The interview below is with IWP student Christopher L. Webb, who is currently enrolled in the MA program in Statecraft and National Security Affairs with a concentration in Public Diplomacy and Political Warfare. He plans to graduate in May 2014.
Please tell us a little about your background, and how you got involved with the military.
All the men in my family have served in the military, but by the time I was born they had all become firmly planted in the “civilian world,” never saying much about their service. Take your psychology advice from a French major with a grain of salt, but I feel like that situation lent a mysterious appeal to military service.
Wanting to experience military service while keeping my doors open, I was fortunate enough to be admitted to VMI and left for a “transition program” in summer of 2003. One month into the program, my noncommittal plans went out the window, and I decided to double down by enlisting in the National Guard as an infantryman.
I am honored to say that my nine years of service were among the most formative events of my life, and heavily influenced every aspect of my worldview.
I left Iraq with a fierce determination to try and engender a mindset where our foreign policymakers exhaust the less lethal tools of international relations prior to employing the most costly tools in our arsenal.
What were your experiences like in Kosovo and Iraq?
In the course of my service, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to participate in two remarkably different deployments.
While studying abroad through a military exchange program with L’Ecole Polytechnique, I got word that my unit would be deploying to one of several locations in about six months. Though my distance prevented me from some of the administrative pre-deployment events, my leadership was able to find me a role as Assistant Squad Leader for the upcoming deployment, and several weeks after returning from my exchange program I was gearing up for deployment to a then-mysterious land called Kosovo.
All told, my deployment lasted about a year and a half, and I would liken the experience to a forced opening of one’s eyes. As infantrymen we would try to excite ourselves by referring to the mission not as “peacekeeping,” but as “peace enforcement.” My first venture outside the wire of Camp Bondsteel forcefully tempered this view. We spent most of our time talking to the local Albanians, visiting the few Serbian enclaves, ensuring protection of historical sites, and trying desperately to reduce the illegal woodcutting trade that was contributing to deforestation.
For a young man who had been trained in surgical application of overwhelming force, these operations were a shock to my expectations. On nearly every mission, however, we would encounter either deserted towns, destroyed relics, or unexploded ordinance left over from the war. We would quietly patrol through destroyed areas where the most prominent signs of former life were discarded toys and children’s shoes.
This was the point in my life where I started to realize the long-term consequences of applying force in conflict. Having worked with our NATO allies, local police, local governments, and local populations to ensure the continuation of peace and advancement of living standards, I left Kosovo with a new appreciation for the less explosive tools of foreign policy.
After returning from Kosovo to finish my cadetship at VMI, I graduated and went to work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, transferring to the D.C. Guard. Within a few months of moving to D.C., I got word that my old unit was heading to Iraq for convoy security missions. For the second time, I was fortunate enough to have leadership that worked diligently to get me back to my old unit and find me a position as Assistant Convoy Commander.
When people ask me how the Iraq deployment went, I prefer to respond with: “My men all came back, and we got back early.” Between Kosovo and Iraq, I have seen both sides of the foreign policy spectrum, and I left Iraq with a fierce determination to try and engender a mindset where our foreign policymakers exhaust the less lethal tools of international relations prior to employing the most costly tools in our arsenal.
How did you get interested in border security? When did you join the border patrol?
For someone who is by nature non-confrontational, it’s a bit ironic that I’ve always had a fascination for friction and competing interests. Given this fascination, it’s fitting that I would take a position with the Border Patrol during my first semester at IWP.
Beyond the obvious geopolitical friction inherent in border security, my current position allows me to navigate between two levels of government where friction is often found: the headquarters and the field offices. Through strategic requirements planning and analysis, I’m able to serve as a link between overarching security strategy and needs on the ground.
What I’ve found is a genuine desire among diverse parties to accomplish the mission of border security, and I’ve consistently been impressed with the level of forethought and integrity with which this organization operates at all levels.
IWP stands above other institutions in the fact that we talk about subjects others too often ignored: moral leadership; philosophical foundations of ethics; rhetoric; propaganda; cultural considerations to policy; public diplomacy; our failures as well as our success.
What attracted you to IWP?
I was initially introduced to IWP when a respected professor at VMI mentioned it in passing. The content of the conversation in which IWP was mentioned is lost to time, but the respect I held for this professor kept those three letters firmly planted in my mind.
A few years later, my strong interest in international affairs led me to recognize how much more there was to learn about grand strategy, and I decided to start looking for graduate programs in the D.C. area. In addition to the program’s flexibility to accommodate working students, I was most impressed by the practitioner-scholar nature of the faculty.
Have you taken any classes that you particularly enjoyed?
The most interesting classes I’ve completed so far have been “Public Diplomacy and Political Warfare” and “Foreign Propaganda, Perceptions and Policy.” While I had experienced these themes firsthand, these courses brought to light both the strength of these tools and the fragile nature with which they must be surgically integrated into grand strategy.
