Where have all the strategic thinkers gone?

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Since the end of the Cold War and certainly since Sept. 11, successive administrations have suffered foreign policy disasters and set backs. Some argue that one cause is the absence of strategic thinkers and thinking. But that is not the complete reason.

Great strategic thinkers helped win World War II; afterwards, creating international mechanisms to make the world safer and more prosperous; and containing the Soviet Union. In government, George Kennan, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Dean Acheson and others were among the better known. On the academic side, contributions of strategic thinkers to include Bernard Brodie,  Zbigniew Brzezinski, Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger and Thomas Schelling guided much of U.S. post-war thinking.

Today, the proliferation of strategic thinkers and the politicization of that practice – in which party affiliation has become as or more influential than ideas – have diluted their impact. But the larger reason does not stem from the lack of strategic thinkers. The reason stems from the lack of presidential need for fostering sound strategic thinking.

How and why this happened reflected the profound changes that have occurred domestically and internationally since World War II. The notion of the “greatest generation” may be an exaggeration. But it was the war that demanded and germinated a generation of strategic thinking and thinkers.

Harry Truman was not an intellectual. One can argue his experience for the presidency was thin — 10 years in the Senate chairing the committee investigating the national defense program and 82 days as vice president. Yet, under Truman, the post-war order was created, from the Marshall Plan to Bretton Woods. And Army General Dwight Eisenhower carried on that tradition as president.

All presidents from Ike to George H. W. Bush had served in and were greatly influenced by that war. While John Kennedy’s presidency was cut short by his assassination, the team he assembled was not short of strategic thinkers. The flaw was that one legacy of the war was assuming the ideological battle with the Soviet Union was as stark as the one against Hitler’s Germany and fascist Japan, ultimately entrapping the U.S. in the disastrous Vietnam War.

Lyndon Johnson applied if not strategic thinking then strategic vision by implementing the Great Society and Equal and Voting Rights legislation for all Americans. But the psychological trauma of not being able “to win” in Vietnam as America had done with its “unconditional surrender” terms in World War II was so powerful, Johnson declined to seek a second term.

Richard Nixon embraced and exploited strategic thinking with Henry Kissinger as his agent. Triangular politics did not bring success in Vietnam. But it did open the door to China, shifting it away from the Soviet Union. And the arms control agreements and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviets began the ultimate dissolution of the USSR. During that period, Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Kissinger’s deputy and then twice national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, would emerge as the last of the great strategic thinkers of that generation.

Presidents after Bush ’41 simply did not have the same interest,  capacity or understanding of the importance of strategic thinking and thinkers. President Clinton arrived in office after the Soviet Union collapsed and America had routed Saddam Hussein in the first gulf war. Strategic thinking was an afterthought.

George W. Bush unfortunately relied on slogans to substitute for strategy. The “axis of evil” linking North Korea, Iran and Iraq was fatuous in the extreme. And the “freedom agenda” that would democratize the Greater Middle East, beginning with removing Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction from Iraq, was a catastrophe. Bush’s throwaway line at the NATO Bucharest summit in 2008 assuring membership to Georgia and Ukraine enraged Vladimir Putin and was a contributor to the current crisis with Russia.

Similarly, Barack Obama never relied on real strategic thinking. The Afghan-Pakistan study in the first days of his administration and the “pivot to Asia” were profoundly mishandled. Donald Trump was more destructive, substituting his instincts for strategic thinking. And while Joe Biden’s 44 years in the Senate and as vice president made him the most experienced person ever to assume the presidency, strategic thinking has not been obvious in his administration given the incompetent Afghan withdrawal and the handling of China so far.

To drive this point home, name any of the national security advisors since Brent Scowcroft. The conclusion is self-evident. Strategic thinkers abound. But unless presidents use them, true strategic thinking will remain foreign to White Houses.

Dr.  Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags Brent Scowcroft Brent Scowcroft Cold War Donald Trump Dwight Eisenhower Foreign policy of the Barack Obama administration Foreign policy of the Donald Trump administration Foreign policy of the Joe Biden administration George H. W. Bush George Marshall George W. Bush George W. Bush Harry Truman Harry Truman John Kennedy Lyndon B. Johnson Richard Nixon Russia-Ukraine war September 11 attacks

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