And I'm back! It's been a couple of years since my last post because well, life happened. I have a few more grey hairs but hopefully gained some wisdom to go along with them. And perspective, which I think is the most underrated aspect of wisdom. We all come to a problem with a set of lenses to see the world, filtered through our experiences, values, education, and emotional mood. (Please ate something before continuing this post! You will be much happier which will likely influence you to think this blog is better than if you were hungry...)
Part I talking about the symphony of power. Part II will talk a couple vignettes of how Mr. Gates tried to help orchestrate that symphony. To set the stage, Mr. Gates turns the normal allegory of the President at the top of the chain of command issuing orders and instead observes:
"I see the president sitting at the bottom of a funnel, at the wide top of which are more than 3 million men and women in and out of uniform in a dozen or more departments and agencies engaged in helping to formulate American foreign and national security policies or in implementing them."
I think the analogy of a funnel highlights the challenges or exercising the elements of national power. Information and reports are filtered by multiple different people and organizations before reaching the President, each with their own biases. And like a water faucet constantly pouring, the reports and updates never stop. The current social media cycle imperative of always being 'first' means that government leaders are already on their back foot responding to a crisis because they have to craft a response to the problem while trying to correct the often wrong first media reports that influence most people's perceptions. As the barrier to become a "journalist" becomes much thinner and the traditional ways to self-regulate journalism become obsolete, many personal actors with only a smart phone start to influence the process for their own agendas. It becomes much harder for governmental leaders to plan and synchronize the symphony of power as Mr. Gates started observing in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the fall of 2008, Mr. Gates wrote President Obama a private memo concerning Afghanistan that the US should:
"'Quietly shelve trying to develop a strong, effective central government in Afghanistan,' and focus on strengthening a few key ministries (defense, interior, finance."
Mr. Gates believed that our means (resources, personnel, money, time) and ways (train, assist, advice) were not enough to accomplish our desired end state of nation building. Western democracies did not fully understand the culture and challenges Afghanistan had in never creating a strong central government in over two millennia. The plan for Afghanistan had many noble goals that were unrealistic to achieve, exasperated by the multitude of nongovernmental organizations that were uncomfortable sharing information with with U.S. government. And further exasperated by the U.S. reluctance to fully share plans with Afghan leaders due to concerns of corruption. The United States is the most powerful country in the world, but must deeply reflect on the desired end to ensure it is feasible with the means and ways as the world watched in horror during the summer of 2021
In 2007 during a speech at Kansas State University, Mr. Gates highlighted how there is a deficiency in the diplomatic and information instruments of national power, stating:
"During the 1990s, I observed, with the complicity of both the Congress and the White House, key instruments of America's national power once again were allowed to wither or were abandoned."
The lack of civilian experts was never resolved, which made it challenging to meet the President's goals in Iraq. But unlike Afghanistan, Iraq had a history of a strong central government and an educated population with a high literacy rate. These two factors are in Iraqs favor as they work towards a brighter future.
So what should Mr. Gates have done differently? Expertise in the State Department and Agency for International Development takes a decade plus to grow. In the mid 2000s, the rise of social media began to have an impact on agendas, which has only festered into a worse problem. Having lived through the two vignettes, I have a personal answer, as I think most of you do also. Mr. Gates gave me a different lens to view the problem and think differently about why the decisions were made that were challenging to implement at the ground level.