There are the traps you suspect are out there and try to avoid, and then there are the traps that you have no choice but to walk into. So it will be with the next President, no matter who he or she may be. He or she will confront not just specific strategic problems such as what to do next in Syria, but a more generic set of challenges. These four strategy traps are inevitable. They can be managed but not avoided.
The first of these is the simultaneity trap, and it goes like this. In any government, be it in Luxembourg, Angola, the People’s Republic of China, or the United States, and on any given large national security issue, somewhere between five and fifty people really count. The number is usually closer to five than to fifty. We have one President, one Secretary of State, one Secretary of Defense, one Director of Central Intelligence, and one Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But the United States is not Angola. More than any other power in history—even the British Empire at its height—the U.S. government has global concerns and global interests. Even a decision not to act requires a conscious effort of will, in the awareness that real consequences flow from U.S. inaction as well as action. The daily briefings and meetings with top aides of a Cabinet Secretary are a dizzying tour of the world, and even after a large and intelligent bureaucracy (which the United States actually has) digests the issues, the principal still has to decide. If it’s a serious effort, the Cabinet Secretaries and some other senior officials will spend time meeting in the Situation Room, and then engaging the President. As Peter Drucker once pointed out, the only inelastic commodity in any organization is executive time—and the time (and energy levels) of the big players in government is no greater than that of kindergarten teachers.
The range of their international responsibilities would overwhelm any President and his or her subordinates. As the ultimate decider, the President bears the greatest burden, on top of all the pressing domestic issues that come his way. But it is not much easier for his key subordinates. As the country’s chief diplomat, the Secretary of State travels incessantly; indeed, recent Secretaries have engaged in an unhealthy competition with their predecessors to see who can spend the most time abroad in inconclusive talks with foreign leaders, all the while courting deep vein thrombosis from endless hours on official airplanes. The Secretary of Defense has to manage the government’s most complicated bureaucracy. The National Security Adviser has to be on top of everything, and keep the President staffed in a way no other official in the world has to be—all the while thinking months if not years ahead, monitoring the implementation of decisions, and being ready to manage a sudden crisis.
The problem of simultaneity is worsened by the four geopolitical challenges we face. The first is the rise of China, a great power whose economy is, or will be, roughly the size of ours. The chronic war with jihadis throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond—including at home—is the second; hostile states like Russia and Iran with regional ambitions and the willingness to use force to achieve them are a third. Lastly, ungoverned space, including some in our own hemisphere, poses a different kind of threat, one that can also exacerbate the other three.
These four different threats require different weapons, different organizations, different time horizons, and different strategic approaches. But the same small group of decision-makers has to decide them all, individually and collectively. The upshot is a more complex, if not always a more dangerous, set of international conditions than any during the Cold War, when we faced one main enemy and other lesser foes aligned with it.
How to cope with so much to do and so little time? The simultaneity trap cannot be avoided, because ultimately the hard choices get bounced to the top. It can only be managed. When the Republican and Democratic transition-planning teams begin to assemble late this spring or early this summer, one hopes the candidates will direct them to spend as much time thinking about the processes and staffing of a new administration as about the substantive problems it will face.
There is nothing particularly exciting about making the trains run on time: having regular meetings; keeping them on topic and on schedule (meetings longer than two hours can be assumed to be a waste of effort); preparing conclusions and directives; monitoring bureaucratic implementation; and ensuring that the President and his or her advisers get enough of the details to make decisions, but not so much that they are overwhelmed. In practice, however, orderly administration is very hard. The White House Chief of Staff may usurp the authority of a National Security Advisor; meetings may be long, inconclusive, and repetitive; the NSC staff may either overstep their role and begin acting as a mini-State Department or Office of the Secretary of Defense, or, conversely, fail to do their proper job of highlighting departmental differences for the President; an intemperate, egotistical, or servile National Security Advisor can prevent real differences of opinion from being aired and debated.
It is all humdrum stuff, conducted (one hopes) by people with level tempers, checked egos, a collegial spirit, a distaste for publicity, and an awareness that campaigning is one thing, governing another. It has on occasion been done very well, as under Brent Scowcroft in the George H. W. Bush Administration. Most of the time, however, it is not, and the simultaneity trap begins to yield foreign policy disasters of exponentially increasing severity.
None of this matters just yet. For the next nine months foreign and defense policy will be subjects of the broadest possible debate. No voter will make a decision based on whether they think a candidate will realize that an NSC staff of 500 is too large to be effective, or order issues to get sorted out in interagency meetings below the level of the Deputies Committee. But before too long it will matter. The next President will face the most difficult international environment in more than half a century, but without the economic and military edge that we can see—only in retrospect, admittedly—Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy could take for granted. He or she will need a machine that works.