Because FPI is all about amplifying female foreign policy voices, we’re rolling out a regular brain-picking Q&A feature with awesome interruptors.

This week, we want to make sure Janine Davidson is on your radar. 

She recently joined the Council on Foreign Relations as a senior fellow for defense policy, based in Washington, DC. On her docket: defense strategy and policy, military operations, national security, and civil-military relations. Phew.

Davidson was deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans from 2009-2012. In that role, she oversaw the development of guidance for military campaign and contingency plans (We’ll get to what that means below). Her 2010 book “Lifting the Fog of Peace: How Americans Learned to Fight Modern War,” showed how, “contrary to popular myth, the U.S. military has spent 250 years conducting humanitarian operations, counterinsurgency, and peacekeeping operations, culminating with the controversial ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan and Iraq.” In 2008, she oversaw the founding of the Consortium for Complex Operations, to enhance unified efforts between civilian and military experts.  

Also, fun-fact: She began her career in the Air Force, where she flew combat support and humanitarian air mobility missions throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.  

We’d also like to point out she was the first woman to fly a C-130. No big deal. (Yep, that calls for a GIF).

Our brain-picking session begins:

FPI: How would you explain your job and expertise to a third-grader?

My expertise started when I went to graduate school to study what I really wanted to study, which was international relations. The Air Force made me study engineering. So people look at my bio and say, “architectural engineering? What’s that?” That’s what I studied to get an Air Force scholarship. But my expertise stems from my time in the Air Force, which peaked my interest in international relations, national security — the role of America and America’s military in the world.

So, I went back to graduate school and wrote my dissertation on non-traditional missions of the US military because of my experience in the Air Force. We kept flying humanitarian aid missions…we were flying to the Balkans. The commander kept saying things like, “This isn’t our real mission.” And I’d think, “Well, this is all I’ve ever done.” So that became my area of expertise.

In researching that, I learned the long history of the US military doing what we would call “irregular warfare,” counter-insurgency and stability operations. Timing wise, this was when the Iraq war emerged, and Afghanistan, so I became heavily engaged in the policy debates. It was really the whole group of people trying to figure out how to make sense of Iraq…how to apply counter-insurgency theory, however controversial it is now, it was a framework we could use to help troops put out this five-alarm fire that many of us thought was a stupid idea to begin with. 

When I got engaged in President Obama’s campaign and went into the government, I was able to branch out. My portfolio there was on war plans.

So – broadly – for a third grader: in America, civilians control the military. It isn’t just the president. It’s a vast array of people who work in the Pentagon and the White House, that help bridge the gap between complicated military operations and what America wants to do with its military. So I was like a translator between the military planners and the secretary of defense.

FPI: When it comes to the US military’s presence around the world, where are we getting it right? Where are we getting it wrong?

People get confused about presence. There’s a difference between presence and sustaining posture and engagement on the one hand, and intervening and fighting wars on the other.

On the former, we’ve had troops positioned around the world since the end of WWII, and it may be hard to prove a counter-factual, but I think it’s pretty well accepted that our presence in Asia, 100,000 or so troops between Japan and Korea, has been a stabilizing force in that region.

You can find quotations from Japanese leaders…that if we were to leave they’d be forced to build their military and the most economic way to do that would be just to go nuclear. So we’ve kept that region from spiraling into the violent conflict that they’re always pressured to engage in. You have North Korea breathing down people’s necks, which is scary. We’ve gotten that right.

So I think the “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia is the right thing to do. It’s more for diplomatic and economic reasons than military, but the military is important in supporting those reasons. We’ve been distracted by two very long and bloody wars the past ten years. We’re shifting our attention back to where it should be for the coming decades.

In Europe…it’s similar. We’ve had fifty years of rebuilding Europe in our NATO alliance. We’re the linchpin on that. And I think people sort of take for granted the stability we have in Europe. I’m a big believer that those long-term relationships are important to sustain, and the military plays an important role in that, and we do that well. And no one else does that – we do that. We have a lot of power, and we can and should be engaged globally, because we’re completely interconnected.

Now, intervention…we’ve massively screwed up.

FPI: On that note, what’s the main lesson we can learn from Iraq, and separately, from Afghanistan?

The overarching lesson from Iraq is about patience. You can compare it to what we’re doing in Iran. There are people who are beating the drums for a massive military intervention or bombing in Iran. But to achieve our objectives, the threat of force is of course always there. We don’t have to invade a country, turn it upside down to influence events in the region.  But non-military methods take time, people get impatient.

