With President Obama's nomination of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, some have argued that Hagel's views parallel those of another former service member who went into politics: Dwight Eisenhower. Both are skeptics of military adventurism who appreciate the limits of power in a messy world. Hagel has stated an explicit admiration for Eisenhower, his worldview and leadership style, in such cases as the 1956 Suez crisis.
Eisenhower prioritized correcting what he saw as the Truman administration's version of containment, whose unqualified, wide-ranging global commitments he considered extreme and unaffordable, especially in the wake of the exhausting Korean War. Our similar moment today -- of constrained resources, excessive commitments, and national desire for a post-war reset -- seems custom-built for an Ike-like recalibration.
But beyond the thematic parallels, how might someone channeling Eisenhower view the present strategic moment? What specific principles might they bring to bear to shape a more constrained paradigm?
Eisenhower isn't around to tell us, so it's impossible to know for sure. But Eisenhower's approach to the strategic challenges he faced give some clue, as do his writings and a number of especially notable National Security Council memos from his time in office (such as NSC 162/2 of October 30, 1953 and NSC 5602/1 of March 15, 1956). These essential planning documents reflected the Eisenhower administration's basic national security policy -- what would become known as the "New Look," the core principle of which was keeping the health of the domestic economy and society in balance with foreign commitments. The doctrine is best known for its reliance on nuclear weapons to achieve these efficiencies, but this was only one of a number of strategies to sustain a strong and credible U.S. role at lower cost.
What follows is a thought experiment laying out some of the concepts that could guide a way forward inspired by some aspects of Eisenhower's brand of thinking, in the form of a theoretical NSC document. It can only very crudely approximate some of the original memos, which run to many pages of densely-worded text. It reflects just a few of the many principles of leadership that Eisenhower favored. And to be very clear: I am not suggesting that every phrase or idea in the invented document below would reflect Eisenhower's mindset (or that Senator Hagel necessarily subscribes to these). The notion is merely to give a rough sense of what a similar sensibility would have to say about our current ends-means gap.
Report to the National Security Council by the Strategic Studies Directorate
WASHINGTON, January 30, 2013
BASIC NATIONAL SECURITY POLICY
For most of the last half-century, the United States has been in the position of a hegemonic power dealing with fairly predictable and straightforward threats that were believed to place our way of life at imminent risk. We dealt with these problems in part by possible contingencies and the requirements for military forces necessary to prevail in them, and by drawing in allies who shared our fundamental perception of the security problem. And we devoted the necessary resources to underwrite this approach with an overwhelming military posture.
Our central strategic challenge today stems from the fact that each of these variables has become invalid. Today's core security problems, from fragile states to radicalism leading to terrorism to the risk of nationalism-fueled peer competitors, are highly complex. We cannot amass overwhelming force against them; indeed force will seldom be the answer. Other tools of statecraft, such as civilian capabilities to stabilize failing states, are poorly developed -- and even if they were better resourced, have poor track records of generating measurable results. A contingency-planning approach will constantly frustrate when (a) we cannot accurately define the contingencies and (b) we cannot afford the requirements they generate. And the constraints on our security posture have made the resource demands of the existing concept insupportable. We now require a strategy for a constrained power facing nonlinear challenges in a world of shared authority. Our study of this over-arching challenge, the current security context, and possible responses has generated a number of principles to guide a strategic answer, as well as specific implications.