How To Improve U.S. National Security Strategies

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Editor’s Note: This article is based on a speech delivered recently at the Center for Army Analysis.

“Gentlemen, we’ve run out of money. Now we must think.”

Winston Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1925

U.S. national security specialists should urgently rethink thorny problems, because sequestration threatens to emasculate our increasingly expensive All- Volunteer Force.   Inept solutions, like many in the past, will no longer suffice.  This article focuses on two objectives: first it seeks to enhance the understanding of modern military operations by using historical examples; then it examines current and future issues that may require U.S. Army participation. My principal purpose in both regards is to help you think, not tell you what to think.

Historical Background

It should come as no surprise that combat in the Balkans during 1999 is the only war U.S. armed forces and friends have won against worthy opponents since World War II. Eccentric strategic concepts and skewed force structures have long been U.S. stocks in trade, even though excessive reliance on any theory, any concept, any principle, any school of thought, any policy, or any other elemental alternative attracts avoidable problems and invites costly failures. Cockamamie courses of action in the past featured mismatches between strategies and threats, strategies and objectives, strategies and forces, strategies and tactics, strategies and strategies. The following three cases, which deposited too many or too few eggs in fatefully important baskets, are illustrative.

All eggs went into the “Strategic Air Power” basket soon after the first nuclear fireballs burst over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That allocation continued after five-star General of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower occupied the Oval Office. He called it “The New Look.” That simplistic U.S. strategy, calculated to “get a bigger bang for each buck,” matched ends and means very poorly, because concepts of total war leading to total victory couldn’t convert nuclear supremacy into deterrent capital. Foes who favored psychological warfare, subversion, and insurgency consequently scored consistently without tripping U.S. nuclear triggers. Stalin trapped Central Europe behind an Iron Curtain, then squashed rebellious satellite states while U.S. leaders wrung their hands impotently, mindful that even limited nuclear reprisals might precipitate World War III, which we sought to prevent. Mao concurrently consolidated control over China and Tibet. Communist-kindled conflagrations flared along East Asia’s fringe from Korea to Malaya throughout the 1950s. Inflexible U.S. abilities to cope with that sort of skullduggery fell flat.

U.S. conventional capabilities benefited briefly after retired Army Chief of Staff Maxwell D. Taylor’s thesis entitled The Uncertain Trumpet stimulated widespread debate. President Kennedy consecrated Flexible Response in 1961, but the basket labeled “Nuclear Deterrence” collected a disproportionately large number of eggs when Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara modified Massive Retaliation to fit Mutual Assured Destruction (M.A.D) schemes, which critics contended were “almost literally mad.” Deterrence based on a balance of terror emerged as the Defense Department’s only aim. Active and passive defense programs designed to safeguard the United States from atomization languished, because power to destroy aggressors presumably provided the prime deterrent, not the ability to protect our people or production base (historical archives reveal that no other nation had previously repudiated homeland defense). Far from capping the nuclear arms race, self-imposed U.S. constraints encouraged Soviet competitors to catch up, and then surpass us in several respects. Nuclear warhead inventories soared on both sides and, if deterrence failed, savage retaliation against Soviet cities would have culminated in U.S. national suicide.

Carl von Clausewitz’s classic On War correctly stated that “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.” Misguided U.S. strategists who put most eggs in the “Traditional Military Operations” basket therefore failed to subdue Viet Cong insurgents for several years while will-o-the-wisp foes engaged allied armed forces whenever and wherever they wished, using hit-and-run tactics much like those that frustrated British Regulars during the American Revolution. U.S. military power took precedence over political and psychological offensives. “Grab ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow” was a popular slogan, but indiscriminate firepower disaffected many indigenous friends whose cooperation was imperative. North Vietnam’s emissaries sued for peace after we finally got the hang of it, but soon regained control at conference tables in Paris, where savvy Communist negotiators rid the region of U.S. power while leaving red power in place. We lost a game of intellectual judo.

Recent Proclivities

Fast forward to 1990, when the first of four poorly-planned combat operations resulted in unfinished business that publicly embarrassed the United States, wasted precious lives, and squandered immense amounts of money that could have been better spent for other purposes.

Unfinished Business in Kuwait

A United Nations-authorized, U.S.-led coalition of armed forces from 34 countries quickly trounced Iraqi troops who invaded and sought to annex Kuwait. Combat commenced on 17 January 1991 and terminated on 28 February, soon after President George H. W. Bush announced that “Iraq’s Army is defeated. Our military objectives are met. I am pleased to announce that at midnight tonight…exactly 100 hours since ground operations commenced…all U.S. and coalition forces will suspend offensive combat operations.” Enemy troops and machines scrambling to escape the “Highway of Death” between Kuwait City and Basra survived to fight another day.

