America’s disappearing strategy
Strategy is like magic. Both the magician and strategist use art and science to wow their audience by seemingly pulling off the implausible. It’s not the rabbit emerging from the hat that is magic, it’s the process making it happen that is magic. The same goes for strategy. So when President Obama makes “Disrupting, Dismantling, and Defeating Al-Qa’ida and its Violent Extremist Affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Around the World” a key component of this year’s National Security Strategy (NSS), he is missing the point. That is a goal, not a strategy.
Of course, it is intriguing that the U.S. would even feign interest in publishing its national security strategy for the entire world to see but that’s not the point. The point is no matter which document you read, whether the Quadrennial Defense Review, this year’s NSS, the NSPD (for G.W. Bush) or PPD (for Obama), there is hardly any coherent plan in any of these so-called “grand strategy” documents. All these documents get strategy wrong. They fail to recognize how strategy is more than just stating a goal; it is establishing preferences, prioritizing interests, and employing the available means in a coherent plan to achieve those interests.
Going back to the previous example, the NSS aims to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa’ida … through a comprehensive strategy that denies them safe haven, strengthens front-line partners, secures our homeland, pursues justice through durable legal approaches, and counters a bankrupt agenda of extremism and murder with an agenda of hope and opportunity.” These statements are hyperbole more than strategy. The U.S. should strengthen partners and secure the homeland anyway, regardless of any al Qa’ida threat.
A better strategy against al Qa’ida would recognize that the organization has morphed into an ideological program that can be adopted by self-starters who want to carry out homegrown terrorism. America’s strategy has to distinguish between what it wants to do and what it can do against these types of organizations. Fighting a global amorphous threat requires infinite reach and infinite resources. Without these, the U.S. must prioritize and seek defenses where it knows it can protect. Extending itself in distant theaters only exposes America to greater security risk.
In addition to violent extremism, there are two other areas where the NSS falls woefully short: Iran and North Korea. Admittedly, these challenges are hard. But if the U.S. wants Iran to “live up to its international responsibilities” it must recognize that Iran has different perceptions of these responsibilities. As well, the U.S. must recognize that Iran has sufficient leverage over American policy in the region that it can avoid certain amounts of coercion. The U.S. should make a sober assessment of itself to see exactly what it can coerce Iran to do. Trying to alter Iran’s behavior beyond America’s capability to do so is really just wasting time. The same goes for North Korea and the developing problems on that peninsula. The U.S. is severely handicapped in what it can make North Korea do. The U.S. must reassess its position in that region as well.
Lastly, the national security strategy should include only those things which are absolutely imperative. Needlessly adding peripheral interests complicates planning. Thus, while interests such as countering nuclear proliferation, combating terrorism, and securing cyberspace are all a must. It is less true that growing America’s space capabilities, opening foreign markets to trade, or cutting carbon emissions are essential to national security. To be sure, these are all valuable goals but they do nothing but add complexity to the already difficult task. Likening it to magic, the objective of strategy is to draw in the audience with one hand while the other performs the important functions which make the trick work. By overloading America’s national security strategy it can ruin the trick.