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Monday, June 24, 2013


Dear Friends and Colleagues, 
I am not an admirer of Bill Keller's writings, but perhaps without meaning to do so he draws a lesson from the past:  a variation of what used to be called in my time in government "mission creep."  
I have several times written about it.  It  comes down to a simple progression.  Once step A is taken, step B becomes more likely.  Then step C almost automatically follows and subsequent steps come to be seen as the only logical thing to do.
The process is actually somewhat more messy in real life.  Because other actors are inevitably involved, even while one party is doing, say, step B, others may be doing step C or beyond.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK was determined not to let this happen.  He had recently read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August and was impressed by the fact that at the beginning of World War I  the process itself had come to set the policy rather than the other way around.
You will probably recall that none of the major powers really wanted to go to war but each  of them convinced itself, or was convinced by the "hawks" who are always circling overhead in issues of national security that it would be short and relatively inexpensive.  Moreover, those who wanted to increase pressure on their foreign (and domestic) adversaries argued that taking step A really didn't amount to much.  One could stop there.
Of course, as we now know, that is often not true.  Kennedy had a sharp lesson in the Bay of Pigs.  Several steps had already been taken before he took office.  He really didn't want to escalate, but he knew that if he did not, he would be attacked for being "soft" on Communism -- still in 1961 a very serious charge.  He convened his senior advisers and asked for their opinions.  Of course, he really didn't want their opinions but their support.  All of them gave it with one exception:  Chester Bowles.  It happened that Dean Rusk was away and Bowles was acting secretary of state.  Previously, he had been "cut out" of information on the CIA plan and was horrified when he learned of it.  He spoke up at the meeting and Kennedy, who had his own plan -- the cynical one of letting the CIA trained and paid for Cuban team pay the price --  never forgave him.  
Kennedy did not, I think, learn from that botched job.  Vietnam moved in regular and predictable steps from Eisenhower-Dulles step A (helping the French with limited logistical support and money), to B (a sort of training mission) to C (special forces) etc.  Never was there a time when stopping was a serious option.  So we had years of war and thousands of casualties to no planned result. 
Then there came Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now comes Syria.  Mission creep redux.  And with the usual complications.  It turns out that while we are still discussing what I guess is step B, the CIA has for months been at work on steps much further down the line, training, equipping and arranging the funding for some of the myriad insurgent groups.  
What we see happening raises another, less visible, question: does anyone in the government know what all the "players" are doing?  
In my time in government, we tried, not very successfully, to handle this issue with interdepartmental task forces.  The reason they did not always work well was that each government agency -- even the Department of the Interior -- had its own foreign policy with its own objectives.  It was very hard to force them into an overall single or national  policy. I was head of the task force on Algeria and learned how hard it was to get the members to reverse course:  I wanted them not to come together to speak for their own agencies but to go back to their agencies to speak for the whole.  It was not easy but the Algerian group became a sort of model in its time.  That model would be very hard to apply now,  .   Now it is even more complicated because of the use of outside contractors and because of the push of special interest groups.  As far as I can see no one is trying.  So, regardless of legal, moral, and other issues, our policy is formless and often self-defeating. 
So, Syria:  what is or what should be a single US policy?  Is anyone thinking about that?  I can see at least half a dozen separate and partially conflicting policies in play. 
Even worse, suppose any one of those policies predominates and  is successful, what is the likely outcome? 
That is the sort of question, General George Marshall created the policy planning staff to address.  
We did not address it in Vietnam (and there got lucky because the Vietnamese did the job we thought we knew how to do); we did not address it in Iraq (and there created a bigger problem than ever.  Indeed, incredibly, we facilitated the growth of the protégé of our declared enemy, Iran, which, whatever else can be said about it was not smart); and to judge by the incredibly inept handling of the Afghan challenge, no one has a hand on the tiller there either. (the avoidance of negotiation for years on which I sent you a short piece a few days ago and now the bungling of the first step in negotiation smacks of gross incompetence).
So what would "winning" be like in Syria?  I predict it won't be what we think and say we want and is likely to be the very opposite: a shattered "failed" state or statelets, most or all of which will hate us and at least some of which are apt to host those who will seek revenge against us.  If we try to buy our way out, we will have to pour in billions of dollars we should be spending to teachers, students, schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, affordable energy,  etc.  at home.  And there will come a limit to how willing the Chinese are to pay for our senseless foreign ventures. 
In conclusion, I emphasize the old fashioned idea that we should look before we leap.  And we should recognize that in international affairs the first step is already part of the leap.
William R. Polk
669 Chemin de la Sine
F-06140 Vence France
tel: +33 (0)493 581 627
Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism
Understanding Iraq
Understanding Iran
Personal History
Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times
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Jerry Fresia said...

George Kennan's famous quote about the need to maintain disparity in the world, with the US being the super privileged power, explains a lot of about foreign policy. (For the full quote in context, go here:

Until policy makers find maintaining relationships of disparity repugnant, policy making will turn on devising the best way to do horrible things. Your thoughts, it seems to me, assume we are always the good guys. Hard to take seriously anyone's contribution when such a nagging assumption anchors the conversation.

Jerry Fresia said...

Whenever I read the comment I posted (see above) the more I wish I hadn't posted it. It seems somewhat wide of the mark, but worse than that it seems rude. Guest columnists ought to be accorded more respect, especially Mr. Polk whose contributions have been notable. My apologies to all concerned.