Brent Scowcroft, who followed Henry Kissinger as National Security Advisor to President Ford, introduced his friend last night as “one of the very few people who have truly strategic minds.”  Kissinger demonstrated just that during the far-ranging speech that followed.

If brevity is the soul of wit, perhaps simplicity is the soul of strategy.  A theme that Kissinger returned to over and again during his talk is simultaneously obvious and overlooked.   For every policy issue, the great statesman told us, we must consider three aspects:  Our goal, our capabilities toward acheiving that goal, and our staying power.

This is, of course, International Relations 101.  Yet, if we look at how foreign policy is actually practiced, we will generally see that at least one of these facets is ignored.

The clearest case of this is the NATO mission in Afghanistan.   Our stated objective, as Kissinger sees it,  is a democratic state — in the fullest sense of the term, including equal rights for women and religious tolerance — that is centrally governed.   He believes we “need to examine whether this is a conceivable objective.” 

Not only is our goal the achievement of something that has never existed in that territory but, to the extent that it’s plausible nobody seriously thinks it possible in less than twenty years.  Given that public opinion in most members of the coalition has already turned against the mission, Kissinger is highly skeptical that we can bring to bear sufficient resources to get the job done, much less sustain it for the necessary timeframe.

If, after careful reassessment, we decide that we don’t have the staying power and other necessary capabilities to achieve the goal, then we “need a different strategy.”   He suggests that it will likely be one “designed to prevent what we fear most: the return of a terrorist state.”

It should be noted that Kissigner is very much in favor of achieving our stated objective.  As an American and an immigrant, he says it is “impossible” not to believe in democracy and the power of its ideology.  But, alas, we must recognize the difference between our preferences and the national interest. Failure to align one’s policy goals to what is actually possible isn’t “idealism” but a recipe for failure.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.