Image courtesy of Flikr user US Air Force. Image courtesy of Flikr user US Air Force.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Back in February, I agreed to write a two-part essay for another website – the first part was published – the second was sort of left floundering. I’d actually forgotten that I’d written something until the other day I came across a neat article about the group Ask Big Questions. It’s an educational/cultural initiative that grew out of Rabbi Josh Fiegelson’s experience counseling Northwestern University students.  In trying to get them to talk, constructively, about violence in the Middle East – he stumbled onto an important insight.  The more broadly one elevates the question at hand – the discussion can subtly become more useful/meaningful.  Here’s how (from the article cited above):

“Feigelson established guidelines for the discussion: Everyone was to speak only in the first person; listen to understand, not to judge; keep things confidential; and avoid rushing in to fill the silence. The question was straightforward: “How are you feeling?”

It led to a genuine exchange, rather than a debate about what had happened and who was to blame. Students actually listened to one another. “And they were able to register their complex emotions about the situation,” said Feigelson.

A big part of the problem with public discourse, contends Feigelson, is that we often begin by asking hard questions before we have explored big questions. A “hard question,” he says, is one that requires special knowledge to answer — so only some people feel they can answer it — and it bears fruit only if the participants in the discussion already share a degree of trust or rapport.

A “big question,” by contrast, is one that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer. Big questions have the potential to tap people’s sense of curiosity and to draw out wisdom from the heart.

Examples include: For whom are we responsibleWhat do we choose to ignoreWhere do you feel at homeHow does technology change usWhen do you conformWhen do you take a stand?

“If you start a student discussion with a hard question, like ‘How can we bring peace to the Middle East?,’” Feigelson says, “the two students who think they know the most are going to debate and protest, while everyone else watches and thinks they have nothing to contribute. It doesn’t build trust or capacity for solving problems. It creates an adversarial environment.”

By contrast, a big question can open a space in which each individual can contribute, speaking from experience, without feeling pressured to win a debate or demonstrate loyalty to a position. Big questions can help build the trust that’s necessary to grapple effectively with hard questions. For instance, one way to build toward a discussion of campus sexual assault is to frame a conversation around the question: “When have you been a witness?”

So what does this have to do with the essay that was set adrift?  Ask Big Questions is a communications tool for bridging gaps amongst disparate viewpoints; my original essay was designed to argue that such tools are necessary for bridging the gap between the military and the civilian societies they serve. The second part of that original essay (which follows below) argues that the national security community adopt some generalizable terms in communication with the public.  Enlarging complex issues, like asking big questions, can improve security discourse and facilitate key decisions. Without further adieu…

“The Civil-Military Bridge, Part 2 – Containment and Rollback Ride Again”

The civil-military gap matters.  This essay’s first part found that Americans do not know much about military or foreign policy, an information asymmetry which extends to basic factual knowledge about actors on the stage.  For example, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel just honored President’s Day by telling people that Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, which “didn’t stop people from remembering him fondly from his ‘funny Twitter account’ or cameo in ‘Pearl Harbor.’”  Unfortunately, at the same time, many national security and foreign policy elites “have become more and more specialized” in the words of Anne-Marie Slaughter, former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton – and spend little time or effort communicating with broad audiences.  “Part 1” counseled that security simplification and Shorthand Abstractions (SHAs: concepts that “make people smarter by providing widely applicable templates” like “market” and “placebo”) can be useful tactical tools for bridging this civil-military gap in the national security and foreign policy arenas.  This essay advocates two security relevant SHAs, “containment” and “rollback,” as replacements for national interest language in public discourse designed to bridge the civil-military gap.

National security and foreign policy elites have a particular vocabulary for describing security threats.  This language has become more complex over time, as the “Commission on America’s National Interests” alluded to in July 2000: “[d]uring the Cold War we had clearer, simpler answers to questions about American national interests.”  This commission, directed by the distinguished scholar Graham Allison, produced a report which advised that the general public ought to reconsider crucial questions, such as “which [security] issues matter most” and “[h]ow much should citizens be prepared to pay to addresses these threats or seize these opportunities?” Thus, the commission generated a “hierarchy of US national interests,” with key terms generally familiar to all in foreign policy circles today: vital, extremely important, important, and secondary (or less important interests; some prefer “peripheral”).

