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April 06, 2005

Grand Strategy for Progressives
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

More and more these days, it seems progressives and the military could learn a lot from each other and, in fact, with outreach and an appropriate communications strategy, the two could become allies in developing a new civil-military relationship for the post 9/11 era. 

Broadly defined, "civil-military relations" refers to the relationship between the armed forces of the state and the larger society they serve -- how they communicate, how they interact, and how the interface between them is ordered and regulated.

What do the military and progressives have to learn from each other?  First of all, progressives, with their populist bent and their intuition about the benefits of broadly inclusive liberal society -- have much to contribute to the kinds of missions that the military has embarked upon since the end of the Cold War.  Even the Weekly Standard embraces nation-building in this week's cover story .

Progressives, on the other hand, could use a few lessons in thinking about battle plans and the military conceptualization of Grand Strategy with its subdivisions of strategy, operations and tactics. Grand Strategy is a broad and long-term theme -- like containment during the Cold War.  Strategy, operations and tactics breaks this theme down into more manageable pieces. This way of thinking, both broad and simultaneous, might be helpful for a group of citizens who often mistake tactics (public protest) for strategy (600 page outline on world peace) and vice versa.  Full disclosure: I have a healthy history of being chained to fences, and costumed street actions -- and have also worked in academia.  I truly respect both these types of contributions, but think they could be coordinated much more effectively.   

A progressive movement of sorts has created an entire cohort versed in the skills of interpersonal democracy.  This movement has built conflict resolution and peace studies into a healthy academic discipline. And on the professional side, a generation of mediators and facilitators have been working in the trenches of the American judicial system for decades.  These individuals intimately understand the art and science of pluralism and long-term needs.

Harnessing the contribution of conflict resolution professionals is already happening among military planners. Joint Forces Command is possibly the most progressive organization in the U.S. Government for this reason. 

An evolving relationship that illustrates this progressive-military combo is that of humanitarians working on the ground with the Army and Marines doing post conflict reconstruction. Indeed, humanitarian organizations and the military have found themselves working together amidst a combination of war, humanitarian disaster and nation-building for more than a decade.  This has caused a good deal of tension and strain on both sides. However, most recognize that the response should not be the avoidance of civil-military cooperation, but the de-stigmatization and standardization of the relationship between those sent to intervene militarily and those sent to relieve the suffering of the victimized people. Military intervention may be necessary to forestall continued fighting and suffering. Yet without the long-term programs and skills that relief and development NGOs bring, there can be no real hope for a sustained peace.

For progressive types who would like to dig deeper, keep an eye on the role of civil affairs in ongoing policy debates.

I write today from Northern California, where I’m attending a conference for progressive leadership. Of course, there is much discussion about the need for a cohesive framework, a “narrative” and core principles. But along with the traditional topics of race, class, environment and women’s issues, there is a clear agenda to develop new political space for public conversations about security issues. 

In one of the preparatory readings, an organizer named Joshua Hoyt, of the Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights mentions how individuals in neighborhoods, unions, churches and mosques constitute tens of thousands of hard-working leaders and organizers who are not invited to participate in these sorts of conferences but who are, in fact, vital to a new progressive Grand Strategy.  He goes on to say that it is important that progressive leaders reach into the rank and file and bring these people into the conversation so that they will know, first hand, that they are the answer to the questions we are asking.

I would argue that another group of people needing outreach and inclusion are Americans with military experience: professionals, Guard and Reserves and retired.  I have met many military professionals who are idealists of the most pragmatic sort.   Their public service ideals are a breath of fresh air in the stingy anti-government age we're living through.  I keep thinking, they are just what a progressive movement needs right now...


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From ten paragraphs only a single one attempts to answer the authors own question of what does the military gain by becoming "allies" with progressives. Unfortunately it fails the attempt, references to "intuition" vis a vis a "broadly inclusive liberal society" aside.

Frankly the entire notion is a bit absurd. The military exists to serve the needs of the state and only desires support to do what society asks of it. It is in fact by far the most racially intergrated institution or organization in our society and has no need of progressive insights into an inclusive society. On the political level it's only allies are those who support it.

One can heartily agree that progressives can learn quite a bit from the military, military strategy and history; however, exactly what the military would gain from this alliance is far from clear. Frankly it might have been far better to simply state the progressive movement needs to reach out to the military and military families as well as learning what it can from military culture.

