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Is the Pentagon’s Andrew Marshall the Leo Strauss of Military Analysis?

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Is the Pentagon’s Andrew Marshall the Leo Strauss of Military Analysis?

Comparing Andrew Marshall and Leo Strauss yields some interesting similarities.

Is the Pentagon’s Andrew Marshall the Leo Strauss of Military Analysis?
Credit: White House photo by Chris Greenberg

Andrew Marshall, one of the longest-serving U.S. civil servants, has recently retired after heading an internal Pentagon think tank, called the Office of New Assessment with direct link to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, for four decades. The 93-year-old strategic thinker, nicknamed “Yoda,” due to his enigmatic assertions and his devoted band of followers in the community of American strategic thinkers, has to date been the Office of Net Assessment’s only director.

The news of Marshall’s retirement along with the publication of the book The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy have triggered a polarized (and largely D.C.-centric) debate about the legacy of Marshall and the future of net assessment within defense strategy. Most commentaries and reviews aggressively take sides in the fierce debate about Marshall’s legacy and lack nuanced analysis as a short overview of some of the headlines illustrates: “Don’t Worship at the Altar of Andy Marshall,” “Yoda Left the Building – He Hasn’t Had a New Idea Since the 1970s,” “After Andy Marshall: What Will Happen?”

Inspiring Pentagon analysts can apply to the position; one D.C. think tanker even devotes an entire blog post to the rules for the search of the next director of net assessment. For obvious reasons, Chinese and Russian military thinkers seem to be more familiar with Marshall’s work than Americans outside the Beltway bubble. Outsiders might conclude that the mere fact of preserving a man in the bureaucracy for four decades would seem to be a testament to entrenched dogmatism or obsequious idolatry.

Most of Marshall’s work is classified and we have to rely on his acolytes and the people who worked with him to summarize his importance. The authors of the book The Last Warrior highlight three particular accomplishments: The prediction of the rise of China as a “peer competitor”; Initiating a debate on the CIA’s alleged flawed assessments of the Soviet economy; and – the favorite of most of his disciples – starting a discussion on the implications of a revolution in military affairs (RMA) or military-technical revolution in the Pentagon. Of course, his legacy runs deeper. For example his influence in shaping the debate around precision-strike regimes will be felt in the years to come.

The debate around the legacy of Andy Marshall is taking place just as a similar debate over another analytical thinker is gathering intensity. Like no other professor of philosophy, the German-Jewish scholar Leo Strauss, who died in 1973, has inspired an fanatical following among academics and even a few policymakers in the last few decades in the United States. A new book attempts to shed more light on his thinking, which alleged inspired the neo-conservative movement and the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration.

Robert Howse, the author of Leo Strauss: Man of Peace, attempts to defend what he interprets as Strauss’ “humanitarian,” “anti-historicist” reading of Thucydides, Xenophon, and Machiavelli (some of Strauss’s favorite thinkers to dwell on) regarding a number of issues but especially legitimacy, extra-legal political/state violence, international law and diplomacy and the homogenous and universal world state. Howse tries to show Strauss as a partial realist but not a believer in an absolute law of the advantage of the stronger and argues that Strauss leaves room for a natural moral component in the behavior of men, not connected to divine auspices. Howse bases most of his judgment on audio records of Strauss’s lectures, which have only been recently made available to people outside an enigmatic group of intellectuals known as the “Straussians” (who in fact resist easy mono-categorization).

When comparing Marshall and Strauss interesting similarities appear.

In both Marshall’s and Strauss’s case the battle over their legacies is/was largely fought by devoted followers and even more devoted critics. Both, from what we know via their disciples and co-thinkers, were great teachers, and they excelled in mentoring young scholars and analysts in their respective fields. In addition, both Marshall and Strauss inspired a sense of elitism into their acolytes, the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club privy to insights that no outsider will ever have access to or can comprehend – the St. Andrew Prep and the Straussian School respectively.

Both Strauss and Marshall aimed to gain a better understanding of a simple but illusive concept – nature; i.e. in Marshall’s case the nature of warfare and strategic competition, the political nature of humans within the polis in Strauss’s case. In order to do so, both had to figure out the best analytical frameworks to explain the nature of the world around them. Yet to the chagrin of their followers they never produced a comprehensive methodology of their thinking. This meant that their followers had to expand on the often limited works and ambiguous pronouncements and design their own analytical frameworks, which left a lot of room for interpretation and argument.

Strauss’s political philosophy can yield valuable insights for defense analysis.

For example, I highly recommend, Hermeneutics as Politics, by Stanley Rosen, a student of Leo Strauss, to any aspiring defense analyst. The book holds an important lesson for good analysis. Rosen argues that all analytical systems are founded upon “intuition” (hunches/guesses) and therefore lack a foundation other than self-assertion and the application of synthetic rules that are applied arbitrarily. Analytical philosophy, Rosen points out, specifically is related to the Cartesian plan of “ordo et mensura” the attempt to quantify the universe per measurements that man constructs via his will, imagination, or passion. For the analytical thinker, we cannot know things as they are, but only as we make them for our use or power.

This recalls a point I made in an earlier post: Americans need to be more perceptive of the outside world, lest they end up with, “premature cognitive closure, in which limited or incomplete images of others’ intentions lead to mistaken perceptions,” in the words of Robert Jervis in his book Perceptions and Misperceptions in International Politics.

Rosen’s insight has implications for defense analysts and perhaps also points to one of the fundamental problems of Andy Marshall and American-style net assessment: If net assessments are made for the Pentagon’s use or power, we are likely to operate in a confined analytical space in which rules and values are applied arbitrarily to fit American thinking (i.e., contrary to the nature of the world one is analyzing – see my summary of Rosen above).

In other words, if the principle customer of a net assessment is the U.S. Secretary of Defense, and you, as the new director of net assessment, call a bloated bureaucracy like the Pentagon your home, chances are that your analysis is much more heavily influenced by your environment than it is by actual developments in the world. Marshall acknowledged the problem of this in his theory of bureaucratic politics (and many of Marshall’s disciples recognize similar issues in different levels of analysis), yet I posit that if we take Rosen’s statement and apply it to American-style net assessment the problem is not just one of escaping a bureaucracy, but that of a lack of ability to disenthrall ourselves from the American analytical mindset overall, to the detriment of good defense analysis. Abraham Lincoln understood this when he addressed Congress in December 1862 amidst the U.S. Civil War: “As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” In this quest of disenthrallment, Leo Strauss and his philosophical understanding of the elusive nature analysis might come in handy.