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Rebalancing National Security Policy After Afghanistan and Iraq
FARNOVA Address, 23 May 2013, Ft. Myer, Arlington, VA
by Ambassador Thomas E. McNamara


Let me start with a historical observation. In the last 500 years every major war has ended with combatant powers reassessing their interests, relationships, and power. The objectives were new strategies to guide policy in the post-war world. Not all reassessments, however, produce coherent, consistent strategies.

After the Revolutionary War and despite their serious differences, the founders established a successful strategy based on U.S. interests, relationships, and power. Quincy Adams and Monroe reassessed after the War of 1812 and set a wise strategy that, with adjustments, lasted 80 years. Our record since is spotty.

Since 1898 we have fought five major conflicts, and emerged from two with viable strategies—after the Spanish-American War and WW II. After two other wars—WW I, and the Cold War—we failed to produce a viable strategy. The fifth, the Post-9/11 Wars, are ending now, and we face the challenge of another assessment. The good news is: we can redress the post-Cold War lapse.

The bad news is: we seem ill-prepared for the task. This is best illustrated by recent Congressional action. I wonder how many in this audience noticed in February 2011 that the House Appropriations Committee decided that foreign policy is not national security. It proclaimed that Defense, Veteran Affairs, and Homeland Security constituted the “national security budget.” Then, it cut the foreign affairs budget, claiming it did not cut the national security budget. That decision still stands.

What went wrong?

International affairs since 1993 have disillusioned and shocked Americans. We ended the Cold War stronger, more admired, confident and optimistic about the future—with good reason. Some over-optimistic authors saw an “end of history.” That illusion was exposed by history and political events; it was simply a new chapter. In the Mideast, the ex-Soviet Union, and South and East Asia, old conflicts continued. In the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, and Rwanda new outbreaks occurred. Optimism was emphatically shattered by 9/11 and the Post-9/11 Wars. The “Unipolar World” was so brief, it was rechristened the “Unipolar Moment.” Both were mirages.

We must face the situation and agree with those two profound, strategic thinkers, Walt Kelly and Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Our illusions caused the disillusionment. Our naiveté and ignorance caused the shocks. Unfortunately, all three causes are still pervasive.

After Bush 41’s good post-Cold War start, an election slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” diverted national attention inward. That was a good, necessary focus. But, we forgot an equally necessary focus —international strategy. Hence, we prospered internally, but were tentative and inconsistent internationally. Over-involved in Somalia, we departed ignominiously. We hesitated in strategically important Yugoslavia, and watched the Rwandan genocide. In Haiti we got it right.

We were not alone. Our European allies, older and supposedly wiser than we, did likewise. Feeling quite secure, they turned inward, obsessed over the EU, and dismantled their militaries. Without a strategy, they badly fumbled the Balkan and Caucasus crises in their own backyard. We both made mistakes, and paid for them. Power ebbed away.

After 9/11 a “pendulum swing” caused us to be overconfident and impulsive. We adopted another false slogan, “global war on terror” (GWOT). We were told history offered no guidance for this unique, new worldwide threat. We had initial success against Taliban and Al Qaeda. But, without a strategic vision, “mission creep” led to a decade-long attempt to restructure Afghan society. A true GWOT should not have spent ten years in Afghanistan, not with Lebanon, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and other terrorism threats.

We entered Afghanistan ignoring Afghan history, culture and politics, and South Asian power relationships. Secretary Rumsfeld’s statement “the mission determines the alliance; the alliance does not determine the mission” epitomized the hubris of the time.

Without pausing to think, we sought another monster to destroy, and started a second land war in Asia. Afghanistan became secondary after Iraq—and Iraq was not GWOT. We had contradictory explanations and objectives for Iraq, including the belief that we could transform the Middle East, and we belittled our partners’ concerns. The two wars competed for scarce resources. Neither got enough and both were conducted off-budget, sapping our economic strength.

These expensive, inconclusive wars have contributed mightily to our economic, political, and military deficiencies today. We suffered from strategic astigmatism by following slogans, not coherent strategy.

