Small Wars Journal

The Lost Decade?

This provocative essay from Angelo Codevilla at the Claremont Review of Books has enough vitriol in it to get some on everyone's sacred cow.  He discusses everything from a revolutionary social situation, to the farce of TSA screening, to the paucity of ships for an "island nation."  Even if you don't agree with some or all of it, the issues he raises and the way he addresses them are sure to get you thinking.  


September 11's planners could hardly have imagined that their attacks might seriously undermine what Americans had built over two centuries, ... In fact, our decline happened because the War on Terror—albeit microscopic in size and destructiveness as wars go—forced upon us, as wars do, the most important questions that any society ever faces: Who are we, and who are our enemies? What kind of peace do we want? What does it take to get it? Are we able and willing to do what it takes to secure our preferred way of life, to deserve living the way we prefer? Our bipartisan ruling class's dysfunctional responses to such questions inflicted the deepest wounds.

...After 9/11, at home and abroad, our bipartisan ruling class did the characteristic things it had done before—just more of them, and more intensely. ... Ten years later, the results speak for themselves: the terrorists' force mineure proved to be the occasion for our own ruling elites and their ideas to plunge the country into troubles from which they cannot extricate it.


I would suggest that our bipartisan ruling class looks at the past two decades -- and indeed the previous century -- from a different perspective, to wit: as noting certain positive trends and developments.

Their goal (that of the bipartisan ruling class) -- throughout this period and continuing on even unto today -- has been/is to make the world safe(r) for markets by transforming outlier states and societies along western lines.

This is believed to have been substantially accomplished re: the outlier great powers (Germany, Japan, China and Russia) by 1990.

The task then became to work this same magic re: the lesser and remaining such states and societies.

Thus, with this end in mind (the transformation of outlier states and societies along western lines -- so as to make the world safer for and more conducive to markets) was/is our foreign policy agenda and national security strategy designed and implemented; yesterday and today.

"Containment" -- aimed at the remaining outlier great powers -- worked to achieve this purpose during the Cold War.

"Engagement and enlargement" (for lack of a better all-encompassing term) was chosen to achieve this purpose re: the lesser and remaining such states and societies in the past two decades.

9/11? Seen by our bipartisan ruling class as a magnificent opportunity to press this case (the need to transform the lesser and remaining "deviant" states and societies) even further, faster and harder.

The LCS? I would suggest it was designed with idea of transforming the lesser and remaining outlier states and societies in mind.

The Arab Spring? Thought by our bi-partisan ruling class to be a potentially positive step in the right direction (to wit: state and societal transformation -- hopefully along, if not initially, at least eventually -- western lines).


Mon, 04/16/2012 - 12:41pm

In reply to by ADTS

I don't mean to be contrarian, but for somewhat of an insiders perspective. Post-Army I have had the pleasure of working within the DHS HQ and DoS HQ policy machines. Their policy bureaus, departments, and offices are as fixated on operational planning as any of the ones in the Pentagon. All of this is at the expense of strategic thought. At the risk of hyperbole, bureaucrat culture (US or elsewhere) is a fundamental obstacle to strategic thought. Coherent visions of the future with strong will to drive its realization are not emergent properties. These come about by design and through the will power of a leader-driven culture (I conceive this last point with a little more nuance, but its irrelevant to this post)

The policy shops are very knowledgeable. They are staffed with hard working, very intellgent people, who are damn good at responding to emergencies. The emergencies are always leader driven. Whether its a RFI from an A/S or the White House, a summit, or a Fukushima moment. Thus, they are incentivised through and through to react to the leadership. The leadership, on the other hand, is very much immersed in the immediate goings-on for which they will have to answer to Congress or the media. So the leadership is incentivised by everything BUT planning. In the absence of emergency, the policy shops, like all bureaucrats, shut down and go into unguided maintenance mode.

The deepest elements of planning reside in IT and logistics, all of which have a momentum of their own based on specialists that are able to work on continuing processes. That is also why those are the areas you see things like Project Management and "Planning" gain footholds (I'm not saying they are examples of strategic planning successes, just that they have incentives to constantly monitor and perform deeper planning). DoD, DHS, DoS policy "strategy" only differs on topic, not method or approach.


Mon, 04/16/2012 - 12:34am

In reply to by Surferbeetle


In re HBR assigned reading: Do I have to? You know, there are good reruns on TV. ;-)

Just a short thought - I know I've seen State Policy Planning lauded (justifiably or unjustifiably, I know not) for providing the Secretary of State with the capability it is intended to furnish - namely, providing her/him with the ability to perform long-term planning (as the name would probably tend to imply, eh?) and "big-picture" guidance versus getting up in the "day-to-day." Perhaps on a much less grand scale, just to cite another federal bureaucracy which is presumably comparatively successful, I recently was informed how DHS has instituted DSAC to replicate State's apparent success with OSAC. While not challenging the general tenor of your claim, I wonder what other "success stories" may exist at present, and what if any greater guidance they offer.



Sun, 04/15/2012 - 12:23pm

AP, ADTS, et. al.,

We presently have a wide spectrum of civil and governmental institutions habitually in reactive crisis mode unable to conceptualize anything beyond short-term gains for various individuals.

Apparently, we as a nation condone the stunning and deliberate lurch towards American default during the summer of 2011, legalized socialization of private losses through vehicles such as TARP, and of course the catalog of ills presented by this article.

We could simply and complacently wait for the upcoming generational change to occur and hope that the incoming generation can somehow accomplish the difficult task of national reconstruction armed with minimal mentorship and preparation from a self-absorbed me-generation many of whom are focused upon anything and everything but the health of our nation.

America could instead choose to strive for an educated & engaged citizenry, a healthy business environment, sound monetary and fiscal policy, and effective political institutions all of which help to anticipate and respond to change. Key stakeholders (Citizenry, Business, Education, and Government) can decide to abandon habitual, and destructive, political posturing for a habitual focus on constructive teamwork.

Choices, choices….;)

For your reading pleasure I recommend HBR’s March 2012 Edition which includes the special report Reinventing America as well as HBR’s January-February 2011 Edition which includes the article How to Fix Capitalism.

Viva MBA’s!

Take care,



Sun, 04/15/2012 - 1:20am

America was already in economic decline by September 11, 2001. All of the imbalances and contradictions in place in the modern economy were established in the 1970s and 1980s as wages and opportunities stagnated and wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The Reagan military spending boom did nothing to arrest or reverse the gross inefficiencies in the defense budget. The GWoT did not force decline in America -- it accelerated the processes already occurring. What the GWoT did was pile on another burden to the already over-taxed American middle class (increased prices + decreased income = reduction in standards of living), while producing only one measurably positive outcome (the reduction of Al-Qaeda's capabilities to strike the United States). The so-called "small wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan cost more than the victories over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. While some might argue that the GWoT reduced civil liberties, it also inspired grassroots political mobilization; first in opposition to war, and then in opposition to perceived government corruption/waste/insert-other-device-as-needed. The last decade wasn't totally lost... we did get ten years out of it.


Sun, 04/15/2012 - 10:38am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert C. Jones:

Thanks for initiating, and engaging in, a thought-provoking discussion - and on (for me at least) a beautiful Sunday, no less!

I think my own perspective, with respect to some of the issues you raise, has been shaped by an article by Robert Jervis, where he noted the US disdain for institutions during the Bush (43) Administration such as the United Nations was arguably quite surprising, since it was through those institutions that the US exercised, maintained and perhaps increased its hegemony, or at least stood to.

I think counterfactuals are potentially useful, and thus will raise the following (although, upon reflection, it is actually not a counterfactual): Knowing that OBL staged the attacks of September 11, 2001, using Afghanistan as a staging area,* what policy or policies should the US have adapted toward that nation following the Soviet concession of defeat? Even with the additional knowledge provided by (now) more than a decade of military and foreign policy apparatus (e.g., State Department) involvement with that nation, it is unclear to me what options existed, or were at least realistic and feasible. Should the US have, say, tried more vigorously to consolidate power immediately following the Soviet drawdown to avoid the anarchy to which the Taliban emerged as a solution? (Presumably this would have been somewhat analogous to what is arguably transpiring today in Iraq under Maliki.) Should the US have targeted Al Queda more vigorously? (In some ways this is probably irrefutable, but my thinking is more the parallel it presents with the "CT Options" considered by the Obama Administration as something of an alternative to the "Surge" upon which it ultimately settled.)

*I am familiar with the fact that the hijackers actually conducted much of their preparation in places such as Hamburg, to say nothing of the US proper; I am referring to Al Queda writ large in this statement.

Here is another question, perhaps a bit more tinged with sensitive considerations: it is unclear to me the extent to which US problems in MENA/Central Asia, with Islam, etc., stem from its support of Israel. Still, having acknowledged that: Would disengagement from Israel, and a cessation of the Israel-US alliance, during the Long Lost Decade, to say nothing of today, have been or be desirable from the vantage point of maximizing "the national interest?"

More generally, to what extent are "top down reviews," "blue ribbon commissions" and the like, worthwhile exercises? And to what extent are they simply dismissed and often are in fact perfunctory affairs embarked upon to give the appearance of (at least grudging compliance of) conformity with the need to change? There were numerous similar endeavors prior to the failure to locate WMDs in Iraq, as well as the failure to anticipate and prevent the September 11, 2001 attacks, prior to the formation of the Director of National Intelligence (itself a resultant of questionable value, from what I understand). It is not clear what value if any those activities provided. The logical paradox of willing oneself to be spontaneous (which I referenced in the comments to one of the "Disruptive Thinkers" posts) presents itself: there are many things one cannot simply choose to achieve and then proceed to accomplish, the strength of one's preferences and the resources at one's disposal notwithstanding. Changing institutions as large as the US military, or the US foreign policy establishment writ large (defined more expansively perhaps as the military, intelligence and civilian foreign policy organizations), oriented for 40 years toward such a massive if not existential threat like worldwide confrontation with the USSR, is simply quite difficult.

(Once more to bring up Israel, I've seen or at least heard the argument advanced that Israeli strategic assessment has progressively deteriorated over the years, in part because it has gotten fixed around the threats presented at various points at time, and has failed to appreciate, say, that Hezbollah and Hamas in 2012 are different than, say, Syria and Egypt in 1970.)

I will prompt you once more for specifics, simply because I think doing so is useful: would you have (say) increased the size of the Peace Corps during the Long Last Decade, or instituted some similar foreign policy (but not military) initiative that promoted state building? I can see the case for doing so, but it is unclear to me what would have transpired, and I think the thought experiment illustrates at least somewhat (at least hopefully) the difficulty of conceiving of new approaches to new realities.

Once more, thanks, and enjoy the remainder of your weekend.


Robert C. Jones

Sun, 04/15/2012 - 6:12am

In reply to by ADTS

You are correct, that may be too fine of a nuance. I say "lost" for the nineties because we did nothing to adjust to the major change in our global security situation following the end of the Cold War; I say "misspent" for the next deacade because we declared war on a tactic and dedicated ourselves to efforts designed to avenge our wounded pride and defeat the symptoms of that larger problem that we to this day still refuse to fully pull out, assess and address.

The fact is that for 60 years we designed an entire system of national secuity and global governance (UN, NATO, World Bank, etc) around the ideologically defined mission to contain, and ultimately defeat, the Sino-Soviet threat. By the time the threat faded, we were so used to those systems that we simply left them in place. The old adage "nothing fails like success" comes to mind. We let it ride. When it comes to foreign policy, the Clinton administration "fiddled while Rome burned."

We needed a top down review, done on our own terms with no perceived coercion from outside forces, of our entire approach to the globe; to our allies, former enemies, and people and governments in general around the globe. We needed a new strategic framework free of the ideological fervor of containment and more in line with the principles our nation was founded upon. We needed a new plan. If we would have done that, it is quite possible that the populaces of the Middle East would have gotten into the business of forcing change upon their governments much earlier, and without the perceived need to throw off US/Western controlling influence over the same as their first order of business. AQ's UW campaign would have likely fallen on deaf ears and would never have developed as it did.

But no need for counterfactuals. The Cold War ended and we simply continued to execute our Cold War plan. A lost opportunity. The attacks of 9/11 threw us into a passion-driven pursuit of those who attacked us and anyone even vaguely related to them; while we continued to ride that Cold War framework and ignore the roots of causation. A misspent adventure.


Sun, 04/15/2012 - 1:40am

In reply to by ADTS

I think the article invites the question: what COULD have the US done differently? Why on 12 September 2001 did Bush send the American public back to shopping centers and car dealerships and not the recruiter's office? Why did we invade Iraq before completing the mission in Afghanistan? Why did it take ten years to find OBL when he was hiding in a military town of an ally? The original article argues that the US simply double-downed on its efforts instead of rethinking the problem and considering whether it's way of doing things actually worked. Was that inevitable? Would the GWoT have proceeded differently if the Supreme Court awarded Florida's electoral votes to Gore instead of Bush?

Robert C. Jones:

I'll swing at the easy softball lob. ;-)

What is the distinction between a decade "lost" versus "misspent?"

And what should have the United States done during the asserted lost decade, which I shall define as the "Long Last Decade" (TM, ADTS, property rights currently under negotiation with SWJ) between the fall of the Berlin Wall and September 11, 2001.

My personal bias is that it is difficult for states to act absent compelling national interests - hence, for example, why most "humanitarian intervention" is unwise. Perhaps that should be modified to, "clear and compelling national interest" - while I'm sure many would argue that the problems encountered on September 11, 2001 and after should have been and/or were apparent fairly early during the Long Last Decade, I think for numerous reasons appraising new challenges is difficult. To paraphrase Lenin slightly, I will ask once more: what should the US have done differently?


Robert C. Jones

Sat, 04/14/2012 - 7:59pm

For what it is worth, I offer that the "decade lost" was the 1990s; and that the 2000s was more appropriately the "decade misspent."


Sat, 04/14/2012 - 12:36pm

Nice catch Peter, thanks for this Saturday morning's read.

Thanks to Guttenberg, and his intellectual relatives at DARPA, we are able to widely share our observations that elephant that is our society is not healthy. People like Gian have loudly focused their observations, and our attention, upon a single tusk to the exclusion of the rest of the elephant. Peter Munson and Ben Kohlman meanwhile are able chroniclers of the state of the elephant’s eyes and trunk. Dr. Angelo M. Codevilla, however has read the parable of the blind men and the elephant, as is evident from his work in the USN, State Department, Academia, the halls of power, and of course this piece which we discuss. He description of the state of the elephant is one of the more holistic and descriptive that I have read. So what?

Are SWJ devotees reduced to the status of mere Cassandras or Edmund Burkes or is there something that can be done that is beyond our small spheres of daily influence? We are more fortunate than those in Russia or the Arab World in that we can freely vote…but at present it appears that voting just results in more of the same while our elephant continues to languish.

No answers this morning, just more questions….


Sun, 04/15/2012 - 1:31am

In reply to by gian gentile

Neo-conservatism is on its way out and that will be made evident in this next election. Sure, no one is going to be elected on the "America is in decline" platform, but the public is less interested in nation-building abroad than repairing the real and perceived problems here at home. The Afghan war is drawing to a close; McCain, et. al have not been able to mobilize any substantial support for intervention in Syria; and the President's emphasis on using America's shadow warriors hasn't met with much in the way of public opposition. And the debate about Iran's nuclear weapons focuses on talking points about Israel's security, not nuclear terrorism against the US; so the US won't be bringing freedom to Iran anytime soon. Obama has a number of notable successes to chalk up for the campaign while Romney will have to provide more of a foreign policy than "I don't like Obama's approach." And nobody is really interested in hearing a Bush 3.0 plan -- that didn't get McCain anywhere in '08.

gian gentile

Sat, 04/14/2012 - 6:33am

In reply to by Bill M.

You are joking, right Bill M?

I mean Peter Munson is spot on correct that this piece is nothing but controversial. I doubt neo conservatives who you could find under K in your local phone book (with appologies to Andy Bacevich)would be nodding north/south when they read it with talk of American decline etc. And i could go on.


I didn't see anything controversal in this opinion piece, it pretty much hit the nail on the head minus a couple of minor mistakes regarding homeland defense.