Posts Tagged ‘Obama’


Strategy is an act of imagination. Strategic planning is important because it forces government bureaucracies to think imaginatively about how the world works and what the nation can achieve. Strategic planning creates space for leaders to articulate priorities, and match diverse capabilities to overarching goals. When done well, it allows powerful governments to become forward-looking international agenda-setters, avoiding the all-too-frequent tendency to react to emerging crises in piecemeal fashion. Strategic planning sees order and opportunity in the chaos and threats of daily politics.

Unfortunately, imagination and power often have an inverse relationship in the modern world. The history of the last quarter-century shows that the United States has had trouble imagining how to use its power to promote order in an increasingly complex international system. American policymakers have displayed a repeated tendency to react (and overreact) to problems, rather than create enduring solutions. That is not because of absent capabilities or insufficient ambition. Quite the contrary, unprecedented military tools (including precision unmanned weapons) and universal claims (“end tyranny as we know it”) have encouraged frenetic action against emerging threats around the globe.

Since the end of the Cold War, the geographic range of American force deployments has increased, as have the demands upon those forces. The United States is fighting terrorism in countless failed states and seeks to rescue individual hostages held beyond the reach of legitimate local authorities. In addition to protecting its own citizens, the United States has sent its military across the globe to save other populations under attack. America is a country of global bad-asses and humanitarians, at the same time.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

American hyper-reactivity to threats represents the opposite of strategic planning. The actions of adversaries — large and small — dictate the immediate priorities for our national resources and attention. Our leaders operate in perpetual crisis mode, fearful of looking passive in the face of the next international incident. Crisis reaction encourages an emphasis on immediate responses and a narrowing of analysis to address the most pressing problems of the day. A broader perspective on the priorities of the nation is lost as our policymakers rush to preempt another terrorist attack or counter another incursion in Ukraine or the South China Sea. Our reactivity is enabled by the range of our capabilities, and it is motivated by the pressure of our media. It is not the best way to promote our national interests.

The excessive demands on American resources and attention are not new, but American leaders used to respond with imaginative organizational solutions to support broader strategic goals. Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower contended with similar challenges when they created, in the decade after the Second World War, a permanent strategic planning and implementation structure — including the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both formed by the National Security Act of 1947. Secretary of State George Marshall created the Policy Planning Staff within the State Department at about the same time, first chaired by George Kennan. With the end of the Cold War and the recognition that globalization was producing fundamental changes in world affairs, President Bill Clinton formed the National Economic Council, designed to build synergies between national security and economic decision-making. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 President George W. Bush and Congress created a new Director of National Intelligence to integrate all of the U.S. intelligence agencies. The president and Congress also empowered a new executive agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to improve coordination among intelligence, military, transportation, immigration, and customs offices protecting American territory.

All of these organizational changes responded to a new international environment by integrating diverse government actors. The reforms sought to bring a fragmented bureaucracy together to collaborate on setting priorities, allocating resources, and imagining the future for American foreign policy. When they worked well, these new agencies added enormous value by giving different parts of government clear definitions of national interests, including overriding policy goals. They also defined (sometimes by default) the areas and issues that were not government priorities, and therefore deserved fewer resources. When these organizations did not work well, as they often have not, they engaged in log-rolling, multiplying parallel commitments for the U.S. government to please every interest and spread American resources thin.

Since the start of the 21st century, spreading resources thin has become the norm as Washington has taken on unprecedented peacetime commitments in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, where it has achieved very little. In other regions — particularly in East Asia — the United States has given contradictory signals of “pivoting” with more force and simultaneously showing a nagging reluctance to back its claims with real muscle. Without clear strategic guidance, confusion in Washington has contributed to growing uncertainty among American allies and adversaries, compounded by the cacophony of domestic political voices that will only grow louder as the presidential campaign season continues.

Confusion, uncertainty, and bellicose grandstanding have characterized American responses to recent terrorist attacks by the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other groups. The spread of extremist ideologies and violence imperils social stability and citizen safety, especially in urban centers like Paris, London, and New York. The expansion of the Islamic State’s territorial footprint and its foreign recruitment promise more lethal attacks on high value targets in the near future. American responses, however, must focus on doing more than responding to violence with violence and loose talk about “war,” refugee restrictions, and anti-Islamic prejudice. So far, our public reactions to recent terrorist acts have been visceral and tactical, not strategic. The White House has not offered a coherent and persuasive plan for promoting long-term American security against terrorist threats.

A strategy for combatting terrorism must integrate a deep analysis of its sources with disciplined thinking about the full range of American capabilities, and the likely effects of deploying particular tools. Replaying the failed military interventionist policies of the last decade in the Middle East will further undermine American interests. To think strategically about terrorism requires more than a forceful reaction, but great care to insure that that the American resources deployed against terrorists fit the threat, its sources, and a sustainable outcome. The new president must work very hard to be a strategic leader on this and other pressing issues, not a global firefighter — creating new fires with every effort to smother the current flames.

Strategy Starts Early and At the Top

The place to start, even during the presidential campaign, is to return to the basics of strategic planning. The next occupant of the White House must possess the intellectual ingredients to formulate a national security strategy that makes sense of a very complex international system — defining threats, opportunities, and American national interests. A new strategy will need to align America’s considerable resources with a clear set of goals, defining specific policies to achieve those goals. Most of all, the next president will have to imagine a new global role for the United States that offers a compelling narrative for diverse actors within America and abroad. Our citizens, allies, and adversaries need consistency and predictability to calibrate their behaviors around our strategic purposes.

As we illustrate in our current Washington Quarterly article, national security strategy documents have been important for American policymakers since 1949. Unfortunately, these strategy documents received low priority in the Obama administration because it viewed its predecessor’s dogmatic strategy as a root cause of foreign policy failure. When effective, however, strategy documents have framed the most difficult and important foreign policy decisions. They allow the United States to lead rather than follow, defining priorities around American interests, not the crisis of the moment. The most important strategy documents of the post-World War II period demonstrate that a president’s first term is the time for a major statement of direction and purpose. The president, national security adviser, or secretary of state must empower one well-placed individual to lead the drafting process in order to produce a readable document with a clear assessment and a call to action.

Presidential candidates should begin generating ideas now that can be implemented early in the next administration. They must think about how they will articulate a national security strategy that nudges international dynamics to American advantage, organizes the labyrinth of American agencies, and, most important, imagines a better world.

There are numerous medium to long-term foreign policy challenges facing the next president, including those posed by China, Russia, and Iran, but the immediate struggle against terrorist organizations makes a disciplined and coherent national security strategy a clear imperative. What is the United States fighting for? How can we maximize our long-term goals? How can we make sure that we are not creating deeper problems for our nation in our immediate responses to terror, as happened in the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks? The difficult formulation of a coherent strategic document that articulates national interests, assesses threats, and identifies the appropriate mix of resources is necessary to answer these questions. Otherwise, we will continue to react to attacks with vigor, but continued disappointment, and perhaps worse.

Co-authored with James Goldgeier, Dean of the School of International Service at American University.

Originally published by War on the Rocks (18 January 2016).


Effective policy-making begins by accurately assessing adversaries. Americans have a tendency to assume that their opponents are either pathetic pip-squeaks, ranting like irrational madmen, or enormous evil-doers, bent on Hitler-like world domination. Russian President Vladimir Putin fits neither of these character types. The pattern of Russian regional aggression, dating back to Moscow’s invasion of the Georgian Republic in 2008 (when George W. Bush was still president), reveals a different kind of adversary.

Fascism: History and Present

Putin is an early twentieth century fascist, ruling a twenty-first century country that possesses middling international power, but still maintains aspirations to greatness and deep-seated resentments against the societies, especially the United States and the European Union, that are allegedly keeping it down. Putin is ruthlessly realistic. He recognizes that he cannot challenge the United States across the globe. He seeks, instead, to assert Russian power by beating up on weak neighboring societies, thumbing his nose at the foreigners who criticize his actions, and mobilizing his own suffering citizens with the promise of national strength. He used the Sochi Summer Olympics this year to display Russian physical prowess, just as he uses the annexation of Crimea and intervention in Eastern Ukraine to assert that Russians are superior among the other Slavs. The bombast, muscle-flexing, and aggression are designed to manifest Russian ethnic and cultural rejuvenation after decades of decline and humiliation. Putin promotes nearby aggression to redeem Russian politics; he defines the authenticity and greatness of his nation by its ability to bring violence on lesser peoples.

The best historical analogy for Putin is neither Adolf Hitler nor Joseph Stalin. The Russian president does not have the messianic world conquering vision of the German Führer, and he does not possess the universalistic ideology of his Russian predecessor. Putin is more of a “classical” fascist, on the model of Benito Mussolini in early twentieth century Italy or Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain after the country’s bloody civil war. Mussolini and Franco built their dictatorships on the promise of greatness, the display of force, and the myth of a savior figure who would carry a fallen people back to the top of the international pyramid of power. They asserted near total control over their societies for the purpose of bringing total transformation. Most of all, they exploited opportunities for attacking vulnerable citizens (especially Jews) and weaker neighbors (especially in North Africa.)  Conspicuous assertions of Italian and Spanish physical superiority served to galvanize followers and generate apparent greatness.

Fascism has come to Russia because of current international conditions, echoing many of the circumstances in the 1920s and 1930s. The gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” in the world has grown, and many Russians feel unfairly deprived and disrespected. The allure of democracy has faded due to the evidence of ineffectiveness, stalemate, and corruption within many of its chief exponents, including the United States. Perhaps most significant, the many lingering wars and conflicts of the last decade have brutalized the image of politics in Russia and other societies. If violence and related forms of coercion are acceptable elsewhere, why shouldn’t Russians use the same behaviors in areas close to home? When Americans and Europeans reject this claim on grounds of international law and human rights, Russians point to the hypocrisy of recent interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Their argument about Western inconsistency has some merit.

Fascist Lessons

The history of fascism in Italy and Spain, and now in Russia, offers some helpful guidance in considering American and European responses to Putin’s military meddling. First, Putin’s domestic legitimacy is deeply connected to his international aggression. We should not expect him to back down or change course anytime soon. We should anticipate more acts of intervention in the region around Russia.

From this observation follows a second expectation. Putin’s popularity, like that of other fascists, will remain strong at home as long as he can show “victories” in bullying opponents, dominating neighbors, and standing up against foreign opponents. His domestic power will grow as he defiantly flaunts loud international condemnation. Economic sanctions will hurt the Russian economy, and its citizens, but Putin will rally his population around his conspicuous displays of physical courage and national strength.

The third and most important historical insight is that this fascist aggression will only cease when it confronts firm external resistance. Fascists are opportunistic bullies who will turn away from fights they cannot win. They enjoy their positions of power too much to risk losing everything. Hitler is the exception to this historical analysis, of course, and we should recognize that he is not a guide for thinking about Putin or most other dictators.


How, then, should Americans and Europeans encourage external resistance to Putin’s fascism? For sound reasons, citizens in the United States and the European Union are not prepared to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. Americans and West Europeans held to a similar position during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe. What worked in the Cold War, and what is feasible today, is a policy of forceful containment in this region. That involves increasing the readiness of the Western alliance (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to combat Russian military moves. It also requires the aiding and arming of local forces in Ukraine, Georgia, and other states most vulnerable to Russian attack.

The United States and its European allies must do everything they can to create native fighting forces that can resist Russian aggression. Although local armies might not be able to defeat Russian soldiers immediately, they can raise the human and financial costs for Russia. They can make the bully in Moscow consider the risks of extended warfare on his borders, rather than the quick interventions and land grabs that he obviously prefers.

Containing Russian fascism is not ideal. It will contribute to a further militarization of the region around Russia. It requires working relationships with many less-than-democratic groups that oppose Putin. It cannot reverse recent Russian gains, at least not immediately. Containment, nonetheless, offers a strategy that plainly recognizes the nature of our fascist adversary, diminishes his aggressive opportunities, and allows for effective American and European action that is sustainable in the current political environment. Containment is a credible way of combating fascism in Russia today. Leaders in Washington, Berlin, Paris, and London should coordinate their efforts behind this strategy, and they should start soon.


This blog post originally appeared at

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.