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Why Strategies Disappoint—and How to Fix Them

Raphael S. Cohen
Sunday, March 19, 2017, 10:00 AM

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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Editor’s Note: Over the years, the U.S. government has produced a seemingly endless array of strategy documents. And almost all of these proved disappointing, with little valuable to say about how the United States should orient itself and with little eventual impact on policy and resources. RAND’s Raphael Cohen explains why so many attempts at strategy go awry and offers some valuable suggestions on how the government can do better.


It’s a new administration, which means it is time for a new round of national security documents. From the National Security Strategy on down, over the next months, the White House, the Defense Department, and other agencies across the U.S. government will generate dozens of these strategies. In abstract, everyone loves the idea of strategy, and “not having a strategy” is a constant Washington refrain. For the executive branch, these strategic documents allow policymakers to lay out their vision for the future of foreign and defense policy and ensure that each part of the sprawling executive branch knows its place in the grand design. For Capitol Hill, these documents can help to make sure resources are aligned with needs. For the press and pundit class, they provide months of fodder for debate and discussion. As one retired senior general officer summed up, “you can’t be against long range planning; it’s like who’s going to be against apple pie?” Indeed, it is hard to criticize the concept of strategic planning. That is, of course, until one actually reads what is ultimately produced.

In practice, strategies—at all levels—often disappoint. One retired senior Air Force general officer referred to recent Air Force service strategies as “full of fluff and gobbledygook.” Another senior Air Force general lamented that the primary value he got out of the service’s strategy was several months of talking points for his speechwriters. And this is not only an Air Force problem. Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy recently lamented that the major defense strategy—the Quadrennial Defense Review—had devolved into “a glossy coffee table brochure.” Former National Security Council Director for Strategy and Requirements Kori Schake agreed, calling the most recent review a “budget document, not a strategy document.” And similar criticisms have been leveled against recent editions of the National Security Strategy. For example, former National Security Council staffers Richard Fontaine and Shawn Brimley warned not to expect too much from the Obama administration’s last National Security Strategy because “these strategy documents are mostly a lot of hot air.”

In practice, strategies—at all levels—often disappoint.

Attempts to force the U.S. government to build better strategies also often come up short. Take the troubled history of defense strategies in the post-Cold War age. In 1994, Congress originally mandated the Commission on Roles and Missions because it found the previous defense strategy, the Bottom-Up Review, lacking. The Commission on Roles and Missions, however, proved to be just the start of the congressional quest for a better defense strategy. In fact, it led to the creation of a new series of documents—the Quadrennial Defense Review. These documents also proved a disappointment. And so in 2010 Congress then created a Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel—an outside panel of experts to review the Defense Department’s document and, ideally, make it more “strategic” rather than a budget-driven document. Still not satisfied, in 2016 Congress decided to scrap the Quadrennial Defense Review altogether and replace it with a new set of documents. And so the wheel turns.

Why then do strategies almost always fail to live up to expectations? It is certainly not for lack of effort. As Flournoy notes, documents like the Quadrennial Defense Reviews involve “hundreds of participants and consume many thousands of man-hours.” Indeed, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates grew so frustrated with the level of resources thrown into the process that he demanded the department “track and publish the actual cost of preparation of each [of the] reports and studies prepared by DoD in the front of each document.”

Strategy documents’ shortcomings are also not because the world is simply too complex to allow for “good” strategy. For all the talk of the uncertain post-Cold War world, the number of concrete national security threats the United States actually has needed to confront have been limited. The Bush administration had two wars—in Iraq and Afghanistan—to focus on, with looming threats of China, Russia, and terrorism in the offing. Obama administration Secretary of Defense Ash Carter reduced the number of U.S. adversaries down to a manageable list of five—Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and terrorism. While it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will keep this list, it seems likely the basic framework could remain intact. And so, while the world may be changing at a rapid rate, the United States actually needs to confront a relatively small, finite number of adversaries to guide the strategy process.