Unfinished Business in Somalia

A U.S. Special Operations task force conducted six search and seizure missions during August and September 1993 in fruitless efforts to capture Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed along with lesser chieftains responsible for slaughtering 24 Pakistani “peacekeepers” and wounding 53 more. Foray seven, a catastrophic failure, resulted in two posthumous Medals of Honor, nearly 100 other serious U.S. casualties, and maybe 1,500 mangled Somalis. President Clinton, in response to adverse public opinion at home and abroad, withdrew all U.S. forces in March 1994, which allowed Somali warlords to run that country roughshod thereafter.

Unfinished Business in Afghanistan

Islamic terrorists who hit three high value, widely-separated targets in the United States on September 11, 2001 rapidly prompted reprisals designed to dismantle al-Qaeda, capture or kill Osama bin Laden, and emasculate Taliban troops, which then controlled 90% of Afghanistan. CIA’s tiny reception party met U.S. Army and Air Force special operators on 7 October 2001 and, in conjunction with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance plus a few allied forces, defeated all resistance by December 5th. Mission leap rather than mission creep soon thereafter emphasized nation building where no nation had ever existed. Most U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw in 2014, even though ambitious aims remain unfulfilled after 11 wearisome years.

Unfinished Business in Iraq

“Shock and awe” quickly subdued organized resistance in Iraq after U.S. armed forces and a few friends invaded that fiefdom on March 20, 2003 in a fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction. Unanticipated counterinsurgency campaigns that followed conventional combat teetered back and forth for nearly nine more years.  Saddam Hussein soon ended life at the end of a rope, but political, economic, religious, and social power struggles defeated U.S. intents to replace his totalitarian regime with the Muslim equivalent of Jeffersonian democracy. U.S. military personnel completed withdrawal in December 2011, although nobody knows whether the eventual outcome will satisfy U.S. security interests.

Unpredictable Business in Syria

Preparation for military operations in Syria accelerated after President Obama announced that Syrian use of chemical warfare weapons had crossed a “Red Line.”   Serious concerns about incompatible or unrealistic missions immediately sprouted.  POTUS, for example, claimed that “a limited military strike is the only way to prevent [Syrian President Assad] from employing chemical weapons as if they are a conventional weapon of war.” Secretary of State John Kerry, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, assured lawmakers that the administration was asking for congressional backing simply to “hold the Syrian government accountable,” not to “go to war.” Members of Congress and other influential officials promote one or more of the following aims:

  • Maintain international order
  • Change dynamics on the battlefield
  • Weaken President Assad’s regime
  • Hold the Syrian government accountable
  • Confirm U.S. deterrent capability
  • Punish the use of chemical weapons to kill civilians
  • Preserve U.S. functions as a world policeman
  • Respond to moral requirements

Typical questions about the foregoing list include, but are by no means limited to: Why were U.S. armed forces never committed to maintain international order in African states that practice genocide?  Why punish Syrian use of chemical weapons that kill a few thousand civilians whereas North Korea has killed or brutally incarcerated millions without any penalty? Why should overcommitted U.S. armed forces perpetually function as a global policeman, given economically sky high costs?

The plan to rapidly remove and destroy Syrian chemical weapons under international control, proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and seconded by President Obama, make U.S. military intervention moot at this moment, but the Devil’s in the details. Whether that extremely complex plan will work to U.S. satisfaction is impossible to predict. Meanwhile, President Assad remains in office and brutal war for Syria’s heart and soul continues.

Corrective Actions

I’d be foolish to tell you that I have solutions to the foregoing problems, but I firmly believe that high-level U.S. national security architects could greatly improve their flawed track record if they reviewed strategic fundamentals before they entertain flights of fancy. I accordingly recommend my eons-old Congressional Research Service report entitled The ABCs of Military Intervention, which covers seven essential topics that could help determine the advisability of favored courses of action: national interests; threats; politico-military objectives; policy guidance; planning options; resources; and public opinion. For starters, I suggest you use the following checklist to reinforce or revise your opinions concerning present U.S. courses of action involving Syria, then refine your thoughts as events unfold.

National Security Interests

Military intervention is most appropriate when highly-valued national security interests such as survival, homeland defense, international stability, peace, and prosperity are at stake. Humanitarian and intangible interests such as national credibility may muster immediate support, but are much harder to justify if goings get tough. Relevant questions should include:

  • Which U.S. and allied interests are pertinent? Are they compatible?
  • Which of them are worth the expenditure of precious lives and treasure?
  • Which of them should take top priority?

