Tag Archives: bernard finel

Bernard Finel examines American Delusions

Summary: Today guest author Bernard Finel discusses one of the major themes of the FM website:  our broken thinking (aka dysfunctional observation-orientation-decision-action loop).  This was originally posted at his website on 17 January 2012.

“American Delusions” by Bernard Finel

One of the biggest problems with our domestic political discourse is that much of the American body politic is operating under a set of persistent and destructive delusions.

Health Care

During the health care debate, of course, one of the major points of opposition to Obama’s health care reform was the argument that the United States has the “best healthcare system in the world.” Now, yes, we have the most expensive health care system in the world. If we spent as much on health care per capita as other developed countries, we’d be spending roughly $1 trillion a year LESS. Which would be fine if we were getting $1 trillion worth of better health care, but, ya know, we aren’t. We’re either in the middle or bottom-middle of the pack in terms of health care outcomes. But even if we were near the top of the pack, we are not getting anywhere near $1 trillion worth of extra value from our system. But see, the “best healthcare system” in the world delusion blinds us to the fact that we need real and deep structural reform in the healthcare sector.


Whenever we talk about defense spending, we get a similar delusion at work. This one is the insecurity delusion, where the United States, despite spending more on defense that the rest of the world combined, is somehow perceived to be walking a razor’s edge with regard to national survival.

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Second thoughts by 2 major boosters of the Af-Pak War (better late than never)

Summary:   Guest author Bernard Finel discusses yet another think-tank report giving prescriptions for the Af-Pak War.  But this one is a surprise, a serious walk-back by one of the powerful institutional advocates of our foreign wars.  Perhaps they’re cutting their losses and gearing up for the next war.  Iran or Mexico?

FM Introduction

Here Bernard Finel reviews “A Responsible Transition”, David W. Barno (Lieutenant General, US Army, retired) and Andrew M. Exum (Captain, US Army, retired), Center for a New American Security (CNAS), 7 December 2010.  Reports from well-funded groups like CNAS (see Wikipedia) are America’s version of opera; read carefully and you’ll hear the sound of money in motion.  Summary:

The summer of 2011, when U.S. troops will begin to draw down in Afghanistan, will mark a watershed in the U.S. and NATO’s decade-long effort in the country. A second watershed will occur in 2014 when the United States and NATO will transfer full responsibility of their efforts to Afghan leadership. But how does the United States and its allies get there from here? And what should the U.S. role be in Afghanistan beyond 2014?

Responsible Transition: Securing U.S. Interests in Afghanistan Beyond 2011, authored by CNAS Senior Advisor and Senior Fellow Lieutenant General David Barno and Fellow Andrew Exum, lays out a strategy for the post-July 2011 phase of U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, defines the U.S. troop presence and commitment beyond 2014, and offers operational and strategic guidance for protecting U.S. and allied long-term interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Analysis by Bernard Finel

I have trouble being objective on this.  Last year, we some of us were making similar proposals, report co-author Andrew Exum called us “half-assed.”  Well, now the ass is on the other foot, I guess.  Or something.  Point is, Dave Barno and Exum are, in their report, essentially embracing a “counter-terrorism plus” approach.  So let me deal with this as fairly as I can.

(1) This is a very good report, better than the Afghanistan Study Group report both its details and structure.  I agree with the vast majority of their arguments at this juncture.  And this is a very positive development in the debate.

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Toward a National Renewal for America

Summary:  In this article guest author Bernard Finel examines the problems facing America, their causes and treatment.

The FM website has an on-going discussion about “Reigniting the Spirit of America.”  I find this an interesting discussion, and one I’d like to both highlight and contribute to.  In this post,  I’d like to make a few framing comments, and propose at least one concrete suggestion. 

The Nature of the Problem

It is easy to overstate the problems facing the United States.  Certainly, our public debate seems coarse, but that has also occurred in the past.  And certainly, our political system seems gridlocked and unable to deal with pressing public policy issues, but again, I am not sure that there is anything new here. Yes, we have a powerful “know nothing” movement today, but the very term demonstrates that this too is not a new dynamic.  So, what, if anything, is new?

I actually don’t know for sure.  It is very hard to get perspective on one’s own time.  And yet, I can’t help but think that we are facing a set of national challenges that combined together create a perfect storm that threatens the very core of our political system.

First, I think it is safe to say that our nation’s fiscal picture is as bad as it has been at any time since at least the last decades of the 18th Century.  We’re going into debt at a frightening rate, and instead of thinking about ways of slowing the train, the debate in Washington is about whether it is better to borrow another $2 trillion for tax cuts, or whether to borrow an addition $4 trillion.  The disconnect between what is widely recognized as a problem and our responses is what is frightening.  We’re rushing toward national insolvency not by accident, but with our eyes wide open.

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Obama vs. the Generals

Summary:  Guest author Bernard Finel examines the public excerpts from the latest book of Woodward, stenographer to the greats of our Versailles-on-the-Potomac.  What does this tell us about Obama?  Nothing good.  Nothing we did not already suspect.

A lot of people have been pitching the revelations in the Woodward book as Obama vs. the Generals.  But, if it was a contest, it wasn’t much of one.  The Gates, Mullen, Petraeus troika dug in their feed for a major escalation (on top of an initial 19,000 man increase, ordered immediately after Obama came into office), and Obama was apparently left floundering about — falling back on political constraints to limit the commitment.  Really, the president could not come off worse than he does from the Woodward book.

Obama allowed the military to simply stonewall him on providing an alternative to a large escalation in Afghanistan.

