More than meets the eye: Tribal Politics and the DoD

Paul Evans

This tragedy has nothing to do with Obama, it has little to do with partisan politics (until now). Rather it should be a cautionary tale: humans error (even when wearing crisply starched uniforms adorned with medals), and people compete for power.

Age may or may not facilitate wisdom, but it does yield perspective. After twenty years in uniform I can say without hesitation or equivocation that the drama now enveloping General (Retired) David Petraeus is both telling and tragic.

To begin with, David Petraeus messed up. The impact of his personal choices (upon himself and his family) was made demonstrably worse through an abuse of power that was knowingly or unknowingly exacerbated by a general staff that provided sensitive information to a biographer.

Though the biographer likely had the requisite clearances – it is also likely that her “need to know” was determined by a powerful general that had been used to acting without concern for oversight on such decisions. None among us can – or should – throw stones at General Petraeus for his personal failings (we all are guilty in our ways, in thought or in deed).

That said, his choices put the nation at greater risk. The affair is not the most significant issue in this tragedy, the unplanned disclosure of sensitive information is the real issue – we do not know what was or wasn’t disclosed, and that is a problem in the intelligence world.

Sadly, modern political culture fixates upon the most salacious details in these kinds of circumstances. Media is often a consumer and producer of “scandal.” It knows stories about money and sex sells advertisements; it is an unfortunate reality within a society that does not value publicly funded media. And as scandals go, this one appears to be a big one: two generals, two intelligent, well-connected married women, an FBI agent with “six-pack” abs, as well as the potential abuse of internet privacy expectations all against the backstop of Libya and Afghanistan.

It will yield at least two made-for-television movies before it has run its course.

However, this made-for-television “show” has captured and holds our attention while larger, more significant realities play out. This column is a warning to all seeking to compartmentalize this tragedy into the category of “routine” scandal: it is most likely the beginning, not an end of something.

As a passed-over field grade officer I am blessed with experience and freedom from worrying about future career progression. I face mandatory retirement in less than twenty-four months. Proud of my service, I am prepared for the next chapters of my life.

It is precisely because of my two decades in uniform and multiple overseas deployments I accept the ongoing melodrama for what it is: a solitary act of a much larger play. We are in midst of the largest realignment of our National Security Strategy since the Cold War; inter/intra service rivalries and cult fiefdoms are at war for primacy as well as survival.

It cannot be a coincidence that General Petraeus and his hand-picked successor General Allen are involved in the same scandal. In warfare coincidence is seldom the cause of events – this is particularly true in the hidden warfare that occurs within the rarified air of flag grade politics.

Please note: I believe this has little to do with partisanship. Rather, this fight is between the services and the tribal leaders within each service over whom and what will dominate Department of Defense policies for the foreseeable future.

Petraeus “rewrote the book” literally. He used theories developed as a division commander in Iraq to restructure the focus of the Army: from a Cold War era organization into a counterinsurgency organization. Along the way he elevated his favored protégés and helped non-believers into early retirement.

Too often we forget that senior military officers are precisely what we ask them to be: strategic thinkers capable of applying all necessary means in support of established objectives. These senior leaders believe they know best, and act accordingly.

Neither good nor bad, this trait is necessary: at least among the most "successful" of our military leaders. Officers learn from the start of our careers that we compete; we fight wars as teams, we are promoted through individual accomplishment. It is a strange but pernicious juxtaposition.

In the top ranks of the military senior leaders mentor junior leaders; it is through this relationship that leadership is taught – it is how cultural values are sustained. Peers are simultaneously colleagues as well as competitors. And within the active-duty US Army there are many leaders that did not benefit from Petraeus’ primacy.

Outside the US Army, other leaders – within the other branches – also did not benefit from the manner Petraeus prosecuted the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US Marines have weathered the storm relatively well (being a necessary support for ground operations central to Petraeus’ strategies), but the US Air Force and US Navy did not.

