Obama Needs a Grand Strategy

The president gives a good speech, and sure, he got Osama bin Laden, but do his foreign policies add up to anything?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Does the United States have a grand strategy? If so, what is it?

If you rummage around on the White House’s website, you’ll eventually stumble across something called The National Security Strategy of the United States. In fact, you’ll find more than half a dozen National Security Strategy documents, since they’re congressionally mandated. (Of course, in time-honored executive-branch tradition, they’re generally submitted a year or two after the deadline).

But though the Obama administration’s 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) is many things — press release, public relations statement, laundry list of laudable aspirations — grand strategy it ain’t. The unclassified version alone clocks in at some 60 pages, which is hardly petite — but "long" isn’t the same as "grand." When it comes to grand strategy, less is more: If it can’t be expressed in a few paragraphs, it’s something other than grand strategy. Don’t expect Obama’s upcoming State of the Union Address to offer much by way of grand strategy, either: These annual talkathons tend instead to toss out a little bit of this and a little bit of that, in hopes that something will snag the positive attention of voters and media commentators.

Though different scholars and statesmen define "grand strategy" somewhat differently, at its heart, the concept is straightforward: Grand strategy is "the big idea" of foreign and national security policy — the overarching concept that links ends, ways and means, the organizing principle that allows states to purposively plan and prioritize the use of "all instruments of national power," diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military. A grand strategy can’t be a list of aspirations, wishes, or even a country’s top 10 foreign-policy "priorities." (When you have 10 priorities, you really have no priorities at all.) Grand strategy is the big idea that guides the tough decisions, helping policymakers figure out which of those top 10 priorities should drop off the list, which aspirations are unrealistic and impossible, and which may seem like good ideas on their own, but actually undermine the nation’s broader goals.

Of necessity, grand strategy has to be pretty simple. After all, for something to be a guiding principle, it has to be readily understood by many actors and easily translated into action. "The United States will contain the Soviet Union by forming strong alliances, assuring allies that we will stand by them, and maintaining sufficient military and nuclear dominance to deter Soviet aggression" works pretty well as grand strategy, for instance (whether or not you think it was the right strategy, it was certainly straightforward). A 60-page document, produced by bureaucratic consensus? Not so much.

Fine, you might say, the NSS isn’t a grand strategy, but the Obama administration still has one — it just hasn’t been articulated as such.

Really? You could have fooled me. The Obama administration initially waffled over the Arab Spring, unable to decide whether and when to support the status quo and when to support the protesters. The United States used military force to help oust Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, but insisted at first that this wasn’t the purpose of the airstrikes — and without any clear rationale being articulated, the use of force in seemingly parallel situations seems to have been ruled out. The administration expresses support for the rule of law, but hasn’t offered a coherent legal framework justifying the use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists inside the territory of other sovereign states. (I’m not saying there’s no possible justification — just that none has been clearly articulated). In Afghanistan, the Obama team first embraced an expansive, counter-insurgency-oriented approach to the nearly decade-old conflict — then shifted, a mere two years later, into "last guy out turns out the lights" mode.

This isn’t an argument for or against any particular decision — the day to day decision-making may well have been perfectly reasonable in each case. But it’s awfully hard to detect the contours of a grand strategy from the last three years. President Obama makes intelligent and persuasive speeches, but judged impartially, U.S. foreign and national security policy over the last three years frequently looks ad hoc, reactive, and inconsistent.

Well, so what? Does the United States really need a grand strategy? Scholars and intellectuals may be fond of these ambitious, pie-in-the-sky concepts, but they don’t accomplish anything in the real world, right?

It’s unquestionably true that although think-tankers and academics love to talk grand strategy, politicians get pretty impatient with the debate. There’s nothing wrong with taking things as they come, they argue: After all, no one can predict the future, and realistically, no "big idea" exists that will magically take us from today’s messy global realities to some mystical national security utopia. Besides, between campaigning and governing, who’s got time to figure out grand strategy — is the president supposed to fit it in between health-care reform and attending the annual Boy Scout convention? Anyway, hasn’t grand often just meant "grandiose" and unrealistic (think neoconservatism circa 2003)? Nitpickers and think-tankers may enjoy obsessing over what America’s grand strategy should be, but real leaders have to focus on getting things done.

There’s some truth to this argument. A grand strategy isn’t a script or a playbook, for instance. But it would still be awfully nice to have one. Without any notion of grand strategy — without any broad vision of a desired end state — there’s no basis on which to make the day-to-day decisions. Most of the work of foreign policy is about small, incremental changes, not sweeping, fancy stuff. It’s about whether to meet with the Saudis for half an hour or for two hours at the U.N. General Assembly, whether the Navy needs 10 aircraft carriers or 11, and whether to release two Yemenis or three Yemenis from Guantánamo. But without some notion of where you want to go, there’s no principled or consistent basis for making even the most incremental decisions, so you end up with a foreign policy at risk of appearing almost random. As they say, "If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there." It’s a sentiment that may have worked fine for the Cheshire Cat, but it’s not a recipe for a sound foreign policy.

Unfortunately, a grand strategy is a necessary but not sufficient basis for coherent national action. All those petite, itty-bitty strategies? All those more modest operational and tactical-level plans? A nation needs those too, as long as they are supporting the grand strategy. And to succeed, a nation needs people who understand the difference between strategy and tactics, people who know how to plan, and people who know how to execute. Without all those things, "policymaking" is a meaningless enterprise: just a game that makes senior officials feel important. You can announce "policy" all you want, but if you don’t have a plan for implementing it, people capable of implementing it, the necessary resources, and a Plan B (and C, and D) for when things go wrong, you’re back in wish-list land.

This is an area where the United States does shamefully badly. Most executive-branch agencies offer staff (junior or senior) little if any meaningful training in management, strategic planning, or policy implementation. I’ve met senior White House officials who didn’t know what an executive order was, didn’t understand the process through which intelligence agencies determine collection priorities, and didn’t understand, in even the most rudimentary way, why sending significant numbers of troops to a foreign country generally takes a little time. (It has to do with the tedious fact that troops need the right training, equipment, transportation, supplies, food, communications, and so on.) This isn’t a problem specific to the Obama administration, or to the White House; other administrations and other executive-branch agencies are just as bad. And it’s not because the U.S. government is filled with dumb people: There are many exceptionally talented and dedicated people in government service. But if talented people are untrained, they can still end up doing a lot of dumb things.

Can we do better? To quote Sarah Palin, you betcha. This isn’t rocket science; it’s mostly pretty basic stuff. Get 30 senior officials together, and ask them to list "Things I know now, and wish I’d known earlier." The training curriculum for federal officials will pretty much write itself.

But first, America needs a grand strategy. So what should it be? That’s the $65,000 question (or, to be more accurate, the $650 billion question, since that’s about the size of the 2010 defense budget). And it’s a question I won’t try to answer now. But I have a few grand strategies in my back pocket. No, really. Just ask me at the next think-tank event.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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