Theory Rears It’s Ugly Head

June 26, 2009

To all those former professors who bemoan the lack of IR theory here, and for whom the eclectic and practical content of this blog is a continuing affront to the good name of the International Relations discipline, I offer this small tidbit from a fellow blogger and self-confessed IR geek who revels in theory:

 I’m working on a theory that expands how hegemony is attained within the institutional heirarchy of the international order.

I’m not even sure what that means.  I understand the words (didn’t even have to look them up), but I can begin to imagine what the theoretical (much less the practical) implications of that statement are.

Then again, I am jealous that he gets to attend lectures at Chatham House every once in a while.


Not that we’re not grateful, but……

June 15, 2009

Word in the NYTtoday is that the French are replacing their aging Gazelle helicopters with a deployment of the fancy new Eurocopter Tiger.  The Gazelle was a decent light attack chopper for a long time, but it’s getting old and is no longer up to the hard environmental conditions of Afghanistan.  So, the French Army has decided to deploy their latest and greatest, with not incidentally their best pilots, to see if they can improve the support they give to the ground troops.

All well and good, until one realizes a couple of key facts:

1) The Tiger is strictly a scout/attack bird.  Although highly capable in those roles, it is useless in the ways that matter in a COIN dogfight like Afghanistan, i.e air assault, logistical support, Medevac, etc.

2) As the article notes, a grand total of THREE Tigers will be deployed, replacing three Gazelles that will be withdrawn.  Three?  Are you shitting me?  Is that the best the French can do?  Three measly helicopters.

Obviously, the French think of it as a large jump in capabilities.  As one French officer notes:

“Two Tigers can do the job of eight Gazelles,” said a senior staff officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

So, if one follows the logic, take away three Gazelles, add three Tigers (which are four times as capable) and the net effect is that the French now have the equivalent of twelve helicopters.  Hardly a massive contribution, considering that the U.S. has over 120 helicopters based in Afghanistan, and the UK another forty or so. 

I won’t fault the valuable and difficult work that the French Army is doing in Kapisa Province, but one wonders if they’re getting the proper level of support from Paris.

Catch Up

June 13, 2009

I’ll be playing a little catch-up over the next few days, so much of what I’ll be posting is probably old news.  I should just delete the drafts and concentrate on recent events, but that’s not a realistic option for an obsessive-compulsive like myself.

Instead, I’ll bore you with analysis of stuff you already know.  Bear with me; we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming by the end of the week.


June 13, 2009

A while back, Tom Ricks stirred up a hornet’s nest of protest by suggesting that the service academies (i.e. West Point, Annapolis, and whatever the call that Pentacostal community college where they make fly-boys) ought to be closed down and their funding redirected to ROTC programs at elite universities.

Ricks, no stranger to controversy, really went out on a limb here, offending a sizable percentage of the officers who provide the bulk of his interview subjects.  For that, I tip my cap.  I’m sure he thought through the ramifications and still went ahead and posted his idea.  That takes a courage of convictions not often seen in policy-making circles.*

*Yes, I know Ricks is not technically a “policy-maker” but it’s hard to find a FOB in Iraq or Afghanistan that doesn’t have at least one well-thumbed copy of Fiasco or The Gamble kicking around.  He’s probably one of the most widely read contemporary authors on US defense policy.

The response, both positive and negative was overwhelming, and Ricks has been posting much of the commentary on his Foreign Policy blog.  Needless to say, tempers (especially in the comments section) are running high.

I won’t rehash the whole argument or the ensuing debate here, but the latest installment is particularly interesting.  Ricks posted a submission from a reader (presumably a proud member of the WPPA) which showed that most of the current senior leadership in the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan are West Pointers.  The list:

…..with GEN McKiernan’s dismissal and the appointments of LTGs McChrystal & Rodriguez to command positions in Afghanistan, every 3- and 4-star general officer exclusively directing the ongoing wars will soon be a West Point graduate:

“War Czar” LTG Doug Lute ’75
USCENTCOM CG GEN David Petraeus ’74
MNF-I CG GEN Ray Odierno ’76
MNC-I CG LTG Charles Jacoby ’78 (who recently replaced LTG Lloyd Austin, ’75)
MNSTC-I CG LTG Frank Helmick ’76
ISAF/USF-A-designate LTG Stan McChrystal ’76
New Operational Commander (MNC-I equivalent) LTG David Rodriguez ’76
Additionally, the new ambassador to Afghanistan is Karl Eikenberry is USMA ’73.

Ricks also reproduces anther list, from a different officer, which shows that many of the people associated with recent failures in the GWOT came from sources other than West Point:

GEN Tommy Franks, OCS (CENTCOM)

GEN John Abizaid, USMA ’73 (CENTCOM)

GEN George Casey, ROTC (MNF-I)

GEN Dan K. McNiell, OCS (ISAF)

GEN David McKiernan, ROTC (ISAF)

LTG Ricardo Sanchez, ROTC (CJTF-7/MNC-I)

What Ricks (and his contributors) fail to realize is that there are several problems with drawing conclusions from this data.  First, all of these officers have at least twenty years of active duty in their respective services.  To say that their performances are the result of the formative process they went through in college is patently ridiculous.  Much more likely is that their abilities and traits, especially as senior commanders, were formed over years of command at varying levels, as well as prolonged exposure to the military culture within which they live.