Military leaders develop protégés and facilitate strategic policies. Strategy is defined through operational planning and tactical employment – requiring tailored equipment and techniques (training) for using the equipment. This in turn fuels private industry: the military industrial complex is a network and just as tribal as the Pentagon.

The US Department of Defense is driven by three factors: mission, money, and personalities. The mission justifies the money, and the personalities capable of securing resources for branch-determined priorities are favored. The Air Force and Navy are smaller, less relevant than before 2001 – and this is something that cannot continue (from their perspective).

In many ways, the Army (and to a lesser extend the Marines) benefitted at the expense of the Air Force and the Navy over the past decade. The F-22 extension was cancelled. The F-35 purchase shrank. And the airlift and refueling programs have been restructured. The Navy has recently increased ship production but even then – focusing upon littoral combat (not a sea-lane defense platform).

Even the National Guard has lost in recent years, this despite its undeniable value throughout the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere - the active-duty has selected irreplaceable, multi-mission (domestic emergency utilty as well as war fighting capabilities) National Guard units for cuts (despite the efficiency in cost, effectiveness of performance of National Guard over active-duty units).

In simplest terms, the costs of the war far exceeded what the Bush Administration planned and it was wrung out of operating budgets of “lesser relevant” branches. $3 Trillion in value lost during the wars – and counting. Note: we built several anti-IED platforms specifically for the wars (for the Army and Marines) that were never planned for, never budgeted for, because we were morally required to do it (we couldn't continue sending our troops into Harm's Way when protective options were available).

Even decisions made for the “right reasons” have a cost; the DoD is struggling for stability and rationality in an increasingly complex world. Which is why the recent “Pacific Shift” was such a big deal: it signaled the end of counterinsurgency as a primary doctrine, that a new approach was on the horizon.

This is an essential truth: for an area as large as the Pacific, it is quite likely that the Air Force and Navy saw President Obama’s evolving focus on the Pacific as a symbolic act: a signal of the approaching end of the so-called “Petraeus era.”

This column is a brief summary (despite its length) of a very large, extremely complicated web of factors relating to our emerging defense policies and the politics driving them. These issues remain the 800 lb gorilla that impacts anything – everyone – touched.

Clearly, Petraeus and Allen made poor choices and will pay the consequence for their actions (and the appearances of their actions). But these are not as rare as it might seem, and these instances did not become public – or as publicly consuming – as they did, on accident.

The book was written sometime ago; the characters have been "on the stage" for a while. For some reason this became a story this past summer/fall. Although we may never know for sure, it certainly feels as if someone, somewhere helped these stories find daylight.

With respect to Woodward and Bernstein, “follow the money” is as relevant as a suggestion now as it has always been. Petraeus and Allen got dragged into the bowels of the media “beast.”

Their actions provided characters and color - raw material for our insatiable hunger for scandals among the powerful, but there is a context that must be understood if we are to make wise decisions about our national defense policy for the future.

We must ask what else is going on. We must look beyond the sex (and flirtation with sex) and seek out the larger aspects of our circumtances. We must ask whom and what benefits from the fall of these two men and their strategic perspectives. And we must ask how this all unfolded.

This tragedy has nothing to do with Obama, it has little to do with partisan politics (until now). Rather it should be a cautionary tale: humans error (even when wearing crisply starched uniforms adorned with medals), and people compete for power.

In this specific case, we should follow the money and the relationships – and if we do so, we might just get a quick but telling glance behind the curtain of the most political environment in the world – the active-duty US Military.

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    Thanks for the insider's perspective on this on Paul. I've been fascinated by the evolution of the ready fighting force from when Rumsfeld went up against Cheney with thw high tech lean and mean thing, and then with the Rise of the Drones beginning with Bush and ramped up under Obama.

    There's a lot to be considered as we face the need to deal with the national, and by extension the defense budget while not crippling ourselves militarily.

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    VERY interesting post. Thank you, Paul.

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