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In Defense of Hard Power
An F/A-18F Super Hornet taxis on the US navy's super carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) ('Ike') in the Mediterranean Sea on July 6, 2016. (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

In Defense of Hard Power

Walter Russell Mead

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has used its military to wage two major wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. It’s also consistently relied on drone strikes and air raids to attack violent jihadis across the Middle East.

To many Americans, all of these efforts appear to have been in vain. The Iraq War is widely seen as a failure. The Afghan war is the longest in American history with no victory in sight. And despite aggressive covert measures, the jihadi threat seems to be growing rather than shrinking. Given all this, critics ask, shouldn’t American policy be shifting away from costly and ineffective military measures toward other forms of statecraft? After 15 years of hard power, isn’t it time for soft?

Eliot A. Cohen appreciates the force of this argument, and in “The Big Stick” he addresses it head on, making the case for the continued importance of hard power in American foreign policy and the limits to soft power. The book is divided into three parts, beginning with an assessment of the successes and failures of America’s military deployments since 9/11: Was “that expense of blood and treasure” worth it? It continues by asking whether the United States has the resources to maintain a position of global leadership into the future. And it concludes by offering Mr. Cohen’s prescriptions for the successful use of American power in the years to come.

Mr. Cohen offers a balanced and sensitive analysis of America’s military record since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Rejecting shallow critiques of the Iraq War and carefully sifting through the evidence and the diplomatic record, he reaches a conclusion that will disappoint some of his colleagues in the Bush administration. (Mr. Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies, was an advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.) Citing the falsity of the public premise of the war that Iraq’s WMD program posed an urgent threat; the damage it inflicted on U.S. credibility; and the devastating consequences it had on our alliances, Mr. Cohen concludes it was “a mistake.” That said, he argues that its economic and political costs were not as extreme as many critics have claimed, and makes a strong case that some form of American confrontation with Iraq was almost inevitable.

In the second section of the book, Mr. Cohen offers a reasonably optimistic forecast about America’s ability to maintain the forces needed to address the challenges to our security: the challenge of a peer or near-peer competitor in China, the machinations of discontented lesser states like Russia, Iran and North Korea, and the threat of Islamist violence. While he has a healthy respect for America’s rivals and competitors, he is more worried about how the U.S. can fail than about what others will do.

In particular, he fears that a hardening of the arteries is taking place when it comes to military thinking. Process-worshipping bureaucrats are increasingly clogging up the Pentagon with artificial documents written to arbitrary deadlines, like the Quadrennial Defense Review, a complex exercise in defense-department planning that the author would like to see scrapped. A similar bureaucratization has taken hold at the military staff colleges. These programs for mid-career and senior officers were one of the secrets of America’s success in World War II: The most talented Army commanders taught small groups of their most talented younger colleagues. Today’s staff colleges, Mr. Cohen warns, have been bulked up and dumbed down.

It is his intense concern for the bureaucratization of American strategic culture that leads Mr. Cohen to what some readers will think his most startling statement: the concept of grand strategy, he argues, is “not merely illusory . . . but dangerous.” What Mr. Cohen means by this is not that we shouldn’t have a general sense of goals and priorities, but that we must beware of the tendency of our modern security institutions to turn concepts into inflexible dogmas and technocratic action plans.

He does not mean that, for example, Franklin Roosevelt was wrong to adopt a strategy of “Europe first” in early 1942. War means making choices, and it fell to Roosevelt to make fundamental decisions about how to fight. His decision to concentrate on the most dangerous adversary, Germany, while fighting something of a holding action in the Pacific was an example of grand strategy in action. Instead, Mr. Cohen is concerned, and properly so, that pronouncements on “grand strategy” in the context of our current bureaucratic national security structures ossify in ways that hinder rather than help.

It’s not just grand strategy: Many of the concepts in use today, Mr. Cohen writes, serve as “strategic pixie dust” that leaders sprinkle over complex problems to make them appear more manageable. The misuse of the concept “exit strategy” is particularly dangerous. “An American military imbued with the notion of end states and exit strategies fought two stunningly swift, conventional wars against the Iraqi state led by Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003. In neither case was there a real end state: the contest went on in different forms,” he writes.

Over the next generation, according to the author, we are likely to face more war and more varied forms of war than even the post-9/11 period has prepared us to expect. The terrain in which the wars of the future will be fought is also changing; in addition to traditional battlegrounds, these conflicts may focus on ungoverned zones ranging from outer space to the borderlands of failed states where no real governance exists.

To prevail in these wars—or better, to prevent them—the U.S. is going to have to improve its strategic culture and develop a national consensus that favors a strong military and a vigorous pursuit of the national interest. This will not be an easy task. Not since the 1960s has the world been this dangerous, and not since the 1930s and ’40s has the debate over American foreign policy been as unpredictable as it is today. In the midst of such uncertainty, Mr. Cohen’s lucid book is a must-read for anyone interested in military might—and how it can help us maintain the edge we need in this treacherous age.

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