A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column addressing the fact that in an era of fiscal restraint, policymakers and strategists needed to think harder about U.S. strategic priorities. One commenter stated that my piece was a slur on admirals and generals who spend considerable amounts of time thinking through this nation’s strategic options. Anyone who believes this is actually what generals and admirals do has a poor grasp of how things work.
In fact, the Pentagon’s new Number 2, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, immediately after being sworn in last week created the Deputy’s Management Action Group (DMAG) to guide decisions on critically important issues such as the Pentagon’s five-year investment plan, force structure, global posture, and space and nuclear deterrence. One must therefore assume that the already-established Deputy’s Advisory Working Group (DAWG) was not up to the task. One of the key tasks Mr. Carter wants his new group to undertake is determining “strategic choices,” and he has established a special committee for that purpose. One would have assumed somebody in the Pentagon would already have that job. One would have assumed wrong.
What the military does very well is plan. Given any theater of operations, the Department of Defense will show you joint capstone concepts, joint operating concepts, joint functional concepts, joint integrating concepts, etc. What it does not do very well is think strategically. In fact, strategy documents coming out of the Pentagon are typically lists of aspirations, which are never linked to ways and means — that linking being the very basis of good strategy.
Trust me, I am not slandering the capabilities of our senior officers by saying that they are not doing much strategic thinking. The fact of the matter is that their daily activities do not leave much room for the type of strategic thinking required to guide this nation through the dangerous currents ahead. Even for those of them who might have the skills required for first-rate strategic thinking, the tempo of fighting two wars along with all the other demands of military service does not allow the time required to reflect and develop far-seeing strategic concepts. One might hope that from time to time the likes of Adm. Harold Stark, who in a single weekend worked out the underlying strategy for our involvement in World War II, will arrive on the scene. But as every military person is repeatedly told, hope is not a method. In fact, Gen. George Marshall, World War II’s “architect of victory,” despite being a first-rate strategist himself, knew that neither he nor his staff would have the time to do the type of in-depth strategic thinking required for military success. To make sure that this thinking did get done, Marshall created the Joint Strategic Survey Committee under retired general Stanley Embick. Throughout the war, this group had no responsibility except to think deeply about strategy. While everyone else worked among the trees, Embick and his team kept their focus squarely on the forest.
To a large degree the United States still farms out much of its strategic thinking. However, now it is mostly done by Washington think tanks and civilian strategists who are hired as consultants. Moreover, these outside opinions are often given more credence by policymakers than are the opinions of professional military officers.
Unfortunately, too many of these civilian thinkers have been infected with American Decline Syndrome. In their developing worldview, not only is America’s uni-polar moment over, but we have already entered an era of terminal decline. Considering that the United States still produces 25 percent of all global wealth, reports of our demise may be a bit premature. America still has the wherewithal to afford a military establishment capable of continuing the Pax Americana well into the 21st century and probably beyond. The so-called “Rise of the Rest” need not be synonymous with American decline. Great Britain, for instance, remained the 19th century’s dominant power despite having to contend with powerful European rivals.