National Security

Channeling Ike

The national security memo that Eisenhower would write Hagel.

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


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.

1. The Vitality of Our Domestic Economy and Society is the Indispensable Foundation for National Security.

In an era of globalized economic rivalry and competition, national strength, weakness, and vulnerability will primarily be a function of economic vitality, innovation, productivity, investment, fiscal solvency, and financial stability, as well as effective governance, maintenance of an equitable and meritocratic society, and other measures of broad-based economic, social, and political competitiveness. In particular, persistent slow growth or recurring economic or financial crises would undermine our ability to sustain the international system, whose essential attractive force is built on economic dynamism through shared prosperity.

The key implication of this principle is that we must develop a defense program that does not require expenditures of a scale that would trade off against domestic priorities in a manner that would seriously weaken the U.S. economy or society.

2. Time is On Our Side.

Over the long haul, liberal values are likely to spread to most countries. Authoritarian states are likely to liberalize. The leadership of most countries is likely to see the value of living under shared international norms. Moreover, over the medium-term, there is at least a potential for a social, political, economic, and demographic renewal in America that -- combined with likely social, economic, and political disturbances in emerging countries, especially China -- could counteract some proportion of the current perceived trend toward relative U.S. decline.

One implication of this principle is that the fundamental spirit of our security strategy must be to manage events while underlying factors work in our favor, rather than to create unnecessary risk (and commit unaffordable levels of national treasure) by pushing on the levers of history with reckless force, or applying norms or principles in an unqualified manner. This guideline applies equally to issues such as responses to civil wars and failed states and to scenarios surrounding alleged short-term credibility tests such as Taiwan, the Republic of Georgia, or Iran's nuclear ambitions.

A second implication is that helping to underwrite the steady accumulation of global norms -- the persistence and indeed strengthening of the international system constructed under the shadow of U.S. power and influence in the wake of World War II -- will remain a central purpose for U.S. national security policy going forward. There is some unavoidable tension between this implication and the previous one: patience can be a general watchword, but U.S. leadership still underwrites global stability, and shoring up the international order will demand determining those occasional moments when a decisive impatience is called for.

In fact a major risk of the current strategic moment is the gradual unraveling of that order. There are many reasons for this accumulating risk -- the rise of alternative centers of power, the multidimensionality of power in the international system, the fact that key security issues (failed states, terrorism, extremism, global organized crime) are less amenable to existing instruments of national power. We ourselves help to delegitimize global norms and institutions when we take actions (e.g., targeted strike actions) inconsistent with our stated values, or when we refuse to accede to treaties (e.g., the International Criminal Court and the Law of the Sea) that reflect our stated principles and desire for enhanced norms.

3. Every Policy and Action Should Be Grounded in an Awareness of the Limitations of Our Power.

A leading hallmark of the American mindset over the last half century has been to underestimate the inherent resistance of a complex, organic, nonlinear international system to efforts to control outcomes, and to overestimate our ability to impose our will on events. That mindset has already been responsible for many of the pathologies of U.S. national security policy since 1945, from large-scale interventions such as Vietnam and Iraq to smaller-scale "covert" programs in places such as Nicaragua and Cuba. In an era of growing pressure on the gap between means and ends, it will become even more dangerous.

One broad implication of this reality will be a consistent and often uncomfortable requirement to shape our objectives so that they fit within the feasibly malleable preference range of other actors, rather than assuming that we can impose our preferences. A good example of this is the effort in Afghanistan: A sustainable outcome must be one that strikes a sweet spot in the narrow overlap of Afghan, Pakistani and U.S. interests and goals, rather than trying to persuade or coerce others to accept a U.S. definition of victory (which was our long-time approach).

A second implication is that if a goal is important only to us, it will probably demand a disproportionate degree of resources and means to accomplish, and may not be worth the effort. A key rule of thumb going forward will be that, almost no matter how important an objective appears, if others are not willing to ante up, the cases in which we should be willing to tackle threats/risks/challenges alone are exceedingly narrow.

4. America's Standing Has Incalculable Benefit.

Despite the rise of resentment and suspicion in recent years, America remains a widely-admired nation and the most trusted single honest broker. In ideological terms this is a function of our values; in realpolitik terms it stems in part from the fact that we are distant from many regions and thus more trusted as a security partner than ambitious, looming neighbors.

