Friday, June 27, 2008

In Search of a Strategy

It made little difference these past seven days what I read or what people talked about at meetings I attended. The dominant concept – what Groucho Marx would call the “Magic word” – had to be “strategy.” And what was most noticeable was the number of contexts within which those speaking or writing pleaded for the development, implementation, fine-tuning, revising, or junking what passed for strategy the presenter’s field of expertise.

The most frequent context, well beyond the usual association with the military, had to be economics in general and the cost of energy – chiefly petroleum – in particular. The observant “gas-self servicer” probably doesn’t remember how many minutes she mused to spend filling the family auto. The next time you fill the car gas tank, try timing just how long it takes to put in the first dollar’s worth of petrol. You may well fine that you need a stopwatch to register an elapsed time. And if you are quick enough to detect the passage of the single second needed for the first dollar at today’s prices, I doubt you will be able to get by without a stopwatch should the prediction, by the President of OPEC, of crude oil hitting $170 per barrel later this summer actually comes to pass.

The White House’s solution – it shies from using the word “strategy” – is more drilling off-shore and in ANWR and a $300 million bounty to the person who invents a battery for electric cars that can go more than 400 miles without re-charging. “Conservation” is again on everyone’s lips, and not far behind come “solar” and “wind.”

Then there is the violent “energy” that Nature seems to be unleashing with greater frequency and more devastation than in recent decades. Spectacular “lightning-storms” are ravaging the drought-stricken Far West by starting dozens of brush fires that then are spread by on-shore winds. Simultaneously – can one say perversely -- savage thunderstorms spawn dozens of tornadoes and dump multiple inches of rain throughout what I always think of as the nation’s middle: the Mississippi River valley. (The geographic center of the contiguous 48 states is Lebanon, Kansas, well to the west of the Mississippi River.) From Wisconsin to Texas and Louisiana to Illinois, at least ten states have sustained severe physical from rain-swollen rivers that broke through or are threatening three dozen levees, flooding farms and whole towns – and the river crest has yet to clear Missouri as it moves down the Mississippi towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Being the summer of a presidential election year, the normal political thrusts and parries between the country’s major political parties have given way to the “pre-campaign” rhetoric by which the nominees test the receptivity of the public to proposals and promises to fix everything that’s amiss in the country.

The other element in the administration’s “energy strategy” – what in fact was their strategy throughout the 2000 presidential campaign and which they finally launched in March 2003 – has now also hit a major clock where one had not been anticipated when Baghdad experienced regime change. In the negotiations between the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki and the Bush administration, the Iraqis rejected all of Washington’s initial demands. Last week, in Jordan, al-Maliki pronounced the talks “at a dead end.” Over the course of this week the administration in Washington, the U.S. negotiators in Baghdad, and al-Maliki’s spokespersons have been upbeat on the progress being made, but at week’s end the talks appeared to have reached consensus on only one point: American contractors working in Iraq will not have immunity from prosecution for breaking Iraqi law.

(The other U.S. conditions are immunity from prosecution for U.S. military per for violating Iraqi law; conducting combat operations when and where U.S. commanders designate; authority to arrest, detain, and interrogate Iraqis suspected of anti-U.S. activities; control of Iraqi airspace up to 30,000 feet; and the right of U.S. – not Iraqi – military commanders to determine when Iraqi sovereignty has been violated and what military response, if any, is appropriate.)

Two gatherings this week managed to remain, more or less, above the weeds of day-to-day events and rise on occasion to deal with “grand strategy.” “Forceful Engagement” challenged the meeting’s participants to work out not only the means by which the United States could engage the rest of the world – in this gathering there were no isolationists – but to identify what levers of national power could be sharpened and employed in ways that would enable the U.S. to attain its objectives without the resort – even as the hallowed “last resort” – to armed conflict. In fact, contrary to the usual White House, State Department, and Defense Department mantras whenever another country displeases Washington, the phrase “all options are on the table” is banned – along with the threat to use or actually use military force.

The second gathering introduced “Ideas for America’s Future: Core Elements of a New National Security Strategy” whose principal author is Jeffrey Bialos. Once again, the main theme is “engagement” at the international, government-to-government level, where military engagement is neither the only nor the first line of contact.

All of which recalled to mind Tom Barnett’s assertion that “September 11 did not merely substitute al Qaeda for China; it knock the concept of the “Big One” right off its doctrinal pedestal.”

Seven years later, “counter-insurgency” is being touted as the strategic replacement for the peer challenge. If we hope to escape falling into just another militarized mindset when we consider how to engage others, the nation will have to rise above the “strategies of politics to a new – or renewed – international grand strategy of global engagement.

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