Sunday, December 2, 2012

Thin Benches and Who Thinned Them

Ironic quote of the month (and it is only December 2nd):
“It is ludicrous,” said Eliot Cohen, a historian and senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration. “The military’s bench was appallingly thin.”+
Cohen wrote one of the most important books on civil-military relations, arguing that civilians occasionally have to intervene pretty deeply into military affairs since war is too important to be left to the generals.  He uses cases of Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion to prove his point.  The irony is this: Cohen served in the Bush Administration which took the lessons of his book way too far.  Rumsfeld's deep and dangerous micromanagement was far more than what was needed and pretty destructive to civil-military relations.  The exodus of key officers as the Iraq war approached might have been exactly those generals who would have been on the bench for key jobs a few years later.

Whether these particular generals would have been terrific or not, having Rummy and his crew for six formative years definitely shaped who got promoted, who got the plum assignments, who did not and who left.  There  are certainly other explanations for a shallow bench so we cannot all blame Rummy and his crew.  But Cohen was very much involved in an administration that had a hand in the shaping of today's military and who was available to run ISAF when McChrystal ran his mouth one too many times.  Petraeus was the right candidate at the time not just because there was a shallow bench but he was seen as both good at the task--counter-insurgency and played well to the domestic audience.  Not too many three star generals around anyway, not too many of them had extensive experience thinking and then doing COIN, and how many of those actually had good reputations in the US so that the switch would be relatively easy at home?

Maybe Petraeus was not the perfect guy to run ISAF, but it is not clear that the US armed forces would have had plenty anyway given the circumstances and given the conventional aversion to COIN.  So, there is something to what Cohen suggests, but we have to keep in mind ... you go to war with the military you have, not the one you want to have.  But we also have to keep in mind who is responsible for the military you have....

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