Limits of Grand Strategery

Before, during and after the tempest in a teapot over Barack Obama’s alleged lack of interest in an overarching national security doctrine (a.k.a. his claim that his guiding principle was “Don’t do stupid s**t”), there was a sort of an implied assumption that “grand strategy” in foreign policy meant an aggressive, unilateralist approach–you know, of the sort allegedly pursued by neocons on the center-right and Hilliary Clinton on the center-left. That’s really not true, insists the New America Foundation’s Heather Hurlburt (one of my favorite national security wonks) in a review of three new books by former U.S. military commanders in the latest issue of Washington Monthly.

Wesley Clark, James Starvidis and Tony Zinni all, notes Hurlburt, share the belief that the Iraq War was a disaster made far worse than it had to be by a lack of strategic planning. And to the extent they have a common hero, it’s none of the “war presidents,” but instead Dwight Eisenhower, a fellow military leader who focused on influencing cold wars rather than instigating hot ones. And they decisively part company with those who think only in terms of military threats and military reponses:

It has become de rigeur for civilian advocates—conservative, progressive, realist—to argue that the place of some or all transnational challenges in U.S. national security policy, from terrorism and cybersecurity to climate change and poverty, has been overblown. Realists will argue passionately that Washington must refocus on state-sponsored threats, or their absence. Progressives critique a security-industrial complex and its focus on constricting freedom in order to combat terrorism and cybersecurity. Conservatives dismiss worries about climate, disease, and other challenges whose effects are felt most viciously beyond our shores.

These three men would disagree. All three treat transnational threats— terrorism and cybersecurity but also crime and climate—as central problems for U.S. strategy. “Our house,” Zinni writes, “can no longer be defined by our geographic borders. … You can choose to play defense and wait for problems to wash up on your shores, or you can deal with them at their origins.” They treat transnational threats—terrorism and cybersecurity but also crime and climate—as central problems for U.S. strategy.

Where these unusually visionary military figures go wrong, suggests Hurlburt, is in believing there is a political foundation for a long-term “grand strategy” for national security like the one that existed, for good and for ill, during the Cold War, based on long-range bipartisan compromises:

[T]hat kind of compromise is exactly what our political system is unable to produce right now, as voters tell pollsters they want leaders to work together and then vote for candidates who promise obstruction. Voters seem to perceive past glories as the outcome of winning arguments and triumphant personalities rather than compromise—and civilian historians might not disagree. It’s no surprise that flag officers have no more idea than the public, political scientists, or good-government crusaders of how to produce any set of coherent policy outcomes, much less grand strategy, in our turbulent, atomized, and polarized political landscape.

But if a “grand strategy” is currently difficult to forge or maintain, a different quality is attainable across party lines and administrations:

[T]he answer just may lie with Eisenhower. Stavridis and Zinni both cite a quote that is less well known to civilians than, perhaps, it should be: “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” All three stress over and over that it is the process of planning, debating, thinking through options and possible outcomes, and asking seemingly unthinkable questions that is the bedrock of good policymaking. Establishing resources and space to do that—in the National Security Council and Cabinet departments but also in Congress and public dialogue—might not lead us to Clark’s future of climate security and energy riches, but it could hardly lead us further away. It would likely have prevented the full extent of the Iraq catastrophe. It wouldn’t end partisan competition—our system is designed for that—but it would make our partisans more informed, and more able to sample the best ideas of their opponents, without credit, in the best American tradition. That alone would be a worthy fusion of the twin traditions of military strategy and partisan governance.

If nothing else, we’d be less likely to do “stupid sh**t.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.