As the presidential race enters its home stretch, politicos' obsession has turned to tactics: How can Mitt Romney win Ohio? Where is Barack Obama buying ad time?
But this focus on minutia is not just a symptom of the campaign's closing days -- it has become, unfortunately, the new normal for American politics. President Barack Obama's administration is just the latest example of this trend, which has been perpetuated by Republicans and Democrats alike. Much like its post-Cold War predecessors, the current White House appears to deliberate on key questions -- from Iran to trade to climate change -- without something it ought to have: an overarching framework that prioritizes U.S. goals in the world, and sketches out a plausible pathway to achieving them. In other words, it operates without a grand strategy.
The lack of a grand strategy represents an institutional failing within the U.S. government -- but one that could be addressed by creating a new executive branch position of "chief strategy officer" tasked with getting the big-picture questions of America's role in the world asked and answered.
Grand strategy is frequently belittled by national security operatives as a navel-gazing obsession of academics with too much time on their hands, which has limited relevance to the world in which decisions actually get made. The future is unknowable, they say. Crises have to be managed as they arise, and the world's complexity no longer lends itself to grand policy designs like "containment" -- certainly not ones that fit on bumper stickers.
But it's hard to see how the United States is better off if fateful decisions -- like what to do about Iran's nuclear program -- are made in isolation from a comprehensive and thoughtfully developed point of view about where the world is headed. If American officials can develop a better understanding of that, they will be better positioned to formulate a vision of a U.S. global role that is both desirable and achievable, together with a plausible roadmap for arriving at the desired destination.
And if grand strategy is worthwhile, common sense tells us that it ought to be the outcome of a well-designed deliberative process. It should not be the unthinking extension of a vision and strategy developed long ago in a dramatically different global and domestic context. Nor should it reflect an abrupt left or right turn driven by little more than someone's intuition -- even someone elected president.
No president since the end of the Cold War has presented such a blueprint, backed by a serious deliberative process. President George W. Bush' "global war on terror" and "democracy agenda" might seem to have elements of a grand strategy. But published insider accounts suggest that the Bush approach wasn't the outcome of a systematic strategy review process. Rather, it flowed from the 9/11 attacks, the strong views that several influential players brought into the administration, and the quick, intuition-based decisions made by a president who prided himself on being a "gut player."