The All-Powerful President

And four other lies we tell ourselves about foreign policy.

Throughout the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican and Democratic political operatives have strived to articulate major foreign-policy distinctions between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney. Several close foreign-policy watchers, however, have struggled to identify any such differences.

The final presidential debate on Oct. 22 finally cemented what has been apparent to many over the course of the campaign: Neither Romney nor Obama wants to discuss foreign-policy issues because they don't matter to prospective voters, and there are no substantive distinctions about how either candidate would deal with prominent issues such as Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and targeted killings via drones. The only potential variation is that Romney has promised massive defense budget increases, but his advisors admit that they would "very much depend on the state of the economy."

On a deeper level than specific countries or issues, there are five core principles of U.S. foreign policy that are widely held on both sides of the aisle. These principles underscore how presidents -- Republican and Democrat alike -- conceive of the U.S. foreign-policymaking apparatus, their role as the chief executive officer, and the responsibility of the United States in the world. However, these principles also rest on shaky ground and often undermine U.S. national interests because they reflect a profound misunderstanding of policymaking and how the rest of the world views the United States.

Regardless of who resides in the White House on Jan. 21, 2013, you can assume that he, his senior advisors, and his partisan commentariat allies will believe the following five precepts.

First, the U.S. intelligence community (IC) should have total omniscience over global events, including the precognitive ability to perfectly forecast any malicious behavior by potential adversaries. The IC is a sprawling network of roughly 210,000 civilian and military employees, 30,000 private contractors, and 17 agencies. With a budget of $75 billion for the national and military intelligence programs, the IC is expected to provide warning of national security threats and challenges to policymakers that is timely, accurate, and easily condensed into a one-page memo.

For policymakers who expect the impossible from the IC, intelligence doesn't merely "fail," but fails spectacularly in ways that are routinely described as "catastrophic," "colossal," or "massive." To be repeatedly shocked by the IC's inability to flawlessly warn about the behavior of malicious actors is to misunderstand how such information is generated. As the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, stated this month about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya:

The challenge is always a tactical warning, the exact insights ahead of time that such an attack is going to take place.… If people don't behave and emit a behavior or talk or do something else ahead of time, and if you don't detect it, then it's going to be very hard to predict and come up with an exact tactical warning that you need.

But blaming the IC allows policymakers to hide behind such allegedly predictable failures. As John Maynard Keynes remarked: "There is nothing a Government hates more than to be well-informed; for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult." The IC is tasked to provide specific information and analytical judgments in order for the executive and congressional branches to construct informed policies.

Second, policymakers have the ability to fully understand the beliefs and motivations of U.S. friends and enemies. During the vice-presidential debate, for example, Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden arrived at the bipartisan consensus that they could read the mind of the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ryan: "Let's look at this from the view of the ayatollahs. What do they see?… They see President Obama in New York City the same day Bibi Netanyahu is, and instead of meeting with him goes on a daily talk show." Biden: "Let me tell you what the ayatollah sees. The ayatollah sees his economy being crippled. The ayatollah sees that there are 50 percent fewer exports of oil." Likewise, in the final presidential debate, Romney and Obama both described how China, Israel, participants in Iran's Green Revolution, and the "42 allies" perceive the United States.

It is, of course, delusional to believe that policymakers sitting in Washington know how foreign leaders or protesters marching through Tehran perceive the United States. Moreover, policymakers do not even believe they possess clairvoyance: You can tell this by the fact that no policymaker ever claims to see through the eyes of friends or adversaries when that perspective runs counter to whatever argument the policymaker is trying to make.

Third, the president is directly responsible and should be held fully accountable for whatever successes or failures occur during his term in office. After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told several journalists on Oct. 15, "I take responsibility" for the Benghazi attack, moderator Candy Crowley asked Obama during the second presidential debate, "Does the buck stop with your secretary of state?" Obama replied: "[Clinton] works for me. I'm the president. And I'm always responsible." Of course, 2.8 million executive branch federal employees also work for Obama.

In part, the mindset articulated by Crowley stems from a small sign that President Harry Truman kept on his desk in the Oval Office that read, "The BUCK STOPS here!" As historians point out, Truman was referring only to decisions that reached his desk, rather than everything that happened within his administration. (Interesting historical fact: The reverse side of his sign read "I'm from MISSOURI." What would we think about presidential accountability if Truman had simply turned it around?)

In practice, presidents have only one significant power that they can exercise unilaterally -- albeit with less and less oversight from a disinterested Congress -- the use of military force. That the U.S. military's capabilities are an awesome resource for one person to behold assuredly explains why presidents increasingly seek tactical military solutions to enduring foreign-policy challenges (see drones, targeted killings, and al Qaeda). In fact, though Congress has not declared war since June 1942 against Bulgaria, over 100,000 U.S. service members have died in wars since World War II.

However, when you consider the major foreign-policy objectives of recent presidents -- such as the serial promise to make America energy independent -- almost none can be solved by the president alone. In reality, the president can use force, provide strategic guidance, and make executive decisions that are implemented by those who serve in his administration, but he is not an action officer with a 6,000-mile-long screwdriver.

