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New Wine into New Wineskins: How Sudden Change in the Secretary of Defense Office Created a Much Needed Opportunity to Face Facts
Spencer B. Meredith III
As surprising as the sudden resignation of former Defense Secretary Mattis was, given his steady leadership in the ongoing fight against jihadist terror groups, the net result has turned into a blessing in disguise for the broader national security structure. The United States needs to face the emerging security environment from a different vantage point than the past 20 years of counter-VEO efforts. Mattis’s departure has created the necessary cognitive opening to question our fundamental and often assumed paradigms to see more clearly the threats facing the nation.
The first hard truth is that non-state violent extremist organizations do not pose an existential threat to the survival of the United States. They can certainly pose significant threats to US interests if unchecked, causing untold suffering and even upending national elections. The 2004 Madrid terrorist attacks drove Spanish voters in fear towards a more isolationist government, a warning every democracy must heed. Yet even though death and destruction are their stock and trade, VEO business has largely been confined to a few regional theaters and episodic attacks elsewhere. With neither great power projection nor a compelling ideology on par with global Marxist revolution, VEO groups have limited effects compared to other great power threats. Thus, while the groups themselves are transnational, with financial and membership ties around the world, the threats they pose are first and foremost local. That does not diminish the potency of their attacks or the pain they cause. Rather, it highlights the essence of the problem, one which the United States national security and foreign policy establishments have had a hard time seeing for years. The current National Security, Military, and Defense Strategies have begun the conversion, but it took the former SECDEF’s resignation to force a fundamental change in the paradigm used to see new threats. Rather than pouring new wine into old wineskins, the US must conceptualize both great power and non-state threats in new ways.
The problem Mattis’ sudden departure exposed stems from the current understanding of post-9/11 threats. Seen as an attack on global order and the United States as its global guarantor, transnational terrorism drove collective threat perceptions “down and in” towards domestic roots and perceptions of deep seeded injustices. Yet the 9/11 attacks did not birth terrorism into the modern consciousness. A preceding century of anarchist, communist, and extremist variants sprang up every turn of the geopolitical wheel. In that regard, politically motivated violence has been a consistent tool for centuries. Its longevity shows that despite changing priorities towards great power competition, counterterrorism is dead per se, as some would assert from an erroneous assumption that one era disappears as a new one emerges. Instead, we must start with the assumption that great power conflict never really went away, and thus non-state VEOs will not either.
In contrast, US awareness of great power competition simply waned with Cold War-weariness. Fueled by idealistic visions of utopian global democratization, the benefits of global hegemony – as reward for victory over the Soviet Union – ensconced “new thinking” in US foreign policy paradigms. However, the paradigm for the past 30 years has mistakenly assumed that non-state threats are the essential element for US foreign relations given the apparent absence of other historic state-centered threats. Such a shortsighted belief has since crashed into the reality of Russian and Chinese aggressive intentions and asymmetric advantages to achieve them. By narrowing the focus to VEOs, the United States has not only missed the hybrid hostilities perpetuated by rival great powers. It has also ceded freedom of maneuver to our rivals as they execute their long-term objectives.
As a result, the United States must face the longevity of non-state threats alongside renewed and more potent state ones, states that readily subsume non-state actors into their service. The potential to utilize VEOs as proxies is simply one of the myriad ways states use other actors for their own gains. Ecowarriors, motorcycle gangs and revolutionary activists stand alongside any number of other forms of legitimate participation within political systems. Yet the very blessings of an open society become its greatest vulnerabilities. Groups’ mobilization potential by great powers ramps up both their volatility to change the configuration of power against the United States and its allies, and their viability as potential puppets for great power competition. As a result, the lines so neatly drawn during the Global War on Terror to delineate friend, foe and bystander have not only been erased; they have been redrawn with intersecting lines, any of which can point back to Moscow and Beijing.
Thus, much like during the Cold War when Soviet ideologies motivated and transformed local grievances from small affairs to global battles, the current ideological rivalries to the United States posed by Russia and China have tremendous traction with populations disaffected by and disapproving of globalization. In the new Gray Zone of blurred lines of control, overlapping lines of effort, and innumerable lines of contact, one can no longer assume that greater integration leads to greater harmony of interests. Gone too is the naïve dreaming that rising waters lift all boats – and that every passenger will be satisfied with the ride. Instead, zero sum thinking persists at the heart of both market capitalism and democratic competition endorsed by US foreign policies around the world. It ought to surprise no one therefore, when groups pursue their own interests at the expense of others with systems that inherently enshrine winners over losers. Nor should it surprise anyone that the losers do not take losing lying down.
The recent return of, or more appropriately, reawakening to these realities has been slow in coming, but quick on arrival. Growing numbers of conversations in senior interagency task forces and mid-level bureaucratic brainstorming sessions point to the looming storms ahead of the nation. The upheaval in the SECDEF’s office is part and parcel of that transformation because, as the reasons for his resignation show, his paradigm for the near fight affected how he saw the far but fast-approaching one on the horizon. Both were narrower than they needed to be.
The emerging post-Cold War, post-GWOT, post-US hegemony conflicts will be far greater, with existential risks beyond anything comparable to a non-state’s actions. Current national security strategy documents have currently shifted US focus onto new and revised threats, but still require revised paradigms to understand what can be seen by that focus. The need could not be greater. It does not take much to envision the gamut of Russian and Chinese potential threats, from conventional weapons of mass destruction, to weaponizing the conventions of democracy to destroy a nation from within. Both great power rivals have the potential to devastate infrastructure as much as confidence in a government’s ability to manage it. Both also possess virulent ideological frames to justify and harmonize aggression abroad as much as at home. They truly pose grave dangers to democracy itself and the democratic states defending its existence in global affairs.
The scale of great power threats warrants greater US attention, but the second hard truth is that the forces needed most for the broad spectrum of Gray Zone conflicts remain currently over-engaged fighting lessor threats. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are not the main battle spaces for the United States, with the forces engaged there needed far more desperately elsewhere. Nor is kinetic action the main use for Special Operations Forces. Special Mission Units have that role and should retain it indefinitely. Instead, the time has come for SOF capabilities to return to their roots as “a watch dog in sheep dog’s clothing” in order to replace the short-lived, over-emphasized, and narrowly-utilized “attack dog” modality of the past 20 years. Doing so means combining the flexibility of a boxer’s stance with the mentality of a wrestler, both geared for long struggles and attuned to a range of weapons, feints, and opportunities for gaining advantage.
The most critical Special Operations skillset resides in their ability to identify, analyze, and utilize human networks. These capacities (means) enable SOF to follow multiple paths (ways) towards key strategic goals (ends). At the center of “Phase 0” operations before conflict emerges, SOF can equally work to prepare the environment through building friendly capacity, as degrade hostile capacities towards the same. Accordingly, the two-sided Unconventional Warfare/Foreign Internal Defense mission set relies on network mastery, which in turn allows SOF either to build resistance forces or undermine them depending on US interests regarding the forces in power. Even more importantly for great power competition, such multipurpose network mastery gives SOF the ability to monitor the configuration of actors at work in a given arena. This is essential information regarding adversaries who already possess asymmetric advantages over the United States, and look to increase them if significant changes do not occur in how the US addresses them.
At the center of this renewed watchfulness, “presence missions” occur through the range of existing SOF engagements across a range of security force assistance, governance support, and narrative messaging efforts. In that sense, while small unit tactics certainly matters as a form of partner capacity building, the relationships built downrange are vastly more important as force multipliers. They give SOF access to local insiders and their assessments and observations of the competition space. The “sheep dog” thereby fulfills its more vital watching function, vigilant to threats, and more than any other US entity, positioned to see them before they emerge into conflict. Such presence does not inherently prevent conflict, although it may when coupled with the other elements of US strategic deterrence. Much like cyber capabilities, the asymmetric nature of SOF provides decision makers a comparatively low cost, flexible, and self-sustained capability to shape adversary strategic calculations. Doing gives a tremendous and necessary shift away from the persistent reactive “putting out brush fires” approach of the past three decades, one that ceded the strategic initiative and thereby created opportunities for Russia and China to advance their aggressive intentions.
However, despite the potential and growing need to use it, the Special Operations resource pipeline faces serious constraints from recruitment through retention. Neither has met the needs of the current fight, let alone prepared the groundwork for expanded conflicts of the new security environment. In part due to lower recruitment, lower standards, and lower times in service, the problems get exacerbated by the revised “dwell time” regulations that will take soldiers away from the field; although these could relieve some of the problems by increasing morale and family wellbeing. Even so, the overarching problem for SOF remains image and the paradigm to see it. SOF carried the weight of the Global War on Terror because decision makers required a human-centric type of warfare, rather than massed conventional forces. While debates over the efficacy of that approach will likely grow over the coming decades, the reality remains that SOF are not first and foremost shock troops. While they served that role, the core mission sets have been and must once again be elsewhere. Former Secretary Mattis saw these problems, but looked through a flawed paradigm, one that lies deep in the roots of US foreign policy error – a failure to see that partnership is not the essential medium for US action, and when it is required, that it does not mean an infinite umbilical cord or single method of support.
In contrast, for the better part of 30 years, the United States has hung its national security goals on a foreign policy hook without traction or staying power. By defining the core goal as the spread of democracy, and specifically tying its success to guiding partner democratization as the central method, the United States has established the conditions for its own failure. Partners have existing interests and perspectives that will never be identical to the US. Obvious political, cultural, geostrategic and power differences notwithstanding, sovereignty means more than just the ability to make and enforce laws within a specified territorial boundary. It also means maintaining clear lines as to how far foreign assistance and guidance can go in reshaping a country away from its own unique identity. Diplomacy and academia have struggled to see this, often due to either naïve idealism or self-congratulating triumphalism after the defeat of the Soviet Union. This has led partner problems to become US ones, throwing off balance the necessary prioritization of US national interests.
The problem began in earnest in the 1990’s with the emergence of muddled foreign relationships as the United States looked away from great power rivalries to regional and local affairs, many of which appeared to be less overtly hostile. These appeared to present greater potential for cooperation rather than conflict. Such kinder, gentler issues required partnerships rather than conflict-inspired alliances. As the US proceeded to revamp bureaucratic organizations around paradigms of US hegemony, partnerships became the essential element of every aspect of foreign policy. They became foundational as unilateralism transformed into a “four-letter word”. The preeminent requirement for partnerships consequently defined US institutional culture, changing budgets and mission sets to match. When 9/11 rocked the national security establishments as much as the national conscience and will to preserve it, the sine qua non “partners paradigm” become firmly established. The US fought a new kind of war against unknown enemies in unfamiliar contexts over far-removed problems, many of which could never be resolved by US intervention.
Adding to the need for partners, the days of limitless Cold War financing based on post-World War II surpluses and export driven economic growth had ended. As a result, partner capacity became the necessary hallmark of “leading from the rear” in the Global War on Terror. While understandable from a budgetary standpoint of finite resources pitted against an apparently limitless supply of non-state recruits and petro-dollar fueled resources, the paradigm has deeper roots in the history of international relations theory. Grounded in previous post-conflict idealism, born equally from the grief and misery of war as the hope never to return to them, the notion of fundamentally tying US foreign policy to partnerships over costlier, harder and more enduring alliances has been misguided from the start. Foremost, bad democratic theorizing assumed the universality of American values, and worse, American interpretations of “inalienable rights” regardless of context or country. The assumption of US superiority followed soon after, marrying ideals and power to force others into molds often at odds with local contexts and values. Universal human rights confidently muffled the cries of cultural imperialism as the United States upended longstanding institutions, transformed cultural norms, and used its money and military to do so. The post-Cold War belief thus quickly advanced after 9/11 to apply democratization in helter-skelter approaches. The net result has been either façade democracy without any substance, or increasingly authoritarian appeals to order in the place of chaotic freedom.
Additionally, reliance on partners has used lazy standards, loosely defined and inconsistently applied. Whether through anti-communist or counterinsurgent rhetoric, US approaches have equally enabled corruption in some partners, while condemning it in others. Doing so has revealed the core problem of the way the US approaches partners abroad, namely its masked, but readily-apparent-to-partners, self-interests. Taken as a whole then, the US expects too much from partners in terms of normative transformation to the American way of life, but demands too little from them when it comes to governing effectively and responsively to get it. The resulting easy charge of hypocrisy only serves to increase Russian and Chinese operationalization of former, current, and would be US partners. Moscow and Beijing readily capitalize on the costs and consequences of the US-led global liberalization, instead offering their partners a more stable and secure world order without the vicissitudes of US global hegemony.
In contrast to the former approach, the emerging security environment requires a new one tied to great power identity. Foremost must be public acknowledgement of distinct global-contra-local problem sets. Naively assuming equal importance only serves to embolden those seeking to challenge the existing global system for the simple and obvious truth that even the United Nations enshrines great power asymmetries – the Security Council’s five permanent member veto power being capable of overriding the General Assembly’s unified voice. So too does the allocation of resources through diplomatic priority, foreign aid and military assistance, showing which countries matter most to the United States. Therefore, in order to face the looming threats, the United States must accept that great power status means global interests subsume local concerns, but do not bow to them. The latter matter for the US, but as part of the greater scheme of maneuver. The shrieks of horrified globalist egalitarians notwithstanding, the reality is that our partners approach their own relations the same way, and the United States remains the solely self-deluded great power to think otherwise.
Equally important to the great power strategic mindset and communication of its status, the United States must adapt new paradigms for applying its power. That means that while convenient for utilizing existing resources and maintaining subject matter expertise, a counterterrorism template cannot simply be overlaid onto great power competition. The requirements differ as much as the resources, intentions, and reach of the adversaries. CT has its place to be sure, but the place rightfully resides within, not alongside the concerns of great powers and the statecraft tools needed to address them. Thus for example, despite superficial commonalities of GDP and population size, it would be folly to apply the same model to address the roots of terrorism in Morocco as to Ukraine’s fight against Russian hybrid warfare. The core differences between the contexts and grievances are so vast and enduring, to say nothing of the range of threats and their implications on different tiers of geopolitical stages, that to assume a one-size-fits-all approach is laughable to either partner, dangerous to the US at worst. Doing so undermines partner trust in the United States as a capable great power, one who can differentiate the nuances of local contexts as much as global priorities.
The nation stands at that crossroads with several key approaches defining where to step, though with a lack clarity on why the steps matter for reaching the destination. Former Secretary Mattis’ departure resonates here. The struggle today, even with the guidance of the National Security, Defense, and Military Strategies, must include shifting to a new hybrid mindset, one that sees past, present and future threats as much through the lens of threat as opportunity. All elements of national power matter for this struggle, and statecraft as the only way to do so.
Special Operations Forces come to the fore in such a hybrid security environment. The hard task for SOF will be transitioning from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency to counter Russian and Chinese activities, as much as from direct action to indirect influence. Alternatives have already begun to spring up, and rightly so given the dedication and determination characteristic of the nation’s myriad public servants. Yet, many of these efforts remain misguided, mired in the paradigmatic mud of past battles. Whether through lessons learned, operating concept white papers, or strategic assessments, the common theme falls into two tried and tested, yet equally incomplete approaches: reliance on the Cold War for inspiration or its rejection in the face of GWOT’s transnational threat matrix. However, both miss the key element that binds them – human networks as the nexus for both. Given their expertise in human-centric warfare, Special Operations can provide senior decision makers a unique strategic asset to reclaim the strategic initiative in great power competition, and rebuild America’s advantage over its implacable foes.