Andrew Marshall, the longtime director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, has had a number of titles conferred on him over the years. A 1999 profile in Washingtonian magazine dubbed him “the most influential policy maker you have never heard of.” Others of us who have known him over the years have christened him “the Jedi Master” because, like the enigmatic Yoda from the George Lucas Star Wars saga, he has an uncanny ability to see ahead and to grasp the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s adversaries.
As the only man to head up the Office of Net Assessment since its creation in 1973, he has, of course, seen his share of internecine battles in which one or another part of the Pentagon establishment wanted to put him out to pasture, either closing his office down or moving it out from under the secretary of defense and into some bureaucratic backwater where it would die a quiet death.
But America’s most experienced and capable defense strategist is now under concerted attack from above. According to sources familiar with the foreign policy debate within the administration, the White House is not pleased with the analyses of Net Assessment on the prospects for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) becoming a more serious military adversary down the road. A slew of stories in recent weeks have reported that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel intends either to defund the Office of Net Assessment or reorganize it in such a way as to be tantamount to closing it.
Ask any number of defense and foreign policy specialists in the United States, Asia, and Europe who know Marshall and are familiar with his work and you hear a surprisingly uniform response: This is an administration that chronically behaves in an obsequious manner towards hostile countries while denigrating friends and allies. Why is anyone surprised that they would not like a senior strategist who takes the PRC seriously as a potential threat?
At the same time, when you ask the administration’s enablers to defend the quiet campaign to have Marshall’s office shut down, you hear a chorus of intellectually bankrupt innuendo. “He has been in the job for forty years, that’s too long.” (Translation: You cannot have anyone in a senior position who is far wiser and more experienced than our narcissistic president and his retinue.) Then there is the old tried-and-true “Nixon appointee” name-calling, as if that automatically makes someone evil. (Actually, he was an appointee of then-defense secretary James Schlesinger.) Not to mention the slander that compares him to J. Edgar Hoover, as a bureaucratic survivor who has outmaneuvered his political master.
Not only is “comparing Marshall to Hoover obscene,” said one U.S. specialist on the Russian military I spoke with, “but there was one political master named Bob Gates who had no problem with Andy at all because he was wise enough in the ways of Washington to realize what a national resource Net Assessment was. If Gates [who ran the Pentagon from 2006-11] never complained about how Marshall did business, it means there is nothing to this whingeing about having ‘outmaneuvered’ people above him.”
The campaign against Marshall first came to light in an August 2012 Washington Post article that depicted him as a kind of mad scientist peddling pessimistic doomsday scenarios. An old joke was recycled, that his small operation of a dozen or so staffers should be known as the “Office of Threat Inflation.”
Yet the last label anyone who knows Marshall’s work would put on him is that of alarmist. When I was living in Moscow in the 1990s, one of the proposals floating around the post-Soviet Russian diplomatic and military community was a tripartite strategic alliance with either India and Iran or China and Iran. The Russians’ theory was that such a three-nation bloc could be a balancer against the now-sole superpower in Washington.
As I described this to Marshall in his Pentagon office a few weeks later, he took a sanguine view. Unlike the political hacks of the day, Marshall understood that all of these nations faced huge internal problems—decrepit to nonexistent infrastructure, demographic train wrecks foreseeable down the tracks, lack of a stable middle class, rampant growth of diseases like HIV and TB—that are long-term impediments to becoming peer competitors to the United States. Rather than dashing off a self-serving memo to his superiors on “why we need to bulk up the defense budget,” he managed a smile and a chuckle. “That’s just great,” he said. “Three crippled nations pulling together—let them try one of those combinations.”
That response is illustrative of his thinking. Rather than being distracted by flashy proclamations of foreign politicians who try to score points with their populations, he looks at facts. He reminds you of the quotation attributed to every great military mind from Napoleon to Omar Bradley: “Amateurs think about tactics, professional military men study logistics.”
In September 2012, for instance, China’s PLA Navy put their one and only aircraft carrier to sea for trial runs, having spent more than a decade and untold piles of money refitting the ship. The carrier was originally built for the Soviet Navy as the Varyag, and was purchased by Beijing in 1999 in a half-completed state from the Nikolayev shipyards in Ukraine and towed halfway around the world to the PLA Navy shipyards in Dalian.
Aircraft carriers may be a necessity for a nation like the United States with a blue-water navy and the need to project power. But China likely only intends to use a carrier to extend its land-based air defense network and control vital sea routes, which will make it a huge sinkhole for money more effectively spent in other ways. The opportunity cost of owning it is likely to be very high. Once again—looking at these numbers—Marshall sagely observed, “Well, I am glad to see [the Chinese] finally have an aircraft carrier.”
In reality, the Office of Net Assessment looks at a cornucopia of future alignments of nations and interests—a conflict with an aggressive and hostile PRC being only one of many potential eventualities they consider, and Marshall is by no means fixated on a future in which the Chinese become our most dreaded and powerful enemy.
“The irony of the [Post] article,” he said just after its publication last summer, “is that we here are about the only institution in the U.S. government also looking seriously at the other side of the coin as well—that the weaknesses of Chinese national unity could cause the PRC to collapse and it could fracture into more than one regional power—and how the United States would cope with that eventuality.”
Marshall’s chief sin, from the perspective of the White House, may simply be that he is an independent thinker in an administration that doesn’t value independence. Asks the U.S. military specialist, If you think that the Office of Net Assessment “paints an overly aggressive picture of the PRC and that that crowd in Beijing are actually such nice people, then why [did Obama call for] the ‘pivot to Asia’ that the U.S. military has been committed to?”
Reuben F. Johnson writes frequently on defense issues for The Weekly Standard and IHS Jane’s Information Group in London and has also consulted for the Office of Net Assessment.