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Magazine / Vantage Point

What’s the Plan, Stan?

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, America has run out of great strategic thinkers.

Visionary: George C. Marshall(NASA)

photo of Michael Hirsh
January 6, 2011

I was lucky enough to meet and talk with Paul Nitze, one of the last of the great “wise men” of the Cold War, a few years before he died. It was at the home of another great Washington figure, Katharine Graham, not long before she, too, passed away in the summer of 2001. Nitze was very old and frail, but his gaze was sharp and his mind clear.

Nitze told me about going into George C. Marshall’s office in the spring of 1947 to discuss the secretary of State’s upcoming Harvard commencement speech, in which he would announce his newly minted Marshall Plan. Even at that late date, Nitze said, Marshall was having doubts about the whole idea. “It’s just not the sort of thing we do,” he told Nitze. By “we,” of course, he meant Americans.

I thought of that conversation recently as I reflected that we have now entered the 10th anniversary year since 9/11 without a strategic plan of any kind, as far as I can tell. The year 2011 will also mark, next December, two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the official end of the Cold War. And yet we now seem even more unsure of ourselves as a nation—our place in the world—than Marshall was in the early hours of the Cold War.


Today, of course, the Marshall Plan is seen as one of the unquestioned triumphs of American foreign policy, one that has, in the decades since, reaffirmed our exceptionalist view of ourselves. Combined with containment and other well-thought-out elements of our Cold War strategy, it set the stage for victory in the struggle against the Soviet Union (even as it solidified the division of Europe into West and East blocs). One of the great figures of the 20th century, Marshall himself was unsure about going ahead with such a bold new initiative. But he did anyway, and the rest is history—and damn good history at that.

What kind of history are we making now? There is no Marshall Plan or Hillary Clinton Plan or Obama Doctrine. There was, apparently, a Bush Doctrine, but no one could quite figure out what it was. To add tragic insult to historical injury, last month we prematurely lost one of our best strategic thinkers, Richard Holbrooke.

American policymakers, it seems, used to be much better at planning global strategy. On December 9, 1941, two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt promised the American people in a fireside chat: “We are going to win the war, and we are going to win the peace that follows.”

FDR was as good as his word. Over the next three and a half years, he and his successor, Harry Truman, transformed a Depression-ravaged, isolationist nation—one with virtually no army—into the world’s dominant power. They cultivated alliances that shared the fighting and dying, oversaw the defeat of two hegemonic threats (Germany and Japan), and began to rebuild these former enemies into peaceful democratic allies. At the same time, the two presidents created many of the institutions that still define the global system, including the United Nations, planning for which began in 1944.

Astonishingly, FDR and Truman did all this in less than half the time that has now elapsed in the so-called war on terrorism. When they were in office, George W. Bush and his top aides indicated that this struggle was more comparable to the long, ideological struggle of the Cold War than it was to World War II. But here, too, the comparison is not flattering.

Containment doctrine began with George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” in February 1946, in which he described what he later called “the sources of Soviet conduct,” and culminated in NSC-68, which Nitze drafted, in the spring of 1950. It was never pretty—Nitze and Kennan fought bitterly over the militarization of containment—but in just about four years, the United States had developed a strategy that ultimately prevailed.

Real planning requires real understanding of the enemy, and today we may be even further away from that than on 9/11. Bush contributed to this confusion mightily by conflating the threats from al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, then lumping Iraqi insurgents together with the “terrorists” as though there were one static group of global bad guys whom we would be fighting in our own streets if we weren’t dealing with them in Iraq (even his generals denied this was true).

Obama rose to power deriding Bush’s take on terrorism—especially the “dumb” Iraq war. He sought to recalibrate America’s relations with the world, particularly Muslims. But in some ways I wonder if he is as much in denial as Bush was (and still is, judging from Bush’s new memoir, Decision Points). The Obama administration, always politically correct, can’t acknowledge that it is infiltrating and profiling Muslim communities. And it is avoiding a debate about whether Afghanistan remains the central front against extremists, given that al-Qaida seems to have taken up residence in neighboring Pakistan.

Osama bin Laden, it seems, had a better plan. Wherever he is and whatever the state of his health, he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams of luring the United States into an endless draining war. Given the near-quagmire in Afghanistan, and the mess that is still Iraq, it is fair to conclude at long last that we really botched the response to 9/11. Not only didn’t we have a good overall plan but whatever meager planning we did have pretty much stank.

There can be no question that what we face in Afghanistan now is a direct outgrowth of the diversion of attention and resources to Iraq back in 2002. Beyond that, we spent recklessly in the service of ideology during this period—both through supply-side-inspired tax cuts and neoconservative pretensions about the projection of American power—and we stopped paying attention to how we were financing it all.

Isn’t it time for a plan?

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