Future historians looking back on our time will likely marvel at the incoherence of American grand strategy in the new century. One would not be surprised if the judgment will be 'Modern history had not seen such a divorce of prioritization, resource allocation and means analysis from strategic thought and execution. Moreover, the American fixation on and confusion between operational-level success and strategic end states ensured that American efforts were frustrated by their own conceptual flaws as much as any countervailing action.'
It seems that way to us.
Consider: the U.S. is currently conducting five separate strategic grand offensives: (a) the roll back of the old Soviet imperial periphery across Eastern Europe, down through the Russian 'Near Abroad' of Ukraine and Georgia and Central Asia; (b) the on again off again stuttering efforts to isolate China as the new 'Peer Competitor' across both the Asian Pacific rim and also in Central Asia; (c) conduct an international war on 'terrorism' (such as it is); (d) lead new international cooperation regarding nuclear and WMD proliferation; and (e) bootstrap the Middle East into modernity through unilateral American force of arms. (Sprinkle 'democracy' on all of the above).
The post 2000 organizational collapse of American national security planning and decision-making is well documented by Trainor, Gordon, Rothkopf and others. No surprise, therefore, that each campaign often produces conflicts with objectives in others. After all, International policy is often interdependent. Trade offs are always to be made.
The discontinuity is that each campaign above is by itself an undertaking of World Historical significance. Each would be worthy of the focused commitment of the political, economic and diplomatic/bandwidth resources of a Superpower. Five together without even the most basic clear prioritization of objectives, calibration of resources and ends/means analysis present unique challenges. Even if each campaign was deemed vital, prioritization of objectives and a means analysis would require adjusting the policy tools and their implementation.
Self Indulgence As Strategy
So far the Administration still indicates that it is pursuing the 5 campaigns on its own terms. The results? Strategic incoherence. The underlying conceptual flaws had been obscured by sheer momentum and dynamism. Absent adjustment, continued prosecution will not be sustainable beyond even the medium term.
A sign of the breakdown was noted by Jim Pinkerton, who observed Rice's prolix but unsuccessful efforts to paper over conflicting strategic priorities most recently on Tim Russert's show. As Jim Pinkerton notes, the Administration, rather than recalibrate, simply falls back on AgitProp repetition.
The scale of the U.S. undertaking since 2001 is mind boggling. The campaigns, for example, dwarf the more focused, separate, rival wars fought by Nimitz and the U.S. Navy across the Central Pacific and the U.S. Army and MacArthur up through New Guinea. Even in WW II, while Nimitz and MacArthur each got their own war, the U.S. decided to prioritize the European theater. Of the above campaigns, which is our clear, unequivocable priority? Which is secondary? Which is tertiary?
The natural response in the Imperial City is one of our current banal slogans: 'Superpowers must multi-task' or 'We will not flinch from the challenges of our time'. While comforting, such slogans are a dodge from analysis. Of course policy activity is not zero sum or even serial — i.e., initiaives can and should unfold in parallel. An excellent example would be the PSI initiative launched in 2003 — states that opposed the U.S. on Iraq cooperate quite well within that framework. States have since time immemorial comparmentalized self interest in layers — competing with each other while cooperating on other levels.
Complicating the U.S. task is that each of the five campaigns above is essentially a world changing effort. On its own, each presents players in the international order with unique trade offs on core issues of security, self identity, prestige and future aspirations within regional or global scales. As prosecuted since 2001, taken together as 5, the matrix of choices and tradeoffs presented to other actors with their own domestic constituencies and actors could well be insoluable.
As we wrote before, the case of Iran poses a stark test case. Recent setbacks in U.S. efforts to seek Russian and Chinese support for the latest UN initiative on Iran should be instructive. How realistic is it to seek Russian and Chinese buy in to U.S. strategy on Iran that will solidify the U.S. led international order? That could well add yet another American military action on the Eurasian periphery and astride the world's petroleum reserves? While we simulataneously seek their strategic encirclement and in the case of China, containment as a peer competitor (as set forth in the latest QDR)? Even assuming that Russia and China should be able to compartmentalize competition and cooperation, to assume their acquiesence is narcissim of the highest order.
Aside from conceptual geopolitical ambitions, both Russia and China have growing economic and other transactional reasons for engagement in Iran. What is the American offer other than 'virtue is its own reward' to quote Brent Scowcroft in the latest National Interest? Scowcroft's suggestion that their buy in could be negotiated by offering guarantees to buffer any energy price surge or resource constraint resulting from confronting Iran at least is a start in the right direction. It is fairly clear, however, that the ultimate price likely will be far higher than barters on commodities. Priorites, again.
Replacing Incoherence With Focused Prioritization
A case can be made (and often is) for the necessity for each of the 5 campaigns listed above. Any of you, Dear Reader, probably have half a dozen more to add. Regardless, prioritization must take place. And within each, certainly continued healthy debate over tactics. But more effort need to be devoted to clarifying what a victorious end state is. This will help the U.S. get out of its current rut of viewing matters all too often through the prisim of operational level militarized concepts such as technology and battlespace dominance.
There are powerful internal incentives to forestall or preclude such an audit of power beyond just muddled thinking. As Cindy Williams from MIT wrote recently:
THE HOUSE of Representatives last week voted to add $68 billion to Defense Department coffers to help defray this year's costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together with the $536 billion in outlays already planned for national defense, the emergency appropriation will bring total defense spending this year to some $600 billion. Adjusting for inflation, that is substantially more than the United States spent on defense in any year since World War II.The military industrial complex is far more robust than most Americans can imagine. That is a complicating factor not to be trifled with.
But we may not have any choice. As Williams notes, we are borrowing most of this money. Interestingly, as many now recognize, from the very power in Beijing the Pentagon urges us to contain. Such extravagant spending is not sustainable for a victory in a 'Long War' that the Administration tell us will last a generation if not longer. Maintaining these debt loads for that period of time is simply impossible. The ultimate arbiter on American rationality may well be the constraints imposed by our profligacy. A first step will be the looming scissors crises in procurement that will present unavoidable choices over the next 5 years — even with these staggering outlays.
It is not too late to begin a new meta-strategy: sanity. And it begins by choosing.