Shadow Government

Gates makes waves at Duke

Defense Secretary Robert Gates capped off his visit to Duke Wednesday with a remarkable speech. It underscored once again why most people, me included, think he is President Obama's most inspired cabinet pick and most capable member of the national security team.

Full disclosure: Secretary Gates came to Duke, my place of employment, as part of my program on American Grand Strategy, to give the Ambassador S. Davis Phillips Family International Lecture, which I help plan. He even came and taught a session of the American Grand Strategy class I teach with Prof. Brands, a diplomatic historian (I am the guy with the bad haircut pointing a finger in the photo here). So if he had given eight minutes long garden-club remarks I would have found a way to be happy.

But he didn't. He gave a thoughtful and substantive speech on a topic near-and-dear to my heart: the special challenges of an All Volunteer Force (AVF) in an age of prolonged war. Watch the speech for yourself and I think you will see why I was so impressed (and why I was reliably informed that I need a haircut).

After a brief joke about college football (which riled the crowd given Duke's recent loss to Army), Secretary Gates began by noting the parallels between being responsible for young people as a college president and being responsible for young people as secretary of Defense. This responsibility is all the more daunting because we are fighting our longest war in history with our smallest military -- or as Gates put it, "no major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country's citizens in uniform full-time."

Although he supported the AVF and rejected the draft as a viable alternative, his speech focused on three adverse consequences:

  1. Portions of the military, especially the ground forces, are experiencing acute stress with repeated deployments. The strain on the force is evident in rising suicides, other PTSD-related health issues, and familial problems. Gates asked a poignant rhetorical question that I hope will trigger a national conversation: "How long can these brave and broad young shoulders carry the burden that we -- as a military, as a government, as a society -- continue to place on them?"
  2. The financial costs of the AVF may be reaching the breaking point. It is not just the pay and benefits of the active force. Even more challenging are the costs of the retiree force -- costs that will grow for decades to come. Gates mentioned delicately the politically fraught nature of this issue, and emphasized the importance of caring adequately for those who have served our country at such great risk to themselves. But he also noted some uncomfortable truths that could spark a national debate on their own, such as: "The health care component has grown even faster, from $19 billion a decade ago to more than $50 billion this year, a portion of that total going to working-age retirees whose premiums and co-pays have not been increased in some 15 years. "
  3. Exacerbating a "gap" between the part of U.S. society with close ties to the military and the vast majority with none. He was really preaching to the choir at this point. This has been a matter of considerable study for one of his local hosts, the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. The entrepreneur in me heard a clarion call for a follow-on study looking at the gap question in light of a decade of war.

But perhaps the most surprising part of the speech was the very end when he made an explicit appeal for Duke students to consider joining the military. It deserves to be quoted at length:

So I would encourage you and all young Americans, especially those at the most selective universities who may not have considered the military, to do so. To go outside your comfort zone and take a risk in every sense of the word. To expand what you thought you were capable of doing when it comes to leadership, responsibility, agility, selflessness, and above all, courage.

For those for whom military service is neither possible nor the right thing for whatever reason, please consider how you can give back to the country that has given us all so much. Think about what you can do to earn your freedom -- freedom paid for by those whose names are on that Duke wall and in veterans' cemeteries across this country and across the world.

He noted the sacrifices and risks, calling attention to two Duke alumni "who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq. Matthew Lynch, class of 2001, champion swimmer, following in his father's footsteps as a United States Marine. And, James Regan, class of 2002, son of an investment banker who turned down offers from a financial services firm and a law firm to join the army rangers."

But still he urged the Duke students -- and the many students in the audience from UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, and North Carolina Central University -- to join the fight. This may seem like boilerplate, but to this audience it was anything but. It was surprising and moving and provoking -- provoking thought and perhaps even action.

Gates made news at Duke. But of greater consequence, he made a large audience of young people think about important things that are all-too-easy to ignore.

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Shadow Government

If Afghanistan's failing does that mean nation building is impossible? No.

In response to my last post about why realists should support nation building, some readers responded with a curious argument: Afghanistan (they believe) is failing, therefore nation building is impossible. Set aside the fact that this is does not respond to my argument -- which was not about Afghanistan and did not argue that nation building is easy, only that it can serve our interests when done right -- it strikes me as a lazy argument to condemn nation building on the basis of a single example. I call this the Somalia Fallacy.

According to the Somalia Fallacy, the failure of the U.N.'s effort to rebuild Somalia in the 1990s proves that all nation building interventions are doomed to fail. It is the favored argument of pundits who want to argue against overseas interventions. Fareed Zakaria gave perfect expression to the Somalia Fallacy in a Washington Post column in July. "The trouble with trying to fix failed states is that it implicates the United States in a vast nation building effort in countries where the odds of success are low and the risk of unintended consequences is very high. Consider Somalia..." Zakaria then retells the recent history of that unfortunate state, and concludes "Somalia highlights the complexity of almost every approach to failed states."

Well, no, it doesn't. Somalia is not a useful historical analogy from which to generalize about failed states (and neither is Afghanistan). To make a useful generalization, you'd want to start with a typical failed state, or, better yet, several of them. Somalia is not a typical failed state: it is an extreme outlier. It has been the most completely failed state on earth for almost two decades. On top of that, the U.N. mission in Somalia in the early 1990s was not a typical U.N. intervention: it was a singularly, uniquely inept one. Deploy an inept U.N. mission to the most failed state and you have the recipe for a famous catastrophe, not have a blueprint for how all interventions are doomed to play out.

Most armed interventions deployed to improve a failed state's government capabilities -- whether you call it nation building or something else -- do not have to contend with Somalian levels of anarchy. The United States and the United Nations have learned by watching the big failures (in Angola and Liberia as much as Somalia), and operate with a measure of greater sophistication. The track record has actually improved since the early 1990s. The failures have been big, public, and humiliating, but the United States and the United Nations have also racked up better outcomes in Namibia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, East Timor, Liberia (the second time around), Sierra Leone (which came back from the brink of failure), and possibly Burundi.

Few of those countries are fully rebuilt, modern, stable, liberal democracies. Most are not particularly nice places to live. But the international interventions changed their trajectories. They are better off now than they were at the nadir of their respective wars and failures. That makes a real difference in human lives and is usually good enough to secure whatever interests led us to intervene in the first place.

There is still the obvious question: how do you do nation building in a country, like Afghanistan, that looks a lot more like Somalia, Liberia, and Angola than Bosnia, Nicaragua, or Mozambique? The Somalia analogy doesn't work as a parable for nation building generally, but does it apply to Afghanistan? That is an excellent question for a future post -- but let me start by noting that poverty and violence are only half of the equation. The size, strategy, and mandate of the intervention are the other half. While the circumstances of state failure in Afghanistan look like Somalia, the design of the intervention (130,000 troops, more than $50 billion in aid, a decade of effort) looks more like Bosnia, on steroids. That's an interesting and largely unprecedented mix. More on that later.

The broader point, Afghanistan aside, is that liberals, paleoconservatives, and others are writing a version of history that says failed states cannot be fixed; nation building always fails; and we should reduce our ambitions. Somalia, Vietnam, and a handful of other cases are duly trotted out to serve as talking points. The argument provides convenient cover for our desire to see an end to the wars and to avoid shouldering uncomfortable responsibilities. But it does not have the virtue of being true.

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