The only time I seriously contemplate suicide is circa 2 o’clock on the first day of a two-day, government-sponsored conference. Whatever enthusiasm might have existed has long since been crushed by the tedium of pontificating panelists. The morning’s rock-hard “croissants” from a buffet that would have made Mr. Bumble wince are defying my digestive tract and I’ve sunk into the sort of torpor that makes time stand still.
So it was at a recent conference of government and think tank worthies on strategic policy. But as I was contemplating the relative merits of bullet and pill, a phrase suddenly pierced my consciousness. Someone had mentioned the “Third Offset,” and mentioned it in a tone that implied the upper case and quotation marks. I perked up. But no sooner had the speaker spoken than he or she (Chatham House rules prevent me from being more specific) added that this was a subject the details of which could not be discussed in an unclassified environment, where, he or she hinted, the air was thick with treason. Apparently, details of this new offset were in a compartment within a compartment, yea, even unto the ninth circle of compartmentalization.
I could elicit no more from the informal group huddled around the mostly defrosted danishes and luke-warm brown liquid provided at the afternoon break. All I could learn was that “The Third Offset” was a very big offset indeed.
As soon as I was back home, I called my contact, Schmedly, at the State Department. “Schmedly,” I urged, “tell me about “The Third Offset.”
“It’s big,” Schmedly offered, tentatively.
“That’s all you can say?” I complained. “Really big,” demurred Schmedly, “and that’s all I know. We don’t get involved in serious matters here at State. Better call Pumphrett at Defense.”
The telephone in Pumphrett’s office rang for several minutes. I silently damned caller I.D. When he finally answered I eschewed the usual pleasantries. “Pumphrett,” I barked, “What is ‘The Third Offset’?”
“Are you cleared for sensitive compartmented information?” Pumphrett whispered.
“Of course not.”
“Well, that wouldn’t have been enough anyway. So all I can tell you is that it’s big. And I would add, really big.” He was struggling to sound matter of fact, but his tone was tumescent with implication.
“Don’t bandy words with me, Pumphrett,” I objected. “Do I have to remind you of that night in Bangkok?” (I happen to know that Pumphrett once committed a public indecency in Bangkok, where the bar for such offenses is set extremely high.) “Now, what is the Third Offset?”
I could hear him gulp. He relented. “Do you remember the first offset?” he queried.
“Of course.” I was impatient. “That was ‘Engine Charlie’ Wilson and Eisenhower. More bang for the buck. Nukes instead of boots on the ground.”
“And the second offset?”
“Certainly,” I averred. “The Revolution in Military Affairs. Speed, accuracy, drones. But that was Cold War, Pumphrett: A bifurcated world, clear lines of confrontation, things to offset. Now we’re ahead. What are we offsetting? It must mean something.”
“Au contraire,” giggled Pumphrett. (So, he did remember Bangkok). “The third offset can’t mean something. It has to mean anything. Don’t you see?”
“Explain yourself,” I insisted.
“Remember Containment?” Pumphrett parried. “It was wonderful. We unseated dictators in some place and installed dictators in others. We bolstered Germany, flattened Viet Nam, invaded Cambodia, and complained when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. It was all containment. Kennan thought it meant something, but we soon got rid of him. Ah, those were the good old days.”
“What a minute there, Pumphrett,” I interjected. “Vietnam wasn’t containment. It was deterrence.”
“Exactly,” he chortled. “Now you’re catching on. It was containment and deterrence, plus roll back with a large dash of dominos. The slaughter became so intense for a while there that we had trouble thinking of slogans enough to keep up. Then we lost and nothing happened.”
“Of course. They were just words for what we happened to be doing at the time. Nobody really knew why, any more than anyone knows why we invaded Iraq.”
“Iraq? But that was WMD. Or was it democratization? Wait a minute, perhaps it was nation-building.”
“You see, now you’re catching on. It’s easy to accomplish a mission if the mission is whatever you happen to be accomplishing.”
“But how about reality? I queried. “How about a rule-based international order?”
“Reality is an inconvenience,” Pumphrett allowed, “but we’ve learned to overcome it. We use metaphors instead. And there definitely are rules. You can’t have a grand strategy without rules. It’s simple really. A grand strategy has to be rendered in three words or less, contain at least one hard consonant (two are better) and yield a pronounceable acronym. Oh, and it’s best if it conjures a visual image. Nothing too specific, mind. The less it means, the more likely all will agree. But it has to sound as if it means something. And, I almost forgot: there has to be something for everyone.
“What are you talking about, Pumphrett?” I squealed.
“I’m talking about COIN,” he snorted. “Building schools in Baghdad: COIN. Shooting anything that moves in Helmand: COIN again. Soccer balls and F-15’s, all COIN. I’m talking about Star Wars, MAD, SALT, START, massive retaliation (that was the Air Force), flexible response, (that got the Army into the act), assured second strike (the Navy’s share of the pie), rapid reinforcement, defense in depth and the escalatory ladder. That ladder was a great one! An imaginary ladder with imaginary rungs! Almost as vivid as those dominoes, don’t you think—although, to be fair, nothing stacked the corpses like imaginary dominoes. But I digress. I’m talking about roll-back, democratization, axis of evil, nation building, escalation dominance, hearts and minds, compellance, the New Look, mission accomplished, the pivot.”
“Now just a darn minute, there, Pumphrett,” I objected. “Learned people write about these things. Think tanks think about them, the professordom professes, bloggers blog. Why, at this very moment, thousands of graduate students are paying tens of thousands of dollars to study them in stupefying detail. How else would they transform themselves from sensible young people into academics? All of them must think these things are real.”
Pumphrett was laughing hysterically now. In the background, I could hear the sound of shouting and running feet. Who knew they still bothered to monitor telephone calls? “Of course they do,” he chortled. “That’s the beauty of it. They tell us what our catchphrases mean. And since they don’t really mean anything, there’s work for all.”
“And the third offset’s like that?”
“Oh no,” Pumphrett countered. “It’s much better.” Now I could hear the sounds of grappling, but Pumphrett, unleashed, was not to be denied. “Since the old offsets actually offset things,” he shouts, his voice receding, “they didn’t last long. There would be periods of stability. The third offset doesn’t offset anything in particular, so it has to offset everything in general. But it can never do that. We can always come up with something that hasn’t been offset yet, or might have to be offset in the future. There will never be a Fourth Offset because the Third Offset will never end; it will last to infinity and beyond. Perpetual conflict. That’s why it’s compartmentalized. That’s the great secret.”
“Wow,” I mused. “That’s some offset.”
Pumphrett was screaming from a great distance now. There was the sound of two heels, dragging.
“It’s the best there is,” he choked out, just as the line went dead.