Huffpost Business

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Philip Slater Headshot

If the Pentagon Were 'Run Like a Business' it Might Avoid Obsolescence

Posted: Updated:

Republicans are fond of saying government bureaucracies should be run like businesses. For some reason they never apply this notion to the world's largest and most inefficient bureaucracy -- the U.S. Department of Defense. Yet if the Pentagon were run as some forward-looking corporations today it might be able to avoid the obsolescence into which it rapidly seems to be drifting.

Established businesses usually go under because they define their role too narrowly -- a company that defined itself as in the slate business rather than the roofing business, for example, or one that defined itself as in the adding machine business rather than the computing business. This question determines where you put your money. Do you spend it denying the future or embracing it? Thus Exxon-Mobil, which defines itself as in the oil business, spent half a billion dollars trying to persuade the public that climate change was a myth; while British Petroleum, which defines itself as in the energy business, is investing that kind of money in solar, wind, and hydrogen power.

The Pentagon defines itself as in the war-making business -- a mindset that will guarantee obsolescence.

As the civilized world moves from military confrontation to policing terrorism, what is the role of a conventional military establishment? Major powers no longer attack each other -- the nuclear risks are too great. And using armies and tanks to combat terrorism is like using napalm to combat the AIDS virus.

The awkward truth is that tanks, planes, and battleships are becoming irrelevant in a world in which danger no longer comes from nations, but from international networks of individuals. Generals are famous for being behind the times, and the Pentagon today is no exception. Tanks, planes, ships, artillery -- not to mention the expensive and unworkable missile defense system -- can't stop a terrorist from sending anthrax through the mail, or contaminating a water supply, or booby-trapping a building. Using an army to combat terrorism exemplifies a common failing of bureaucracies: they tend to do what they know how to do rather than what needs to be done. As John Arquilla, professor of analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, has repeatedly pointed out, a huge bureaucratic hierarchy is an impossibly inadequate tool against flexible terrorist networks that allow for individual initiative and creativity.

We live in a world in which all of our pressing problems are international, and require international cooperation to achieve a solution. So how can the Pentagon maintain itself as a meaningful entity in such a world?

The answer is the same one that enables corporations to survive: the Pentagon has to redefine its mission. Its role needs to be reconfigured as one of maintaining international order rather than one of creating international disorder. Its function must increasingly be one of policing rather than combating.

This notion elicits shrieks of protests from both ends of the political spectrum: "The United States cannot be the world's policeman!" This is true. Peacekeeping by its very nature can only be an international activity. For the United States to continue its isolationist attitude, going it alone when the rest of the industrial world is cooperating, is ultimate suicide. But it can use its experience and power to take a leadership role in maintaining international order -- in training, equipping, and building an international peacekeeping force.

Keeping peace and combating terrorism both mean enlisting the support of civilian populations, and this requires a completely different mindset from that engendered by the kill-and-destroy mentality of traditional military training.

When an American battalion in Kosovo In 2000 was in trouble for a series of rapes, murders, and other brutalities against civilians, an investigation suggested that the soldiers' training "failed to tone down their combat mentality." A considerable understatement, since the 'peacekeeping' battalion's slogan was "shoot 'em in the face!" and their commander's idea of their mission was "killing bad guys." Military training needs to shift from teaching men how to perpetrate violence to teaching them how to prevent it.

When asked by Afghan President Karzai for U. S. peacekeepers, President Bush refused, saying, "the purpose of the United States military is to fight and win wars." This was true a century ago -- the era Bush and his advisors seem still to inhabit. But given that the United States is currently throwing a billion dollars a week into the Iraq landfill -- destroying its future and the lives of its children -- the "purpose of the United States military" needs vitally to be redefined. Unfortunately, given the minimal auditing of Pentagon budgets, the revolving door policy whereby retired generals become defense contractor CEOs, and the guaranteed 10 percent profit built into all defense contracts, the Pentagon is more likely to follow the Exxon-Mobil example than the BP vision.