One doesn't have to agree with all of this to recognize that it makes some important points....
THE NATIONAL INTEREST
Lost at the NSC
by Andrew F. Krepinevich and Barry 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 The cold-war challenge of containing Soviet power has been replaced by three others: (1) defeating both the Sunni Salafi-Takfiri and Shia Khomeinist brands of Islamist radicalism; (2) hedging against the rising power of a more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.
Indeed, even in June 1944, the Anglo-American invasion of northern France (Operation Overlord) was a close-run thing. David Eisenhower's meticulous 1986 review of the first few days of the Normandy landings suggests that despite Allied numerical superiority and complete control of the air, the Germans probably had the capability to throw the Allies back into the English Channel. In the event, however, Hitler's focus on the Pas-de-Calais rather than the actual landing site of Normandy—due to the Allies' successful deception campaign—combined with procrastination by both Hitler and the German high command averted the disaster that Brooke and Churchill feared. In hindsight, Overlord was a gamble that succeeded in large measure due to German errors, particularly in strategic decision making. Nevertheless, in Western Europe during World War II, Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall, Brooke and their supporting staffs collectively committed no major strategic blunders.
Adolf Hitler, however, was able to overrule his generals and impose ruinous strategic decisions time after time. His "no withdrawal" policies in Tunisia, Russia and Italy were, as the British historian Andrew Roberts explains in his new account of Allied grand strategy during the war,
not subjected to the kind of unsparing analysis that would undoubtedly have halted their adoption in a democracy. By complete contrast, the strategies of the Western Allies had to be exhaustively argued through the Planning Staff, General Staff, Chiefs of Staff and then Combined Chiefs of Staff levels, before they were even capable of being placed before the politicians, where they were debated in microscopic detail all over again.
Again, Germany's defeat in World War II despite its superior fighting power cannot be attributed entirely to the difference in strategic performance between the two sides. Nonetheless, Roberts certainly appears justified in concluding that the "lack of a collegiate Chiefs of Staff system was one of the major reasons Germany lost the Second World War."
WHY IS strategy so difficult to do well? One reason is that competent strategists tend to be few and far between. This is because strategy depends fundamentally on insight, and genuine insight—the ability to see more deeply into a situation than the opponent or to conceive it in an entirely new way—is a relatively rare talent in human groups and populations. In a 1973 book on grand strategy, defense specialist John Collins observed that while "strategy is a game that anyone can play, it is not a game that just anyone can play well. Only the most gifted participants have much chance to win a prize." As elitist as this may sound, recent work by neuroscientists Mark Jung-Beeman, John Kounios and others has identified the kind of preparatory mechanisms and the specific portions of the brain utilized during sudden "Aha!" moments of insight. Moreover, their research indicates that subjects who were unable to solve problems requiring insight in a sudden "Aha!" moment were unable to solve them at all.
Individuals either have the cognitive skills for strategy or they do not, and Collins's observation, based on years of experience with National War College graduates, is that most do not—not even among field-grade military officers with the potential for flag rank. There is scant evidence to date that professional education or training are at all successful in inculcating strategic insight into most individuals. Instead, the best we can do is to try to identify those individuals who appear to have this talent and then make sure that they are put in positions in which they can use it to good effect. Unfortunately, whereas the British military establishment uses its Higher Command and Staff Course (HCSC) to identify individuals who display such cognitive abilities, the U.S. military establishment lacks any similar mechanism for identifying potential strategists.2
Another barrier has been the unwillingness of the nation's senior-most national-security decision makers to accord strategy sufficient priority and persistent attention. During President Clinton's administration, this reluctance appears to have stemmed, at least in part, from a sense that strategy is an illusion. Clinton's national-security adviser, Sandy Berger, put little stock in strategy, declaring in a 1999 interview with the New York Times that he prefers to "worry about today today and tomorrow tomorrow."
This kind of skepticism is not limited to a particular individual, a particular administration or even a particular party. Take the case of Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University recruited by President George W. Bush's administration to lead a National Security Council (NSC) staff strategic-planning effort. Feaver soon realized that, when it came to this kind of activity, it was "impossible to get anything really done, to get much attention . . . there was no real interest" in strategy from President Bush or his senior national-security lieutenants.
