Are personal relationships a strategic asset? Last week, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey gave a speech at the National Defense University arguing that they are. It’s a theme hammered recently by other military leaders, especially in Dempsey’s own service, the Army, which argues it is uniquely capable of building military-to-military relationships — through advisors, international exercises, and officer exchanges — that can at best prevent war and at worst give the US critical regional knowledge before war comes. But retired Army colonel and unstoppable iconoclast Douglas MacGregor, a frequent contributor to Breaking Defense, says Dempsey’s argument is built on sand:
Apparently, no one told General Marty Dempsey that we placed officers in the German General Staff College and the Germans sent officers to our War College during the 1930s. In fact, a German lieutenant colonel at the Army War College actually gave a presentation on tank design that our brilliant generals dismissed out of hand as simply wrong when the German was quite right.
Adm. Chester Nimitz and Gen. Albert Wedemeyer both spent two years in Germany; Nimitz studied at the German Naval Engineering College and Wedemeyer at the prestigious Kriegsakademie. Both made close friends and contacts among the top officers in the German Armed Forces. Both attempted to persuade FDR and Eisenhower of the criticality of opening lines of communication with the senior German officers to shorten the war. All of their attempts were rejected and met with total failure.
Japanese officers also participated in various courses. Remember Adm. Yamamoto? He studied at Harvard, then planned the Pearl Harbor attack — against his better judgment and under orders from more bellicose superiors. And look at the strategic payoff our relationships in Nicaragua and El Salvador produced! For that matter, our disastrous decade of crypto-imperialism since 9/11 lost us the confidence of our original, legitimate Tajik and Uzbek allies while building up ever-stronger ties between the Pakistanis and our enemies.
In the final analysis, the forces that promote war are much more powerful than relationships between individuals. More important, group think, as seen after December 1939, the kind that underpins the unending conflict with “Islamist Terrorism” today, negates any and all wisdom or influence that springs from such relationships. Strategy and geopolitical interests always trump personal relationships, as well as ideology.
Still, it is interesting to watch Washington’s political and military leadership run away from the wasteful, ineffective use of force in the form of counterinsurgency and take us back to where the Neocons in the Bush Administration started: to small, low-profile, Special Operations-based incursions backed by stand-off precision strikes against terrorist leaders and their allies. But no amount of good will and personal friendship on the scale Gen. Dempsey and the Obama Administration advocate can compensate for fundamentally unsound strategy or rescue the nation from bad policies.