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The Strategy Wars, or Whither America


Defense Secretary Robert Gates has issued one. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is issuing his own version in a series of speeches. The heavyweight Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment plans to unveil one on Aug. 21.

Let's call it the strategy wars, a vigorous effort to influence the course of the next administration and, by extension, the course of the United States in the world.

Gates issued his late in the administration and reportedly encountered vigorous opposition to his vision from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Former Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne clearly thought Gates was wrong and told me he believed the country should be drawing down troops in both Afghanistan and in Iraq. If his opinion reflects that of some of the joint chiefs -- and it appears to from what I've heard -- that means Gates' strategy is pretty much stillborn. Gates took the fairly standard administration line that the US is engaged in a long-lasting war against "a violent extremist ideology that seeks to overturn the international state system." Fighting a war against an ideology is always difficult, especially if the ideology doesn't have armies or borders. Many intelligence professionals, allies and senior military analysts believe the current focus on deploying military mass against terrorists is an ineffective use of conventional state power. This is an intelligence and law enforcement problem, they argue. If you want to hear a reasoned and effective argument about this, corral any number of British military professionals and ask them about Northern Ireland and the current internal security threats they face.

Or, as Skelton put it in his most recent strategy speech: "...we currently lack an effective strategy and that the next President should engage in a focused effort, in concert with Congress and the American people, to identify and adopt a new strategy early in his Administration."

As a model, Skelton suggested Project Solarium, an effort by President Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower to develop a new strategy. Skelton, who believes the US is "the world's indispensable nation," underlined several principles that should guide the new strategy. Protecting the homeland is the government's first priority. We must stick to "our values" and also "not let an outside power dominate Europe or the Western Pacific, and in addition maintain freedom of the seas."

In a sign of just how far apart many Democrats are from the administration's approach, Skelton does not get to Gates' top issue -- terrorism -- until the sixth principle, where it is grouped with AIDS and other "transnational events."

This shift will probably be the most profound change in strategy between the Bush administration and either senator running for president, according to Michele Flournoy, one of Washington's best known strategists. She argues that the next administration -- Democrat or Republican -- must put aside ideology and go back to achieving concrete goals with the state's instruments of power. Flournoy, who was deputy assistant secretary of Defense for strategy during the Clinton administration, co-authored a study for the Center for A New American Security, "Making America Grand Again: Toward a New Grand Strategy."

In one of the clearest departures from current practice, Skelton's seventh principle is that "military action is a last resort" and must be used in "adherence" to "the essential strategic tenets propounded by Sun Tzu and Clausewitz [pictured above]..."

Skelton is very clear that he is not offering a strategy in and of itself, but guidelines to get us to one. I'll write about the various efforts on this front through the ever-so quiet month of August.

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