January 08, 2013

The Market for Covert Action

Here is another way of understanding some of the
common themes that Dan Trombly and I have written about during our brief time
blogging on Abu Muquwama:

For the purpose of argument, imagine American governance as a kind of market. A political process
produces policy, and formulated policy has implications for the nature of the
services required to implement it. Certainly there is nothing intrinsically
valid about the preferences generated by a political process.  The process
itself is the product of a neverending struggle for influence between many kinds of
governmental and extra-governmental actors. But provided that preferences hold
constant and those who provide what policymaker preferences entail are rewarded with
substantial material, psychological, or status benefits.....the need will likely be

National security is a lucrative area where benefits can
quickly and massively accrue to actors that fit policymaker needs. While
undeniably true in the United States, it is even
more true
elsewhere in the world. The most lavishly rewarded American
general is a pauper when measured against the mil/intel supremos that underpin
Middle Eastern autocracies. What type of actor fulfills the stated need, and its
organizational makeup, while obviously important, is also variable. Many writers on the subject of private security
have an ideological belief, as Machiavelli did, that mercenary armies are
inferior to national ones. But any objective reading of history suggests that
the truth of such a prejudice is highly dependent on context. Contracting out
national defense was essential to the early modern military revolution in

Second, institutions and those who seek to influence them may have their own deeply ingrained
mythos about what kind of roles the institution should play. But confusing what an
organization or would-be external reformer would like to believe about its proper role for what policymakers have regularly called on it to do is not useful. In the civilian economy, art graduates believe that their skills are useful, and they could very well be right. But the market disagrees. When it comes to national security policy, Platonic conceptions of role-sets crucial to long-held institutional culture matter only as much as they can be justified to those who hold the purse strings.

Left to its own devices, the Air Force is unlikely to emphasize
close air support (CAS) missions. The Marine Corps’ MAGTF structure is
evaluated on the basis of whether it serves the perceived needs of the National Command
Authority, not whether the essence of Marine-ness can only be aesthetically
satisfied by the MAGTF.  Certainly there are good reasons for the Air Force to not
emphasize CAS and for the Marines to keep a MAGTF structure. But those reasons do
not derive from the idea that such capabilities (or the lack theorof) are crucial to the Marine or
Air Force identity. Even if they did, it would be immaterial to what a policy process holds the organizations should do.

Much analysis on covert action and PMCs, like establishment conceptions of the drug war,
focuses almost entirely on the supply
side of the equation. The demand side reveals a set of uncomfortable truths.
One of them is that reformers' ideas that the core function of an intelligence
agency should be to supply intelligence does not reflect the preferences of a
substantial range of policymakers throughout history. Like Machiavelli’s opinions
about mercenary armies, the idea that the ideal function of an intelligence service
is to collect intelligence is an political opinion rather than an
empirically derived historical regularity. Most intelligence agencies do far more than collect intelligence, and the CIA is no exception to the rule.

But where does the demand come from? For better or worse,
American policymakers have a consistent need to control the political
composition of foreign societies, eliminate sub-state movements, and coerce in
situations of short of general war. One can view it from an idealistic lens of
spreading the democratic peace and/or combating violent extremism. Critics of
American foreign policy take a different tack: imperialism. How such activities
are ideologically justified or condemned is secondary to the empirical fact
that they are consistent enough to reflect a recurring policymaker preference for
institutions and entrepreneurs capable of providing them.

The United States has a governmental
that enables
covert action, wars of choice, and discrete military interventions. Whether you
believe that internationalism abroad and the coercive force it entails is right
or wrong, it is a perennial aspect of American policy. Even in so-called
“isolationist” epochs policymakers have consistently demonstrated a preference
for flexible institutions that can deliver coercive intervention on a dime.
Given the presence of such preferences and the allocatable material and symbolic capital
potentially available to those who satisfy them it is highly likely that such demands will be met.

Supply-side, as opposed to demand-side analysis, has the pernicious effect of quibbling
about the visible outward manifestation of a preference while rendering the
process that produced it invisible. In the American governmental system, the
executive has wide latitude over foreign policy and national security. And when
a partisan consensus exists over an issue, as it currently does over American
offensive counterterrorism and covert action efforts, demand-side will likely
have more of a long-term impact on the nature of institutions than supply-side

Supply-side tinkering to curb demand-based preferences can also sometimes have severe unintended consequences. As Dan has noted, the historical purpose of the draft was not to prevent war but to enable it by giving states a readily available pool of military manpower. Certainly the presence of draftees in Vietnam made for greater social divisions and antiwar activism. But Vietnam-era national security policies were themselves the unintended consequence of efforts to avoid a Korea-style continental deployment through light "advise and assist" missions. When decisionmakers (and the public), motivated by sunk costs, decided to commit general purpose forces they were not deterred by the draft. Without the draft, large-scale involvement in Vietnam simply would not have been possible to begin with. Politics, not technical setup, explains the Vietnam War.

