Is a Grand Strategy for America Even Possible?

Three of our finest flag officers attempt to offer unifying visions for the United States, but run aground on the same political polarization that flummoxes everything else.

Fall 2014 produced a bumper crop of books from retired four-star flag officers: James Stavridis’s The Accidental Admiral, Wesley Clark’s Don’t Wait for the Next War, and Tony Zinni’s Before the First Shots Are Fired. (Zinni shares authorial credit with Tony Koltz, coauthor of previous works with Zinni, Colin Powell, and the late Tom Clancy.) Midway through his own tour of security policy, Stavridis sums up the role of the U.S. military leadership in policymaking: “[I]n a sense we were car mechanics evaluating a vehicle for the owner … and then unemotionally executing the direction from the car’s owner, in this case the United States.”

Jan15-Clark-BooksDon’t Wait for the Next War:
A Strategy for American Growth
and Global Leadership

by Wesley K. Clark
PublicAffairs, 272 pp.

Stavridis, Clark, and Zinni were the “lead mechanics” for U.S. military interventions in Libya and Kosovo, and played key roles in the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They counseled and watched half a dozen presidents and uncounted congressional committee chairs, seeing those leaders perhaps as closely as anyone outside their inner circles is ever allowed. The three men are soldier-statesmen, perhaps as close as our time comes to “Renaissance men”: classics-quoting, economics-teaching, tweeting, Daily Show-appearing warriors. They hold degrees from Annapolis, West Point, Harvard, Oxford, and other elite institutions, most acquired at taxpayer expense. The operations of the last two decades forced them to get to know, and partner with, social workers and rape counselors, engineers and social media gurus, management consultants and diplomats. Together they gave their country more than a century of service—and at least two of their children followed them into uniform.

And they have a message for our country. Though their three 2014 books cover strategy, autobiography, history, and politics, they can be summed up in one urgent sentence: The “car” of U.S. national strategy needs a new GPS.

Each man points to the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a catastrophic failure, for which they indict the leadership of the Bush administration explicitly. Zinni calls the failure to plan “a clear disaster” and refers to “the stupidity of believing their own bumper stickers.” Implicitly or explicitly, though, all three point the finger more broadly: at our broken politics, weak connections between civilian and military leaders, problematic construct of leadership, outdated civilian institutions, and, above all, a disregard for strategic planning.

If the three books share a villain, they also share a hero: President, also General, Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Modern American strategy really begins with Eisenhower,” Clark writes, and then explains what he means: “Ike created a politically supported, unified national strategy using the Cold War—not a hot war—as the motivating force. This strategy was not just about actions abroad, it was also about building strength at home. … [H]e used the leverage of profound challenges abroad to gain domestic political cooperation between the parties.”

The Accidental Admiral:
A Sailor Takes Command at NATO

by James Stavridis
Naval Institute Press, 288 pp.

The three are in broad agreement on some key approaches to American national security policy. They retain immense confidence in U.S. power, and the possibility and desirability of U.S. leadership— for both pragmatic and moral ends. They tie this confidence not as much to the military strength they oversaw as to what they perceive as the reality or potential of American society. Zinni expresses this as faith in a rising generation of civil and military leaders; Stavridis enthuses over the American dynamism and innovation he sees from his own immigrant past to the idea-driven whizzes he commands; and Clark lays out an extensive vision of how American resources and ingenuity could make the United States a net energy exporter, address climate change, and provide new impetus to efforts to help poor and conflict-ridden societies.

Their approach—you could call it “muscular military multilateralism”—lines up excellently, as well, with the characteristics Americans tell pollsters they want to see in our security policy: a strong military, stronger diplomacy, and a willingness to both talk to our enemies and shoot them.

What keeps them awake at night? For Stavridis it is not the Chinese navy (though he writes with longing of his dreams of commanding a ship again) but “convergence”: “deviant globalization” that combines traditional threats such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction with the networks of criminals, drug dealers, and human traffickers. Clark ranks climate change and the weakness of the U.S. financial system with terrorism and China as key strategic challenges that Washington must organize to overcome.

Before the First Shots Are Fired:
How America Can Win or Lose
Off the Battlefield

by Tony Zinni and Tony Koltz
Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 256 pp.

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.

They find less agreement among themselves on where U.S. military strength ought to be focused and, by extension, how much of a threat is posed by China. Clark supports the Obama administration’s “rebalance” of resources to Asia and, by inference, away from Europe and the Middle East. Zinni, on the other hand, is nearly contemptuous of some features of the U.S. buildup in Asia. He—as might be expected of a Marine—advocates a focus on expeditionary forces that can be sent wherever tomorrow’s crisis arises, in lieu of new outposts. Stavridis, whose last assignment was Allied Supreme Commander Europe, the head of NATO’s military, makes an eloquent plea for the importance of the alliance and Europe.

Alliances, economic diplomacy, mediation: the three men call for more U.S. attention to these civilian tools, rather than a reversal of sequestration-mandated Pentagon cuts or the 4 percent of GDP floor for defense spending urged by some civilian advocates. The life of a modern flag officer, to hear these three tell it, is as much taken up with high-level diplomacy, dealing with public-relations problems, and studying up on models of innovation as with contemplating plans for war fighting.

