U.S. Planners Must Start Preparing for Strategic Disaster.
By Steven Metz, July 9, 2014
The collapse of the Iraqi army as it faced an extremist onslaught shocked many Americans, particularly those who had worked hard to help create it. The $25 billion of American money and seven years of intense effort seemed wasted as four of Iraq's 14 divisions simply crumbled. In Washington, flustered policymakers and military leaders scrambled, searching for an effective response and trying to understand how the disaster happened. In the flurry of finger-pointing, pundits and politicians missed the bigger issue: The slow reaction to Iraq's failure is one more manifestation of a deep flaw in the way Americans think about security.
The failure to plan for battlefield defeat and strategic catastrophe is not simply a shortfall of the Obama administration but is ingrained in the American strategic culture. Because Americans are an inherently optimistic people, their national security professionals, whether in the military or other branches of government, never expect disaster and thus fail to develop techniques and capabilities needed to respond to one.
Take, for instance, military war games. While these cover a wide range of enemies, scenarios and locations, almost all follow the same pattern. They open with aggression of some sort against the United States or one of its partners. At first the enemy makes gains. But eventually the United States mobilizes its resources and national will, stops the aggression, then reverses it. Once the tide turns, it does so for good. In a broad sense, American strategy has institutionalized World War II, the "good war," into a universal model for major conflicts.
Other U.S. government agencies follow suit and also avoid thinking about strategic catastrophe. They plan for how they might respond to political crises and humanitarian disasters, but like the military, they devote little or no time to developing an interagency response to a major battlefield defeat or the collapse of a key partner. There is an even greater vacuum at the level of grand strategy. No part of the government plans for how American society could be steeled and mobilized after a catastrophe.
Unfortunately, though, reality doesn't always stick to the preferred script. There is always the possibility of a major battlefield defeat or outright political collapse by an American partner or ally. Iraq today certainly demonstrates that. And a major military defeat of the United States itself, while less likely, is not impossible. The same is true of other forms of strategic catastrophes, whether on a 9/11 scale or even larger. Despite the best preparations, disaster can strike.
Because the United States prefers not to think in depth or plan for a major battlefield defeat or strategic catastrophe, it responds on the fly when forced to. Innovation can be a good thing, but relying on it is risky, particularly in national security strategy. The longer it takes to react to a defeat or catastrophe, the harder and costlier it will be. Opportunities are squandered while strategists flesh out options, policymakers debate them, and the people who will implement any strategic decisions mobilize, train and plan. Iraq in 2003 was a perfect example. Neither the U.S. military nor other government agencies had fully planned for the total collapse of public order and the security services, or for the challenge of recreating order and security in the face of armed opposition. Thus the United States failed to capitalize on the brief period between the removal of Saddam Hussein and the full outbreak of the insurgency. The price for this failure was great.
What, then, can be done? The American strategic culture, with its powerful dose of confidence and optimism, isn't going to change—nor should it. But it would be easy for the U.S. military to run occasional war games, seminars and studies dealing with the major battlefield defeat of an ally or even the United States, or the total political and economic collapse of a key ally that forces the United States to reconstitute the nation's administrative structure and security forces. Planners and strategists from other government agencies, as well as congressional staff, should participate. The intelligence community, think tanks and security studies scholars in universities should help think through a possible response to battlefield defeat or strategic catastrophe.
Still, that is only the first step. The real challenge is creating an institutional structure for national strategic planning, including for the possibility of defeats or catastrophes, that takes a longer perspective than the next election cycle. The fact that the makers of American grand strategy have a time horizon of eight years or less is always an impediment to long-range strategy. The impact of this is greatest in the failure to prepare for defeat or catastrophe. No administration and no elected officials want to be the ones to deal with this, so they refuse to think about it.
The danger, cost and risk of dealing with a defeat or catastrophe makes it easier for policymakers and strategists to simply assume that it won't happen, or that it will happen when someone else is in charge. This reliance on wishful thinking puts the United States at risk. Today, forward-looking strategic theorists argue that in the complex, connected 21st-century security environment, resiliency is the key to security. Rather than hoping to prevent defeats and catastrophes, nations must be able to recover from them. Now policymakers should transcend the binders of partisan politics to create a strategic culture and institutional mechanism to turn this concept into reality. Thinking the unthinkable is uncomfortable and, if not handled adroitly, can result in adverse publicity and be exploited for partisan political shots. But at the same time, it is imperative.
Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.