How to fix the U.S. military.

How to fix the U.S. military.

How to fix the U.S. military.

Repairing some of the worst Bush administration screw-ups.
March 31 2008 7:12 AM

The Military

How to fix the U.S. military.

With President Bush's approval rating hovering in the 30s, just about everyone has an opinion on what George W. has done wrong in the past seven years. But not everyone can explain what the next president must do to fix it. So we've called in some experts to tell us. Fixing It is a 10-part series to be published over the course of this week with contributions from seom of our favorite writers, offering detailed policy prescriptions for the next president, whoever that may be, on how to quickly undo some of the damage. One of our contributors wryly describes the series as "News You Can Use. If You Happen To Be President." Read the other entries here.

Fred Kaplan chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

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• Promote the right leaders. Owing to a shortage of officers, almost anyone can get promoted to lieutenant colonel. Beyond that, the Army's promotion boards are a hidebound lot—notorious for favoring officers who resemble themselves and for especially screening out intellectuals, mavericks, and strategically minded warriors. (Gen. David Petraeus—who possesses a rare mix of leadership talent, soldierly prowess, intelligence, raw ambition, and luck—is one of a handful of exceptions.) Junior officers read each year's promotion list as they would tea leaves; it tells them what types of officers are desired and what types are not. Many creative officers leave the Army after realizing that it holds no future for them.

Technically, the president and Congress must approve all promotions. Therefore, either could require that a certain percentage of new brigadier generals possess specific qualities or backgrounds—for instance, that they have trained foreign military forces or proven adept in other skills that will likely be essential in future conflicts. (There is precedent for this: As a result of the Goldwater-Nichols reforms passed by Congress in 1986, all new generals must have experience in a joint—i.e., multiservice—unit.)) The Army should also consider "360-degree evaluation"—i.e., consultation by junior, as well as senior, officers—in order to identify the most talented leaders in its ranks. (Corporate America has long employed this technique.)

• Create incentives for a real nation-building or counterinsurgency capability. The Army's new field manual on "Full-Spectrum Operations" says that "stability operations" are just as important as combat. However, these words will ring hollow unless and until more troops are trained in such operations and more officers with expertise in that area are promoted to general. A year ago, a unit was created in Ft. Riley, Kan., home of the 1st Infantry Division, specifically to train advisers—officers who would go advise Iraqi and Afghan security forces. Several Pentagon officials, including Secretary Robert Gates, said that this was one of the Army's most important missions. The commander of the unit was Lt. Col. John Nagl, one of the Army's top experts in counterinsurgency. But Nagl has since complained that the unit was filled on an "ad hoc" basis and that many of the trainers had no experience as advisers. He has now decided to leave the Army. We—and, more importantly, other officers—will know that the Pentagon is taking this putative goal seriously when the unit is commanded by a general and when officers who go out in the field as advisers are promoted as routinely as those deployed as infantry fighters.

• Spread the responsibilities around. Civilian experts are probably better than sergeants at the kinds of stability operations described above. So, the next president should see that more money goes to the State Department, USAID, and other agencies—many of which have nascent offices of stability operations and foreign assistance—and let them do the jobs. Secretary Gates urged this course (even if he didn't volunteer to hand over any of the Pentagon's billions). Some senior Army officers have told us that, for certain urgent tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan, they would rather have 500 more Foreign Service officers than 5,000 more soldiers. If wars—or foreign policies generally—are national campaigns, the burden should be carried by the national government more broadly.

• Taxes. On that subject, if we're not going to return to military conscription, more citizens have to contribute something to national defense—if not their blood, then more of their treasure. All the steps outlined above—especially those that involve recruiting and retaining qualified personnel—are very expensive. And they can't all be paid for by canceling the F-22 and other Cold War relics. Nor should they be paid for by borrowing more cash from China. If we want to continue the kind of military we're pursuing, and the kinds of wars we're fighting, then let's pass a surtax to pay for it. If we don't want to pay for it, then let's drop the whole idea—scale back our missions in the world and figure out some other way to fulfill them.