Not that they believe war fighting is passè—all three believe that we should and will be engaging in military interventions, including some elements of occupation, if not nation building (a phrase they do not use) going forward. Stavridis and Zinni have given considerable thought to both the political and diplomatic elements that make military interventions succeed or fail. They stress strategy, planning, and deep regional and cultural knowledge; but also the legality and legitimacy accorded by the United Nations, regional organizations, and close adherence to international law. In Zinni’s words, “Any narrative making the case for war has to be based and presented on strong legal, ethical and moral grounds.”

What do they want from the civilian leadership? A “big, inclusive picture,” Clark writes, that “links both our foreign policy and security issues with our economy at home, a strategy that is not so completely derived from one administration that it is automatically distrusted by the rival political party.”

But when it comes to explanations of why such leadership is lacking, or strategies to bring it back, the men are largely silent. Is it because U.S. politics is producing weak leaders? Clark and Stavridis must not think so, for, with the exception of George W. Bush, they have little but praise for the presidents and senators they mention. Zinni extends his scorn for Bush to Obama and Hillary Clinton, and calls for elected officials to keep their military advisers closer—but only the right kind of military advisers, not what he calls “chateau generals.”

Is it because of the media? Stavridis offers a thoughtful chapter of how-tos for leaders dealing with the 24/7 media environment. For readers with backgrounds in government, the advice will be tremendous, while for others it may seem rudimentary: Have a good message, understand your audience, don’t miss your moment, tell the truth. Zinni worries over the passing of journalists who sympathized with the soldiers they covered. Clark stresses the importance of rebuilding global perceptions of America. But all three, ultimately, seem to believe that the media can be part of the solution.

Is it because of decay in the quality of American institutions? Clark raises concerns with education, but, if the quality of incoming young servicemembers is as high as all three men say it is, that can’t be it.

Is it because of polarization and partisan acrimony? Clark decries all of these, describes past moments of American success as featuring strategic unity, and suggests that any strategy will have to enjoy acceptance from both parties to be effective.

The narratives share a nostalgia for a time of “good wars” and clear and consensus national strategies. Clark, for example, describes the Manifest Destiny of the first half of the nineteenth century as “just a daring, grand project that the vast majority of Americans agreed on.” Today a strategy that disenfranchised more than half the population, enslaved blacks, and drove Native Americans from their lands couldn’t command majority support of even the white men remaining—and that, of course, is progress.

Zinni writes, “Ah for the good old days of the Good War! The old-fashioned and simple conventional war: defeat the enemy’s military forces, remove the regime, and reconstruct a defeated and compliant population.” But it is only in retrospect that the choices and results seem so simple: the Spanish-American War’s atrocities, the decision to firebomb German cities while sparing the train lines to Auschwitz, the use of nuclear weapons on Japan, the failed attempt to reconstruct Germany and the global order after World War I. Next to them, Libya and even Syria are, well … simple.

Clark is shooting at a bigger target than the other two authors: he wants to use national strategy to mend the woes of political polarization as well as institutional weakness and economic drift. His strategy has several interlinked core elements: ramp up energy production to become a net exporter, while accelerating the move away from fossil fuels through a carbon tax and government incentives; use some of the resulting national income to create a sovereign wealth fund that would both fuel strategic development at home and change the shape of U.S. development assistance abroad, by finding and supporting industries and infrastructures whose emergence would promote stronger governance and the rule of law as well as hastening indigenous growth, thus lessening the health, security, and criminal threats to the United States that breed in environments of injustice and poverty.

Conservatives will dislike this strategy because of the depth of government engagement and market shaping it foresees; progressives will bristle at its embrace of fossil fuels and the optimism that greater economic development leads to better governance. Clark argues that it represents a compromise, a grand bargain between the best insights of both strands of American ideology.

Yet that 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.

What these books offer, finally, is less specific policy prescriptions than a debunking of the ideology-heavy, experience-light sound bites that constitute much of what non-experts are fed as “strategy”: Close the borders to protect ourselves from Ebola-infected terrorists. Build firehouses at home instead of firehouses in Iraq.

Stavridis, the most recently retired of the three, offers two meditations on current realities that might assist civilian strategists. One could be summarized as “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” Know when you’ve lost a fight, whether over personal ethics, strategic communications, or military offensive—and retire with grace. Recognize when time-honored strategies, such as badgering allies to make good on commitments to burden sharing that neither leaders nor publics have any intention of keeping, have become counterproductive. Invite the allies to do what they are good at—economic development, policing, legal system reform—instead.

He also muses at considerable length about the death of strategic planning—a radical idea indeed for a military officer. Yet if it is true that the twenty-first century “acceleration of knowledge and events” is pushing military planning into “a relentlessly tactical period,” look at what it has done to planning and strategy in the civilian world. A few years ago, a senior official from the State Department’s Policy Planning staff described its function as “looking six months ahead.” George Kennan’s bones may have been rattling in his grave, but if that is the new reality, how can leaders and government, not just the military, adapt to it?

Surprisingly, the 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.

Heather Hurlburt

Heather Hurlburt is director of the New Models of Policy Change project at New America’s Political Reform Program.