The Buzz

Washington’s Strange Strategy-Review Ritual

Here we go again. The season of planning documents in foreign and defense policy is arriving. In 2010, the Obama administration released its first National Security Strategy (NSS), Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), meaning that their second-term equivalents would roughly be expected next year. At Foreign Policy, John Norris recalls that the 2010 QDDR—the first of its kind—took a whopping seventeen months to complete. This means that work on a successor would need to begin soon if it were to be kept on about the same schedule—that is, if there is even to be a second one. The word “quadrennial” in its title suggests that the 2010 version was intended to be the first in a recurring series, but it is not required by law, as are the QDR and NSS. An attempt was made last year to pass legislation that would institutionalize the review process and require the State Department to produce regular QDDRs, but it did not succeed.

Meanwhile, Doug Wilson argued last month at Defense One that the Defense Department should scrap the next QDR. Wilson contended that the January 2012 “Defense Strategic Guidance” had effectively performed all of the functions that the QDR was meant to address. He thus recommended that the Pentagon save itself all the man-hours and dollars required to conduct the review and “stick with the product produced last year, endorsed by consensus, strongly supported by the president and incorporating all of the requirements of a QDR.”

Is all of this just a waste of time? As others have observed before, the principal problem that tends to afflict these kinds of big-picture planning documents is that they often wind up simply serving as laundry lists, looking more like political speeches than articulations of strategy. They’re drafted by committee, meaning that every division within the department or interagency process gets to add their two cents about why their issue matters and the actions they are taking are important to the country. There is rarely if ever any real sense of prioritization—that is, a ruthless accounting of which issues are truly of vital importance and which ones represent only secondary interests.

For example, near the beginning of the 2010 NSS, the White House included a section titled “Advancing Top National Security Priorities.” In an excellent dissection of the document, the pseudonymous blogger Gulliver catalogued and paraphrased all the “priorities” that fell under this category:

Pursuit of a nonproliferation agenda/security weapons of mass destruction; disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda and Associated Movements; succeeding in the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan; denying extremists safe haven in Pakistan; transitioning full responsibility for Iraqi security to that nation's sovereign government; comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and its neighbors (to include creation of a Palestinian state with contiguous territory); engagement with Muslim communities around the world; rebuilding American economic strength; pursuit of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements; support for individual opportunity and state capacity abroad; promotion of “universal values” (er, but just by example), to include global equality for women; the shaping of a just and stable international order “capable of addressing the problems of our time.”

As Gulliver rightly noted, if you have a whole bunch of priorities, you don’t really have any. The result is a document that capably outlines what the world would look like if the president of the United States had a magic wand and could reshape the world in any way he wanted, but one that pays little attention to the constraints that policy makers actually face. The same was true of the inaugural QDDR, as David Rieff described in these pages in 2011.

One defense of this ritual is that it’s a situation where “the process matters more than the product,” as Richard Fontaine argued in discussing the most recent NSS. In Fontaine’s words, in conducting one of these reviews, policy makers “are forced to think through core issues and future possibilities in a way that is much different from their day to day grind.” It’s true that it is easy for senior officials to get caught up in whatever the immediate crisis of the day is and eschew any long-range planning. Requiring them to do this kind of planning in a systemized way, therefore, makes some sense and has an intuitive logic to it.