It is time for a reassessment; time also to educate the American people in national security fundamentals. Leaders, who cannot explain strategy or mistake tactical success for strategic strength, fail in an essential duty of leadership. In the White House and in Congress, leaders of both parties are guilty of this failure. Unlike after WWII we have neither debated national strategy, nor drawn the public into a discussion. The American people can engage and understand, but today’s leaders are mired in petty, partisan bickering over inconsequentials.

A national misconception about the roles of foreign policy and military policy clouds our thinking, distorts our worldview, and overstates our ability to change that world.

Rebalancing the Elements: Foreign Policy

Let’s begin with foreign policy, and its implementation—diplomacy. The Appropriations Committee’s benighted and destructive action is symptomatic of a distortion of a central pillar of national security—foreign policy. Congress’s disregard for diplomacy and fascination with force undermine national security.

Americans are impatient with the complexities of foreign policy, which they do not understand well. They seek quick, simple solutions, believing military force offers tough-guy quick-fixes. Military action evokes positive popular and Congressional responses. Yet the use of force is never quick, simple or cost-free.

To rebalance strategy, our leaders must revalue foreign policy. Since President Nixon, we have not had an articulate teacher at the bully pulpit explaining the strategic role of foreign policy. President Bush 41 understood and valued it, but could not articulate “the vision thing.” His successors neither articulated it, nor understood it. This left the public adrift and our policy weak.

Today, we face protracted struggles, not unlike the Cold War. We can start the national discussion by learning Cold War lessons, three of which largely explain our success in that 45-year effort, and our failures since.

First, we succeeded primarily by vigorous diplomacy, backed (not led) by a strong, properly-structured, military force.
Second, we were strongest when we attracted, not demanded, others to follow. Allies and partners reached out to us, and we to them. We accommodated their interests and viewpoints.
Third, we emphasized economic, political, cultural, and ideological power, neither ignoring, nor exaggerating, military power.  The Cold War is an excellent example of how complex power levers, manipulated wisely, can reduce the need for force, and succeed efficiently and effectively.

The Shield and the Sword

Seventy years ago during World War II, Walter Lippmann wrote a book, Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic.  The Shield, foreign policy, comes first and, when properly used, reduces employment of the Sword, military force. The role of foreign policy in peacetime is to hold up the Shield and to guide the Sword. Properly balanced, the two work symbiotically.

No president has used the bully pulpit recently to proclaim this central tenet. Our leaders are not telling the public that The Shield is the most cost-effective method to defend the republic, and that the Sword is our back-up for international policies. We rightly support our military. Yet Congress denigrates diplomacy and beggars foreign policy through budget cuts.  Congress’s persistent and consistent message to the public is: military force counts; diplomacy is a waste of money.

Foreign policy and diplomats are like football linemen—noticed only for mistakes. The public does not understand that these linemen build and maintain the alliances and coalitions, and make the Sword more effective. In ordinary times, diplomats are the peacekeepers.

Unfortunately, diplomacy is overseas and out of sight. It has a weak constituency, compared to the huge military-industrial complex that dominates the Congress and blinds it to military limitations. There is neither a diplomatic-industrial complex, nor a Chamber of Diplomacy supporting foreign policy.

After Benghazi, diplomacy has got recognition, but for the wrong reasons. Our major problem is not bad talking points, or defending our embassies. Ignorance of the role of foreign policy is a strategic weakness. That’s the problem we need to focus on. Benghazi is not central.

We differ from our British allies, who learned over centuries that the Shield is the first and best defense and is almost always more efficient and effective than the Sword. And efficient, effective use of power is the way to long term success.

Rebalancing the Elements: The Military

Far from disparaging military power, I welcome it. A foreign policy unsupported by adequate military power is sterile and unsuccessful. Similarly, military force not guided by a coherent foreign policy is reckless and destructive. We suffer from a form of national narcissism. We have fallen in love with our own military might. We have been excessively militaristic since 9/11.

