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?

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.

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A Tale of Two Diasporas

Iraqi exiles were gung-ho to overthrow Saddam. So why are Iranian-Americans so keen on dialogue with the mullahs who rule Iran?

An eerily familiar drumbeat of war is intensifying across Washington, just as the United States ends its decade-long adventure in Iraq. The ghosts of America's neoconservative past have dusted off their Iraq playbook to make the case for war with Iran. Their formula is simple but effective: Portray the Iranian government and its nuclear program as existential threats, insist that a chain of catastrophic events will result from inaction, and minimize the costs and risks of war.

If one looks back, however, neoconservative officials in the U.S. government weren't alone in their push for war with Iraq. A crucial aspect of selling the war to the U.S. public was support within the Iraqi-American community. Iraqi dissidents living abroad, such as Ahmed Chalabi and Kanan Makiya, as well as supposed whistle-blowers turned known fabricators like the infamous "Curveball," led a contingent of vocal Iraqis who pushed for steadily more aggressive actions to topple Saddam Hussein's regime. Their promise that the invasion would be a cakewalk and that U.S. soldiers would be greeted with flowers and candy didn't quite pan out. Now, the fruits of their labor are clear for all to see -- a broken country, devastated by war and sectarian strife, with no discernible end in sight.

Iranian-Americans, in stark contrast with the Iraqi diaspora, have largely opposed a rush to war. This is a fact that I have observed up close, while working in the State Department's Office of Iranian Affairs and now at the National Iranian American Council, where I maintain close and continuing contact with Iranian-Americans to ensure we accurately represent their views. Together, these two vantage points have crystallized one key takeaway: Iranian-Americans deeply resent the Iranian regime, but prefer U.S. policies that emphasize engagement and de-escalation.

Why have Iraqis and Iranians living abroad reached such drastically different conclusions? For more than three decades, the Iranian-American community has grappled with the paradox of wanting to make Iran a better place -- but fearing success as much as defeat. Some worry that contributing to positive changes inside Iran will only strengthen a draconian system, extending its lease on life.

For many Iranian-Americans, this dilemma was resolved by their disastrous historical experience with revolutionary upheaval. Rather than laying the groundwork for democracy, Iran's 1979 revolution simply replaced one dictatorship with another. As a result, Iranian-Americans strongly prefer to use the rule of law to alter not only the Iranian government's behavior, but also the thinking of Iranians inside Iran.

Efforts by the Iranian-American community to promote engagement and oppose military intervention have been consistent and cohesive. The University of California, Berkeley, conducted a scientifically sound opinion survey that found that roughly 70 percent of Iranian-American respondents favored dialogue and negotiations between the United States and Iran. In 2008, the Iranian-American community mobilized this majority into a successful campaign to defeat a congressional resolution that would have taken a decisive step toward war.

The Iranian-American community's overwhelming support for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign is also a telling indicator of its political attitudes. For every dollar raised by Republican nominee John McCain from Iranian-Americans, Obama -- who was running on a platform that promoted engagement with Iran -- raised five.

Iranian-Americans understand from personal experience that abrupt political change is unlikely to produce the desired result. Retired ambassador John Limbert, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran during my tenure in Foggy Bottom, reflected poignantly on this understanding in a 1999 speech. "Our liberal-minded Iranian friends,­ whom we counted on to contain the [1979] revolution's excesses, proved to be helpless in political turmoil," he said. "They were too much like us: They could write penetrating analyses and biting editorials, but lacked the stomach for the brutality that wins revolutions."

Despite the fact that a majority of Iranian-Americans favor a more tolerant, pluralistic, and democratic system in Iran, they see little evidence that U.S. efforts to topple the current regime would bring Iranian democrats to power. Within Iran, rampant popular dissatisfaction has yet to evolve into a sustainable and coherent challenge to the system. The Iranian government's monopoly on violence has prevented such challenges, but has not ended the desire for change. Even the original leaders of Iran's Green Movement, which emerged from the country's contested 2009 presidential election, were attempting to push for peaceful change through the ballot box.

The ongoing death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan has made the Iranian-American community even warier about foreign efforts to "liberate" their ancestral homeland. Right or wrong, many in the Iranian diaspora see the U.S. invasion of Iraq as less about nuclear programs or democracy, and more as a gambit to seize oil resources. These conspiracy theories may seem absurd, but behind them lies a deeper reality that is very powerful in the minds of Iranian-Americans.

Few Iranian-Americans would welcome the prospects of a U.S. intervention under the auspices of democracy promotion that, in turn, shattered any semblance of stability and ignited a destructive cycle of conflict. Iran's contested 2009 presidential election and the ongoing human rights abuses have left Iranian-Americans searching for new ways to help foster peaceful, indigenous change. Their ideas remain diverse, but there is near-unanimous consent that change should occur without bloodshed.

Like their Iraqi brethren, Iranian expatriates want to change their government -- it is their methods that differ. A majority of Iranian-Americans would welcome an improvement of relations between Washington and Tehran because it increases the prospects for positive, peaceful change from within. The watershed event of the Islamic Republic's nearly 33-year history -- widespread protests in 2009 -- occurred at the height of Obama's "mutual interests and mutual respect" initiative. Many of the West's Iran analysts and experts, both Iranian and American, assert that the regime needs a U.S. enemy for its survival. If true, wouldn't sustained offers of friendship -- which would put the Iranian regime's domestic agenda at the forefront -- provide the biggest threat to the regime?

Engagement with the Iranian government understandably spurs many moral dilemmas for Iranian-Americans. Most, however, understand the alternatives -- particularly when juxtaposed with Iraq, where war has resulted in nearly 200,000 Iraqis dead (based on conservative estimates), 1.3 million Iraqis displaced, and decades' worth of destroyed lives for those still living in a perpetual war zone.

Let's not kid ourselves: There are Iranian-Americans who support U.S.-sponsored regime change in Iran -- and in due time, American neoconservatives will find their kindred spirits. We undoubtedly have our Chalabis and Makiyas -- some long-established, some coming of age. But it's clear that most Iranian-Americans distrust anyone who welcomes foreign armies into the motherland.

There is no arguing that Iran must change. The Iranian government's human rights record is appalling, people lack basic freedoms, and economic disarray prevents Iranians from managing the present or planning for the future. Few Iranian-Americans are calling for sitting idly by and waiting for the situation in Iran to improve on its own. But it's a rare voice indeed that is calling for war.

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