The U.S. Strategy “Deficit”: The Dominance of Political Messaging

The U.S. Strategy “Deficit”: The Dominance of Political Messaging


This article was first published on April 26, 2012 about the Obama Administration. We leave it to our readers to ascertain whether we are in a better position currently.

By Richard Weitz

The second keynote speaker at the 2012 U.S. Army War College annual strategy conference, James Locher, former President of the Project for National Security Reform and a former senior U.S. government official in multiple U.S. administrations, sounded the alarm about the U.S. strategy deficit and urged the audience and other national security elites to make fixing the problem an urgent priority.

Entitling his presentation, “Are We Strategically Inept,” Locher offered considerable evidence to support the assertion that the United States does not have a genuine national security strategy and may not have had a real grand strategy since the Cold War.

Locher defines a grand strategy as the art and science of employing all instruments of national power and influence — not just military tools — to accomplish national objectives.

Citing the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq to illustrate how poor strategic thinking has seriously harmed U.S. national security in the past. Locher considered this problem especially dangerous given the complexity of contemporary U.S. security challenges and the diminished U.S financial position.  These two elements make it imperative  to make the best use of resources to achieve U.S. national security goals.

Although he recognized that certain needed reforms might initially require some additional funding, Locher considered such well-targeted spending an essential investment.

He recounted how Richard Rumelt describes four elements of a bad strategy in his book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: fluffy language concealing the absence of genuine strategic concepts, the failure to specify key challenges, stating goals without describing how they will be achieved, and listing impractical or unimportant strategic objectives.

Rather than thinking about the global strategic game, and certainly not thinking about the means necessary to play on the board, today’s processes emphasize messaging, not strategy. Credit Image: Bigstock

Rumelt, Locher, and others have found these problems in the published postwar U.S. National Security Strategies as well as in other core U.S. national security documents.

In Locher’s view, the various versions of the “National Security strategy of the United States” simply provide a lengthy list of U.S. goals and objectives without describing actual plans to achieve them, clear priorities, or how to resolve hard choices — there is no indication of what the United States will not do or of a comprehensive road map for how the country will achieve its stated goals.

Not only does the 2010 National Security Strategy read more like a strategic communications document than a genuine strategy, but it was actually written by the Strategic Communications Directorate of the National Security Staff rather than the NSC Strategy Directorate.

It therefore articulates political messages without explaining how to achieve the stated objectives.

Furthermore, the 2010 document speaks of “strengthening national capacity through a whole-of-government approach” and commits the Administration to pursue twelve major goals for transforming the U.S. national security system to better meet 21st-century challenges.

In Locher’s view, the Administration has not implemented any of these ideas.

Congress has now had to intervene to mandate that the President produce within nine months an implementation plan for achieving this whole-of-government vision. Although he praised this step, Locher cautioned that the Congress is generally not well structured to address these strategy problems.

Its committee system ensures that the separate U.S. government departments and agencies have champions, but does not provide a committee that oversees and supports interagency bodies and activities. This condition contributes to departmental stovepiping.

It also means that neither the executive nor the legislative branch is currently organized to support inter-agency activities—in the space between the president and the departments—adequately.

According to Locher, when General Jim Jones became National Security Advisor in 2009, he intended to make the National Security Council and its staff “strategic” so that they would advance the Administration’s priorities by shaping events rather than reacting to them. But when he left office, Jones acknowledged that the National Security Staff remained more in this tactical rather than strategic mode.

Ambassador Mary Yates, appointed to head the Strategy Directorate, found that she could not interest senior directors to discuss strategy in their areas of responsibility.

Locher cited as other evidence of inept U.S. national security strategy the fact that the President does not offer strategic guidance. Unlike the Pentagon, where there is a Defense Planning Guidance to direct resource allocation, the President does not formally communicate desired national outcomes and mission priorities to departments and agencies.

In addition, the U.S, Government does not have a Quadrennial National Security Review to inform the departmental quadrennial reviews.

