Lost at the NSC

January 6, 2009 Topic: Security Regions: Americas Tags: Heads Of State

Lost at the NSC

Mini Teaser: People are starting to talk of Obama creating an Eisenhower-lite foreign-policy team. This is a very good thing, if only a start. America no longer knows how to make good strategy. From the Nazi defeat in World War II to America’s triumph in the c

by Author(s): Andrew F. KrepinevichBarry D. Watts

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S decision to appoint a bipartisan national-security team comprising experienced individuals from the moderate middle of the political spectrum has led some observers to harken back to the Eisenhower administration's more successful arrangements for developing national strategy. This is a step in the right direction, but it does not address the deeper malaise afflicting U.S. strategy today. American strategy has been in decline since the early 1970s. U.S. political and military elites no longer exhibit competence at formulating, much less implementing, good long-term strategies. Our national-security establishment is increasingly hard-pressed to choose realistic goals or craft strategies likely to achieve our objectives at affordable costs in the face of various constraints, especially the countervailing efforts of our adversaries. In the national-security area, a sine qua non for the incoming Obama administration will be to reverse this decline-to regain a measure of strategic competence relative to America's rivals.

The problem of declining strategic performance is not insurmountable. In World War II, and at times during the cold war, American performance was markedly better than it is now. We believe that the fundamental reason for the gradual decline in U.S. strategic performance is an intellectual one. American political and military elites are no longer very clear about what strategy is, nor do they act as if the decline in strategic performance is a serious problem. Additionally, the kind of insight that is the hallmark of the competent strategist tends to be rare. Strategy is not something at which most anyone can excel, and we have not been inclined to identify those individuals with the talent to be good strategists and put strategy formulation in their hands.

We are also convinced that redressing the decline in U.S. strategic performance is urgent. The cold-war challenge of containing Soviet power has been replaced by three others: (1) defeating both the Sunni Salafi-Takfiri and Shia Khomeinist brands of Islamist radicalism; (2) hedging against the rising power of a more openly confrontational or hostile China; and (3) hedging against a world in which there are significantly more nuclear-armed regional powers than there were in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Even if the American goal of turning Iraq into a viable, more or less democratic state and ally is eventually achieved, the costs in American (and Iraqi) blood and treasure will have been immense. An overriding feature of U.S. strategy in the Middle East following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has been the acceptance of huge costs to ourselves as compared with those imposed on our enemies. Unfortunately, being on the wrong side of cost imposition is rarely, if ever, a characteristic of good long-term strategy. It seems highly doubtful that, without regaining some modicum of strategic competence, the United States will be able to cope successfully with the twenty-first century's complex, multifaceted security challenges while avoiding imperial "overstretch."


THE FIRST challenge is to develop some clarity about what strategy is. In competitive situations such as combat, business or long-term military rivalry in peacetime, strategy is about finding or creating decisive advantages that can be exploited within existing political, institutional and resource constraints. Decisive areas of advantage, in turn, arise from asymmetries between the opposing sides. Thus, strategy in competitive situations comes down to identifying or creating asymmetries that, if exploited, offer plausible chances of progressing toward, or even achieving, one's ultimate objectives. This characterization emphasizes the how of effective strategy, whether in war, business or even a game such as chess.

Yet, strategies are not "solutions to problems" in the sense that this phrase would be understood by an engineer designing a bridge or a combat aircraft. Engineers deal with physical laws, not intelligent adversaries. If the relevant physical laws are sufficiently well understood, then there are definite solutions to engineering problems. By contrast, in competitive situations the successful strategist has to overcome the responses of the adversary, and these are inherently unpredictable. This unpredictability, in turn, means that strategies always amount to guesses about the way things will turn out in the end. They are always works in progress and any strategy may later need to be substantially modified or adjusted in light of events not unfolding as initially hoped, assumed, estimated or planned. There is perhaps no better example of an eventually successful long-term strategy that was incrementally modified and adjusted by successive U.S. administrations than George Kennan's 1947 plan of a "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies" until Soviet power decayed from within.


