Cleaning Up Obama's Strategic Mess

America's next president needs a "gap" strategy.

Presidents come to office intent on championing a domestic agenda. Our next one will be no different. Sadly, the rest of the world won’t simmer contently on the back-burner. Friends and enemies will want to know where they stand with the new Oval Office. Some will test the mettle of a fledgling administration.

That can get ugly. For a new president, it makes more sense to come to D.C. with a plan that helps a president effectively act rather than react, both at home and abroad.

The United States is a global power with global interests. Tending to those interests requires constant attention. And often those foreign interests affect domestic affairs. Even if the White House wanted to divide stateside and overseas interests in separate gardens and tend them at the chief executive’s leisure, that approach wouldn’t work. The White House has to have a plan.

Hope is not a plan. Whoever comes out on top in 2016 can cross fingers and hope the world remains sedated for a few years while the new team revamps taxes, budgets, healthcare, environmental regulations and entitlements. But, that hasn’t panned out for any president in the modern era. The good ones never thought it might.

Case in point: Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike entered the Oval Office after a lifetime of soldiering. The Cold War was intense. Most observers expected Eisenhower to be obsessed with foreign and defense policy. Yet Ike’s top priority was domestic affairs. And he feared that facing off against the Russians would be a huge distraction. “Where will it lead us?” he lamented to aide Emmett Hughes. “At worst to atomic warfare. At best, to robbing every people and nation on Earth of the fruits of their own toil.”

Still, Ike was too realistic to believe he could get by without a plan that would convince the world he was serious about the Soviet threat. Eisenhower proceeded to organize the Solarium Project, tasking his national-security team to work through different options for handling the Cold War. This initiative is often wrongly portrayed as the president leaning on the bureaucracy to help him think through big problems. Evan Thomas (in Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World) and others rightly point out that Ike knew what he wanted to do from the start. He had a plan. Project Solarium was an exercise to get the rest of the national-security establishment to recognize the right course of action. Everyone is more likely to agree, Ike reasoned, when they thought it was their idea. The point was, Ike had a plan. And he got his team to buy into it.

Of course, just having a plan is not enough. The enemy gets a vote, too. When Jimmy Carter came to office, there were also expectations that his presidency would be more than a little interested in defense and foreign policy. He was, after all, an Annapolis graduate and a veteran naval officer. But in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Carter was much more interested in doing some nation-building right here at home. Still, Carter went through the motions of having a plan for engaging with the world. It was wildly unrealistic. It assumed America’s enemies would be cooperative if the White House acted nice. And it assumed that the United States could just walk away from complicated parts of the world—from South Korea and Latin America to the Middle East and Africa—if things got too messy.

Crisis after crisis quickly withered Carter’s optimism. A recent official history of the relationship between the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff by Steven Reardon and Kenneth Foulkes details how the president’s eagerness for his strategy diverged increasingly from the reality of U.S. policy failures.

Carter’s plan suffered from a fatal flaw. It was crafted for the world he wanted—not for the world as it was. In his review of Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History, H.R. McMaster describes this pathology as “the tendency to assume that enemies and adversaries will cooperate with plans and thereby ensure linear progress toward strategic objectives.”

A president’s plan has to survive in a competitive environment where actions provoke counteractions.

Even a sound plan is not enough. Leadership matters. Pulling a plan off requires commitment—including significant engagement and oversight from the top. Henry Mintzberg’s classic study The Fall of Rise Strategic Planning demonstrates how not marrying a solid strategy with senior leader engagement is a strategy for failure. The dynamics he describes are as important for presidents as they are for corporate giants.