parachuting out of planes to handle the conflict termination phase following Operation Desert Storm.

  • The same bias led General Tommy Franks, USA, to tell his interagency partners, “You pay attention to the day after and I’ll pay attention to the day of.”

  • Compartmentalization is dangerous given that no expertise exists (or can exist) for achieving war’s constructive aims. No guidebook exists (or can exist) for attaining adequate stability in the wake of war’s destruction.

  • Neither elected officials nor the military’s interagency partners have the requisite expertise about how to dampen ambient violence and stabilize environments. Military professionals must take up the strategic slack, since violence—including its dormancy, onset, maintenance, and dissipation—is military business.

  • . . . peace-builders (including military professionals) too often neglect bottom-up socio-political sources of violence and war. The need to attend to these political elements is arguably the principal lesson from the century’s first decade of war.

  • Yet despite top leaders’ exhortations and a new, politically attuned Army Operating Concept, it is not clear that military professionals and their educators are postured for change.

  • Strategists and military professionals must become experts in both ordnance delivery and sociopolitical drivers of conflict.

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