Obama’s strategic blind spot

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

‘Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” During the bitter winter of 1914-15, the first lord of the Admiralty posed this urgent question to Britain’s prime minister.

The eighth anniversary of 9/11, now fast approaching, invites attention to a similar question: Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to choke on the dust of Iraq and Afghanistan?

Back in December 1914, the Admiralty’s impatient first lord was Winston Churchill, appalled by the slaughter on the Western Front. Intent on breaking the stalemate, Churchill became a font of ideas. Mired in Flanders? Then launch an amphibious assault against the Dardanelles, he urged. Were German machine guns cutting down British Tommies venturing into no man’s land? Then support the infantry with tanks.

Yet Churchill’s innovations failed to deliver a quick resolution. Instead, they prolonged the war and drove up its cost. When the guns finally fell silent in November 1918, “victory” left Britain economically and spiritually depleted. Revolution wracked much of Europe. And the seeds of totalitarianism had been planted, producing in their maturity an even more horrendous war. Some victory.


Churchill and his Cabinet colleagues had spent four years dodging fundamental questions. Fixated with tactical and operational concerns, they ignored matters of strategy and politics. Britain’s true interest lay in ending the war, not in blindly seeing it through to the bitter end. This, few British leaders possessed the imagination to see.

A comparable failure of imagination besets present-day Washington. The Long War launched by George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 has not gone well. Everyone understands that. Yet in the face of disappointment, what passes for advanced thinking recalls the Churchill who devised Gallipoli and godfathered the tank: In Washington and in the field, a preoccupation with tactics and operations have induced strategic blindness.

As President Obama shifts the main U.S. military effort from Iraq to Afghanistan, and as his commanders embrace counterinsurgency as the new American way of war, the big questions go not only unanswered but unasked. Does perpetuating the Long War make political or strategic sense? As we prepare to enter that war’s ninth year, are there no alternatives?

Pragmatists shy away from first-order questions -- recall President George H. W. Bush’s aversion to what he called “the vision thing.” Obama is a pragmatist. Unlike his immediate predecessor, he inhabits a world where facts matter.

Yet pragmatism devoid of principle will perpetuate the strategic void that Obama inherited. The urgent need is for the administration to articulate a concrete set of organizing precepts -- not simply cliches -- to frame basic U.S. policy going forward.

What should those principles be?

First, the Long War may be long, but it should not get any bigger. The regime-change approach -- invade and occupy to transform -- hasn’t worked; simply trying harder in some other venue (Somalia? Sudan?) won’t produce different results. In short, no more Iraqs.

Second, forget the Bush Doctrine of preventive war: no more wars of choice; henceforth only wars of necessity. The United States will use force only as a last resort and even then only when genuinely vital interests are at stake.


Third, no more crusades unless the American people buy in; expecting a relative handful of soldiers to carry the load while the rest of the country binges on consumption is unconscionable. At a minimum, the generation that opts for war should pay for it through higher taxes rather than foisting a burden of debt onto their grandchildren.

Fourth, the key to keeping America safe is to defend it, not to project American muscle to obscure places around the world. It may or may not be true that a “mighty fortress is our God”; had the United States been a mighty fortress on 9/11, however, the 19 hijackers would have gotten nowhere.

Fifth, by all means let the United States promote the spread of freedom and democracy. Yet we’re more likely to enjoy success by modeling freedom rather than trying to impose it. To provide a suitable model, we’ve considerable work to do here at home. Meanwhile, let’s not deny others the prerogative of defining for themselves exactly what it means to be free.

Now, some may view these principles as inadequate. Fair enough: Come up with something better. The point is that unless we get the fundamentals right -- and we haven’t since the Cold War ended -- the United States may yet share the fate suffered by Churchill’s Britain, reduced from engine to caboose in the course of his own political career. Those are the consequences of strategic drift.


Obama has appointed czars for a host of issues, his administration today employing more czars than have occupied the Kremlin throughout its history. Yet there is no czar for strategy. This most crucial portfolio remains unassigned.

That’s unacceptable. Obama needs to appoint someone to fill the position -- or he could claim it for himself.