“I have not lived so long, Spartans, without having had the experience of many wars, and I see among you of the same age as myself, who will not fall into the common misfortune of longing for war from inexperience or from a belief in it’s advantage and safety”
One thing on which most commentators, academics and former officials seem to agree is that the United States government has a difficult time planning and executing strategy. Furthermore, that since 1991 we have been without a consensus as to America’s grand strategy, which would guide our crafting of policy and strategy. This failing bridges partisan divisions and departmental bureaucracies; there are many career officials, political appointees and even a few politicians, who can explain the nuances of the Afghan War, or the Libyan intervention, the depreciatory tailspin of the US Dollar or America’s Russia policy – but none who would venture to say how these relate to one another, still less to a common vision.
Sadly, they do not, in fact, relate to one another – at least not, as far as I can discern, intentionally.
Few American policies or even military operations (!) in one country can be said to have been conceived even within a coherent and logically consistent regional strategy and it is not just common, but normal, to have DIME agencies working at completely contradictory purposes in the same area of operations. The interagency process, to the extent that it exists, is fundamentally broken and incapable of interagency operational jointness; and the institutional coordinating mechanism for any “whole of government” effort, the National Security Council, has become too consumed with crisis management. A mismatched prioritization of resources which leaves little time for the kind of long range planning and strategic thinking that allows nations to seize the initiative instead of reacting to events.
It would be a useful corrective for the better conception and execution of US policy, for the President and the Congress to create a special board for grand strategy that could give presidents and key officials frank assessments and confidential guidance to help weave their policy ideas into a durable and overarching national strategy. One that might last beyond a few days’ headlines in The New York Times.
The President of the United States, of course has a number of bodies that could, should but do not always provide strategic advice. There’s the Defense Policy Advisory Board, an Intelligence Advisory Board, the National Intelligence Council, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, the Office of Net Assessment and not least, the NSC itself and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose Chairman, by act of Congress, is the military advisor to the President and Secretary of Defense. While strategic thinking does percolate from these entities, many have very specific mandates or, conversely, wide ranging briefs on matters other than strategy. Some operate many levels below the Oval Office, are filled with superannuated politicians or have personnel who, while intellectually brilliant, are excessively political and untrained in matters of strategy. The Joint Chiefs, the professionals of strategy, are highly cognizant of the Constitutional deference they are required to give to civilian officials and are very leery of overstepping their bounds into the more political realms of policy and grand strategy.
What the President could use is a high level group just focused on getting strategy right – or making sure we have one at all.
I’m envisioning a relatively small group composed of a core of pure strategists leavened with the most strategically oriented of our elder statesmen, flag officers, spooks and thinkers from cognate fields. A grand strategy board would be most active at the start of an administration and help in the crafting of the national strategy documents and return periodically when requested to give advice. Like the Spartan Gerousia, most of the members ( but not all) would be older and freer of the restraint of institutional imperatives and career ambitions. Like the Anglo-American joint chiefs and international conferences of WWII and the immediate postwar era, they would keep their eye on the panoramic view.
The Octagon Conference – FDR, Churchill and the Combined Chiefs of Staff
Here’s my grand strategy board in a hypothetical perfect world, unlike the one that prevails inside the beltway. I’m sure people will quibble with particular names or will suggest others. I freely admit, for example, that I do not have the best grasp of who our leading intellectual powerhouses are in the Navy, Air Force or the closed world of intelligence analysis and this impairs my ability to put together the list. Nevertheless, I’m trying anyway:
Let’s start with a group of acclaimed and eminent strategic thinkers who have demonstrated over a long tenure, their ability to consider matters of war, peace and statecraft as well as the nuances of strategic theory:
Thomas Schelling -Chairman
Next, some senior statesmen:
General officers and one colonel with a demonstrated talent for challenging conventional assumptions:
Lieutenant General Paul van Riper
General James Mattis
General Jack Keane
Colonel John Warden
Mixed group of strategists, historians, practitioners and theorists:
Thomas P.M. Barnett
Martin van Creveld
Visionaries and Contrarians:
Nicholas Nassim Taleb
What are the problems with my grand strategy board (aside from having zero chance of coming into being)?
For one, it is probably way too large. In my efforts to balance expertise in strategy with varied thinking it grew bigger than what is manageable in real life, if the group is to be productive.
Secondly, it is an exceedingly white, male and conservative leaning list - though to some extent that reflects the criteria of experience, the field of strategy itself and the nature of American politics. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, is definitely bright but her politics are fundamentally opposed to effectively maximizing American power in the world or the use of military force – thus making her of little use except as a voice of dissent.
Another limitation of this exercise is the idiosyncratic eclecticism of my approach – this was a blog post written over a few days in my spare time and not a methodical inquiry into who in American life would verifiably be the “best qualified” to help construct a grand strategy. There are “insiders” who command great respect within the national security, defense and intelligence communities who are unknown to the general public, or even this corner of the blogosphere, who would be enormously helpful to such a board. Finally, a grand strategy board would not be a panacea; it would be subject to all the inertial pressures that over time would reduce it’s ability to effect change, just as the Policy Planning Staff and the NSC have been “neutered” over decades by the forces of the status quo.
That said, the above group or one reasonably comparable to it could, for a time, markedly improve the construction of strategy , assuming American leaders are willing to enlist such advice, put aside short term political considerations and pursue long term strategic goals.
Whom would you nominate to a grand strategy board?
Grand Strategic Viewing: