Academic journal article Parameters

Cultivating Strategic Thinking: The Eisenhower Model

Academic journal article Parameters

Cultivating Strategic Thinking: The Eisenhower Model

Article excerpt

Recent commentary on the apparent inability of the United States to formulate a clear, consistent grand strategy evokes the question whether such an undertaking is possible for a democracy like the United States. This article examines the National Security Council (NSC) mechanism of the Eisenhower administration. In contrast to the general belief that the Eisenhower NSC was a bureaucratic paper mill, presided over by an affable but phlegmatic president, the reality is that the organization was dynamic and industrious. Astoundingly, the Eisenhower Presidency was unique in its approach to formulating national security policy and the only administration to publish a comprehensive basic national security policy.

In the September 2011 issue of ARMY Magazine, James M. Dubik, Lieutenant General (USA Retired) in his article, "A National Strategic Learning Disability?" expressed deep concern regarding a rather incoherent US national security strategy. (1) In a similar vein, Professor Rosa Brooks in the 23 January 2012 edition of Foreign Policy, "Obama Needs a Grand Strategy," declared the "... 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) is many things--press release, public relations statement, laundry list of laudable aspirations--grand strategy it ain't." (2) Though their criticisms are valid, they miss the more important issue. Prior to assuming office, very few presidents are educated or experienced in the art and science of formulating grand strategy, and more soberly, the National Security Council mechanism is not optimized towards helping them think strategically. In short, a fundamental inability to cultivate strategic thinking has plagued the National Security Council for decades, so this is not a new phenomenon.

Strategic theorist Harry R. Yarger laments in his book Strategy and the National Security Professional that the United States "owns the twenty-first century but is strategically clueless as to what to do with it. Paradoxically, at the time it is most needed, our leaders appear increasingly inept at thinking strategically, and the 'sound bite' has replaced the national debate on policy and strategy." (3)

In Modern Strategy, Colin Gray devotes an entire chapter to the topic, "The Poverty of Modern Strategic Thought," observing "In modern times it has become ever easier for policymakers and military commanders to be so diverted by the proliferation of different forms of war that they have neglected 'the basics' of strategy." (4)

To be clear, simply publishing a strategic document does not mean the policy was fully staffed, studied, and debated, with differences reconciled, and with opportunities and risks prudently weighed. Similarly, poignant presidential speeches, while stirring and inspiring, are no substitute for a national security policy formulation process. Americans may admire great communicators, but confusing lofty rhetoric for substance heightens the risk of becoming embroiled in actions that neither promote nor protect US interests.

These sobering assessments raise the question: How is it possible, sixty-five years after the establishment of the NSC, for US presidencies to continue stumbling about in the realm of foreign policy and national security strategy? It is particularly vexing when one recalls the motivation behind the establishment of the NSC was to inject greater consideration and rationality into formulating foreign policy and national security strategy, coordinate policy initiatives, and develop consistency in policy and strategy formulation--idealistic goals following the years of chaotic and often wasteful management practices during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Congress regarded the council as a coordinating body for the president, with the National Security Act of 1947 stating,

   The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with
   respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military
   policies relating to the national security so as to enable the
   military services and the other departments and agencies of the
   Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the
   national security. … 
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