In a speech given last month, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (USMC General Joseph Dunford) addressed the true weight of estimates and assumptions. Dunford told the audience about task force “Smith” (TFS), an infantry battalion of the 21st Regiment US Army, which was the first force to encounter the invading North Korean army during the first few hours of the Korean War.
In that war, said Dunford, the US military fought on the ground, at a time and in conditions it did not expect, and the initial results were disastrous.
“I like to remind people who have a high level of confidence in assumptions on when, where and how we will fight the next fight, that the Korean War took place right after some of the best strategists that we’ve ever produced as a nation decided to rebalance to Europe.”
Seven hours after task force “Smith” encountered the enemy 185 US soldiers were wounded and dead.
“That’s what assumptions can do,” said the general, and therefore the US must strengthen its forces’ readiness for unexpected developments.
The US elections are behind us. It’s been said that “assumption is the mother of all messups,” and that rule applies to lesson learned from TFS encounter. In this case, all that was needed was to erase all that was written before the morning of Wednesday, November 9, and rewrite it so it will be relevant to the new reality.
There are cases, as described by Dunford, where the price of assumption is much heavier.
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During the time left before he takes office, President-elect Trump should conduct an in-depth study of the many responsibilities that await him. Until now Trump focused mostly on campaign issues and devoted his attention to defeating other GOP contenders, but now the focus will shift to governing related tasks: appointing cabinet members, developing a legislative schedule in cooperation with GOP leadership and developing an action plan for the first hundred days of his presidency.
“The first hundred days” index, traditionally used to assess one’s presidency, originated with president Franklin Roosevelt, who in his first hundred days in office carried out his “New Deal” to rescue the economy from the Great Depression of the Thirties. Trump, needless to say, isn’t Roosevelt, but even Reagan, who won the Cold War and in the early days of his administration solved the Iran hostage crisis, was similarly criticized before taking office.
In the third episode of The West Wing, a serial political drama about the Democratic administration of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen), the new president is required to decide how to respond to a terrorist attack guided by the Syrian government. During the attack a US Air Force transport plane is shot down. The president refuses to accept the proportional response proposed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Fitzwallace, and replies that “from this time and this place, gentlemen, you kill an American, any American, we don’t come back with a proportional response. We come back with total disaster!” Moreover, the president demands the admiral and the national security team take the next 60 minutes and put together an American response scenario that doesn’t make him think they are just “docking somebody’s damn allowance!” It’s more than likely that after Trump’s election some people remembered that scene and imagine that this is (more or less) the way that the new president will behave in his first meeting with the Joint Chiefs in the situation room.
During Operation Protective Edge that West Wing scene went viral among Israelis’ social network accounts. Israel advocacy groups, mostly from the political Right, presented it in support of their argument that Israel should stop the IDF’s proportional attacks on the Gaza strip and move to disproportionate response. However, the rest of the episode holds a far more important lesson: in the next scene President Bartlet is proposing an air-strike scenario that includes attacking extensive critical infrastructure in Syria, which could lead to a humanitarian crisis. Bartlet understand the consequences, but despite the expected tragic loss of life, he can’t “dole out five thousand dollars’ worth of punishment for a fifty-buck crime.”
That is what the creator of the series, Aaron Sorkin, was trying to teach the audience: a limitations of power lesson.
Even the sole superpower in the world can’t do as it pleases (or as it’s commander-in-chief pleases).
“We must not, for example, send military forces into a crisis with an unclear mission they cannot accomplish,” wrote Gen. Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Powell’s rule of thumb directed President Barack Obama throughout his administration. The complexity of conflicts at the present time taught him not to rush to send forces into harm’s way before formulating a coherent strategy and a defined endgame. For example, Obama has refrained from sending ground forces to battle against Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, since such an action may well mire the US in a war of attrition.
As an alternative, the president approved an unprecedented number of special operations and air raids.
Earlier this month it was reported that the 82nd Airborne’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team is deploying to Iraq. The 1,700 paratroopers, from one of the toughest divisions in the world, will continue training, advising and guiding Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS, but will not take an active role in the fight. In contrast, about 100 soldiers from the US Army special forces are taking part in the campaign in Mosul, and are responsible for directing precision strikes from air. It’s unlikely that during the Trump administration there will be a change in the scope of “boots on the ground” that Americans are willing to invest in that fight.
Trump’s closest security adviser is General Michael Flynn, who is considered a prominent candidate for the position of secretary of defense, or national security adviser. Flynn joined the US Army as a graduate of the ROTC and volunteered for the paratroopers, but spent most of his time in service as an intelligence officer and in his last position was the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Flynn has stated more than once that the United States should soften its policy toward Russia.
In 2013, a year before he retired, the DIA held a seminar to commemorate the 30th anniversary Operation Urgent Fury, the US invasion of Grenada in ‘83. Flynn, who fought on the ground as a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, said then that it was the first time he “ever saw a dead American soldier in a body bag.”
The general also and said that “being ready for the unknown – that’s one thing that DIA has always been at the front of.” He, like Trump, may find that the Russians, as General Mark Milley recently warned, are playing a game of their own aimed at achieving power and influence while disrupting American interests.
In 69 days Donald Trump will become the commander-in-chief of the strongest army in the world. He will not have a hundred days of grace, or even a few hours, before being required to go into the situation room with generals Dunford, Milley and probably Flynn, and decide how the US will respond to any given event. He will then learn the hard lesson about the limitations of power and that the view from the chair of the presidential candidate is very different from the view from the one located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the fifth season of the West Wing, due to the constitutional crisis the speaker of the House, a right-wing conservative Republican (played by John Goodman), takes over the presidency, and is discovered, to the surprise of the characters and the viewers, to be a smart, cautious and moderate strategist. It could happen now, as well.The author is the coordinator of the Military & Strategic Affairs program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
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