This hierarchy is extremely useful for national security and foreign policy elites and practitioners.  However, this report is indicative of a post-Cold War trend – doctrinal terms have expanded and become more complex. This is not a helpful development and likely widens the communication gap between the public at large and their national security and foreign policy leadership.

For example, President Barack Obama has made explicit use of this language, both in his 2009 speech on Afghanistan and 2011 speech on Libya.  With respect to Afghanistan, President Obama said that he had “determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.”  On Libya, he stated, “America has an important strategic interest in preventing Gadhafi from overrunning those who oppose him.”

These speeches were designed to bring the American people along to his preferred policy and generate much needed public support.

This did not work in the case of Afghanistan.  The war there is “arguably the most unpopular in U.S. history” and American support for the war effort has plummeted from 52% in December 2008 to just 17% in December 2013.  There are, admittedly, a lot of reasons why support for the war effort in Afghanistan has faded – but among the culprits is ineffective communication with the American public.  It seems that explaining distinctions between “vital” and “important” interests as code for intervention criteria is just too “inside baseball” for most Americans to grasp.

Could Shorthand Abstractions – or just a bit of simplification – be useful here?

In a word: yes. Thankfully, in 2005, Steven Biddle proposed two excellent security relevant SHAs. He called them simply “containment” and “rollback” – “largely because of their echo of certain similar debates during the Cold War.” For general description on each, he is worth quoting at length:

“Both [containment and rollback] involve serious costs as well as benefits. And to resolve these costs and benefits requires at least two critical value judgments. Is accepting near-term risk for a longer-term payoff preferable to the opposite? Rollback tolerates higher risk in the near-term for a possibly lower cumulative risk in the longer term; containment reduces near-term risks but may increase them in the longer term. And is high payoff at high risk preferable to a sure thing for a smaller payoff? Rollback swings for the fences (it pursues something closer to absolute security) at the risk of striking out (catastrophe if we fail); containment ensures contact with the ball (lower risk of catastrophic failure), but promises only singles in return (it cannot eliminate the threat of terror). Neither question is analytically resolvable.”

What are the advantages in adopting these SHAs?  First, “containment” and “rollback” are understandable and accessible to Americans, particularly the largest segment of the population – the “baby boomers” that experienced the Cold War. Even for those of the younger generations, the concept is intuitive: in the face of a security threat, does one “contain” or “roll it back?” Description of choice cannot get simpler than that.  This seemed to work before and during the Cold War.

Two helpful presidential examples: first, when journalist Lou Cannon reflected on President Ronald Reagan as “The Great Communicator,” chief among Cannon’s evidence was that Reagan “kept his message basic and simple.”  Think of Reagan’s use of the phrase “evil empire” as part of a broader rollback strategy against the Soviet Union.  Another instance might be the roughly 500-word speech FDR gave on December 8, 1941.  He explained the Japanese threat in plain language that “the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”  FDR described that the “Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace” and that they have “undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area.”  Then FDR spoke explicitly of containing the threat: “As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.”  Presidents Reagan and Roosevelt were skilled in the arts of public communication, and wielded these security SHAs to their benefit.

This advantage, of course, is useful for mobilizing the public, which is absolutely necessary when the likely human and financial costs are considerable.  At the same time, security and foreign policy SHAs are somewhat limited. These are only first order decisions that do not ameliorate the similarly difficult second step: how to contain?  How to rollback?  Clearly, halting Gaddafi in Libya or Assad in Syria would both be rollback operations, but the costs and risks for each are worlds apart. Security SHAs should be viewed as enablers; one communication tool amongst many to facilitate discussion on the initial, crucial political value decision – as a way of arriving at that second, equally important, operational step.

All journeys, however, begin with a single step. Security simplification and SHAs like “containment” and “rollback” can ease this first step and therefore ought to replace national interest language in public discourse designed to bridge the civil-military gap.