Strategic Horizons: Why Aren’t Americans Better at Strategy?

Strategic Horizons: Why Aren’t Americans Better at Strategy?

Americans can be brutally effective against another nation that relies on conventional military power. The Confederacy, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union all found this out. They "fought fair," so the United States was able to out-spend them all and eventually win. But Americans are not so adept against enemies that do not fight fair, whether dispersed, amorphous organizations not easily crushed through military action, hostile ideologies or cultures, or systemic instability. Impatient for quick results when none are available, the United States gravitates to short-term problem solving, teetering from crisis to crisis. That is where we are today. Critics on the political right blame President Barack Obama for this meandering policy. There is some truth to that, but, in reality, Americans are never very good at complex strategy no matter who is living in the White House.

Geography set Americans up for this shortcoming. The United States has always been far away from hostile great powers, and its neighbors friendly or weak, making coherent and effective strategy a luxury rather than a necessity. With the exception of the Civil War, all U.S. wars were wars of choice. As a result, Americans assume they have the option of disengaging from global security if involvement becomes too frustrating or costly. National culture also plays a role. Americans consider all problems resolvable if everyone is reasonable. If a problem becomes intractable, Americans tend to lose interest or simply move away from it. When conflict cannot be avoided, Americans crave clear, decisive outcomes. They tend to conceptualize national security through sports analogies—and no one plays for a tie. If forced to accept an indecisive outcome—as in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps even the global struggle against al-Qaida—Americans consider it a defeat and blame the political leaders in charge at the time.

The American political system also works against a coherent national strategy. Public opinion affects national security policy even though most citizens know little or nothing about it. Since the American political system was created at a time when having an effective government was a threat to individual liberty, it was designed to be cumbersome and slow. In many ways this was and remains an act of genius, but it is a serious impediment to coherent security strategy. To take one example, Congress' role and interest in foreign and national security policy is declining, but the legislature retains the ability to obstruct. It can veto presidential appointments, fail to pass treaties or refuse to fund programs, but it cannot instigate or implement strategy. Often the result is strategic paralysis.

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