The National Interest
Time for Strategic Learning
December 24, 2012 -- British Field Marshall Viscount Alanbrooke of Brookeborough, one of World War II’s most accomplished and distinguished generals, regularly complained about the lack of American strategic thinking. In Alanbrooke’s view (and Churchill’s too), this lacuna, he believed, was apparent in Washington’s zeal to open a second front on the continent when its forces were woefully unprepared for the superior Nazi army. Hence, the assault against Festung Europa began at the peripheries in North Africa, Sicily and Italy before Operation Overlord landed on the Normandy beaches Normandy in June 1944.
This absence of American strategic thinking was not limited to World War II. During the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur’s amphibious landing at Inchon was a brilliant though reckless effort to outflank the North Koreans and permit the breakout from the Pusan perimeter on the peninsula’s southeast tip. The recklessness was in the operation’s location. The allies could have avoided the huge and dangerous tidal changes at Inchon by landing at a much safer location thirty miles to the south. MacArthur later undermined his victory by dismissing signals of a Chinese cross-border attack into North Korea. By racing to the Yalu River, MacArthur triggered a Chinese offensive that drove UN forces back to the 38th parallel and created a military standoff that still divides Korea today.
In Vietnam, “escalation,” “search and destroy” and the use of “body counts” to measure success were sound bites, not strategies. In Afghanistan and Iraq four decades later, tactical victory was lost by strategic blindness in ignoring the question of “what next?” and then failing to create a post-war strategy. Most recently, the so-called “strategic pivot” to Asia allowed rhetoric to overcome reason and alienate or frighten friends and allies in the Pacific, as well as Europe and the Middle East. A provocative question hovering over America’s war experiences is whether Americans generally lack the strategic genome in their DNA. There are exceptions. President Dwight Eisenhower clearly understood the broader strategic issues. Other strategic minds since World War II included President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser; and President George H.W. Bush and his adviser, Brent Scowcroft.
But too often their kind of strategic thinking gets trumped by the U.S. political process, the lure of short-term, expedient solutions to longer-term problems and the failure to institutionalize any kind of strategic thought in Washington’s officialdom. Thus, both Republican and Democratic administrations alike and White Houses and Congresses fall into the trap of not asking or answering the most basic questions regarding broader policy issues. The last presidential election offered the most powerful evidence of this lamentable gap.
President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney agreed that, in the case of Iran, “no option” was off the table, meaning that all options were open. But in truth they weren’t, as both candidates had rejected any kind of “containment” policy to deter Tehran in the event it actually got nuclear weapons. The intent was to imply or signal the threat of military force to help coerce the Iranian leadership to forego the building of nuclear weapons. But words count, and “no option” being off the table reflects strategic naiveté. Meanwhile, American political discourse no longer is about governing. It has deteriorated into a perpetual campaign for election and re-election in which compromise has become a profane. Negative ads and compression of ideas into simplistic sound bites distort and substitute for political discourse. And the two political parties have sadly gravitated to the more extreme poles of left and right.
Short-term thinking drives business also. Public companies are mesmerized by quarterly reports and their impact on stock prices. The media follow along. Compare, for example, so-called television evening news with programs from several decades ago, sometimes an hour long, that favored hard news over “human-interest stories” such as dolphins biting children or the bad behavior of celebrities. And, despite the billions of dollars the U.S. military invests in education, its war colleges focus on “supporting the warfighter” instead of developing senior leaders who can think strategically. Of course, the absence of strategic thinking is not unique to the United States, as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and many others have learned to their regret. America can regain the strategic edge by embracing three key remedial actions. First, the country must adopt a brains-based approach to strategy. No longer can we simply spend our way clear of danger, as we have tried to do in every war of the past century. In World War II, the arsenal of democracy overwhelmed the enemy. In Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq twice and Afghanistan, trillions of dollars were spent. Some of the results were brilliant, especially in terms of technology. But most were not. we need to think our way clear of problems. That requires brains.
