Americans, Minions, Small War Defeats and the Deliberate Withering of Strategic Brain and Options

Even great power military action must be guided by a strategy that mirrors both the prioritized end-state objectives of the political leadership and what is realistically possible within a limited period such as a couple of years with the available military forces and economic assets.

This applies especially if the state is not overwhelmingly stronger than the opponent and not both brutal and single minded enough to use that strength to the degree necessary to achieve a quick victory and to follow it up with energetic repression such as in the final Russian campaign in small Chechnya.

In order to develop a realistic strategy in a democracy there must be an open and honest interaction between on one side the ultimately responsible political leader (in the U.S. the President) and on the other the professional joint and service military and intelligence leaders.

The professional leaders could and should know and contribute with both the strengths and weaknesses of own and enemy available forces and societies and acknowledge, accept and present the basic uncertainty of war. Otherwise these advisors will fail in their main roles: to foresee the consequences of different strategy and operational options and underline the risks.

To be effective the political-professional interaction should be characterized by mutual respect and trust as well as by a clear acceptance of the other side’s role, including that the final decision rests with the political leader. The Second World War relationship between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his service chiefs was very close to the ideal. In the Korean War the routines were still strong enough to counter Douglas MacArthur’s anachronistic challenge, but thereafter the interaction quickly eroded and became far removed from the ideal.

It is now clear that in small wars in peacetime such as those of the last fifty years, the situation became normally far removed from the ideal.

The main problem was that the political side in any dialogue was rarely the responsible political leader, the President. Kennedy, Johnson and George W. Bush delegated far too much authority to their Secretaries of Defence: Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld.

This led to serious defects in the policy and strategy making. Firstly the resulting strategy became unbalanced by being narrowly military-operational, as only the President had the formal authority to ensure a sustained and integrated foreign-policy, economic and military effort. Secondly, as the Secretary of Defence could never be certain of his authority in the dialogue with the military professional leaders (as he did not have the legitimate command authority of the President), he sought to reinforce his position by challenging the relevance of professional advice.

The secretaries surrounded themselves with a layer of likeminded, deeply ideological civilian advisors: in McNamarra’s case his scientifically management whizz-kids, in Rumsfeld’s his Neo-Conservative tunnel-visionaries. Uncertain of their position they did not ask for honest professional advice, they expected unquestioned loyalty and compliance. As moral courage has hardly ever been a dominant trait among military career officers dependent on the service for salary and status, McNamara and later Rumsfeld soon got what they asked for: a compliant and mediocre service leadership who happily paid homage to their masters’ series of buzz-word policies and ignored the responsibility of their office to the Commander-in-Chief and the nation. Being Americans, military-technological and dramatically massive fire-power fixes were always sought that made most observers ignore the fundamental lack of a comprehensive strategies for the campaign. In Vietnam they counted bodies for McNamaras, in Iraq all just felt good until ambushed by shedded soldiery and other locals.

Any alternative views from the Department of State were ignored as was criticism from inside the services until the realities of war in Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan led to a late, far too late, adjustment.


After this view of the too often dysfunctional political-military strategy making in the U.S., we shall shift our focus to the real subject of this article: the character of the policy-making of the American democratic allies prior to joining her wars and their reaction to the total failure and suppressed humiliation that became the result of the combined effort.

A contribution of allies to the dialogue built on independent analysis might have helped. They had a significant potential leverage as the US needed their participation for political reasons. Prior to the formal and final U.S. decision they could have interacted with and used the internal policy debate in Washington. In the Iraq War case states that were basically positive to involvement could have used and reinforced the arguments of State as well as the army chief of staff, making preconditions for any substantial involvement.

Such a contribution should be expected as states develop and pursue independent policies in all other fields. A medium state such as Great Britain or Australia or a small state like Denmark would normally have a national policy. Policy must be developed through own analysis of the issue and situation and the prioritisation of different objectives. Thereafter the state would identify other states with somewhat similar objectives and view of the situation in order to lay the foundation for common action in the pursuance of the common aims.

Each state and the network of co-operating states will identify actors in the American policy-making process with compatible views, and dependent on the situation in D.C. it and they will discretely or openly lobby using that political tactical common ground to further their objectives. They can assume that the U.S. or at least some in Washington need international support and open backing, and that gives leverage if applied with insight and empathy. If there is no common ground, such as often in the field of environmental policies, the outsiders note that fact and delay bridge building and lobbying to later.

In 2002-03 during the American hasty path away from Afghanistan towards the invasion of Iraq and again in 2006 – before building-up the Allied effort in Southern Afghanistan – such an independent well-prepared allied effort did not take place. This was clearly to the detriment to any chance of success.

The logical choice in 2002-03 for close allies of the U.S. such as the UK and Denmark would have been to conduct their own analysis of the situation, foreseeable problems and the combined and national military possibilities. The leaders of the medium and small potential contributors could and should have challenged the military, regional and reconstruction experts of their countries to come up with consolidated predictions, advice and options.

With the obviously distorted and emasculated process in Washington, it was easy to compete with quality of arguments in the process and find local common sense: Colin Powell’s State Department, the army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, as well as the acutely accurate common sense predictions of the U. S. Army War College were there to support.

However, against the interests of the American and their own peoples, not to mention the thereafter much unnecessarily extra suffering Iraqi and Afghan peoples, the American allies did not press their professionals to contribute with independent insight and policy options. As the children following the Hameln Pied Piper (the difference being that he knew where he was going), the Allies meekly condoned and thereby reinforced the Washington mistakes reducing their military professionals to leading the cannon fodder, managing the physically and mentally hurt and comforting the families of those killed.