Second, the author is guilty of cherry-picking to select only those officers which support his argument.  Now I’m not one to defend Tommy Franks (and I even read his awful book), and I’m not a big fan of George Casey either.  However, David McKiernan, despite his recent replacement in Afghanistan, is a fine and well-respected officer at whose feet one would be hard pressed to lay any amount of blame for our current difficulties.  In fact, if one were looking for a reason we are not succeeding in Afghanistan under McKiernan’s watch, perhaps one could look at the way the entire mission was under resourced by the Pentagon and CENTCOM.   And who was it that runs CENTCOM?  Oh, right, Petraeus, Class of ’74.

And at what point did Ray Odierno get “rehabilitated?”  When he first got to Iraq, he was guilty of running his division in a way which has since been criticized by nearly everyone, including Ricks himself.  The fact that Odierno finally began to understand what we were up against, and became a disciple of Petraeus is to his credit, but I doubt it’s the result of four years in the Long Gray Line way back when.  Flexible thinking is not exactly something they drill into you at the Point.

True, Stan McChrystal (and his hand-picked deputy Rodriguez) are both West Pointers, and McChrystal’s track record in Iraq and with JSOC is impressive (if slightly controversial).  But it remains to be seen if their new approach will bring much-needed change to the operations in Afghanistan.  And a career snake-eater like McC is hardly the prototypical West Point graduate.

Third, the might be a selection bias inherent in these lists.  A military career, especially one with a high operational tempo, is a difficult and arduous job.  There are many opportunities to depart for greener pastures, and a number of otherwise good field-grade officers leave for reasons unrelated to their performance.  One of the most common is being passed over for promotion, which can happen in a frighteningly arbitrary way.  It is at least possible that some of the officers who survive to the 3 and 4-star level do so because they are folded within the pshielding embrace of the West Point Protective Association.  When push comes to shove, it’s not unheard of for the ring-knockers to stick together at promotion boards.  This is not to suggest that Petraeus, McChrystal, et. al. got to where they are because they were given promotions they didn’t earn; only that other highly qualified officers were never given that chance because they did not wear the West Pont ring.

Note that none of the above means I agree with Ricks’ suggestion to close down the academies.  Although they may no longer be the bastions of academic rigor they once were, and they may no longer be the most cost-efficient means of turning out junior officers, the service academies still serve a vital purpose by producing a steady stream of professional, career-oriented officers whose sole focus is on the execution of their duties.  Well-rounded, entertaining guys to have at a coctail party?  Probably not.  But there’s not a lot of cocktail parties in Afghanistan.

Plus, the Army-Navy game is fun, if only for the opportunity to watch some laughably bad football.


June 13, 2009

Joseph Nye’s editorial about the lack of policy influence among current IR scholars ought to be required reading for all graduate students faced with the supposedly tough choice between a PhD and a job.  Although I promised (sort-of) at the beginning of this blog that I would mostly avoid the ugly world of IR theory, in this case I felt it necessary to delve a little into the intersection of contemporary scholarship and policy-making.

I refered above to the choice between a PhD and a job as only “supposedly” tough, because in reality the choice is a fairly easy one.  Not that it seems that way to many IR post-graduates facing the potential end of the easy predicatability of their academic career and the daunting prospect of working for a living.  In that situation, which I myself faced in the not-altogether distant past, the comforting embrace of the academy does have a certain appeal, even if one is, like myself, not inclined to theoretical flights of fancy and abstract debate.

No, the attraction of continuing ones education is not about what one does, but about what one doesn’t have to do.  Namely, compete in a difficult, unpredictable world in which the milestones for success are always viewed only vaguely through the fog of day-to-day employment.  That’s not to say that remaining in school and going after a PhD is easy (far from it), only that the gauges for success in academic life are predictable, and the rewards concrete and quantifiable.  In what other human endeavor other than education does one receive a grade upon the completion of the work, factored down to decimal percentages for easy comparison to ones peers and competitors? 

It’s a trait ingrained in our minds from early childhood, learning to expect a grade for easily-defined work conducted under controlled circumstances, with set schedules and deadlines.  After twenty-plus years of existing in that mental framework, the reality of the messy world of gainful employment seems downright terrifying.  No easy metrics for measuring performance, no instant gratification (or mortification) of the results, no set standards for success or failure, just the daily slog of trying to make a little money while simultaneously moving upwards towards some ill-defined and perhaps illusory goal. 

Yeah, a PhD doesn’t sound so bad compared to that.

The point of Nye’s article (and the reason I began this post in the first place) was to illuminate the disconnect between politcal science academics and actual policy-makers.  No doubt the disconnect exists, and Nye appears to feel that it is a troublesome situation that ought to be reversed.  For reasons which Nye does not discuss, pure academics seem to have become more and more rare at the upper levels of government and, in Nye’s view, this has resulted in deleterious policy outcomes. 

However, I can’t help but wonder if the lack of ivory tower types in the halls of power is the result of a self-selecting process.  Perhaps those who aspire to make policy are simply unsuited to the rarefied atmosphere of the upper ranks of the IR academy.  And perhaps those political scientists who are well-suited to debate the intricacies of arcane theory don’t make very good policy-makers.  And perhaps, just perhaps, this is because all too often when the political scientists try their hand at actual politics and policy, the result is a muddled mess of confusion because the real world doesn’t conform to their neat and tidy models.  I, for one, would not be eager to see the result of a surge of senior political scientists on the business of government.  Before they were done getting bitch-slapped by the day-to-day difficulties of actually accomplishing something, they might actually make things worse.

Besides, they’d get their neatly-manicured hands dirty.

More here at the Monkey Cage.

More here at The National Pundit.