Furthermore, Locher explained how resource decisions are not aligned with strategic ones. The U.S. Government lacks an integrated national security budget.

Instead, it only has a collection of agency budgets. The leaders of the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) acknowledge that they are operating in a strategic vacuum, with the absence of presidential guidance regarding national priorities and few formal connections with the National Security Staff.

Locher also complained that U.S. strategic thinking is myopic.

The National Security Staff is driven by its inbox and cannot find time to think long term or make use of foresight to anticipate developments.

In addition, the U.S. national security system does not have a rigorous process for executing strategy. This process normally involves several steps such as translating a strategy into operational terms, aligning organization to strategy, and linking strategy to the budget process.

Locher then identified several obstacles to better U.S. national security strategy making.

First, senior U.S. national security leaders are not interested in strategy.

Not only do they fail to drive the system to produce strategy,but they do not protect the time of the National Security Staff to formulate strategy. Instead, they frequently direct the Staff to engage in immediate problem solving.

General Jones cited excessive White House demands for immediate responses to the 24/7 news cycle as one reason his shop was unable to develop long-range strategy.

Second, independent of White House preferences, the organizational culture of the National Security Staff has moved away from strategic thinking.

Thanks to the immediacy of information technology and the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, the “tyranny of the inbox” has reached epic proportions at the National Security Staff.

Third, the United States does not identify and develop individuals, either civilian or military personnel, with the skills and insights to be capable strategies.

Individuals have little incentive to develop their strategic skills given the low priority with which they are valued across the government.

Fourth, the National Security Staff focuses mostly on policy making rather than strategy making, resourcing, planning, and assessment.

Pockets of excellent strategy work exist; such as in the Pentagon, but these fragmented and unmanaged processes reside in departmental stovepipes that do not have a “whole-of-government” perspective.

Blowing in the wind is an outcome, not a strategy. Credit Image: Bigstock

As a result, there is no comprehensive interagency process for strategy. In addition, the ten strategy documents mandated by Congress, such as the Quadrennial Defense Review, are disjointed internally and from one another because they are not arranged according to a logical end-to-end set of processes.

Fifth, the National Security Staff lacks the capacity (include the personnel) to support strategic planning and anticipatory government. Its strategy office remains especially understaffed and distracted by immediate policy concerns.

Locher feared that, even if the United States had a grand strategy today, we could not employ it because of flawed U.S. government structures and processes.

Acknowledging that these problems will take considerable time to overcome, he offered the following recommendations, many drawn from the experience of private sector managers, for reducing them:

Focus the National Security Staff on grand strategy, high policy, and strategic management by decentralizing issue management to subordinate interagency organizations, where more expertise and time are available.

Make maintaining a highly capable and robust strategy directorate within the NSC a higher priority.

Require that one quarter of the personnel seconded from departments and agencies to the National Security Staff be highly qualified strategists; each National Security Staff directorate should have at least one qualified strategist, while the Staff should complete a short course in strategy, foresight, and anticipatory governance.

Create a Center for Strategic Assessment and Analysis in the Executive Office of the President to ensure that the NSC focus sufficient attention on anticipating and preparing for the future; its three primary roles would be to continually scan the horizon; assess relationships among political, social, technological, economic, and  security situations; and evaluate the possible future ramifications of various policy alternatives.

Design and employ well-articulated, end-to-end processes, including strategy making, for the entire U.S. national security system rather than just by department or agency by:

Institute a Quadrennial National Security Review at the beginning of an administration and require all department and agency quadrennial reviews to be synchronized with the National Review.

Require the President to issue annual National Security Planning Guidance to all national security departments and agencies.

Produce an integrated national security budget aligned with the objectives of the National Security Review and National Security Planning Guidance.

Locher cited examples from both private businesses (e.g., the creation of horizontal teams) and certain U.S. national security successes (improved U.S. counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq) to demonstrate how these reforms could achieve superior results.


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