Through my studies and experiences, I’ve seen the impact of these tools being both used and neglected, and I hope that wherever life takes me I’ll have the ability to integrate these tools in a manner that will exploit their overwhelming effectiveness to save costs, both in terms of blood and treasure.
How has studying at IWP changed your thoughts about strategy?
IWP stands above other institutions in the fact that we talk about subjects others too often ignored: moral leadership; philosophical foundations of ethics; rhetoric; propaganda; cultural considerations to policy; public diplomacy; our failures as well as our success. We explore the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas alongside those of Machiavelli, and we discuss the role of cultural diplomacy alongside military strategy. And this all takes place among a remarkably diverse student body and faculty where differences of opinion and experiences are respected. But not passively respected, as too often happens.
The differences we experience in discussions and studies lead to constructive dialogue and conclusions tempered in reality, leaving us all better than when we entered.
Again, it’s my obsession with friction. Where hard power meets soft; where knowledge meets ignorance; where Plato meets Lincoln meets Machiavelli; where Utopianism meets Realism. Maybe it’s the enlisted infantryman side of me, but I feel like the resolution of these frictions is essential in building and executing successful grand strategy.
Have your studies at IWP impacted how you approach your profession?
The nature of my job can easily permit the development of tunnel vision, and my studies at IWP have been most influential in helping me to take a step back to look at the broader implication of both strategic and tactical operations.
My studies have helped me to evaluate each day’s work asking two main questions: how does this task integrate into broader national security policy; and how will perceptions influence the success of its implementation?
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to envision myself finding a career that allows me to maximize cultural and public diplomacy in a manner that facilitates our national interests. While I’m not yet set on a specific geographic region, I’ve begun to take a strong interest in Latin American affairs and their cultural influences. Broadly speaking, this is a region ripe with both friction and room for improvement in regards to U.S. policy and relations.
Update, March 2021
Eight years after the initial publication of this spotlight, we followed up with Chris.
Can you tell us a little about your professional work since graduation?
After working with the U.S. Border Patrol, I went over to the Customs side of the house, where I did more data analysis and was promoted to Branch Chief of Human Resources Policy and Programs at the Office of Field Operations for Customs and Border Protection. I then was promoted to Deputy Director of Human Capital for the Office of Field Operations, overseeing the entirety of human resources functions for a law enforcement workforce of approximately 30,000.
In 2019, I made a purposeful switch to gain experience in a more operationally sized unit with a broader portfolio. I came over to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, where I am currently serving as Mission Support Chief for the Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate, where we oversee the adjudications process for refugee and asylum seekers. In this role, I oversee immigration records, property, and human resources for a workforce of approximately 2,000, in dozens of locations around the world.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you have encountered?
The biggest operational challenges have been the constant state of change over the last several years as administration priorities have changed. It has been a challenge to pivot a highly specialized and dispersed organization to meet these policy and priority changes while ensuring continued alignment with the Department of Homeland Security’s mission, goals, and legal considerations. With the new administration, we continue to navigate a changing environment. The workforce and leadership, however, are dedicated to both the mission and public service, and I am proud to work in such a resilient, competent, and professional environment.
Has your IWP education continued to be helpful in your years since graduation?
I would say it has been helpful on two fronts – practical and philosophical.
In terms of practical considerations, after attending IWP as an evening student in addition to a full-time job, the brass tacks that go into IWP have been helpful. I have learned the value of a half hour’s research – digging in, interviewing people, and gathering information. This practice has been helpful in navigating fast-paced and highly complex environments under pressure.
I also gained an appreciation for the concept of relying on experts. You don’t need to be an expert on everything, but you do need to know where to find the experts. For instance, adjudication policy can be highly complex and have cascading effects throughout an organization. If you identify and engage with varied experts, you can easily get a good idea of the best way to proceed.
I often joke that with my focus on political warfare and propaganda at IWP, I am well situated to craft an argument and have it sit well with an audience.
In terms of the philosophical aspect of IWP, what continues to be beneficial has been my ability to recognize the philosophical and moral foundations of someone’s views and leverage that knowledge in a mutually beneficial way. While policies and priorities may change, at the end of the day, it is the United States’ core values around refugees and immigration that hold fast. Recognizing this fact allows you to work with a diverse group, building upon a common and stable foundation to work towards a common goal.
One thing that has also been very useful is the concept of grand strategy that we learned at IWP – the need to take a proactively holistic approach in tackling complex issues in a timely, thorough, and coordinated manner. In the federal bureaucracy, the temptation can be to take what is often the path of least resistance: take the directives of senior leadership and execute them by the letter. Oftentimes, however, the national interest is best served by slowing down for just a brief moment to apply the holistic approach common to a properly formed grand strategy: identify stakeholders, resources, restraints, overlapping interests and efforts, and devising a plan to accomplish leadership intent efficiently in a coordinated and sustainable manner.