Clash of the Strategists

A U.S. Marine, who is part of a military honor guard, takes his position before a welcoming ceremony for German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere

Clearly, the debate over how America should conduct itself on the world stage is far from over.

May-June 2018

In others, however, he does not always offer a viable alternative to the policies that actually were pursued. For example, Ullman, like Kaplan and very much unlike Abrams, offers fulsome praise for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who “wrought remarkable achievements vis-à-vis China and the Soviet Union,” “understood global politics and were well-versed in history,” and “had the sophistication to carry out a well-thought-out but risky strategy.” Yet he criticizes both men, especially Nixon, for “the secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. Instead of “a delaying action in Vietnam . . . had he in January 1969 launched Line-backer I, mined Haiphong, and initiated a more intense air campaign in the North, Hanoi could conceivably have been forced to the peace table.” Conceivably, but not necessarily; hindsight is always twenty-twenty.

To liven up his theme, Ullman offers a series of colloquies with leading policymakers who were intimately involved in one or more of the conflicts in which the United States has been engaged since the Kennedy administration. Not all of the dialogues are equally enlightening; he could have omitted several without detracting from his theme. Nevertheless, particularly when he records conversations involving persons he knows well, for example Les Aspin and John Kerry (about whom both Kaplan and Abrams have less than flattering things to say), he provides considerable insight into their concerns about key policy issues.

THE SUBTITLE of Ullman’s second-to-last chapter could just as easily have appeared in Kaplan’s book: “History Counts.” Summing up his evaluation of the failure of past administrations to win the wars they initiated, Ullman notes that it was not that they necessarily failed to apply strategic thinking, only that “too often they did it badly.” What is needed, he states, is a “brains-based approach to sound strategic thinking” that consists of the three elements he outlined at the outset of his book: full knowledge of “the problem set and solutions”; a twenty-first-century mind-set; and “a focus on affecting, influencing, and controlling the wills and perceptions of real and potential enemies.”

It is hard to disagree with Ullman’s prescriptions, but not everyone will share his premises. First of all, no one can have full knowledge of solutions to a given problem. Moreover, a “twenty-first-century mindset” could lead to radically different policies. For Abrams, that mindset calls for an emphasis on democracy; for Kaplan, it calls for caution when contemplating any sort of intervention in the affairs of another state. Finally, it is easier to speak about “controlling wills” than to do so. In a sense, Abrams could argue that this is precisely what he seeks to accomplish by de-emphasizing the good-governance projects that the Agency for International Development and various NGOs sponsor, and instead assigning greater budgetary priority to programs such as those of the NDI and IRI that support the creation of viable political parties. Kaplan, on the other hand, would argue that the notion of controlling wills is yet another example of American hubris, which has been the root cause of many of Washington’s troubles over the past several decades.

Clearly, the debate over how America should conduct itself on the world stage is far from over. To some extent, Donald Trump has sidelined that discussion, since no serious analyst would prescribe a tweet-based national-security policy. At some point, however, whether while Trump is still in the White House—perhaps as he implements the more conventional elements of his National Security Strategy—or it is occupied by his successor, that debate will again surface. Those seeking to understand the many sides of that debate would do well to peruse the meditations of Kaplan, Abrams and Ullman.

Dov S. Zakheim was an under secretary of defense (2001–4) and a deputy under secretary of defense (1985–87). He is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters