A recurring theme in the ongoing national dialogue over the war on terror and the related conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is the plaint that the U.S. has no stated and broadly accepted national strategy such as the Cold War era strategy of containment. This does not mean that we do not have a strategy for Iraq and a strategy for Afghanistan, or a strategy for the war on terror, because you can actually find and read these over the Internet as well as in print. The U.S. has no strategy that defines where in the world we as a nation are now, where we would like to be, how we expect to get there, and what kind of world we expect to find when we arrive there.
A major purpose behind the existence of any government is to manage change on behalf of the population that supports that government. Without a strategy or even with a strategy that is ill-thought out and unsupported, governments easily find themselves dealing with the crisis of the day with no idea of how that crisis relates to or reflects the ongoing, anticipated, and yet-to-be imagined changes confronting it. This is sometimes called “putting out the fire in the in-box” school of government.
Presidential election years are the moment when questions of national strategy and its long-term implication should be asked. Candidates for high office – whether the Presidency or a House or Senate seat – should be challenged to clearly and simply state what world they foresee for the United States and how they intend to lead the United States to achieve that world. The Cold War years of nuclear confrontation saw far too many people opt out of debates over strategy, leaving it to be debated, decided, and implemented by those political figures interested or forced to be interested, alongside a coterie of too often self-selected experts hoping to be recognized as the nation’s new “Wise Men.”
At university, one of my classes debated how or even whether a democratic political system could publicly debate and decide questions of foreign policy and national strategy. The hypothesis was that since democracy thrives on open debate but foreign or national security policy is most effective when surrounded by a degree of secrecy, discretion, and even ambiguity, there cannot be an effective open popular debate of such matters. Another argument raised against public debate was that questions of strategy were too intricate, complex, and even arcane to expect any meaningful contribution from the general public or anyone not an educated expert in the field.
In its simplest meaning, a strategy is a plan for achieving a desired goal using the resources you have available. Anyone who has and prepared a plan to achieve a goal – whether to increase sales or to win a sports match – has prepared a strategy. However, you do not really even need these experiences or qualifications for this needed debate. The contribution to this debate that is needed from you is a clear statement as to where you want the United States to be in the world and what kind of world you want that to be for you, for your children, your grandchildren, and so on. The challenge facing the United States today, as the sole surviving superpower, is what do we do with that power, understanding how our use of that power impacts the world today and tomorrow.
As in the days immediately after the end of the Cold War, two extreme choices frame that range of possible worlds:
– The U.S. actively uses its power to direct world affairs, deploying its influence and even its military forces to forcibly shape a world under which nothing is allowed to happen unless the U.S. is agreeable; or,
– The U.S. uses its power and influence to create and support international organizations, coalitions, agreements, and other mechanisms through which the U.S. and other countries together respond to crises and resolve conflicts while sharing the responsibilities and the burdens of making these efforts.
The first possibility risks ever increasing resistance to our exercise of power, leading to our having to use ever greater and more costly levels of force to achieve our desired goals. The second possibility raises the risk that the U.S. will not always achieve exactly the outcome it desires, that responses to crises may come more slowly than we desire, and that others will criticize U.S. policies and the behavior of U.S. forces when they fall short of the standards the U.S. expects other countries to meet.
What you need to do is decide where within the spectrum defined by these two extremes you wish the United States to be, make that desired goal clear to the numerous political candidates, and then ask them to explain whether they share that goal and how they expect to achieve it – how will they work in office to reach that goal.
“My general strategy at present is to last out the next three months.” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the Soviet Ambassador, August 1940
“The more I reflect on the experience of history the more I come to see the instability of solutions achieved by force, and to suspect even those instances where force has had the appearance of resolving the difficulties.” B. H. Liddell Hart, “Thoughts on War,” 1944