For Want of a Strategy

Obama Gates Speech

According to Washington rules, criticizing the foreign policy or strategy of any administration need not be fair or balanced. Strategy can always be attacked for being wrong regardless of the merit of the claim. Or, perhaps easier, White Houses can be accused of having no strategy at all. But, both criticisms can fit.

George W. Bush had the wrong strategy for achieving his “freedom agenda” through attacking Iraq. Barack Obama appears to have no clear strategy for dealing with the extraordinary protests sweeping through much of the Arab world or a regional strategy to address the Afghanistan-Pakistan debacle despite the lengthy AfPak studies and reviews. Of course, the Obama White House, like others, would strongly object to either charge.

Unfortunately, until the Obama administration answers three questions, absence of a strategy for the Arab world and AfPak is self-evident: What are America’s broader aims regarding this Arab awakening; how are they being achieved; and what is the regional plan for Afghanistan? Promoting human rights and supporting indigenous protests against autocratic (and unstable) leaders aren’t strategies. Calling for a pluralistic Afghanistan where governance extends beyond Kabul, likewise, is a hope or a wish. As is too well known, neither is a strategy.

The Obama administration inherited messes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Libyan and other protests in the Arab world that continue with unpredictable outcomes are all different and a single strategic response won’t fit each. Compounding these challenges, it is difficult to see who and where in the administration cogent strategy is being made and implemented. Contradictory or confusing statements by the administration reinforce this impression.

With the exit of former U.S. Marines Gen. Jim Jones as national security adviser, who acts as the chief White House strategist for national security policy? Clearly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen have well-grounded strategic minds. However, their remit is the Defense Department, not broader strategy.

Despite the recently published national security diplomatic strategy, Foggy Bottom, awash with many talented special envoys and a charismatic yet sensible secretary of state, hasn’t fashioned a cogent strategic response to and for these remarkable and unpredictable events roiling the Arab world.

While the House of Representatives and Senate have their own foreign policy experts, notably Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Congress isn’t the proper place to fill a strategic void even though it has a powerful voice in these matters.

Columnists, academics and pundits regularly suggest strategies of their own in writing or on television usually with minimal effect.

Hence, too often, White Houses are reactive and generally are controlled by events without necessarily anticipating or shaping them to the country’s benefit. And, given today’s massive and obscene debt and deficits, spending on foreign policy regardless of the strength or presence of strategy inevitably and possibly precipitously will decline.

In the Arab world, Egypt is the strategic center of gravity. While we agonize over no-fly zones and whether to use military force to ensure the exit of Moammar Gadhafi, what happens in Egypt can change much of the world for good or for ill. Therefore, any strategy must be Egypt-centric and directed at assisting Egypt in making a successful transition to a pluralistic state under the rule of law. Further, engaging Egypt and possibly other Arab and Muslim states to prevent humanitarian disaster in Libya should be a high priority supported by the Arab League.

Discussions with friends and allies as well as international institutions from the United Nations to the European Union and NATO are making slow progress regarding Libya. Is this further proof of strategy by default?

Regarding Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan remain at a standoff over Raymond Davis, a contract employee of the CIA charged with killing two Pakistanis and awaiting trial in a Lahore jail.

Writing last week in The Washington Post, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari pleaded for patience from the United States correctly warning that Pakistan was a “tinderbox” ready to explode if its existential war against terror and fanatical extremists wasn’t properly handled.

Unfortunately, given America’s unyielding demand for the immediate and safe return of Davis, this affair could too easily destroy U.S.-Pakistani relations for a long time with clear and unhappy consequences for the war in Afghanistan especially when Congress understandably weighs into this melee and cuts funding for Pakistan.

When President Dwight Eisenhower took office he convened his advisers in what was called Project Solarium named for the place where the meetings took place in the White House to develop a national security strategy. Midway through his term, Obama needs to do the same. A cogent, well-argued strategy is needed. For want of that strategy, the wars in all forms that confront us cannot be won.

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.

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