Taken at face value as an actual blueprint for policy, President Bush’s new National Security Strategy, which appeared last month, flunks. It fails because it disregards the first principle of strategy: the imperative of balancing means and ends. The president’s latest effort to define America’s purpose in the world comes chock-full of declarations, exhortations, and gaseous generalities, many of them lifted from the 2002 version of this document. But this 49-page report, which is almost entirely devoid of facts, never bothers to consider how we got into our current mess in the first place or how we’re going to pay for the “Long War” that the president has contrived as the best way to get us out.
I don’t mean to give the impression that the document is entirely lacking in specifics. Careful readers will learn here that the administration has launched a three-year, $900 million initiative to provide clean drinking water to impoverished Africans. To “undertake transformational change” in the developing world, it is also contributing $1.5 billion to the Millennium Challenge Corporation. And it’s kicking in $1.2 billion for the effort to reduce the incidence of malaria worldwide. What the National Security Strategy does not note is that the combined spending on all of these worthy programs equals the amount we’re pouring down the rat hole known as Iraq every two weeks. In fact, anyone interested in the current or projected costs of the Iraq War, or of the Afghan War for that matter, will have to look elsewhere. The strategists inhabiting the White House do not bother themselves with such trivialities.
War costs are not the only figures that this document delicately overlooks. Readers of the National Security Strategy will find no mention of U.S. government indebtedness, currently hovering above $8.3 trillion, including an increase of $1.1 trillion since the Republican Party gained control of the executive and legislative branches in 2001. Similarly, the authors of this document offer no data on U.S. trade relations, although last year’s current accounts deficit topped $800 billion, over 7 percent of the nation’s GDP. The numbers for 2006 promise to be worse still, but you won’t learn that from White House strategists. Although balancing the federal budget once ranked as a core Republican value—remember Ike’s promise of “security with solvency”?—the Bush team does not trouble itself with such irksome details. The National Security Strategy is silent on the size of the federal deficit, which last year came in at a whopping $427 billion.
Now that President Bush has acknowledged the country’s addiction to oil, one might imagine that trends in U.S. petroleum imports or data on domestic oil reserves would figure as matters of strategic interest. The president’s top national-security thinkers apparently disagree: energy issues get dismissed with the wave of a hand.
Nor does the report offer any specifics about the current status of America’s armed forces. In 2005 the U.S. Army experienced its worst recruiting year in a quarter-century. Out of a population of some 290 million, the Army had a goal of persuading 80,000 Americans to serve. Despite plenty of bucks for advertising, the offer of generous bonuses, and the loosening of enlistment standards, recruiters still came up nearly 7,000 volunteers short. Relevant to the long-term prospects of the Long War? One might think so, but the authors of the new strategy have other views. They don’t even mention the recruiting woes.
These omissions matter. Shortfalls in dollars, resources, and soldiers suggest that American power just might have limits—but that’s the one thing that the Bush administration’s strategists will not admit: doing so would oblige them to curb the president’s outsized ambitions.
Lord Rutherford famously remarked in the 1930s, “We’re out of money; it’s time to think.” The White House finds it easier to pretend that the supply of money is endless, thereby obviating the need for thinking altogether. Instead of strategy—which implies choices—the president’s national security team offers pompous bloviation, warning against the evils of “isolationism and protectionism, retreat and retrenchment,” vowing that the United States will “shape the world, not merely be shaped by it,” and reaffirming America’s commitment to the “goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
How are we to explain this propensity for moralistic huffing and puffing, this posing of fraudulent alternatives, these claims of vast redemptive responsibilities? Such tendencies reflect what has come to be the central defect of American statecraft, namely, an unwillingness to deal with the world as it actually is rather than as we might like it to be. Even before 9/11, political elites in the imperial capital displayed a troubling inclination to evade reality by asserting a capacity to transform it. Recall, for example, Bill Clinton chanting the wonders of globalization and his fatuous assurances that utopia waited on the far side of his “bridge to the 21st century.”
The events of 9/11 only accentuated this tendency, particularly as it pertains to America’s relations with the so-called Islamic world. Before long, ideological fervor had all but completely eclipsed human experience as the foundation of George W. Bush’s worldview. Rather than consider the possibility that our own mucking around in other people’s business might have contributed to our troubles, the president found it much easier to issue grand pronouncements touting the onward march of democracy and America’s determination to satisfy the yearning of Muslims everywhere to be free.
The ideologues who inhabit the upper reaches of the Bush administration can’t deal with the actual record of that human experience, which is fraught with ambiguity and has no predetermined direction. In particular, they can’t deal with the actual record of American history, in which the United States has sought and used its power for purposes not always supportive of peace, liberty, and the well-being of humankind.
Drenched in ideological claims, the new National Security Strategy goes out of its way to ignore the past. Where history figures at all, it does so only on the margins. Even then, it’s a self-serving and sanitized version of the past.
Thus, for example, the authors of this document reduce the story of the 20th century to “the triumph of freedom over the threats of fascism and communism.” This conveniently selective interpretation of the century just concluded fits nicely with the administration’s hopes of having freedom’s triumph over Islamic radicalism define the century just begun. But it does not comport with the way that Iranians, Iraqis, and Kurds, not to mention Afghans, Palestinians, and Pakistanis, recall that era. As they remember the 20th century, its defining features were not liberation and uplift but exploitation, manipulation, and betrayal at the hands of foreigners. If by no means ranking first among the exploiters, the United States did not exactly keep its skirts unsoiled either.
Are we obliged to endorse Muslim claims of being innocent victims of Western imperialism? Obviously not. International politics allows no room for innocence. But any strategy that disregards their version of history and that airbrushes our own past transgressions is doomed to fail.
The claim coming out of the White House of late is that members of this administration have learned much from the experience of the past years. Based on the evidence offered by this latest manifestation of strategic thinking, they have learned next to nothing.
Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, is a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.