For example the military considers it's job both important and it's reason for being. It's current most seen job is in Iraq. Saying one supports the troops but not the mission is an important distinction to many but to those serving in Iraq it can be a distinction without a difference as that is the job they have. Progressives need to rethink basic assumptions before they have much hope to improve relations with the military much less foster a rather one-sided alliance.

Lane Brody

Good comments Lane. While civil affairs and peace keeping missions have much to gain by working with all types of progressive community leaders and NGOs in conflict areas, the benefits of relationship in the US are less clear.

Perhaps an organized Democratic recruitment process for military personnel would help. We like heroes too.

But in the end, it seems that progressives themselves need to foster a greater sense of citizenship and service if we are to have any more Harry Truman types.

One more thing: A focused Democratic recruitment process for returning veterans is not overly cynical. Military service is important for presidential candidates down to town council candidates.

If we are to rebuild our party, recruiting returned veterans for local office and up is a completely practical grassroots strategy.

Many VFWs are practically owned by the Republicans, but they haven't always been and they don't always need to be.

Damn, are you reading my mind?

We absolutely must begin to recruit more uniformed men and women (esp. senior officers) to become the leaders of our party. Not only are they much more likely to hold sane, and I would say progressive, views on national security, but they have the organizational experience and skills that Progressives sorely lack, and they also are focused on many issues which definitely fall within the progressive political spectrum.

I've started a blog with the intention of just what you are advocating, and I really hope that this idea starts to gain more traction. The blog is and though it was started in an attempt to try and get Dems to reach out specifically to Gen Zinni, the goal of the site is to "recruit uniformed men and women who seek and speak the truth to run for public office"

Here's my plea to draft Gen. Anthony Zinni (Ret) to run for public office, as a Democrat.

Here's a list of progressive causes where the military is either with or way out in front of Democrats. Many of these come from the new focus on non-traditional or emerging threats, while others deal with societal effects on military readiness:
Global Warming

The need for a national health system

Affirmative Action

Credit Reform

Weak/Failing/Collapsed States

Transnational Crime

And of course fundementalist extremism, the enemy of every true liberal.

Your comments on grand strategy are spot on!

I've been saying for years that we are fighting a war of attrition. They have superior resources, technology and position, but we have superior numbers. Grind them down. Grind them down on every front. Where they are strongest hit them hardest. You will lose over and over and over again, but it doesn't matter because with every loss you win. It's the energy exerted, not the simplistic win loss ratios that matters. A futile battle in Nebraska can have profound effects on campaigns in other parts of the country. You may not beat them but you force them to adjust their position and expend resources.

Are biggest weakness isn't the strength of our opposition but our lack of understanding of both the terrain and the type of war being fought.

Alex- good looking site. I was firmly in the camp hoping for Kerry to ask Zinni to be VP, or barring that, Wes Clark.

On a broader party-building level, I think encouraging more military people to run at the local level would serve as a "farm league" for talented individuals to move up to state and national levels.

Great post, Ms. Kelly.

It used to be that there was a tradition of "liberal warriors" in America, people like my ancestor who left the Quaker Church and "crossed the Delaware" with General Washington because he believed fighting for America was not out of line with the ideals he lived in his church.

I think the best example of this kind of true hero is my good friend, the late Richard H. Best, Jr. - the man who sank the Japanese carrier "Akagi" at the Battle of Midway and in so doing turned the tide of the war, and athe man who also thought that he served his country in an even more important way when, as the Librarian of the RAND Corporation, he let Daniel Ellsberg take the copies he had made of "The Pentagon Papers" out of the building.

Until Vietnam, when the class-based draft let the midele and upper-class liberals escape service, and now today - when the poor fight and die for us in Iraq while their middle-class cohorts go off to college to contribute to the worsening of America because they're "too smart" to "waste time" in the military, "blue-state" America and the Democratic Party have only themselves to blame for not being part of - let alone "reaching out to" - the people who should be our natural constituency: those who know what a crock our Texas-Goat-Roper-In-Chief is.

Tom Cleaver

Also consider seeing the D-N-I site and Chuck Spinney's commentary on grand strategy, based on John Boyd's treatise. Very good stuff.

Oops forgot the DNI website -

Jeff- Thanks! I hope to move it off of blogger and onto CivicSpace or something else a little more robust in the not-to-distant future.

And if anyone out there is looking to find military personel for a farm team, Operation Truth is probably a great place to start.

They're getting attention from all quarters, the bloggers there are definitely progressive, and they're reaching out to "the young-uns" through Rock the Vote and Music for America (the group that got me started in active politics, and with whom I'm still inolved).

Their address is and they kick serious ass, so go give them a visit.

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