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U.S. Lacks a National Security Strategy

By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

After 13 years of perpetual conflict in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. still lacks a comprehensive national security strategy to combat the changing dynamics of the world around us.

In a recently released report sponsored by U.S. Army Special Operations Command, and conducted within the RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy Doctrine and Resources Program, the U.S. still doesn’t have a coherent national strategy to meet the challenges of a changing global environment.

Commanding General of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland stated, “I don’t think we understand completely the fight we are in.”

Cleveland continued, “We are in a competition where it looks like football to us, but it’s really a game of soccer, with elements of rugby and lacrosse.”

Far too often the U.S. national security apparatus seems to be fighting the last conflict and has not adjusted to the new realities of the threats posed by Islamic extremists. The conflicts and challenges confronted by the United States are far different than any experienced in its history, and must be dealt with beyond just utilizing military power.

Joseph Nye, currently a University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard, coined the term “soft power,” which utilizes the concept of co-opting, rather than pressure, as a means or persuasion, which has come to be known as “smart power.”

This concept made headlines recently but many misunderstood its application, and the need is more urgent to grasp its application of utilizing all elements of U.S. national power, not solely relying on a military solution.

The failure to address a comprehensive strategy caught the U.S. unprepared in dealing with the “Arab Spring” revolt throughout the Middle East, and in the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This lack of strategic planning turned an insurgency, able to conduct maneuver warfare and information operations, into a viable nation state.

The sudden emergence of ISIS had the U.S. scrambling to figure out what strategy to pursue; but again, the military option was the only option national security planners were willing to utilize.

The Middle East is not the only area where lack of a national security policy has further hampered the U.S. The Ukraine crisis this past summer opened up a lack of clarity on what the U.S. strategic objectives were in stifling Russian aggression in Ukraine. If we are unsure of our strategic objectives, how then can we get our allies to work in conjunction with us?

This lack of strategic vison is manifesting itself in Afghanistan as the U.S. prepares to end combat operations at the end of this year. President Obama is leaving behind a residual force which only seems to grow larger over time, but what is missing is a lack of a coherent strategy encompassing a political strategy for the region.

Far too often a military strategy is the only course of action undertaken by the U.S., without fully understanding all the other political and civil dimensions of the country, and of the region.

Tuesday’s attack in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban against the government of Pakistan represents a wake-up call for the U.S., as it completes its perceptive withdrawal from Afghanistan—still not having communicated what the U.S. political/military strategy for Afghanistan will be.

The RAND report articulates the continued deficiency of U.S. national security strategists, and that a tendency among both civilian policymakers and the military, has been to focus on tactical issues, troop levels and timelines, rather than the political factors that ultimately determine success. The U.S. military continues to believe that the political aspect of war is either not part of war or is entirely up to the civilians to address. Finally, the political element of war is further obscured by a focus on governing capacity, which is a separate, long-term, institutional issue that is often secondary to resolving conflict.

As the 2016 presidential campaign begins, it is time to fully vet the candidates on how they intend to craft a global U.S. strategy; because if we do not encompasses all elements of U.S. national power, and fail to conceptualize a coherent strategy, we are doomed to repeat history.


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