Melting Point or Breaking Point?

Melting Point or Breaking Point?

A book by a former CENTCOM commander warns of strategic drift in American defense policy. 


Kenneth F. McKenzie. The Melting Point: High Command and War in the 21st Century (Annapolis, U.S. Naval Institute Press) 360 pp., $34.95. 



In his book—The Melting Point—recently retired General Kenneth F. McKenzie gives us a unique glimpse into a world of history, strategy, and national decision-making from the singular perspective of a combatant commander.

His long military career and the lessons he draws from his three years (2019–2022) as the head of U.S. Central Command apply to the continuing challenges we currently face in three areas: 1) clearly communicating strategic guidance, 2) allocating resources to match that strategy, and 3) the importance of productive approaches to the pervasive, looming presence of Iran.

In recognizing and supporting the primacy of civilian control of the military, one of the book’s three overriding themes, it is important to reflect on the responsibilities that come with that control. Realistic national strategies accompanied by clear guidance and supporting resources are fundamental to those obligations. Yet, they are almost never forthcoming.

During my time at CENTCOM and then in the Pentagon, Iran crossed red line after red line drawn by the Obama administration, which also neglected to provide strategic guidance related to the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. During the Trump administration, the department rightly shifted its strategy and resources to focus on the pacing threat of China. Yet, it didn’t meaningfully alter its mission for CENTCOM on campaign plan objectives. As McKenzie points out, a lack of appreciation of the impacts of the pressure campaign on Iran resulted in strategic miscalculations and inconsistent signals related to priorities. The Biden administration’s Afghanistan withdrawal debacle and continued wishful-thinking approach to stability in the region further emphasize the elusive nature of strategic guidance. And that is just the Middle East.

McKenzie makes this point numerous times in the book while stopping short of actually complaining about it. He notes that when clear objectives in policy guidance are missing or conflicting, tactical events can end up driving strategic direction. Adding to the challenge of missing strategic guidance, national leaders often replace that lack of direction with an insatiable demand for tactical-level information that can crush the chain of command, requiring senior military leaders to operate as best they can in the absence of the guidance they need while protecting their subordinates from the churn above them.

The Melting Point’s second two themes on the role of a combatant commander and leadership expertly cover this challenge and are summed up in his characterization of the job, which he says “stands at that hard place: the unique point where policy, military operations, and responsibility merge into one.”

McKenzie’s claim that “Strategy documents are only useful if they describe the world that is, instead of the world that we might wish to inhabit” signals the cognitive dissonance in resource allocation that prevails when strategic intent is based on faulty assumptions. In the case of the Middle East, which has no permanent assigned forces, McKenzie explains what took place: “Absent that clear and direct guidance, which we never received, commanders engaged in an ongoing free-for-all for forces.” This battle for resources, which often defaults to equitable rather than strategic allocations, is one of many illustrations of a floundering, hedging national-level approach to foreign policy that Americans can’t afford.

Finally, the Iranian presence in the Middle East consistently looms over all other events and activities and should instruct us on what are and are not productive approaches to this persistent adversary. McKenzie believes that deterrence would be achieved when the Iranian leadership recognizes their goals are not worth the cost we could impose. “Deterrence by punishment is only one of two possible approaches; the other approach is deterrence by denial—creating cognitive doubt in the mind of the opponent that they would not be able to carry out the action contemplated.” McKenzie also notes that the Iranians can be counted on to take advantage of any weakness they see in the United States approach to the Middle East, a point of particular ongoing relevance.

The book concludes with forward-looking thoughts and advice, including three enduring facts about the Middle East: Iran will continue to have a strong presence as it increases its military power. Syria is lost to Bashar al-Assad. Terrorist organizations such as ISIS-K and Al Qaeda will remain in the region. In his view, all three make it important that the U.S. signal an intent to stay in the area. 

There are many useful insights on history, strategy, leadership, military culture, and even introspection to take from The Melting Point. Still, this final observation about the Middle East emphasizes the lasting need for realistic national guidance that directs the strategic division of resources and recognizes that, as a global power, America can no longer think in terms of regions, nor can it wish away the enduring challenges and opportunities of the Middle East.

Elaine McCusker is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She is a former acting undersecretary of defense (comptroller).

Image: Bob Pool /