Last week I had the privilege of visiting the USS Harry S. Truman, a Nimitz class aircraft carrier that was conducting training exercises off the coast of Florida in preparation for an overseas deployment. The other guests and I were flown aboard the carrier (on a C2 transport) for a tour of the ship and aseries of briefings about the ship’s operations. We also spent a good chunk of the afternoon and evening observing a variety of air exercises, including night-time takeoffs and landings by the F-18s, EA-6s, and E-2s that make up the ship’s air wing. The following day we breakfasted with members of the ship’s crew, flew via helicopter to the USS Winston S. Churchill (an ArleighBurke class destroyer operating in the area) and then returned to the Truman before catapaulting off the ship and flying back to shore. (Yes, we used a plane to do that, too).
As you can imagine, this was a pretty heady experience, especially for somebody who grew up around boats and spent a couple of years working for a Navy think tank (the Center for Naval Analyses) while in gradschool. I’m grateful for the opportunity and to the officers and crew -- who were terrific hosts during our visit -- and I’m absorbing a lot of the things I was told or that I observed while on board. Here are 3 of the most vivid impressions and/or conclusions I took from the trip.
First, whatever you might think of the U.S. military in general or the Navy in particular, the sheer technical and managerial skill involved in this sort of operation is damn impressive. As one crewman described it, carrier flight operations are “like a combination of NASCAR and ballet.” The more you watch the ship, planes and crew in operation, the more you realize that their expertise is the refined product of decades of organizational evolution. You couldn’t figure out how to operate a carrier battle group by putting a lot of smart people in a room and having them design the various pieces of equipment and the procedures used to operate them from scratch; the only way to develop these skills is to do it for a long time and to keep trying to get better.
The lesson, of course, is that effective military operations depend on accountability: The only way to improve over time is to learn from past mistakes, reward good perfomance, and penalize errors or incompetence. I’m not saying the military is perfect in that regard, but it does a better job than some other institutions I could name (including academia?). And wouldn’t it be nice if we achieved a similar level of accountability in the making of foreign policy itself? As I've harped on before, one of the reasons we keep making the same strategic mistakes is that we keep listening to the same people who screwed things up in the past (see under:Middle East policy, Iraq, etc.), instead of paying attention to those who’ve been proven right in the past or who offer alternatives to the failed status quo.
So if you have growing doubts about Obama’s foreign policy, bear in mind that most of his key foreign policy appointees supported invading Iraq in 2003, and most of them are still deeply committed to a highly interventionist foreign policy. And let’s not even talk about neoconservatives, who remain a powerful influence despite having been wrong about nearly everything for at least two decades.
But I digress...
Second, it is impossible not to be impressed by the youth and diversity of the crews we met. The composition of the Truman’s crew isn’ta perfect cross-section of American society, perhaps, but there are plenty of different ethnic groups represented and a fair number of women as well. No openly gay sailors or aircrews, ofcourse, but apart from that regrettable omission, it’s an impressive feat of integration.
In Herman Wouk’s World War II novel The Caine Mutiny, one of the characters describes the Navy as “amaster plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.” The line is grossly unfair to officersand enlisted personnel alike (and the character who utters it in the book is later exposed as a coward), but in a way it does capture how effort, expertise and constant training can transform raw recruits into highly competent personnel and allow them to develop their skills over time. It was even more striking to see how young most of the crew was, especially given the responsibilities that they are given. I will be thinking about them the next time some Harvard College student says they need an extension on a 10-page paper because they have something else due that day.
Lastly, I kept thinking about the crucial role of grand strategy. It is one thing to have an impressive set of military capabilities; it is another to know where to commit them and for what strategic purpose. Since the first Gulf War, the United States has become increasingly entangled in anambitious but dubious project to influence or reshape some of the most impoverished or dysfunctional countries on earth, largely via military force. This effort began with the Clinton administration's ill-conceived strategy of “dual containment” in the 1990s (which helped fuel the rise of al Qaeda), and later expanded into the Bush administration’s strategy of “regional transformation.” The latter goal led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and that same mind-set is now part and parcel of our efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and (maybe) Yemen.
Like some parts of the old British Empire, these various commitments were to some degree undertaken “in a fit of absent-mindedness,” and certainly without a clear calculation of costs and benefits. This project was dreamed up by civilians in both parties and not by the armed services themselves (although parts of each branch have boughtinto it to some degree). Unfortunately, this scheme has forced the U.S.military take on a set of missions for which it is not particularly well-suited, that may in fact be impossible, and that are probably peripheral to America’s long-term interests. For example, we are currently using carrier-based aircraft to fly combat support missions in Afghanistan, which requires pilots to fly five-to-6 hour missions (with multiple aerial refuelings), and puts enormous wear and tear on airframes, engines, and crews alike. These commitments have also forced the United States into vast counterinsurgency and nation-building operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this sort of activity inevitably produces civilian casualties as well as other abuses (e.g., Abu Ghraib). The result? More recruits for al Qaeda or the Taliban, and apparent confirmation of bin Laden's ravings about America's supposed desire to dominate the Islamic world.
Equally important are the opportunity costs: the money weare pouring down the Central Asian and Persian Gulf rat hole isn’t available tomaintain the force levels and modernization upon which our global leadershipdepends. One suspects that this effect of our current global "strategy" is deeply appreciated in places like Beijing. And don’t forget all the presidential time and attention that this activity consumes, first by Bush, and now by Obama, at a time when there are plenty of other items that could use more attention.
We have been able to sustain this effort by relying on an all-volunteer force and by borrowing the money, so that Americans back home don’t feel the pinch directly. But these expedients won’t last forever, and unless we start rethinking our entire approach to global leadership -- moving away from global "liberal evangelism" and back towards a more realist strategy of offshorebalancing -- Americans will one day look back on this decade as the era when they squandered their position of primacy on a set of ill-advised imperial endeavors. Bin Laden and his ilk will be dead and gone by then, and their fantasies of a restored caliphate will have been exposed as hollow dreams. But they will have inflicted immense harm on the United States in the process; not so much by what they were able to do to us, but by what they fooled us into doing to ourselves.