"It is my goal to make the London Center, the premier foreign policy institute in the country, one that is shaping
the debate on international affairs and influencing decisions emerging from the Congress."
I spent this past week with some real professionals - 15 guys who are seasoned members of one of those DOD organizations that doesn’t exist, and 3 guys who rose literally to the top of that very same organization, who were there to mentor the 15 guys on active duty. What strikes you as you sit there and listen to them talk - about anything - is the commitment to excellence. In every thing they do they want to get better; they take notes, they listen to any advice, they listen to critiques, they have thick skins; they don’t let egos get in the way of getting better.
Then, I turn to the news and I see a long list of former officials with the DOD and Department of State announcing they’ll vote for Biden for President.
I know several of the signators; I respected them as professionals. Several of them were legitimately bright guys. But such words are used far too easily; everyone who serves in Washington is “brilliant" (they’re not), and everyone who makes admiral or general is not only brilliant, he's also tough and brave and daring, and incredibly well read and deeply thoughtful, a veritable modern-day Achilles blended together with George Marshall. Sorry, no, no, no and definitely no. Some are close, but the odds are you’ve never heard of them.
But besides the fact that virtually everything they said on the letter was either a blatant untruth or a bizarre twisting and stretching of the truth, the letter is, itself, disturbing. For anyone who has spent any time in and out of senior headquarters or the Pentagon, there is something terribly self-serving about such letters.
The folks who write such letters all have a strong undercurrent of personal fury; they aren’t upset that certain things are going in directions of which they don’t approve, the problem is that no one asked them - they know they are special and should be asked.
France prior to the French Revolution (1789) was divided into three distinct groups: the 1st Estate - the clergy and the French Catholic Church; the 2nd Estate - the Royalty; and the 3rd Estate - literally everyone else. Combined, the 1st and 2nd Estates made up less than 2% of the population. But, to be a member of the First or Second Estate accorded you instant rank and, more to the point today, instant competence. A member of Royalty was capable - competent - to lead because he was a member of Royalty. “Marquis” before your name gave you instant intellectual capabilities that others didn’t have…
Except it didn’t, as the Revolution showed; remember what tripped off the revolution: gross financial mis-management that stretched back generations.
In the US, particularly over the last 100 years, the clergy have disappeared from the national dialogue; not that the clergy ever held the same position in our society, the US had no state religion. Sure, they’re trotted out every now and then but the degree to which God and faith and religion, and more to the point, morality and limits to behavior, have been removed from any regular public discourse is something that would have been impossible to imagine a century ago.
But, not to worry. The role of guardian of behavior taken up by a modern “clergy,” academics and former members of government who “know” how we should act, who “know” which words we should never use, which ones we should use regularly, which politically correct “deities” to pray to this week.
We have a new 2nd Estate as well. Not royal, but just as select in their own minds, people who firmly believe - and who have convinced others as well - that they really do deserve to be in senior positions in government.
They’ll roll out their expertise - a long list of academic credentials that tell us nothing of their real intellectual capabilities, and their experience - Job Titles, but don’t dare look at the hard results of their efforts in those jobs.
We’re simply to accept that they’re smarter, tougher, more committed to “democracy,” that they make better decisions and that we could never do half so well. Our job, like the French peasantry, is to thank them endlessly for their service, and do exactly what they say.
But, instead of - as the French peasantry did for a thousand years - accepting that on face value, perhaps we should look at their performance, judge them on merit.
In 1990 the US federal debt was less than $4 trillion. By the beginning of 2020 it stood at 22 trillion. To understand that growth, consider: if, in 1990, the US had simply shut down the entire national security community: DOD, Veterans Affairs, and all the military and all the intelligence community - spent zero on defense, the US debt would still have climbed another $3 trillion during that period. By the way, in the last 6 months we’ve added almost 3 trillion to the debt.
Back to the guys with whom I spent the week. One of the remarkable things about them is they’re constantly looking at what they just did and pulling it apart - finding what they did wrong and talking about it, how to improve, how to avoid this or that mistake, how to make something that went well, go a bit smoother. No one rests on laurels, no one assumes they know it all.
How unlike our admirals and generals, men who are still on “half pay” and subject to the UCMJ, men who would be incensed if any of their subordinates had ever called them names. And yet the admirals and generals are the ones who create the strategies that have resulted in Korea (still not finished), Vietnam (we know how that worked out), Afghanistan (year 19), Iraq (well, year 30 really), Somalia (year 9 (or year 28 if you really want to look at it)). And so on and so on. Do the generals and admirals ever go back and take hard looks at what they did and how to avoid it? Or do they just stand up and say: “I am the very model of a modern Major General,” and then pass out their reading list?
And for the rest? It was 30 years of State Department policies that got us into the mess we face with China. And the economists who’ve filled the halls of power in Washington for the last century? Who created a debt structure so vast that no one knows any possible means to eliminate it. A system that’s so dependent on debt that the answer to virtually any economic problem is “create more debt.” And the rest? A stack of laws and regulations now so complex that there are now more than 5,000 federal criminal laws, in addition to more than a quarter million regulations that carry criminal penalties.
In 1927 the entirety of US Federal law fit in a single volume. Today it needs 23,000 pages. That’s just federal code. The IRS rules and regulations cover more than 7,500 pages.
That’s what the experts gave us, our modern clergy of the New 1st Estate, and our senior appointees, our “royalty,” our 2nd Estate, who flit in and out of high level government jobs, pontificating while leaving an ever more complex disaster in their wakes.
And what truly offends them about Trump is that this real estate developer is doing at least as good a job as they ever imagined and doing it without ever consulting them.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...