MAJOR STRATEGIC blunders risk overall defeat no matter how well one performs at the operational or tactical level. Yet, as obvious as this answer may appear, it is difficult to demonstrate; the eventual outcome of a protracted struggle like the cold war resulted from a complex interaction of numerous causes, some of which were entirely contingent, in the sense that events could have turned out other than they did. Unraveling the precise contribution played by opposing strategies on the overall outcome is difficult, if not near impossible, even long after the fact.

Consider what ended up being the abrupt and relatively bloodless way in which Soviet power finally collapsed in 1991. On the side of strategic efficacy, the level of military burden that the Soviet leaders chose to impose on the USSR's economy after the embarrassment suffered in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis steadily weakened the country's capacity to hold up its end of the military competition with the West. This problem became more acute in the 1980s due to U.S. high-technology stratagems such as the Pentagon's development of precision munitions aimed at Soviet second-echelon forces in Europe and President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. The underlying idea was to shift U.S.-Soviet military competition into areas where the United States could exploit its asymmetric advantage in technology, especially computer and information technologies. On the side of contingency, though, if Mikhail Gorbachev had not defeated Grigory Romanov to become general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1986, his policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) would not have been attempted-and it was these policies that ultimately spun out of Gorbachev's control and led to the surprising collapse of Soviet power. Based on what we know now, Soviet power would probably have collapsed in the long run without Gorbachev. But the manner and suddenness with which it unraveled arguably would have been different without his elevation to general secretary. This example argues that claims about strategic blunders leading to strategic defeat must be understood primarily in terms of correlations rather than strict causality.


NEVERTHELESS, ANGLO-AMERICAN grand strategy in World War II provides perhaps as convincing a case as history has to offer of tactical and operational prowess being ultimately unable to overcome strategic incompetence. As Trevor N. Dupuy concluded in his 1977 A Genius for War,

In 1943-1944 the German combat effectiveness superiority over the Western Allies (Americans and British) was in the order of 20-30 percent. On a man-for-man basis, the German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 percent higher rate than they incurred from British and American troops under all circumstances. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, they were outnumbered, when they had air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost.

Germany superiority over the Russians on the eastern front, where four of every five German soldiers killed in World War II died, was even greater: "one German division was at least a match for three Russian divisions of comparable size and firepower," and under favorable defensive conditions, "one German division theoretically could-and often actually did-hold off as many as seven comparable Russian divisions." And yet, the Germans lost the Second World War.

The reasons for the loss are many. For one thing, the Allies, including Russian manpower and America's "arsenal of democracy," were able to field greater quantities of men and equipment than Germany and Japan. But matériel disparities were only part of the reason Germany lost. Another important element of the explanation for the eventual outcome lies in the sharp differences in strategic performance between the opposing sides, especially on the western front. Anglo-American grand strategy in the West was largely determined by four individuals: Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall and Alan Brooke. The British and Americans formulated their global blueprint for how to win the war at the Arcadia Conference, which took place in Washington, DC, in late December 1941 and early January 1942. Arcadia established a "Germany first" policy based on the insight that "the defeat of Germany would make the defeat of Japan a matter of time, whereas the defeat of Japan would not materially weaken Germany."1 

Perhaps the key strategic issue that the two political "masters" and the two military "commanders" debated was how to defeat Germany. General Marshall was right to insist from the beginning that it would ultimately require a cross-Channel invasion of northern France. But Churchill and Brooke, the latter having witnessed the fighting power of the German army firsthand in France in 1940, were right to insist on waiting until mid-1944, by which time the Anglo-American campaigns in Africa, Sicily and Italy and the Combined Bomber Offensive (intended to decimate German industry) had battle-hardened U.S. forces, and the German disasters at Stalingrad and Kursk had sufficiently weakened the German army.

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