The obvious implication is that we should husband this resource and be extremely wary of actions -- even if they appear to promise urgent short-term benefits, as in enhanced interrogation procedures that generate usable intelligence -- which do long­term damage to our global standing. We will be almost certain to regret the tradeoff.

5. Be Realistic About Perceived Threats.

While our interests and objectives in the global system remain fairly constant, we must ground our security requirements in a clear-eyed assessment of actual threats, rather than an inflated sense of potential ones.

One possible implication is that we are not today at daily risk of the defining, existential risks of earlier times: invasion, direct military attack, or (barring horrific accident) nuclear annihilation. We must continue vigilant counterterror efforts, but these are not resource intensive in historical terms. The challenge of domestic social vulnerability is essentially a problem of risk management.

A parallel implication on the global scene is that emerging regional powers, including Russia and China, while aggressive and ambitious, are not classical "revisionist" states determined to fundamentally overturn the existing order. Many are determined to "have their say" and to assert long­dormant perceived rights and claims -- and, at times, to refuse to be bound by what some view as legacies of "imperial" or hegemonic rules or strictures. But they benefit too much from its trading system, and its leading norms of nonaggression keep them too secure, to expect widespread unprovoked aggression. The resulting requirement is not simply to "deter" or "contain" these powers, but a more nuanced task of guiding, shaping, and persuading. Moreover, these states lie in neighborhoods suspicious of their power; the more belligerent they become, the more they provoke reactions from neighbors. Emerging power misbehavior is to some extent self-correcting, a fact that means we need not plan to deal with the risk with U.S. power alone.

When we do perceive risks or threats in the international system, the interests of major powers will often overlap sufficiently to afford opportunities to address those risks with negotiations, arms control, and confidence building in place of unilateral arming.

6. Understand the Global and Domestic Constraints to a New Paradigm.

A reformed strategic posture will emerge in charged domestic and international contexts, whose demands will inevitably constrain the boundaries of what we can change, how quickly, and how clearly.

An acid test of any national policy is its domestic political sustainability. In this sense the architects of any new approach confront a dilemma: The U.S. political system appears to want a constrained posture, but anything that deviates sharply from perceived U.S. commitments and traditions will attract intense opposition from those who advocate U.S. hegemony as a rule and defenders of specific commitments.

Internationally, a parallel dilemma is that to simply abandon a number of possibly questionable commitments would be to risk a cascading loss of confidence in U.S. power -- and a further acceleration in the disintegration of the current international system, precisely the outcome we must avoid. For example, a simple public statement that the United States no longer views the defense of Taiwan as a conflict planning scenario, given current geopolitical realities and Mainland China's apparent commitment to peaceful unification, would be seen -- whatever its objective foundations -- as the desertion of an ally. As such it would cause others in the region to question the reliability of U.S. promises. The result would be to undermine U.S. capacity to build global institutions and norms.

One implication of these constraints is that even a substantially revised posture should not -- and need not -- embrace anything approaching a formal "retrenchment" from major U.S. commitments. A possible related implication is that, facing the need for significant change and profound political dilemmas, clarity in the articulation of every aspect of a new policy may not be an advantage.

7. To Be More Efficient, Think Asymmetrically.

Arguably the most promising course forward would be to discover new ways to do existing jobs -- thinking creatively using innovative concepts, technologies, and techniques, throwing off 60-year-old habits for approaching requirements, and not assuming that we are constrained to approach problems certain ways because of our size or influence.

One implication of this principle has already been realized: We can take certain whole categories of contingency -- such as long-term stability operations -- and declare them off limits from large-scale commitment, forcing ourselves into the realm of more creative, small-scale, limited mechanisms (modest civilian aid, SOF and targeted strikes for CT) as the response packages.

More broadly, we must look for alternative strategies to large-scale military commitments for achieving national goals in major existing scenarios. The "default" national option for many contingencies is a military task force. In the 21st century we have a much wider array of highly effective coercive, punitive, and attractive tools at our disposal -- not all, or even most, of them military or kinetic in nature. It is not necessarily an insult to our credibility to think asymmetrically about our responses to traditional contingencies. We should aim to achieve stated goals with the minimum of resources, force, and (in some cases) public notice, using such tools as negotiations, partner strategies, and, if necessary, covert action. When more elaborate action is called for we should be thinking in innovative terms: Could we, for example, develop a strategy to punish aggressive, unprovoked military action by a regional aggressor with a basket of economic, financial, social media/political, cyber, regional coercive, and global institutional responses -- a response set that would, in fact, hit what the regime values more directly than carrier strikes?

A third implication, in support of such thinking, would be to develop new capabilities to threaten the power of adversaries in immediate, global terms. These could range from global prompt strike assets to rapidly-deployable SOF to drones to cyber to as-yet undeveloped systems.

A fourth and somewhat contrary implication of this line of thinking is never to underestimate the unpredictability of conflict. This will be equally true of asymmetric responses, which have the potential to escalate to large-scale war. The risk of these innovative approaches -- a risk already in evidence -- is that they will increasingly be seen as low-cost "alternatives" to war and be employed without sufficient thought to their risks and consequences.

In sum, we face two overriding requirements in the effort to develop a more sustainable security posture. We need new concepts, techniques, and technologies to perform existing missions in more efficient, innovative ways. And we require well-developed sets of criteria to help guide us through the multiple dilemmas of the emerging context: to determine when patient management of an issue must give way to decisive resolution, to determine when a security policy is useful enough to be worth contradicting global principles, or to think through the interest calculus of when we need to act alone.

Too often over the last decades we have acted impulsively, reacting urgently to crises and perceived imperatives, driven by a paradigm of unqualified global commitment. In the emerging context, we will need to measure our actions far more carefully. As vague an initial guideline as it may be, the key characteristic of the new era is that our security now depends far more on the rigor and creativity of our thinking than it does on the size of our defense budget or our deployed military forces.

National Archives


Talking to the Taliban

With Obama and Karzai meeting in Washington, and peace negotiations back on the table in Afghanistan, here's what to watch out for when sitting down with Islamic fundamentalists.

It was the summer of 2001, and I had a front-row seat to negotiations designed to convince the Taliban to build a more inclusive Afghanistan. The fundamentalist Islamist movement, which was in power and controlled 90 percent of the country, had agreed to mediation with segments of the armed opposition, which was still denying the movement total control over Afghanistan. Midlevel Taliban envoys walked across the front line to meet with Karim Khalili, a representative of the country's Hazara minority and today Afghanistan's vice president.

This was Hindu Kush mountain warfare. The Taliban and the opposition were camped in the administrative centers of adjoining districts. But it took a day's hike to cross the mountain ridge in between. The white flag of the Taliban fluttered over their last check post, the green of the opposition over theirs. As a United Nations humanitarian coordinator, I required the cooperation of authorities on both sides to be able to move relief goods. In the process, I got to observe the sometimes subtle ways in which Afghans conducted their own wartime diplomacy -- the way that commanders deliberately kept a discreet channel of communication open to the other side as a sort of insurance policy.

The Taliban came to the talks prepared. They calculated they might be able to persuade the main Hazara party to break from the rest of the anti-Taliban armed opposition alliance -- divide and rule. The Taliban's discreet diplomacy was thus aimed at co-opting the Hazaras to their side. They started by proposing prisoner releases as a confidence-building measure, arranging for Hazara representatives to visit the jails in Kabul and Kandahar to compile lists of prisoners to be released as part of a putative deal. To run the negotiations, the Taliban chose a former mujahideen commander from Maidan Shahr, a town that sits astride one of the routes from Kabul into the Hazara country. He was a veteran of the war against the Soviets, a figure well-known to the Hazara leadership who could appeal to the Hazaras as permanent neighbors rather than temporary enemies.

The process achieved a certain level of success and was still under way when the 9/11 attacks occurred, precipitating an international military campaign against the Taliban. Eventually, the Taliban envoys sought Khalili's protection when their Islamic Emirate collapsed -- in a sense they claimed on their insurance policy. In other words, the careful cultivation of links across the front line set some limits to the conflict and ensured that no one had to fight to the bitter end.

Over a decade later, negotiations with the Taliban are again in vogue. Of course, now the tables have turned. The Taliban have become the armed opposition to a government dominated by their former enemies, men such as Khalili. A bewildering cast of actors stands by, ready to guide the Taliban to the table in order to hash out the future of Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdraw. The movement's past history shows that it may indeed be possible to maneuver it to the negotiating table -- but after that point, the real challenges begin.

The negotiation with Khalili was just one of many examples of the Taliban coming to the negotiation table in the movement's 18-year history. On the positive side, the Taliban have negotiated and honored agreements. On the negative side, they also have a track record of ruthlessly using negotiation to gain tactical advantage, a convenient habit of referring all major issues to an inaccessible supreme leader, and an uncompromising espousal of maximalist demands. The Taliban self-image is one of toughness and directness, but their critics say they are tricky interlocutors. Negotiations with the Taliban at this point, therefore, promise to be a long, hard slog.

Most of the Taliban's experience in negotiations is with fellow Afghans. Throughout the 1990s, the movement frequently approached Afghan mediators to broker deals with mujahideen factions. The Taliban tended to see such political actions as complementary to their war aims. Much of the movement's original expansion across Afghanistan was achieved not by outright military assaults but by co-option and negotiation. Simply put, it persuaded opposing commanders to come over or step aside. This prowess in employing negotiating feints alongside a military campaign is an important part of the Taliban heritage.

One mediator described to me three occasions on which he agreed to mediate but eventually concluded that the Taliban had only proposed negotiations as a delaying tactic before their next military operation. In the Taliban army's initial push toward Kabul in 1995, it was halted at Maidan Shahr -- and so asked for mediation to broker a deal with the hard-line mujahideen faction Hezb-i-Islami. After preliminary discussions, the sides agreed that envoys should proceed to Kandahar to meet Mullah Omar, the Taliban's leader. But that's where talks ended: The Taliban's forces advanced before the envoys could reach Kandahar, and the frustrated peacemakers were turned away with excuses.

The Taliban's most notorious Machiavellian negotiation came in the next stage of their 1995 offensive, with Khalili's predecessor, Abdul Ali Mazari, as leader of the important Hezb-e-Wahdat political-military group. They ostensibly agreed to an alliance against Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military strongman who held central Kabul. The mediator described the bargaining inside the Iranian Consulate in Peshawar, where the consul agreed to advise Mazari to accept the deal in return for security assurances. The consul's advice would prove fatal. As soon as the Taliban took over the Hazara positions, it reneged on the deal, arresting Mazari and then having him killed. Anyone cutting a deal between today's Afghan factions would be well-advised to include safeguards against such double-crossing.

During their period in power, the Taliban also gained experience in negotiating with the international community. Most encounters concerned humanitarian issues, and the Taliban could be both business-like and cordial in these dealings. I recall traveling to Kandahar in 2000 to seek guarantees of humanitarian access from Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. Muttawakil was a lightly built man with a disarming smile framed by his prim silk-white turban and de rigueur scrappy beard. He received us in the official guesthouse with courtesy and good humor. While promising to support U.N. humanitarian operations, he quipped that, as the Taliban had helped their other foreign guest so much, they were honor-bound to help the United Nations. It suddenly struck me that the top Taliban diplomat had just joked about their sanctuary for Osama bin Laden.

On another occasion I had to put similar requests for humanitarian access to the Taliban's deputy intelligence director, Abdul Haq Wasiq. He was down to earth, with no pomp or protocol. He heard me out, stated his considerations, and gave a clear statement of support. Given that the Taliban have been alternately demonized and romanticized, it is worth recalling that a decade ago they maintained a functional relationship with a range of international counterparts. Working in the Taliban's Afghanistan was challenging -- but not impossible.

In contrast to the intelligence chief's unassuming style, the Taliban at times adopted a much more formal, ritualized, and even legalistic approach to negotiation on major humanitarian issues. In 2000, the movement's representatives haggled clause by clause through a negotiation of the "U.N. protocol," which was meant to set the terms under which international organizations would operate in Afghanistan. Their goal in this negotiation was to tighten their control over international agencies.

As the price for granting operating permission, the Taliban made it look as if the international community was dealing with the movement as a legitimate government, though only three regional powers formally recognized it. Pomp was the Taliban's secret weapon in negotiations. Protocol officers whisked U.N. envoys around in Foreign Ministry Mercedes-Benz limos and sat them down in plush conference rooms. These were all the optics of legitimacy. Meanwhile, Taliban Justice Minister Nuruddin Turabi churned out a series of social restrictions, such as the ban on women driving. The Taliban asserted that their protocol with the United Nations obliged aid agency staff to abide by these regulations of the Islamic Emirate, thus hammering home that the United Nations had to accept the Taliban's authority in areas they controlled.

The negotiations on major humanitarian issues such as the protocol, nevertheless, produced workable agreements. On political topics, however, the Taliban proved much more intransigent. For instance, I heard the tales of a series of envoys who tried to negotiate a reprieve for the Bamiyan Buddhas. These two 170-foot-high statues, dating from the sixth century, symbolized Afghanistan's pre-Islamic cultural heritage. By giving demolition orders for the "idols," the Taliban leadership was both able to assert its puritan Islamist credentials and defy an international community that was bound to protest.

The diplomats were like so many champions being sent out to face an invincible dragon. First, a troika of ambassadors from Islamabad flew into Kabul to petition the foreign minister over reports that the Taliban had destroyed smaller idols in the Kabul Museum. Muttawakil was as charming as ever. But he had been deputed to stonewall rather than negotiate. In classic Taliban style, he invoked a "higher authority," claiming that he would have to seek permission for the diplomats to visit the museum.

The trip to the museum was never to be. After a few days of pleasantries, the Taliban published an edict by Mullah Omar sanctioning the destruction of idols. The concentration of authority in the person of the self-styled "Amir-ul-Momineen" (Leader of the Faithful) meant that his pronouncement left no room for debate. As the focus turned to the Bamiyan Buddhas, Arab, Japanese, and UNESCO envoys headed to Kandahar to suggest compromises to the leadership. They, too, faced polite stonewalling. Negotiations offered a futile distraction while the movement moved inexorably toward demolition of the Buddhas.

Engagement on the issue of al Qaeda and the U.S. demand for extradition of bin Laden was equally fruitless. This decision came straight from the top: Mullah Omar had cast in his lot with bin Laden, so none of his negotiators had any authority to deal. The Taliban seemed to engage more seriously in a political process during the U.N.-brokered peace talks with their domestic rivals. The Taliban designated a senior leader as envoy and worked through some of the details of what a joint administration might look like. But they could not be budged on the bottom line: The Taliban insisted -- and continue to insist -- that the opposition recognize the authority of the Islamic Emirate. Needless to say, bowing to Mullah Omar continues to be a non-starter for the Taliban's enemies.

In the decade that the Taliban have been an armed insurgent group, various bits of the international community have had many contacts with the movement, but few of these have involved formal negotiation. The main recent experience of peace talks with the Taliban has concerned the dealings over their mooted representational office in Qatar. Over the past year, this process has been tantalizing as the Taliban have held back from inking an agreement, which was drafted in early 2012, to release prisoners and open the office.

The Taliban's previous experience with negotiation is likely to define the tool kit they draw on in future political engagements. But if the movement does embrace a more political struggle, it will have to cope with changes not only among its rivals, but within its own organization. Although Mullah Omar is still recognized as supreme leader, the movement now includes both the veterans of the struggles in the 1990s and the young men who have been mobilized in the years of war against the United States. Additionally, the majority of those who originally supported Mullah Omar in the early days of his movement are now dead or estranged. And in terms of external influences, the leadership's years of clandestine struggle from Pakistan and fundraising in the Middle East may well have increased the influence of jihadi and Pakistani intelligence agencies over its strategy.

When embarking on talks with the Taliban, international players should know that a willingness to talk has not always meant an intention to settle. There is no shortage of examples of the Taliban negotiating to play for time, co-opt their rivals, or assert their legitimacy. A Taliban decision to negotiate in good faith toward a resolution of the outstanding issues with fellow Afghans and the international community will require the movement to make a strategic shift.

The most fundamental challenge confronting both the Taliban and those across the table from them will concern how to finesse the movement's maximalist bottom line. Despite reassuring hints to the contrary, the Taliban can be expected to go into negotiations demanding a restoration of the Islamic Emirate, with Mullah Omar as its head. These are demands that the other Afghan parties and the international community will not contemplate, let alone concede.

All is not lost -- clever mediators have solved more intractable problems than this. But reaching agreement will require proactive mediation and a lot of hand-holding as the Taliban debates making the required strategic shifts. Nothing will be solved by simply naming the date, choosing a venue, and drawing up the agenda. On the bright side, however, if the Taliban decide to come to the table, they will be able to draw on a history that has some positive examples of the give-and-take required for fruitful negotiations.

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images