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Is the US capable of thinking strategically?

Probably since George Washington, U.S. presidents have been accused of having no defense strategy or the wrong strategy. That is particularly acute today because the crisis is not an absence of strategy but of sound strategic thinking. The last presidents who thought strategically were Richard Nixon, exemplified in his outreach to China and his Persian Gulf two pillar strategy, which brought Saudi Arabia and Iran under the Shah together to counter the Soviet Union; and George H.W. Bush, who reversed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and eviscerated a good part of Saddam Hussein’s army. 

Since then, presidents from both parties have largely bungled foreign and defense policies and strategies. Bill Clinton began the expansion of NATO that contributed powerfully to Russia’s resentment and anger towards the West. George W. Bush stumbled into Afghanistan and then Iraq in America’s worst strategic catastrophe since the Civil War. 

Barack Obama drew “red lines” in Syria that he did not honor; led from behind in overthrowing and killing Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, throwing that country into civil war; pivoted to Asia without informing friends and allies in advance, infuriating China and frightening partners; and put in place the “4 + 1” strategy that explicitly made China, Russia, North Korea and Iran enemies to be defeated if war came. 

Donald Trump put “America First” and largely withdrew from global leadership and membership in the Paris climate accord, the World Health Organization, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and other fora. He also declared NATO obsolete, offending friends and allies in the process.  

President Biden entered office trying to repair the damage done by the Trump administration. But relations with China have become more prickly, and Russia now has some 100,000 troops threatening Ukraine. Biden’s Interim National Security Guidance is heavy on aspiration and ideology and light on crisp directions to the Pentagon.

About ideology, Biden aims for democracy to outlast autocracy. “To prevail, we must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people,” he wrote in the guidance. “It will not happen by accident – we have to defend our democracy, strengthen it and renew it.”  No doubt, China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are listening.

Regarding national defense, he wrote: “We will ensure our armed forces are equipped to deter our adversaries, defend our people, interests, and allies, and defeat threats that emerge. But the use of military force should be a last resort, not the first.” And, like the Trump National Defense Strategy, Biden’s aspirational objectives remain undefined 

But worse, the strategic logic is reversed. The just-released Pentagon conclusions of its Global Posture Review came before the National Security and Defense Strategy reviews, which will be completed in 2022. This “ready, fire, aim” approach also applied to NATO. NATO released its military strategy of deterrence and defense earlier this year before approving the overarching strategic concept  at the Heads of State and Government Summit next September. 

Does that mean presidents and their administrations are no longer able to think strategically? By contrast, China and Russia have followed the advice of Sun Tzu, the great Chinese general and philosopher who advised several millennia ago that the best strategy was to win without fighting. Next best was to attack the enemy’s strategy. The worst was to allow tactics to replace strategy.

It would appear that the U.S. is following the last, in which aspirations, process and tactics have become strategy. Fixing a failure in strategic thinking is conceptually easy but politically impossible. First we need to attack Russian and Chinese strategies.

Second, we must think about why the U.S. does not have an overall national plan and strategy. Since elections for Congress take place every two years, perhaps we should have a two-year plan. Any business or organization will not succeed without a strategic plan. Why is this nation any different?

Attacking other strategies and having a national strategic plan may not guarantee better strategic thinking. But both would surely be far better than what we now have.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book, due out on Dec. 14, is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”

Tags Afghanistan–United States relations Barack Obama Bill Clinton China Donald Trump George H.W. Bush International Security Assistance Force Joe Biden Military history by country Military strategy Presidency of Donald Trump Presidency of Joe Biden Richard Nixon Russia War in Afghanistan
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