The march of memes
Austin Bay has reprinted an email from blogger Dr. Demarche which discusses how the State Department can be made more effective. His recommendation: loosen the strings to Washington.
The first may seem counter intuitive, but here it is: loosen the strings. We are so tied to Washington , with e-mail, our archaic “cable” system and the telephone that for all intents and purposes our diplomats are hamstrung- no important decision, or even a semi-important decision, is made without consulting Washington. We need to instill the military concept of “small unit action” in our diplomats, and to turn them loose. In battle a general might set the objective to capture a small town as part of a larger strategy, but he does not draw up the assault plan. The authority trickles down to Captains and Lieutenants and NCOs, and when the team leaders hit a snag they are expected to improvise and accomplish the mission. No similar analogy exists at State. Objectives are set by Washington, but at the first sign of trouble the overwhelming response is to ask D.C. for guidance and to do nothing until it comes.
Second, get our diplomats out from behind their desks. CNN and the BBC cover most events more effectively than we can ever hope to- so why are we reporting on industrial accidents and the environment? We have limited resources; a minuscule amount compared to the military- and should focus those as accurately as possible. We spend an obscene amount of time feeding the beast- firing off cables into the abyss, largely regurgitating what the local press has said, perhaps with a comment or two by the “contact” we inherited from our predecessor. These reports, however, are first vetted through a clearance process notorious for being flawed- we call it the “happy to glad” syndrome whereby everyone who touches a document has to make a change. The end result is often bland and devoid of substance. Think writing by committee is easy? Gather four friends and write out the directions for how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich- that is how we inform foreign policy.
One way to think about the Al Qaeda and the Hezbollah as well as certain sections of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is as a kind of SOE or OSS. They will fight as individuals, but their metier is subversion, sabotage and training. They form resistance groups. They are functionally a Special Forces type of operation. It's interesting to consider how US capabilities compare, in flexibility, reach and impact, with these organs of enemy power. ...
It would seem to me that the key element would not be tactical or technological but organizational. Can we devolve authority to our own covert units? That's the critical issue, maybe the only issue. One of the reasons our information fight against the enemy has been somewhat effective is the existence of all these private efforts against them. Without MEMRI, the blogosphere, Soldier's Angels, Michael Yon, Bill Roggio and countless others we wouldn't have had a snowball's chance in Hades against Al Jazeera. We have decentralization in the political fight against the enemy.
But in armed conflict the government can't afford to have us all go out and act like private vigilantes; the danger of loose cannons is too great. Plus it would create a kind of intelligence fratricide. Who's a terrorist in that kind of context? Yet I can't conceive of effective covert ops against the enemy if everything has to be preapproved by a lawyer in Washington. So some compromise must be found between command and control and allowing initiative.
One of the constant themes of H. John Poole's work, Tactics of the Crescent Moon: Militant Muslim Combat Methods is the idea of a strategic blueprint of resistance being embedded in a culture. In his discussion of the Mujahedeen fight against the Soviets Poole notes how they would simply "pile on" against their enemy, using whatever center of leadership and source of funds happened to be available, in an almost instinctive manner. On the old Belmont Club site I recalled how the ability to give "saddle orders" made German Army units so deadly against their enemies. It is the same idea. People knew what to do even when they were temporarily out of touch.
In an earlier, low tech era, this phenomenon was referred to in the German Army as "saddle orders". Because the general principles of the campaign were so well understood by lower-level commanders, Guderian and Rommel could redirect subordinates and trust them to do the "right thing", that is, act consistently within the agreed strategic framework. They could give orders from the "saddle". In contrast, the French High Command had to laboriously consider its reaction to each threat. It was this kind of confidence in the Age of Sail which enabled Nelson to break the French line at Trafalgar. Nelson's captains had served together so long they were like a basketball team that could blind-pass to each other, so that his pre-battle signal consisted simply of "England expects every man to do his duty". Both the German Army of 1940 and Nelson's fleet of 1805 were inferior to the enemy in materiel and numbers. But it did not matter.
Decentralization means not only being able to act one own but to learn independently. Poole makes an interesting observation about Al Qaeda training methods. "Al Qaeda has trained between 25,000 and 50,000 fighters since its inception in 1987. It is dangerous, not because it has the most sophisticated tactical techniques in the world, but because it has a training methodology which will eventually discover those techniques."
So when studies conclude that the US Armed Forces are "broken", and that numbers need to be augmented, it is possible that they are not looking at an entirely adequate metric. As Dr. Demarche pointed out, there is more to upgrading the diplomatic service than increasing the number of FSOs.