The big lesson…and it comes out pretty well in Robert Gates’s new memoir…is not to turn to the military instrument for every security problem that makes you feel uncomfortable around the world. There are other ways to handle things. But sometimes people get impatient and think there will be some magic trick through the use of force. The status quo in Iraq was uncomfortable…but it doesn’t mean there were not other options. Militarily, once we invaded, we also screwed it up. There is a lot of blame to go around here.

Afghanistan is another interesting case. The biggest lesson we keep from there is the fundamental reminder from Clausewitz that says you need to know what kind of war you’re engaging in. It’s naïve to think you can send a couple thousand troops just to keep Al-Qaeda at bay and you won’t have to do anything else in a country that had such internal conflict simmering for decades.

We were never quite clear what our objectives were in Afghanistan– is it just about terrorism? Or are we going to try to rebuild the country? And also: once you do decide that you’re going to actually engage, and you do think it’s worth it, that it is in the national interest – I think we have a tendency to try to do things quickly and on the cheap when we know that things like this will take a long time and a big commitment. If we had put up the commitment up front – the number of troops and resources we should have known it would take to promote stability, it probably would have taken less time and less money.  Instead, we try fast and cheap, then keep inching away at it and thinking it would get better.

FPI: And how about Syria?

Syria is an incredibly wicked problem. The fundamental problem is that there’s no good side to pick. It’s as complicated as the Balkans or the Spanish Civil War. On the one hand, you have a brutal dictator who is slaughtering people and on the other hand, you have an unorganized and an opposition heavily infiltrated by extremists. And so, picking the right side and marching in with troops like it’s World War I, saying “Help is on the way” …it’s just naïve. From a military perspective, there aren’t a lot of good solutions.

Now, again, it depends on what problem you’re trying to solve. Are you trying to solve the entire civil war? The broader regional conflict?  Then it’s a wicked military problem. Are you trying to just alleviate humanitarian suffering? Then I think there are things that could be done and are being done.  That’s when the military can also help in non-traditional ways I’ve talked about, like protecting civilians and aid workers helping civilians. What can be done versus what should be done are two different questions.

FPI: What have been some of the difficulties or challenges you’ve faced being a woman in the industry? And what advice do you have for young interruptors?

Well, I think it’s changed over time. I was the first woman to fly C-130s.  I look back at that time and I think of the ridiculous things I put up with that women don’t have to, at least not as much, today. Being the first woman in the C-130 community was interesting because all the men thought they were gruff and funny with raunchy jokes and magazines. They were so petrified when I came in. It was like walking into a locker room. I’d always get my own room, and the guys would of course always make jokes about that.

And there were some serious things, like when we’d deploy down in Thailand, and these guys were sleeping with prostitutes – I mean, it was awkward. And I never dealt with sexual harassment but I dealt with discrimination – guys in my group who were going to aircraft commander school before me. And I would think, “Well, maybe I’m not ready.”

But then people started telling me, “They’re not sending you because you’re a woman. You have to fight for yourself.” So I finally did. I talked to the commander and asked him why I hadn’t been sent yet. The commander told me that the chief pilot had told him I plateaued. But I had never flown with that pilot, or with the commander. So that week I flew with the squadron commander. And I had my orders for aircraft commander school at the end of the week. I was ready, but apparently, some men just couldn’t imagine a woman in the left seat as commander.

So, while my advice for women in the field is to have a sense of humor and to not always look for discrimination, there’s a fine line between having a chip on your shoulder and being a chump. I was being a chump when I thought that I wasn’t being sent to aircraft commander school because I wasn’t good enough. You have to ride that line delicately.

But look, I’m amazed by how many awesome women do what I do in Washington. When I was at the Pentagon…sometimes all the civilian officials at the table would be women sitting opposite a row of generals who were all men. On the uniform military side, women still have some doors that are closed, so there just aren’t the numbers of generals and admirals yet.  But they are coming up the ranks now!

FPI: What’s your favorite thing about flying?

The freedom. It’s beautiful. It’s exhilarating.

FPI: And because your job isn’t necessarily akin to spending time at a yoga retreat/Ashram in India, do you have any tips for stress-relief?  

I’m actually going on a yoga retreat this weekend up in Massachusetts – The Kripalu yoga studio.

FPI: Get your downward dog on, girl.