President Eisenhower once remarked with despair that when he was in the army and gave an order, the reply he always heard was “Yes, Sir!” but when he issued an order in the White House, the reply invariably came back, “Yes, but . . . ”
The dichotomy offers a useful way to distinguish between the military and civilian cultures that have long, of necessity, prevailed in the Departments of Defense and State, respectively. While a fair amount of time and energy at the Pentagon is devoted to contingency planning — Could we invade, if we needed to, here? Or repel an attack, if we needed to, there? Or do both, if we needed to, at once? — DOD’s basic mission is to implement orders issued in a determinedly hierarchical system, with the commander in chief at its head. Orders are designed to withstand the distortion that comes with passage down a hierarchical chain and to promote the attainment of unmistakably clear and achievable objectives: Either the territory is physically under our control, or it isn’t. A target is destroyed, or it isn’t. The hot buzzword in military circles the last few years is “kinetic,” code for physical, often violent, action. That, at root, is the grim business of the U.S. armed forces.
At the State Department, however, where the “action” is difficult to see with the naked eye, where policies have never been so tangible as bombs in the air or boots on the ground, where words are malleable, even the mission is often less readily recognizable. Measuring the success of a program of “development” in a Third World country aided by U.S. dollars and Foreign Service officers can be tricky. Economic output in the country may grow, but what if political tensions, or violence against women, increase as well?
What’s more, there is at State almost a premium on dissent, especially when the commander in chief has a muscular foreign policy. “There has been a long history of tension between the presidents and the State Department, really going back at least as far as Nixon,” said NYU’s Hannah Gurman, author of The Dissent Papers: The Voices of Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond, on a recent episode of The Foxhole. “Even [Franklin] Roosevelt wasn’t so fond of the State Department. And to some extent, this is a long hostility that involves ideological differences as well as a distrust of the bureaucracy,” she explained. “Presidents are very jealous of their power, particularly in foreign policy; and the diplomats . . . have sometimes been seen as a threat to that power.”
“Yes, Sir!” and “Yes, but . . . ”: This conflict between DOD and Foggy Bottom, ancient and enduring, has been the subject of a large body of literature, with titles like Stephen Glain’s State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire (2011). But the fact is that the missions have always overlapped: Both departments extend American reach abroad. Both are regularly called upon to deal with friends and adversaries alike. And both, in the decades since Vietnam, have been put to the arduous task of “nation-building” — and compiled an uneven record of it, at best.
But senior U.S. officials say the ancient animosities have abated recently, as operations in Afghanistan and Iraq brought the agencies’ personnel closer. “Over the last several years,” one Pentagon officer told me, “we’ve definitely seen the relationship improve. It’s gotten a lot better because Iraq and Afghanistan have meant a shared sacrifice.”
“The first time I actually ever met anyone from the State Department,” U.S. Army general Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently marveled to a reporter, “I was a lieutenant colonel with twenty-two years of service.” Today, the Pentagon officer noted, “you’d be hard pressed to find an enlisted man or junior officer that hasn’t had significant exposure to American diplomats. That was not present prior to [the September 11 attacks].”
Such cooperation is essential to counter-insurgency doctrine, which has come to occupy, in the post-9/11 world, an ever-larger place in DOD planning and missions. But interagency rivalries and cooperation involving the DOD aren’t limited to State. Analysts have observed the rapid growth of the U.S. intelligence infrastructure, and the corresponding surge in paramilitary operations performed by the Central Intelligence Agency independently of the Joint Special Operations Command. This has produced some rivalries of its own.
“The cultural game changer is between these two,” explains retired U.S. Army major general Robert H. Scales, a Fox News military analyst. “As we withdraw from our forward presence, we will depend on direct covert action to achieve our global intent. The line of separation between the two is almost indistinct. You need only look at the drone program and strategic intelligence-sharing.”
Of the many national-security threats that will define President Obama’s second term, perhaps the one posing the greatest logistical challenge is keeping al-Qaeda at bay while 68,000 American troops withdraw from the war zone in Afghanistan. “The only choice is this new alliance,” Scales says. “One acting alone simply can’t do it.”
— James Rosen is chief Washington correspondent of Fox News and host of The Foxhole on live.foxnews.com, every other Tuesday at 1 p.m. Twitter: @JamesRosenFNC