Both the responsible political leaders such as Tony Blair and Anders Fogh-Rasmussen and their chief military advisors, who meekly accepted being ignored, should be exposed to severe public and professional criticism for offering unquestioned loyalty rather than the necessary qualified advice and conditional assistance. The Danish Foreign Minister, Erik Scavenius, much criticised by Fogh-Rasmussen, demonstrated more presence of mind, moral courage and sense of his leverage, when in Berlin November 1941 he rejected just signing the renewed anti-Komintern Pact.

However, politicians, their general managing civil servants and the media all seem unaware that the foremost initial and follow-on role of any professional is to offer advice that includes prediction of likely outcomes of different actions.

In relation to Afghanistan the main and constant problem was – again – the lack of a comprehensive strategy and integrated execution: Deliberate ignorance that getting full Pakistani co-operation through a mixture of coercion and rewards was essential; only half-hearted commitment to the gradual improvement in the quality of both central and local government essential for progress; inability or lack of will to co-ordinate national and international military and reconstruction efforts.

What it added up to in both the Iraq and Afghanistan cases was and is a rampage of a loose club of amateurs doing their un-focused well-meaning best, hoping for a miracle in a hurry. It was the natural result of the lack of ability to conduct a broad strategy dialogue in both the U.S. and in and among the minions. In Washington ideology ruled, among the supporters the symbol of being willing to sacrifice the lives and futures of some of their naïve citizens was considered enough.


After the failures since the early 1960s both the politicians and the militaries in the involved countries took steps to avoid such future painful experiences again, not by improving the policy and strategy making structure and culture, but by reducing and refocusing the military structures and by designing binding incantations such as the Weinberger Doctrine. After the Vietnam failure conscription was abolished in both the U.S. and the then only supporting democratic minion: Australia. The U.S. Army invested in the ability to do better in another war in Central Europe and the U.S. Marine Corps suppressed their Small Wars focus and claimed unrealistic roles in the framework of the massive fleet expansion of the Reagan years. The U.S. Air Force went on seeking ways to win wars om their own by destroying things and killing some important people.

The reaction after Iraq and Afghanistan is, again, built on an unreflected and possibly unconscious flight from the immediate experience. In both the U.S. and among the minions the land forces are cut drastically to undermine the ability of future politicians to be caught-up again in an optimistic interventionist folly. No attempt is made to revisit the flawed strategy making process. All the responsible amateurs in uniforms, suits and sweaters agree that the effort were basically futile, but they do not have the critical insight to tell you why.

They considered that fortunately technology now helped us as it did more crudely in the 1990s. Then we could pretend to be effective with cruise missiles, now we can use drone launched precision weapons with less risk of killing innocents. It is conveniently ignored that any effect beyond the purely symbolic and domestic at home depends on a deep and constantly updated understanding of the target organization, something that only comes after an extended force and intelligence commitment to the region as has been the case in the Afghan-Pakistani border area and around the Horn of Africa.

After the Vietnam War the force reductions and a withering of the strategy making structure were severely hampered by the continuing and then intensifying Cold War. This is no longer the case, and for the group of leading civil servants that dominate the western policy-making in the 21st Century, there is no real possibility of serious security challenges requiring more than symbolic military power in the short or mid-term. To this positivist corps of “group thinking” people dominated by economists and political scientists the future looks safe.

Russia may act in an anachronistic way, but she will – of course – soon leave the mental world of the early 20th Century and join the 21st and then stop doing to her neighbours what she did to Georgia in 2008.

The “Arab Spring” may have encountered a few problems, but those glitches are happening beyond the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

Several European states may have growing problems with anti-democratic and narrow nationalist right wing movements, but that is probably only a hitch on the road to universal progress.

China may act like Britain did when she built her new empire in the first half of 19th Century with trade and investment in overseas resources, but the Chinese are fortunately completely different and will never defend their gains as all other imperial nations have done through history.

The view that a political-military dialogue may be required in the future and the ability to conduct one are constantly being undermined. In the late 1990s NATO told the aspiring new members from Central and Eastern Europe that it knew that their future was safe. The Alliance bureaucrats, as always dominated intellectually by British academics proactively serving the Americans and elegantly defining the leading member’s position, told the hopeful that they need not think themselves and could safely leave any aspirations to maintain self-defence structures built on conscription and reserve mobilisation. They should specialise in creating such logistic elements as air transport squadrons, military police companies and field hospitals that the big boys needed in quantity.

The Alliance was fundamentally incorrectly presented as a super-national organisation and the new member states were assumed to deliver their contributions without any independent analysis of the possibilities and risks of a mission. The current “new speak” buzz-word for the Anglo-Saxon arrogant view that they are not to reason why, just do and die, is: “smart defence”.

In 2003 my own defence of the view that independent states should maintain have their own ability to carry out a critical strategy dialogue before putting their citizens in harm’s way led to a policy conflict between the Baltic Defence College and the U.S. Tallinn defence assistance advisor about what courses the College should offer. His view was that the Balts only needed their officers educated to company commander level. The implication was that the U.S. would just inform them when they needed cannon-fodder.

Now, the possibility to conduct an effective independent policy dialogue is being deliberately and quickly destroyed in Denmark. The demolition work is taking place in different areas at the same time. The already weakened advanced officer education that prepared the best to act as professional policy advisors in the strategy process is now being de facto terminated leaving the officers capable of leading cannon-fodder.

The Chief-of-Defence’s possibilities to act as a policy advisor is undermined by deliberately seeking an officer without the necessary experience, keeping him on a short term contract in the job, only giving him temporary rank, and politicising his position and keeping him from any role in relation to parliament and public by subordinating him to the Defence Ministry Permanent Under Secretary.

We are becoming totally dependent on the theory-based, a-historically optimistic strategy amateurs being right. Which of course history makes far most likely they will not be.