“So what’s my option? You have given me one option,” Obama said, directly challenging the military leadership at the table, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command.
“We were going to meet here today to talk about three options,” Obama said sternly. “You agreed to go back and work those up.”
Mullen protested. “I think what we’ve tried to do here is present a range of options.”
Obama begged to differ. Two weren’t even close to feasible, they all had acknowledged; the other two were variations on the 40,000.
Silence descended on the room. Finally, Mullen said, “Well, yes, sir.”  Mullen later explained, “I didn’t see any other path.”

Then, when the President finally gets them to brief something of an alternative — still involving a 20,000 man additional commitment, he allows himself to get talked out of considering it due to a war game that was so rigged that LTG Douglas Lute – in theory the point man for the President on Afghanistan in the NSC (also a Bush holdover, btw) – boycotted it:

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Ultimately Primacy Is Its Own Justification (Imperial rule #12)

Summary:   A guest post by Bernard Finel provides a deeper explanation for our love of foreign wars, wars often with only tenuous connections to our national interest.

This piece from David Axe at Wired (Why the U.S. Should Send Troops (and Spooks) to the Congo) has gotten a bit of attention:

Problem is, Congo can’t handle the task of taking down the LRA. With just 300 miles of paved roads in the whole country and no air force to speak of, the Congolese military can’t move fast enough to keep up with the LRA. Besides, the Congolese army has been cobbled together from various former rebel groups plus troops inherited from the country’s previous regime. “There is very little discipline,” Marcel Stoessel, Congo director for the aid group Oxfam U.K., said of the Congolese army. To beat the LRA, Congo needs help from an army adept at locating elusive groups in rough terrain, and an air force trained to speed small, lethal teams to the battle zone. Sound like any military we know?

From a response at the Fabius Maximus website:

It requires no rebuttal, as Axe barely bothers to state reasons.  Injustice!  Minerals!  Easy victory!  Perhaps he assumes that the American public has become so well-trained that little more than a dog whistle suffices, leading us to war.  Too bad we no longer have many conservatives, folks advocating small government and only necessary foreign wars.

It also reminds me of recent news coming out of Yemen about our increased military assistance in that country. This story prompted a wonderful outburst from Gulliver at Ink Spots:

A dude tried to get on an airplane in the U.S. with a bomb in his pants, and this is causing confusion about whether to give a country on the other side of the planet ONE POINT TWO BILLION DOLLARS in helos, patrol boats, and small arms.

Let’s just reflect for a second on the stupidity of this.

Yes, let’s. 

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On Strategy (specifically in Afghanistan)

Summary:  This guest post by Bernard Finel discusses the nature of strategy in the context of the Afghanistan War.  It’s timely, as there have been two important reports about the war this month, links to both in the for more information section at the end.  Let’s hope this debate gets more policy traction than the debate last summer (in which the pro-war arguments were defenestrated, to no effect) — or the many Kabuki-like reviews done by DoD.

I think it is worthwhile to spend a little time discussing the issue of “strategy” as a concept because I think a significant source of tension and dispute in recent debates is due to a misunderstanding of some of the key elements of the term.  I am leery of addressing this issue directly because it put me into something of a didactic mode (or should I say “even more didactic than usual”?).  But regardless, here goes.

What is strategy?

From my perspective, strategy needs to be conceived of as an iterative framework connecting ends, ways, means, and risks in a way that allows for the development and comparison of various courses of action (among other things), but also allows for the generation of branches and sequels, consideration and testing of assumption, an analysis of time, and other factors.  It isn’t just a plan of action.  It is an analytical framework.

One key elements include the formulation of assumptions, which are necessary proposition used to bridge areas of uncertainty.  Another key element is the concept of risk which is essentially the feedback mechanism use to judge whether a given course of action is acceptable.

There is a misguided notion that strategy must always flow in a linear fashion starting with a consideration of interests, followed by a the development of objective, and finally an allocation of means/ways to accomplish the desired end.  This is one approach, and it is an approach that is useful under two conditions — when interests generate clear objectives and when means are unconstrained.  Neither of these conditions holds in Afghanistan (but more on that later).

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Who is to blame for our civil-military dysfunction?

Summary:  Guest author Bernard Finel writes about one of the key factors driving US foreign policy.  Since WWII our grand strategy has become increasingly militarized.  General Marshall attempted to rebalance this as Secretary of State (1947-1949), aborted by the difficulty of the job and his ill health.  Since then none of our senior leaders have seriously attempted to continue his work.  So a civil-military dysfunctionality may be an existential threat to America.

Whenever I write about civil-military affairs, and in particular the rise of “policy generals” — the term “political generals” fails to capture my concerns — I get pulled into a debate about who is to blame. There is a segment of informed opinion that argues essentially that there is no problem because, after all, the President could always fire any general who oversteps his bounds and hence if he does not do so he is implicitly supporting the general officer in his positions. A corollary is claim that we are not seeing anything new in civil-military relations, and again tacit civilian acceptance is seen as a sort of confirmation that nothing out of the ordinary is afoot. There are a huge number of problems with this argument, and I’ll address a few of them here:

First, it is absolutely true that senior military leaders have always needed significant political skills. Eisenhower is perhaps the most common example provided of this breed of military leader. But look, Eisenhower was rare and the situation was extreme. He was not the “norm.” Do we really want to argue that the model of theater commander of a multinational alliance in a total war should be the norm by which to judge any number of leaders operating in a what is, essentially, a permanent condition of counter-insurgent, counter-terror warfare?

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