Wanted: a Grand Strategy (Updated)

This morning I found a pair of interestingly interlocking columns. In his column in the Washington Post Eugene Robinson urges the incipient Obama Administration to formulate a coherent plan for the War on Terror:

A concept that excludes nothing defines nothing. That’s why one of the most urgent tasks for President-elect Barack Obama’s “Team of Rivals” foreign policy brain trust is coming up with a coherent intellectual framework — and a winning battle plan — for the globe-spanning asymmetrical conflict that George W. Bush calls the “war on terror.”

He’s skeptical of the early steps by President-Elect Obama. In reference to Mr. Obama’s announcing his security team yesterday Mr. Robinson notes:

In his opening statement, Obama vowed to continue the fight against “those who kill innocent individuals to advance hateful extremism.” Is that his definition of terrorism? Is any one-size-fits-all definition sufficiently flexible to allow U.S. Special Forces to go after Osama bin Laden but also to keep nuclear-armed India out of nuclear-armed Pakistan?

David Brooks is a man with a plan. In his column in the New York Times today he describes the policy forged in the crucibles of Iraq and Afghanistan like this:

Gates does not talk about spreading democracy, at least in the short run. He talks about using integrated federal agencies to help locals improve the quality and responsiveness of governments in trouble spots around the world.

He has developed a way of talking about security and foreign policy that is now the lingua franca in government and think-tank circles. It owes a lot to the lessons of counterinsurgency and uses phrases like “full spectrum operations” to describe multidisciplinary security and development campaigns.

Gates has told West Point cadets that more regime change is unlikely but that they may spend parts of their careers training soldiers in allied nations. He has called for more spending on the State Department, foreign aid and a revitalized U.S. Information Agency. He’s spawned a flow of think-tank reports on how to marry hard and soft pre-emption.

The Bush administration began to implement these ideas, but in small and symbolic ways. President Bush called for a civilian corps to do nation-building. National Security Presidential Directive 44 laid out a framework so different agencies could coordinate foreign reconstruction and stabilization. The Millennium Challenge Account program created a method for measuring effective governance.

Actual progress was slow, but the ideas developed during the second Bush term have taken hold.

and urges the new administration to continue along this path:

Given the events of the past years, the U.S. is not about to begin another explicit crusade to spread democracy. But decent, effective and responsive government would be a start.

Obama and his team didn’t invent this approach. But if they can put it into action, that would be continuity we can believe in.

Note that Mr. Brooks is singing the same old song: this is Neo-conservatism 2.0.

I think the original grand strategy in the War on Terror can safely be considered to have run aground. While Iraq may not descend into chaos, neither is it considered a model for the rest of the region. Liberal democracy isn’t spreading virally throughout the Middle East.

I honestly don’t believe that the American people have the patience or, sadly, the interest in following that particular grand strategy. It’s a lot easier to run on spending money on building roads here in the United States than it is to explain why we should build roads in Afghanistan.

A new grand strategy is desperately needed. We can’t wait forever, however much we’d prefer to.


I swear I hadn’t read Fareed Zakaria’s piece in Newsweek. He uses nearly exactly the same title I used for this post to urge a new grand strategy taking the factors noted in the NIC’s report on global trends as a roadmap. If that’s the case I hope that more insight is evident in reading those trends than was present in that report. Otherwise it will not be unlike using a roadmap for the German autobahn to make your way around New Jersey.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. M1EK says:

    The premise is flawed. The current half-assed nation-building effort in Iraq will never succeed; this does not betray a lack of patience with nation-building at all, though.

    Speaking as one who you’d probably assume ‘lacks patience’, in late 2001 I advocated going into Afghanistan with WWII levels of force – rebuilding the country from the bottom up as we did Japan and Germany. Instead, we went into Iraq with just a token force in Afghanistan, and ended up with nothing but political theatre in both places – top-down ‘democracy’ which is completely useless without having built a functioning society with respect for the rule of law and the rights of individuals.

    If anything, it was the Bush guys who lacked patience – treating Iraq as some sort of neoconservative laboratory to try out all sorts of crap (flat taxes!).

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Just for the record, M1EK, I opposed the invasion of Iraq. Among other reasons, I am not a Wilsonian.

  3. fred says:

    The republicrats and evangelicrats must be beside themselves. They were lied into a war, and up to 3 months ago McCain/Palin were telling our country the economy was good, and the “fundamentals strong.” Now, yesterday, we discover their lies again and that the counntry has been in a recession which started over a year ago. The majority of citizens of the most wonderful country on the planet saw thru their lies. Our country deserves a better opposition that the “rats” I have just described. Liars, cheats, hypocrites…..

  4. odograph says:

    The Neocons have recently discovered that while you can lead a horse to water, you can’t make him drink.

    (When Iraqis, and they were Iraqis, started blowing up their own water treatment plants to spite us, we were lost.)

    For the record, I leaned against Afghanistan on practical grounds (I thought the 19th century British experience argued against invasion) but gave it a moral thumbs-up.

    I though Iraq failed on both moral and practical grounds, though the practical case was much easier to make: that it would yield more blowback than progress.

  5. ken says:

    You want a grand strategy for dealing with terrorism? How’s this:

    Stop making enemies of average people living in dangerous places.

  6. M1EK says:

    I think we did a good enough job creating a Western-like stable society in Japan that we showed we’d have a far better chance of success in Afghanistan than the Brits did. Too bad we never tried.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    There were several factors working in Japan that differed from Afghanistan, M1EK. Societal cohesion for one—Japan is very homogeneous. Existing government institutions for another.

  8. Steve says:


    McCain/Palin may have been politically wrong in stating that ‘the economy was good, and the “fundamentals strong.”‘ because people decided not to vote for them but they were not logically wrong. The US economy cannot forever expand. It must correct itself every so often. The strong fundamentals in a free market are that the corrections don’t bring the system to its knees but allow most of us to continue as we always have.

    It’s interesting that I’m still getting paid every two weeks; buying the same groceries; driving my car; buying gas; paying my mortgage on time; buying Christmas gifts. IMHO, if the media didn’t tell them, I’ll bet 99% of Americans could not tell you from their own experience that we have been in a recession for a year.

  9. M1EK says:

    Dave, we used nearly zero of the pre-existing governmental structures in Japan, and Afghanistan is far more socially cohesive than is Iraq.

    The point of doing it right (from the bottom-up) is precisely to avoid having to use the same awful stuff that went wrong before. You start with total military government over every level – but with a fairly transparent legal system (run by us, but obvious that the rule of law is fair, even if heavy-handed and non-participatory). When that is done to our satisfaction, we start elections at the LOCAL level only. Move your way up over the course of YEARS, not MONTHS, and you hopefully end up with a stable liberal (by the old definition) society.

    Rush it through with purple-fingered theatre and you end up with two failed states in waiting that will collapse as soon as we pull out.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    Afghanistan is far more socially cohesive than is Iraq

    I’ve never heard anyone make that claim. Can you support it?

    BTW, although interesting it’s irrelevant to the original point. The point is not whether Afghanistan is more cohesive than Iraq it’s whether either is as or more cohesive than either post-war Germany or Japan. I think the answer is clearly not.

  11. M1EK says:

    Well, the argument for why Japan was so ‘easy’ to rebuild is that their society was essentially one big tribe. Not that much qualitatively different than dealing with a few basically similar tribes in Afghanistan which differ a lot less than the Sunnis and Shia in Iraq.

  12. anjin-san says:

    I think we did a good enough job creating a Western-like stable society in Japan

    True. But how many bombs had to be dropped before their society became malleable? At some point, people will say “we will do anything you want, just stop bombing us. Are you willing to go down that road?

  13. odograph says:

    I think we did a good enough job creating a Western-like stable society in Japan that we showed we’d have a far better chance of success in Afghanistan than the Brits did. Too bad we never tried.

    I think Japan had more of a democratic history than we like to remember (and of course an ordered modernizing society). Germany too.

    It makes us feel better to think we created one from scratch … but from what we know of human nature, that isn’t really possible, is it?

  14. M1EK says:

    At some point, people will say “we will do anything you want, just stop bombing us. Are you willing to go down that road?

    With Afghanistan? Yes; they attacked us (de-facto, anyways). We had all the moral justification we needed to go in there and do whatever the hell we wanted for a very long time.

    With Iraq? Obviously no.

    And odograph, I think you’re engaging in wishful thinking if you think there was any kind of meaningful democratic tradition in Japan back then. Not that it matters; democracy isn’t the important part here; the rule of law is.

  15. fred says:

    Even the republicrats and evangelicrats are now supportive of the new VA Sec nominee, a great general, who stood up to be counted and for America…not like Powell and the other Bush/Cheney cronies before the Iraq war. Another super addition to a Obama team that will turn out to be the greatest administration that this country has ever had. And Lord knows that this is what our country needs. The “rats” now don’t even talk about the Pres Bush, who seems missing, but keeps harping on about Obama who has not even taken the oath as yet. I remember how talk radio kept referring to him as the “messiah” and their wishes will come true on 20th Jan. That is what this country needs now to lead our great nation out of this abyss. I can’t wait also for the fairness doctrine to be re-instituted. Here in the Panhandle of Florida there are 10 Fox News talk radio shows…and that’s it. The rednecks here only get one point of view. Mainstream Americans want to hear objective news and reporting.

  16. fred says:

    I do not know which planet you are on. Just look at the numbers who lost their jobs in Nov. I am retired and getting a pension, so am blessed. I pray God for you that you do not join the unemployed ranks too. By the way, watch the TV show “The Secret Millionaire” if you get a chance. It is the best show on TV and demonstrates the joy of not only giving but also receiving.