Yet another persistent problem frustrating the crafting of good strategy is the government's tendency to equate strategy with a list of desirable outcomes. When this occurs, there is little or no discussion of what barriers stand in the way of achieving these goals, or how these barriers might be overcome given the limitations on available resources. Thus, rather than working out how scarce resources can best be employed to achieve a challenging security objective, the mere statement of a desire to meet the objective is deemed sufficient.
For example, consider the Clinton administration's 2000 National Security Strategy, which concludes by describing its "strategy" almost purely in terms of desired outcomes:
Our strategy for engagement is comprised of many different polices, the key elements of which include:
•Adapting our alliances
•Encouraging the reorientation of other states, including foreign adversaries
•Encouraging democratization, open markets, free trade, and sustainable development
•Countering potential regional aggressors
•Confronting new threats
•Steering international peace and stability operations.
The same problem is also evident in the Bush administration's 2002 and 2006 national-security strategies.
Unfortunately, this issue is not limited to the past two administrations or to the civilian leadership. Take, for example, the Joint Chiefs of Staff document, Joint Vision 2010, published in 1996. Its intent is to show how the U.S. armed forces will operate to achieve the nation's security objectives in the 2010 timeframe. According to the document, this will be accomplished through "information superiority" that enables "dominant maneuver," "precision engagement," "focused logistics," and "full-dimensional protection." In other words, the U.S. military has the goal of being completely aware of what is happening in a theater of war ("information superiority"), being able to move its forces, which are to be completely protected ("full-dimensional protection"), wherever it desires ("dominant maneuver") and to engage with unprecedented effectiveness ("precision engagement") while always being fully supplied ("focused logistics").
Conspicuously absent is a discussion of how these subgoals are to be realized. Nor is any mention made of potential enemy actions or resource limitations that could frustrate the U.S. military's efforts. The same problem infects Joint Vision 2020, which adds "full spectrum dominance" to the list of goals to be accomplished. In both documents, since "strategy" is reduced to the assertion that the conditions desired will be achieved, the need for real strategy—identifying and exploiting asymmetric advantages—is assumed away.
There is another area in which lack of knowledge poses a serious barrier to formulating effective strategies. It involves a failure to understand the enemy. This severely limits a nation's ability to identify where its advantages lie and how best to exploit them. Consider an example from the Truman administration. After the Soviet Union detonated its atomic bomb, a revised U.S. strategy document—the famous NSC-68 of April 1950—moved away from the previous view that the threat posed by Soviet power could be contained primarily through political and economic means, and instead emphasized the need to contain overt Soviet military aggression. This change generated significant debate. Charles E. "Chip" Bohlen, one of the so-called "Wise Men," argued that the Soviet leadership's top priority was to preserve their regime, and that this fact was being ignored by American leaders.
Bohlen's point was that differing assessments of Soviet motives—whether the Soviet leadership prioritized its expansionist objectives over its survival—had profound implications for how the United States ought to pursue containment. He argued the leadership would not take reckless steps that jeopardized the state's existence. But still, debate in the West over whether Soviet leaders were willing to risk general war with the United States to gain control of Western Europe or expand elsewhere continued to the end of the cold war. By the time of the Cuban missile crisis, this question had become whether Soviet leaders would risk thermonuclear war to expand their influence. In October 1962 at least, Nikita Khrushchev clearly was not willing to do so.
Nevertheless, given how the cold war ultimately turned out, Bohlen appears to have been right in opposing NSC-68's objective of containing Soviet power and in favoring a more cautious approach of accommodation, and he did so based on his knowledge of Russia and its language. Unfortunately, the United States does not currently enjoy the kind of expertise regarding how its rivals think and operate that it did during the early stages of the cold war. Therefore, an essential element of any serious strategy-formulation effort today is the development of a cadre of experts on militant Islamic groups, China and other key states of concern such as Iran, North Korea and Pakistan.
A final barrier involves the tendency to ignore the limits that scarce resources impose on strategy. Were resources unlimited, there would be no need for strategy, since one could pursue all possible courses of action to the maximum extent possible. Of course, this has never been the case, and never will be.
Unfortunately, the Defense Department's approach to planning and budgeting actually encourages the military services to ignore budgetary constraints. They use "cut drills," which are intended to reconcile the gap between any given defense program and defense resources. In a cut drill, the service that has thought through how to apply limited means to achieve its assigned mission—keeping its program in line with anticipated resources—is likely to be penalized, while a service whose program is substantially short of the resources needed for its execution is rewarded with additional funds. This is because the tendency on the part of the department's senior leaders is often to assist the services most in need—whose "requirements" most exceed the resources projected to meet them. The lesson for the military services is clear: put in for as large a program and force structure as you can, and hope to sustain as much as you can in the cut drill. While this may make sense from a narrow, bureaucratic perspective, it hardly makes for sound national strategy.
Again, the problem is not limited to the military. The Bush administration's goal of creating a stable, democratic Iraq greatly underestimated the enormous resources—in time, treasure and blood—that would be required to achieve such a goal. Making matters worse, in 2005 President Bush declared "Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." This statement repeated the already-familiar mistake of conflating a desired end—shifting the burden of fighting the terrorists and insurgents to the Iraqis—with the strategy by which it might be achieved. At the time, the army's strategy in Iraq still focused on killing the enemy, a strategically flawed approach to the conflict. It would not be until 2007 that General David Petraeus would begin implementing a comprehensive strategy focused on providing security to the Iraqi population as a means of isolating the insurgents from their source of support.
Even if senior national-security decision makers believe in the value of strategic competence, and understand the role that limited resources must play, they confront yet another, quite formidable barrier in the form of the bureaucracy. Bureaucracies tend to have their own agendas, which typically offer stiff resistance to leaders' attempts to enact change. In the Defense Department alone, the effort to develop strategy has become so cumbersome and convoluted that it is accepted by the Pentagon itself to be one of "increasing complexity, undocumented change, unaligned processes, [and] ad hoc solutions." The Defense Department's approach to developing and executing strategy involves a cast of hundreds if not thousands of individuals, often working diligently in the absence of any serious form of strategic guidance—let alone active participation—by the Pentagon's senior leadership, the National Security Council or the president.
WHAT SHOULD be done? How can the decline in U.S. strategic competence be reversed? To begin, the president must be convinced of the value of well-thought-through strategy. The active involvement of the nation's commander in chief and chief diplomat is essential to overcoming the barriers discussed. Failure of the president to take an active role can cause—and increasingly has caused—strategic planning to fall prey to narrow bureaucratic or organizational interests, leading to suboptimal strategies or no strategy at all.
If President Obama is willing to take an active role, he and his top national-security decision makers could benefit from the successful example of President Eisenhower's NSC structure, which provided strong incentives to engage in serious discussions of strategy. Under this structure, the president chaired the NSC meetings and, in leading the discussion, made a point of bringing out conflicts and differences by having everyone air their opinions. Attendance was mandatory. During the nearly four-year period when Robert Cutler was Eisenhower's special assistant for national-security affairs, the president missed only six of 179 NSC meetings. To ensure a rich discussion, Eisenhower strictly limited the number of individuals who could participate, typically to eight. This meant there were no "backbenchers" feeding position papers to their principals.
To support the president and the other NSC principals, Eisenhower created a Planning Board, which developed policy papers to be considered by the NSC. The reason for the board, he explained to the NSC members, was that:
You Council members . . . simply do not have the time to do all that needs to be done in thinking out the best decisions regarding the national security. Someone must therefore do much of this thinking for you.3
The Planning Board's members were nominated by the NSC principals and appointed by the president. And to ensure that the Planning Board members were not beholden to their departments or agencies, Eisenhower made it clear that their mission was not "to reach solutions which represent merely a compromise of departmental positions."4
At Eisenhower's direction, Cutler organized "study groups" of senior strategists to include those who had served in the Truman administration, such as Paul Nitze. These groups provided individual and collective advice, while also reviewing past NSC papers, hearing the testimony of experts and soliciting memoranda from experienced leaders with knowledge of strategy like George Marshall, Chip Bohlen and Robert Lovett.
To prevent talented staff from being drawn into day-to-day operations, and to prevent the board from devolving into a compiler of information as opposed to a thinking body focused on strategic insight, Eisenhower employed such means as prohibiting its members from accompanying their principals on overseas trips except when absolutely necessary.
