The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Toolbox: Getting Serious about Strategic Planning

Creating a coherent strategy means aligning goals, missions and resources; we can do it if we try.

Published on September 1, 2009


TO: The President of the United States

FROM: Paul Lettow & Tom Mahnken

DATE: August 10, 2009

SUBJECT: Getting Serious about Strategic Planning

Since the Eisenhower years, successive presidential administrations have often lacked a coherent strategic planning process, and the will to devise and follow through on a strategic plan, in the national security arena. As a result, U.S. policy has frequently been reactive, even with respect to known long-term threats. The United States has sometimes neglected to prioritize challenges and deploy resources over time to meet them successfully, thereby failing to head off preventable crises. And when Presidents have been unable or unwilling to impose clear guidance on departments and agencies, exacerbated internal turf battles and increased likelihood of flawed policy execution resulted. These are debilities you do not need, and you can help avoid them by implementing a rigorous strategic planning process. We offer here ten specific recommendations for doing so.

At its best, strategic planning involves identifying and analyzing the most significant threats and challenges to U.S. security, assessing U.S. resources and those of our allies and potential adversaries, prioritizing U.S. interests and objectives, and devising integrated and comprehensive, yet flexible, all-assets strategies for securing those interests and objectives over time. Rigorous strategic planning can help your Administration clarify its goals and deploy the government’s resources accordingly. It can help you stay focused on what is important and enable you to take the initiative in an array of policy areas. It can help to avert some national security crises you (and your successors) would otherwise face, and mitigate others. Sound strategic planning can thus enable you to transcend national security policy as mere crisis management. That will increase the likelihood of achieving successful outcomes—especially at a time when the United States faces an unusually uncertain strategic environment, and does so under real fiscal constraints.

A range of scholars and experts, including former government officials from both parties and several officials currently serving in your Administration (including your National Security Advisor and your Director of National Intelligence), have noted the harm and missed opportunities that can result from a lack of sound national security strategic planning. They have urged the prioritization of interagency planning, in particular.1 There is plenty that needs to be done. Yet the situation is not as dire as it is sometimes portrayed. Fortunately, the Eisenhower and Reagan Administrations provide useful precedents and models for the kind of rigorous strategic planning most likely to be of service to you, and innovations undertaken by the George W. Bush Administration provide a solid foundation on which to build.


The Eisenhower Administration is now generally seen as the gold standard in national security strategic planning. In May 1953, four months after being inaugurated, President Eisenhower initiated Project Solarium, an interagency strategic planning exercise to draft and debate alternative Cold War strategies. Throughout his Administration, Eisenhower made use of a high-level National Security Council Planning Board to generate policy recommendations, often based on intense deliberations, for approval by the National Security Council (NSC). He also constituted an Operations Coordinating Board to implement the approved policies.

The Reagan Administration provides a more recent, though lesser-known, example of successful strategic planning. Beginning in early 1982, Reagan’s National Security Advisor and NSC staff directed a highly classified interagency strategic planning effort that guided the Administration’s policy throughout its two terms. First, the President commissioned a comprehensive study of the international environment, U.S. objectives and interests, and basic military, economic, political and intelligence strategies for achieving them. That study became the basis for a classified presidential directive that set forth a formal, overarching National Security Strategy. Subsequent presidential strategy directives flowed from that overarching document, laying out U.S. policy toward specific regions and functional areas.

Reagan’s NSC staff managed the overall process that produced the strategy directives; interagency groups comprising Assistant-Secretary-level officials drafted most of the documents; the NSC met to debate the drafts; and the President was personally involved in editing many of them, and ultimately approved and promulgated all of them. The Reagan strategy documents, among the most sophisticated of the post-World War II era, established guidance that the Administration followed successfully over seven years. Significantly, they allowed for flexibility in exactly how each strategy would be pursued, giving the Administration leeway to make adjustments over time while still pursuing a coherent plan.

The Eisenhower and Reagan planning efforts share important characteristics. They were initiated and driven by the White House early in each President’s first term. In each case, the President himself and the NSC, as a corporate body, signaled the high priority of the process and were deeply invested in it. While the President’s immediate staff coordinated the planning efforts, they successfully integrated all relevant departments and agencies. The debates accompanying each document were vigorous, but out of the public eye, allowing for frankness and intellectual honesty. The products were classified strategic guidance directives issued by the President to Executive Branch departments and agencies with the intention that those departments and agencies would base their strategies and resource decisions on them. Those intentions were subsequently enforced by the White House.

Shortcomings in U.S. national security policy and execution since the end of the Cold War, combined with the emergence of new challenges, have spurred increasing calls for “whole-of-government” approaches and have led to an increased emphasis on interagency planning. That emphasis was apparent during George W. Bush’s second term, during which the President and his chief national security aides made strategic planning a high priority.

The second Bush Administration adopted multiple approaches to overall planning. The Defense Department, which has the most robust planning capability in the U.S. government, welcomed the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development into its planning process. In addition, the Administration developed new systems for dealing with the challenges of post-conflict stabilization and homeland security. National Security Presidential Directive 44 established an interagency planning system, dubbed the Integrated Management System, for stabilization and reconstruction planning under the leadership of the State Department’s Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8 established the Integrated Planning System for interagency planning to deal with terrorist attacks or natural disasters under the Department of Homeland Security.

At the highest level, the President signed a directive establishing a National Security Policy Planning Committee (NSPPC). The NSPPC brings together into one senior interagency group the heads of the policy planning offices within each national security department and agency. The committee is a broad one, including civilian, military, and intelligence officials, and a mix of political appointees and career officials. It reports directly to the NSC or the Principals Committee (the NSC minus the President). The directive establishing the NSPPC gave it four primary tasks, which filled important gaps in the government’s ability to plan adequately: to coordinate the preparation of the National Security Strategy and other interagency strategic planning documents; to provide policy recommendations on specific subject areas for the medium and long terms; to question existing policy and present alternatives; and to plan for high-impact contingencies. The NSPPC also met as a group with foreign counterparts to look together at national security challenges and craft joint approaches to deal with them.

Your Administration is well positioned to build on this foundation. But three key challenges remain.

First, multiple planning systems lead to confusion. The planning process should be top-down and integrated. An overarching National Security Strategy and subordinate strategies issued by the President early in his term should guide department-specific plans.

Second, there is a capacity problem. Senior officials responsible for specific areas often lack the time or the habits necessary for joint long-term planning. Until recently, policy planning offices across the Executive Branch operated largely on their own, with little formal interagency interaction and coordination, and they inevitably have different cultures, sizes and capacities. The civilian and military sides of the Defense Department’s strategic planning apparatus—the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the Joint Staff Directorate for Strategy and Policy (J-5), respectively—are large and command great expertise. But they tend, for entirely natural reasons, to focus on the military side of policy to the relative exclusion of all else. The State Department’s Policy Planning Staff (S/P), created by Secretary of State George Marshall in 1947 to “avoid trivia” and devise the most important foreign policies, is far smaller, yet carries prestige within the Department and with foreign counterparts. At times its actual capacity for planning has been modest, however, and its influence in any given administration is always shaped by the wishes of the Secretary and his or her relationship with the Director of S/P. Several other planning offices throughout the government, including one within the NSC staff established in 2005, are new and short-staffed, and not yet on sure footing. Within the Intelligence Community, three recently created offices provide valuable insight to policy planning officials: the Long-Range Analysis Unit, which explores trends several years out; the Warning Office, focused on important threats that could occur within a year or two; and the Red Cell, tasked with questioning prevailing wisdom within the Intelligence Community. Those intelligence offices are underused, however.

Third, there is also a lack of a planning culture, particularly at the interagency level. The Administration should place more emphasis on an understanding of priorities, tradeoffs and resource implications at both the highest-level and lower-level planning processes, including among senior officials with day-to-day responsibility for specific regions and functional areas.


In light of the importance of strategic planning, the existence of sound models we can learn from, and the continuing problems we face, we recommend the following ten actions:

Develop an overall National Security Strategy and use it to drive interagency planning. Congress requires an annual National Security Strategy. In practice, most presidential administrations have issued such strategy documents less frequently, and only in unclassified form. By their nature, these efforts have not often shaped real policy decisions. We encourage you to follow the Eisenhower and Reagan examples and issue a classified, overarching National Security Strategy early in your term that sets out U.S. interests, objectives, and basic approaches for achieving them in light of the international environment and the intentions and capabilities of other actors. From that overarching strategy should flow ensuing presidential strategy directives toward specific regions and functional areas.

That kind of interagency planning process would help the United States establish an agenda and pursue it, taking the initiative and shaping the environment in which other actors must respond, rather than vice versa. It can facilitate an understanding by senior officials of the President’s strategic perspective and foster a more cohesive team, and it will also ensure that policy differences within your Administration are aired fairly and upfront, reducing the likelihood of bad policies and infighting later on. Your Administration should choose how much of the strategy to make public and when, ideally setting out a narrative that friends and allies understand and that the American public and Congress willingly sustain.

The planning process must be deliberative and interagency. If the overarching National Security Strategy is written entirely in the White House, getting buy-in from departments and agencies will be difficult, and the product may not be comprehensive. If it is built entirely from inputs from the departments and agencies, then it will be a bureaucratic farrago rather than a real strategy. The NSC staff is the centripetal force of U.S. national security policymaking and thus is the only body that can manage the overall process. Yet exactly how and by whom the National Security Strategy and ensuing interagency documents are produced need not conform to any particular historical model. The key is to ensure that the NSC staff guides the process and includes each department and agency through the preparation of each strategy paper, perhaps with certain departments/agencies in the lead for specific strategies, as with the Reagan model.

It is also essential to involve the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the process to ensure that resources are allocated to problems that need them and not wasted on those that don’t. OMB is the best-placed Federal agency to devise comprehensive budget analyses across departments and agencies. It may find duplicated efforts, agencies working at cross-purposes, or important tasks that are under-resourced or unaddressed altogether.

Integrate the disparate planning systems. Ensure that each department and agency keys its own strategies and plans according to the National Security Strategy and ensuing strategies that you promulgate. Departments and agencies generally seek clear, comprehensive, classified guidance from you. Ensure that interagency planning efforts below the presidential level follow top-level strategies as well.

Promote an interagency planning culture. In recent years, the government initiated a National Security Professional Development program, aiming to use education, training and practical experience to develop national security professionals who both know how to collaborate successfully with officials from different departments and agencies and are familiar with the complexities and necessity of analysis, prioritization and resource trade-offs. You should build on those and similar efforts. Planning is not just about anticipating and shaping events abroad; it is also about developing the human talent and organizational coherence we need in our own government.

Maintain a dedicated strategic planning directorate within the NSC staff. The Bush Administration created a small strategic planning directorate within the NSC staff in 2005 to provide long-term planning advice for the National Security Advisor and the President, similar to the policy planning offices that advise each cabinet Secretary and agency head. You should maintain (and perhaps expand) it for that purpose and also to help coordinate its joint planning activities with its interagency counterparts through the NSPPC. Your recent appointment of a Special Advisor for Strategic Planning is a good first step.

Continue the integration of policy planners across departments and agencies by retaining and strengthening the NSPPC. Much of your—and your Cabinet officials’—time will be taken up with the here and now. As always, the urgent will threaten to push out the important. You therefore need a senior-level interagency group that devotes itself to looking beyond today, analyzing developments past the horizon that may have enormous impact, recommending changes to existing policy and new ideas for long-term policy, and working with foreign governments in ways that extend beyond trading talking points on the day’s headlines. The pieces are already in place at the departments and agencies in their respective policy planning offices, but they have never been adequately harnessed to serve the government as a whole. The Bush Administration changed this by establishing the NSPPC and placing it under the direction of the NSC. The NSPPC should be retained for the crucial role it can play in the following four interagency planning functions that complement and provide flexibility to any strategic planning effort.

Continuously examine challenges that lie beyond the near term, and prepare policies for them. On an ongoing basis, the NSPPC and other senior officials should incorporate the best analysis from the Intelligence Community, including from its newer offices dedicated to studying trends and threats beyond the day-to-day, as well as analyses from other sources, to provide you with specific, coordinated policy recommendations for the medium to long term.

Plan for specific contingencies. The government as a whole needs to improve its ability to identify and analyze particular contingencies that could have a high impact on U.S. national security, including those that may appear today to be of low probability. The Bush Administration began a systematic, interagency contingency-planning effort. You should expand that effort and make it a high priority to anticipate and, when possible, prevent the worst national security developments.

Question current assumptions and policies that have a significant likelihood of failure, and recommend changes of course. On an ongoing basis, you should seek out the advice of a “red cell” or “team B” group that challenges existing policies most likely to fail and presents you with plausible alternatives.

Undertake policy planning consultations with foreign governments. Experience shows that close cooperation with allies and friends in planning approaches to common problems can be fruitful—and in many cases indispensable. We need to avoid mere rote recitals of talking points and focus instead on joint analysis of longer-term shared objectives and interests that can lead to new strategic approaches.

Finally, consider creating an interagency operations or implementation process to ensure that, once devised, your National Security Strategies are implemented successfully. President Eisenhower established and relied on his Operations Coordinating Board. In his second term, George W. Bush originated a special Iraq and Afghanistan directorate in the White House to oversee execution of revised strategies in those countries, and instituted a Policy Implementation and Execution directorate for other national security areas. You should settle on a process for evaluating and adjusting policy execution that best serves you, but experience has demonstrated the advantages of having one.

1See, for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy (Basic Books, 2008), pp. 255–56; Peter Feaver and William Inboden, “A Strategic Planning Cell on National Security at the White House”, in Daniel Drezner, ed., Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy (Brookings Institution Press, 2009); Michèle A. Flournoy and Shawn W. Brimley, “Strategic Planning for U.S. National Security: A Project Solarium for the 21st Century”, Princeton Project Papers, Princeton Project on National Security (The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, 2006); Aaron L. Friedberg, “Strengthening U.S. Strategic Planning”, Washington Quarterly (Winter 2007–08); G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Forging a World of Liberty under Law: U.S. National Security in the 21st Century”, Final Report of the Princeton Project on National Security (The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, 2006); and the Project on National Security Reform, Forging a New Shield (Project on National Security Reform, 2008).

Paul Lettow, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as Senior Director for Strategic Planning and Institutional Reform on the National Security Council staff, 2007–09. Tom Mahnken, a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning, 2006–09.