Threats to National Security Interests

Threats to national security interests vary with regard to imminence and intensity. Decision-makers who hope to avoid wrong wars at wrong times with wrong enemies cannot rationally conclude that military initiatives would be best until they consider alternatives, appraise probable risks, and prioritize each perceived threat. Those processes demand first class intelligence estimates that evaluate enemy intentions, capabilities, limitations, and potential responses to U.S. initiatives. Complementary net assessments should dispassionately compare friendly and enemy postures, with particular attention to geographical constraints. Relevant questions should include:

  • Which perceived threats menace U.S. interests most severely?
  • Which of those threats are susceptible to mainly military solutions?
  • How do enemy cultures, capabilities, and geography affect U.S. and allied probabilities of early military victory?
  • What might be the long-term consequences of protracted war or failure to achieve essential objectives?

Political Aims and Military Missions

Political aims and military missions, which prescribe what must be done to safeguard national security interests despite perceived threats, should be prioritized to conserve resources for the most important purposes. Success in acceptable time at acceptable costs should culminate in a better situation than prevailed before intervention began. Politico-military collaboration is imperative. Serious problems arose in Vietnam because senior military commanders and their civilian supervisors often pursued incompatible purposes. Disputes with allies can be equally disruptive, as demonstrated in Bosnia, where some U.S., U.N, and NATO participants preferred peacekeeping as the primary goal while others touted peace enforcement. Mission creep can amplify aims well beyond original intent, which occurred in Afghanistan where the switch from limited military operations to nation-building opened a gigantic gulf between goals and capabilities. Relevant questions should include:

  • Are political aims clearly expressed and achievable?
  • Are U.S. and allied aims harmonious?
  • Would attainment of U.S. objectives solve the most serious problems?
  • What political, military, economic, and moral costs might accompany failure?

Policy Guidance

Policy guidance, including military rules of engagement, can simplify or complicate the accomplishment of objectives and the preparation of wartime and post-war plans. Typical considerations include escalation control, the role of nuclear weapons, time limitations, restrictions on collateral damage and casualties, the permissibility of privileged sanctuaries, and the treatment of non-military enemy prisoners. Flip-flops frequently occur when new brooms sweep clean. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, for example, considered renewed invasion of Iraq only as a last resort after Operation Desert Storm subsided.  President George W. Bush in sharp contrast pursued preemption policies. Relevant questions should include:

  • Are policies compatible with political aims and military missions?
  • Could some policy restrictions be safely relaxed?
  • Should policy-makers put a time limit on military operations?
  • What costs are acceptable in terms of resources and casualties?

Planning Options

U.S. national security planners balance interests and capabilities against risks and costs taking policy guidance into account as they search for feasible, suitable, flexible, and politically acceptable solutions to intervention problems. They advise decision-makers about the relative roles that military power and diplomacy should play, which missions U.S. armed forces might most appropriately perform, and which might better be left to allies. Judicious planners ask themselves, “What if this or that happens?” then devise Options B, C, and D ready for implementation if Option A fails to produce required results. Other relevant questions should include:

  • How might enemies react to any given U.S./allied option?
  • How could U.S. and allied armed forces best divide workloads?
  • Which alternative appears most attractive if preferred alternatives fail?
  • What political, economic, and other prices would inaction incur?


The best laid plans are useful only if ends (specified as outcomes) and means (forces and funds) match reasonably well, with enough in reserve to cope if other injurious threats loom large. Competition for scarce resources unfortunately is forever fierce. Decision-makers, taking future as well as present requirements into account, must reduce ambitions, increase assets, or both when shortfalls unreasonably increase risks. Relevant questions should include:

  • Are allocated resources ample for intervention purposes?
  • Are remaining resources ample to handle other potential crises?
  • Is the present mix of active and reserve component forces most appropriate?
  • How could allies best contribute? Would they?

Public Support

The American people and elected legislators in Congress ideally should approve U.S. military intervention before it occurs, but that may not always be possible. Statesmen in such cases must rally and maintain public support. Compelling interests, sensible objectives, ample resources, and reasonable prospects of early success simplify that task. The news media, which exert powerful influences on public opinion, play crucially important roles. Relevant questions should include:

  • Has the President lucidly explained the purpose of intervention?
  • Are U.S. interests and objectives sufficiently compelling to attract and retain popular support?
  • To what extent would unfavorable world opinion influence decisions?
  • Are enemies better able to sustain public support than the United States and its allies?


Please bear in mind that reasons for military intervention rarely are cast in concrete. Unforeseen events often invalidate original rationales. Policy-makers, planners, programmers, and resource allocators therefore should scrutinize pertinent factors repeatedly before and after armed combat begins to guarantee that U.S. servicemen and women lay their lives on the line for legitimate reasons.


John Collins enlisted as an Army private in 1942; retired as a colonel 30 years later; served almost 24 more years as Senior Specialist in National Defense with the Congressional Research Service; conceived, recruited, and for 14+  more years steered the Warlord Loop, a unique national security debating forum; and meanwhile authored 12 books. He is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks.