Obama vs. McChrystal-Petraeus: Bigger than Both of Us

On any number of levels, whether interpersonal or interagency, the necessary conclusion to be drawn from the McChrystal episode is that national security in an age of full-spectrum stabilization operations is “bigger than both of us.” Clearly, Gen. Stanley McChrystal failed to internalize the primacy of civil-military unity of effort, no matter how often or how well he tried to sell the merits of population-centric counterinsurgency to his own troops and outside observers. Just as clearly, Gen. David Petraeus wrote the book on that unity of effort.

Also just as clearly, McChrystal was forced to work with, and Petraeus has inherited, civilian counterparts in both Kabul and Washington that themselves are not ideal partners in the civil-military integration that is necessary for the success of the Afghanistan mission. The understandable urge is to call for replacing them, and that might indeed be justified and advisable. But to believe that that alone will solve the essential problem would be to ignore once again the necessary conclusion: It’s bigger than both of us.

Because the essential problem, as some observers have already noted, is not interpersonal, but rather institutional and architectural, and has to do with the Pentagon’s vastly disproportionate funding compared to its civilian partners. By the very logic of the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency guidelines that Petraeus helped author, this is an aberration, one that leads to military dominance instead of the required unity of effort.

For that reason, it requires an exceptional general not to fall prey to the hubris that did McChrystal in. But the same danger is also embodied in the increasingly political role of a general like Petraeus, which amounts to a subtler but perhaps more dangerous perversion of his own guidelines.

The solution isn’t just to increase funding to a resource-starved State Department, although that’s necessary in its own right. The solution is to peel off the highly specialized role of stabilization operations, which straddles both the civilian and military components of national security, into its own agency. This has been a long-time theme of Thomas P.M. Barnett, who advocates for a cabinet-level department built up from USAID with “lend-leased” military and diplomatic components. Most recently, it was proposed by Stuart Bowen, the former special inspector general in Iraq, in Congressional testimony calling for an Office of Contingency Operations.

Until the funding stream for stabilization operations is independent of both the Pentagon and State, there will always be turf wars, and any stable resolutions will be ad hoc and fragile, based on happy coincidence (Petraeus and Ryan Crocker) and always threatened with dysfunction (McChrystal and Karl Eikenberry). Of course, an independent agency won’t solve the problems that come along with being human. But it will at least institutionalize the solutions and firewall the civil-military actors off from what is a bureaucratic mismatch otherwise.

More World Politics Review