Institutions can obviously resist and even shape policymaker demand themselves. But this resistance, like the military's Clinton-era resistance to gays in the military, largely works because other political actors' preferences make the cost of implementing an given policy undesirably high. The Clinton admistration could have devoted substantial political capital, but chose Don't Ask Don't Tell instead of clashing with institutional and likely bipartisan political resistance. When policymakers are cohesive in their demands, institutions find it difficult to resist. Civilian policymakers thwarted military reformers
seeking a European-style general staff. It might have done a great deal to
actually improve the organizational efficiency of defense planning. But
policymakers were simply unwilling to surrender control to such a baldly
Germanic defense planning apparatus. Likewise, politicization of intelligence can occur when administrations are determined to see what they want to see. They can set up their own policy shops when the main organization is resistant, like the Bush administration did with the Office of Special Plans during the runup to the Iraq war.

Of course, there is a strong benefit to a “politicized”
natural security system that is worth its cost. The practice of
political appointees with short terms prevents the rise of a “deep state” seen
in other countries. The President does not have to worry about a rogue Director
of Central Intelligence (DCI) or Secretary of Defense with substantial autonomy to
make far-reaching decisions with potentially catastrophic consequences. The
Japanese Imperial Army, on the other hand, dragged civilian policymakers into
World War II and the Pakistani state today suffers from an inability to reign
in the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency. But life is full of tradeoffs, and in
this case the dominant consequence has to do with the shaping power of executive demand. A DCI can't resist the President's demands for covert action, but he also can't exercise an ISI-like hold on covert wars without cabinet oversight.

Somewhere in between is the sweet spot--the right mix of institutional latitude and oversight by the executive branch and the legislature. This is the holy grail of intelligence design and it remains an ideal. But from an institutional design perspective, it makes sense to build capabilities and organization around what the policy customer will likely demand, not what the outside critic believes they
should demand.  In The
, Stringer Bell rebukes his cronies running a front business for not
understanding basic microeconomics:

not gonna bring that corner b***t up in here, you hear me? You know, what we got
here? We got is an elastic product. You know what that means? That means, when
people can go elsewhere and get their printing and copying done, they gonna do
it. You acting like we got an inelastic product and we don’t.

Now, the United States government is obviously highly
different in form, function, and rationale from a Baltimore drug crew. But
national power roles and functions are also more elastic than many would
believe. In my Benghazi post, I noted that when foreign governments fail to
protect American diplomats, the USG turns to men with black polos with billable
hours. Domestically, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force all jockey for a piece of
Air-Sea Battle even if the objective characteristics of the mission set suggest
a dominant role for seapower. Policymaker perception and the pot of available
resources matter more in practice than whether a given mission set properly
belongs to a certain institution.

With the knowledge of a market
for covert action, intelligence reformers looking to improve the CIA should not
confuse what they want the CIA to be (an
intelligence-gathering organization with a circumscribed paramilitary action
function) with what policymakers currently want (offensive counterterrorism and
covert action). David Petraeus didn’t further militarize the CIA because he had
a burning desire to make the Agency run like his HQ in Afghanistan. He did so
because important policy entrepreneurs in the White House—like countless
administrations before them---saw a need for a highly lethal kinetic fusion of
intel and military operators. If that need goes away, the Agency will find it harder to justify its wide-ranging unmanned air fleet. But history suggests that even if preferences shift, they will likely re-emerge in a different form.

The dominant question should be: how do we—with knowledge of
recurring trends of paramilitary and covert action—minimize the negative externalities
from these activities? Among other constructive suggestions, Micah Zenko has sensibly suggested paring back signature
strikes, as the best tools of violence in low-intensity wars are selective in
nature. John Brennan himself, as Joshua Foust has noted on Twitter, has sought
to create a better institutional framework for CIA paramilitary action.  In the absence of a sudden and drastic shift
in what seem to be recurring patterns of policymaker demand (which is not inherently impossible),
customer-informed institutional design is likely the best way to deal with the
substantial institutional challenges that the countrterror war poses for the
CIA and the intelligence community.