Time for Strategic Learning

American foreign-policy makers use their brains. They just haven't been taught to use them right.

British Field Marshall Viscount Alanbrooke of Brookeborough, one of World War II’s most accomplished and distinguished generals, regularly complained about the lack of American strategic thinking. In Alanbrooke’s view (and Churchill’s too), this lacuna, he believed, was apparent in Washington’s zeal to open a second front on the continent when its forces were woefully unprepared for the superior Nazi army. Hence, the assault against Festung Europa began at the peripheries in North Africa, Sicily and Italy before Operation Overlord landed on the Normandy beaches Normandy in June 1944.

This absence of American strategic thinking was not limited to World War II. During the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur’s amphibious landing at Inchon was a brilliant though reckless effort to outflank the North Koreans and permit the breakout from the Pusan perimeter on the peninsula’s southeast tip. The recklessness was in the operation’s location. The allies could have avoided the huge and dangerous tidal changes at Inchon by landing at a much safer location thirty miles to the south. MacArthur later undermined his victory by dismissing signals of a Chinese cross-border attack into North Korea. By racing to the Yalu River, MacArthur triggered a Chinese offensive that drove UN forces back to the 38th parallel and created a military standoff that still divides Korea today.

In Vietnam, “escalation,” “search and destroy” and the use of “body counts” to measure success were sound bites, not strategies. In Afghanistan and Iraq four decades later, tactical victory was lost by strategic blindness in ignoring the question of “what next?” and then failing to create a post-war strategy. Most recently, the so-called “strategic pivot” to Asia allowed rhetoric to overcome reason and alienate or frighten friends and allies in the Pacific, as well as Europe and the Middle East.

A provocative question hovering over America’s war experiences is whether Americans generally lack the strategic genome in their DNA. There are exceptions. President Dwight Eisenhower clearly understood the broader strategic issues. Other strategic minds since World War II included President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser; and President George H.W. Bush and his adviser, Brent Scowcroft.

But too often their kind of strategic thinking gets trumped by the U.S. political process, the lure of short-term, expedient solutions to longer-term problems and the failure to institutionalize any kind of strategic thought in Washington’s officialdom. Thus, both Republican and Democratic administrations alike and White Houses and Congresses fall into the trap of not asking or answering the most basic questions regarding broader policy issues. The last presidential election offered the most powerful evidence of this lamentable gap.

President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney agreed that, in the case of Iran, “no option” was off the table, meaning that all options were open. But in truth they weren’t, as both candidates had rejected any kind of “containment” policy to deter Tehran in the event it actually got nuclear weapons. The intent was to imply or signal the threat of military force to help coerce the Iranian leadership to forego the building of nuclear weapons. But words count, and “no option” being off the table reflects strategic naivete.

Meanwhile, American political discourse no longer is about governing. It has deteriorated into a perpetual campaign for election and reelection in which compromise has become a profane. Negative ads and compression of ideas into simplistic sound bites distort and substitute for political discourse. And the two political parties have sadly gravitated to the more extreme poles of left and right.

Short-term thinking drives business also. Public companies are mesmerized by quarterly reports and their impact on stock prices. The media follow along. Compare, for example, so-called television evening news with programs from several decades ago, sometimes an hour long, that favored hard news over “human-interest stories” such as dolphins biting children or the bad behavior of celebrities. And, despite the billions of dollars the U.S. military invests in education, its war colleges focus on “supporting the warfighter” instead of developing senior leaders who can think strategically.

Of course, the absence of strategic thinking is not unique to the United States, as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and many others have learned to their regret. America can regain the strategic edge by embracing three key remedial actions.

First, the country must adopt a brains-based approach to strategy. No longer can we simply spend our way clear of danger, as we have tried to do in every war of the past century. In World War II, the arsenal of democracy overwhelmed the enemy. In Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq twice and Afghanistan, trillions of dollars were spent. Some of the results were brilliant, especially in terms of technology. But most were not. we need to think our way clear of problems. That requires brains.

And history matters. It is not difficult to conduct a review of the major wars, conflicts and crises in which the United States has been engaged since 1945 to determine what went right; what went wrong; and why. But it does require some intellectual engagement.