Our military leaders understand the problem. They are not infatuated with force. Admiral Mike Mullen has stated flatly that “U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military.” He amended the Weinburger-Powell Doctrine with Mullen’s Corollary: before military force is committed “ we will do so only if and when the other instruments of national power are ready to engage, as well.” Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said specifically that military operations should be “subordinated to measures aimed at promoting better governance, economic programs that spur development, and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented.” That sounds strikingly like what diplomats do every day.

An intensive debate established a balanced strategy after WWII. The wisdom of those “present at the creation,” laid the foundations for successes by eight presidents, who adopted and adapted the Strategy of Containment. In his book, Lippmann defined a correct and effective foreign policy based on a principle that we have forgotten:

 … in foreign relations, as in all other relations, a policy has been formed only when commitments and power have been brought into balance … The nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes …  its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments …  [Without this principle].it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs …

Lippmann’s principle is valid 70 years later. Our policies, today, are in disequilibrium.

The world has changed. It is less dangerous, but more complicated, than the Cold War. We now risk suffering a thousand cuts, not one massive strike. Our military structures, doctrines, and missions need to reflect this. They do not. Instead, we exhausted and abused our military personnel and equipment. Our military always salutes and says “can do,” even when they should never have been asked. Lacking strategic priorities, America has overused the Sword. Now the blade is chipped and dulled.

And these are only the political-military issues. Industrial, financial, trade, environmental, refugee, human rights, and WMD issues need strategic prioritization. Strategy is all about priorities. Our pendulum swings demonstrate we have not established priorities. Tactics rule when strategy is uncertain, and the nation is weaker.

Now is the best opportunity since 1993 to rebalance national security. The beginnings of that rebalancing are visible. The Obama administration and our military leaders deserve credit for understanding the need to reassess, rebuild at home, and revivify alliances and partnerships. A reassessment and national discussion are necessary next steps.

What is to be done?

Here are some principles for a future strategy:

Domestic strength is absolutely fundamental. Our strongest assets are our economy, society, culture, political institutions, and ideology. Rebuild these first. And do so without partisanship.

The essence of strategy is to balance commitments with capabilities by setting priorities that recognize our strengths and our limitations. Our reach should exceed our grasp only in our aspirations, never in our international actions.

We should restructure our military and diplomatic resources so each plays its proper role. Flexibility, agility, and imagination are critical. In peacetime, the Shield guides the Sword, which is used only when the Shield is inadequate.

We should strengthen alliances, partnerships, international organizations, and relations with new, emerging powers. No great nation has remained great, except as the leader of a powerful coalition.

We should work hard, but patiently, for stability, order and respect for freedom, and should give a high priority to transnational issues. But, understand that most nations’ interests are different from ours.

Regarding regional issues:

The Asia-Pacific “pivot,” should emphasize that no one nation dominates the region. We should maintain our regional alliances and presence, and strengthen partnerships. These threaten no one and enhance regional stability. This policy has served us well in Europe, and will, also, in Asia. We need not “contain” China, but should work to develop mutually beneficial cooperation and encourage China to assume a stabilizing role as a major power.

The Atlantic Community is historically and strategically of great importance. We should support the Alliance and a revitalized EU that is strong inside Europe and exercises leadership outside. Democracy and development in Eastern Europe are important, as are mutually beneficial relations with a Russia that will not be democratic.

We should encourage modern, pluralist societies in the Mideast, Africa, and throughout Dar al Islam, and discourage ideologies that espouse rigid, militant intolerance.—but actively oppose only those actively hostile to us.

In Latin America, stability with economic and social development should be the focus of our policies, especially in Mexico, Brazil, and the Caribbean. A full hemispheric free trade agreement should be a cornerstone strategic objective.


I will end as I began, on a historical note—a cautionary observation, not a prediction. For the past 500 years, the world’s leading power at the turn of each century has lost that position within the first 30-50 years of the new century.  If we are to buck that historical trend, we will need to be much smarter and more agile than recently. We have been so before.  We can be so again.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

Thomas E. McNamara
Thomas E. McNamara

Thomas E. McNamara has served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, ambassador to Colombia, ambassador at large for counterterrorism, and special assistant to President George H.W. Bush.


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