Fourth, the ultimate currency in world affairs is the ill-defined concepts of strength and credibility. Last weekend, Romney's foreign-policy spokesperson stated, "Romney's foreign-policy doctrine is he will do whatever it takes to make America stronger." The following day, Ryan vowed: "Peace through strength is not just a slogan. It's not just something we say; it's what we do. It's our doctrine." Set aside the image of Uncle Sam building muscle through one of Ryan's P90X workouts; what is left unsaid is what grand strategy such strength would be marshaled to achieve or how Romney's foreign-policy objectives ultimately differ from Obama's.

Likewise, the president boasted during the final debate about "how we've restored American credibility and strength around the world" and how his administration's "credibility is precisely why we've been able to show leadership on a wide range of issues facing the world right now." The Obama administration has played a leadership role in coordinating more effective multilateral approaches to things like the Nuclear Security Summit and the sanctions regime on Iran. The willing participation of other countries, however, is not due to the size of the U.S. military or the Obama administration's credibility -- which has only diminished throughout the world in the past three years --but because it was in their own self-interest to do so.

We know from recent history that America's "strength" -- crudely defined by politicians and the media as defense spending -- and threats do not compel others to do what Washington wants. Most countries balance against threats, form coalitions to mitigate threatening behavior, or remain neutral nonparticipants whenever Washington demands they do something, rather than jump on the U.S. bandwagon. Moreover, as international relations scholar Daryl Press demonstrated, credibility is not determined by reputations that are earned through past behavior, but by the power and national interests associated with a current challenge.

Finally, the world is wet clay and America is its eager sculptor. From Republicans, this belief was best captured by an off-the-cuff comment by a senior Bush administration official to reporter Ron Suskind in the summer of 2002:

[Some people] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.… That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors.

Romney often repeats his conviction that it is a duty, honor, privilege, and responsibility of the United States to shape and lead the world because of a "longing for American leadership." This week, Romney advisor Eliot A. Cohen claimed: "If you don't even try to shape events, then for sure you are going to get a bad outcome."

Democrats conceive of America's shaping role for slightly different outcomes, but the eagerness to take on this global chore is the same. Before the Democratic National Convention, Sen. John Kerry declared, "Global leadership is a strategic imperative for America, not a favor we do for other countries." Or, as Obama told a private audience in May:

The truth is, as we travel everywhere, we continue to be the agenda setters. Folks continue to look to us.… We continue to be the one indispensable nation. And because we project it with our values and our ideals, and restored a sense of rule of law, people are paying attention, people are listening, and people are hungry for our leadership.

This is not the world I see. When I travel and speak to admittedly lower-level officials, I do not hear a global craving for U.S. involvement and influence. What I hear constantly is a desire for clarity over U.S. policies toward a specific country or issue, such as climate change, the Middle East peace process, or the Arab Spring. Furthermore, when not seeking clarity, foreign officials expound on the vast hypocrisy in how the United States treats some countries versus others. When foreign governments and their citizens publicly express a desire for U.S. leadership, and when it is in the U.S. national interest to act on that desire, the United States should play a central role. Yet, more often than not, American policymakers would be better off doing nothing.

Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

National Security

100% Right 0% of the Time

Why the U.S. military can't predict the next war.

Two weeks ago, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered the Landon Lecture to hundreds of U.S. servicemembers and students at Kansas State University. During the question and answer session, a cadet in the Air Force ROTC asked, "What [do] you see being the focus of our nation in 5 to 10 years, where I'll be serving?"

Paraphrasing a quote by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Dempsey replied: "Somebody said to him once, you're not really a physically imposing guy, how come you're such a great hockey player? He said, 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it's been.' That's what we're trying to do."

In May, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta echoed this sentiment with even greater conviction when he described Pentagon priorities in an era of slightly reduced defense spending and a leaner military: "We've got to focus on where the main threats are. That means we continue a major focus on the Pacific region and we continue a major focus on the Middle East, because that's where the potential problems are for the future."

This forward-looking approach from the Pentagon's senior leadership is admirable, in that it attempts to counter the old adage that "generals fight the last war." There is just one glaring problem with this degree of certainty: The U.S. military has a terrible record of predicting where conflicts will emerge and where they will be deployed to fight. The next time you hear lists of emerging threats and future conflicts, bear in mind the following observations from senior military officials over past few years:

1. In October 2010, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen acknowledged: "We're pretty lousy at predicting where we'll go. We're pretty lousy at predicting the kind of warfare we'll be in, if the last 20 years, or so, serve as an example."

2. In February 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told West Point cadets: "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more -- we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged."

3. In March 2011, General James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I think, as we look toward the future, I have been a horrible prophet. I have never fought anywhere I expected to in all my years."

4. In May 2012, Major General H.R. McMaster admitted: "We have a perfect record in predicting future wars -- right? ... And that record is 0 percent."

