My Dec. 19 article, The National Security Discourse, has garnered feedback from some Army officers.
Here’s the synopsis: while I am (possibly) right in theory, the reality in this country is different. The politicians and political parties fail to deliver. Their primary interest is in returning to power, not in governance or policymaking. They don’t believe in a merit-based system and run dynasties in the name of democracy. If they want the Army to be subservient, they will have to take charge, work and acquire people’s confidence and trust.
Until then, what I am proposing is not going to happen.
As the discerning reader will note, there’s not much in this litany of charges that cannot, to varying degrees, be applied to other states. In fact, only last week I did a program with Dr. Adil Najam and discussed what he terms the politics of anti-politics—i.e., that we are witnessing a global trend where people’s trust in politics has eroded to the point where politicians now campaign by telling the voter that they abhor politics and what they are doing is bringing change by spurning politics.
That this is baloney is, of course, another topic. But the point is that the charges we slap on politics and politicians in this country are more or less the same everywhere, the difference in intensity notwithstanding.
And yet, not everywhere do militaries arrogate themselves the right to become invigilators and examiners in the cause of good governance and, as in our case, even moral and legal uprightness.
Please note that at this point we are not getting into what politics means in terms of aggregating interests, what compromises are required for aggregating conflicting and often contradictory interests in a complex society, and how politicking is very different from managerial efficiency, which is the hallmark of a military’s structured functioning and whose clarity, concision and precision are often in direct contrast to the jumble politics has to deal with.
But let’s ignore all this for a while. Let’s also ignore the military’s own incompetence and the setbacks we have had, and for which we haven’t seen any heads roll. Let’s accept the criticism and see if its simplistic premise is enough justification for the military to insist on its primacy until the politicians can get their act together.
In essence, these arguments are not very different from The White Man’s Burden, Kipling’s hymn to U.S. imperialism, of what needs to be done for “Your new-caught, sullen peoples”, despite “The blame of those ye better/ [and] The hate of those ye guard…”
Or, if you prefer, this from J. S. Mill’s On Liberty: “Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.”
There’s an even better parallel: the African-American community. The United States fought a civil war on the issue of slavery. It passed the 13th Amendment in 1865, abolishing slavery. This was supplemented with the 14th Amendment, which declared that citizenship and equal protection of the law could not be denied on the basis of race. But, as Yuval Noah Harari says in Sapiens, the problem “was a self-reinforcing cycle of cause and effect…two centuries of [myths] and slavery meant that most black families were far poorer than most white families. A black person…thus had much less chance of getting a good education and a well-paid job…His children…started life with the same disadvantage—they, too, were born to an uneducated, poor family,” perpetuating what Harari calls a “vicious circle.”
This is a problem well-known to social scientists and has been widely studied. Its bidirectional causality is also a known and accepted fact. It’s akin to what Orwell said: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.” A “chance historical event” translated into a cycle. The myths and prejudices lead the whites to believe the blacks are poor and backward because they are uneducated, lazy, unclean and bear diseases but the very prejudices result in legislation like Jim Crow laws that prevent the blacks from changing their circumstances. And the cycle goes on.
It’s much the same with military thinking: the politicians are lazy, selfish, venal with utter disregard for matters of national security and therefore the military must mentor them in the nuances of these high arts. But if a politician comes along who seems to disagree with the military’s worldview, he needs be hounded out because national security is the sacred Mount Olympus whose ring contour only the military must occupy.
The problem is that the military is a large-scale bureaucratic organization. According to James March and Herbert Simon, “the world tends to be perceived by the organization members in terms of the particular concepts that are reflected in the organization’s vocabulary. The particular categories it employs are reified, and become, for members of the organization, attributes of the world rather than mere conventions.”
But as I wrote elsewhere, an even bigger problem is that “complex organizations commonly have multiple conflicting goals and the process by which objectives are chosen and pursued is intensely political. Such a political perspective … [serves] the narrow interests of some units within the organization, even if the actions appear ‘systematically stupid’ from the leadership’s over-all perspective.”
In other words, “Organizations are not simply tools in the hands of higher level authorities, but are groups of self-interested and competitive sub-units and actors.”
From “politics is bad”, we come to politicking and interests within organizations and their sub-units. Some ironies are both deep and sweet.
A good benchmark is the defense portfolio. Successive civilian governments have not taken it seriously, handing it to politicians who know that their secretary is more powerful than them.
But what if a civilian government appoints someone who takes the job seriously? In other words, someone who asserts himself as the boss of the three service chiefs and the Joint Staff Headquarters? How will (s)he fare?
Going by the logic of military criticism, i.e., the politicians don’t take their remit seriously, such a boss should make the military very happy, right?
It should. But why am I not convinced?! That’s where structural impediments and the military’s own interests come in. But that, again, is another topic.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider