Trent Goes French

The net assessment of national security requirements and its translation into grand strategy is a highly specialized field of academic study who best practitioners are currently working on or are consultants for the National Security Council and the Department of Defense.

From comments to this post, below

I was kind of astounded to see Trent say this, not because I felt the attack (I have pretty thick skin and only get moderately annoyed when the guests actually puke in the punchbowl), but because it makes my argument regarding Bush’s policies for me and represents such a profound misunderstanding of what America is about that I can’t let it go unanswered.

And I get the delicious task of pointing out to Trent how parallel his thinking is to his hated French.In France, the path to power – whether in one of the administrative cadres of the Government (and then on to politics) or in one of the large corporations – is through ‘les grandes ecoles’ – the elite universities. Middle class students sweat their Bac (exams) in order to get onto a track that will give them an opportunity to get into one of these schools. Upper class kids – the ones with connections – work on their scores as well, but have their paths smoothed through parental connections. My ex-wife, for example, went to ENSAE, the aerospace/engineering school in Toulouse, while one of her sisters went to ENA (and now works for UNESCO), and another to the Paris Conservatory (their version of Julliard).

The French political system is built on ‘expertise'; it assumes that the intensive study that is required to get into one of these schools and the hard work that students do once there delivers not only a wide array of long-lasting personal connections (see the recent blown French effort to rescue Ingrid Betancourt, a presidential candidate one of de Villipins’ former students from FARC), but a superiority of outlook and knowledge that entitles them to rule.

The results tend to be mixed, at best. The corruption at high levels in France is almost unimaginable, even to me, and I have a good imagination. The current round of Elf-Aquitaine scandals, where the corporate and government interests collude – hidden behind a veil of ‘need to know’ and ‘secret strategy’.

The consequence is a lethargic political culture in France, and an overall disengagement between the average French citizen and their government. Policy and politics are the province of ‘the smart guys’.

Sadly, I’ll suggest that those who support Bush playing Richelieu (Den Beste, Trent, and others who suggest that a hide-the-ball play is the best plan for setting our foreign policy) are acting in full accord with this worldview.

Ours is not to reason why, our is just to shut up, support Bush, pay our taxes, and send our sons and daughters.

They’re missing a few things when they suggest that.

The most important thing is actually the simplest, which is that the genius of the American system is that there certainly are experts on game theory, diplomatic history, and policy who have substantive and valuable expertise in these areas.

And they all work for guys like me. Our Congress and our President are typically business men and women, lawyers, rank amateurs when it comes to the hard games that they study so diligently at ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration). And that’s a good thing, in fact, it’s a damn good thing.

It is a good thing because the unique power of the United States comes from our willingness to diffuse power down into the ranks – to act in ways outside what a small cadre of mandarins sitting at a capital can envision.

And that diffusion of power must be accompanied by a diffusion of belief.

I’m not looking for Bush to announce the date and time of deployments, or the next step he will take in negotiating with North Korea or Syria.

But if he really wants to mobilize American power – and I think that will be required to win this war – he has to share belief and power. He has to share it with the troops; with the parents who drive their children to recruiting centers; with the taxpayers who will be watching the flag-draped coffins unload at an air base in Delaware. Because this is going to be a long haul, and we’re going to need all those people’s hearts and commitment in it for the duration.

12 thoughts on “Trent Goes French”

  1. So what should we say or do?

    “President Bush announced today:

    Our plan is to conduct a slow defeat-in-detail
    of all terrorist-backing states in the middle
    east, starting with Iraq, continuing on with
    Syria and Iran, and finally ending with Saudi

    This was followed by massive attacks on the US Air Force base in Saudi Arabia by the ground forces of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Egypt, acting under the unified command of Saddam Hussein…”

    I think Bush has been as open as he can be without throwing away army divisions for political gain. He eliminated two of the dozen or so terrorist sponsor states of the Middle East; the second one was done after a very extended debate both at home
    and abroad. And I imagine there will be another extended debate before the next one.

  2. That’s a good point and I’m a bit chagrined I didn’t make it myself (it’s similar to the point I made in the comments section of The Sterile Woman post).

    However, your post mixes up the rationales people are using for the “hide-the-ball” strategy, and indeed Steven answered such a comparison in an update to the post he’s in the dock for here; it’s not, in that view, to hide it from the American people but because we do want to keep secrets from the enemy in some situations.

    That’s the point Phil made (above) and the point I’ve been making, and there is a distinction with a difference there.

  3. I think you are misunderstanding what is being said. Trent refers to a “highly specialized field of academic study” and says the “best practitioners are currently working on or are consultants for the National Security Council and the Department of Defense”. This isn’t to say that neither you nor I can study on or comment on the topic of national security, it’s just that if we were really that good at it someone would be paying us to do it.

    My brother-in-law recently received his PhD in Physics from MIT. Despite the fact that I have a degree in physics as well (from the Air Force Academy, not exactly a slacker institution) I don’t claim to understand his doctoral thesis. Sure, I recognize the words and can somewhat follow the math, but understand? Not at the same level that he does. It’s a “highly specialized field of academic study” and he is one of the “best practitioners”.

    This is not the French system you describe, but the American free market. The national security experts, the ones who can take the requirements and translate them into “grand strategy” didn’t get there because of privilege or because of the school they went to. They are working for the organization that can best use their abilities and pay them for it.

    Sometimes we learn what these experts are planning. But, like the thesis I mentioned earlier, not many outside the “highly specialized field of academic study” are really going to understand what it all means. And sometimes a little knowledge can be dangerous. :-)

  4. In this Post, a reader named “David” wrote Steven as follows:

    Your quote from today: “No, I’m afraid they don’t. They don’t need to know, and can’t be trusted to know.”

    Isn’t that your primary criticism of the EU and the left? I’ve read countless posts of yours where you criticize leftist ideology based on their belief that they know better than the populace? Thus, I was a little surprised to see this line in your post. I’m curious if you were cognizant of this, or can make a distinction.

    To which SDB replied as follows:

    The elitists think that the commons don’t need to participate in those decisions because the commons is unwise.

    My point is far more specific: there are particular cases in which we have to rely on our leaders because there’s no way for them to consult us without letting our enemies know what they’re doing, giving our enemies a chance to scuttle our plans.

    It’s an extremely narrow case, totally consequence driven. It isn’t the more ideological chauvinism of the left, for whom the act of consulting the commons is itself a bad thing.

    Now, it would be a fair criticism, IMO, to argue that he’s wrong and that you don’t think secrecy is needed on this, to the degree he says he thinks it’s needed. I may or may not agree with you, to some extent. However, IMO it’s not fair to lump his rationale in with the “Rule By Experts” rationale.

  5. Rats; this thing turns off my italics when I don’t want it too; in the above post, everything until “To Which” is quoting Dave; and the everything until “Now, it would be. . .” is quoting Steven.

  6. i dont agree with trent often, and i can see plenty of reasons to make comparisons with something specific about the french. i still dont think you are totally right about the grand debate either a.l.

    the other post on sumi and india was great though.

  7. Let me preface my comment by saying that I’m lost – but that’s often the case. Maybe I’m lost because, it seems to me, that there are three related but distinct issues that are confused here (at least in my mind): (1) Do we want to live in a more or less open society where government policy is publicly debated even at some (reasonably acceptable) risk to compromising security concerns? (2) Do we want decisions made by a bunch of technocrats on the basis that they know better (and can presumably be better trusted) than Joe Citizen? (3) At what level of sensitivity is information/strategy taken out of the public (political?) arena because of security concerns?

    My impression is that AL is criticizing Trent on (2) based on the possible implications of one statement, when he may be more concerned by Trent’s express or implied views on (1) and (3). That’s my first set of reactions.

    The comparison with the French breaks down on the cultural level. In France, decisions on questions of national interest generally are blindly, willingly and cynically delegated by the people to the state technocracy. Americans by contrast have a greater historical mistrust of the State reflected in the political culture as well as a greater tradition of self-reflection about the morality of acts carried out in the name of the collectivity. We have not yet ceded the same moral and individual prerogatives to the collective will the way the French have.

    Hence, De Gaulle’s famous statement that “the French are sheep”. He could have added “and the State is my Pastor”.

    That’s also why all the talk in the media and among the educated is about sixteen words about uranium and the presumed forty-five minutes for WMD attacks. On the other hand, this same elite knows virtually nothing about the recent French history in Rwanda or Serbia, and the vast majority have never heard of Ratko Mladic, nor do they care. France is the last of the Soviet Republics.

    In France, the issues posed by AL would never present themselves, making any comparison a bit difficult.

  8. Porphy, Balagan – I think we’re talking about different things. On one hand, there is a ‘grand strategy’ – which may or may not have subtle implications or aspects which we may not choose to reveal.

    That grand strategy, in essence, becomes a statement of national goals and of the resources we’re willing to commit to those goals.

    How we attain those goals and how we use the resources committed may or may not be a matter for public discussion.

    But as pointed out over and over again…from Thucydides to Harry Summers…national will is what wins wars.

    As to SDB, the dilemma he poses is that no one can know which case any decision falls into – except the cloistered experts. At this point, I’m not prepared to grant him the distinction he tries to drive here.


  9. Gabriel, interesting insights on France. Loved this quote from A.L., though:

    “…the genius of the American system is that there certainly are experts on game theory, diplomatic history, and policy who have substantive and valuable expertise in these areas.

    And they all work for guys like me.”

    Loved that. So very often true, and in my experience properly so.

  10. “No, I’m afraid they don’t. They don’t need to know, and can’t be trusted to know.”

    There is a difference between military matters in time of war and everything all the time.

    US of A vs pEU.

    Bush has been quite clear about grand strategy. Less so about strategy and tactics. In a time of war.

    Where is the beef?

  11. I’m with M. Simon on this, and actually disagree with DenBeste on this narrow point.
    We HAVE been entrusted with the grand strategy. I cite as evidence the report of Christy Ferer. The troops know what this is about. If DenBeste has been able to reason out what the strategy is, I don’t think it’s reasonable to claim that it has been kept secret.
    What matters is that it has not been publicly stated or acknowledged. For me, I have long seen this as one of two reasons for going into Iraq (the other being my fanatic opposition to offensive BW research by amateurs). The members of my house arrived at roughly the same conclusion, more or less independently.
    I’ll go further and argue that the House of Saud knows it and demonstrated this knowledge by generally denying us usage of their territory for this phase.

    I don’t think we’ve been asked to trust the government blindly on this. Instead, we’ve been trusted to work it out on our own. To my mind, this is really the exact opposite of the French way.

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