Given the acknowledged certainty of uncertainty from these officials, it is safe to say that the Pentagon does not possess an armed conflict crystal ball. This is especially the case if you believe that the world is becoming "a more unpredictable and dangerous security environment." Given this inherent unpredictability, how does the Pentagon plan for the future?

To think about the problem facing military planners of predicting future U.S. military engagements, I spoke to Colonel Kevin Benson (ret.), whose distinguished 30-year career in the U.S. Army culminated with his appointment as the director of the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Graduates of SAMS are referred to as "Jedi Knights" for their rigorous education in preparation for becoming the elite planners of U.S. military operations wherever they are deployed. (Colonel Benson subsequently earned a PhD from the University of Kansas for his outstanding dissertation chronicling the history of SAMS from 1983 to 1994.)

Benson, who is still involved in concept development exercises for the Army, told me that "it is important to study the force you might actually fight against, rather than do generic planning for nonspecific scenarios, like against 'Orange Land' or the 'Krasnovians,'" which is how U.S. military referred to the Soviets during the Cold War. Benson said that modeling future adversaries helps planners ask important questions, such as: "Are there forward staging bases nearby? If not, what would it take to get there? What type of forces would be required?" Despite the necessity of using specific scenarios for the concept development and operational planning process, Benson noted, "I have deep doubts about the ability to predict where the U.S. military would fight."

Over the past two decades, rather than guessing the geographic location of a fight, the military developed and maintained the two-war construct for defense planning. In 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin initially proposed a "win-hold-win" construct, but eventually shifted to the goal of "maintain[ing] sufficient military power to be able to win two major regional conflicts that occur nearly simultaneously." In 1997, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) sought a military that was "able to deter and defeat large-scale, cross-border aggression in two distant theaters in overlapping time frames." In 2001, it became "capable of swiftly defeating attacks against U.S. allies and friends in any two theaters of operation in overlapping timeframes." In the 2006 QDR, "wage two nearly simultaneous conventional campaigns (or one conventional campaign if already engaged in a large-scale, long-duration irregular campaign)." Finally, in 2010, the Pentagon drove a stake through the two-war construct, and instead embraced "the importance of fielding forces that are versatile and that, in aggregate, can undertake missions across the full range of plausible challenges."

Governor Mitt Romney criticized this shift in Pentagon planning last month, when he told a seemingly puzzled and subdued crowd: "This president has done something I find very hard to understand. Ever since FDR, we've had the capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once. He's saying, no -- we're going to cut that back to only one conflict." Romney did not make any predictions about what two wars the military should be prepared to fight, nor has he repeated this line of attack against President Obama. Apparently, prospective voters do not want to consider if the United States should be prepared to fight one or two wars, when two-thirds of Americans opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What politicians and generals rarely say (on the record) is that the primary rationale for having an oversized military is not because of a balanced and carefully deliberated grand strategy, but to overcome the Pentagon's dismal record at forecasting conflict. In 1979, Lieutenant Colonel Robert McFarlane, who would become President Ronald Reagan's national security advisor, summarized this approach with refreshing honesty: "Having superior strategic military might has provided an enormous hedge for flabby thinking. We could afford less than optimal strategic planning because push was never going to come to shove. We have had the luxury of being able to be foolish."

The surest way to manage the uncertainty of flabby thinking is to organize, maintain, train, and equip an armed force that can undertake a range of potential requirements regardless of the international security environment or location. Even after it has withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 -- under the Pentagon's current projections -- the United States will retain an Army of 490,000 active-duty soldiers, 18 divisions, 65 brigade combat teams, and 21 combat aviation brigades; a Navy of 285 ships, featuring 11 carrier battle groups that includes 10 air wings, 82 guided missile cruisers and destroyers, and 48 nuclear-powered attack submarines; an Air Force consisting of 54 combat-coded fighter squadrons, 453 air-refuelers, 150 bombers; a Marine Corps of 182,000 active-duty Marines; and a nuclear triad with 1,550 operationally deployed nuclear weapons and perhaps an additional 4,000 in reserve.

In short, that is plenty of military capability, especially in an era when the United States faces no plausible significant security challenges, and the world enjoys fewer violent conflicts, increased political freedom, and greater economic opportunity than at virtually any other point in human history. The U.S. military has what General Mattis described as "a built-in shock absorber, basically can go anywhere and do anything." However, there are tremendous economic and human costs to sustaining such an enormous, latent warfighting capacity. By having a defense budget ($525 billion, not including Afghanistan costs) that is more than 11 times that of the State Department budget, USAID budget, and all foreign assistance combined ($47 billion), you arrive at the "militarization of foreign policy" that senior military officials constantly lament.  

Days after Dempsey told the Air Force ROTC cadet that the U.S. military would "skate to where the puck is going to be," he was asked a similar question by a submariner at the Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Maine. This time, Dempsey replied: "Here's my promise, you're not going to be bored. We'll find you something to do." Whether the something that the submariner is doing is strategically wise, it is a near certainty that the U.S. military will not know what it is -- or where it will take place -- beforehand.