Read This If You Want to Sound Smart on National Security

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One question journalists get asked a lot is what they read to stay on top for their beat. I tend to shudder. For one, I’m thin-skinned enough to hear it as, “What can I read so I don’t have to read you?” But I also have a laundry list of smart publications and websites that are of great interest to me but maybe not so much for the general interest reader. I love Aviation Week and Space Technology, but don’t get many requests to borrow my latest issue.

I usually answer by recommending a site called War on the Rocks. The mission statement of WOTR, as everybody calls it, says there is “no other web-based publication on war and foreign policy out there that has been blessed with this much experience from its collection of regular contributors.” I don’t know about that lofty claim. But I do feel that no other site offers more to both the general reader and the specialist, or as realistic prescriptions for what ails the U.S.-led global order. It also has no ads, avoiding conflict of interest in a realm so dominated by powerful government contractors.  

This week I talked to Ryan Evans, who founded WOTR in 2013 as a podcast before expanding into digital. I knew Evans had served as a civilian in the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan with a program called the U.S. Army Human Terrain Team (I wrote about it here), but not the story behind the site or his own opinions on the issues it deals with. Here is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion:

Tobin Harshaw: So, how did you figure out that there was this space for War on the Rocks? We’ve got general news coverage like I do. We’ve got good military affairs websites like Defense One and Defense News. What made you think there was a space in between?

Ryan Evans: I wouldn’t even say I approached it in such a disciplined way. I just thought it should exist because I knew I would like it, which is generally the worst reason to start a company. I got back from working as a civilian for the Department of Defense in Afghanistan and I was very disappointed in the tone, tenor and quality of conversation and debate on foreign policy. I was learning so much more from friends and mentors who had served in the military, worked in government, scholars doing great work.  

I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to bring these more experienced voices out into the conversation more?”

I decided to start War on the Rocks as a podcast and as an outlet to publish commentary, debate by people with experience of some sort. I really just launched it as a hobby. Then we hit this tremendous success that I didn’t expect. Now, almost six years later, we are doing a lot of exciting things, especially our partnership with the University of Texas and the production of the Texas National Security Review, which is a hybrid between a peer-reviewed publication and a policy journal. An on the podcast front now we have multiple shows, including Bombshell - three brilliant women in national security.

TH: One of your most-talked-about articles was by an anonymous Air Force colonel with a string of criticisms of the service.

RE: Yes. I knew that would be big, but not as big as it became. There are a lot of subjects that I deal with very heavily now that I never would’ve guessed people would find so interesting when I kicked this of – things far from my early background on Islamism, Afghanistan, and Turkey. One of them is military personnel policies. But it makes sense that so many people are interested in it because this affects people’s lives directly, and I’ve become much more engaged by the subject over time.

So, an Air Force officer using the pseudonym Ned Stark reached out to me – I know who he is – and had this article. I was actually very skeptical about publishing it because we’ve only used pseudonyms three times in our history and we try to get people to meet certain standards.  

After some research and asking some other friends in the military what they thought, it was agreed that this person met this standard. I think within a few days of publication, it was the most read article we have published in a very long time. Then the chief of staff of the Air Force, David Goldfein, directly responded in a podcast with us and in writing. It kicked off this huge discussion in the Air Force about promotions and leadership.

TH: General Goldfein offered “Ned Stark” a Pentagon job. Did he accept?   

RE: He didn’t take the job, and my understanding is he’s still planning on leaving the Air Force.

TH: So, what other publications do you read or do you think are worth reading in your space?

RE: I like reading certain authors in the Diplomat, which I think is a great publication that has a lot of really smart people on Asia-Pacific affairs. Among others, I read the Interpreter from the Lowy Institute in Australia, Foreign Affairs, and Politico Magazine has some great foreign affairs essays.  

TH: Obviously, you run stuff from all over the spectrum. In a nutshell, what are your personal views on national security, foreign affairs, and military affairs?

RE: I think that the U.S. is not hopelessly overcommitted, but nearly hopelessly overcommitted. We’re a country that due to our strategic culture – not really an American people problem, but a Washington problem and, in some ways, a foreign policy establishment problem – is that we’re incapable of making choices. We’re incapable of saying, “No, we just can’t afford to do that,” or, “We’re not going to do that.” We talk all the time about how we’re blessed with these allies. That’s true, but we need to be focused much more on empowering our allies and outsourcing things to allies, where they often have a more direct interest.

We’ve done this in some cases like the French in the counterterrorism in the African Sahel. That’s worked very well. I think it’s a model that we need to employ more and more creatively.

TH: Where?

RE: Asia-Pacific, especially. Japan, Australia, India. India’s a partner, not an ally, and I think will be harder to drag into some of these things than most people think. But they’re going to be an important partner moving forward and, like many democratic allies in that part of the world, they have tremendous untapped military capacity.

One of our biggest problems is that we tend - and I fall victim to it myself - to view foreign policy and strategy solely through the lens of military footprints and military operations. Part of that isn’t just that we’re an overly militarized society in some ways, which is true. But it’s also because the State Department isn’t nearly as effective as it could be, and this administration has taken steps to make it even less effective than it was before. But I think the State Department, with respect to my many friends who work there who are very smart and talented people, has a serious cultural problem. Both in terms of leadership and in terms of how they go about accomplishing the goals of the nation.

It’s not a problem the State Department always had. One of my hobby horses is reading memoirs by obscure career State Department officials from the Cold War and before. Obviously, George Kennan’s was very good, but there are others like Jim Spain who worked in Turkey. You’re struck that they’re able to accomplish a lot of these amazing things that just seem to be absent from our foreign policy today. I really wish that the next administration, whoever it is, gets a secretary or a deputy secretary of state whose full-time job really is to fix that problem.

TH: So, this goes back before Trump?

RE: I think this probably goes back to the end of the Cold War when priorities started to change.

One of the other problems we have as Americans, we fancy ourselves these very pragmatic people who are not really affected by ideology. We just look at practical results, but we’re actually very ideological people. Despite our experiences, they’re very unsatisfying experiences, to say the least in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 18 or so years. We still have this idea that the world should look very similar to how our society looks and that people – no matter what their problems are – probably just need more stuff and more democracy. Actually, our vision of how our society looks isn’t even how it actually is, as we’ve discovered in the last couple of years.

TH: Trump, as candidate and president, has talked a lot about not peeling back our commitments. Do you think it’s actually doing that?

RE: No. The problem is that this is a schizophrenic administration. His advisers believe completely different things than what the president actually seems to believe on most days. The president doesn’t really have an ideology. He has antipathies and sentiments. He has people he likes and doesn’t like. He has people in the world stage who he views as his peers, like Vladimir Putin and Erdogan in Turkey.

Then you have the democratic allies who are actually our friends whom he treats with disdain. As far as these endless wars, he’s talked a big game about drawing down in Syria and Afghanistan. I haven’t seen it happen yet.

Since he was a candidate, I’ve called this the Trump-ortunities versus the Trump-tastrophies. Trump is actually right about lots of things. He’s right that our allies don’t pay enough for their own defense, and they should, and that we should be taking more cohesive and hard-hitting measures to ensure that they do. He’s right that our North Korea policy has been a dog’s breakfast for a very long time and that he inherited a really bad situation. He’s right about free trade hurting important segments of our society, and that we need to be tougher on China.

TH: I sense there’s a “But” coming.

RE: Yes, that’s where the Trump-tastrophies come in. He, himself, is the worst possible vehicle to deal with any of these problems. The way he’s trying to deal with places like North Korea and China, which are different problems but both serious problems, while also dumping all over our allies. It’s sequenced backward. He also doesn’t have a lot of self-control so he’s obviously undermining his own efforts. Then when it comes to Afghanistan, he talks a big game about needing to drawdown or leave. He’s right, but he keeps letting himself get talked into staying there. I blame him because he’s the man in charge, but this is being fed by the so-called adults in the room. And it is long past time for us to largely withdraw our military forces from Afghanistan. It’s been a spectacular failure across three presidents and everyone knows it, but all the “new” policies are just more of the same.

TH: Trump has created personality rifts with our closest allies. After he is gone, how long does that take to repair? Is this a blip or a trend we’re going to see in American foreign policy no matter which party is in power?

RE: I think it’s reparable in some ways, but I do think that we’re inevitably going to see Europe take a more autonomous strategic position in the world. They’re staying in the Iran nuclear deal, for example. Their relationship with China, I think, is the big wild card.

TH: Beyond the rhetorical and personal, I don’t think of the relationship with Europe on policy and security as being so fractured. On the other hand, the current Foreign Affairs has a piece by two Obama officials saying the Trans-Atlantic Alliance is “dead.”

RE: I think it’s a bit overly dramatic. As the European Union becomes even more cohesive – if that is in fact what happens - they’re going to start becoming more autonomous, which is not something that’s new to Europe. The French were always a bit of a thorn in our side during the Cold War and sought strategic autonomy. But Trump is probably accelerating this process because the trans-Atlantic relationship has been about three things: shared values, shared security, and shared prosperity. Trump has actually probably enhanced security continuing a lot of things the Obama administration was heading toward. But the problem is, he’s attacking the shared values and shared prosperity pillars.

TH: What’s next for War on the Rocks?

RE: We are hopefully going to be making some exciting and ambitious moves later this year in the education space, especially professional military education. That’s all I can say for now, but stay tuned.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security and the military for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

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