President Bush may be a lame duck but his new national defense strategy will shape policy for years regardless of who wins in November.


Releasing strategy documents during the final months of a presidential administration would seem risky. Why would anyone want to read something that will soon be overcome by events?  Yet, while political perspective certainly underlies national strategies, strategy by its nature has a long-term focus. A review of national security strategies since President Reagan finds remarkable continuity in U.S. strategic goals (economic prosperity and strong national security), assessment of threats (transnational actors), and similar approaches to achieve ends (the importance of trade).  The United States more or less follows President Kennedy’s Cuba policy, President Nixon’s China policy, and President Clinton’s trade policy.

What is true of national security strategies is even truer for military and defense strategies. While Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld gets the credit — or blame — for defense transformation, it really began in the 1990s when the military realized it must move beyond a single-minded focus on major war.

For this reason and many more, the 2008 National Defense Strategy should be required reading for all those interested in national security on both sides of the Atlantic. Secretary Gates sees the strategy not as a lame duck, but as a “blueprint to succeed in the years to come.”   Dated June, but publicly released in August, it is a very readable and useful document to understand defense priorities, defense assumptions about the world, and needed changes. The continuities from past administrations are evident. The military still finds a core mission in defending the United States and achieving success in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But there is a tension between fighting and winning today’s wars versus preparing for possible wars of the future.

Since the strategy is written (or, at least, directed and signed) by the civilian head of the military, the strategy should be read as directions to the uniformed military. Though subtle, strategic documents are one form of civilian control. Along these lines, the Secretary is telling the military that actively promoting security is as important as preparing for war. And not all war looks the same. 

The military has been understandably reluctant to give up traditional warfighting capabilities, yet the Bush Administration has been pushing back by canceling or curtailing “legacy weapons” such as the Crusader artillery system, the F-22, and advanced surface ships. Instead, the administration has been pushing the military to embrace irregular warfare by developing new capabilities that will be useful in a post-conflict reconstruction environment and prevent weak states from collapsing.  Since defense dollars are finite even with a $700 billion budget, the Defense Department is assuming some future risk to conduct operations of today.

This change has not been an easy order to follow. The military prefers not to be involved in non-warfighting activities. Those officers serving in senior positions today were inspired by tales of Marines landing at Inchon, tank battles in north Africa, and surface warfare engagements in the south Pacific.  They are influenced by preparation for war with the Soviets in the Fulda Gap and victory against Iraq in 1991. Not all have embraced the mission of digging wells in the Horn of Africa, conducting disaster relief in southeast Asia, or building militaries in Latin America. The experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have illustrated the difficulties of using warriors to create stable political and economic systems. The uniformed military sees the State Department or the US Agency for International Development as better suited for these tasks and bemoans “assuming risk” in a possible major war in order to manage reconstruction projects. 

Since the military cannot redeploy from Iraq until the political objectives are achieved, it has conducted non-traditional missions while kicking and screaming. With defense institutions have reluctantly embraced non-warfare missions, it will be key for the United States and its Atlantic partners to find the right balance with traditional warfare. 

Derek S. Reveron is a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College. These views are his own .