And to ensure that NSC decisions based on the Planning Board's efforts were implemented, Eisenhower established the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB). If the bureaucracy is unable to advance its own agenda during strategy formulation, it will often seek to enforce its will in strategy execution. To prevent this freelancing, the OCB would, at regular intervals (three to six months), prepare progress reports for review by the NSC. Its members included the under secretary of state for political affairs, deputy secretary of defense, the directors of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), and the special assistants to the president for national-security affairs and security-operations coordination. The NSC's action papers were assigned to an OCB team for follow-up.
IF PRESIDENT Obama is serious about getting strategy right, he would benefit by adopting something akin to this NSC model characterized by the persistent involvement of the president and his senior decision makers, supported by a smart, tight-knit group of strategists able to tap into a team of dedicated and informed subordinates and advisers. Reestablishing a Planning Board could, along with direct and determined presidential involvement in the formulation of strategy, go a long way toward improving the quality of U.S. strategy. As former–National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski observed in a 1997 meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations:
The Planning Board was a very important instrument, the elimination of which has handicapped the U.S. government ever since then. Because the consequence is that we don't have overall national security planning.
The individuals comprising a reconstituted Planning Board should be senior officials who are competent strategists, since they are, in effect, the people tasked with identifying the insights upon which asymmetric advantages are derived and strategies formed. For example, the Defense Department might assign the director of its Office of Net Assessment, while the State Department might designate the head of its Policy Planning Staff. The quality of the information and analysis they present to the NSC will greatly influence that body's ability to make good strategic decisions.
To ensure the Planning Board has access to the best information and the best minds, both in and out of government, it should be able to task any department or agency for information, and have the capacity to reach outside of government for expert advice and support. What it should not do is outsource its critical thinking and analysis. It may be prudent to establish temporary advisory boards to address specific issues of great importance to support the Planning Board's work. If so, these supporting groups should be comprised of individuals who are among the most eminent in their fields.
Aaron Friedberg's suggestion that these revived boards be placed under the direction of a national-security adviser for planning and coordinating makes great sense, given that the modern-day national-security adviser has become enmeshed in the day-to-day activities of government. We would only add that an Operations Coordinating Board to ensure strategy implementation throughout the government would also be a wise idea.
THE BARRIERS to developing sound strategy are many, and they are formidable. An argument can be made that the U.S. government not only has lost the ability to do strategy well, but that many senior officials do not understand what strategy is. Despite these barriers, the benefits of crafting good strategies are so great—and the potential risks posed by ignoring strategy so deleterious—that a strong push by senior U.S. national-security decision makers, the president above all, to overcome them seems increasingly urgent and long overdue. Revitalizing strategic planning at the highest levels of the government with a contemporary version of Secretary of State George Marshall's Policy Planning Staff and President Eisenhower's NSC model, to include the Planning and Operations Coordination Boards, would be an important first step toward achieving this end.
One insight here is the need to assign the greater part of strategic planning to a small team of highly capable individuals rather than rely on large bureaucracies. As business-strategist Richard Rumelt notes, individuals and small teams are by their very nature more likely to develop the insights that are central to strategic planning. Of course, given where U.S. strategy stands today, finding individuals with the cognitive skills for strategic insight may well prove challenging. Another insight is how closely the collegiate Chiefs of Staff system that served Anglo-American grand strategy so well in World War II parallels the Eisenhower NSC model. Our main point, though, is that in light of the complex security challenges facing the United States today, as well as the nation's mounting fiscal difficulties, the Obama administration, starting with the new president himself, should accord high priority to reversing the long decline in U.S. strategic competence.
Andrew F. Krepinevich is president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CBSA). Barry D. Watts is a senior fellow at CBSA.
1 Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West (London: Allen Lane, 2008), 68–69, 86–87. In August 1941, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans had "pledged to assist Russia 'on a gigantic scale' in coordination with Britain," 53.
2 Strictly speaking, the British use the HCSC to identify individuals who can make the transition from tactics to operational art. But since the cognitive skills required for strategy appear to be the same art, those who can make the transition are also potential strategists.
3 Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998), 91.
4 James S. Lay Jr., "National Security Council's Role in the U.S. Security and Peace Program," World Affairs, No. 115 (1952), 37.