Bad Moon Rising
I see a bad moon rising. I see trouble on the way.
My favorite definition of strategy, taken from John Lewis Gaddis’s landmark On Grand Strategy , is “doing the best you can with what you have.” Donald Trump’s targeted killing of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has the world asking what Trump’s strategy for the Middle East actually is. Nobody knows – not even, it is widely believed, the president himself. He has succeeded in doing the worst he can with what he has. Let’s look at the outcomes he has produced so far.
American and coalition forces in Iraq suspended the fight against ISIS to brace for retaliation by Iran (the reason they are there). Allies (especially Britain) are upset with the United States for not informing them of a decision that has put their own soldiers at risk. Shite militia groups in Iraq now threaten us more than at any time since 2007. Soleimani was trying to get the Americans kicked out of Iraq; the Iraqi parliament has voted to do just that. Our most important regional partners, Saudi Arabia and Israel, are more exposed to Iranian aggression than ever before. Iran and its proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen are emboldened. Did I mention that Iran has formally pulled out of the nuclear deal and is now back to developing a weapon?
Trouble is definitely on the way.
Borrowing from Isaiah Berlin, Gaddis characterizes leaders as either “hedgehogs” or “foxes.” The hedgehog knows a lot about one specific thing, while the fox knows just enough about almost everything. The hedgehog can’t see the forest for the trees; the fox not only sees the forest but knows how to find individual trees. Hedgehogs can’t do grand strategy; foxes can. Hitler was a hedgehog; Roosevelt was a fox. The putative leader of the free world is a hedgehog when we desperately need a fox. Donald Trump knows how to punish; he does not know how to use all the tools of national power to bring about the best outcomes for the long term.
It is impossible to develop strategy without a policy process. At the moment, there is no such process in Washington. National security is everyone’s business now; “whole of government” approaches are needed. Representatives from across the entire spectrum of institutions must be at the table, contributing experience and expertise. Nothing in national security is simple (and anyone who tells you otherwise knows nothing). Unintended consequences lurk in the aftermath of every decision. Working together, smart groups of executives and experts can lay out the best alternatives – and deal with the consequences of a decision. Democracy is designed to help governments avoid the worst outcomes. Authoritarian approaches lead to those outcomes.
My novel Jungle Rules starts with a clever plan to kidnap the leader of a Colombian drug cartel and blame it on a rival cartel. Somewhere along the way, the plan comes to include defaming and framing the president of Colombia. When the American ambassador is then kidnapped, the US government must cover up the original scheme. As we all know by now, the cover up is often worse than the crime. Carl Malinowski and his men go back to the jungle to rescue the ambassador. The President of the United States, deceived by his own CIA, launches aircraft that will kill the Americans as they try to escape Colombia. Government talking points will blame the cartel. As we have seen in real-world foreign policy, the Jungle Rules caper is not turning out the way anyone expected.
Nothing in the business of governing ever does.