Center for Strategic Communication

[by Lynn C. Rees]

It is dangerous to promote an ideal and pretend it’s not for entertainment purposes only.

Motivational constructs like “national interest” and “grand strategy” have, from time to time, proved useful for prodding the slothful along. Fiction has power to move people and move people it does. Mixing up myth for reality, however, inevitably leads to cognitive whiplash when reality steps, as it must, on myth. Many gleaming ideals are little more than bright colors painted on after the fact to cover up the grimy back stage shenanigans and less than visionary ad hoc improvisations, usually for temporary short term political gain. It’s too late in this historical cycle for a gritty reboot of statecraft. But a review may help some.

Consider three of the most consequential peace treaties of the twentieth century:

Key West Agreement“ (Function of the Armed Forces and the Joint Chiefs of Staff)

Signed: April 21, 1948

Belligerents: United States Army, United States Navy, United States Air Force


  • ‘The Navy would be allowed to retain its own combat air arm “…to conduct air operations as necessary for the accomplishment of objectives in a naval campaign…”‘
  • “The Army would be allowed to retain aviation assets for reconnaissance and medical evacuation purposes.”
  • “The Air Force would have control of all strategic air assets, and most tactical and logistic functions as well.”

Pace-Finletter Memorandum of Understanding

Signed: November 4, 1952

Belligerents: United States Army, United States Air Force


  • “removed the weight restrictions on helicopters that the U.S. Army could use”
  • “widened the range of tasks the Army’s helicopters could be used for”
  • “created an arbitrary 5,000 pounds weight restriction that limits the Army’s ability to fly fixed-wing aircraft”
  • “the U.S. Army…is dependent upon the U.S. Air Force to purchase and man fixed-wing ground-attack aircraft to fulfill close air support missions”

Johnson-McConnell agreement

Signed: April 6, 1966

Belligerents:  United States Army, United States Air Force


  • “the U.S. Army agreed to give up its fixed-wing tactical airlift aircraft”
  • “the U.S. Air Force relinquished its claim to most forms of rotary wing aircraft”
These are all examples of what former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said about the decision to use “weapons of mass destruction” as the primary justification for the American led intervention in Iraq:

“The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason,” Wolfowitz was quoted as saying in a Pentagon transcript of an interview with Vanity Fair.

The magazine’s reporter did not tape the telephone interview and provided a slightly different version of the quote in the article: “For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”

Within every institution, there are tribes. Tribes seek to 1) keep and 2) elevate (if possible) their place in the pecking order. Usually the tribe’s place in the great chain of being is identical with what its leadership sees as their place in the great chain of being. When this place does not correspond to what the tribal membership thinks their place in the crap chain is, they will voice, exit, subvert, revolt, or just vote present, possibly undermining the leadership. Outside the tribe, tribes may voice, exit, subvert, revolt, or just vote present in conflict or in alliance with other tribes. Tribes may unite against external threats outside the institution or they may exploit institution-level conflict to keep, elevate, or even secede from their prior institutional crap chain. Then the crap will roll downhill on some other poor tribe of suckers.

Ideals are one tool in the tribal and institutional toolbox. They can unite the tribe by elevating its supposed virtues and downplaying its supposed vices. This is especially useful when it elevates supposed virtues and downplays supposed vices in a way that downplays supposed virtues and elevates supposed vices of other tribes in the vicinity. Yet, in spite of whatever good ideals may generate, the zero sum game of politics is never far behind. One tribes gain is always another tribes loss. The greatest virtue in politics is victory while its greatest vice is defeat. The motto governing the division of power is “What have you done for me lately?”. Or, as Harry Truman didn’t say, “If you want a friend in this world, get a dog.”

Entering into the political arena, if you lead with an idealistic chin then you will find you have only a glass jaw. As Warren Buffet might have said, “If you’ve been playing poker for half an hour and you still don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.” This is even true in institutions that are reputedly non-political. Experience suggests that, the more someone protests how non-political they are, the more political they are.

America’s armed forces have always been dens of vipers scrambling for procurement dollars. For every Col. John Boyd, USAF, warrior monk, willing to live on morning dew and lichen gnawed from the bottom of rocks for principle, there are fifty Major General James Wilkinsons who keep their eyes single to the glory of their tribal bottom line. Sometimes this is due to the incentives that let lose the inner sociopath when an individual previously constrained by circumstance, usually of the sort involving bootlicking of the most groveling kind, is promoted to a new level of power and a new level for opportunity. As a professor of H.W. Brands like to observe, a “country gets the foreign policy it can afford” since political power is a form of supply that creates its own demand. So, just as today’s U.S. has a finger in every global pie despite protests or ideals to the contrary, a problem at a lower rank can become a catastrophe upon promotion to higher rank merely because more opportunities for pratfalls come with more power to commit them.

Sherlock Holmes called his adversary Professor James Moriarity the “Napoleon of crime”. Most petty politicians in the armed services today lack the capability to rise to the elevation of the Corsican Ogre. But they have plenty of opportunities to become the John Bell Hood of crime. Hood is the poster child for decent officers at lower rank who became deranged upon elevation to supreme command. The same is true of political opportunity: an officer gets the Paula Broadwell they can afford.

Politics of the most nefarious kind usually takes place at a level so extravagantly large and visible that it can’t be seen. Its scale exceeds the carrying capacity of the average imagination. For most, their experience of politics is so tribal and so tactical that it’s governed by Sayre’s law:

In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake. (Corallary: “That is why academic politics are so bitter.”)

Fights over micropolitics will be more bitter than macropolitics because their bitterness is cognitively easier to grasp. The availability heuristic’s political downfall is its efficiency:

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that occurs when people make judgments about the probability of events by how easy it is to think of examples. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important. The availability of consequences associated with an action is positively related to perceptions of the magnitude of the consequences of that action. In other words, the easier it is to recall the consequences of something, the greater we perceive these consequences to be.

This is what feeds Parkinson’s law of triviality:

In the third chapter, “High Finance, or the Point of Vanishing Interest”, Parkinson writes about a finance committee meeting with a three-item agenda.

The first is the signing of a £10 million contract to build a reactor, the second a proposal to build a £350 bicycle shed for the clerical staff, and the third proposes £21 a year to supply refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee.

The £10 million number is too big and too technical, and it passes in two minutes and a half.

The bicycle shed is a subject understood by the board, and the amount within their life experience, so committee member Mr. Softleigh says that an aluminium roof is too expensive and they should use asbestos. Mr. Holdfast wants galvanized iron. Mr. Daring questions the need for the shed at all. Mr. Holdfast disagrees.

Parkinson then writes: “The debate is fairly launched. A sum of £350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualize a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50. Members at length sit back with a feeling of accomplishment.”

Parkinson then described the third agenda item, writing: “There may be members of the committee who might fail to distinguish between asbestos and galvanized iron, but every man there knows about coffee – what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought – and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter, and they will end by asking the Secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting.”

Political perceptions are primordially primed to patrol along our territorial boundaries and periodically beat our chests to demonstrate to our neighbors that we are mighty indeed and our trinkets are even mightier. The brain can sweat over small details so that is what it grasps when it searches for something political to sweat over. It is relative power compared to others in our vicinity, the narcissism of small differences, that motivates us on our rat brain level. As Eric Falkenstein has argued:

Assume you were the designer of a species of conscious agents: God, the program developer of avatars in a game (actually considered possible by thoughtful philosophers!), or anthropomorphize natural selection. The objective you face is to give these agents a utility function such that they are motivated to create buildings, art, and of course children by themselves based on some instinct. So, as a designer you can add a mechanism so that people feel hungry if famished, and lustful when in the presence of mating opportunities, so they survive over generations. Yet, each of these desires has a clear governor that has a ‘high’ and ‘low’ setting, when you feel full or empty: you don’t want people eating or having sex so much they ignore everything else, such as getting ready for eating and having sex tomorrow. Now consider the governor that signals the will to want more ‘stuff’. The person one creates must have a specific function if we have an ‘absolute utility’ function. That is, say people developed a utility function x^½, which is satisfies our basic intuition that self interest is both increasing in wealth, but at a decreasing rate. Back in 1800 it worked pretty well. But now we are 10 times wealthier, so we should have much lower risk aversion if our utility were not of that very specific formulation–x^(1-a)/(1-a)–such that risk means roughly the same thing then as it does now. If risk aversion today is correct, then back then you were afraid to look at you shadow if you people’s utility is like x^½, and interest rates would not have been 15% or so as we know from Medieval times, but rather, 100%. Our DNA need a very specific functional form of happiness that seems patently absurd. I guess one could always invoke the anthropic principle and leave it at that (i.e., if it were not so, we wouldn’t have enough wealth to be discussing this on the internet).

In contrast, it seems more likely our little governor simply said: be above average to you peers. As humans always lived in societies with others, benchmarks are not lacking, so this is a very feasible goal. Then, things take care of themselves. People are constantly doing more each generation because even if you are on top you have to run fast just to stay in the same place. Desire, striving, want, has no abstruse functional knife-edge, but a more reasonable feedback mechanism that does not lead to, or start with an absurdity.

While boundary-work may be driven by idealism, it is even more driven by envy, that desire to be just a little more powerful than the Jones next door.

Macropolitics, the sort of politics that shapes national destinies, looks like this:

People like to talk about a 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 split in the defense budget. This is not now true, nor has it been true for some time. Mostly because only about 80% of the defense budget actually gets split among the services, with OSD skimming off 19% or so for its growing fiefdoms. What is true is that through multiple strategic reviews, National Military Strategies, QDR’s and Bottom Up Reviews–the Department of the Navy, Air Force and Army get a remarkably consistent portion of the defense budget. The Navy—with two services—gets about 29%, the Army about 25% and the Air Force about 27%. That’s right. No matter WHAT military strategy our nation has pursued since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve split the base defense budget in essentially the same way.

While the services can’t seem to agree on much, they do agree that taking turf issues outside could lead to dangerous intervention by powers that were already outside. Such political considerations fed the Johnson-McConnell agreement:

In late 1965, private negotiations began between Generals McConnell and Johnson over the transfer of Caribou and Buffalo aircraft to the Air Force. These were encouraged by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, who wished to avoid involving the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff (where the other two services might exert their influence).

This may not be ideal ideal, but it is politically ideal. Scott linked this article earlier today titled “The Air Force’s Awesome Attack Plane Has a Pretty Sad Replacement. The A-10 is the best warplane for saving lives?—?too bad its days are numbered.” Following the Ideal, righteousness and common sense demand that close air support be taken from the Air Force and given to the Army despite three treaties against it. Since, in my idealized heart of hearts I regard an independent air force as the most narcissistic of small differences and think that service should be abolished since its nonsensical existence has tormented this nation long, I agree with this Ideal. But logic dictates otherwise.

The A-10 was procured without a natural political base. Any weapons platform has two missions:

  • provide patronage for political supporters
  • defeat the nation’s enemies

Since war is occasionally interrupted by bouts of peace and small wars killing primitive savages are more frequent than large wars fighting peer savages, patronage often becomes the more important mission of a weapon. Consider the wisdom of our Founding Fathers:

Secretary Knox suggested to President Washington that six different construction sites be used, one for each ship, rather than building at one particular shipyard. Separate locations enabled the alloted funds to stimulate each local economy, and Washington approved the sites on 15 April 1794. At each site, a civilian naval constructor was hired to direct the work. Navy captains were appointed as superintendents, one for each of the six frigates as follows:

Ship Site Guns Naval constructor Superintendent
Chesapeake Gosport, Virginia 44 Josiah Fox Richard Dale [40]
Constitution Boston, Massachusetts 44 George Claghorn Samuel Nicholson [40]
President New York, New York 44 Forman Cheeseman Silas Talbot [40]
United States Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 44 Joshua Humphreys John Barry [40]
Congress Portsmouth, New Hampshire 36 James Hackett James Sever [40]
Constellation Baltimore, Maryland 36 David Stodder Thomas Truxtun [40] 

The original six frigates had little effect on the technical outcome of the War of 1812. The early victories they scored over British peers produced important political outcomes, the most important tactical consideration in war. Americans were heartened after our disgraceful failure to extend our natural frontiers to the Arctic by liberating Canada from the Canadians. Britons were embarrassed that some two bit country had challenged their rule of the sea during the glorious age of Nelson. Technically, their role made no difference: Britain ruled the seas and clamped down the Atlantic seaboard when stirred by our impertinence. Sequential warship-to-warship actions were actually a military waste of a good frigate. They reached peak performance when cumulative preying on enemy shipping, either by direct action or by causing enemy shipping to go out of its way or stay in port because the U.S. Navy represented a Pirate Fleet in Being. The first rule of war is to take strength on weakness encounters over strength on strength or weakness on strength encounters.

Yet, judged by political standards, the six frigates are models of victory. They divided the goods between six voting blocs, even targeting the South where floating thingeys on “water” are usually seen as a sinister Yankee conspiracy. Most of the preferred materials were ideally placed for spending money in the Southern Piedmont from Virginia to Georgia. Southerners have historically been suspicious of Yankees but they’ve proved more than willing to take Yankee money as long as it comes Yankee-free.

There have been many formidable defensive works made throughout history. The Great Wall around the Peking region. Vauban’s frontier fortresses. The Siegfried Line. The poor maligned Maginot Line.


Compared with the fortifications erected around around a large-scale American weapon program, these are chicken scratches in the barnyard. The Iron Triangle of the congressional-military-industrial maze, anchored by the dense defense in depth of the F-35 Line, is more formidable than those. Compound it with tribal defensive lines like those dividing the services from each other and branches within services from each other, and you have an arrangement that finds resilience in the awesome scale of its fragility. Its tribal sparring all the way down.

Before you can evaluate the defenses of the United States, you have to get past any illusions about seeing it as a ideal that can be solved by contemporary America’s go to magic bullet: heroic Führerprinzip leadership. This is the core micropolitical fallacy that allows macropolitical corruption: if we only get the right square-jawed man in the right place, his heroic brow will banish politics from politics. In reality, you can’t divide zero by zero. Politics happens. The only non-political group of people you will ever encounter is a graveyard. Only the dead have seen the end of politics. It is appalling to the Ideal but every weapons procurement request should be designed to not only win the nation’s wars but buy enough senior bureaucrats and congress critters and voters in Mississippi to keep the system afloat.

For example, in combat, the LCS class would sink with the first paper cut inflicted by serious Chinese print stock. However, it has already fulfilled its primary mission as a political platform for patronage distribution and has even taken on additional missions like fighting for gun control. Children can sleep soundly in coastal Alabama and Mississippi tonight knowing that an LCS on patrol from its dry-dock in Mobile, vigilantly keeping their bills paid. It may not ever sink anything bigger than a row boat but it will always sink any attempt to keep it from occupying dock space in the nation’s most uncritical ports. The tragedy of the A-10 is that while its 30 mm GAU-8/A Avenger Gatling-type cannon can fire 3,900 rounds per minute, it is fatally crippled by its inability to divide power between critical supporting constituencies at a similarly devastating clip.

Idealists march in where angels know not to tread. However, the nation is better served by idealists with eyes pre-opened who will even live on dew and lichen gnawings if pushed to extremes. Learn to  look past the micropolitical troops of monkeys patrolling their borders and periodically breaking out in furious narcissism and small differences in arm waving and screeching technique. Learn to grasp the extravagances of scale that is the macropolitical division of spoils that drives the system. Those who maintain an iron curtain of idealistic obtuseness should be warned: Politics happens. You will be gamed.