And history matters. It is not difficult to conduct a review of the major wars, conflicts and crises in which the United States has been engaged since 1945 to determine what went right; what went wrong; and why. But it does require some intellectual engagement. In virtually every case study and conflict, success or failure rested on the quality and veracity of the assumptions made at the time; the setting of achievable or unachievable outcomes; the degree of objectivity or truth involved; and how the “what next?” question was answered (or not answered). Such a review should be mandatory reading for national-security officials in every administration and Congress as a way of introducing and institutionalizing a brains-based approach. Take, for example, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Let’s think our way through this event. Contemporary mythology maintains that this crisis was a great victory for the Kennedy administration. The Soviets backed down and removed the missiles from Cuba. That led to the coup two years later that felled Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Unfortunately, that characterization is simplistic and wrong.
John Kennedy entered office campaigning on the so-called “missile gap” between U.S. and Soviet armaments. It turned out that the Soviets’ missile threat was massively inferior to U.S. strategic and conventional capabilities. Indeed, Khrushchev had finally accepted the Eisenhower doctrine of massive retaliation, with less emphasis on costly conventional forces. He wanted to institute huge defense cuts in order to shift money to domestic needs and recharge a languishing economy. In essence, Khrushchev wanted to create a Soviet variant of nuclear deterrence that corresponded to Eisenhower’s strategic policies designed to defuse and not fuel an arms race. The United States and Britain knew all this through intelligence sources, notably U-2 spy-plane surveillance and top-secret Soviet documents passed to the CIA by Soviet military-intelligence Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, who later was caught and executed. For cynical political reasons, Kennedy ignored this intelligence so he could run to the right of his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon. Upon entering office, he sent several supplemental defense spending bills to Congress to build up American strategic and conventional forces and triple the size of the American nuclear arsenal. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the U.S. build-up signaled to the Soviets that the Eisenhower days were over and that something had to be done to maintain strategic balance if defense spending was to be curtailed.
Rather than raise defense spending and curtail domestic programs designed to improve Russia’s standard of living, Khrushchev sought to outflank U.S. strategic systems by inserting shorter-range missiles in Cuba. After all, the United States had done this in Turkey. And with those missiles based in Cuba, Moscow could avoid a costly build up of longer-range rockets. Kennedy’s advisers knew of the Penkovsky material. McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor, and Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, later described in graphic detail why it was rejected. That intelligence was not relevant, said McNamara over a lengthy lunch, because the president had decided on a military buildup and no one was prepared to question that decision. The result was more Cold War and elimination of any prospect for an earlier termination of that conflict.Bullheadedness won out over brains.
Second, senior officials should be required to undergo training on a brains-based approach to strategy. Historical analyses of what went right and what went wrong can help institutionalize strategic thinking and greater reliance on brainpower. The reality is that the last president who entered office prepared for the job was George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton, the younger Bush and Barack Obama simply lacked experience and genuine strategic understanding. And, while inexperienced presidents bring in officials with prior experience, they often are removed from office by four to eight years at a time when events are moving at the speed of instantaneous communications.
Third, the Department of Defense, which maintains the largest reservoir of educational assets in the government, needs a revolution in how this array of institutions is put to use in behalf of continuous learning. Technology can support this undertaking through distance learning and the creation of new Wikipedia-type repositories of strategic case studies and knowledge. This revolution, which need not be expensive, could serve as a resource for all government entities engaged in strategy and national security. Indeed, we probably can save significant amounts of money if we apply some strategic thinking to how we educate our people. Politics being politics, the chances of these actions occurring are not good. More likely, future presidents will not enter office properly prepared for their duties. The same can be said of many members of Congress.
History need not repeat itself. But a probing analysis of past successes and failures will show that, unless a strategic approach is indeed taken, the future track record will not be better than the past and could be much worse. In international relations, brawn is good. But brains are needed if we are going to think our way clear of danger.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and senior advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council.