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Earlier today Shadi Hamid set off something of a minor conflagration on Twitter by asking why, in the face of clearly horrific and mounting violence in Syria, should think-tank civilians advocating intervention be expected to come up with detailed military plans for an intervention?
Speaking as a
civilian writing on a think-tank affiliated blog, this struck me as a very
distressing position. If one is going to advocate for a military intervention -
of any kind - serious analysis of a military plan is absolutely vital, and
think-tanks - unlike, say, service members or policymakers, have a unique
position to publicly weigh in on such debates with candor. Let me be blunt: if an
analyst or the think-tank she or he represents cannot offer a plausible
military strategy for an advocated intervention, then it is difficult to treat
that advocacy with weight or authority.
It is a cliché to note that war is too important to be left to the generals because it's also absolutely true - and it would also be unfair to single out Hamid or the issue of Syria. Similar arguments have been trotted out by commentators, analysts and public figures on a variety of military issues, although more often as excuses to defer responsibility to military staffs for decision-making, or arguments to wrest away decision-making from policymakers with undesired views. As Adam has noted, basic victory definition is inseparable from policy prerogatives. Think-tanks, like other public institutions and figures engaging in policy debates, have a role in offering informed advice, even on matters might not be the professional domain of civilians, that can help shape those prerogatives. If an organization advocating intervention lacks access to civilians, veterans or military fellows with sufficient expertise such that it cannot confidently and cogently substantiate its case for military intervention, that's a problem for the organization to rectify, not for the audience to accept.
Nobody is expecting a think-tank to elaborate a full OPLAN – although there are some which probably could. But an ends, ways and means analysis subjected to the scrutiny of those with defense experience and expertise is all too often lacking in our public discourse. At a point when “leaving it to the generals” has become a rhetorical stoplight to paper over strategic aimlessness in debates over Afghanistan, it is not simply a necessary component of argument but something of a civic responsibility to ensure that the public have a chance to assess the likely costs and outcomes of the use of force - something that the government, by virtue of political and operational concerns, will be reluctant or unable to do without restriction.
Hamid has argued it is unreasonable to demand this since analysts can’t predict what actors would be in play - but the beauty of an ends, ways and means analysis would be that it could formulate what was necessary to achieve objectives, and then determine what combinations of actors, resources, and techniques would be necessary to make the executions of those plans a reasonable choice. Obviously, analysts, which are not psychic, cannot be expected always either to predict the future or read the minds of those privy to militarily relevant information they lack. But they can offer plans that relate the ends, ways, and means of their course of actions, with their assumptions made explicit so that effective debate and critique can be offered - and they should respond to those critiques by examining what kind of resources or strategies would be necessary to address the risk that those assumptions might be false.
War is a grave matter, and discussing war on its own terms is hardly an unfair expectations of advocates who would wish the U.S. participate in it. Similarly, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has noted, advocates of non-intervention should be frank about the consequences of the status quo and the feasibility of alternatives. What is dangerous, however, is advocacy without substantive engagement in the subject matter of its aim - whether about Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, or anywhere else. Policymakers and publics alike need voices outside the military capable of assessing military subjects, at least so long as we live in a society that exercises civilian control over the armed forces.
During the American Civil War, the U.S. was lucky enough to be led by perhaps our finest self-taught strategist ever, Abraham Lincoln. If today, a coterie of officials were able to claim a monopoly on military knowledge and operational practice as McClellan attempted to, it would be difficult for the public and policymakers alike to effectively resist the charm of their authority and expertise. Not only, then, does military uninformed civilian debate make it more difficult for a policymaker to undertake militarily-reasonable operations, it can also create space for the military to resist civilian policies. Strategy (and even passing familiarity with operations) should not be cult knowledge kept by an anointed caste, they should be published in vulgate and nailed to doors. Not every policymaker, let alone every voter, can be Lincoln. Hawks and doves alike must endeavor to ensure that their policies and critiques have enough strategic fluency to be worthy of informing laymen and advising leaders.
Update: While I was pounding away at this, Jason Fritz wrote a far superior post. Check it out.