Washington’s Strange Strategy-Review Ritual

August 25, 2013 Topic: Defense Region: United States Blog Brand: The Buzz

Washington’s Strange Strategy-Review Ritual

The season of aimless planning papers in foreign and defense policy is upon us.

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.

Still, if we are going to require the White House, Pentagon and State Department to devote time to these reviews, they shouldn’t just be useful exercises for the people conducting them—the products should have some positive value as well. So, given that the practice of drafting them is not going away, here are a few very modest suggestions on how the process could be improved.

First, the NSS should be completed before all of the other subordinate documents. This has not happened the last several times; for instance, in 2010 the QDR was published in February while the NSS was not published until May. According to the law mandating the QDR, one of its chief purposes is “to delineate a national defense strategy consistent with the most recent National Security Strategy.” The idea is that the QDR and the military’s other planning documents are supposed to determine which of the objectives identified in the NSS require military means to be accomplished, and lay out what the Defense Department will do and what resources it needs to achieve them. When the QDR comes before the NSS, however, those writing it are left either relying on the previous NSS—even if it came from a different administration—or improvising and defining America’s objectives for themselves.

Second, these reports ought to contain at least some semblance of prioritization. This doesn’t mean that they need to have an ordered list of priorities ranked from most to least important. As Fontaine explains, administrations understandably don’t want to alienate overseas partners or domestic constituencies by declaring their pet issues to be minor or unimportant. At the same time, careful readers shouldn’t be left totally guessing as to what the government’s true priorities are either.

Finally—and this applies particularly to the NSS—it would be helpful if the government could develop a more modest and meaningful definition of the phrase “national security.” There’s an unfortunate tendency to cast any negative development that occurs abroad as a “national security” threat, even when the security of the American people is not really at issue. Likewise, following the true but banal assertion that America’s ability to project power and influence overseas depends on its economic strength at home, it’s also common to hear that the performance of the U.S. economy is a “national security” issue as well, as the 2010 NSS contended. The combined result is to render the phrase “important for national security” as virtually meaningless. It more or less serves as shorthand for “anything the United States would like to accomplish in the world,” or just as a club to beat one’s political opponents with. One big-picture strategic review is not going to change this, of course. But a document called the “National Security Strategy” would be as good a place as any to start.