Strategies’ shortfalls are also not because strategy is simply irrelevant in the modern age. For all the many problems with the process, there is still the basic need to link U.S. national security ends, ways, and means together and then explain these connections to the American people as well as to U.S. allies and adversaries. Indeed, the host of cancelled big-ticket weapons programs or the troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan are testament to the real costs in blood and treasure of when either operational or institutional strategies fail or are absent altogether.

Rather, strategies disappoint because they fail to be succinct, sharp, and substantive. To begin with, good strategies start with a tag line. Whether it’s Air Force’s “Global Reach, Global Power,” the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance’s “rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific,” or the 2001 National Security Strategy’s doctrine of freedom and preemption, memorable strategies at all levels have theses—one or two big ideas that guide the rest of the document.

Good strategies also have an edge to them. They should make some people unhappy; when strategies prioritize resources, not everyone comes out a winner. Perhaps Senator John McCain said it best: “The development of policy, strategy, and plans in the DOD has become paralyzed by an excessive pursuit of concurrence or consensus. Innovative ideas that challenge the status quo rarely seem to survive the staffing process as they make their long journey to senior civilian and military leaders. Instead, what results too often seems to be watered-down, lowest common denominator thinking that is acceptable to all relevant stakeholders precisely because it is threatening to none of them.” Preventing this natural regression to mean requires that leaders at the top “own” their strategies—rather than simply letting the bureaucracies gin up these documents from below.

Finally, good strategies need to be substantive. Somewhat ironically, given how much criticism it received at the time, two decades later, the 1993 Bottom-Up Review is the strategy that is most often used as a baseline for subsequent major defense reviews. There are plenty of reasons for this, but one of them is its analytic transparency. Of all the attempts at national security strategy over the past quarter century, the Bottom-Up Review perhaps makes the clearest argument about linking threats to a force-sizing construct and to procurement decisions—in other words, linking ends, ways, and means together in a transparent fashion. Too often strategies instead devolve into platitudes, leaving strategy’s three major components disconnected and, at times, incoherent.

They fail because leaders are unwilling to make difficult decisions—to focus on one threat as opposed to another, prioritize resources accordingly, and then explain their decisions publicly—at risk of being wrong.

More often than not, the lack of succinctness, sharpness, and substance in strategies is just a symptom of the deeper reason why the strategy-making process so often yields lackluster results. They fail because leaders are unwilling to make difficult decisions—to focus on one threat as opposed to another, prioritize resources accordingly, and then explain their decisions publicly—at risk of being wrong. Instead, they prefer to delegate the process to the bureaucracy, which lacks the institutional power and the incentive to make decisions.

This may be why so many congressional attempts to reform national security strategies have come up short over the years: The real problem is not process; it is the aversion to making decisive and perhaps irrevocable choices. What makes this aversion all the more vexing is that, from the standpoint of some, it is entirely logical. Decisive choices can make enemies within the bureaucracies, lead to congressional scrutiny, and, perhaps most importantly, risk assuming blame for potential catastrophes when decisions prove wrong. Moreover, the benefits of getting strategy “right” are sometimes only visible long after the policymaker leaves office. Far better to settle for mediocrity and play it safe.

As the new Trump administration wrestles with crafting the next set of strategies in the coming months, there may be a tendency to avoid making such hard decisions. Especially with the president promising sizeable increases to the military, policymakers could use any fiscal windfall to “soften” hard choices. With other priorities like infrastructure investments and tax cuts also on the horizon, such a funding boom may not last forever. Even if it does, it is debatable whether an extra $54 billion in defense spending will be sufficient to fix all of America’s national security challenges. And if the new administration succeeds in fixing the strategy process, then it will have succeeded in leaving a legacy almost as important as whatever force it builds or the hardware it buys—a way to make strategy that no longer disappoints.

Raphael S. Cohen is the director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program at RAND’s Project Air Force and the lead author of “From Cast Lead to Protective Edge: Lessons From Israel’s Wars in Gaza” (RAND Corporation, 2017).

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