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Archive for August 20th, 2004

Friday, August 20th, 2004

IN THE LAND OF STRATEGIC VISION WHY SHOULD A BLIND MAN BE KING ?

Dan Drezner set off a furious exchange over strategy vs. “policy process” which melded with disputing the merits of Bush vs. Kerry, with the following question:

“Which is better: a foreign policy with a clearly articulated grand strategy but a f#$%ed-up policy process, or a foreign policy with no articulated grand strategy but a superior policy process?”

Aside from the voluminous number of comments on Dan’s blog, Brad DeLong, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and JB posted on ” strategy vs. policy process” as well, some more than once.

I have enormous problems with the arguments, such as they were, of the ” pro-process” side. For example, here’s Matt Yglesias:

“For the sake of argument, let’s accept the premise. It seems to me that this isn’t even close to being a hard question. For whatever reason, intellectuals have a tendency to grossly underrate the value the sound execution. When you think about it, though, it doesn’t matter at all how good someone’s “grand strategy” is if they have a history of unsound execution. Nor does it matter, in fact, how bad their grand strategy is. Unless you can clear the hurdle of “given a strategy, will it actually be implemented” the content of the strategy is simply irrelevant. Several years in office make it clear that the results of a Bush foreign policy initiative will have a purely contingent relationship to the goals of the initiative. A fucked-up policy process is a very bad thing indeed.”

First of all, because Matt has not bothered to define his terms, he frequently conflates ” execution” – the actual carrying out of decided policy – with ” process”, the bureaucratic wrangling, meetings, review and decision, that creates the policy. They are not the same. You can have a well-crafted policy, carefully vetted and monitored, that you fail to execute well due to lack of resources, skill or even simple bad luck. Likewise, your “executors” in the field – soldiers, CIA operatives and diplomats – can sometimes save an ill-defined policy or mask a confused process by seizing opportunities that unexpectedly arise.

” Process” and ” execution” are not in opposition to ” strategy” per se – strategizing is thinking on a particular, larger, scale of comprehension than the tactical. It is possible to execute either strategic or tactical moves though most often a series of tactical moves will fulfill a strategy. Likewise, you can go through a ” policy process ” to determine the parameters or review any course of action. Some of the bloggers seem not to have thought the subject through terribly well which is why their arguments come across mostly as disjointed debating points. You can argue that Iraq is a mess because the Bush administration has a poor policy process. Or that the Bush administration is terrible at execution. Or that Bush’s ” grand strategy” was bad or some combination of all three. What makes little sense to me is the proposition that having a strategy itself is cause for concern .

I think the root of the intellectual confusion in the ” pro process” side emanates from a basic logical error, rooted in emotional hostility to the current incumbent and defensiveness about the Democratic nominee that goes like this:

George W. Bush has a Grand Strategy



George W. Bush is Bad

Therefore, having a Strategy is Bad….or at least inferior to not having one…like John Kerry !



Like it or not, despite the protests of Brad DeLong, the Bush administration has a well-thought out and cohesive strategy for foreign policy. Tom Barnett has an alternative strategy, in some ways more politically attractive than that of the Bush administration but it also addresses many of the same important problems in a thoughtful, systemic fashion. John Kerry does not have a strategy. Some of his supporters would have us believe that a lack of serious thought about the structure of international relations is a virtue in a presidential candidate.

Here’s a good argument against sleepwalking through the next four years – Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda and North Korea – how well did events go the last time America’s foreign policy was run by a bureaucratic operating system marked ” by the seat of our pants ” ? Then add to that list Iraq, Iran, al Qaida, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Colombia and Venezuela.

Now how do you feel about a candidate for president who has no idea of where to go but claims he can get us there faster ?

Perhaps not having ” a policy process” to develop a strategy is also ” a very bad thing indeed “.

UPDATE: Jeff at Caerdroia weighs in on strategy, execution and politics. Note carefully his remarks regarding the State Department. Most Secretaries of State, even while generally praising their foreign service people, would be quick to agree. A number of them, Kissinger and Schultz come to mind, have written memoirs complaining about heads of area desks and assistant secretaries who went off ” doing deals on their own “.

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