Clash of the Strategists

Clash of the Strategists

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

Abrams holds up Tunisia as a model of how the Freedom Agenda should work in the Arab world, even with the participation of Islamists. Yet Tunisia is the exception; it is the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring without reverting to a new autocracy, as in Egypt, or collapsing into civil war, as in Syria and Yemen. Moreover, despite the kleptocratic corruption of the authoritarian Ben Ali government, Tunisia had long been known both for its religious tolerance—Jews and Christians could worship freely there—and for its progressive treatment of women. The latter is something Abrams is willing to forego if other elements of what he considers to constitute democracy can be established, though women might take a different view.

Finally, only two other countries, admittedly both non-Arab, have seen Islamists not only participate in elections but come into power, with distinctly unhappy results. Turkey’s Erdoğan has relaunched a brutal assault on his country’s Kurds, arrested thousands of bureaucrats and hundreds of journalists, and undermined the independence of Turkey’s court system. And the mullahs’ Iran is not exactly a model for the Freedom Agenda, despite having an elected parliament in which even Jews can serve. Nor should one forget that it was democratic Weimar Germany that saw the Nazi movement become the country’s largest political party.

ABRAMS ADVOCATES directing American assistance, more of it private than governmental, to support the development of political parties rather than that of nongovernmental organizations, which tend to focus more on individual human rights than on regime modification or, better yet, replacement. He would condition security assistance on domestic reform; he argues that with the demise of communism, there no longer is an excuse for supporting “our sons of bitches.” What he seems to overlook is that the United States no longer dominates the international economy as it once did, and that states can and do look to China as a source of assistance as well as an alternative model for governance. Indeed, China is not alone in its willingness to support authoritarian regimes with no questions asked. India is no different. Nor, for that matter, is Israel. The United States simply cannot snap its economic and security fingers and demand progress toward democracy. Autocracies have elsewhere to go. And they do.

Autocracies will also not sit still in the face of American attempts to foist a new governance model upon them. They will retaliate. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has shown the way by banning the very institutions that Abrams argues offer the most in support of his agenda: the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). Indeed, Putin has not stopped there. He has interfered in domestic American politics to a far greater extent than any other foreign power since British support for the Confederacy during the Civil War. And, despite being overwhelmingly reelected, he continues to protest American “interference” in his own electoral process.

None of this deters Abrams. His policy menu still would direct more American aid toward the development of political parties and focus less on supporting nongovernmental organizations and civil society. It would press for Islamist participation in governance. It would condition security assistance on domestic reform. It would call for elections. And it does not rule out military action to bring about regime change, rather merely acknowledging that the current American political climate renders such action unlikely, if not impossible. The contrast with Kaplan could not be greater.

HARLAN ULLMAN approaches American security policy from a rather different perspective. Drawing upon his experience as a naval officer in Vietnam and then as a senior defense analyst, both while still in uniform and subsequently with a number of leading Washington think tanks, Ullman argues that since the end of the Cold War, the United States simply has lacked the “sound strategic thinking” necessary to address effectively an increasingly evolving international environment. As a result, “where the use of force has gone badly awry, it was through the failure of decision makers, who allowed unsound and flawed strategic thinking to drive bad decisions.” Every administration since that of John Kennedy comes in for Ullman’s criticism, though he treats that of George H. W. Bush more gently than the others.

Ullman offers three requirements for what he repeatedly terms the “sound strategic thinking” that must underpin any major decision relating to the nation’s security. First, decisionmakers need a “deep understanding and knowledge of the circumstances surrounding and encompassing the issues.” In his view, the decisions to intervene in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as the war on ISIS, all fell short of this standard.

Second, “administrations have failed to understand the changing strategic environments of their times.” In Ullman’s opinion, “today’s foreign-policy intellectual framework remains embedded to a considerable degree in twentieth-century and Cold War thinking.” Policymakers have yet fully to assimilate the realities of a networked, multipolar world, and for that matter, too often view challenges through an ideological prism rather than in terms of their reality. In particular, Ullman identifies notions of deterrence as an example of outdated thinking. Deterrence is no longer dependent on force of arms and the threat of thermonuclear war; rather, Ullman asserts, it depends on “sound strategic thinking” that calls for cooperation with states in some respects, for example, defeating the Islamic State, even as there is competition and tension in others.

Third, Ullman calls for what have been called “whole-of-government” approaches to address international challenges through the use of nonmilitary influence—what Joseph Nye has termed “soft power.” Overreliance on military force to compensate for other tools of influence can never succeed. Nor for that matter, can reliance on what he calls “sound bites” such as “war on terror” or “hybrid war,” which he argues is “antithetical to sound strategic thinking.” By now the reader will have come across the term “sound strategic thinking” enough times to tire of the phrase. Ullman’s purpose, however, may well be to drive the point home sufficiently often and thoroughly so that it might actually influence policymakers and analysts after they put down his book.

Ullman proceeds to evaluate the degree to which each administration since that of John F. Kennedy employed such thinking. In some cases, he offers some keen insights. For example, Ullman compares the Kennedy administration’s hard-line, ideologically driven response to the Cuban missile crisis, which misread Khrushchev’s desire actually to reduce military expenditures, to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In the former, Kennedy employed “raw military power in order to close a missile gap that did not exist”; in the latter, the invasion was “in response to weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.”

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.